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