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The designer’s drawer: A Dominion mini expansion – “By decree”

Many years and quite a few designs ago, I made a mini-expansion for Dominion. It’s been sat in a drawer ever since. So as an experiment in criticism and self-reflection – and with the benefit of hindsight – I’ve decided to dissect it. I want to see what I did well… and not so well, and what lessons I can learn from it about design.

What’s the point of looking back?

As part of the research for a blogpost about Dominion‘s design, I went turfing through my old cards. Amongst them, I found a mini-expansion I designed called By Decree that I had mostly forgotten about. As I looked at it, I remembered that I’d actually put a lot of work into it: development, testing and a fair amount of art production. Dare I say, I don’t think that it was totally awful either.

Since then a lot of time has gone by. I’ve played a lot more and I’ve worked a lot more on other games to various stages of development. So I thought that it might be interesting to evaluate – with six years of hindsight – what I did well and not so well, and see if there’s anything to learn about design in the process of reflection.

What is “Dominion: By Decree”?

A dominion mini-expansion I created in August 2012. It consists of one kingdom card – the Chief Minister – and a small deck of “Decree” cards that the Chief Minister allows you to buy.

The Chief Minister is a fairly simple action card that gives you +2 coin and the ability to see the top three decrees and buy any of one them.

The decrees themselves however are special permanent action cards which you don’t clean up at the end of your turn. Each one grants you a specific bonus among the game’s basic mechanics. Some of these would be turn order dependent. E.g. Decree – Farming grants you +1 coin. Whereas Decree: Religion allows you to trash a card. If you play a Decree however, it replaces any Decree you already have in play. So while you could play several in a turn, you can only ever have one decree carry over to your next turn and most of the effects they have only apply on your subsequent turn.

In total I designed 11 decrees, though not all were actually produced. The cards’ abilities are simple and mostly reflect the ruleset of the original dominion game with a couple of mechanics from other early expansions. The decree deck was planned to have 3 cards.

The following table shows the cards in the last state that I was working with them.

If you are interested, the full list with commentary is in this google sheet, which I have opened-up to comments. It also shows my design commentary frozen in time form August 2012. Feel free to add anything that you like!

Some of the printed cards don’t match this list because many of these were never made into printed cards.

Decree Name Cost Card text (all begin with “Discard any other decree card in play”)
Farming

6

At the start of your turn +1 Coin
Culture

7

At the start of your turn +1 Card
Settlement

7

At the start of your turn +1 Action
Reserves

5

At the start of your turn you may draw a card then discard a card
Religion

7

At the start of your turn you may trash a card
Industry

5

At the start of you may gain a card costing up to 3
Trade

6

At the start of your turn, +1 Buy
Defence

6

When another player plays an attack card, draw a card
Currency

5

While this is in play, copper produces an additional 1M
Witchcraft

7

At the start of your turn each other player discards a card or gains a curse
Tactics

6

At the start of your turn either: If there is no card under this decree, you may put a card under it from your hand. Or: Put a card from under this card in your hand. If this decree is discarded, put any card under it in your hand.

How did it come about?

My memory is a little hazy here, but it’s not hard to see how this happened: its hardly a revolutionary concept. Seaside had already introduced the duration cards (which last until your next turn) some years before. I am also sure that everyone with an interest in design that had ever played Dominion has asked themselves the same idle question: “What if there was a card that didn’t get cleaned-up at the end of the turn? Wouldn’t that be cool? Huh?”.

The slightly more specific influence is the Black Market card, which is where I absolutely took the mechanic for gaining decrees from: right down to card cost, +2 money and of course, the basic drawing method: Drawing the top three cards from a special, face-down deck, which – in the case of the black market – is made up of one of every other dominion card in the game.

This borrowing mostly game seems to have come from personally liking that card. Even though it is only actually useful in specific situations (e.g. having the only way to trash could give you an edge) the Black market has a kind of richness of theme-meets-mechanic which is generally absent from Dominion and makes it more appealing if theme matters to you. The fact there’s only one of each card, which themselves are presented as a random selection of “wares”, is just how you imagine generic-medieval-fantasy black markets to work: no doubt due to the influence of 1000s of books, films and especially RPG games.

I also found it easy to implement; specifically by using the randomiser deck to instantly give you one of each of a specially created black market deck as explained on this thread. Though it should be noted that the card itself actually asks players to build a deck of every other card not currently before using it – an enormous and thankless exercise; not exactly great design.

Most importantly the card allowed players to bring powerful effects into the game that might not otherwise be available. But the other reasons are not good reasons for modelling what I was trying to do – engaging permanent card play – so closely on one card. After all, my use of it has a different thematic logic and even the use of randomisers isn’t relevant. and I don’t think I stopped to consider if the Decrees even needed to be bought, like the Black Market, at all. But I can see how my younger, more impulsive design self went so wholeheartedly for “this is cool, so I’ll take it” it rather than stopping to consider the wider vision of what my expansion was about.

Key lesson #1: It’s easy to see a mechanic or element you like and take it hook line and sinker and then implement it into your game without thinking about the fit. Instead, you need to consider closely whether it creates the dynamics you need to fulfil that vision.

What works and what doesn’t?

1) Possibilities created for players

In Dominion, each kingdom card is, effectively, a kind of interchangeable module for creating possibilities and even more specifically, possibilities for players to build strategy. So the set deserves to be evaluated specifically in these terms before we get to more general concerns.

The effects of the Decrees are generally quite low powered (one coin, one action etc.). So the most most common use case a player would have for wanting to use them is almost certain be to gain a specific mechanical advantage, even if it is low powered, that is simply not available in the kingdom card pool.

The Decree: Religion is a good case in point. Within almost any deck building game, the ability to remove a card from the deck is inherently useful because it allows you to increase the density of useful to less useful cards. So when trashing cards are unavailable, this card could allow the player to create a uniquely high-performing and highly refined deck. The player could use this to open a big gap between themselves and other players not prepared to commit to the process of buying the Chief Minister, using it to get the right decree, and then playing it. The same logic can also be applied to the Decree: Settlement if multiple action cards are not available. Being the only player being able to play two actions a turn could be another substantial structural advantage.

Some of the decrees can be used in place of kingdom cards for a more specific strategy. The decree, currency, for example, makes copper more valuable. It would complement a strategy where the player is deliberately trying to build larger, harder to interfere with deck that can take many victory points without being slowed down by curses and the net effect of VP cards themselves. Though that would also require more specific card cycling (e.g. from Cellar) to be available to be effective which seems to be limiting.

IMG_20180528_193627

The other decrees are mostly strictly good buffs which would be helpful in any scenario. Extra card draw from Decree: Culture, is always helpful as is + 1 money from Decree: Farming. But in retrospect, this is precisely what makes these cards fairly uninteresting as far as creating possibilities go. If they are equally useful in every case, then they’re also not especially useful in any case. There are no interesting combinations to create with them. Other than weighing up their cost, there is, perhaps most critically for satisfying play, no real act of choice for the player embracing them over an alternative strategy, which is one of the central choices of Dominion in general.

Key lesson #2: Coming up with generically useful options for players is easy. It makes a lot of sense if you’re constructing the basic framework of a game or for the purposes of teaching mechanics. But when you’re adding something, the new options need to be more or less useful depending on context to be interesting.

It gets a bit worse: at their cost, many of the generic buff cards probably aren’t even generically useful enough. This is not so much about the card cost, but the difficulty of simply getting them into play – something that I overlooked in my design. While you can buy the Chief Minister on your first or second turn, you can’t buy a decree until you’ve shuffled at least once to play the minister. Once you’ve bought your decree, you are another shuffle from using it, assuming you get the decree you want and when you play it, you only get the benefit the next turn. Of course, it’s likely you will actually be even more shuffles away than this because of your other aims (what you choose to play) and the luck of the draw. That’s a lot of work for something like +1 coin per turn. The cost problem extends to the more strategic cards. Even if Decree: Religion is the only trash in town, as it costs 7, you probably have to be quite lucky to get it early enough to make enough of difference.

I remember from testing that there were rarely times the decrees proved decisive. I may have been unlucky in playtesting and would have to re-test (and keep better records next time) to be sure. But it’s highly likely from working through it that the investment is just too high. Anecdotally, the same seems to be true of Black Market.

2) Game balance

Given the above the set is certainly never going to be too powerful, even if some individual cards like “Witchcraft” are possibly still overpowered by allowing you to ceaselessly assault every other player for the rest of the game for nothing once it’s in place. I don’t think I ever tested this one because it seemed somewhat broken from the beginning.

The rule that you can have only one Decree in play, does I think, stand the test the time of time because it prevents players from amassing permanent effects. If it allowed players to do that, the risk would be that the game would descend into a kind of permanent card arms race in which everyone is forced to buy decrees; a game that is nothing like playing a game of dominion. So with both of those effects, I have probably dodged a “schoolboy” error of fan expansions I have personally seen: allowing their new super-awesome-rules to dominate the game and lose its spirit.

On the other hand, the one decree restriction adds to the low power level problem. Given the time required of getting the decrees to the table (and therefore the relative attractiveness of other strategies), maybe the balance of fun is to deliberately allow players to gradually build a powerful permanent card engine – a consistently enjoyable aspect of the game as far as my current dominion research shows. In this way it would not be so different to the way that action/draw combos allow players to have very silly but awesome mid-game turns, even if it interacted less directly with other strategies and risked pushing opponents into a permanent strategy. and away from core Dominion gameplay.

Given how little they seemed to matter in testing, I think I would have to choose between dropping overall cost or allowing them to dominate a little more. Today, the decrees are actually much closer in cost to each other than they appear. When you add the amount of time investment required by the player to get them into play – time which could have been used to follow other strategies – the differences in card cost are more negligible. But my younger self really screwed this up. The golden rule I seem to have followed here is “no one would very be mad enough to buy these instead of a province, so I’ll go for 7 for the expensive ones and a bit less for the others because, you know, permanence is good”. In reality, if we take the cost reduction route, they should all be cheaper and potentially, a lot cheaper given you might not even be able to afford the more powerful cards at all when it’s still early enough to makes sense to acquire them. Maybe the generic buffs like Decree: Farming with its +1 money should be really cheap; to the point they are no-brainers (3 or less); if they are to be retained at all.

Key lesson #3: When pricing options for players – which can only be thought of in the wider cost of the game – think of the real total cost for them to do something.

In the end it’s probably best to draw the speculation to an end here though because this is the kind of problem that testing is the only way to make any more progress on.

IMG_20180528_193855.jpg

3) Theme, art & clarity of rules

In By Decree the theme is based on the idea that your Chief Minister (buying mechanism for decrees) allows you to make proclamations or laws which remain in force (decrees – permanent action cards) long after the more specific things you are doing with your kingdom (action cards) have faded or money has been spent (treasure cards). Each one is a concept rather than a thing or person, the normal case for Dominion card naming (village, Wishing Well, Thief, Pedler etc). They deliberately capture a pre-existing theming convention in Dominion. E.g. getting additional actions (village) is settlement. Trashing (religious/purity themed cards like chapel or bishop) is Religion and buying (like market, various trade or wealth themed cards) is Trade.

Here I think I am most happy with what I did previously, especially in concept and mostly in execution. I would preserve this aspect of the expansion if I were ever to publish it BoardGameGeek; even if I changed a lot of the rules to make it more playable.

It’s very hard to prove that the theme has a useful explanatory effect here, without a lot more testing than would be worth it in this case. The barriers to understandability are already low in simpler deck builders because the card already contains its own rules explanation. Notably the game itself has a theme which is neither thick, nor anchored in its mechanics so it’s hardly crucial. But – damn it – even if it probably wouldn’t matter much I like it anyway because it feels neat, is clearly differentiated in function and was instantly recognised by the people that played it. The concept that you need your Minister to “make” laws was never questioned by anyone I played it with. I remember distinctly the moment I showed a friend Decree: Religion card they said “like a constant version of chapel!” which is exactly what I wanted to convey.

I also think I was able to get the art to successfully reinforce this. The choice of red was clearly differentiated from other cards, eye catching and relatively readable (though of course, the existence of shelters makes this unusable now). I would hope that by being somewhat colour adjacent to orange red is also useful because like the orange duration cards these are supposed to stick around. More importantly the card art strongly suggests the similarity of the decree functions to each other by having all the decrees share very similar card art. The specific choice of an old formal document with a different black and white icon (simply from a clipart library) to represent both the theme of the expansion in general and the specific card is, I think a good one. It comes across as tasteful and clear. The Chief Minister art itself is also not bad, though any if you choose a renaissance painting it will always pair well with Dominion’s medievalesque card art.

In general it’s pretty well produced and the the finish is good if limited by the inkjet printer I had at the time I made this. My life was made much easier by the existence of a comprehensive fan card template. Sadly, I no longer have the originator recorded. Thanks and apologies to whoever created this template!

Looked at from another perspective, the very effort I invested into production quality is itself a classic design mistake. Graphic design is something I have done a little bit of professionally and is really important to me personally. So, over the years, I have had to consciously conquer my natural aversion to simplistic black and white graphics or basic looking designs to build rapid, easy-to-change prototypes which are far more useful for actually getting the game design right. I never consciously considered that here though, so I was still obsessing over visual execution when the ruleset was way off of delivering on what I was trying to get it to do.

Key lesson #4: Test a lot, test early: before you put in further investment into production details

But even given all of these limitations in terms of game dynamics, I think the game is quite understandable. I stuck to the clear thematic vision, and was keen to ensure that it was clear what to do at all times what to do. So in accordance with design expectations already set by Dominion’s cards, the discard existing decree rule is on every card and the rules for buying are entirely on to the Chief Minister card. By using a simple buy mechanism for Chief Minister there’s very little barrier to understanding how it will be used. The only idea not explained is the central concept: that the card shouldn’t be cleaned-up. But that’s not explained on duration cards either directly – though perhaps it should be to make the game even more accessible.

What’s next for By Decree?

Without doing any testing work, I could just spend at least as much time again reflecting on it and writing about it. But some might say my articles are long enough already. Whether or not it’s worth pursuing as an expansion is a different question. For certain though, taking by Decree forward would require a lot more investment in testing. Some of the most pivotal questions around adjusting the power level can only be known in testing.

A bigger question emerges: Would this expansion bring any unique value? Dominion has moved on a lot since I created this and the permanence concept has seen a lot of different implementations already.

As an exercise in working out how I might improve something it’s been instructive. But I’ll leave it to my readers to tell me if I should bother actually trying to publish it for now. How would you improve it?

2 Comments

  1. Really interesting stuff (and I remember playing with these back in the day!).

    Thought I’d flag up as an addendum that Donald X decided to experiment with the ‘permanently in play’ concept: the 8-cost ‘Prince’ card is a lot of fun. It lets you place any 4-or-cheaper card you have in your hand permanently in play, or rather you play it at the start of every turn for the rest of the game. There’s nothing an opponent can do about that. It’s powerful and can be super awesome – or frustrating if you’re against it!

    There’s also Hireling, which is a 6-cost card that functions as your plus-one-for-the-rest-of-the-game card. And of course you can play more than one, so if you get all 10, say hello to 15 card hands.

    Like

    • Thanks! Unfortunately, this is where my knowledge of later expansions holds me back. Prince sounds like a great mechanic. I really like the idea of

      It makes me wonder, if hypothetically, I did decide to take this further, if it’s better to actually take this in more of a ‘superpower’ assembly direction suggested above to provide an alternative dimension. One very much for the backburner though.

      Like

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