Sunday, October 24, 2010

Game Review: Dominion

I finally had a chance to play Dominion last week, so I have an understanding now what the fuss is all about. It's a clever design - enough strategy (and math) to be intriguingly complex, but implemented in an easy-to-understand, simple-to-play way. I enjoyed it, and played 4-5 games with 2 and 3 players over a couple of days. I also watched a group of hard-core devotees play for a bit, and they were certainly passionate about it and having a very good time.

Parts I like a lot:

  • Scoring points actually diminishes your effectiveness - this is a great mechanism which keeps the game close. It flows very naturally from how the game works, too.
  • Using only some of the special cards means that every game will have different pieces available - this is really great, and makes it very replayable.
  • The cards combine in interesting ways to make occasional super-combo plays, where you can string together a bunch of actions for a neat super power move.
  • The art is neat, and the cards easy to understand and interpret. There are very complex mechanics here, but they run very smoothly and are built on simple principles, which is great design.
Parts I don't like so much:

  • Because the cards delivered to you each time are random, it can be pretty variable what you get and when, so the big combos that you plan sometimes never materialize, while other times you get more than you need. The defense cards come up at random too, so sometimes your attacks work and sometimes they fail. The end result feels like there's a goodly amount of luck involved, especially when one player hits a few combinations in a row and gets a lot of resources as a result.
  • I didn't play enough to work this all out, but it seems like there are some combinations of cards that are automatically the most powerful you can get. This becomes a balance issue, since the person who gets more of these cards in any given game will win. To the extent that this is determined by knowledge of the cards and careful strategy, that's fine; to the extent that it's determined by luck (i.e., who gets a chance to buy them first), it's less satisfying.
  • Following on from the point above - the random allotment of which cards will be used in any given game, which is neat, also comes at a cost. It means that each game isn't likely to be balanced; some cards will be awesome or lead to good combinations; others will be near-useless. I think on balance this is a good trade off (variety for balance), but it's a little frustrating to have some cards never even worth considering.
  • Having the game end when the good land gets bought out seems limiting. In the games I played, people hardly ever bought any land other than the high-value land, and thus the game was nearly always decided by who'd bought the most of these, and as a result the game ended rather suddenly as people got more gold and bought them all - there wasn't really time for them to have much of a negative impact, since they weren't that common in people's hands. To me, this underlined the luck factor and the super-combo points I mentioned above, and it meant that the lower-value land was near useless. I don't know if a different end condition would be better, but this seemed imperfect to me.
  • There's a lot of shuffling :-).
Overall, I think it's really neat, and I can see why people are so excited about it. I'd be happy to play it any time, although I don't think I would be one of those folks I watched who play it over and over again exclusively (and semi-obsessively). I think some of its popularity comes from its similarity to the Magic: The Gathering CCG structure - although Dominion isn't a CCG, and that's a real positive for me, it still has the deck building and combo card aspects of Magic that people enjoy. Magic never has done it for me - the cards are interesting enough, but having to buy lots of them to build anything powerful was very annoying to me, and I didn't find the gameplay that compelling. But Dominion fixes a lot of these problems for me, especially the pay-to-play aspect, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

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