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Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Alas, I am undone!"

Sieze the day?
I said last Thursday that I wanted to get Dominion to the table up here in Glasgow "at the earliest opportunity". That opportunity arose when Badger appeared for Friday night gaming. I'd been touting for a game of Conflict of Heroes- what with the upcoming demo tour, but the lure of Dominion proved too much to resist. A Euro-style cardgame that can keep this grognard's favourite treadhead's game off the table? Regular readers will realise that this must make Dominion something really special.

What went down
The rules of Dominion include a few recommended sets of Kingdom cards to give beginners balanced games which demonstrate different dynamics of play (you only use 10 of the 22 different kinds remember?) so- knowing what I was looking at and for this time, I was quickly able to get the game set up using the starter game cards (all shown in the illustrations left and below). Five minutes later we were playing. Five minutes after that Badger was playing his cards like he'd been playing Dominion for ages: grinning all over his face as he surveyed good hands; grimacing at his hands of shite.

"Like it then?" I asked.
"I'm good at card games," was the only reply Badger'd give, with the inevitable sly grin. A few more asks eventually got him to assent to what was already blindingly obvious: he was having a whale of a time with the game.

We played 2 games before lack of sleep caught up with me. Totting up the scores at the end of the first game we found the score to be 33VP each. Fitting for a first game I thought. Badger thought otherwise. So began a hunt through the rules at the end of which Badger triumphantly announced that there was indeed a tiebreaker: the tied player who has played the fewest turns wins. Since I'd played first that meant Badger had won. Oh woe was me.

We set to our second game with a will. With the previous game fresh in our minds we both concentrated our early buys on Markets, Smithies and Villages. These are the cards which provide most of your extra cards, actions and purchases, so that they are key to building up the long sequences of draws and plays which you need to have for a chance of big money.

This phase of the game worked well for us both: we were soon cycling cards like there was no tomorrow. It was afterwards that things started to go pear-shaped for me. Badger moved on to start collecting Cellars, a card with which he'd had lot of fun in the previous game. I didn't pursue a coherent hand-building strategy, choosing instead to buy a couple of this or a couple of that. This hampered my game quite severely:
  • I didn't have enough cards of any given type to develop a proper style of play: I merely had my core card-cycling game with some added bells and whistles.
  • Two of the cards I bought- Mine and Remodel, require strong investment properly to pay off; I didn't make this and so I couldn't exploit their full potential.
On top of my feeling that my deck was running out of my control, Badger seemed to be picking up a lot of Provinces and their 6VP. It wasn't so. The game ended when I bought the last Province card and it turned out that we had 4 each. My brief flash of hope was soon dashed when I realised that Badger just had to have more Duchies- 3VP: I had none and I knew he'd bought some. It turned out that he'd bought 5. I was crushed 42 to 27.

Score
Barefaced braggadocio 2
Rueful reflection 0
:-(

Afterthoughts
The manner and margin of Badger's second victory revealed another crucial flaw in my play: struggling to build a deck with no clear sense of the strategy I would pursue, too many of my mid/late game mid-price purchases were Kingdom cards of marginal value to my cardplay. I neglected the Duchies completely, a mistake not to be repeated. That last strategic reflection done I must turn to the matter of the rules.

With his experience of the game under his belt, Badger looked over the rules and agreed with my assessment that they made the game more difficult to understand than they really should. My experience at Expo'10 suggested that this experience is not rare so I think it's worth taking a look at what might be responsible for it.

I want to put this issue in some context first. One of my favourite games- namely Up Front, is as notorious for the opacity of its rulebook as it is famous for its design genius and thrilling gameplay. The Up Front rulebook is of a style that was very much of its time- the 1980s, when legalistic casepoint rules were de rigeur for board wargames, and it is an exemplar of that style; eg. rules 28.4311 and 28.4312 (about Commander Killed results against AFVs by the way).

And yet I had no problem learning the game. Why? Well I was a lot younger then so that I could easily take in my stride the prospect of reading and rereading a thorough and well organised rulebook to learn a game which fascinated me. Also, Up Front needed a rulebook of that ilk because it was so unique, both in design conception and in its fine detail. This meant that there were no easily recognisable points of reference in the mechanics; even those which were thematically familiar worked in ways so unfamiliar that there was no real scope for making assumptions about what the gamers reading the rules would already know. I guess the rules could still've been better written but their essential form couldn't've changed that much really.

That was a long time ago and Up Front is a complex system. Two more recent games whose rules gave me the same experience as did Dominion's are Commands and Colours: Ancients and the Memoir'44 Air Pack. These games are both simple enough to be played by children of 10 years or younger so the issues I had with the rulebooks didn't sit well with me. I explained my thoughts about the C&C:A rules back in July 2006, and passed comment on the M44: Air Pack air rules last year.

The rules of Dominion compare rather badly to those of these 3 games in my experience:
  • I was prepared to labour through the rulebooks of all those 3 to master the rules, their complexities and confusions; I just bounced off the rules of Dominion.
  • Dominion is far and away the simplest of these games so that the mismatch between the rulebook and the actual gameplay is all the more striking.
I think there two key features of the Dominion rules which contribute to this problem (not just mine remember):
  • The paucity of illustration:
  1. The game is all about the cards and yet you have to read through 3 pages of rules before you see a picture of a card identifying the cards' different features.
  2. So you go through the goal, the components, setting up the game, the turn summary and the action phase without being shown what everything is about.
  3. In fact none of the key mechanics are exemplified by illustrations.
  • The layout is unimaginative if not outright poor:
  1. Bullet points could be used to condense and structure key rules; they appear nowhere.
  2. There are sidebars repeating key rules with half or less the wordcount of the main body of the text (picture above right and cf. #1 above).
  3. The text for the example of play- a key feature to make the game clear, is one long unbroken wodge of italic text (picture below right and cf. #1 above).
  • What we have then it seems is a rulebook which:
  1. Wastes space by overwriting the rules and then repeating them in concise form.
  2. Doesn't show what it should; all that wasted space perhaps?
Some readers might think I'm being overly harsh here. After all it is arguable that this rulebook is written to encourage new players to just open the box and to work through the rules so as to get quickly into their first game. This is a credible methodology and argument both; the latter especially so in light of Dominion's delightful simplicity. Even so, don't you think that illustrations and well structured bullet points would've enhanced this? If you still think I'm going over the score, why not download the rules to read them for yourselves. I suggest you'll find those sidebar summaries are particularly egregious.

These remarks were intended to be a quick study to test impressions of the Dominion rules which I'd found to be shared by other fans of the game. I don't want readers to go away with any notion that you can't learn the game from the rules- which is self-evidently fallacious, even though I think I've proved my point: that the rules are poorly presented and therefore unnecessarily opaque. Still, I must note that these matters are notoriously subjective, as I explained in respect of the infamous Up Front rules.

Also, don't forget that you still have to read rulebooks even after you've been taught the games. Badger and I made a mistake in our games on Friday. Playing an action is optional not mandatory. D'oh! Won't make that mistake next time, and there will be a next time, and plenty more after that: Dominion rocks remember! ;)
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