Jan 18 2011 4:04pm

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

Magic: The GatheringRichard 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 Amazon.com 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.

1. Dank3
I just want to point out that Magic does have some variants where card availability isn't a competitive factor: Draft, and to a lesser extent, Pauper and Peasant.
2. John Fiala
And in addition to Draft I seem to remember hearing of cubes - whichever the term, the idea is to make your own random boosters out of a pool of agreed upon cards, and use those for drafting, rather than buying even more cards. The advantage is that you can avoid cards you dislike, and spread the card pool across a wide variety of cards.

That said, this series is of interest to me. I've got copies of Dominion and Thunderstone, and they're both games I enjoy playing over and over again. If you get into Dominion, have a look around - there are free or for play generators on the web (and on most smart phones) for randomly determining the 10-card set for your game, which can speed up game setup. Additionally, there's
http://dominiondeck.com/ which allows you to browse through sets of ten cards for playing with, and comment on the strengths or weaknesses of each game.
Chris Long
3. radynski
My major problem with Dominion is that it is boring. There is really no goal to the game beyond collecting cards. You don't do anything with them except collect more cards.

I played this when it first came out and was amazed by the deck-building mechanic. But after two plays, I was asking myself what the point was?

I've played both Thunderstone and Ascension, and both of them are FAR superior to Dominion, albeit for vastly different reasons. Thunderstone is everything that Dominion could have been, but didn't realize that it needed. In that game, you actually have a goal that gets achieved in the process of building your deck - namely that of attacking and defeating monsters. Frankly though, I don't care about the theme, I just care about the goal.
Bob Gallo
4. StormbringerGrey
Draft is a great format and actually seems to be preferred to constructed at my FSLG. The only downside is that it still requires players to be able to valuate cards on the fly. To some extent Dominion does to but it’s only 10 cards at a time.

For experienced Dominion players there are a few alternative ways to play. Brettspielwelt (http://www.brettspielwelt.de/) is a German site (with an English language option) that is very popular for online play. Unfortunately, patience for beginners or slow players is sometimes limited. I would strongly recommend learning the game face to face first.

There is also an unofficial app for Android OS (Androminion). It’s actually reasonably well done but text only, no card art. The app assumes you understand the game, there’s no guidance for new players so once again, the best way to learn is face to face.
David Thomson
5. ZetaStriker
Dominion in and of itself doesn't sound incredibly interesting to me. . . as Radynski said, the first couple paragraphs of the description made my ears perk up with excitement, and then I heard what those action cards actually do, as well as the basis for victory, and I suddenly lost all interest in the game. It has, however, inspired me to make my own party-game version of Dominion with carefully chosen Magic the Gathering cards.
Chuk Goodin
6. Chuk
I have never encountered this "dull subject matter" concept before. You think Dominion has dull subject matter, you should try playing bridge some day, or checkers. I just don't really understand that objection to the game. I guess if you're coming from a M:tG background it makes sense.

Dominion did seem like a breath of fresh air to me. It moves nice and fast, you still get to do deck building, and it's quite replayable (especially once you add in an expansion or two).
Bob Gallo
7. StormbringerGrey
@Zeta – I may have done Dominion a disservice by focusing on the simpler action cards (I figured people that haven’t played the game would find them easier to understand), even some Magic cards taken out of context may seem simple on the surface. It’s the interaction of cards and tuning the balance of cards in a deck that really makes the game but there are a number of Dominion cards, even in the base set, that introduce interesting mechanics. Here’s an example of the Thief:

“Each other player reveals the top 2 cards of his deck. If they revealed any Treasure cards, they trash one of them you choose. You may gain any or all of these trashed cards. They discard the other revealed cards.”

The latest expansion, Dominion: Prosperity also introduces Treasure and Territory cards with added functionality (special Territory cards can also be found in earlier expansions but the special Treasure cards are new)

For anyone sitting on the fence, if you have a local game store with in-store gaming there is almost a 100% likelihood the store has a demo copy and people that will play it at the drop of a hat.
8. Gerry__Quinn
If you like computer games and collectible card games, give Astral Masters (google it) a try. It's like a collectible card game but you don't have to buy cards, you get them all with the game and can build your own decks. The free trial gives you a pretty generous helping. The rules are transparent, the AI is good, and you can also play over the internet.
Madeline Ferwerda
9. MadelineF
I've only played about 8 games of Dominion, but I'd be happy to play more. I play it like chess, building a finely tuned machine, but unlike chess, the others at the table aren't focused on hosing me, so I can be happy with my machine even if I totally suck out in terms of victory points. And if it works? Muahahaha!
Irene Gallo
10. Irene
Bob introduced me and another non-gamer to Dominion over Christmas and we had a blast with it. It's a good gateway drug.
no thx
11. nope
David Goldfarb
12. David_Goldfarb
If you're going to mention BrettSpielWelt, you should mention http://dominion.isotropic.org/ -- which is in English, and has all 116 available cards from all four expansions, where BSW has only 44 cards.

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