Dominion Strategy

As the days get shorter and colder, it's a good time of year to play board games. One of my favourites is Dominion and for this post I decided to read up on some strategies for it.

Dominion is a card game where each player has their own deck that they add to each turn. The major types of cards include money, actions, and victory points. Each turn, a player draws five cards from their deck into their hand and plays them if possible (by default, a single action and single purchase are allowed). Actions have various effects (including drawing more cards and/or allowing more actions) and money can be used to buy new cards; actions that are performed and money that is spent in a turn get placed in a discard pile and shuffled back into the player's deck when it runs out. Victory points generally have no use during the game—with too many in a deck, a player could draw a hand that doesn't allow any actions or purchases—but are required to win.

I'll be discussing three strategies in this post. They are not original to me, so follow the links for more details.

The first strategy to consider is called Big Money. This strategy ignores actions and focuses on buying money (in the highest denomination you can afford), or the most valuable victory point card if you can afford it. The idea behind this strategy is that, since you only have five cards in your hand each round, you want the average monetary value to be high enough to regularly be able to afford to buy the highest-value victory point card. This requires keeping the ratio of money cards to victory point cards at the right level. This strategy is not the strongest in the game, but it is considered a good benchmark: when buying an action card you should ask whether its worth the opportunity cost of buying money and increasing your expected value of money per turn for the rest of the game.

The next strategy to consider is called Engine. In contrast to Big Money which aims to maximize the expected value of money in your 5-card hand each turn, Engine strategies focus on chaining actions together to go through more cards each turn. A strong engine can potentially cycle your entire deck through your hand every turn. Cards or a combination of cards that grant extra actions and extra draws into your hand are the centrepiece of this strategy. In addition to the cards that drive the Engine, you'll also need a payload: an action that benefits you (e.g. granting extra money or multiple buys) or attacks your opponents.

The final strategy that I'm going to mention in this post is the Rush. The game ends when three of the piles of available cards to buy have been depleted. So this strategy focuses on getting lots of cheap cards to end the game quickly before your opponents' strategies have had a chance to take full effect.

Some people have programmed simulators to compare various implementations of these and other strategies. This one can be used online in your browser. This one has more features but requires a download (so I haven't tried it).

I've heard from some friends that you can play Dominion online, although I've only played in person myself.

Also on the topic of board game strategy is this advice from Eric Raymond:

I have a rule: when in doubt, play to maximize the breadth of your option tree. Actually, you should often choose option-maximizing moves over moves with a slightly higher immediate payoff, especially early in the game and most especially if the effect of investing in options is cumulative.

For Dominion, I'm not sure this is the best idea since adding cards to your deck just in case they're useful later will "dilute" your deck of the cards you want to draw with high probability for your core strategy. However, for other games I've written about in the past I think it's very relevant. In Ticket to Ride, developing a network with good connectivity increases the chance that future missions you draw will already be mostly fulfilled. In Privateer, increasing the speed of your ship keeps your options open for various paths to fame and riches.