Thanks to Temple Gates Games for providing us with a sneak peak at the upcoming full release of Dominion on Steam, Android, and iOS on February 1st!
You know what Dominion is, and if you’ve been living under a rock since it hit the board gaming world in 2008, you still probably know what Dominion is. The OG, the Original Game to introduce market and deckbuilding mechanics to people who may have never played a board game before.
Even if you somehow missed Dominion, you’ve no doubt played games that drew inspiration from the mechanics it popularized. Mechanics that have been fine-tuned, tweaked, remixed, and integrated into countless games in the years since its release and world-wide smash success.
You might be wondering why, today of all days, we’re talking about a game old enough to get a driver’s license. Well, I’ve been pulling a sneaky on you. We’re not talking about the physical board game. Instead, we’re talking about the Dominion digital board game, available on February 1st on iOS, Android, and Steam. It’s been brought to the digital world by Temple Gates Games, who also developed the Roll for the Galaxy and Race for the Galaxy digital board games, which are still on my phone’s home screen to this day.
You might still be wondering, hasn’t the Dominion app been available for Android and Stream? Right you are, but Dominion is finally leaving early access/beta on those platforms, and bringing with it a massive set of improvements that have been brewing.
And that finally brings us to the point at hand. How well does Dominion hold up after all these years, and just what can you expect to see on February 1st when it launches?
I’ve Been Living Under Two Rocks
For those who don’t know, Dominion is a deckbuilding card game. It’s the deckbuilding card game.
You start the game with a deck full of crummy cards, just the worst cards available. And as you look down at your hand of trash, you see in front of you the market: ten piles of cards, each more powerful than anything in your starting deck. You play a couple Treasure cards, which give you enough gold to buy one of the cheaper cards in the market, and suddenly your deck is better. Not by much. You’ve still got a deck of trash, but you’ve got a single card in there that’s better than the rest.
Next round you do the same. Only this time, you buy a card that synergizes with the last card you bought. You noticed a little 1-2 combo on the table, and you’re prepping your deck to make it happen. A couple shuffles and a couple turns later, you get both those cards in your hand at the same time and pull it off. That combo lets you pick up a card worth massive victory points at the end of the game. Success!
A quick shuffle later and, on your next turn – oh, oh no! You draw that very same card into your hand. Sure, it’s worth a lot of victory points, but those only matter when scores are counted. Until then, that card is a liability. Your hand is functionally weaker because those victory points are taking up a spot where gold could be.
And that’s Dominion: balancing mechanical strength now against victory points later, finding combinations that let you thin your deck into a fine-tuned scalpel, and watching it break when someone hits you with an attack card that forces you to discard that essential combo.
It’s fun, it’s easy to learn, it’s quick to play (relatively speaking). It’s a classic.
When Every Game Is Special, No One Is
But there’s an obvious flaw in a game like this. If you play the exact same game again and again, a dominant strategy will emerge. The game will become “solved,” where the careful rock-paper-scissors balance is instead replaced with rock-rock-rock when someone finds a strategy that lets rock win every time.
Dominion largely dodges this issue because you rarely play the same game of Dominion twice. Remember those ten piles of cards on the table? The game would be solved if Dominion was always played with the same ten cards, but even the base game of Dominion comes with 25 different “Kingdom cards”. From those 25, you only play with 10 in any given game – either a recommended combination of 10, or you can shuffle them up and go full random. For the combinatorically inclined among you, yes that’s around 3.3 million different ways the game can be set up.
And that’s with just the base game, the original box from 2008. Since then, there have been a mountain of expansions, each introducing new cards and mechanics that you can mix and match. Dominion now has over 500 different cards available to build a market from, and if you randomly grab ten, then odds are good that you’ll never play the same game twice.
With this much variety, how could anyone tire of it? The downside to Dominion is that, no matter how much you shuffle up the specific mechanics, the game loop inevitably forms around replacing your bad cards with good cards, getting a strong loop in your engine, mitigating the risk of bad hands and/or attack cards, and ramping up on victory points before the game ends.
You can dress up the core loop of the game all you want, but at the end of the day, Dominion always feels like you’re playing Dominion. And after you’ve played it for a while, you’ll feel like you’ve seen everything the game can show you.
That’s Not A Bad Thing
Just because a game doesn’t have new things to show you, doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. The classic Super Mario Bros has been solved down to subpixels and frame-rules, but people still play it almost forty years after it released.
It’s still popular because it’s still awesome.
And Dominion is much the same. Its mechanics have been expanded and iterated on by generations of board games since 2008, taking them in directions Dominion never could. But Dominion is still a cornerstone to modern board gaming, and it’s still fun.
So with a thousand word preamble over, let’s start this review.
Review over, thanks for reading!
But Wait, There’s More
Okay, I kid. If you’ve ever played any other game made by Temple Gates Games, then you’ll feel right at home in Dominion. The app is snappy and smart UI choices were made given screen size constraints.
The slowest, and most aggravating part of sitting down and playing Dominion with physical cards is watching your opponent slowly cycle their entire deck three times in a single turn, only to buy a single Gold and pass. It takes ages, and you’re just sitting there, watching them slowly tick through a mental state machine. This has been entirely eliminated in the app, you can blaze through your actions just about as fast as you can tap or click, and the AI finishes their turn in the blink of an eye.
Speaking of the AI, it’s mercilessly brutal on the harder settings, which is precisely what I would expect from Temple Gates Games. They’ve used neural networking to build some of the best board game AIs, and Dominion has given them the opportunity to build one that absolutely stomps me into the ground. And when I finally manage to outsmart it and squeak out a win, it’s fantastic. Get wrecked AI, I hate you. I love it.
In terms of game content, it’s here. It’s all here. The app has 15 full expansions and promo packs on top of that. In my short time reviewing the game, I’ve managed to get around 50 games in, playing a couple rounds with just about all the expansions, and barely scratched the cards available. If you own some of these expansions, and have them stuffed in a massive wood hobby box, then this app will be a literal weight off your literal back for your next board game evening.
That being said, the expansions are sold separately as DLC so you’ll have to pony up if you want them. They’re a touch on the pricey side, but you can always pick and choose the couple you really like, and save the rest for a sale. In a land of cosmetic microtransactions, and battle pass reskins, it’s honestly refreshing to see good old fashion, content-filled DLC for sale.
Another feature getting released with the Feb 1st launch is the Daily mode, which gives you a random Kingdom of 10 cards and challenges you to crush the AI as hard as you can. Not a groundbreaking feature by any means, but it’s honestly pretty fun.
And if bragging about your wins is your jam, then there’s a one-click button to export a game summary picture. For instance, I just finished up the Daily game below, and intentionally dragged the game out to staggering 37 rounds to see how high I could get my score: 73 points. A game that long would be excruciating against real opponents, but against an AI with quick, responsive controls, it was a breeze.
Dominion isn’t a game without issues though. If you look at these screenshots, imagine playing fullscreen on your computer. There’s a ton of real estate, and yet the card text isn’t displayed until you tap and hold a card. Sure, after a round or two, it’s easy to remember the 10 cards you’re playing with. But still, it would be nice to have a “Always Display Card Text” toggle in the menu for larger displays.
Additionally, I noticed a couple small bugs and one outright crash. When I tried to Mastermind a Mastermind, while there were other “at the start of your next turn” actions on the stack, Dominion got real angry and crashed on me.
Mastermind lets you triple-cast an Action, so getting a pair of those, along with other ongoing events was a pretty unlikely set of conditions. I reported it and they got back to me almost immediately saying they’ll look at it, so hats off to the dev team!
How’s That Multiplayer
I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to dive into the multiplayer. I know that’s exactly what some of you are looking for, but I’m confident that Temple Gates Games has done right by this game’s multiplayer. Similar to their other titles, Dominion has async multiplayer, which is a great way of handling it for digital board games. However, the interactive way in which many cards resolve means that if you have an inattentive opponent, you could be in for some waiting. But that’s not unique to this game, it happens with just about every kind of multiplayer card game.
There are two notable features I wanted to point out, however. The first being your private games and lobbies, which let you play with friends. Nothing special here, but I’m glad it’s in place nonetheless. The second, and significantly more interesting is a ranked matchmaking multiplayer mode.
I’m used to seeing ranked matchmaking in larger scale multiplayer games, but never for a digital board game. Perhaps it exists out there and I’ve just overlooked it, but regardless, I’m really looking forward to digging into it. I think ranked matchmaking is a slam dunk feature for just about any game, and I’m really excited to see this one in action.
Now That the Cards Have Been Dealt
How does the game stack up?
It’s Dominion, you know it, you love it. Or you know it and you hate it. I don’t know you. You know you, though, and you already know if you like Dominion. If the game resonates with you at all, even for nostalgic reasons, I’d recommend checking the app out. The app’s well done, mobile friendly, and has everything I could want from a digital adaptation of Dominion.
Dominion is leaving beta and getting a proper release on February 1st, but you can play with early access on Steam and Android right now if you can’t wait. Once February 1st rolls around, look for me in that matchmaking queue. I’ll be there. And I’ll be terrible.
And that’s great.