Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dominion

Earlier this holiday, I finished David Chandler's A Thief in the Night.  Although the final book of the Ancient Blades trilogy, Honor Among Thieves came in to me from the library, quite frankly, by the time I managed to finish book 2, I was done with the trilogy.  I might possibly return to it and finish the last volume at some point, but I doubt it.  Frankly, I just wasn't enjoying the series.  The second book had many of the flaws of the first--wooden and unlikable characters who seemed more like caricatures than characters, a weak plot supported by dubious coincidences, a ham-fisted wink and nudge towards some genre conventions, appalling attempts at comedy by using gratuitous crudity and coarseness and even more ham-fisted attempts to cram crude social metaphors into the text as well.  And to make it all worse, the setting for most of the book is a gigantic dungeon, complete with nonsensical traps, a suspicious "ecosystem" and it was--frankly--a boring setting.  It's not for nothing that it was dedicated to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I suppose.

In any case, I enjoyed the book very little and decided to abandon the series, and return--at least for the time being--to my read-through of my newly purchased copies of the Dresden Files series.

Also, I've spent some time over the holidays playing Dominion.  We already had Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue and for Christmas this year, I also landed a copy of Dominion: Prosperity.  These are games that I think any "gamers", i.e. folks who play RPGs might like, and they've also taken the self-labeled "sophisticated" gamer crowd by storm as well, catering to folks who like the German board games and whatnot.  Dominion is itself not a boardgame, and it has frequently been compared to a CCG like Magic: The Gathering in the sense that you build a deck.  Of course, you don't buy random packs of cards; you buy the big boxed set(s) and build your decks with the cards contained therein, but the concept is still somewhat similar.  There are--basically--three kinds of cards (with two sub-kinds, if you will, included as well: action cards (including reaction and attack cards) that you play first in your round, each of which has a small and simple rule subsystem that comes into play when it is played, treasure cards which you use in the next phase of your turn to buy more cards, and victory cards which you don't use for anything and which don't do anything, but which the acquisition thereof is the entire point of the game, since they're the only ones who count towards your score when you're tallying up to see who won.

The remainder of this post will assume a passing familiarity with the Dominion rules--I'm basically going to give a quick and dirty run-down of all the cards available in each of the three sets I contain, which can be freely mixed and matched in any given game (in fact, the possibility of doing so is one of the main things that gives the game such longevity; the strategies for winning with one suite of cards may not work well with another, and the amount of permutations are, for all practical purposes, limitless.  To add to that, although the rules say that only ten kingdom cards are to be used in a game, I've played before with twelve or even more, and found that it works quite well (although the games go on a bit longer that way) so an even more varied experience can still be had.

Dominion


The original game has the most pragmatic and--dare I say it?--simplistic set of cards, but many of them are necessary to actually  play the game, and most of the rest are sufficiently useful that they are always welcome.  There are three times of treasure cards, copper, silver and gold, with increasing purchasing power.  There are five types of victory cards--three are straightforward--estates, duchies and provinces give you a set number of victory points.  Curse cards are negative victory point cards, and are used rarely, while the Gardens card is a relatively cheap card that gives you one victory point for every ten cards you have in your hand at the end of the game.  The Garden is quite a good card; I've found the normally I end in the 40s and occasionally in the 50s (although rarely in the 30s)--in the 40s, it's a bargain on victory points at four each card, in the 50s, where it's worth five, it would almost be too good.  Of course, it's hard to predict if you'll be able to get into the 50s (it happens for me rarely in a game of either three or four players) and the risk that you'll somehow end up in the high 30s and find that your Gardens were a relatively poor investment is always present.

All that said, I've found that some kingdom cards are always welcome, while others linger without being bought when we play.  Most of the trashing cards get very little play, unless there is a Witch in the deck, and frankly, the Witch isn't all that popular either (curiously, since I think it's a great card--relatively low price, good basic benefit (draw 2 cards) and giving everyone else a Curse card is nice.)  The trashing cards include Remodel, Feast, and Moneylender.  The Mine, on the other hand, is the exception, since you can only trash money cards, and you always get a better money card when you do.  The Cellar, Festival, Village, Library, Council Room, Market, Smithy, Laboratory and Woodcutter are all great cards, and actually, having several of them in your deck so that you have good chances of "mondo" turns where you keep playing actions and drawing cards, which include actions that you can play and more cards that you can draw, etc. is part of the fun of the basic Dominion cardset.

Many of the Attack cards are also sturdy, dependable and always fairly welcome.  The Bureaucrat has one of the best benefits to the player who plays it (and least onerous to everyone else) but the Militia, Spy and Thief all have their place.  Only the Thief is especially unpopular when played--for obvious reasons.  The Throne Room, which doubles any action card, is a fun addition.  The Workshop, which gives you a modest "free" card every time you play it is great for a while, although in end game, it becomes pretty superfluous.  And the Adventurer is great when you really want to get at your money further down in the deck.  And finally, the Moat is the best defense card in the three sets that I have, as well as the most useful all-round, and a fairly useful card to use even when you aren't defending and happen to have it in your hand.  The Chancellor is the only card that I really can't see the point in at all.  It, along with Remodel and Moneylender never get picked up in my  home games, and like I said, the Chapel only is useful when Curses are in play.

Dominion: Intrigue


Although playable as a standalone alternative to Dominion, I'm not sure that I recommend it exactly--Intrigue  replaces many of the sturdy, dependable cards of the original game with cards that have if/then statements on them, are more complicated to use, and often are less dependable--they can be good, but they can also be worthless time after time going through your hand.

Even at the basic level, the game is a bit different; rather than Gardens, they have Dukes, which are worth 1 victory point for every duchy that you have in your hand.  There are also three types of victory cards that are also either treasure or action cards--Harems, Great Hall and Nobles.  All of them are a bit pricey, but tend to be popular in our games, since they're useful during the scoring and also have a decent utility in play as they come up.

The Secret Chamber, in addition to sporting artwork that is an obvious homage to Harry Potter, is a lesser defense card, inferior in every way to the Moat, yet a bit more interesting in how it works.  There are a number of attack options in Intrigue (as the subtitle perhaps hints at) including the Minion, who can cause everyone to have to discard their entire hand and draw a new one, the Saboteur who can cause other players to trash a card and pick up an inferior one (an altogether nasty option), the Swindler, who can ruin your well-crafted deck by changing cards out from under you to others that are nominally worth the same, but perhaps not really what you're looking for, and the Torturer, who gives Curse cards.  There's another group of cards that allow you to voluntarily trash cards--never a very popular option unless Curse cards are flying about thick and heavy (which doesn't describe any of our games) and which mostly just become dead weight in your decks, including Masquerade, Trading Post and Upgrade, and the Steward and the Mining Village also give you that as an option that is rarely exercised.  I've also found that the Scout and the Wishing Well get very little play, and when they do, offer very little benefit.  The Courtyard's benefits also are somewhat dubious--they often don't amount to as much as you might imagine when you're stacking your deck with them.

On the other hand, the Baron, the Bridge, the Conspirator, Coppersmith, the Ironworks, the super-cheap Pawn, the Shanty Town and the Tribute cards are all quite good.  Some of them, frankly, may be a bit too good; there are cards that offer similar benefits at a more expensive price in the basic set on occasion.  The others are more solid and dependable.

One side effect of the way Intrigue is set up, though, is that I've noticed that the more unpopular cards, and those deemed to be more useless, are not often picked as options in our games.  For all intents and purposes, the Intrigue card set is more limited than the basic one, because there are more cards that we're not interested in.  Unless I mix my Intrigue kingdom cards with some other set, I really have fewer viable ones to choose from.  These means that "pure" Intrigue games tend to have less variety and play more alike.

Dominion: Prosperity


I'm not quite sure why Prosperity doesn't come with the cards to make it a "full" game, but for whatever reason, it's missing the basic money and victory cards.  It does, however, add newer "big money" versions of both; the platinum piece which is quite a bit better than the Gold, and the Colony, which is worth more than the Province at the end of the game.  The other notable addition is the ability to get victory points as small metal tokens that sit on a mat in front of you and don't therefore have to cycle through your hand.  This little off-line trade in victory points is a somewhat distracting side game, but then again, my wife swears by it, and she tends to win often by picking only a handful of cards and going big into them rather than having a broad base.

There are a number of other Treasure cards that have special conditions associated with them--Contraband can be used to buy things, but the person to your left excludes one card from you and makes it off limits.  Despite this limitation, it still is a fairly good deal anytime.  The Bank, Hoard, Quarry and Talisman are also great deals--the Hoard in particular is probably too good a deal; the card should cost more and should probably only give you a silver card, not a gold card, whenever  you purchase a victory point card.  The Royal Seal and the Venture cards, on the other hand, are somewhat less useful, and the Loan card is downright silly--I can't imagine ever being tempted to buy that card when anything else is available.

The Counting House, Mint and the City seem like especially weak action cards, and the Peddler is somewhat as well (although you can end up getting it for a steal if you're smart, which makes it at least not overpriced).  I've found the Vault very useful in games with Hoard, because you end up with a lot of useless green cards in your hand that you wish you could do something useful with.  Expand and Forge are fairly expensive and unpopular options in our games.  The Monument and the Bishop, for the victory point tokens, are very popular on the other hand.  The Goons card is way too good unless the Moat is in play, and I hate feeling like it's ruining all my turns when someone has quite a few of them and they get frequent play.  The Watchtower is a decent defense against attacks that deal Curses, but is completely useless otherwise--notably, against Goons.  The Mountebank and the Rabble attack cards are fairly low-key, not onerous, but sufficiently beneficial to the person playing the card to make them worthwhile nonetheless.  Only Intrigue has the really "mean" attack cards that get people frustrated with the game and the lack of good defenses other than the Moat.

The Grand Market and the Worker's Village are good, all-round cards, similar to other cards in the other sets that give you a few extras with little in the way of complication, and the King's Court is kind of like an expanded version of the Throne Room.  The Trade Route is another kind of needlessly complicated offline operation that tends to distract a bit from the game.  The jury is still out in our group as to whether or not it's a good thing.

We don't play this often enough to justify running out and buying Seaside and Alchemy anytime soon, but I do hope to eventually get them as well, just to keep things fresh in the world of what's available with Dominion.

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