The Analog Gamer

The Analog Gamer: Deck-Building Card Games—Cures for Magic: The Gathering burn out?

Richard Garfield revolutionized the gaming industry in 1993 with the introduction of Magic: The Gathering. Magic has been a phenomenal sucess spawning a multitude of clones and popularizing the use of cards in games not traditionally thought of as card games. By 2006 Magic: The Gathering’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, reported over 6 million players in 70 countries. After nearly 17 years the game is alive and well with league play and tournament fees being the primary source of revenue for many local game stores. Despite this success there is also a growing population of former players like myself that can no longer afford the investment of time (and frankly, money) for competitive play.

Dominion card gameIn 2008 game designer Donald X. Vaccarion turned the collectible card game concept on its head with the release of Dominion published by Rio Grande Games. The goal was to offer the experience of a collectible card game in a single box without the time investment in deck preparation and cost associated with collectibility. To achieve these goals Dominion incorporated two important innovations; it made deck-building a part of the game and eliminated the collectability aspect by allowing players to “purchase” cards in-game from a common pool. Dominion has been very successful with a large well established player base and 4 expansions currently in print. A number of similar games have been released from other publishers as well. What follows is a series of posts looking at the four most popular deck-building games; Dominion, Thunderstone, Ascension, and Resident Evil and also a brief look at what we can expect in 2011.

Dominion card gamesDominion is a deck-building card game for 2 to 4 players but easily scales to 6 with expansions. A typical game may be completed in 45 minutes or less with experienced players. Players are medieval monarchs starting from humble beginnings of 3 estates and 7 copper coins. Through the clever play of cards and careful attention to card purchases players collect territories, treasures, action cards and attempt to build up the greatest Dominion.

Dominion card gameEach player begins the game with an identical deck of 10 cards from which they draw a hand of five. On a player’s turn they may play one action card from their hand and make one card purchase. These purchases are made from a common pool of cards giving each player equal access from which to build up their decks. The purchased card is not available for immediate use; instead all cards in a player’s current hand, including the newly purchased card are placed in a personal discard pile. When a player can no longer deal themselves a 5 card hand from their deck, the discards are shuffled (including all new purchases) and a new larger draw deck is formed.

Cards come in three basic types. Territory cards are required for victory points but usually have no other function and can clog a hand Dominion card gamewhen purchased in great quantity too early in the game. Treasure cards are used to purchase other cards, including more valuable treasure. The heart of the game is in the action cards. Action cards (and other types of cards in the expansions) contain instructions which modify the basic rules of the game when played. Simple action cards may allow the draw of more cards, allow the play of additional action cards, allow more than one purchase, etc… More sophisticated cards allow players to steal from one another, upgrade cards by various mechanisms, and remove cards from play to make decks more streamlined and efficient.

Like Magic: The Gathering, much of the joy in playing Dominion lies in discovering unexpected interactions between cards known as playing “card-combos.” The basic Dominion set includes 25 types of action cards although only 10 are in play in any given game. Swapping out the mix of cards in each game radically changes the card interactions and ensures no two games play the same.

Dominion card gameDominion does an excellent job at capturing the feel of a collectable card game without the hours of pregame preparation required for deck construction. Of the four deck-building games discussed in this series Dominion offers the most balanced and polished overall game play. The art is well done but Dominion lacks the overt fantasy elements found in other games of this type and as a result, while the art is well executed the subject matter may occasionally seem a little dull.

This leads us to the chief complaint of Dominion detractors, its weak theme. Player’s may be monarchs expanding their territorial holdings but it really just boils down to victory points. Similarly, the title and art on some action cards (particularly the simpler ones) may have little or nothing to do with the card function. While I feel the enjoyment of unleashing long chains of killer combos overrides these shortcomings, the thin veneer of theme bothers some people greatly.

Players may also feel the base game is lacking in direct player interaction and conflict. It’s worth noting that the first expansion, Dominion: Intrigue was designed specifically to address this complaint and is filled with action cards that interact with other players. Of the 4 expansions Dominion: Intrigue is the only one that includes everything required for play and may be thought of as an alternative base set in addition to being an expansion.

Next post: Thunderstone…does lightning strike twice?

Dominion may be found at your full service local game store, from for about $29.99, and from many other online retailers. Dominion has also be seen on the shelves at some big-box mass market retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

When not playing games, Bob Gallo is a computer programmer specializing in Flash and interactive application design living in the Charlotte, NC area. Bob got his gaming start in the mid 1970s with traditional hex-and-counter war games and has played nearly all types of games including role playing games, miniatures, collectible card games, video/PC games as well as traditional board and card games.


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