Who doesn’t love a new Dominion expansion? New cards for the game, some whimsical flavour-text, and generally a whole new set of themes for playing the game
Dominion is probably the original Deck-Builder – If you don’t know how the game works then check out some of the videos here as, for the rest of this review, I’ll be assuming you’re familiar with Dominion. The same basic cards (money and victory cards) will be in every game, but you’ll also have 10 piles of “Kingdom” cards, action cards that give you a boost by giving you more money, actions, card draw, or a variety of special effects, that are available for all players to buy. Every expansion offers new cards for those Kingdom piles, and Dominion Empires is no exception.
Dominion Empires is the tenth set released for Dominion, and it offers a whole stack of new cards and tokens, creating different strategies and effects for you to try out. The thing is, once you’ve bought two or three expansions for Dominion, then unless you play it every day, you’ll probably never use all the different possible combinations of the cards you have. So this far into the game’s life, is there still value to be had from expanding the card pool? Well I think there is; Let’s look at why…
What’s in the box: All the shiny things!
A well-named “Really Useful Box”, holding the base game of Dominion, and the Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity, Alchemy, and Cornucopia expansions, with a space cleared for Empires.
Typically, Dominion expansions have come in two sizes, large and small, and Dominion Empires is in the “large” category, 300 cards and a pile of metal tokens to boot. It comes in what is now a well-established standard format for a Dominion Box, with plastic insert and cardboard labels for what the cards are (although, if you’ve been collecting Dominion cards for a while, you’ve probably consolidated them into a storage solution that doesn’t take up an entire shelf).
Whilst the overall contents in terms of number of cards and tokens won’t be a big surprise to anyone who has bought Dominion Expansions before, I do think that Dominion Empires offers good value for money: the cards included are a lot more varied than just “24 piles of new Kingdom cards,” and whilst some of the metal tokens duplicate content from previous sets, there are others which are completely new in their gameplay effect.
So Many Cards! What do I do?
Dominion Empires comes with 24 new sets of Kingdom action cards – as you only ever use 10 piles of Kingdom cards in a game, that’s already thousands of possible combinations, just using the cards in Dominion Empires alone. The expansion comes with suggested set-ups, both for just these cards, and for combining with previous sets. Some of the earlier sets also came with these suggested lists, but they were quite limited, typically just offering a few ways to use the cards from that set by themselves, and a few combinations with cards from the original Dominion or Dominion Intrigue. Dominion Empires expands this somewhat, with not only 2 set-ups using solely cards from Empires, and 2 for mixing with original Dominion, but also 2 for every other large expansion, and 1 for every other small expansion released to date.
These set-ups also feel like they were better-tested than the ones from some of the previous sets, and all of the games we’ve played using these suggested set-ups have felt well-balanced, with very few cards that were left untouched by the end of the game. If, like me, you own more than a couple of other expansions, I’m sure you could get several weeks of play without needing to get into generating your own set-ups.
What’s it all about? What’s back?
Whilst there are some completely new ideas in this box, as we’ll see later, there are also some old favourites returning.
Donald X Vaccharino, the game’s designer, has described Dominion Empires as “a kind of Prosperity sequel” - which was music to my ears. Dominion Prosperity was probably my favourite expansion for the game up-to-now, with a lot of bigger, more powerful, more expensive action cards compared to other expansions. It also came with lots of treasures (the money cards you use to pay for things), and Victory Point tokens (ways of getting points without clogging your deck with Victory Cards), so seeing the return of these sounded good. I always like it when Dominion dials things up to eleven, as it allows you to buy from the whole range of action cards, rather than having the more expensive ones just sitting untouched as everyone makes a mad dash for the Victory Cards.
In a lot of ways, Dominion Empires is also a sequel to Dominion Adventures: it has the return of Event cards (see below), and a sprinkling of the orange ‘Duration’ cards, which were originally introduced in Dominion Seaside, but then given a long hiatus until they reappeared in Adventures last year.
I approve that Dominion Empires has tapped into these existing themes, rather than trying to offer a completely new theme, because by this stage, I think we have enough distinct emphases on cards (big money, variety in deck, player interaction, effects when you acquire cards), and it’s interesting to develop these existing themes a bit more.
How many cards in this deck? 1, no 2, no: many!
Players would soon get bored with only recycled ideas, but fear not – Dominion Empires has plenty of novelty too. One of the biggest innovations in Dominion Empires, is that you now have piles which contain multiple different cards. There are still plenty of the standard Kingdom piles of 10 cards, but there are also piles split in to multiple different card-types. With any of these new hybrid piles, you can only ever buy/gain the top card, so you need to work your way through the cards on top in order to get at the ones beneath.
Some piles are made of two different cards, with 5 of each card. You start the game with access to a comparatively cheap card (typically 2 or 3 gold only), but once all 5 copies of that have gone, you’ll reveal a new card: generally more expensive, more powerful, and tied either thematically, like “Catapult” and “Rocks,” or mechanically like Gladiator and Fortune, or Settlers and Bustling Village.
If you think two different cards per pile sounds complicated, just wait until you get to Castles. The Castles pile features 8 different castles, starting with a small, humble one, and growing to a massive, sprawling fortress. It’s a lot to keep track of, but offers some really interesting interactions.
Mixed piles are an interesting idea, although it can also be a frustrating one: in most of our two-player games of Dominion Empires, the vast majority of piles won’t have more than 5 cards bought from them, so the fact that these cards are locked away is a bit disappointing. That said, the prospect of the latter card as an incentive to buy a mediocre cheap card is certainly interesting. The complexity is possibly an issues; it could provide a point of confusion if you were trying to introduce somebody new to the game, but I found it fairly easy to pick up, despite not having played Dominion in a while.
Pay Now? Or Pay Later?
Dominion Empires also introduces the concept of debt – tokens you take when Buying some actions, or invoking certain events without paying for them. When you take Debt, you place an appropriate number of tokens in front of you, and whilst they are sat there, you can’t buy any more cards, but you can pay off the debt at a rate of 1:1.
This is a really interesting idea, and it opens up some very interesting design-space. For example, Wedding is an Event which offers you a Gold card (which usually costs 6) for 4 money spent now, and 3 debt tokens. On the one hand, this may look like a bad deal – that’s a total cost of 7 rather than the normal 6 for a Gold, and you can’t buy any more cards until you pay off the debt. On the other hand, what’s really going to benefit you more in the long-term: Buying a 4-cost and 3-cost action card, or getting gold in hand from the word go?
The Debt tokens themselves are metal, copper-coloured, and, like most things in this expansion, the component quality is very good. Personally, I use them with the mats from an earlier expansion, just to prevent scratching the table, but it’s not a necessary requirement.
The Main Event? Or just a Landmark?
Dominion Empires also sees a return for Events, a card-type which first appeared in last year’s Dominion Adventures. Rather than cards which you buy, add to your deck, and keep using for the duration of the game like the action cards, the events remain on the table, with a cost you can pay for an instant, one-off effect.
As well as bringing back Events, Dominion Empires introduces Landmarks. Like Events, Landmarks are single, static cards, but these tend to have different, often passive effects – for example, giving you bonus points for having lots of cards of different cards, for cards from different piles, or as you go, for doing things like discarding unused action cards.
Events and Landmarks seem like a great idea to me; the huge effect they have on the game for only one card is fantastic, and many have the ability to completely transform the game. Take the Bandit Fort for example, which penalises players by 2 Victory Point for each Silver or Gold they have in their deck at the end of the game. Given just how many games of Dominion revolve around upgrading your treasures, the addition of this single card can transform entire games.
One of the problems you sometimes run into with Dominion, is that there are likely to be cards in any random set-up that just aren’t ever going to be worth buying, but that’s not the case with the Events and the Landmarks. They all felt like they offered a real extra dimension, a real choice that needed to be made.
They suggest that you use a maximum of 2 events/landmarks per game, and having used them a few times with the Empires Kingdom cards, I can’t imagine ever going back. That said, the range of effects they have mean that if you’re selecting completely at random, you could have some dead cards. I really enjoyed the game we played with Dominate, but if it hadn’t been a game with cards from the Prosperity expansion (making it easier to generate lots of money), I’m not sure I’d ever have mustered the 14 money needed to trigger it.
So, do I really need Dominion Empires? That depends
I think the biggest challenge with a new Dominion Expansion is working out how it relates to an existing Dominion collection. I think Dominion Empires is the best expansion I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s certainly not a simple expansion, and it might not be the best thing to get as your first expansion. I own all the expansions up to Cornucopia, which works out at well over 100 Kingdom cards already, before you even add in Dominion Empires.
If you play Dominion regularly, I’d definitely recommend getting Dominion Empires, it’s an expansion which offers a lot of value in terms of how it expands your games. That said, it’s probably worth getting at least a couple of other expansions first (Seaside and Prosperity would be my first picks), to avoid being overwhelmed by all the new concepts.
There is an argument that you’ll never play with all the different possible combinations of cards from 3 or 4 different expansions (or more), but I think that can be a positive thing. Whether you use the recommended set-ups included in the Dominion Empires rulebook, or simply craft your own, there is plenty of scope to consciously build sets of cards that work well together, whilst still getting a lot of variety in your gameplay. Instead of throwing in a load of incompatible cards, just because you’ve used all the sensible combinations already.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits in my new life as a dad.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Dice Masters and Destiny) when I can make it out of the house.Competitively. When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.