Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dominion - Basic Concepts

Dominion is not a CCG (although I reserve the right to alter that opinion after the 10th expansion), but it shares a number of concepts with those games . I think a player with a background in playing CCGs will pick the game up faster than a player without - this is born out at my local club where the two best Dominion players have played tournament Magic.

Before you even start reading this, I should warn you that my last submission to BGG was a list detailing why I still suck at Dominion. So if you're looking for killer Dominion strategies, then this is the wrong place to look; I'm not good enough at the game myself to help there! Whilst I've played over one hundred games, mainly offline, I'm still learning. But I'm winning more than I lose, and hopefully there are some useful ideas here for those who are fairly new to the game.

I'm going to try and stick to general points that work for most decks; obviously there will be sets and strategies (Gardens, I'm looking at you here...) where these principles will not apply. It's less of a "what-to-do" article, than a "why-you-might-want-to-do-it" one. At least, that's the intention - apologies if it's a mix between the obvious and the questionable!

The observant may notice that there are a number of points here that I've repeated from the aforementioned Geeklist. Blame the credit crunch; there's just not the budget there once was for new material.

So... what are these concepts I mentioned?

1) Deck Thinning

You've heard about the "Chapel Deck" on this forum (if not, never fear - there's a link at the bottom)? The reason it works is because you are "thinning" your deck. You're taking out the cards you don't want to draw, so that the ones left are the ones that you do want to draw. Sort of like throwing out all the salt and vinegar crisps in a multi-pack and leaving the good flavours. In Dominion though, you'll typically want to throw out as many of the copper and estate cards that you started the game with as you can.

Throwing out VP cards sound counter-productive, doesn't it? You need them to win the game, after all. The point is that every time you draw one of those VP cards it's a dead card in your hand. If you didn't draw that VP, you could have drawn a card that was useful to you. So, getting rid of those three estates in your deck sets you up better in the long term to buy more provinces.

Same principal with the Copper coins in your deck. Getting rid of them after you've started buying Silver and Gold coins increases your chance of drawing the Silver and Gold, rather than the Coppers. Hence a higher average amount of money in your hand in your buy phase, allowing you to start buying better cards more reliably early in the game. Again, what you're doing here is generating tempo. Whilst your early turns may be less impressive (throwing away cards), your later turns will hopefully contain reliably richer hands.

I've quite happily used a Chapel to throw out hands of three Copper and an Estate. Okay, that means I can't do anything else in the turn, but it means that I won't have to draw those cards again in multiple future turns, thereby helping me in the long run.

The other deck thinning card in the set is Moneylender; a card which I dismissed at first but which I look out for now for precisely this reason. Whilst it can't thin your deck quite as fast as the Chapel, it helps keep the money rolling whilst it does. That +3 money can be a significant boost towards being able to buy a powerful five or six cost card. Which nicely brings me round to my next point.

2) Tempo

This is nothing to do with music, but why write my own definition? I'll let Wikipedia do it for me:

"Tempo is a term used in Magic: The Gathering to indicate the advantage gained when a player is able to play more or stronger cards (relative to their opponent) in a shorter period of time due to efficient resource allocation"

I think this term can be applied to Dominion as well. There are of course differences, but the core idea is the same.

Here's a really simple example of a card generating Tempo: Militia. Militia generates tempo in two ways; Firstly, you get that +2 money which helps drive your own buy phase. Secondly, by forcing your opponents to discard down to three cards, you may very well force them to discard cards they were planning to play on their turn, thereby reducing the effectiveness of what they are able to do.

3) Tempo & Money/+Money Cards

I'm going to assume if you're reading this, posted as it is in the strategy section of a board games website, that you've at least heard of Magic the Gathering. I'm also going to assume that you know you need to have Land cards in that game to be able to cast your spells. If you don't draw any land, then you can't cast any spells. This is the same in Dominion as well, but for "Land" read "Treasure cards".

There are a lot of very pretty toys in this game. Three money? Maybe buy the Village, or that Workshop? Perhaps, but don't forget the Silver cards. Silvers are pretty strong buys in the early rounds of the game, especially with the Usual 4/3 split of money in turns one and two. Why is silver a good buy early on? Well, the obvious answer is that it gives your the potential for hands with more buying power, as drawing a silver is flat out better than drawing a copper.

The game is a race; in the long term it's a race to buy the relevant points cards. At the start of the game, it's typically a race towards being able to buy five and six cost cards.

It comes down to this: there are two ways of getting more money; buying treasure cards, and actions with +money on them. Which is better in the deck you're building will depend on how many actions you'll typically be getting in one of your turns.

4) Tempo & +Actions Cards

This is an aspect of the game that I wasn't thinking through when I first started playing. At the start of each of your turns, you have one action available; therefore if you play a card which doesn't have any +actions on it, that will be your one any only action card of the turn. You have two cards in hand, and neither of them give you + actions? That second card is a dead card in your hand, and you won't see it until your next reshuffle.

The best illustration of this is at the start of the game. In the first two turns you make two buys (hopefully), and then reshuffle your deck, getting a chance to draw those two cards. Let's say you bought a Workshop for three, and a Militia for four. Two useful cards.

Now you draw both of them in the same hand at the start of turn three.

You can only play one; until you reshuffle that second card is as dead a card as any of your VPs. You've lost an opportunity to use it early. You've compromised your buy phase for this turn (as that card could have been a Treasure). You've likely let your opponent steal a march on you (If they're able to use every card in their hand). Most, if not all, Euro-style games are at some level an exercise in being efficient, and this is the case here with Dominion. By ending up in a position where you've bought a card you're prevented from playing, you've been inefficient; and that means you've lost tempo.

+Action cards are your friends here. they give you their effect and let you continue playing additional action cards. Something you need to keep an eye on is the relative amount of cards with +actions and cards without. You want more of the former than the latter, otherwise you'll be stuck full of a hand of unplayable cards, with less money to buy with.

5) Tempo, +Buy cards, and ending the game

I like to be in a situation where I can buy the first province in a game. Simply, it's easier to win from being in the lead than it is trying to come back.

For now, let's ignore the fact that Gardens exist. As a rule of thumb most games end when all the Provinces have been bought. So, if you've bought more than your share of them (five+ in 2-player or 3-player, four+in 4-player), you're in with a great shout of winning. Let's stick to a two-player game as an example. You buy the first province. Now you only need another 3 to at-worst tie on Provinces with your opponent. Or, to look at it another way, for your opponent to beat you on Provinces alone they have to buy five out of the remaining 7, allowing you only 2.

In games without +buy actions, this is really important as you're relying on your opponent's deck breaking down to let you overtake them. Yes, you can remodel provinces from Gold/Adventurers, but will you have the money left in you hand to buy a second?

In games with +buy actions, Duchies grow in importance as they can sometimes be picked up with an extra buy, and as far as points go two Duchies = one Province (although, of course that's an extra dead card in your deck - see deck thinning, above).

Of course, if it's one of those slow, low-money games where the provinces remain mostly untouched as the piles run out, it might mean that you need to start going for Duchies instead. Estates rarely get bought before the last few turns of the game when players have extra buys, or they've drawn all their VPs and only a few treasure cards. Oh, unless Gardens is in the game, but we're ignoring that, of course. ;)

If you're leading the race for points, you're also going to want to end the game as soon as possible to limit the chances of your opponent coming back at you. This means buying provinces more quickly than them (which you're trying to do anyway), or buying cards from whichever three piles are down to their last few cards. The best, sneakiest trick I've seen for this is, when you're using Remodel, to Remodel a Province in to another Province. That decreases the amount left to your opponent to buy and makes it harder for them to overcome your lead.

A final point here that's been made in countless other posts I've read but I'll repeat it here. If you're 99% sure that the game will end before you next get a chance to reshuffle, the concept of buying "dead" cards no longer applies - you won't draw the cards you're buying so you should only buy victory points.

6) Focus

There are a lot of ways that you can go with any given set of Dominion. There's almost never an exactly right way, but there are a lot of wrong ways. There's also only one win condition - get more points than your opponents. However cool the deck you're putting together looks, DO NOT LOSE SIGHT OF THIS!

There's also a lot to be said for picking a strategy and sticking with it; making sure that the cards you buy are the ones that you need for this strategy. Work out what the key cards are. Buy those. Don't buy irrelevant cards. Building a very action-lite deck? Don't buy villages. Picking up Smithies and Moats for the card draw? Prioritise those Villages! Again, you don't want to end up with dead action cards in your hand when you get to your buy phase. If there's a card that nine times out of ten you wouldn't play in a straight choice against another card in your deck, should you really buy it?

There are a few cards that are at home in almost every strategy. Cellars are great in the late game, Festivals are normally very useful. Laboratories likewise (actually, going back to Cellars, most decks will want to drop one of these in if they're available, purely to counter those frustrating late-game hands full of green cards).

7) Special Cases

There are two cards in Dominion that are fundamentally different enough from other cards that they need to be handled differently (well, three if you count the chapel, but I've harped on enough about that already). Those two cards are Throne Room, and Gardens (which I've been desperately avoiding talking about up until now, but I don't think my luck's going to hold...)

Throne Room

A special case amongst action cards, it's only useful as long as you draw at least one other action card. Crucially, that's one other action card that ISN'T another Throne Room (or a Library, as "draw until you have 7 cards in hand is not quite so strong the second time). So the bottom line is that you don't want too many, and you only want to pick them up if you HAVE been buying a lot of actions, and that probably means you need +action cards in the set as well to be able to properly utilise them. I think this card can really reward gambling - picking it up early and hoping to draw it with another powerful action card that you've bought. Of course, as with all gambles, it can just as easily turn sour.


If the Gardens card is in the set, it completely and absolutely changes the game. Probably. It does as always depend on the rest of the cards in the mix. The typical Gardens deck is the antithesis of the Chapel deck; rather than ditching cards to thin your deck you're trying to get as many as you can: +Buy cards, Workshops, grabbing a copper with each and every spare buy. Gardens cost 4; it's not hard to get up to 30 cards in your deck, making them cheap Duchies. If you're really trying, and with the right set of cards, getting up to 50 can be realistic. If you go for a gardens deck you pretty much break all the normal conventions of playing Dominion. Ideally, you'll try and end the game off of three piles being exhausted as you're almost certainly not going to be able to afford provinces. Gardens, Workshops and Estates are my favourites when going down this road; as a tip take the more expensive cards you're trying to run down before the cheaper ones, as you're more likely to be able to get the cheaper ones later in the game (Caveat: If both you AND your opponent are doing this, grab Estates before action cards from the piles you're trying to run out as they will be crucial in a close game).

- Try to minimise your odds of drawing dead action cards by acquiring +action and treasure cards

- Note whether there are +buy cards in the game; if not it'll be hard for a player who falls behind early to catch up.

- Keep track of the points score as best you can, and try to end the game on your own terms.

- If a deck is being assembled to do one thing really well, such as pulling your entire deck in to your hand each turn, focus on buying the cards that enable this.

- There are situations that will come up in the game where almost everything I've said here will be wrong.

Further Reading

If you're reading this you've probably already gone through this forum with a fine-tooth comb, but I'd like to link to a couple of the posts and articles that have really helped me in developing my understanding of the game:

Analysing a random cardset

Short Analysis of the 25 Kingdom Cards

A look at the Interactive cards

The Chapel Deck

Thanks to Arthur and Grim for proofing this for me
Let me know if you've found this helpful, or otherwise.