12 December 2012

Dominion's balance


One of the cards in the Dominion base set is considered slightly better than most: the Chapel. Some simply say This is the best card in the game.. Others suggest that Chapel is very overpowered and should cost more. Vaccarino, Dominion's designer, is quite present on board game forums, and has stepped up to answer players' suggestions. Surprisingly, he admitted himself that Chapel is the most powerful Dominion card relative to its cost. This is the occasion to glean interesting tidbits about game balance!

First, since both players can buy the same cards, poorly balanced cards don't make the game unfair, [...] but they do make the game worse. It seems that as long as an unbalanced card makes the game fun, it should stay (and probably be tweaked).

Let's start with adjusting the cost. If Chapel cost more, it would be much weaker, and would not be used at all. This would reduce the number of options available in the game. Since it's more fun to have more options, increasing the cost is not a good solution. Ideally, everything gets played sometimes, and the only weak cards are those that are overrated. That is why to keep the metagame and discussion interesting, Vaccarino would rather avoid commenting himself.

This does not mean that overpowered cards are better than underpowered cards: if a card is so strong it is unavoidable, then cards that do not combo well with it will never be played, which is a waste. When using Chapel, a lot is left up to you. This provides a lot of diverse game play, which means Chapel has a strong play value, and the game benefits from it overall. As they progress, players learn using Chapel in new ways, which is a long-term rewarding experience:

  1. why would I ever buy this when Witch isn't out?
  2. trash your Estates with it and just have one dead card instead of three
  3. trash your coppers [and estates] with it, and get a thin deck
  4. is Chapel / Militia better so I can hurt other Chapel decks, or should I go Chapel / Spy to ensure trashing 4 cards
  5. Chapel / Throne Room / Remodel

Another player suggested nerfing Chapel from trashing 4 cards to only 3 cards. Vaccarino seems to agree: in general, overpowered or underpowered cards can only be fixed by changing what the card does, not by changing their cost. But during playtesting, Chapel with "trash up to 3" was way slower than trashing up to 4, and Vaccarino couldn't win with it.

And this is how Chapel stayed at trashing up to 4 cards for a cost of 2 coins.


The play space of Dominion is quite big: there are around 10^15 possible combinations of 10 cards among the 157 available as of 2012. Therefore not all combinations of cards can be checked during playtesting. Since games get played way more than they get playtested, there may be some card combos that go unchecked until release. If a single card is overpowered, it is quite easy to spot and will be fixed. Two-card combos happen more rarely, so if one of them is overpowered, it may not be spotted as easily, but will also matter less. As for overpowered three-card combos, the Dominion developers aren't necessarily finding them. But if one happens during a game, and a player figures it out, it is highly unlikely that the player will face these three cards again in another game.

Playtesting can also reveal interesting/core design ideas. For example, Vaccarino was worried that drawing your whole deck would be bad. Soon [he] realized it was in fact fun.

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