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 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!