Was Dominion really the first Deckbuilder?

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There are a few games amongst the forest of games that stand out as “revolutionary”. These games were the first of their kind. There was one tree in that forest that was felled, sawn, pulped, and made into cardboard for a reason: to give the world of board gaming something uniquely innovative that would spawn a new genre. Dominion was one of those games. It gave us deckbuilding. Or did it? Was it actually the first?
imageDominion was first published in 2008, and brought “Deckbuilding” to the world. Let’s not get confused here: many folks use the term “deckbuilding” for games like Magic the Gathering, where you build a deck to bring to the game. These are not deckbuilders. These are “Deck Construction” games. It is purely semantics, the words “builder” and “constructor” are kind of synonymous, but let’s get the definition clear for us. What Dominion gave us, and what deckbuilders since give us, is a set of mechanisms that work together to define the genre.

  • You begin the game with a fixed deck( of zero or more cards) that will change composition during the course of the game.
  • The cards have a dual purpose: they can be used for an in-game effect and/or to alter the composition of your deck.

That’ll do it. Those two simple rules defined a genre. But when Donald X. Vaccarino shunted those two ideas together he created a runaway train that smacked headlong into the board game hobby.

imageI still remember the first time I played Dominion, and that can’t be said about many games. “You mean I can buy more cards that allow me to buy more cards?!” That first moment of turning in 3 Copper to buy 1 Silver was a eureka moment. It seems strange to look back on it now and remember how revolutionary a concept it seemed, how that simple idea felt so different, so unique, almost awkward and discomfiting. It really was a first step into a new world.

It has become somewhat fashionable to brush Dominion aside as shallow, or themeless, trivial or underwhelming. It was, then and now still, none of those things. The theme is delivered by card effects that mirror their impact on the game, by the artwork that supports those ideas, and is limited only by your imagination; the cries of “big money always wins” are silenced by deep analysis; its lengevity and popularity are echoed in the many expansions and clones that have developed over the last 8 years. This game is a juggernaut that has left an indelible stamp on the board game world.

How did Donald X. come up with this idea? What were his inspirations? Was it truely the first of its kind?*

Before we consider this last question, let’s make it clear: I am not looking to discredit Dominion. I am a fan. I play the game with relish. I enjoy looking for its hidden depths and hold its reputation in high esteem. So why am I asking this question? The answer is because it seems so incredible that the seed of an idea like this did not germinate in other places, in other games that never grew into the mighty oak that Dominion became. Did Vaccarino shine a spotlight on deckbuilding, like a board-gaming Thomas Edison, blinding us to the work of Swan, Davy and others before him ?

Let’s look at some of the other candidates. I couldn’t find many. Dominion’s crown sits tightly in place. But I did find a few that could lay legitimate claim to the throne…

imageLet’s start way back in 1971. Wow, this game is older than me (just…) ! Mix-Econo was published by E.S. Berry under the eponymous banner of Berry Enterprises, as an educational game to teach players the science of economics. The cards each have a monetary value and you are collecting sets of these cards throughout the game. It’s the germ of a deckbuilding idea, quite unique to its day, but it’s no deckbuilder as we know them today.

imageNow I have to take a giant leap forward to 2002 and Knizia’s Scarab Lords, published by Fantasy Flight Games. Between game rounds, 5 cards are swapped in an out of a player’s deck, giving them the opportunity, not before the game or after it, but during the game, to alter their deck’s composition. And it’s the deck that drives a player’s actions in the game. It’s getting us closer. But not quite the prize we are seeking. There is no active in-game deckbuilding, and the cards you have in your deck do not have the power to affect your deck. Instead it’s mechanisms independent of the deck that have the power to alter its construction.

Next up is our best candidate by far. It’s FFG again, and we’re only a year before Dominion when StarCraft: The Board Game hits the shelves. As often found in board game design, two or more designers will have the same unique idea at around the same time, and its only a race in development and production that determines who gets the game out first. I do not know when the design ideas for StarCraft or Dominion were taking shape, or even if they overlapped, but with a publication date of 2007 it is already after Donald X. began scribbling away at Dominion (Oct 2006*).

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StartCraft has some great credentials too. The design partnership of Corey Konieckzka (Battlestar Gallactica, Descent, Rune Wars) and Christian T. Petersen (Twilight Imperium, A Game of Thrones, Tide of Iron), are a mainstay of FFG, and a powerhouse design-combo.

Each player has a fixed deck of combat cards at the start of the game, but through researching new technologies whilst in-game, they get to add to that deck. For the first time** we see players able to customize their decks and this influence what cards they will draw. And just like Dominion, when the last card of the deck is drawn, the discard pile is shuffled and restacked to create a new deck with these enhancements available to use. The game even mixes things up a little, with some cards treated as permanents that remain in-play, and some one-time cards that are thrown away after use.

imageBut is it deck-building? It is true that you are changing the composition of your Combat Deck during the game, but this is very much something of a side-show compared to what is going on across your planets, with its bases, building upgrades, transports , and deployment of fighting units. Those were the things that delivered the victory points. That’s not a problem in itself. In fact, more modern exponents of the deckbuilding design will seek to use deckbuilding to supplement a different style of game, unlike the grand-daddy Dominion which began life as a pure deckbuilder.

No, what makes StarCraft fall short is that a separate deck is used, the Research deck, to enact the upgrades to your Combat deck. This is where StarCraft’s originiality is left a little shy of what Dominion did. There is no compromise in StarCraft – the combat cards are combat cards and the research cards are research cards. On top of that, your research deck is also a fixed deck, and the cards you can add to your combat deck come from another fixed deck, the Tech deck.

imageWhat Dominion did, and what made it feel so unique, was that the cards you added came from a common market, with great variability. It was these same cards that provided the equivalent of StarCraft’s research, combat and tech decks. Dominion’s single deck, filled from a single market, has cards that generate the resources, provide the actions, are the currency of the game, and are the victory points that must be earned. The game-play centres around your use of those cards, the way they allow you to manipulate the deck to make a more efficient “engine” that drives the building of victory points.

“Dominion remains the one foundation to that whole genre we know and love today.”

StarCraft stands up as an ambitious design with original ideas, and it was oh so very close, just one small step away, to stealing the deckbuilding title. But it was Dominion that took the small step that ended up being a giant leap and delivered the spark that fed the flame, that delivered the new idea that designers dream about. Although StarCraft can lay claim to being, perhaps, the first “pre-cursor” to deckbuilding, Dominion remains the one foundation to that whole genre we know and love today.

* To read Donald X. Vaccarino’s commentary on the evolution of Dominion, follow this link: Secret History

**If you can think of any other titles that can challenge the crown, let me know at ricky@boxofdelights.net

For further discussion, I highly recommend The Long View podcast deckbuilding episode here: The Long View

To create your own deckbuilding game, try:1000 Blank White Cards

In which country is board gaming most popular?

Box of Delights has been running since Feb 2012. In that time the channel has hit nearly 3 million views. Okay, this is nowhere near as many views as a couple of kids dancing to the crazy frog, or a cat falling off a ledge would get, but it is something worth celebrating in our minority hobby.

imageThis prompted me to wonder, just how much of a minority is it, and where in the world is board gaming most popular? 40% of my subscribers are from the US, and 10% from the UK. Surprisingly about 4% are from Brazil. But this is not a good measure. Brazil is the 5th most populous country in the world, so of course it’s going to be high.

imageSo, let’s use a more meaningful statistic, and make the measure “per capita” – i.e. how many gamers are there per head of population. Better than that, let’s calculate how many board gamers there are per 1,000,000 people in each country’s population. That will give us a good figure we can understand the meaning of.

Despite the 3 million views and 13k subscribers to Box of Delights, that is a drop in the ocean as a sample data set. It is heavily slanted towards english-speaking nations, and more so towards UK viewers, since I am a UK content creator, I can’t trust those number. So, let’s find a better data set.

imageWhat better than the log of registered users to Board Game Geek ? This has a massive audience, and a very diverse one. Of course it has its flaws: India is very populous, but a small percentage have internet access to be able to register on BGG. But right now it’s the best data source we have.

Now let’s trim our data set. There may be a very small country with a relatively large number of gamers, and there are a lot of countries. Let’s limit our measure to only those countries that have 2,500+ registered users.

imageWho do you imagine will come top? The US, Germany, the UK? It’s none of those. I was very surrprised by the result for Germany. German games are synonomous with Euro-games, what with their annual “Game of the Year” award (the Spiel des Jahres), and the Essen Spiel convention has more visitors over its gaming weekend than any other. But Germany falls to a lowly 20th spot, with 217 gamers per 1M. The UK takes spot number 8, with 705 out of a million of us registered on BGG.

Is it the U.S. that takes the number 1 spot ? No, but it does come in at a respectable 3rd place, with 961 gamers in every one million people.

imageInteresting is the dominance of the Scandinavian countries. Sweden, Finland and Denmark are 5th, 4th and 2nd respectively. Denmark just pips the US at 962 gamers per mil. It must be all those long dark and cold nights that draws friends and families together around a fire and a gaming table.

In 6th and 7th spots are New Zealand and Australia. With cost of living and cost of gaming high there, they must be a pretty dedicated and sociable bunch.

imageAnd what about the dominant Brazil? Did they make the top 30? They did, but down at 24. That’s still over 11,000 gamers on BGG, more than any of the Scandinavian countries. A big population with only 55 in every 1 million people registered to BGG.

imageSo, after all that, which country hit the number 1 spot ? With the cold dark nights of Scandinavia, with the flamboyance of Brazil, and with a humour that rivals the Germans; with the maple syrup of maple syrups, one country is sitting ahead of its neighbour; with 1,250 gamers per 1M of the population, the country with the most gamers per capita is Canada.

I blame Rodney. 

For the full list of the Top 30, visit the google sheet here.