GMotW: Dominions & Discard Piles

“A player places cards he Buys or otherwise acquires during the game on his Discard pile unless he is specifically directed to place them elsewhere.”

Oh yes, Dominion (and by extension, Donald X. Vaccarino), how I love you. Enough to make you a Game Mechanic of the Week.

I’m not willing to say that Dominion is the best board or card game on the market right now, but I sure as heck am willing to put the idea in your head, and I’m definitely willing to suggest that if you haven’t played Dominion or any of its expansions, then you should make plans right the heck now. Or just scoot over here and play an online edition. Go on. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The conceit of the game is that you are a lord with, well, a dominion, and you spend your turn acquiring funds, and useful buildings and workers to make it run, and the ever-important huge plots of land. Everything is represented by a card, and your deck of three estates and seven copper coins will swell to bursting in a handful of turns, as you get more and more great STUFF. It’s fantastic, its wonderful, and it creates this wonderful balancing act: money boosts your buying power, action cards let you do useful things, and land is what gives you victory points. It all gets shoved together in one deck, though; you can’t choose what you draw, and you draw a new hand every turn. In this way, it’s a great impression of being a feudal lord: you make the best use of the resources you have at this moment, and try to engineer what resources you will have in the future to benefit you, and don’t let your greed for land distract you from the fact that land is actually a drain, taking up valuable space.

One of most clever ways this is enforced is by preventing you from using the stuff that you have. When you buy a card, it gets thrown on the discard pile, and doesn’t enter your hand until you’ve gone through your entire deck, at which point you reshuffle the discards, knowing that whatever useful item you have acquired will show up at some point, but never being able to tell when exactly that point might be. Doing this strips away your ability to do any short-term planning; you can deal with what’s in your hand right now, and you can set up possibilities down the road, but the next turn is always going to be a mystery for you. More to the point, the cards you acquire aren’t useful immediately, mitigating the possibility for a player who draws a decent hand to suddenly steamroll over everyone else by buying up All the Cards.

It’s also a lovely testament to the power of exception-based gameplay. The rules to Dominion are ridiculously simple: play an Action card, Buy one card, then Clean up your area of the table. A, B, C. The fun comes in the Action cards, which let you do things like getting an extra Buy, or an extra action, or a free coin to spend, or trash a card, or draw some more cards, or gain a free card, or… you get the idea. You get to do some fun stuff, which works, without becoming convoluted and terrible, because the basic rules as written are so simple and specific. Just from this one, I can see a half dozen different ways an Action card might twist it:

Add a card right to your hand for possible immediate use.

Put a card on top of your deck, ready for next turn.

Put a card on the bottom of your deck (which fluctuates wildly in how useful it is).

Put a card on your deck and then shuffle the deck; it’s coming but you don’t know quite when.

Put a card in your discard, then shuffle the discard pile right back into the deck.

Put a card next to your deck. On any following turn, discard a card from your hand to pick it up.

… and more, ever more esoteric variations, each of which alters the playing field by messing with this one simple rule, because, like all of the rules of Dominion, it’s made to be broken by the action cards. OBVIOUSLY having a bureaucrat on hand means you can guarantee some money on the short term; he shifts cash for you! Obviously having a trading post means you can get some money immediately; it’s where money comes in! Obviously a chancellor can let you discard your entire deck; he, uh, uh, makes things flow more efficiently while he’s there such that the items you acquire aren’t going to lie fallow for some time. Something like that; there’s a thematic layer there which the mechanics supplement. It’s lovely.

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever won a game of Dominion against my wife, which is why I don’t know when if ever I’ll be playing it again.

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