Dominion


Replaying the winners of the Spiel des Jahres so you don’t have to

Words by James Wallis

Dominion was the first card game to win the Spiel des Jahres. After 31 years the most important games prize in the world had been taken by two tile-layers (Rummikub and Carcassonne), one boardless narrative game (Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective) and whatever the hell Villa Paletti is, but this was the first pure card game to lift the award. It’s almost like the jury was waiting to give the famous red pawn to a game big enough to deserve it.

Dominion is big enough. The basic game has 500 cards in the box and, while that’s peanuts to the likes of Gloomhaven, by the standards of 2008 it was huge. It also let my daughter invent her first game variant: she’d grab the box and, with a cry of “Daddy pick up!”, empty it onto the floor.

You don’t shuffle the cards in Dominion. You sort them, painstakingly, into 34 individual decks. Over and over again, with the delighted laughter of a small child ringing in your ears, and the knowledge that as soon as your guard is down she’s going to do it again.

Dominion is all about arranging cards. It’s not just a deckbuilder, it’s the deckbuilder, first of that ilk. Except, of course, it wasn’t, because Magic: The Gathering, the first collectible card game, was the first deckbuilder – only it didn’t realise it. (And Magic: The Gathering wasn’t the first collectible card game – that was BattleCards by (British) Steve Jackson, which beat it to the punch by a matter of weeks and is tragically forgotten because it tragically wasn’t very good. I digress.) Magic knew it was on to something with deckbuilding – it’s covered in the game’s infamous patent – but Wizards of the Coast never did much with the idea except making the game so successful that they sold the company for $325m six years later. 

Why am I talking about Magic? Because Dominion creator Donald X. Vaccarino knew Magic. He knew it inside out. He made regular visits to Wizards of the Coast to demo game designs for Magic creator Richard Garfield and was credited in the Magic rulebook. In 1996 his unofficial Magic expansion ‘Edge of the World’ was distributed as a prize at ManaFest in California. What Dominion does brilliantly is to take something that was part of the game prep for Magic and make it the whole game.

For the four people reading this who have never played Dominion, describing it these days sounds old hat. You start with seven cards representing copper coins and three estate cards, each worth one victory point. From these meagre resources and ten other piles of cards in the middle of the table (chosen from a possible 25) you will build your dominion by adding rooms and occupants to your notional castle. On your turn you play an action if you have one, buy a card if you can afford it and tidy up. The kicker is that used and purchased cards all go into your personal discard pile; once your deck is empty you shuffle the discards and bingo, there’s your new deck, slightly thicker and more interesting than it was last time. Because you’ve been building it.

It’s a familiar song these days but Dominion was the first to sing it, and it turned out to be a catchy number. New game mechanics don’t come along very often, and Dominion didn’t create the idea of deckbuilding – Magic was 15 years old by the time it came out – but it was the first title that demonstrated how the idea could be codified into a game’s structure. Everyone who played it  recognised how brilliant that was, and immediately tried to design a deckbuilding game of their own. 

The floodgates opened. Just over ten years later BoardGameGeek lists over 3,000 games with deckbuilding or pool-building as a core mechanic. It’s become an elemental part of the vocabulary of modern game design, with titles as diverse as Mage Knight, Star Realms, Paperback, A Few Acres of Snow and even Deck Building, a deckbuilding game in which you construct a wooden outdoor patio area. 

But none of them are as good as Dominion. Its fast, accessible and almost addictive gameplay, plus huge replayability and versatility, are still unequalled. Once you get tired of the 25 decks in the basic box there are nine large and three small expansions, which should be enough to keep most people going for the rest of their lives. When the game first came out it had a tendency to dominate games groups. Vaccarino himself described the effect of introducing the playtest version to his friends: “Game night immediately turned into Dominion night, and Magic night followed suit about a month or so later.”

It is undeniably great – and yet, and yet. The box claims it’s playable by ages eight and up, but it’s not a family game in the usual sense. It feels more hobbyish than kid-friendly, and the Spiel des Jahres is an award for family games – and moreover for the kind of family that only buys one or two games a year. Dominion is probably the last of the great strategic winners of the Spiel des Jahres, able to hold its head high among its peers – it beat Pandemic and Friedemann Friese’s Fauna – but the prize’s jury were already looking towards a different future. 

The Spiel des Jahres had already created a special category for children’s games, the Kinderspiel des Jahres (with a blue pawn) in 1989. Perhaps sensing the growth and strength of the market for hobby games, in 2011 they will split the main award in two, creating the Kennerspiel des Jahres (black pawn) – it’s usually translated as ‘connoisseurs’ but ‘knowers’ is closer to the German. At this point that’s still two years in the future, but there’s a sense of the tension between wanting to fulfil the award’s brief and wanting to recognise truly great games that aren’t aimed at families. The year before, Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola had received a special award for ‘complex game’, but that wasn’t a system that would work forever.

So Dominion, the first card game to win the Spiel des Jahres, was also arguably the game that upset the award’s box all over the floor. That was ten years ago. The next ten winners will show whether they made was the right move 

Dominion was the first card game to win the Spiel des Jahres. After 31 years the most important games prize in the world had been taken by two tile-layers (Rummikub and Carcassonne), one boardless narrative game (Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective) and whatever the hell Villa Paletti is, but this was the first pure card game to lift the award. It’s almost like the jury was waiting to give the famous red pawn to a game big enough to deserve it.

Dominion is big enough. The basic game has 500 cards in the box and, while that’s peanuts to the likes of Gloomhaven, by the standards of 2008 it was huge. It also let my daughter invent her first game variant: she’d grab the box and, with a cry of “Daddy pick up!”, empty it onto the floor.

You don’t shuffle the cards in Dominion. You sort them, painstakingly, into 34 individual decks. Over and over again, with the delighted laughter of a small child ringing in your ears, and the knowledge that as soon as your guard is down she’s going to do it again.

Dominion is all about arranging cards. It’s not just a deckbuilder, it’s the deckbuilder, first of that ilk. Except, of course, it wasn’t, because Magic: The Gathering, the first collectible card game, was the first deckbuilder – only it didn’t realise it. (And Magic: The Gathering wasn’t the first collectible card game – that was BattleCards by (British) Steve Jackson, which beat it to the punch by a matter of weeks and is tragically forgotten because it tragically wasn’t very good. I digress.) Magic knew it was on to something with deckbuilding – it’s covered in the game’s infamous patent – but Wizards of the Coast never did much with the idea except making the game so successful that they sold the company for $325m six years later. 

Why am I talking about Magic? Because Dominion creator Donald X. Vaccarino knew Magic. He knew it inside out. He made regular visits to Wizards of the Coast to demo game designs for Magic creator Richard Garfield and was credited in the Magic rulebook. In 1996 his unofficial Magic expansion ‘Edge of the World’ was distributed as a prize at ManaFest in California. What Dominion does brilliantly is to take something that was part of the game prep for Magic and make it the whole game.

For the four people reading this who have never played Dominion, describing it these days sounds old hat. You start with seven cards representing copper coins and three estate cards, each worth one victory point. From these meagre resources and ten other piles of cards in the middle of the table (chosen from a possible 25) you will build your dominion by adding rooms and occupants to your notional castle. On your turn you play an action if you have one, buy a card if you can afford it and tidy up. The kicker is that used and purchased cards all go into your personal discard pile; once your deck is empty you shuffle the discards and bingo, there’s your new deck, slightly thicker and more interesting than it was last time. Because you’ve been building it.

It’s a familiar song these days but Dominion was the first to sing it, and it turned out to be a catchy number. New game mechanics don’t come along very often, and Dominion didn’t create the idea of deckbuilding – Magic was 15 years old by the time it came out – but it was the first title that demonstrated how the idea could be codified into a game’s structure. Everyone who played it  recognised how brilliant that was, and immediately tried to design a deckbuilding game of their own. 

The floodgates opened. Just over ten years later BoardGameGeek lists over 3,000 games with deckbuilding or pool-building as a core mechanic. It’s become an elemental part of the vocabulary of modern game design, with titles as diverse as Mage Knight, Star Realms, Paperback, A Few Acres of Snow and even Deck Building, a deckbuilding game in which you construct a wooden outdoor patio area. 

But none of them are as good as Dominion. Its fast, accessible and almost addictive gameplay, plus huge replayability and versatility, are still unequalled. Once you get tired of the 25 decks in the basic box there are nine large and three small expansions, which should be enough to keep most people going for the rest of their lives. When the game first came out it had a tendency to dominate games groups. Vaccarino himself described the effect of introducing the playtest version to his friends: “Game night immediately turned into Dominion night, and Magic night followed suit about a month or so later.”

It is undeniably great – and yet, and yet. The box claims it’s playable by ages eight and up, but it’s not a family game in the usual sense. It feels more hobbyish than kid-friendly, and the Spiel des Jahres is an award for family games – and moreover for the kind of family that only buys one or two games a year. Dominion is probably the last of the great strategic winners of the Spiel des Jahres, able to hold its head high among its peers – it beat Pandemic and Friedemann Friese’s Fauna – but the prize’s jury were already looking towards a different future. 

The Spiel des Jahres had already created a special category for children’s games, the Kinderspiel des Jahres (with a blue pawn) in 1989. Perhaps sensing the growth and strength of the market for hobby games, in 2011 they will split the main award in two, creating the Kennerspiel des Jahres (black pawn) – it’s usually translated as ‘connoisseurs’ but ‘knowers’ is closer to the German. At this point that’s still two years in the future, but there’s a sense of the tension between wanting to fulfil the award’s brief and wanting to recognise truly great games that aren’t aimed at families. The year before, Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola had received a special award for ‘complex game’, but that wasn’t a system that would work forever.

So Dominion, the first card game to win the Spiel des Jahres, was also arguably the game that upset the award’s box all over the floor. That was ten years ago. The next ten winners will show whether they made was the right move

This feature originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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