I feel like I’m way behind on my Family Games posts – so many to cover! so little time! – but I figure I’ll just keep plugging away at it and maybe in two or three years I’ll have covered my bases. Right?
Today’s game is Dominion, a card game that has really stood us well over the past three or four years. We go through phases where we are obsessed with it, then we move on to other things for a while, but we always come back to it. It’s a solid addition to any family set if you’re interested in becoming gamers.
In fact, I was thinking the other day about the evolution of gaming in a family – everyone has things like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders, then comes Sorry! and simple card games, and then you move up to Monopoly and The Game of Life, then maybe Scrabble, Clue, or Trivial Pursuit. Some stop there, others branch off to fun party games like Apples to Apples or Cranium, others move on to strategy games like Risk and Ticket to Ride. If you’re on the Ticket to Ride path (a great gateway game I’ll talk about…someday), then Dominion is definitely the next logical step up.
Who It’s For
I think the box suggests ages 13 and up, but our two oldest can handle it easily – they are 12 and nearly 11 – and they’ve even been playing it for a couple of years now. Our youngest just turned 8 last week and she still needs a “teammate” to help her if she plays, so I’d say, 10 and up for sure, maybe younger if they are precocious.
It’s for two to four people; we have played with five and it works okay, although the game goes quicker so it can seem that just when you’ve finally got your strategy coming together, the game is over. It’s best with three or four players.
The first time you play it might take you an hour as you read through all the cards on the table and ponder your strategy. But once you’re more familiar with the game you can play a round in 30 minutes.
How to Play
Dominion is a card game in which each player will be building their own deck of cards. You start with a base deck – three “victory cards” that do nothing, but give you points towards winning the game, and seven money cards. That’s your starter deck.
On your turn, you deal yourself a “hand” of five cards from your own personal deck. Then, you use the money you got to buy a card from the table that will be added to your deck. You’ll see that new card again next time you hit the bottom of your deck and have to shuffle your discard pile. The new card as well as your entire hand goes into your discard pile, and then you deal yourself a new hand from your deck for your next turn.
Things get more interesting after the first two rounds because by then, players have had a chance to buy some more interesting cards to add to their decks. Most players will buy action cards – cards that let them do something that helps them get something else. For example, actions might give you the chance to draw bonus cards into your hand; or give you extra money for shopping; or let you force other players to whittle their hands down to three cards. On your turn, you’re allowed to do one action, and then use whatever money you have in your hand to buy one thing, but some actions allow you to do extra actions or buy more than one card, both of which can be very powerful.
There are 10 action cards in the game, and they’re all laid out on the table for your shopping pleasure. There’s also Big Money cards – putting these into your deck mean you will have more money for buying the good cards next time around. There’s also the green cards – victory cards – and you need these to actually win the game. At the end of the game, you’ll go through your own deck and pick out all the green cards, total up their points, and the one with the most points wins. But because these cards don’t help you during the game – they don’t help you buy more actions or money – you don’t want them clogging up your deck at the beginning. There’s usually several rounds of “deck building” where people are buying more actions and money, and then the game suddenly shifts to people snapping up the victory cards (the game ends when the highest value victory card pile is all sold).
Reading this over, it sounds pretty complicated but once you play it out once, you easily see how it’s going to go. On your turn you do any actions you have, shop for new cards to add to your deck, discard everything, then deal a new hand. Next player!
Why We Love It
There’s two really great things about Dominion.
The first is that everyone builds their own deck – and the players rarely make exactly the same decisions along the way – so everyone ends up playing with a different set of cards. It means that several different strategies can be at work in one game, and it’s fascinating to see what works and what doesn’t. You can do what you think is best and someone else can do things a totally different way, which is cool.
The other great thing is that there are many, many, many action cards from which to choose the set of 10 that make up this particular game. The original game comes with 25 different action cards, and you choose 10 at random (or, because they are your favourites, or because you’re curious, or whatever). That makes the game literally different every time. Not only is every player working their own strategy, but you have to adapt your strategy to the actions on the table – you have to work with what’s in front of you. So you absolutely can’t do the same thing every time – it’s always something new. There are like, 10 expansion sets for Dominion as well, so if you go crazy you could find yourself with a pool of almost 300 different action cards to choose from. We have three expansion sets ourselves and with just those, I think it’s safe to say we could play Dominion for a long, long time before ever seeing exactly the same game twice.
Other benefits – it’s actually not too bad to learn, and if you can manage to play for the first time with someone else who has played before, you won’t even need to look at the rulebook, just jump in and you’ll pick it up quickly. Also, it’s a set of cards so although the box itself is big (about Trivial Pursuit sized), you could extract the cards and put them into something much smaller for travel purposes.
Some Bad Stuff
Here I must admit that I sometimes get childishly cranky while playing Dominion, for two reasons.
One, most combinations of actions allow for a variety of approaches, and you can try different things and see what sticks. But you do occasionally hit a set where there is exactly one approach that will blow everyone out of the water (i.e. just buy up ALL of one particular action, and you’re golden!). Not to sound bitter, but when sets like this come around it is ALWAYS Sir Monkeypants who finds the Big Winner and while he racks up the victory cards, some of us sit there fuming. If you are more mature than me perhaps this will not happen to you. Some suggestions to avoid this scenario: start with the “recommended” action combinations that come with the set; when you hit upon a combination that really works well (meaning, many different strategies led to a close finish), then write that one down for future use.
Two, some of the action cards are attack cards, and that can make one feel bitter. Just when you get a good hand with lots of money, someone will force you to discard it. Or someone will give you a curse card, which is -1 victory point. Or someone will steal away the totally awesome Gold card you just bought. GAH. Usually these attacks are not personal – when someone plays an attack, they usually apply to all other players – but sometimes SOME PEOPLE get miffed about it. Again, if you are more mature than me this may not happen to you, but if you fear it, you can just choose not to use any attack cards, or else make the rule that the “protect me from attacks” card – the Moat – must be in every set with attack cards in it.
As I said above, if you are into strategy games – well, you probably already own Dominion, but if not, run out and get one (you can buy one locally at all the comic book shops, Toys On Fire, or even Mrs. Tiggy Winkles has it in some locations). There are many other games out there that are card/deck building type games and Dominion is the best. It’s a game you’ll play over and over, and when you get tired, get yourself an expansion set (makes a GREAT Father’s Day or Mother’s Day gift!) and keep on playing. Recommended: Prosperity and Seaside, the two most popular expansion packs – we own them both and they’re fantastic.