How Dominion Works


The front cover of the Dominion box, with artwork by Matthias Catrein. The game is flanked by expansions Seaside and Intrigue. We can't promise your friends will all love the game so much that you'll have to initial your copies like a summer camp towel. See more pictures of toys and games.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

It's good to be king -- or queen, for that matter -- as you amass treasure, build villages, create libraries and laboratories, and luxuriate in feasts and full wine cellars. Careful, though: The road to an enduring royalty is a rocky one. You'll need to guard against spies, thieves, warring militia and witches' curses. That promise of adventure with a glimmering hope of success is why playing Dominion, a card game in which you build your deck as you play, is so enticing. With the masterful use of a few cards, plus a few strokes of luck, you can take your kingdom from humble home to bountiful domain.

The game takes much longer to explain than it does to actually play. After the first few turns, Dominion becomes nearly intuitive as the behind-the-scenes rules system takes over -- even before you fully understand the dynamics of the game. It's a bit like setting out to play rudimentary scales on the piano and inadvertently mastering Chopin. (Or, for all you gamers out there, like sitting down to learn Magic: The Gathering and realizing that it's as simple as Settlers of Catan.)

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Dominion is easy to pick up but challenging to master because its modular nature (players choose which components -- in this case, cards -- to use each time) means that the basic rules never change, but every game requires different deck-building strategies. But before we get into Dominion's mechanics, let's consider how deceptively easy it is to win: The player with the most points at the end of the game triumphs. And to get points, all you need to do is buy more Victory cards -- or more higher-valued Victory cards -- than your opponents.

Dominion is designed for two to four players, ages 13 and older, and you can expect your first game to take an hour or more. You'll need to sort the cards, peruse the rulebook and wrangle your way through the first (often painfully slow) rounds. But once the concept clicks, you can expect to play -- start to finish -- in 30 minutes to an hour. Hitting the finish line in the time it takes to watch a TV show feels satisfactory: Any longer and the game would begin to feel a bit like Monopoly (without the game board and mustachioed mascot, of course). Any shorter and it would seem suspiciously (and boringly) easy.

And, because you choose 10 different types of cards each time you play, it would take hundreds of years of continual game play to realize every possible configuration of the original, 25-card set alone. Make that billions of years when you consider that more than 200 Kingdom cards have been added to the game through expansions since it debuted in 2008 [source: Mastrapa].

The Advent of Dominion

Another pleasant perk eventually added to set Dominion apart from some other card-based tabletop games: The box contains a ready-made filing system to keep all those cards tidy and accessible.
Another pleasant perk eventually added to set Dominion apart from some other card-based tabletop games: The box contains a ready-made filing system to keep all those cards tidy and accessible.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

Donald X. Vaccarino spent the fall of 2006 mulling over a new game, one that avoided a few of the irritations he had encountered during tabletop card games. He didn't want cards to be discarded or become otherwise stagnant and inaccessible after they were played once -- or, even worse, before they could be played at all.

In designing Dominion, Vaccarino hoped to solve this issue. After playing any card that doesn't explicitly state otherwise, it's placed into your own personal discard pile, to be eventually recycled back into your deck. This means that you'll have the chance to play them again and again.

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While many games leave the receipt of cards up to chance, Vaccarino made Dominion's cards available to all players: Any player can buy any card -- as long as at least one copy of the card is still available and the player has sufficient resources to do so. An element of chance is retained, though: Players add the cards they buy into their deck and draw a five-card hand at random each turn.

During a last-minute push to entertain friends at one of his regularly scheduled game nights in October 2006, Vaccarino took the game from concept to reality. Soon, Vaccarino began to suspect he had a hit on his hands; his friends preferred Dominion over the games they normally played [source: Law]. Its design was similar to German-style tabletop games, sometimes known as Euro-games, which feature short playing times, simple rules and an emphasis on strategy over luck.

Dominion wasn't the first game Vaccarino, a San Francisco-based computer programmer, had invented [source: Varney]. For years he'd been designing games as a hobby, creating everything from children's to German-style games, and offering them to publishers like Wizards of the Coast (now a subsidiary of Hasbro), the company that published Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. As the rejections piled up, however, he decided to try a different approach for Dominion. He took a closer look at the games he owned and noticed many of them carried the Rio Grande Games logo. What he did next made all the difference.

Critical Acclaim and Commercial Success

Although most can't be played without the original set, fans will find Dominion's expansions -- like Seaside -- well worth the investment for the extra options they provide.
Although most can't be played without the original set, fans will find Dominion's expansions -- like Seaside -- well worth the investment for the extra options they provide.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

Vaccarino e-mailed Jay Tummelson, the founder and owner of Rio Grande Games -- a company based in Placitas, N.M., that since 1998 had made a name for itself by publishing American versions of European strategy games, such as Settlers of Catan, as well as a number of American-designed card and board games. Tummelson replied almost immediately and the two made plans to meet at an upcoming game convention, the Origins Game Fair, during which Tummelson would test Dominion. For Vaccarino, the result of this meeting would be -- if you'll pardon the pun -- a game-changer. Tummelson agreed to publish Dominion and, in effect, helped launch Vaccarino's career as a game designer.

In 2008, the year of Dominion's release, it won a Meeples Choice Award. In 2009, it won two German awards for game of the year, the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis. That same year, Dominion was named a Golden Geek Card Game Winner and Mensa Select Winner, and it received the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming and the Origins Award for Best Card Game of the Year. It also was named best card game of the year in Russia and went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, selling more than 300,000 copies and being translated into in 19 languages in its first two years on the market [source: Law].

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Although Vaccarino expected Dominion to be a hit with gamers, its widespread popularity came as a surprise. Dominion attracted not only high-level tournament play, but also novice gamers and families looking for a new twist on game night [source: Thompson].

After Dominion's commercial achievements, Vaccarino went on to experience additional interest from publishers. Several of the games he invented before Dominion, including Kingdom Builder (Queen Games) and Monster Factory (Rio Grande Games) were then sold and released. In 2012, he also debuted the game he invented after Dominion, Nefarious (Ascora Games). Still, Vaccarino often jokes that he isn't a game designer, he's a Dominion expansion designer [sources: Law; Mastrapa]. Since Dominion hit retailers in 2008, Vaccarino has painstakingly created six Dominion expansion sets (as of early 2012) that offer additional cards and game mechanics to players: Prosperity, Cornucopia, Hinterlands, Seaside, Alchemy and Intrigue. Intrigue is the only one of the lot that contains everything you need to play out of the box -- the rest must be paired with either the base set or Intrigue.

Dominion Setup and Components

The Supply layout for the recommended beginner set of Dominion cards. (No Curse cards are included because they wouldn't come into play in this game.)
The Supply layout for the recommended beginner set of Dominion cards. (No Curse cards are included because they wouldn't come into play in this game.)
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

When you open the Dominion box for the first time and take a glance at its components, you may feel like you're about to embark on a complicated endeavor along the lines of Talisman or Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game (both all-day affairs, the latter of which is, as one HowStuffWorks staff member put it, probably more time-consuming than building an actual civilization). Thankfully, when it comes to Dominion, there's less than meets the eye.

The original Dominion set has 500 cards, including:

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  • 130 Treasure cards (60 Copper, 40 Silver, 30 Gold)
  • 48 Victory cards (24 Estates, 12 Duchies, 12 Provinces)
  • 30 Curse cards
  • 32 Randomizer cards
  • 7 blank cards
  • 252 Kingdom cards (comprised of 25 types of cards that fall into four categories: Action-Attack, Action-Reaction, Victory or Action)
  • 1 Trash card

The cards contain information (with the exception of the Trash and blank cards):

  • Type of card
  • The card's value
  • The card's cost
  • If it's a Kingdom card, the card's abilities

To set up the game, give each player 10 cards -- seven Coppers and three Estates. Each player will then shuffle his cards and place them face down. This stack is the player's draw deck. Each player will have his own draw deck, from which he will draw a five-card hand to start the game.

Next, place the remaining Treasure cards and the Trash card face up on the table, each in their own stacks -- this is the beginning of the Supply for the game at hand. (The Trash card will be the new home of any cards that an Action card instructs you to trash.) In addition, add separate stacks of Victory and Curse cards to the Supply according to the number of players:

  • 2 players: 8 of each Victory card and 10 Curse cards
  • 3 players: 12 of each Victory card and 20 Curse cards
  • 4 players: 12 of each Victory card and 30 Curse cards

Not every game will use the Curse cards, but it's good to get in the habit of setting them out.

The players also need to select 10 sets of Kingdom cards out of the 25 different types available. Each set will include 10 cards, unless you select a Kingdom Victory card, such as then Gardens -- each set of those should include the same number of cards as the Victory card piles. Place these stacks face up on the table along with the rest that comprise the Supply. For the first game, the rulebook recommends the:

  • Cellar
  • Market
  • Militia
  • Mine
  • Moat
  • Remodel
  • Smithy
  • Village
  • Woodcutter
  • Workshop

Return any remaining cards to the box. As you become more familiar with the game, you can select different Kingdom cards to use instead, potentially making the flow of the game entirely different. Or, to introduce an element of surprise, draw 10 Randomizer cards (which represent the 24 types of Kingdom cards) and use the 10 corresponding card sets [source: Rio Grande Games].

How to Play Dominion

A turn of Dominion in play, just after the Action phase. I played extra Action cards according to the instructions on each card, and have a handful of Coppers -- plus a few extra treasures from my Action cards -- to use during my Buy phase.
A turn of Dominion in play, just after the Action phase. I played extra Action cards according to the instructions on each card, and have a handful of Coppers -- plus a few extra treasures from my Action cards -- to use during my Buy phase.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

After Dominion's setup is complete, each player should mentally cordon off three sections in his area of play: one for his face-down draw deck, one for a face-up discard pile and a larger space in which to play cards during his turns. To begin the game, choose a starting player at random. After the first game, the player to the left of the winner will go first. Play always moves in a clockwise direction.

Although each player's turn includes multiple phases, playing Dominion is as simple as ABC. During, his turn each player will do each of the following:

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  • Action: If you have any Action cards in your hand and if you so choose to, play an Action card by placing it face up in your playing area and doing what the text on the card instructs. This may mean that you draw extra cards, take extra actions, place a card in the Trash, upcycle a card, attack an opponent, gain more treasure for your Buy phase or gain the opportunity to make extra buys (see below for more about buys). You must do as much of what the card instructs as possible, but even if you cannot do everything the card allows, you can still play it. Unless you play an Action card that tells you otherwise, you may only play one Action card during your turn.
  • Buy: Use some or all of the Treasure cards in your hand, as well as any treasure offered by the Action cards you've played during the Action phase, to buy a card from the Supply. These cards go directly into your discard pile for use later in the game. The cost of each card is printed on its lower left corner, and you can buy any card of equal or lesser value to the amount of treasure you have on the board. Although the default for each turn is a single buy, sometimes you'll be allowed extra buys based on the instructions of the Action card(s) that you played. (If you have extra buys but very few treasures, remember that it's always free to buy a Copper.)
  • Clean-up: Take the card(s) you purchased, if any, and place them in your discard pile. Also place any cards you played during your turn in the discard pile, followed by any remaining cards in your hand. Draw five new cards from your draw deck. (If there aren't enough cards in your deck, shuffle your discard pile and place it under your draw deck.)

During the first two turns of the game, players will not be able to perform an action because they won't have an Action card in their hand -- this may also occur at other times throughout the game based on the luck of the draw. If this occurs, you should skip the Action phase and proceed with the Buy and Clean-up phases as usual [source: Rio Grande Games].

Dominion Strategies and Tips

An example of an Action chain that can lead to great success. First I played a Village, giving me an extra draw and two extra actions. The first extra action (a Smithy, partially shown at top) gave me three extra draws, and the second (a Market) yet another draw and action (plus a few extra things; the Market is a powerful card).
An example of an Action chain that can lead to great success. First I played a Village, giving me an extra draw and two extra actions. The first extra action (a Smithy, partially shown at top) gave me three extra draws, and the second (a Market) yet another draw and action (plus a few extra things; the Market is a powerful card).
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

To determine your Dominion strategy, you have to keep the end game in mind. When, at the end of any player's turn, the supply of Province cards is completely depleted -- or if any other three Supply stacks on the table have been exhausted -- the game is over. The player with the most victory points (tallied by adding up the total value -- not cost -- of all the Victory cards each player's deck) will win. Although rare, if there is a tie, the tying player who has taken the fewest turns wins the game. Rarer still, if the tying players have the same number of turns, both win.

As you go through the ABCs of each turn, a good strategy is to balance your deck. You need Victory cards to win, but you need treasure to buy them -- and, in turn, you need Action cards to get treasure. A good ratio is to try for is at least 1:4 Action cards to everything else. That way, you're likely to have at least one Action card in each of the five-card hands you draw.

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Although each Action card is valuable in its own way, the most useful ones let you both draw extra cards from your deck and take extra actions during your turn. With such Action cards, you'll be able to get more cards into your hand -- and use them -- during your turns. It's not a bad strategy to make these cards the backbone of your own personal Action card supply, and to then flesh your deck out with any other Actions that sound useful.

Although you'll need Victory cards to win the game, if you buy too many too early, you'll clog up your deck with them. Victory cards only become valuable when you tally points at the end of the game. The idea is to begin buying them mid-game, once you've amassed enough treasure through buying and playing Action cards to build up your coffer. If via luck and strategy you get enough treasure in your hand to buy Provinces, do so -- but keep in mind that the game can be won with less-valuable Victory cards as well. However, if you notice that your opponent is snapping up Victory cards early on, then you'd better keep track of what they're buying and work to catch up however you can.

Read on for more about offensive and defensive strategies, and about how to balance the treasure in your deck.

Dominion: Defense and Offense

When Action-Attack cards like the Witch come into play, strategy gets a bit more complicated.
When Action-Attack cards like the Witch come into play, strategy gets a bit more complicated.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston, HowStuffWorks 2012

Most Action cards only apply to the person who plays them, but some -- the Action-Attack cards -- allow you to disadvantage your opponents by making them reveal, discard or even trash cards from their hands or decks. And one Action card in the original game, the Witch, forces opponents to add a Curse card to their deck. Curses counter victory points at the end of the game (each equals one negative victory point), and, just like Victory cards, they're dead weight whenever you draw them into your hand. The expansions add several other delightfully nasty cards like this.

These strategically (and sometimes emotionally) offensive cards can change a friendly, everyone-for-himself game into something more aggressive and competitive. When one or more of them are included in a given game's Supply, you'll have to pick your strategy: Do you go in strong, buying and unleashing attacks early in the hopes of unfooting your opponents? Or do you think the best offense is a good defense, and therefore choose to spend your resources building up your usual moneymaking machine?

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Either way, maintaining a balance of these cards in your deck is key to winning -- and, like for Victory cards, the key to balancing them in your deck is watching what your fellow players buy. If you turn the game into an arms race, you'll never buy enough Victory cards to win; however, once opponents begin buying up Action-Attacks, buying a couple yourself will prevent them from steamrolling you. Also watch for Action cards that can be used defensively -- having a Moat in your hand will let you block attacks, and several Actions let you trash those pesky Curses at will.

Knowing when to buy Treasure cards is trickier to explain because it's highly dependent on the 10 types of Kingdom cards with which you're playing. Some cards give you lots of extra treasure and ways to upcycle your Coppers into Silvers and your Silvers into Golds. Others don't deal with treasure at all. Others will let your opponents attack your coffers, forcing you to discard or even trash your Treasure cards. So when it comes to treasure, go with your gut: If you feel like you don't have enough treasure to buy the cards you want, buy more Treasure cards.

Don't despair if you don't master a winning strategy the first time or two you play the game -- or the first time or two that you play with any new combination of cards. Just breathe deep, take time to read cards and consider how they might be used in combination with each other, and pay attention to the flow of the game. Before long, you'll be king -- or queen -- of a booming dominion all your own.

Author's Note: How Dominion Works

The box said Dominion would take about 30 minutes, and we blew past that marker before we were even halfway through the first game. Probably because of the snail's pace of the first several turns, reviewing the rules (and of course, the time it initially took to sort the cards). Truth is, I didn't have high hopes for this to be a favorite, until ... halfway through the first game, it hit me: There could be some real strategy at work. Before long, I was in a groove -- Action, Buy, Clean-up -- and the rounds went faster. I began to course-correct, first building my deck one way and then another, and in the end quietly amassing Province cards until the last one joined my deck. Although I didn't have them all, I had enough to score a dozen points more than my opponent. I'm pretty sure the next victory won't come so easy, but I'll be ready.

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Sources

  • Hasbro. "Monopoly: 75 Years Young." (April 3, 2012) http://www.hasbro.com/monopoly/en_US/discover/75-Years-Young.cfm
  • Law, Keith. "Card Game World Domination: The Rise of 'Dominion.'" Mental Floss. Dec. 15, 2010. (April 1, 2012) http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/76867
  • Mastrapa, Gus. "Boardgame Designer Donald X. Vaccarino is Pushing the Outer Limites of Human Comprehension." Pitchfork. Feb. 15, 2012. (April 1, 2012) http://pitchfork.com/killscreen/169-boardgame-designer-donald-x-vaccarino-is-pushing-the-outer-limits-of-human-comprehension/
  • Rio Grande Games. "Dominion Rulebook." (April 1, 2012) http://www.riograndegames.com/uploads/Game/Game_278_gameRules.pdf
  • Thompson, Derek. "Game Designer Interview: Donald X. Vaccarino." Meepletown. Sept. 1, 2011. (April 1, 2012) http://meepletown.com/2011/09/game-designer-interview-donald-x-vaccarino/
  • Varney, Allen. "Dominion Over All." The Escapist. Aug. 4, 2009. (April 1, 2012) http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_213/6338-Dominion-Over-All