Thursday, May 07, 2009

Generic reference to the bad guys on Deep Space Nine

I wrote up a review of Dominion last week and forgot to post it. Oops. Hillary and I also got to try out Zooloretto with our local gaming group, so I'll get a quick review of that one up too.

Dominion is a medieval-themed card game where each player attempts to build the best personal deck by buying cards from various face-up supply piles in the center of the board. Gameplay flow is simple: play an action from your hand, buy a card from the supply area (which goes into your discard pile), and then discard both your hand and all cards played this turn, drawing five new cards to replace them.

Yeah, you read that right. You chuck your entire hand every turn. Use it or lose it. I was a bit confused when the rules said that any card I bought from the supply area would immediately go into my discard pile. It didn't take long before the dynamic made sense, though; as soon as a player's draw deck is empty, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck. Since players are going through cards so quickly, all purchased cards will end up in the draw deck within a few turns.

Ideally, you want to find a balance between buying Treasure cards (the currency that allows you to buy everything), Kingdom cards (which grant special abilities or bonus resources), and Victory cards (which score points at the end but are absolutely useless when drawn into your hand). Everything you buy ends up in your deck, for better or worse.

Winning conditions are simple. Once any three supply piles are empty, or as soon as the high-scoring Province supply deck is gone, the game is over. Players go through their deck counting up Victory Point cards, and the player with the most points is the winner.

The rules are clear and simple; no complaints there. We figured out the gameplay flow within the first few turns of our initial game and rarely had to consult the manual while playing. The language on the cards is very clear, and it's easy to tell a Kingdom card's benefits at a glance.

There's not much to say about the physical components; you get several decks of cards that are fairly standard CCG-style quality. The artwork is decent (but not spectacular), and the cards are visually distinctive enough to tell them apart at a glance. The game box contains a plastic tray that keeps the individual card types separated -- it works well, but future expansions might complicate this a bit.

I've heard complaints that Dominion suffers from the "game playing the player" syndrome, and I can't completely disagree. In a given hand of five cards, the best play is often obvious. Still, with sixteen supply piles on the table, there are always decisions to be made. Maintaining a good deck balance is key -- victory cards are useless when drawn into a player's hand, but they directly determine the winner. It seems contradictory to say that a game offers so many options every turn and yet lacks strategic depth, but this has been my experience so far.

My main problem with Dominion is that there isn't much player interaction. You're building your own deck, and your actions (other than the occasional "Attack" card) don't affect your opponent. The supply piles are large, so there's no danger of resources running out until toward the end of the game.

It would be nice if there were more options for interfering with your opponent's plans. I can imagine situations where an obvious winner would emerge halfway through the game, yet the other players would be powerless to do anything about it.

I posted a draft version of this review over on the SA forums, and several posters mentioned that Dominion works much better with three or four players. After seeing how well Pandemic scaled down for two players, I had hoped that Dominion would do the same.

Having been absolutely blown away by Small World (admittedly a very different type of game) barely a week ago, it would take a lot to impress me; Dominion isn't quite there yet, but I'm optimistic for future plays. And replayability should be high, since the game comes with 25 different Kingdom card types, of which only 10 types are used each game.

I'll report back once we've tried a game with more players, but for now I give Dominion a very reserved "thumbs up".


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