09 December 2012

The deck-building card game genre

Dominion ripoffs or deck-building card games?

Here is a quick list of games that resemble Dominion in some ways.

Year Name Theme Description
2007 Race for the Galaxy Space and planet exploration Deck-building, but does not rely as much on engines as Dominion or Magic do. There are no interactions between players (no stealing cards or throwing dead cards in the deck of others).
2008 Dominion medieval Some interactions between players. Solid engine/combo mechanics.
2009 Thunderstone dungeon-exploration, medieval fantasy Cards include medieval fantasy heroes, items, locations, or monsters. With the adequate items, heroes can kill monsters and level up (ie card upgrade), making it easier to progress through the dungeon. For some, This is like Dominion, only even more fun.
2009 Tanto Cuore cutesy Japanese maids The art borders on ecchi and may offend prude people. Design-wise, each player can place maids in their private quarter to trim their deck, but in doing so, they expose themselves to attacks from other players. The game also features private maids giving special powers every turn. Some Dominion players consider the game refreshingly different, but compared to Dominion, not as much effort was put into balancing [and] playtesting.
2010 Puzzle Strike relatively abstract: breaking gems Seems less inspired by Dominion than Tanto Cuore or Thunderstone are. Tokens have replaced cards: tokens can be bought and sent in an opaque bag to draw from, rather than an actual card deck. Heavily PvP-oriented: players throw gems in front of each other, and when 10 gems have been placed in front of a player, s/he loses.
2010 Ascension dark fantasy System of two currencies (rune and power). Victory points are kept visible on the mat. Some players have reported that synergy is more a mater of luck than anything.
2011 Quarriors medieval fantasy Inspired by Dominion and maybe by Puzzle Strike as well. Instead of cards, players buy dices, and instead of a deck, players use an opaque bag to draw dices from. The base game seems to have been popular enough to be followed by 4 expansions and a bunch of promo cards.
2011 Nightfall vampires and werewolves Cards can be chained by color and between players, not just during a player's turn. Players throw wounds at each other, the equivalent of Dominion curses in that they clog the victim's deck, but they also determine the winner (the player with fewer wounds win).
2011 Battle of Gundabad Orc warriors, suitable for 12 year-olds? A $2 iPhone game considered a blatant ripoff of Dominion because the cards are exactly the same, just named differently (e.g. BoG's Paralyze is Dominion's Cutpurse, Warmongering is Laboratory, etc.). Each level of the campaign mode features a particular set of cards to teach a particular combo to the player. Yet the game does not feel very polished. The lack of deck-building card game for iOS made some realize that BoG stepped in to fill the void and could maybe persuade someone to pick up the Dominion license and put out a licensed, polished product. And indeed, the current official Dominion iPhone app features a campaign mode. Thanks BoG?

Lessons learned about innovative mechanics:
Given this small list of deck-building games, Dominion clearly pioneered the deck-building card game genre. Even though it seems difficult to draw the line between a ripoff and an original game of this new genre, each game brought something new to the table. I only wish designers tried to explore this vast and uncharted design space more aggressively, rather than keeping 80% of Dominion and branching from there.

Lessons learned about the themes:
As Tom Vasel says, apparently most deck-building games [...] have to be fantasy-themed. While the deck-building mechanics are great, the medieval/medieval-fantasy theme is dull and lifeless. It may be that deck-building designers go for a medieval theme to avoid frustrating MtG/geek players, their target audience. Some hardcore nerds may still be in love with medieval/medieval-fantasy themes, but I think a lot of non-gamers find the medieval theme trite and/or associate it with nerds. Thus some non-gamers may be more reluctant to try Dominion, Thunderstone, or Ascension than, say, Bang!. Deck-building card games need more original themes like Tanto Cuore's maids, or they will remain like MtG, an amazing game stuck in a nerd niche.

Copyrights and publishers

In June 2011, Dominion's designer, Vaccarino, reported that Rio Grande Games (RGG), the publisher of Dominion, had asked a contractor, Goko, to develop and run an online version of the game for mobile phones and web browsers. And of course, Goko wants the free isotropic Dominion server to shut its doors before they launch their product.

Goko's Dominion launched in August 2012, but technical problems caused the Goko game platform to close its doors and go back to beta. As of December 2012, Goko is back online, out of beta. The Goko version has a nicer UI than isotropic, but does not seem to provide the expert features isotropic offers (e.g. game logs). Also, one can play Dominion on Goko for free using the basic set, but expansions must be purchased with real money. Isotropic is still up and running.

Lessons learned: an online version of Dominion should have been released as soon as possible. Ideally, RGG could have determined Dominion was a hit before or around the release of the first expansion, by mid 2009. But RGG had other priorities (non-digital board games!), and as they kept waiting, people 1) bought an unpolished iPhone clone (BoG), and/or 2) felt more and more entitled to play Dominion for free. Board game publishers really need to start considering digital publishing up front and more seriously. There is a demand for it!

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