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.

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!

07 December 2012

Dominion's ecosystem

Without going into too many details, Dominion is a medieval-themed deck-building card game designed by Donald Vaccarino. The base set was released in 2008 and received a bunch of awards. A total of 8 expansions have been following, released every 6 months. Most of the cards of the 8 expansions were already designed and bundled in sets since 2008.

In Dominion, the optimal strategy depends on which cards are already in your deck, what the other players do, what cards are available to add to your deck, and a small amount of (somewhat controllable) luck. The game has been so carefully tuned and playtested that some reviewers consider it too safe and overbalanced, overdesigned and overdeveloped. Dominion's balance is so interesting that it deserves an article in itself.

Looking at the complex interactions between cards, Dominion reminds of Magic the Gathering. For example, expert players talk about engines, a concept similar to Magic's deck types, but (I'd say) deeper. In fact, the MtG analogy is not surprising, given that Vaccarino is a veteran MtG player who pitched several design ideas to the MtG designers in the late 1990s.

After having played around 100 games, Dominion also reminds of Chess: it has traditional openings, annotated games, and a vocabulary very game-specific (e.g. greening or stalling). Dominion is a very deep game.


Of the 8 Dominion expansions, some have been received more favorably than others. For example, Alchemy is the third expansion. It adds potions, a new currency, and not too many people enjoy playing just Alchemy games. On the other, the fourth expansion is called Prosperity, and it adds a lot of over-the-top cards: compare, for example, Market from the basic game to Grand Market in Prosperity. This expansion is certainly the most well-received.

The lesson here seems to be: make more awesome versions of what exists already, and adding extra currencies like Potions makes the game more complicated, but not necessarily more fun.

Dominion's unofficial ecosystem

A lot of unofficial projects emerged around Dominion. For example, a card set constructor helps you determine which cards to pick for your non-digital game(s) with friends. An AI simulator enables experts to polish their strategies by scripting basic AIs and running thousands of games between those AIs. The AI is provided from external files, and the returned graphs plot the average number of points earned per turn against the number of turns. As an example, this technique was used on the basic set of the first Dominion. There are also fan-made expansions, a zombie retheme, and a stand-alone program to play Dominion by yourself against AIs.

Since at least 2010, an online server called isotropic has been running Dominion games online. Its interface is very simple, and a lot of players have been enjoying the fact that it is free and of relatively good quality. Vaccarino has even been using it to playtest his expansions with select players. Along isotropic, there used to be councilroom, a website used to measure various statistics about Dominion cards from isotropic game logs. A lot of expert players seem to have enjoyed the stats reported by councilroom. And there used to be a free iPhone app that allowed people to play Dominion online with other people, but it was discontinued in April 2012.

Dominion generated dozens of projects run by motivated fans. How could a game publisher channel these fans? And how much control should be exerted?