In June 2008, Dominion hit game groups like a card-carrying bullet train, overrunning play sessions for months at a time and racing high up Boardgamegeek’s Top 100 list. A rapturous hit for publisher Rio Grande Games, Dominion won many awards, including the 2009 Spiel des Jahres (the German Game of the Year award), and to date has spawned 10 foreign editions and an online version.
What’s the big deal? Rio Grande’s own page offers few clues, and the BoardGameGeek page makes for dry reading. The best path to Dominion, and nowadays to every popular board or card game, is through YouTube. Start with Tom Vasel’s “Dice Tower” Dominion video review, then click around for tutorials and sample games. (Spend a rapt hour watching grainy webcam vids of your favorite hobby to understand, bone-deep, why network TV is doomed.) Oh, and while you’re on YouTube, check out the 1987 Sisters of Mercy hit “Dominion/Mother Russia,” which has nothing to do with the game but helps me suck up to my editor.
Then buy Dominion. Just do it. Get three other players, stack the card piles and watch your group get bulldozed too.
The Big Deal
Dominion is a highly original deck-building game that feels like an entire Magic: The Gathering tournament draft in 30 minutes. Nominally it’s about building a medieval kingdom, but that’s all abstract so nobody cares. The playing area presents face-up stacks of cards representing coins, actions and victory points. In each game you lay out 10 sets of action cards, selected from a larger group of nearly two dozen sets. Each player starts with a fixed 10-card deck and, drawing five cards per turn, uses them to buy new cards from the central stacks. Some action cards grant additional coins, card draws or further actions. As the game progresses your deck grows and becomes unique. The object is to accumulate the most victory points in your deck by game’s end.
Five minutes into your first Dominion game, you feel that Magic buzz all over again: the thrill of Tinkertoys, of two tons of Lego parts waiting for you to snap them together. Fast, elegant and balanced like a yogi, the design reveals tempting new tactics turn by turn. You’ll probably lose that first game – calamitously – yet your fingers will twitch with eagerness to shuffle and try again.
Dominion‘s approach plays to one of the major cultural forces of our time: unbundling. The newspaper, a patchwork of content with only a few articles that interest any given reader, has given way to aggregator sites and build-your-own RSS feeds. TV networks are weakening against on-demand viewing and (see above) YouTube. The act of unbundling, of fine-tuning your engagement with the material, encourages a unique, involving, creative experience. In card games like Magic, you can customize your deck to so fine a point, it practically embodies your life philosophy.
The Magic influence on Dominion is clear, especially given the designer’s history. Donald X. Vaccarino is a San Francisco programmer from way back; in 1986 he coded Reactive Micro’s Voice Harp Composer for the C64, Atari 800 and Apple II, and he wrote scripts for a 2001 fan-created Heroes of Might & Magic III add-on, Wake of the Gods. Vaccarino had played few hobby games – “designer games,” “German-style games,” what have you – before he discovered Magic in 1994. “I had designed a few games, but it was just something I did once in a while without really thinking it through,” he told Eric Martin of Boardgame News in an interview last October. But Magic inspired him.
Vaccarino designed an unofficial 90-card Magic expansion set, Edge of the World, which was distributed as prize stickers at the 1996 ManaFest gaming convention in Southern California. He also visited publisher Wizards of the Coast annually to demo his new game designs for Magic designer Richard Garfield, and he worked informally with the in-house Magic R&D team, earning a credit for his work in the Comprehensive Magic Rulebook.
Vaccarino sort of stumbled into Dominion, his first published game. After creating Spirit Warriors, a 2003 card game about fantasy adventuring, he began a sequel in 2006 that focused on building and improving an adventurer through deck-building card play. Unable to finish the complete game in time for a deadline, he spent a weekend concocting a stripped-down version of the deck-building aspect. He hadn’t yet thought of a good mechanism to introduce the cards throughout the game, so he instead made them all available upfront. Eric Martin recounts the dramatic outcome:
“The effect [of Dominion] on my gaming group was to kill all other games,” says Vaccarino. “In October 2006, I had a game night and a Magic night. On game night we played a mix of my games and store-bought games, but game night immediately turned into Dominion night, and Magic night followed suit about a month or so later.” […]
Two years after creating the game, Vaccarino estimates that he’s played it about 1,000 times, with those games spread across any number of card configurations. “Most of those games have involved expansions. With the main set you may eventually feel like you’ve made all the decks; once you have an expansion or two, you will never see everything.”
Yes, of course there are expansions – and not a moment too soon. Obsessed game groups took most of a year to hit bottom on the original game, and some of them, like lovers past their first infatuation, started to nitpick. Gameshark faulted Dominion for being “overbalanced, overdesigned and overdeveloped” – buddy, we should all have such problems – and one BoardGameGeek poster complained, with bitter disappointment, that Dominion got boring after a mere 230 plays.
In June 2009, just as game groups were looking around blearily and saying, “Hey, didn’t we used to play other games?” the standalone expansion Intrigue arrived to overrun them again.
One striking thing about Dominion, besides its superior quality, is that it’s a debut. Where many fledgling designers publish their student work, then later hope all the copies conveniently vanish in fires and earthquakes (get that 1983 Necromancer box away from me – I’ve paid my debt to society), Vaccarino has displayed mature talent from day one. Intrigue – which, aside from a few interesting promotional action cards like “Envoy” and “Black Market,” is the earliest indication of the support line’s direction – confirms his astuteness.
Like the original Dominion set, Intrigue provides functional requirements (ways to attack and defend, curses and curse removal) and extends the game in interesting ways, but it keeps tight focus on the fundamental experience. With cards that require turn-by-turn decisions, the sequel targets players already skilled in the original game (where decisions were minimal) yet eschews weird new concepts. Vaccarino told Boardgame News in an article last month that he wanted to avoid “exotic things“:
Suppose instead that the first expansion took the game off in a radical new direction. Well, for a while all there is is the main set and the first expansion. So half the cards would be the radical new thing. It seems much better to me to have a solid base of game before veering off.
As Vaccarino observed, additional Dominion boxes expand the play experience not linearly but geometrically. Meanwhile, those hungry for “exotic” rules can find fan variants online. For instance, though Vaccarino has no plans for a solitaire version, BoardGameGeek has stepped up with Dominion solitaire rules. Fans have also coded conveniences like Zack Hiwiller’s online card set constructor.
There’s more ahead. Vaccarino frequents the BoardGameGeek Dominion forum as donaldx. His November 2008 background article, “The Secret History of the Dominion Cards,” subtly suggests that he had no less than seven expansions in development at the time of the piece’s writing. And still more: According to Boardgame News, at the 2009 Spiel des Jahre press conference in Berlin, Rio Grande publisher Jay Tummelson remarked that at their first meeting, Vaccarino presented him with nearly three dozen designs.
Whether these games reach print, and whether they enchant game groups as Dominion did, remains to be seen. But Dominion‘s success shows, whatever the economy’s problems, the art of table game design is still moving forward like a card-carrying bullet train.