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Domains, not Dominions – Heart Of Crown Review

In board gaming, as in other fields of creative endeavour, every now and again something comes along that totally redefines the parameters for that genre.  In the fullness of time that thing may not end up being the best example of its type, but it defines the type, to the extent that everything that comes along afterwards ends up being compared to it.  In the relatively young field that is board gaming, those Big Bangs come along slightly more often as new ideas are introduced and then everybody piles on (card)board in an attempt to outdo and outinvent the original.  Or, if you are a cynic like me, everybody attempts to pile onto the bandwagon while there is still space.

The original and the imitator!  Which is better?

Grunge and Nirvana, for example, with pallid teens twenty five plus years later ambling up High Streets the country over wearing T-shirts for a band they never saw and never knew (and get off my lawn!); Monty Python and surreal comedy, to the extent that people routinely describe comedy as Pythonesque and use “he’s pining for the fjords” as a euphemism for dead pets; and how about deck-building and Dominion?  Yes, folks, all deck-builders bar the big daddy were published A.D – After Dominion – , and while the original has expanded to Brandoesque proportions with something like seventy five extra boxes of content, it still remains the touchstone of all that has come after, especially when we think back to its dazzling, lean youth.  Like Brando.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

Much more portable than you know what…

So when people describe a game as “the best deck-builder since Dominion”, what they are really saying, when you stop to think about it, is “this is not as good as Dominion”.  Enter Heart Of Crown, the latest pretender to the throne, the umpteenth in a line of umpteen squared to attempt to wrest the laurels from Daddy Dom and place itself, dead centre, as the one deck-builder to rule them all.

Dominant Dominion!  And a healthy Heart..?

Where base Dominion is still fresh is that the core mechanism of deck-building is one of those things that is so simple and yet so clever that you wonder why other people had not got round to it before.  As the game goes on players purchase and add cards to their personal decks, so that they become ever stronger (Stage 1).  Then, however, they realise that their decks are so big that those powerful cards are coming along too infrequently and that they therefore need to do some culling (Stage 2).  Then, at some point the realisation that there are monstrous combos out there on the table just waiting to be triggered pulls people right down the rabbit hole (Stage 3).  Add other Stages as desired.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

It’s all about these cards.

Dominion does come with flaws, though, and that is only to be expected, given that it was the first of its type and wholly original too.  Most noticeably, once one player begins the rush for points it becomes a little like a feeding frenzy for sharks – you need to get in there and buy some green cards very quickly indeed, else you will be left behind.  The games can feel frustratingly short, like accelerating away from a roundabout in Milton Keynes, hitting third gear and then finding another roundabout just as you get into your stride.  Also, many cards in the ten-card market can feel totally redundant in a game, as players focus instead on the magic combo.  For all that, Dominion has seen challenges come and go from the good, the average and the indifferent, and while the best, such as Core Worlds wield deck-building to greater ends, the worst are just so much cannon-fodder.  So where does Heart Of Crown fit in?

The old stager and the young pretender!  It’s a boxing match!

Heart Of Crown is inevitably going to be reviewed in terms of what it does better and what it does worse than you-know-who, so let’s start with the positives.  The box is small, portable, of good quality, and comes with enough space to fit the cards from both expansion sets.  The card stock is impressively glossy, and feels durable, which makes the nastily thin dividers used for separating the different types of cards all the more disappointing.  There are tokens as well, for tracking resources and the like, and, at least thus far, it is Heart Of Crown 1 – Dominion 0.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

Tokens are plentiful.

Anybody with a passing knowledge of Dominion will recognise some of Heart Of Crown’s cards immediately.  Yes, there are tweaks along the way, but the concepts remain fundamentally the same.  Curses will clog up your deck, there are cards that attack, cards that defend, and, as so often, Heart Of Crown offers two types of basic currency – actions and money.  One particularly helpful touch is that arrows on each card show how may actions may be chained to it, getting rid of those all-too-familiar moments of confusion in so many deck-builders as players try to remember what has triggered what.  In fact, the art style is strong and individual, even if it leans a little towards the wide-eyed-girls-in-short-skirts school of design.  Frankly neither I nor my female co-gamers found it an issue in Heart Of Crown, but I feel the need to point out that it is there, just in case that kind of thing makes you uneasy.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

The names of some of the cards are oddly familiar.

Let’s start playing!  It’s a familiar feeling…

A game of Heart Of Crown begins pretty much exactly as you might expect for a bog-standard deck-builder, as each player gets a deck of *yawn* ten cards, most of which are good, some of which are bad, which they shuffle *yawn* together, draw five and *zzzz*…  Right, let’s look at the market instead, for here, at least, we have something different.  While good old Dominion gives you ten types of cards to buy in each game, Heart Of Crown also gives you ten types of cards to buy in each game – no, wait a minute, don’t nod off again! – but these are drawn from a shuffled deck until eight different types are on view.  In other words, only eight of the ten types of cards are ever available at any one time, and it is possible (if unlikely) that you might never see a particular card.  This is an aspect of Heart Of Crown that I like, as it throws the smallest of spanners in a player’s planning, and just forces them to go with the flow a little, rather than executing a strategy right from the start of the game.

Heart Of Crown also attempt to deal with the rush for points issue in Dominion by preventing its players from scoring until around mid-way through the game.  Thematically, for what it’s worth, Heart Of Crown is about supporting a certain princess’s claim to the throne, but a player can only begin to score points (called Succession Points here) once they have backed a princess (at a cost of 6 coins).  Crucially, though, after backing a princess the player must then form a domain from the three most expensive territories they played in that turn.  In theory you could simply back a princess the first time you get 6 coins in hand, but the grit in the pearl is that the most basic territories (Farming Villages) are worth -2 points each.  So, yes, go ahead and back that princess at the first chance, but you’ll end up with a score of -6.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

Early territories will cost points in your domain.

Fixing flaws!  Adding value!

This forces players to spend time building up their decks before getting to the scoring part of Heart Of Crown, but it is important to do this for another reason, because the game allows players to set cards aside into the territories of their domain to use on future turns, but only cards worth up to or less than the domain itself.  If you want to store powerful cards for a massive turn you’ll need to build up your territories first, but that will take time and put you behind another player who backs a princess with a cheaper domain.  There is a balance to be sought, especially because any defensive cards you store on your domain are always active against any other player’s attacks.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

Pick a princess.

Once princesses have been backed the game really begins to roll, and Heart Of Crown starts to feel like it does its own thing.  With the princess backed (and her special ability activated) it is time to start scoring, but adding points to your domain means that you cannot purchase cards in the same turn – again, Heart Of Crown is about balance.  When a player has twenty or more points in their domain they announce a coronation, and everybody else gets one last chance to push over that twenty point marker.  If that cannot be done, the player who announced the coronation is the winner, otherwise it goes to sudden death, and the first player to get thirty points wins the game.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

These fellows grant succession points.

“It’s like Dominion except…” – Positive and negative!

The positives of Heart Of Crown are clear to see.  It takes Dominion as its base and attempt to fix some of the issues, producing a longer and more thinky game in the process, with a dynamic and slightly unpredictable market as well.  It also has card stock that is very impressive, is much easier to pick up and carry around, and has a light and frothy style of art.  If you are after a slightly heavier version of Dominion that nevertheless encapsulates the plus points of its progenitor then Heart Of Crown might well be the game for you to try.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

A domain takes shape.

On the other hand, any game whose description to new gamers begins with “It’s basically Dominion, but…” is going to face an uphill struggle, because that description could be applied to many, many games, and is usually shorthand for “It’s not as good as Dominion, but…”  Assuredly Heart Of Crown does things differently, but not quite differently enough, and those barriers that stop the game from coming to a close too quickly actually end up stretching it out beyond its ideal length, making it feel more drawn out than it needs to be.  At the kind of length Heart Of Crown aspires to (a maximum of 60 minutes, according to the box) I am going to be reaching for something with more meat on the bones.

Young upstart?  Or genuine pretender to the crown?

Heart Of Crown also works best with more players, but that, again, extends the play time of the game into heavy-filler territory, and the inevitable problem is that it ends up competing for table time not with Dominion or Star Realms, but instead with the likes of Mystic Vale (which brings something genuinely new to the party) and even Core Worlds.  Unfortunately, in fixing what it thought was wrong with Dominion, Heart Of Crown takes itself into another bracket entirely.

Heart Of Crown Card Game

If you like it enough there’s space for both expansions.

It is a good game, though, pleasant enough to play, and with the right crowd it could serve well in a game collection, especially as there are several things that Heart Of Crown gets absolutely right.  However, by the ends of my plays of the game I found myself wanting to dig out my box of Dominion, strip out the expansions and remind myself what it was that made the first of its type so refreshing and great.  Heart Of Crown is the Pearl Jam to Dominion’s Nirvana, The Young Ones to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Great stuff all around, but the one thing you cannot take away from the original is its originality – everything else is homage and imitation.  Heart Of Crown has been seen off in our collection by the lion in the pack, and it might even cause me to go off and buy another expansion for Dominion instead, but it is decent enough and its heart (of crown) is certainly in the right place.  On a bad day I would give Heart Of Crown 6 out of 10, but because it does much that is good I’ll give it a 7 out of 10.  Try before you buy, but expect to be gently impressed rather than blown away.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.