Dominion: The Greatest NBG of all

I’m going to go ahead and roll out the post on what I consider to be the greatest NBG of all:  Dominion.  I’m sure board game enthusiasts would disagree, but that’s why they’re enthusiasts and not normal people.  I’m sure some brodudes and chicks wouldn’t be interested, but that’s why they’re brodudes and chicks.  Go play poker and act cool.  Dominion is a game that transcends categories.  It is both accessible and cult.  Original and familiar.  Strategic and basic.  Confrontational and peaceful.  It’s endlessly customizeable around a stable frame.  It’s always the same and always different.  There is no one way to win, there are hundreds of ways to win.  Dominion is a rare game that hits that Goldilocks balance between the extremes of strategic depth and casual play and manages to allow you to play it both ways.

In Dominion, you are building a deck of cards.  Like most NBGs, the goal is to collect Victory Points, but here Victory Points come in the form of cards.  Actually, everything in the base game comes in the form of cards.

When you start the game, you will set out three decks of victory point cards (worth 1, 3 & 6), and three decks of treasure cards (worth 1, 2 & 3).  Next, lay out a deck of Curse cards that have a -1 on them (oooooh, creepy) and a little card that just says ‘trash’ on it.  Next, you will randomly select 10 different kinds of action cards.  These cards have a picture on them and some instructions. You lay out 10 decks of action cards, one deck per type of card selected.  So here’s how your table will look like this:

yeeessss.  YESSSS!  Feel the power!  Feel the potential!  Okay, so it just looks like some kind of cheesy D&D or Pokemon game or something right?  WRONG!  This is about the be the most fun game you’ve ever played so listen up people.  And spit out that gum!

Now, each of these cards has a cost associated with it.  The Victory point cards, for example are worth 1, 3, and 6 victory points, but they cost $2, $5 and $8 to buy.  You use your money cards to buy victory point cards.  At the end of the game, whoever has the most victory points wins.

You’ll start your deck with 7 coppers (worth $1) and 3 Estates (worth 1 VP).  That’s your base capital, and Dominion is essentially a capitalism simulator.  You’ll shuffle your deck, lay it face down on the table in front of you and draw 5 cards off the top.  Depending upon the amount of treasure you’ve pulled into your hand, you can now buy a card.  You can buy a treasure card, a victory point card or an action card and draft it into your deck.  You can only buy one card per turn (to begin with) and cannot split your cash.  Once you’re done buying, you discard all the cards in your hand, treasure cards and all, including the card you just bought, face up on the table, forming your discard pile.  Then you draw the next five cards off your draw deck, wash rinse and repeat.  Once you exhaust your draw pile, you will take your discard pile, shuffle it and place it face down, forming your new draw pile.

As you continue doing this, your deck will grow with each new card you buy.  Note that you  do not actually ‘spend’ money cards, they go back into your discard pile just like everything else, so you’ll get to use them again.  Note that victory point cards, though worth points at the end of the game, don’t do anything for you when they’re in your hand.  So if you draw a hand full of victory point cards, then you’re not going to be able to buy anything.  Certain action cards will eventually allow you to ‘trash’ cards, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

Action cards – these cards are what make this game so brilliant.  You can, if you want, just use money to buy more money to buy victory point cards, but that leaves you at the mercy of probability, since your hand is only as good as the cards you draw.  It doesn’t matter how many Golds ($3 cards) you buy if they’re spread out throughout a deck of coppers ($1 cards).  Provinces (6 VP cards) come with a hefty pricetag ($8), so what you need is some way to get at least $8 in your hand, and you want to do it before anyone else can.  Most every game ends up being a race for the Provinces and you want to get a hold of as many as possible before your opponents can.  So how do you get an edge?

That’s where action cards come in.  Action cards allow you to manipulate probability in order to get the hands you need.  You start your turn with 1 action, or the ability to play one action card.  Currently there are over a hundred different types of action cards spread out over five different expansions, and more are probably being made as we speak.  They range from complicated to elementary, but the simple thing is that you just do what the card tells you.  Let’s go over an action card:

The Smithy may be the simplest action card in the game.  If you play it, it allows you to draw 3 more cards into your hand.  Let’s look at the Festival.

The first thing the Festival gives you is 2 more actions. Think of actions like slots you can play your action cards in.  To play a card you need a slot to park it in.  The Festival gives two actions, so after you play it, you have the ability to play two more action cards, (note that the Festival card itself takes up the slot you started in, so you’ll have two actions to play after the Festival card, not three).  If the next card you play also gives you additional actions then you add it on to the amount you had after playing that card.  Playing cards that give you +Actions allow you to play more action cards and increase the benefits.  If you drew a hand with a Festival and 2 Smithies for instance, then you would want to play the Festival first, then use the remaining 2 actions to play the two Smithies and draw a total of 6 cards into your hand!  Cool right?  I know.

The second thing is that a Festival gives you +1 Buy.  +1 Buy adds one more card to the number of cards you are allowed to buy that turn.  You start with the ability to buy one card, so playing the Festival would allow you, at the end of the turn to split your cash and buy 2 cards if you want to.

The third thing is that little gold circle with the number on it.  That means the card gives you +$2 to use that turn.  The value does not carry over to the next turn and it only counts if you played that card.  An unplayed Festival in your hand is not worth $2, you have to use an action to play the card to activate the money.

So for instance, let’s say you drew this hand:


First you’d want to play the Festival to give you 2 more slots to play your other action cards in.


Then you’d play the Smithy and draw three more cards:


You draw:


Next you play the Woodcutter, filling out your remaining action.


So your hand ends with these cards:

First you add up your treasures – $6 in total, then add up the money you got from your action cards $2 for the Festival, $2 for the Woodcutter.  So you’ve got $10 to spend.  The Festival and the Woodcutter both gave you +1 Buy, so adding that to your starting buy, you end the turn with $10 to spend across a maximum of 3 card buys.  you choose to buy a Province costing $8

and a Cellar costing$2.

The game amounts to a fast-paced cycle through your deck of cards. As you play, you’ll learn to use your action cards in combination.  Also the kinds of cards you buy strongly affects the kind of game you’ll have.  Buy a bunch of cards that don’t synergize well (say cards that give you +cards but no +action) and you’re end up not being able to draft the money you need into your hand.  Buy too many action cards and not enough money, and you’ll be cycling through your deck quickly, but not have much money to buy better cards.  The strategy comes in deciding which cards you’ll want to use and which you’ll want to stay away from.


You’ll always need to be streamlining your deck to maximize your card draws.  A lean deck of powerful cards can be much more effective than a bloated deck full of low value and medium value cards.  Even if you have more golds than your opponent, he could have a better ratio of golds to coppers so he’ll be drawing them more often than you.  There are several ways to manipulate this.  For instance, some action cards allow you to ‘trash’ cards.  That means you can eject them from your deck for good.  It may seem counterintuitive, but trashing your three Estates at the beginning of the game can be a good way to ensure you get the money you need in your hand to get at those Provinces.  Since VP cards are essentially dead weight in your deck, getting rid of them early on in favor of getting a lean deck is a good path to victory.


Other action cards allow you to deal a ‘Curse’ card to your opponent. This card is both a dead card and it’s worth -1 VP at the end of the game.  Dastardly!

Play time?

Pretty quick.  Depending upon how many play, it can range from 20 to 40 minutes.  Dominion really shouldn’t last longer than that unless you’ve got 6 people sitting around who are inexperienced.  Even starting out, a 2-player game takes 30 minutes tops.  La La and I have gotten down to a cool 15 minutes on our two-player deathmatch sessions.


It can seem fairly intimidating just because of the sheer volume of different action cards you’re initially unfamiliar with.  Each one has a use that you haven’t fully grasped yet, and it just takes sitting down and playing it a few times to really get it, but it’s not really necessary.  The great thing about Dominion is that you don’t have to pay attention to cards you don’t understand.  If you know you have a good strategy with cards you understand, then you don’t need to even look at the other ones.  Then again, if you just got beat because your opponent started using some wicked new card, then you may wanna read it and see how you can work it into your gameplay.


Both deep and intuitive.  Heavy emphasis on logic.  The fun of Dominion is surveying the action cards at your disposal and cooking up interesting ways to use them together in order to get good cards into your hand.  It takes some thought, but the play is very fluid.  My favorite thing about Dominion is talking out your turns so that the game turns into a showcase of everyone’s own flavor of strategy allowing everyone to congratulate you on your deft use of card combination (or groan in defeat!).  The randomness comes in the shuffling and the reality that you may not draw the combination you need, but the action cards allow you to manipulate probability to such a fine degree that playing as a beginner with experience deck builders will show you just how efficient the right set of action cards can make you.


Mild to devilish.  On the whole I’d classify Dominion more on the self-contained side since most of the cards don’t affect other players, but there are plenty of Attack cards out there to screw your opponents up with.  You can steal treasure from other people, deal out Curses, make them discard their hands or bloat their decks with useless Copper.  Then again, if you’re the nonconfrontational sort, you can just opt to play without these attacks, but if you’re in for some head-to-head there are plenty of ways to cripple your opponent.

The cards also do a good job of letting you counter attacks.  If someone is using an attack card on you, chances are there’s another card or combination of cards out there that can turn that attack to your advantage.  Say, if someone plays a Torturer (which causes you to discard two cards from your hand) and you have a Library (which lets you draw up to 7 cards into your hand), then essentially your opponent attacking you with the Torturer allows you to get rid of two cards you didn’t want anyway, and replace them from your deck, plus two more.  There are always ways to counterattack, and you’re never helpless.


This is where Dominion really shines.  With all the expansions there are well over a hundred different kinds of action cards you can play with, making it such that no game is the same twice unless you want it to be.  I like to pick action cards at random, but some folks like to stick to preset boards that channel the strategy in one way or another.  The rules come with a few of these suggested action sets.


10 out of 10:  Dominion is a rare game, exceptional in its simplicity and depth of strategy.  It really is as simple, as complex, as casual or involved as you make it, and it doesn’t punish you for not having read the entire rulebook.  However, though Dominion is a game with a shallow learning curve, it has a steep winning curve.  It’s fast fun that is a blast to play even if you lose, but after a while you may realize you’re still losing after quite a few plays, and you’ll wonder why, and you’ll take a closer look at those action cards and you’ll start to cook up new combos and strategies in your head and before you know it, you’re a nerd!  Its strategy draws you in and coaxes you to learn more, buy more expansions, get into it more.  Build on!


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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2 Responses to Dominion: The Greatest NBG of all

  1. Curious to know what an NBG is. I see it mentioned here and in another article on this site. Thanks.

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