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You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion!—From the instruction manual
The game has a (loose) premise; You are a freshly-crowned monarch, leader of a tiny kingdom with a handful of resources. Your parents never made much fuss about expansion, but we wouldn't have a proper game if you felt the same way, or if you were the only upstart monarch.
The game is entirely card-based. Compared often to a CCG, each player has a private deck of cards that represent their dominion- the resources, income, and employees that they have access to. Players expand this dominion by purchasing cards from stacks at the center of the table. But each of these cards is in limited supply, and players with more buying power will obviously get them first.
Every player starts with 7 Copper cards (1 coin each) and 3 Estate cards (1 victory point each). A turn has three steps:
1. Play an Action card
2. Buy a card from a stack by playing coin cards
3. Clean-up- discard all the cards you've played and draw 5 cards for your next turn.
When you can't draw any more cards, you shuffle your discard pile to make a new deck. When 3 of the stacks of cards run dry, the game ends, and players count up all the victory point cards they've bought. The game can also end if all of the province cards (the highest-ranking victory cards) have been taken.
The meat of the game, however, is in the cards available to you. Every game contains the basic treasure cards (1, 2, and 3 coins) and victory cards (1, 3, and 6 points), but the 10 purchasable cards (kingdom cards) can be chosen randomly or by player vote. They can range from giving extra buys or draws, to attacking opponents, to manipulating your deck and more. The base game comes with 25 cards, and the game already has 6 expansions.
The game is so popular because despite the simple turn flow, there are numerous things to consider and many card effects to take into account. The most basic considerations are straightforward; victory points are useful at the end of the game, but during play they clog up your hand and deck, reducing your options. Action cards are helpful, but buying power must be purchased too, in the form of coins, and victory points are expensive, so where do you focus your money in each phase of the game?
Another element of this game praised often is the heavy playtesting that has gone into it- every card cost and effect is well thought out and tested, so the game is very finely balanced. And there are ~200 cards.
This Board Game provides examples of the following tropes:
- Ambadassador: The Ambassador card, if you're the one using it. If you're on the receiving end of its attack, it's more Ass in Ambassador.
- Art Evolution: An odd example- as the game's expansions have gone on, the artists they've hired have gotten progressively better and more detailed. Comparing the art of Intrigue to Prosperity and Cornucopia is a large leap.
- Art Shift: While most of the cards have an art style reminiscent of paintings, a few cards (Shanty Town, Navigator, and Harem in particular) use a cartoonish art style.
- Awesome but Impractical: The Prize cards are five unique cards with a very difficult condition for gaining them. They're sometimes worth going for, but frequently by the time you've managed to get one, the game is almost over.
- Cards with a potion cost can fall into this. Every potion represents passing up, at the very least, a silver, for a card that does nothing to earn you treasure or VP.
- Brainwashed: The power of the Possession card.
- Bribing Your Way to Victory: Averted by the way the game is setup- everyone has access to identical resources from the beginning. There are some cards that invoke this with their effects, however.
- Boring but Practical: Cards from the base game tend to be much simpler than those from the expansions, but have more direct effects.
- For a more specific example, the basic treasures. +Coins with no additional effect sounds boring, but you can't do much without them.
- Con Man / Snake Oil Salesman: The Mountebank card ("mountebank" being a synonym for a swindler). His cons clog up the other player's decks a lot and give you some money.
- The Swindler card, which trashes an opponent's card and gives them a different one of the same cost.
- Discard and Draw: Cellar. Warehouse is "Draw then Discard."
- Expansion Pack: Each with a different theme
- Extra Turn: Several variations- Tactician, Possession, and Outpost each give you one in different ways. See the trope page.
- Intrepid Merchant: Several cards
- Jack of All Trades: The Jack of all Trades card of course. A mid-cost card that gives you numerous small benefits when played.
- Metagame: Extensive. Everyone has different ideas about which cards are most useful, and Gardens changes optimal strategy considerably.
- Three broad strategy categories are Efficiency (trashing your weak starting cards and keeping your deck as small as possible); Action Chains (loading your deck with cool actions and playing as many of them a turn as you can); and Big Money (only buying a small number of action cards and focusing on getting the most valuable treasure available to build up your buying power).
- Not the Intended Use: Chapel (Meant to be used on curses, it can also be used to prune your deck of your weak starting cards)
- A meta example is the blank cards the game comes with. They literally had no intended use, they were just included since they get printed anyway. Fans realized they could be used to mark blank piles well, and could be used to work custom cards into the game.
- There's also the blue deck- one copy of every card in the game, but with a different backing. Originally intended to mark when a pile runs out, they did this job very badly. But by shuffling them and drawing ten, it becomes an easy way to randomize which piles are used. They can also be used to form the deck for the promo card Black Market.
- The promo card Black Market lets the player buy cards that are not part of the current games 10-card kingdom. However, it also has the side effect of letting the player play treasure cards during the action phase- something they're normally not allowed to do. This makes certain other cards very powerful, and arguably turns the card Tactician into a Game Breaker.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Bureaucrat card. The twist is that he works for you, using red tape to clutter up the other players' hands and increase your income.
- Pirate: The Pirate Ship, which loots your enemies and gives you the spoils.
- Sadistic Choice: The aptly-named Torturer card.
- Sequel Escalation: Each expansion escalates one aspect or another-
- Intrigue is a full playable game, not just an expansion, but can be combined with the base game to allow more people to play. It focuses on giving a player choice in what a card will do.
- Seaside focuses on persistent effects, either through Duration cards that last until a player's next turn, or non-card "mats" that interacted with certain cards.
- Alchemy, a half size expansion, has a new Treasure card (Potion), and focuses on Action chaining.
- Prosperity focuses on big money, adding a new Treasure card (Platinum, worth 5 coins) a new victory point card (Colony, costing 11 coins but worth 10 victory points), and bigger (and more expensive) Action cards, including some that are The Same but More versions of earlier cards.
- Cornucopia, another half expansion, focuses on diversity, rewarding a player for having many different named cards in the deck, and features the Tournament below (which allows access to five unique cards, reinforcing the variety theme).
- Hinterlands focuses on reactions to gaining a card, with many cards having an effect that takes place immediately when you buy them.
- Tournament Arc: The "Tournament" card; It seems to be more that you're hosting the tournament, however, possibly sponsoring one competitor...