In this series, we take a fresh look at classic games and explore how they hold up in the modern board game industry. This post will discuss the beloved deck-builder, Dominion: How Has it Aged?
The Grandfather of Deck-Builders
When Dominion first hit the board gaming world in 2008, it made a tidal wave of a splash that flooded the market with flattering copy-cats and caused a ripple effect in the industry that can still be seen today. It was the first game of its kind, a kind that would soon be categorized as “deck-builders.” So what was it about this novel concept of adding cards to your personal deck and crafting your unique engine that caught on like wildfire?
Deck-building just might be the #1 mechanism for triggering dopamine release. What other board game mechanism rewards their players on nearly each and every turn? Players constantly get to purchase more cards, customize their decks, and reap the benefits as they draw, play, purchase, rinse, and repeat.
Deck-building has proven to be a hit with publishers as well. It’s the kind of mechanism that is infinitely expandable, widely applicable, and easily reproduced. It’s no wonder that Board Game Geek reports that nearly four-thousand deck-building products (games, expansions, promos, etc.) exist in the market, but it’s impressive to think that basically none of these existed before Dominion (2008).
One cannot just blow off Dominion as a flash in the pan. Two different versions of the game still hold spots in the top 100 ranked games of all time. Yet, as mentioned above, Dominion has inspired a lot of ideas since its inception. From simple rethemes and updates of the same formula, to entire evolutions and fusions into much more ambitious ideas, the deck-building genre has seen a big-bang of developments over that past 12 years. So the question we now explore is this: Is Dominion, the grandfather of deck-builders, even relevant anymore?
Vanilla Ice Cream
When taken in as a whole, one could argue that Dominion, with its nearly TWENTY expansions, is absolutely still relevant. The IP, with its hundreds upon hundreds of cards, is essentially a money printer for Rio Grande Games. You can still often find it being played in board game cafes, stores, and homes as a quick and easy go-to, like an everlasting vanilla ice cream that can never be replaced. It may still be able to post up a healthy amount of plays and purchases (perhaps more than any other deck-builder), but as Monopoly has so dutifully demonstrated, that doesn’t mean it’s still a great game.
Indeed, like old-reliable vanilla ice cream, Dominion could also be regarded as dull, colorless, and unimaginative. The theme and look of the game are about as dry as a slice of burnt toast. The engine is all about increasing draws, actions, purchases, and treasure in the name of maximizing points.
The pool of player interaction isn’t much more than a puddle, either. Adding more competitors to a session does little more than increase your downtime between turns of playing these cards to get some more of those cards for your deck. And when we take a step back to look at the deck-building genre as a whole, we can more easily notice just how much Dominion shows its age.
A Book’s Cover
Put the production of Dominion next to equivalent components from the likes of Fort or Taverns of Tiefenthal and the contrast in presentation might be sharp enough to sever a limb. Dominion, like many Euros of the past, suffers from bland-look syndrome. This was something that thinky games could get away with for the longest time… whether it was in the name of budget restraints or focusing in on mechanics or sheer lack of competition.
With the rise of Kickstarter, the fall of barriers to entry (in designing and publishing), the age of the internet, and more, board games have to try harder to stand out, and thus gamers benefit as a result. We see it in the customer-focused productions of Stonemaier Games, from the classy grape/wine tokens of Viticulture to the mesmerizing mech art of Scythe to the cornucopia of hand-drawn birds in Wingspan. It’s also found in the deep, murky colors of Brass: Birmingham and the mesmerizing monsters of Spirit Island and the screen-printed woodland wonders of Root. In the modern board game industry, attention to detail can no longer be limited to functionality and design of play.
As the games of today look better and better, many games of yesterday look all the worse. Dominion is the epitome of this effect, but we should never judge a book by its cover alone.
Adding Flavor to the Formula
The brilliance of Dominion is found within its addictive simplicity. Draw, play, purchase, shuffle, repeat. This simple formula takes players down many paths as different combinations of cards enter their hands or start in the market. Each unique setup is a new challenge to discover the best path to victory. Changing even one card option can affect the relative value of every other card that can be purchased. It’s the kind of novelty that never wears off… at least until you discover all the more that modern deck builders can accomplish.
Take the crunchy, agonizing choice of “Which card should I add to my deck,” and then add to it…
“Which direction should I go?” in Clank and The Quest for El Dorado.
“Which friends should I neglect?” in Fort.
“When should I stop?” in Quacks of Quedlinburg.
“Who should I attack?” in Undaunted.
“Should I save my prized, unique cow for the big payoff of Kansas City or give old Bessie away here and now for some quick pocket change?” in Great Western Trail.
These mechanical combinations have made for some of my favorite experiences in gaming. As a result, going back to Dominion can taste so… flavorless. These other games follow all the essential steps of Dominion’s recipe for how to make a solid deck builder:
- Variable setup
- Catchup mechanisms
- A variety of tempting market options
- Big moves and combos
- Balanced strategies
And then they add in all kinds of flavor and texture to the dish. Whether its the evocative theme, stunning presentation, layered mechanisms, or all of the above, these evolutions in the genre can make it difficult to go back to Old Faithful. Why settle for mere playing and purchasing cards when I can instead race through the jungle, run from the dragon, build a fort, command a platoon, concoct a potion, herd cattle across the Wild West, and so much more?
“But Nick, none of these games are as replayable as Dominion and its 20 expansions!” I get it, a game with variable setups and variable turns is going to have loads of replayability. But a game with strong player interaction and human influence on top of that is going to have near infinite replayability. Dominion struggles to reach those heights with a mere Witch attack card here and Moat defense card there.
Give me a game that makes my hands clammy when my wife suddenly books it back out of the dungeon to trigger the deadly dragon countdown. Show me the thrill of a wild opponent who attempts a kamikaze blitz past my firing snipers in a mad dash for control of the final objective. Allow my friend to flaunt his icy heart by parking his explorer right in my way, blocking my easiest path to El Dorado as he dilly dallies in deckonomics.
People are the ultimate variable in board gaming. Where some games like Dominion choose to turn players into cogs of a system or puppets of a string, other designs hand the strings over to the players and let them be the puppet masters at the table. For my tastes, a game like Dominion feels too suitable for a robot who scans the starting market of cards, processes the best route to victory, and executes the strategy without a worry for external factors.
These days, so many deck builders elicit more feeling than basic dopamine-like effects. I’m inclined to forever appreciate Dominion and its legacy but ultimately let it rest in peace.
This concludes my exploration of Dominion: How Has It Aged? Of course, this article is purely subjective and we welcome your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!
This Post Has 6 Comments
Great retrospective of Dominion and games influenced by Dominion. I agree with many of your comments regarding Dominion and the advantages offered by some of the newer games. I disagree with you on a couple of points, and I think there are some advantages that only Dominion offers today that you missed.
1. “Some games like Dominion choose to turn players into cogs of a system…” I disagree with this. All games have a system or “path” that you’re trying to forge, and this path often changes based on what other players are doing. You can view this as “cogs in a system” for any game. Other games may have more player interaction, but that doesn’t mean Dominion alone is turning players into cogs. With or without player interaction, there’s a path (or system of cogs) that you’re trying to forge in a game. I would argue this is not unique to Dominion and is not a negative (at least in my opinion).
2. Near the end of your article, you mention that Dominion is “suitable for a robot who scans the starting market of cards, processes the best route to victory, and executes the strategy without a worry for external factors.” I disagree with this. Think about the Pirate Ship card. Players who get this card play it as an attack card and force another player to trash money from their deck. There are ways to avoid it. For example, if Conspirator is available, you can eschew money by purchasing multiple Conspirator cards (+2 money). Once you’ve played 3 or more action cards, you get +1 Card & +1 Action, making it possible to play any other Conspirator cards that come up. The effects of Pirate Ship are essentially nullified because you no longer need to have money in your deck. In fact, with this response, a player who attacks you with Pirate Ship is actually helping you to cull your deck.
This is a response to someone else choosing to use Pirate Ship as part of their strategy. This strategy / counter-strategy is core to Dominion, and I don’t see it as being any different than responding to another player’s strategy in The Quest for El Dorado when you cut off another player who’s advancing on your position.
One of the things I really like about Dominion is the way you can mold it to your mood. All of the other games you mentioned are basically static, in a sense. Don’t take this too literally. What I mean is that there are a certain number of paths given a set of starting cards and goals, so an extent. This may be a problem with me and the way I look at games. I always want my favorite games to be more than they are. Once I’ve played them out, I want more. That’s the problem.
You mentioned Wingspan and I love that game, but based on any given set of cards and goals, I have a pretty good idea what I need to do to win. That’s never the case with Dominion. I can choose to include certain expansions or not, and the game is infinitely “mold-able” into whatever mood I’m in. To me, this is more than just a “different set of randomized Kingdom cards.” You can literally mold the feel of the game and the nature of interactions.
If I want magic and potions, I can include the Alchemy expansion and focus a game around that plus one or more other expansions. If I want to provide special ability when cards are gained/bought, then I can include cards from Hinterlands. And the possibilities go on and on. The expansions of Dominion offer an almost infinite set of Lego “parts” that players can put together to create the game they want to play. With this “Lego feature” of Dominion, I can always get to the “more” that I’m looking for, even though I’ve been playing the game for years. No other game offers that. All other games have limits. Dominion literally has no limits.
I like the Lego analogy! I agree, that’s a killer feature of Dominion for people who enjoy investing in a system to see how deep the well goes. I know for some folks (myself included), it’s hard to justify a $20-40 expansion for a game I’ve already played to death when the same money can acquire a brand new game with positive reviews, a better production, and a unique spin on the genre (such as Fort).
Dominion certainly has some interaction, but it’s always felt shallow to me compared to other games that were designed to be interactive from the ground up. To be a bit over-reductive, most of Dominion’s interaction leads to “I occasionally force you to take a bad card, lose a good card, and/or buy a few different cards than you had planned.” This carries less longevity and interest for me, but it really comes down to what you are looking for in a deck builder.
But you make some great counterpoints that I think will really help people know if Dominion is a good fit for them. Thanks for sharing, Stephen!
Hi Nick, thanks for your response. In rereading my comment, I realized I sounded a little over-zealous in my defense of Dominion. I agree with you that there are better games out there that scratch the same itch, so to speak, yet provide deeper and a more satisfying overall play experience. I really want to play Fort. I’ve heard so many great things about it. One of the things I’ve noticed about some games that claim to be a deckbuilder (in addition to other things) is that the deck building component is often too light for me. Fort seems like it might be guilty of this, but I’m looking forward to other game mechanics in Fort. Sometimes a game will only allow you to get 6-10 cards going in a “deck”, and I’d like to have more. I like to play Dominion from time to time because I think it still provides a very pure deck building experience. Thanks again for your article and your thoughtful response to my comment.
Hey no worries, I really appreciate all the points you made. I think I sometimes tend to be unfair towards a game (leaving out some of the less interesting but notable strengths) whenever I’m trying to make an overall judgment or point. So your thoughts are valuable.
Fort is a great game that will subvert your expectations of a common deck builder. But for people who go into it wanting the usual, I could see them coming away disappointed. In my mind, Fort feels like an awesome filler game for hobbyist gamers. If you want a meaty experience, look elsewhere, but if you want something fresh, quick, and engaging, then Fort really hits the spot. Hope you get to try it sometime soon!
I absolutely agree with points that both of you are making. I had the opportunity to play Fort, and it stood-out for the fact that I was engaged with every single person’s turn. That has not often been my experience with deck-builders. Dominion has always felt the least interactive to me, despite a few attack and defense cards. Somewhere in the middle are games like Clank!, where the person’s movement through the dungeon matters to me, but I’m not so much paying attention to what cards the person is buying or playing. On the other end is Fort, where I’m watching to see what other people are buying because it will influence my own purchase choices (far more so than in Dominion where *maybe* cards they buy will impact me, but mostly I’m just keeping an eye on when the VP cards are being bought due to timing the end game), the cards they are playing because of my ability to perform follow actions, and even the cards that they *aren’t* playing because I can potentially poach them for my own benefit. Head & shoulders above my other deck-builder experiences, and more players only created more interactions, not simply more downtime. On the other hand, the customizability of Dominion really does shine. Fort will be the same theme and flavor every time. With Dominion I can roll deep with Prosperity, eke it out gritty style with Dark Ages, or turn a ton of knobs for dialing-in an appropriate complexity (base game versus cards from Dark Ages, Adventures, Empires…), or tweak the level of interaction from some down to next-to-nothing, for example if playing with someone who has the most fun optimizing their little engine and would be upset by an attack card.
The aforementioned games are all clearly deck-builders at their core, which is something that I enjoy a great deal. Going off in another direction are games like Tyrants of the Underdark, which left me scratching my head why people loved its deck-building aspects so much. To me that one felt like it was a highly interactive area control game, with a deck-building component tacked-on; when I’ve played we really weren’t able to cycle our decks very much, so most purchased cards were never seen again. As a deck-builder fan it was an unsatisfying game. But for people who love the give & take of an area control game it would be a really great option for them. But, if someone really really enjoys deck-building as a game mechanic and was trying to choose between Dominion and Tyrants, I would actually recommend Dominion to them since it will have more of what they purportedly enjoy. As Stephen said, “It still provides a very pure deck building experience.” But if given a wider playing field of choices then I’d recommend Fort…UNLESS the person really wanted to invest in the numerous expansions in order to attain that fine-tuned control of their game, in which case Dominion holds the crown…but it’s going to cost in order to pick-up all those expansions.
Great points! I’m crossing my fingers for more Fort content (perhaps a 2021 expansion?).
In the meantime, you should check out Undaunted! It’s one of my favorite options as far as interactive, engaging deck-builders go. I’m not even much of a war/skirmish gaming person, but Undaunted really hits the spot as a tense, juicy 2 player game.