Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 30 mins
Setup Time: 10
Value For Money: Mid
I’m collecting, playing and reviewing all the Spiel Des Jahres. Slowly, but I’m doing it. Also, I’ve written and released my own deck builder, as such it will be a surprise to no one that I’ve spent a little while looking at Dominion. Some SDJs are not exactly brilliant, Enchanted Forest we’re all looking at you. Others, like Scotland Yard are not only brilliant, they stand up today as released against anything out there because most of their pretenders have simply draped complexity over their sleek frame. Dominion is quite clearly brilliant, but once you get over the stunning elegance of its central idea its pretty clear that compared to the games that have followed it, and even itself with expansions, its no longer the bombshell it once was. Its like trying to imagine that Elvis was once a taboo breaking boundary shifter while watching Slipknot.
Dominion’s gameplay is extremely simple, which is why it has birthed an entire genre. Players begin with a small deck of cards, some of which are useful (coins which let you buy other cards) and some are pretty much useless (estates which will score at the end of the game and might be used to fuel other abilities but generally just clog things up). Each turn they spend coins to buy better cards from a shared marketplace which go into their discard pile, when their decks run out they shuffle their discard pile to form a new draw deck, this goes on until a certain amount of the marketplace runs out when the game ends and players score points depending on what cards are in their deck and discard pile at that point. That’s pretty much it, in the case of Dominion the number of non-coin cards you can play each turn is limited, as is how many you can buy (more on that in a minute) but generally that’s the whole game, and it is as close to genius in its simplicity in gaming that you get.
The essence of Dominion’s gameplay is the bit before the game in a trading or collectible card game like Magic the Gathering. Where in those games players would build their deck in isolation, imagining how the cards would interact and trying to calculate the perfect balance of numbers and probability, in Dominion they’re building the deck as the play itself. The skill of Dominion is to calculate how those cards sit into a player’s deck and what happens if too many, or too few of them find their way into a hand. For example, one of the early Dominion cards is ‘Smithy’, allowing players to draw three cards. One smithy in your hand is brilliant, but in Dominion players only get one card play each turn unless a card provides them with more, so a second smithy in a player’s hand is useless without other cards to fuel it. Added to that is the fact that the deck players build is what defines victory or defeat at the end of the game. There are no secondary elements to complete, no attacks to make or areas to explore, just the building of the deck. Dominion smartly makes its scoring cards deck clogging blanks to force players into trading off between a high scoring non-functioning deck or a sleek but worthless machine, clearly rewarding the perfect balance between the two. The sheer brilliant elegance of that idea and the clarity of its overall vision is what makes Dominion the worthy winner of the biggest prize in gaming that it is, but it is also what makes it a little dated today.
Once you get past the shining gem of the central idea of Dominion it has some issues. Firstly, its quite a multi-player solitaire game. There is some interaction, but at least in the base game not much. Secondly, because its market places are set out at the start of play and equally shared across players it becomes quite procedural once known, keen players are more than capable of knowing their purchase for turn ten at set-up. The core set comes with a huge number of modular cards and that keen players can tell you their exact play for any combination of those cards says more about how brilliantly popular the game is than anything else, but it can take the fun out of the game. These issues can be magnified to modern gamers, because the shining gem of an idea that is deck building is now so accepted that its sometimes tossed into modern games as a side mechanic, a little bit of deck building or deck building lite is not uncommon. To see Dominion showing off that idea only as being worthy of a mid-box game is a little like someone trying to explain to young people today that Elvis shifting his pelvis around was considered against all norms of decency and almost shattered social cohesion.
Even now there are things in Dominion that I return to as a game designer and marvel at their excellence. In particular, the number of plays and buys that players have each turn is something that so perfectly strips down the game’s reach and power to make buying cards a long term commitment of intricate planning. To decide that however much gold a player had accumulated or cards they had bought through hard labour they wouldn’t be able to buy what they wanted or play what they had unless they had planned to by a calculation of probability and deck dilution three or four turns earlier or more is a game design choice of extreme confidence in its core idea. It works perfectly for the jewel like nature of Dominion’s design, restricting crazy power combos and instead occasionally generating neat but grindingly unstoppable draw and play machines.
Dominion is certainly a worthy SDJ winner, not only that but it is a winner purely based on the clarity and brilliance of its core idea. The fact that it both beat out Co-op giant Pandemic and landed two years before the introduction of the Kennerspiel Des Jahres will always make for what if questions, but Pandemic is doing pretty well for itself now and Dominion would probably still have landed in the general category and won it with or without the KDJ. In the end, if you can imagine a world without any deck builders or deck building, that’s a world in which Dominion has to be the SDJ winner.