I’ve described before the way that certain games have come along and created a firestorm in the gaming hobby (for example, see the column on The Settlers of Catan from July 2012.) In 2008, a similar revolution happened with the publication of Dominion. Dominion created a new genre of hobby game overnight, almost entirely out of thin air. At least from a design standpoint, I think it’s fair to compare Dominion’s impact to those of Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble, as each invented an entirely new style of game (deck-building games for Dominion, trivia games for Trivial Pursuit, and crossword games for Scrabble).
If you have a child in the upper-elementary age or older, you’re probably familiar (at least by name) with some form of collectible card game (CCG for short). Magic: the Gathering is the granddaddy of that genre, but Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh are the two that are targeted pretty squarely at elementary and middle school school students. In a CCG, a major part of the game play happens between game sessions, as players assemble a deck from the cards that they own, and later use that deck to compete against other players. Really competitive CCG players will spend hours researching cards to put into a deck, and can spend lots and lots of money going after cards they find particularly desirable. Dominion takes the process of building a deck to use later and turns it into the entire game.
In Dominion, each player starts with an identical deck of cards, containing seven cards worth 1 coin each and three cards worth 2 points each. A supply is laid out with more coins (values of 1, 2, and 3), more point cards (values of 2, 5, and 8), and ten each of 10 different Kingdom cards, which are picked from a selection of 25 possibilities. The Kingdom cards each allow you to do something, specified on the card, that you could not do without playing that card.
To win, players need to use their initial supply of money to acquire Kingdom cards and more money, which they can use to acquire point cards. The point cards themselves do not aid in acquiring more point cards, so the challenge is in first gaining the resources or establishing an “engine” that will allow you to buy points, and then in knowing when to stop building your engine and start using it to buy points. The game ends when either the 8-point card pile is empty or when any three other stacks of cards are empty.
During a turn, a player may play one Action card from their hand, if they have one. Most of the Kingdom cards are Action cards. After following the directions on the Action card, they can use any money in their hand to Buy a single card from any stack in the supply. They then Cleanup by placing all the cards they played and everything left in their hand into their personal discard pile and drawing 5 new cards from their deck. If their deck runs out, they shuffle the discard pile and use it to create a new deck. (I’ve bolded terms here because the ABC mnemonic is often used to help players understand their turn.)
Although it’s possible to have an OK score by just buying whichever card looks good, Dominion is a game that rewards familiarity with the Kingdom cards and how they interact with each other. It’s therefore not really a game for younger kids — middle-school age seems about right. (I’ve played a few times with the Grasshopper, usually at the instigation of another adult, but he still doesn’t “get it” yet.) Once the basic structure of play is mastered, it moves very quickly. A 4-player game with experienced players can be over in the space of about half an hour. This simple play structure, along with the short play time, has made Dominion a favorite introductory hobby game over the last five years.
Dominion is a game that’s definitely worth checking out if you have kids who have ever liked Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh!, or similar collectible card games. You could check the circulating copy out from the Urbana Free Library, and Armored Gopher Games also has a store demo copy that can be used to try it out in the store. It’s got enough meat that, for the first time ever, I’ve written a separate post at my personal blog highlighting a few principles of strategy that might not be readily apparent to newcomers.