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Card Game World Domination: The Rise of ‘Dominion’

Most of the highly regarded “German-style” board games on the market today are true board games, with physical boards that are either set up at the game’s start or built as the game goes along. Very few card-based games grace the top end of the BoardGameGeek top 100, while most of the games that are there are relatively complex strategy games. And the majority of those games were authored, as you might guess, by German game designers. One glaring exception is the card-based game Dominion, designed by U.S.-born Donald X. Vaccarino. Since Dominion won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award in 2009, it’s become a global success, selling more than 300,000 copies worldwide in 19 languages and spawning four separate expansions.

The concept behind Dominion is simple, a major reason it has crossed over to the point where you can find it in a mainstream store like Barnes & Noble. Each player starts out with a deck of ten cards, seven treasure cards (used to buy other cards) and three Estate victory cards (worth one point apiece at the end of the game). Constantly shuffling and dealing cards from his own deck, each player builds up his deck by buying action cards, more treasure cards, and eventually more victory cards, with the goal of acquiring the most victory points when the game ends – usually when the pile of Province victory cards (worth six points apiece) is exhausted. It is extremely easy to learn, and the wide variety of action cards – 25 in the base set, with only ten used in any specific game – leads to a number of possible strategies and an absurd number of variations on the game. (There are over 3.2 million possible combinations of ten action cards you can draw from those 25 options, and the expansions bring the total number of possible combinations to over 17 trillion.)

Vaccarino designed Dominion over the course of a weekend, because he had a game night coming up that Monday and the game he’d been working on – an expansion for a fantasy-themed cards-and-dice game called Spirit Warriors – wasn’t close to ready. He’d had the idea for Dominion six months earlier, but only sat down to work on implementing it on that weekend in October of 2006, banging out the prototype in “a few hours, including Googling up art” for the initial set of cards.

The beauty of Dominion, according to Vaccarino, is that it solves the problem of other card-based games, where an action card is played and either discarded or sits in play for the rest of the game. When you play a card in Dominion, it goes into your discard pile and is eventually reshuffled back into your deck, to be used again at some point in the next handful of turns. That feature keeps gameplay simple: You are never confronted with too many decisions, or forced to keep track of too many things going on in front of you or across the board. You draw five cards from your deck each turn, and your decisions are limited to the cards in your hand. Not only does that keep the game simple, it keeps it moving, so no one is ever sitting around waiting for too long.

Another elegantly simple game mechanic is that on every turn, a player can play one Action card and make one purchase, called a Buy. He can play an action card that gives him more actions, or more buys, or the right to draw more cards, but the foundation of each turn is one Action, one Buy, and the Cleanup phase, where the player puts all cards from that turn on his discard pile and draws a fresh hand of five from his deck.

Vaccarino says that the only major decision he faced when designing the game was determining how players would be able to buy action cards. Most card games leave the player’s choice of cards up to the randomness of a central deck of set of decks: You get what you draw. Maybe you can put a card back and draw a new one, but there’s both a strong element of randomness and the possibility of imbalance involved in any such system: You draw a mediocre card, revealing a better one for me. While mulling over options for improving this particular game mechanic, Vaccarino decided to punt on the decision temporarily, placing all ten action cards out on the table and allowing players to choose any of them that they liked, using their one Buy opportunity per turn. “That way,” Vaccarino says, “if a card was broken I’d find out right away. Well, of course we liked just buying whatever we wanted and so I never did replace it.” Dominion still features that open-market concept: Any player can buy any card at any time as long as he has sufficient treasure cards in his hand and the pile of that particular card is not exhausted.

[Image courtesy of BoardGameGeek]

Vaccarino found that Dominion was so popular with his friends that he decided to try to find a publisher, eventually showing the game (along with several others) to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games at the Origins Game Fair in 2007. Tummelson agreed to publish the game after several play-testers loved it, eventually breaking down Vaccarino’s large set of cards into what is now the base set and several expansions.

Dominion debuted in 2008 and was a near-immediate success, winning the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (“Game of the Year”), boosting its European sales dramatically and giving it a chance to trickle into the more stolid American gaming mainstream. Vaccarino says he wasn’t shocked that the game was a hit, because everyone who played the game before it was released “adored it … the people who’d played it weren’t some special sampling of the population that adored garbage.” He says he’d always hoped that Dominion would have its own shelf at the game store, the way that Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne each have their own shelves containing the original game and its myriad expansions. Having seen Dominion and its expansions in book and game stores, I think his dream is well on its way to fruition.

As for his post-Dominion plans, Vaccarino says he has other games in the pipeline. “In interviews people will ask me, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I always say, ‘Right now I make Dominion expansions, but one day I hope to be a game designer.’ It’s the truth! I have some older games I’d still like published, and I’m making new games. I have two games lined up to be published currently … I have other games waiting for me to submit them to publishers, or waiting for publishers to look at them.”


Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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Date
December 15th, 2010

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Stranger to the World

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