Dominion and Race for the Galaxy (but mostly Dominion)

I went to a game night last week at my FLGS, Eureka! Puzzles and More, and I played Dominion. I had such a good time with it that I went and bought it immediately following the game night. I then played it the very next night with the same people I'd played it with at the game night, and then again quite a few times at a party last weekend instead of being social. It's one of my current favorite games.

Everyone starts with an identical small deck of ten cards consisting of money and victory points (worthless until the end of the game). You start out by drawing five cards, and then each turn you use some of them, discard all five, and then draw five more. So after the second turn, you're left without a deck. No problem! Just shuffle your discard pile, and that becomes your new deck.

The fun part comes with what you can do with your money. There is a common supply of cards in the middle of the table, each with a cost. Besides being able to buy victory points and money, there are also 10 types of action cards chosen from a set of 25. The rules list a suggested set of 10 cards to use for your first game, and they also list four other sets that you can use. There are 10 of each of these cards, more of each of three denominations of victory points, and more of each of three denominations of money. The game ends when any three of these piles are empty (i.e., people have bought the cards).

So what do you do when you buy a card? You put it in your discard pile. So you're adding it to your deck, but you don't get to use it right away. What you're doing, then, is slowly building your deck up so that it becomes able to do more and more, eventually letting you get victory points so that you can win the game.

I would almost describe this game as a multiplayer solitaire. Yes, there is indirect interaction with the other players in competition for the action cards (if you buy up most of one type, that leaves fewer for the other players), as well as some bits of more direct interaction through several of the action cards (there are action cards that attack other players, doing things like messing with the top of their deck, making them discard cards, and giving them curse cards worth negative victory points). However, mostly you're just playing your own game, trying to keep your deck balanced between action cards and money—you can only play one action card per turn (although there are action cards that give you more actions) and can only buy one card per turn (although there are action cards that allow you to buy additional cards)—while trying to decide when to add some space-wasting victory point cards (remember, you only draw five cards each turn, and every victory point you draw is a slot in your hand that's not something useful).

Most of the games I've played have ended up being races to get your deck working well enough for you to buy victory point cards worth six points. Six points for one space-wasting card is the most efficient way to do things, but it can take a while to get your deck to a place where you're able to buy those cards, the most expensive in the game. There is a second way to end the game, emptying the pile of six-point victory point cards, and this is how most of the games have ended.

Of course, one way (and the most fun way, in my opinion) to decide on the 10 action cards out of 25 to use is to do it randomly. It's almost like you're playing a different game with each combination. There are over three million ways to choose 10 cards from the set of 25 (and of course there are going to be expansions to add even more action cards), and some of those ways can be very different from each other. For example, some games you can have lots of money. The "Big Money" suggested set of cards in the rules is certainly not misnamed, as you can sometimes buy two six-point victory point cards in one turn. In other games, however, it can be a struggle to do anything. A recent game I played included three attack cards and no defense cards (the set of 25 only has one defense card). One of the attack cards gave every other player a curse card, which is bad enough that it gives you negative victory points at the end of the game, but it also takes up space in your deck. Another of the attack cards allows the player the chance to steal money from other players. With those two cards in each player's deck, there was only one six-point victory point card bought the whole game (there are a total of 12), decks didn't grow very large at all, and the total number of victory points in the game at the end was the same as at the beginning (i.e., the total number of curse cards given out exactly balanced the extra victory point cards players bought).

Having played close to 20 games of this so far, I think I can safely say that there's high replay value, and I will certainly be buying the expansions when they come out.

I've read a number of reviews for Dominion, and many of them mention another game, Race for the Galaxy. Most of the mentions are along the lines of, "Dominion is not like Race for the Galaxy." I suppose this is because some people have compared the two, and it's easy to see why. They're both card games, they both have you building up your own little world (in Race for the Galaxy, it's a tableau of planets and developments rather than a deck), and they both severely limit interaction between players.

However, Race for the Galaxy feels much more like a multiplayer game than Dominion does, even though the player interaction seems less important. Whereas in Dominion you can do some limited messing with other players' decks, in Race, you can't effect other players' tableaux at all. For those unfamiliar with the game (and I assume people are more familiar with Race for the Galaxy, since Dominion is much newer), in Race for the Galaxy, there are five phases (explore, develop, settle, consume, produce), and at the beginning of each round, each player secretly picks a phase. Then everyone plays each phase, but any players who picked that phase get a bonus associated with that phase (drawing more cards, spending less on developments, etc.). There can be times you want to do things in two or three different phases during your turn. Being able to only pick one phase yourself, however, gets you to playing the guessing game, trying to figure out which phases your opponents will pick so that you can pick another phase and get the bonus. It's possible, for example, that you want to play the develop phase, but you don't need the bonus associated with it. If you are reasonably certain someone else will be picking the develop phase, then you can safely pick, say, the explore phase, thus getting the bonus where you get more cards. However, if everyone thinks the same way, you could all end up picking the explore phase, and then you will have to hang onto your development card until the next round (when, of course, everyone else picks the develop phase . . . or will they?).

This form of player interaction, being able to do something based on which phase other players pick and giving other players the opportunity to do something in the phase that you pick, makes for a game with a lot more significant player interaction. Now, maybe I'm wrong about this. I've only played three or four games of Race (if you don't count the dozen or so games I've played of the solitaire game, which comes with the first Race expansion—I'd go into that, but this post is already long enough, and this is mostly a post about Dominion), but they've definitely felt much more interactive than any of my games of Dominion.

However, I'd be hard pressed to say which of these games I like better (and their BoardGameGeek rankings are currently 8 (Race) and 9 (Dominion)). The higher level of interaction makes Race for the Galaxy more mentally stimulating, but the constantly changing selection of action cards keeps Dominion very fresh, forcing you to reevaluate the strategy for each set of 10 action cards. Dominion is also quite a bit more friendly to people who aren't into games that are more complex, which means I'm a bit more likely to find people to play Dominion. I haven't bought Race for the Galaxy yet, but if I don't get it as a gift in the next month or so (I've dropped several hints), I will definitely pick it (and its expansion) up. Even if I don't get as much chance to play it with other people, the solitaire game is enough to make it worth the purchase.

I wonder what a solitaire version of Dominion would be like . . . (OK, after typing that, I went and checked BoardGameGeek. There is indeed a thread about solitaire variants, but none of them seem compelling enough for me to want to try, especially when compared to the quality of the Race for the Galaxy solitaire play.)

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7 Responses to Dominion and Race for the Galaxy (but mostly Dominion)

  1. Andrew Plotkin says:

    I've placed Race several times and Dominion just once. Race is certainly more interactive -- but I got a lopsided view of Dominion, because we used the initial-suggested cards, which meant no attacking or cursing other players at all.

    So I'll drop that aspect and talk about the shallowest thing I can... the game theme. (Or flavor, if you like.)

    The theme of Dominion is boring: you build villages. The theme of Race is awesome: you explore planets. Therefore, I like Race more.

    I'm only partially kidding. I really get into the planet-exploration gig. It reminds me of cool books (like _Interstellar Pig_, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. Or _Forerunner Foray_, as I *titled* a more recent blog post. :)

    So if you switched the themes -- created a Dominion deck with planets and dilithium, and a Race deck with villages and fields and monasteries -- would my allegiance change? Um, maybe. It's also true that Race's theme is woven more deeply into the game. That is, there are lots of quirky game mechanics which seem strongly inspired by the core ideas of the SF setting. In Dominion, well, there's money. Which *kind* of behaves like money, if you squint and don't think about the deck recycling. And then there are draws and plays. About as abstract as card games can get.

    (When I am in a snarky mood, I refer to Dominion as "Fluxx with strategy." I've got draw 3, play 2! Hey, now it's play 3!)

  2. Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

    Yeah, I can totally see the theme thing. The thief is probably the only card I think about thematically in Dominion. Well, and the moat. Otherwise, I pretty much don't even think about the theme. But Race oozes theme. And planets and rebels and aliens and terraforming are just cool.

    Maybe you could pretend that your spaceship crash landed on one of the planets it was exploring, and, um, it was an uncharted part of space, and, like, there was too much gravity, and no heavy metals in the ground. And then the descendants of the people on the ship set up villages and had feasts and fetsivals and became moneylenders and woodcutters. Yeah, see, Dominion is totally SFnal.

  3. Doug Orleans says:

    I think people compare the two games because they fit the same niche: 30-minute card games with some CCG-like elements. (Dominion is all about deck-building, and Race for the Galaxy is a redevelopment of an unpublished CCG.) They also had the same extreme levels of pre-release hype based on playtester reports that they were very addicting even after hundreds of plays.

    I like them both a lot, but in the long run I think I'm more in the RFTG camp. I like that Dominion is easier to teach-- there's only ten different action cards in a game, rather than a whole deck full of different cards. But I find the gameplay in Race to be a lot more variable and interesting, while Dominion seems like it can become pretty mechanical: even with a setup you haven't seen before, you generally know what basic strategies will work more or less than others. Also, I agree with Zarf that the flavor is much stronger in Race, even down to the artwork, which I find completely forgettable in Dominion.

  4. Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

    After playing some more Dominion, I think I have to agree with you, Doug. Of course, I can get my girlfriend to play Dominion, and I'm not so sure I could get her to play Race. However, I've hopefully dropped enough hints that I'll be getting Race soon, so maybe I'll try it out on her. Regardless, though, I'd definitely be up for more Race in my life if you know anyone looking to play . . .

  5. Koleslaw says:

    I have to agree with Kevin, I know I can get my girlfriend to play Dominion, but no way will she like Race.

  6. Chuck Waterman says:

    Certain cards in the Dominion decks don't seem to have much authentic theme. However, I think that with this game as with some others, you have to bring your own thematic involvement to the game to get the most "feel for your spiel" to coin a phrase...

    For example, Chapel doesn't seem to have much theme - but if you play it in combination with Witch or Sea Hag from Seaside - well, the Chapel is the place to have curses removed, isn't it? (Not to mention the place to give away those items to the church that are just a weight around your neck...)

    However, some cards are VERY thematic. Pirate Ship in Seafarers is one case in point. Torturer in Intrigue (Pay or lose a body part?) etc.

  7. Andrew Plotkin says:

    They've gotten more theme-y as the expansions have gone on. (Remember that you're replying to a 2008 post, when it was just the basic set.)

    But that only makes the thematic elements feel more, well, pasted-on. Seaside's *mechanic* addition is delayed bonuses, but that isn't particularly related to the *thematic* addition. (Lighthouse => see far ahead?) It's just... patchy.

    Race puts a little story outline in each expansion, and when I read it -- and then the expansion rules -- I nod and think "Yeah, that's what we're going to do." I don't play the game for that, but it's great bonus.

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