Saturday, January 25, 2014

I don't care about you

When the boardgame Dominion first came out I loved it and played a ton.  It is a deckbuilding game where you start out the game with a deck of terrible cards and buy things to make your deck better and score points.  Eventually though I ran into the problem that Dominion was all about strategy and had pretty trivial tactical decisions.  Figuring out whether or not I was going for a big deck Gardens strategy or a lean Chapel - Silver - Gold type strategy was interesting but on each turn my decision was usually trivial.  In addition to trivial decisions on most turns there was also the issue that I really didn't care what my opponent did most of the time - we could easily have just played in separate rooms and shouted when we bought a fourth Province.  I understand that Dominion expansions have improved this situation somewhat but they haven't done so enough to make me really interested in the game again.

The fundamental problem to my mind is that the options that exist for purchases are always the same turn after turn.  Your turn most of the time can be simply summed up by how many gold pieces your hand is worth and then you buy the thing that you knew you were going to buy with that many gold.  It turns out that I do like strategy discussions but I don't like sitting around shuffling cards watching other people count while waiting to see how my strategy plays out.

I have recently been playing some Ascension and I think it really managed to do the whole deckbuilding thing much better.  The two critical differences are that instead of a huge list of things to buy there are six things from a deck of random stuff.  You can have a strategy but since every thing that is bought ends up being immediately replaced by something random you have to adapt on each turn.  You can decide that you really want to run a Mechana Construct strategy but when there aren't any Mechana cards you still have to make choices.

The second thing that changes everything is that currency is split into two types.  Defining your hand by two numbers instead of one may not seem like a huge difference but it really does offer a huge range of different choices when combined with the cards that may be available.  Also because cards you buy are replaced immediately there can be a lot of thought put into deciding which currency you use first.  Combine that with the various cards effects that can cause you to discard or make choices on which resources to gain and the decision tree for any given turn often becomes extremely complex.

The big thing that I like better about Ascension is that I really do care what my opponent does.  I need to read all of the cards and compare their effects on my board position as well as my opponent's.  Sometimes I need to draft defensively, sometimes not, but paying attention to what my opponents do is important and their choices really do affect my play.  The simple summary of the situation for me is that Dominion is a lot more about shuffling and Ascension is a lot more about thinking so Ascension has a lot more appeal.  If I had a robot shuffling for me and Dominion turns only took 2-3 seconds then my mind might change but I don't see that happening at my dinner table anytime soon.


  1. I've played other deck building games with a similar setup (I think both the Marvel and DC games are like that) and I often find myself getting frustrated because of the wide variance in power levels between cards and between available card costs. There is something to be said for a game where you can't plot out all your moves from the start but when a game comes down I got to buy a 4 and a 0 with my 5-2 split and you got to buy a 5 and a 2 with yours... Or when the one super powerful attack card was first available for purchase on my turn instead of on yours... It just feels like all decisions I made are irrelevant.

  2. Good point Nick. Carry over of resources from one turn to another might help that, with whatever decay factor (imagine if you can spend 2$ to have 1$ next turn).

    Or, instead of one big deck of all cards to buy, the cards to buy where sorted by cost-based decks. You'd always have a 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 cost item to buy (does not work with two-factor costs very well)

    Another way to approach that problem would be to have buying not be a one-turn thing in general. Suppose each thing you want to acquire is behind some barrier that you have to spend resources to pass (more efficiently slowly, less efficiently fast), or somesuch.


  3. I find two player Legendary (The Marvel deck building game) has a decent balance of good choices, and not as much random what-you-get-to-buy luck (but 4 player games certainly have the problem Nick describes).


  4. @Nick

    The thing that fixes this in Ascension is that there are things to do with your resources at all times. You can always buy a 2 or 3 cost thing with one resource or a 2 cost thing with your other resource. The cards that come up randomly are better than those but not that much better so your splits aren't brutally punishing. It does happen that a fantastic 5 cost comes up and you cry at your 4/1 and 4/1 split but there is never a 0 situation.

  5. I've always found the starting cards in these sorts of games to be abysmally bad compared to the 'real' cards. It's like silver in Dominion when you're playing with a powerful setup. Sure, you can always go and buy silver. Sure, silver is better than copper. But you're a lot worse off if you're forced to do it and the other person gets something interesting and powerful to build a real deck instead.

    These sorts of games are all about building an incremental advantage with your deck power and snowballing it into a victory. The last time I played the DC deck building game I got a lucky start (I forget exactly how but I think it had something to do with getting a card that let me remove other cards from my deck) and ended up beating the other three players combined because I was consistently able to buy the expensive cards and fight the tougher monsters because of that early game advantage. I'd like to think I also played my position well but I won that game because I got a lucky start and not because I'm actually better at the game than the other people.

    The same was true in the last game of Legendary I played, but this time it wasn't that I had a lucky start it's that Duncan had an unlucky one. He ended up scoring less than half what the rest of us did, and I assure you he's a much better player of that game than we were since the rest of us had played maybe twice between us all.

    In both games Duncan recognized what was going on. He knew I'd won the first one and that he'd lost the second one and he knew that within the first couple times around the table. I don't know that they ended up being terribly fun experiences for him? It's the risk you take when you're playing a game with unbalanced starting positions I guess. Like the original Thunderstone, actually, with the monsters that would kill half your starting deck for you and only you.

    I can see how people might want that in a game, but I tend to find that sort of thing to be very frustrating.

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