Great Design Decisions: Dominion’s useless victory point cards

Great Design Decisions: Dominion’s useless victory point cards

This is the first post in an occasional series examining design choices that were critical factors in the overall success of a game’s design. In this entry, I go right in with one of the greats and look at Dominion’s powerful victory point (VP) card mechanic.

In choosing Dominion, I have selected a stupid subject to kick this series off.

Why Dominion is hard to write about but good to write about

Being effusive about great games is relatively easy. There is usually much to love and much to comment on. But writing about parts of great games – trying to understand the particular elements that make them great – is really hard. By nature, a great game is usually a carefully and cohesively designed whole in which components combine to be more than the sum of their parts; where individually effective design decisions result in a single great experience for the player.

For this reason there are few games more formidable to write about than Dominion. It isn’t just a great game because it created the entire genre of deck building; which any old flawed masterpiece in a parallel universe could have. It’s great because it’s just so incredibly well engineered; as if it were a precision machine. In its base game, nothing is superfluous, under-tested or purely decorative.

Everything is streamlined to cards. You don’t even need to keep track of victory points separately as you would in Magic the Gathering; that poster child for thoughtful design. The cards you use each time you play (treasure and VP) are easily recognisable and stick rigidly to a rule of three to ensure memorability without other prompts throughout. Three types of treasure, three types of VP card to go along with three things you need to remember do each turn in an easy-to-remember sequence: play actions, buy more cards, clean-up/draw for next turn. This endless cycle of discarding, shuffling back-in and making a new deck teaches you the core of the game by repetition. The cards themselves act as single purpose ‘modules’ with clear effects (another action, another card, more money – even the market is “1 of all the basic stuff”), making them both easy to teach to new players for them to understand how they might be combined. Their costs are superbly balanced from obsessive testing. Even its card art the game is ruthlessly functional in providing the minimum thematic engagement (and absolutely no more) to slide past abstract-resistant players.

If this were not hard enough to move past the effusive, Dominion is made even harder to write about by the extent its designer, Donald X Vaccarino, has already shared his thought process. His own powers of self-reflection doesn’t just make it hard to say something original. Rather they often give the impression that it could never have been any different. The picture painted, by this laying bare of thought process, is of a man so clearly driven by compelling reasons to change his game that her seems incapable of doing otherwise.

But even great games are not a house of cards. The engineering metaphor only goes so far. Unlike real-world physical engineering, you can normally change a major part of a game without it stopping working altogether. The game can get worse, the feeling of it can change, but the result – unless you are unlucky – is a gradual change with a range of small effects. We may often use the phrase “broken” to describe a game’s less than ideal mechanics but this is invariably hyperbolic. What this usually means is something along the lines of “ties happen too often”, “it got less fun after x point” or “I feel like I can’t catch-up now”. Even when your game is broken it might meet many of its players needs. People still have problem solving to do. They still have some fun and a good time hanging out with their friends even if the experience could have been better, even a lot better: The pieces of the game don’t suddenly all lock into a froze, immovable state if you change a mechanic; the game doesn’t heat-up to dangerous levels, spin out of control or explode.

In every game there are crucial moments in the design process where a difficult choice had to be made between options that had much to recommend them. Because the right answer was not obvious, like any problem, these are the most interesting for any student of design. They’re also more likely to be the moment when game’s make a leap forward. You can’t innovate unless you’re prepared to do something that isn’t immediately obvious to everyone.

The truth is that even Dominion could have been made differently and still have been a good game. Not every decision was so blindingly obvious that Donald X Vaccarino lost all agency the moment the game’s concept popped into is head. There are a few moments when this could happen; this post focuses on just one choice.

Having Victory Point cards in the deck was not the most obvious way to create this game

For anyone who hasn’t played Dominion, the concept is pretty simple. During the game, players acquire victory point cards using the treasure they have in the deck. The basic VP cards do absolutely nothing during the game but are worth a set number of points at the end and the person with the most points from these cards win. The cards themselves range in value from the least, the Estate, which you begin the game with to the most the Province, which can also trigger the end of the game when the last one is purchased.

But while simple, this was absolutely not the most obvious way to decide victory at the time Dominion was first created. In Dominion’s nearest ancestor games, scoring was very different. Rather than trying to build up to a certain victory point score, the concept was to instead diminish the score of your opponent. In Magic, the biggest single influence on Dominion, the goal is to reduce your opponents 20 “life points” to zero. In the game Donald X Vaccarino had worked on before Dominion, an unpublished title from 2003 called Spirit Warriors, the goal was similarly to deal damage to your opponent. Star Realms still works this way, only phrased in terms of an “authority” score that is being reduced from 50.

There was no immediate reason that Dominion couldn’t have been the same. It is very easy to imagine a parallel universe Dominion where this pre-existing mechanic was dropped straight in, and the game’s object was to reduce the “kingdom points” of your opponent to nothing. Dominion’s attack cards could just have had damage values on them, and a greater variety of attacks could have been introduced to provide enough opportunities to reduce your opponents score to making the game fast enough paced. A track or punch-out counters could have represented these “kingdom points”. The action cards would have mostly worked the same way. It would still have satisfied the design goal of having something where you build the deck as you go rather than before the game started as in Magic; creating the deck-building genre as we know it. It would have been a safe and functional choice.

Of course, the designer didn’t do that. Instead, Vaccarino choose to force the design process by applying a creative constraint for originally purely aesthetic reasons. Simply he wanted to take the idea of deckbuilding to its “logical extreme” and discovered it had some benefits: “For utter elegance, I put everything in the deck

Those benefits turned out to be very substantial.

Having VPs in the deck was a brilliant innovation

Like many excellent mechanics, having the victory points as cards inside the deck does an enormous amount of work. It improves the game in at least three distinct, but interrelated ways:

1) Having VP cards in the deck makes engine building decisions more meaningful

Some of my primary research on Dominion turned-up some great qualitative feedback I had completely overlooked in my quantitative survey on the subject. One of the primary reasons people play Dominion is the satisfaction of building an engine – and for many of its fans Dominion has no equal in this regard.

There is not yet a standard definition for an ‘engine’ in game terms, but essentially it is when you create a ‘machine’ during the game that exploits the way mechanics combine to push you towards victory somewhat autonomously. Crucial to the idea of an engine is that it becomes independent of each decisions you make each turn: Like a real world piece of technology it continues to give you a benefit after you have invested in it; it doesn’t require you constantly cranking something to make it work.

It is relatively easy to build engines in Dominion due to the simple modular nature of the cards, the speed at which the deck evolves (because it’s being constantly re-shuffled with new cards) and how readily discoverable the value of combinations are.

This is true even for new players, unlike its ancestor Magic, where considerable knowledge of other cards is required to construct even a slightly competitive deck. There is no better example of such an engine than the famous Village/Smithy combination which many players will see in action in their very first game. The Village card provides the ability to the play two more action cards and the Smithy provides 3 more cards. By playing these cards alternately, players can keep drawing over and over again and still have the capacity to play more action cards. This allows them to draw huge numbers of cards and potentially even their entire deck; giving them a good chance of drawing enough money to buy expensive cards (like those all important Provinces). Once the players have purchased enough of these cards, whether they explicitly pursue this Village/Smithy strategy further the engine will keep providing a benefit for the rest of the game.

CCG’s like Magic and the other deck-building games share this engine-building property, but Dominion’s use of Victory point cards in the deck itself makes the whole exercise of building the engine more challenging, and thus more interesting. Because the core victory point cards have such limited use during the game (with rare exceptions and niche strategies) they “clog” any engine that you build. The more VP cards you have proportional to the other cards you have in your deck, the slower your engine will run because more of what you draw is useless until the game is over. Having lots of these green victory point cards cost you the ability to ultimately acquire more of these cards. So when you’re constructing your “engine”, you have a central tradeoff ponder that prompts many other questions: When is the the right time to buy them? Do I always wait only to buy the high value ones? Can I ameliorate it using other cards? How much do these cards cost my engine overall in efficiency and is that trade-off efficiency. This is not present in other deck-builders.

Even if Dominion were slightly less different than our initial thought experiment in which you are reducing “kingdom points”, the problem solving would be reduced for players in an important way. Imagine if VPs themselves were instead on chips and cards, when played like actions, increased the VP count (much like the Bishop card that actually appeared in Dominion’s Prosperity expansion). Even if the game still ended when the last Province was purchased and the cards still took-up space in your deck, buying VP cards early wouldn’t be a difficult decision where this trade-off needed to be weighed-up. Cards bought early would still have the opportunity to be played over and over again and so pay for themselves many times over. The equivalent of an Estate (+1 VP in our scenario) could easily be worth as much as the Province (+6 VP) due to the number of hands it was played in.

Indeed this is exactly the shape of things in Star Realms. Choosing to gain the equivalent of VPs early (i.e. doing damage to your opponent more early on) turns out to a relatively equal strategy vs. waiting to build up your capacity to buy more or better ships later on. There are fine points here and better or worse tactical choices to be made each turn on the trade row but whether you do one or the other more or less doesn’t matter that much. That, in turn, makes all your engine building decisions less meaningful, because you can’t really make a mistake to anything like same extent. Players have to be able to make a mistakes to make meaningful choices.

That’s all fine and well if your design goals are to make a lighter game. But this is crucial to understanding why Dominion is the deeper game of the two and, for strategy fans, has more replayability.

The next point is possibly even more important. Because of the VP cards uselessness, the crucial strategic question in Dominion engine building isn’t whether or not you choose to heavy-up on VPs or money generation. It’s simply when you choose to do it. In Star Realms you can far more readily win with a balanced strategy all the way through the game. But in Dominion, because increasing the proportion of VP cards must come at the expense of money generation and only the final deck composition matters, there must be a “pivot point” where you choose to begin to acquire more VP rather than money generation capabilities. Where the pivot point is, is up to players to decide, but they don’t get to chose for it to not to matter; unless they don’t care about winning. Within the first few games of Dominion, everyone is aware that there comes a point where this decision needs to be made.

2) The VP “pivot point” creates a necessary game arc

A much under-heralded aspect of games is the power of the narrative arc in gameplay. Games in which you are doing the same things at the end as the beginning, unless they are very short, are often disappointing for players.

The reasons for this are surely rooted deeply in basic human psychology. As human beings we crave progression; we like to see things develop and we are naturally predisposed to see narrative everywhere. It’s what’s behind the incredible draw of levelling up characters in RPGs and the big battles with huge monsters at their end. It’s what makes the high tech locomotives that can deliver across huge distances so satisfying in Railroad Tycoon and it’s why it’s important for me that in my game, Magnate, the players start by building houses but end building huge luxury office blocks worth many millions.

Dominion also has an arc that can be easily understood in three acts:

The opening – Players begin opportunistically grabbing cards they can afford, trying to build an engine. The gains they can make each turn are similar to each other, because the engines aren’t running yet. Players are establishing strategy and watching each other closely to see what they are buying.

The engines kick into gear – Early investments have born fruit and times are good; there’s lots of gold flying around now. If they’ve bought their cards right, their playing powerful combos and acquiring excellent cards every turn – it’s all very satisfying. If there are attacks, interaction increases and players begin to be scared of what their opponent’s decks can do. Suddenly the province looks like it might soon be consistently in reach…

The race to the end – The players can see as their opponents engines grow powerful, the end is suddenly not so far away. At some point someone has to crack and start buying those provinces. Once they do, all hell will break loose and people will be furiously acquiring victory cards left right and centre. As they do some of the engines start to break-up under the pressure but everyone must press onto the end. Who will get that last VP card? It all hinges on the long term results of those earlier choices and the luck of the draw.

The most important cause of Dominion’s arc is that VP pivot point. Because, even though the pivot point will be slightly different for different players, player’s rational responses to the game’s balance and the logic of game theory itself ensures it will normally happen at a similar time for everyone. The difference between the 1st and 2nd acts would exist anyway, but that emotional high point between acts 2 and 3 – the dreaded moment someone cracks first and switches mode to VP acquisition, would be missing.

Of course that’s not to say you can’t create arc without the elegance of cards solution. Many excellent preceding games have this same pivot point where the goal switches from currency to victory point acquisition. Take the classic eurogame and former BGG no1 Puerto Rico. At some point in the game, money becomes fairly unimportant. Instead, you must switch to scoring VPs, primarily by either shipping goods or building to victory. How is this moment forced in the design? By a series of different means that forces this arc: It becomes possible to close out the game by covering the mat. Large buildings that cover more space come into reach which themselves score points and goods production reaches a point where shipping actions generate large numbers of points. Suddenly the Trading house looks like a less attractive destination for produce than sending it back to the “old world”.

How does Dominion do it? Literally by just including largely useless victory points in the deck, which leads players to quickly discover they must balance acquisition of these. At a single stroke, a narrative arc comes into existence.

Graph by Morten Monrad Pedersen from his post “Pivot points, VP clogging, and catchup mechanisms”

3) The pivot point itself is an equalising mechanism that keeps the game more engaging

This fascinating post from Morten Monrad Pedersen demonstrates out another advantage of this pivot point that VP cards create: a subtle equalising effect that gives players who are ahead in VPs and intrinsic disadvantage to those that are behind and thus an – apparent – opportunity to catch-up.

Morten’s excellent post – and the subsequent comments, goes into substantial detail and discussion on the subject, but in essence, the idea is very straightforward. If you already have more VP, then because the clogging effect of VP in your deck reduces engine efficiency, you will begin to acquire them more slowly. Players with fewer VP cards will buy more rapidly and close the VP gap faster than the player who is ahead can add a greater lead. As Morten’s very useful graph above illustrates, players who buy VP early will, all other things being equal, acquired at a slower rate. Players who buy late will more readily purchase and they will end up in a similar place towards the very end.

The choice of when to pivot still matters hugely because one timing will be better than another. But the gap created is small, rather than exaggerated.

The subsequent comments debate whether or not this is truly a catch-up/runaway leader correction mechanism if you strictly define it as a way for less experienced players to catch-up with more experienced ones. If the correct choice is to buy VP later anyway, then arguably you just have the illusion of catch-up, when – in reality – the person who waited to build the more powerful engine was actually destined to be ahead. But while these are fascinating, and absolutely worth a read, they miss the main point for me. The problem is not with players actually being close or not. The problem is whether players feel like they are still within reach of winning or not. The scores being relatively close – however that is achieved – make it feel like winning is still possible for the trailing player. Only incredibly seasoned veterans can be utterly unswayed by that; and if they play by choice that often, it’s probably not a feature they need for a satisfying experience.

To achieve this effect, to make it feel like a close game for most players, Dominion doesn’t need to do anything special. The logic of the pivot points once again provides this benefit for free.

What do designers have to learn from this choice?

Apart from anything else, there are at least two really concrete lessons to be learned from the decision Donald X Vaccarino to include ‘useless’ VP cards in the deck.

First this choices demonstrates the sheer power of creative constraint. By forcing himself to stick to the idea that everything had to be in the deck – to really take the idea to its extreme – he made himself take the road less travelled. As a result, he ended-up somewhere new.

This won’t always be the right choice. I know I’ve encountered many designs (especially unpublished designs) where the creator’s obsession with maintaining a particular constraint for their own aesthetic taste came at expense of their player’s experience. But there is no reason not to try to push a design into a hard constraint for your players, even if it ultimately doesn’t bear fruit. If a designer sticks to the comfortable they are more likely to fall back on a pre-established methods and produce a game this similar to the thousands upon thousands of titles that already exist. Quite simply because the problem remains the same, the solution doesn’t change either. By determing “everything had to be in the deck” Vaccarino made himself a new problem to solve.

Second it demonstrates the enormous value there is in finding a mechanic that that can do a lot of work. Time and time again, the enormous effects of this decision are felt across the same: arc, strategic possibilities, balance and perceived fairness. Why? Because it exploits some pretty basic physical properties of how decks work (one card comes at the expense of having another). Exploiting such root properties tends to yield very large returns on investment because they affect everything.

Such dramatic examples are rare, but where we can find a single thing that does so much heavy lifting we increase the possibilities for our players while lowering the burden of learning. That is the epitome of streamlined design.

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