Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First I liked it, then I loved it, now I hate it...

...and that was off of just two consecutive plays. (Admittedly, not much to base a review on, but I think the analysis below is probably accurate anyway.) Okay, "I hate it" is probably a lot stronger than is accurate. "I'm no longer interested" is probably more accurate.

The game is called Dominion.

I'd heard a bit of a buzz about it. Half the (large) group played it at board game night two months ago, and they were all raving and insisted on playing it again and again.

This past weekend, we go over for boardgames, and someone brought it. I played once, and thought it was a pretty fun. It felt like the fun of deck-building and side-boarding in Magic had been distilled down into a little game of it's own. Trying to figure out the combos was neat.

Then we played a second game. The player who owned the game took off the kid gloves. His turns tended to involve playing 3 or more Laboratories, then buying a Province. We were completely blindsided when his deck went off the first time. The rest of us flailed about uselessly, trying to find combos of our own, or just ways to stop him. Though I lost terribly, I was hooked. I wanted to play more.

Instead, however, other folks arrived on-site, and we ended up playing something else that could handle more players. That was okay, as I was sure I was going to buy Dominion and play it again soon. I'd go pick the game up at Gary's sometime in the next week or two, I told myself.

As the night went on, and we played other games, I kept thinking back on Dominion. Specifically, I was thinking about his combo deck that had won. It wasn't a complex combo. It had at it's heart, just one-card. Laboratory into Laboratory into Laboratory into Laboratory into Gold, every turn thereafter the same except ending with Province instead of Gold. I thought about the other cards I'd seen in my two games of it, and realized that nothing in the 16 action cards (that I was aware of - out of 25 cards total in the game, of which 10 chosen randomly show up in any single game) would actually shut it down.

That's when I realized that for any given set of 10 action cards, the game was solvable. They caught the fun of Magic's metagame, but not a healthy fun season of the game. They caught the exasperation of combo winter, or the Mirrodin affinity era, when there was just one or two decks worth playing and games ended 20-0 on the third turn. Dominion's not quite that bad, but it's along those lines.

So that no one misunderstands me, I'll clarify that I'm not saying that Laboratory is the best card in the game. There's actually several one-card combos, and at least as many two-card combos, most of which are every bit as good as the Lab. I'm also not complaining that the game is essentially just multi-player solitaire. The combo potential appeals to me.

The problem is that the combos are too simple, and in many of the possible 10-deck set ups, there'll be one combo that's just undeniably better than the others. I thought with 10 different random stacks in each play, the game would keep up it's variety, and there'd be the fun of finding the combos. But the truth is, many of the best combos are self-evident. While it would take some actual plays to find the exact perfect balance for true mastery of the game, the analysis that was making my first two plays of it so much fun could actually be completely wrapped up and finished in 20 minutes of observing the card list. The distinctions between a Village, Laboratory, Market, Festival, etc, are just numeric - they can be mathematically ranked and valued without much effort. One will prove better than another, and will always (or nearly so) prove a better choice. The player who figures that out first will win.

Now, that would be okay if we were talking about Tournament Magic, playing for money (or bragging rights) against a large group of mostly strangers. In that environment, there's nothing wrong with keeping the "tech" of your analysis to yourself. Why tell this complete stranger how to be a better player if it means a higher chance of him walking away with the plane ticket and prize cards you came to the Tourney to win?

Since I'd be playing it with my wife and various friends instead, that's not really an option. I could keep the analysis to myself, and thus win nearly every game - which would only be fun for a short time, and only for me. Should someone else do a better analysis, but keep it "secret" while whupping me in game after game, I'd quickly grow resentful.

Alternately, I could share the analysis with my wife (and anone else I play against more than once) - but if so, the game becomes purely random. Not the good kind of purely random, either.

You see, most of the potential combo engine cards cost 5 copper. When the game starts, you have your own deck of 7 copper cards and 3 estate cards. The estates are useless (except as victory points), and your first two hands will be either one of 4 copper and one of 3 copper, or one of 5 copper and one of 2 copper. Of those, the second arrangement is far better - it let's you buy one of the really good combo pieces on the first or second turn, which sets you up virtually guaranteed to do so again on the third or fourth turn. If one player gets the 5/2 split and the others don't, he's almost certainly going to win.

The game lasts half an hour or so, but is decided by the random deal of your initial hand of 5 cards and a single strategic decision made in the first minute of the game (a decision that is mathematically solvable in the majority of plays). I suspect there'll be plenty of times where by turn 4 the winner is evident, but another 16 turns have to pass before it's official. That just doesn't sound like lasting fun to me.

A quick check of the geek reveals I'm not alone in this opinion - but anyone who passes judgment on the game at boardgame geek gets treated pretty harshly, and is told they judged it too soon, whether that's after 3 plays or 30. My dropping it after 2 plays (both of which I enjoyed) would raise some eyebrows there.

No comments: