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The online board game Dominion is the only thing keeping me sane during coronavirus

And it’s free to play online!

A physical game of Dominion in progress.
Hubert Figuière

The card game Dominion, specifically its online version, is the most addictive time-waster I’ve ever encountered.

Before I started writing this article, I procrastinated for a bit by visiting Dominion.games, the game’s website. After I wrote the intro I went back and played a little more. Last week, I played an online Dominion game with my wife and two good friends; when one friend spent a bit too much time on his turn, I went back to Dominion.games, intent on procrastinating by playing a bit, before realizing I already was in the middle of a game. I am so used to killing time using Dominion that I tried to kill time during a Dominion game by starting another Dominion game.

That is how habit-forming online Dominion is, and why it’s become such a deeply essential part of my work-from-home life during the coronavirus pandemic. Actually, I say “my work-from-home life,” but that’s misleading, as it implies that I didn’t play Dominion on my work laptop while working in Vox.com’s DC office. Obviously, I did. I played so often and so flagrantly that my editor, after noticing it a bunch of times, was inspired to buy his own physical copy of the game. I still got my work done; I’m not a total mess. But there was a lot of Dominion in between stories.

Playing the base version of Dominion online is free. You can play against the computer or against real people. If you’re working from home, or if you’re currently out of work/school and trying to pass time, sign up. Before long you’ll be in as deep a hole as me, paying €3.90 a month (about $4.34 right now) for a “gold subscription” including all 13 of the game’s expansion sets, cranking through upward of 10 games a day.

This is your life now. Get into it.

How Dominion works

Technically, Dominion is a game about monarchs building a land empire. As creator Donald X. Vaccarino explains in the rulebook, “You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. … You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. … Several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury.”

But while this kind of medieval conquest is the theme of Dominion, it’s only that: a theme. At its heart, Dominion is a very abstract strategy game whose game mechanics all happen to have vaguely medieval names.

Dominion is what’s known as a “deck-building” game. Players start with a deck of 10 cards: seven Coppers, which are “treasure” cards that give you one “coin” each so you can buy more cards, and three Estates, which are “victory” cards that give you one “victory point” each. The player with the most victory points at the game’s end wins.

If you’ve played Settlers of Catan, the treasure cards are similar to resource cards in that game. But instead of picking them up from a common pool, you buy them once and then they recirculate within your deck. And while victory cards give you points, much like settlements or cities in Catan, they also clog up your deck, since unlike treasure or action cards, you can’t do anything with them once you draw them into your hand.

Each turn, every player take five cards from the top of their deck. They can then play one “action,” and buy one new card. You start the game with no action cards, but can buy them from the board and they get shuffled into your deck. Actions offer various benefits — letting you draw more cards from your deck, or giving you more money to buy cards, or allowing you to play more than one action or buy more than one card.

You can also buy treasure cards (like Silver or Gold, which offer two and three coins each respectively), and more valuable victory cards, like Province cards, which cost eight coins and offer six victory points each. At the end of each turn, you discard everything left in your hand, and every card you played or bought. When your deck runs out, you shuffle your discard pile, it becomes your new deck, and you draw again.

When players have bought all of the Province cards, or one of the three other types of cards on the board (say, if three different action cards are all bought up), the game is over.

And … that’s it. The game’s expansions complicate this basic ruleset in various ways, but the core of Dominion is dead-simple. Draw five cards. Play some of the cards. Buy a new card. Discard everything you played and bought. Draw five more cards. Repeat.

As with other abstract strategy games like chess or Go, this simple ruleset quickly spirals into complex strategic decision-making. In most Dominion games, the optimal strategy is to buy Provinces as fast as possible. At the start of the game, the only treasure cards you have are Coppers, so the best you hand you can draw from your deck of 10 is a hand of five Coppers. That would give you five coins to spend, which isn’t enough to buy a Province. So you have to buy new treasures. But there’s an opportunity cost: Every time you buy a Silver or Gold, you’re doing that instead of buying an action card, which might be more valuable.

The game is full of complex tradeoffs like that. And unlike collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering or Hearthstone, your odds of winning don’t depend on you shelling out for the best cards you can find. Everyone starts each game on equal footing, with seven Coppers and three Estates. You all have to build your decks from the same starting point.

The cards you play with each time are randomly selected, too, so no two Dominion games are exactly alike. There are so many different ways the board can look, so many different combinations that enable different strategies, that it’s effectively infinitely replayable. I love the train board game Ticket to Ride, but after a few plays I realized that there’s an optimal train route on the US map that you should basically always build. I’ve never hit a point like that in Dominion.

The easiest way to learn is to play online, and it only takes 5 minutes

The beginning of a typical game of Dominion Online.
Dominion.games

That all might sound intimidatingly intricate. And indeed this intricacy sometimes discourages players in real life — where you have to actually pull out physical cards and shuffle them — from expanding beyond the base set. (The game gets better and better with every expansion you add.) The wonderful thing about online Dominion, though, is that it enables you to learn the game very quickly, and it lets you try out unfamiliar cards and expansions without shelling out $40-odd bucks for each box.

If you don’t believe me, sign up and start a game against a bot right now. For your first game, follow a few simple guidelines: Don’t buy any of the 10 action cards presented in front of you. Every turn, if you have three or more Coppers in your hand, buy a Silver. Keep doing that until you draw Coppers and Silvers that add up to six or seven coins, in which case, buy a Gold. If your cards add up to eight coins or more, buy a Province.

This is called a “Big Money” strategy. It is dead-simple to execute, and you can play a full game online this way in about five minutes. After that, you should start to have a handle on the rules. Then you can experiment. Buy a few action cards. See what they do. See if you beat a bot by more points, or more often, by buying certain action cards.

This is all way easier to get experience doing online than in person, where games take much longer to play and set up.

The downside of online play is that it’s largely a solitary activity. The bots are useful because they’re fast, but they are also shockingly unskilled at times. It’s really better to play against people, and that’s free too, so long as you are okay only using the base set of cards and no expansions.

The anonymous online Dominion community is great (there’s even a regular Dominion League that’s very fun), but I’ve found it especially rewarding to play online against friends. My wife and I can’t meet friends for board games in person right now, but we can FaceTime friends while all of us duke it out in Dominion. We get to discover new cards and how they work together, and get in some vital quarantine-time socializing.

We’ve had three online Dominion parties so far during the coronavirus pandemic, and I suspect we’ll have a dozen more before the social distancing period is over. For my money, it’s the best remote party type for this increasingly isolated time. And while I’m mostly playing against real-life friends, if you ever get randomly matched with the user @dylanmatthews, it would be my pleasure to do battle.

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