Welcome back to dinner with Donald, dining with Dominion. I am enjoying a delightful meal at Ole’s Waffle Shop with the one and only Donald X Vaccarino, designer of Spiel des Jahres winners Kingdom Builder and Dominion. We are midway through our repast, lounging in the booth, recollecting about the early days of Dominion design.
DTD: But I guess it [Dominion] changed an awful lot during the development process. Did you run into that at all when Dominion was getting published? How was the development process, the publishing process?
DXV: If you played it the first night, and then played it when it came out… It came out in 2008. The first time was in 2006. So you’re trying to remember, you would be trying to figure out what had changed between those two versions.
DTD: Very similar then.
DXV: Well, there’s very little to it. Some things did change. Initially, when you shuffled, you shuffled in the cards… When you had to draw cards and there weren’t enough left, you shuffled those [extras] in too. You didn’t draw them. So you might keep missing a card. It was at the bottom.
DXV: And the number of Curses scaled differently, though not from when I showed it to Rio Grande, but from the first night. At first they were just like 45 curses, no matter how many players. You would have to buy multiple copies of the expansion if you want as many curses as I have had…
DTD: Yeah. Well, the game could be an expansion unto itself.
DXV: Uh, anyway there are a few little things, but you know there were Province, Duchy, Estate. Except that Province was only worth 5. Copper, Silver, Gold just as published, except on day one they didn’t have names. They were just the treasure cards.
DTD: I’m just always curious about the back story, about what’s changed and what happened.
Curse cards in Dominion came with the base game, and not only filled the deck with garbage, but also lost the player 1 point each at the end of the game. The early prototyle Confusion cards similarly clogged up the deck, but did not give any other penalty. In a standard game, there are 10 Curses in play per player, not counting the first player.
DTD: Got it. So, the expansions to Dominion: Were those ideas that you had all along, or did the popularity of the game drive wanting to put in expansions? Do you understand what I’m trying to get at? I know I worded it really weird.
DXV: [laughs] You know, at first there were just some cards. And I made more cards. To make some variety. How many cards do I need?
DTD: Well sure, it kind of begs for more cards. Yeah.
DXV: And finally, I had some set of cards, and I decided “OK, we’ll call these 20 the main set and these 15 the first expansion, and these 15 second expansion.”
DTD: Oh nice.
DXV: And as I said, my friends just wanted to play Dominion. So I was like, “OK, I’ll make more expansions.” And I expanded the expansions, so they were 20 cards. And I made three more expansions. So, when I showed the game to Rio Grande…
DTD: You already had a lot of it.
DXV: I had a main game and five 20-card expansions. Which more or less corresponds to Intrigue, Seaside and Hinterlands combined. I split them up later into two expansions. Prosperity. An expansion called War that eventually turned into Dark Ages but has not much in common with it.
DXV: And Alchemy was a large expansion. And at some point… So now, I’m just explaining where these expansions come from. So, at some point Hans im Glück wanted small expansions. I think what they had in mind was like 5-card expansions.
Alchemy is the 3rd expansion to Dominion, and is smaller expansion, adding only 12 new card types to the game.
DXV: But I didn’t want to go below a certain size, because if you just bought random sets of products I wanted the ratio of certain effects to be good. But there’s a good number of Villages and so on. And so, whatever the small size is, that’s as close as I can make it, right? If it’s five cards, it’s hopeless.
DTD: It would throw the balance off if people bought the wrong ones.
DXV: Yeah, and I don’t know if I would worry about that now. Like, how many people buy some weird subset? But I was worried about it, and so I was willing to go down to the size that Alchemy was, and they wanted it right away. They wanted it, you know, “We want a tiny expansion. We want it today.” And so, Alchemy I could split a chunk off of, so I split it in half and made [the current] Alchemy. And that meant, they were going to want more small expansions. And so, Cornucopia and Guilds were, have a fair amount of new material that wasn’t in the original five expansions.
Alchemy, Cornucopia, and Guils are considered the small expansions, each box containing 150 cards. The larger expansions have between 300 and 500 cards each.
DXV: And of course I split up Seaside and Hinterlands, and they both got new material. And then Dark Ages, which started as War, mostly got new cards along the way, during the process of publishing all of these original expansions. And so, at that point, you know there’s still an ideas file.
DTD: You’ve still got ideas for other things to put in the mix.
DXV: At that point, there was still an ideas file of stuff I could do, but my plan was certainly to try to switch to not pumping out the expansions at two a year, and to try to make other games, too. The key thing about Dominion is that it’s not so much that it’s a cash cow, as that it’s a satisfaction cow.
I am fascinated and bewitched by the concept of a “satisfaction cow.” I believe I am drawn to her lowing in the mists of time.
DXV: If I make a new expansion… Because I don’t necessarily need, I don’t need to make a new expansion. So if I make a new expansion, there’ll be people who want to play it, and are happy to play it. Play testers who want to play test it. It’ll be fun. It’s just a good project eight ways from Sunday. There’s a publisher who wants to publish it. And any other game, maybe it won’t work so well. Playtesters won’t want to play it. I have to find a publisher. Who knows if we’ll have an audience? Initially I had big plans to make some Dominion spin-offs that were deck building, but were much different otherwise. And the first one turned into Kingdom Builder.
Kingdom Builder, a card-driven area-control game with pretty much zero deck building, was the Spiel des Jahres winner in 2012.
DTD: Oh. OK.
DXV: And the second one turned into Temporum. I didn’t need to include the deck building, just to include it. I wasn’t cashing in on Dominion. I was just trying to make a good game. And so, at some point it was like, “Ah, you know, Kingdom Builder will be better if I just take that part out, and there’s just terrain cards.”
DTD: I was going to say, I don’t see a lot of deckbuilding DNA in Kingdom Builder.
DXV: Right. You play cards to take over squares and hexes on the board. And taking over hexes got you cards. And now instead, you just have a terrain card and put pieces on the board.
DTD: OK. So, are you still excited about Dominion? Or have I interrupted a thought process?
DXV: Yeah. So, I feel like every time people ask…
DTD: I know I ask the same things everyone asks.
DXV: Oh man, the first question in the first interview was “What question do you get asked most often in interviews?” When people would ask, it was not in an interview… When people would ask, “Are there any more Dominion expansions?” I would say, “Well, probably.” I mean, I’ve [got] no planned expansions, but there will probably be more. The publisher will want one, the fans will want one.
DXV: It’ll be a good project. But a lot of people decided probably there would be no more expansions after Guilds. But there were. There at that point when it was a good project, and so since then… I’ve been trying to get in these periods of working on other projects, or playing games that aren’t mine. And not just work on Dominion.
Dominion: Guilds came out in 2013, and was the 8th expansion out of the current 14. It would be two years between Guilds and the next expansion, Adventures.
DXV: And the current situation is that I stopped having game nights due to the pandemic. And then I started playing games with my daughter. And I finally got her to try Dominion. And I made just a few cards for external play testers to play, If they could manage to get in a game. And then my daughter started playing, so I was back to making Dominion expansions.
DTD: Awesome. It’s gotta be tough. You’ve got a huge hit. And there’s this expectation to keep working on it, but I was curious how much is obligation and how much is excitement about the games still. It’s like rock and roll stars getting asked to play the same song over and over.
DXV: That doesn’t… I don’t think that’s apt.
Arlo Guthrie, son of folk singer Woodie Guthrie, became famous with the 1967 hit Alice’s Restaurant, a long story about the draft and a general anti-war sentiment. Because of the popularity of the song, at every concert Arlo was asked to play it, but possibly because it clocked in at 18.5 minutes, Arlo simply stopped taking the requests. Interestingly, Alice’s Restaurant was made into a film in 1969, and at 111 minutes, it was exactly 6 times the length of the song.
DXV: No, I think it’s more like when the artist decides, “I don’t wanna… You know, I’m sick of this folk stuff. I’m going to go ambient, or whatever.” That would be an example that would be apt, right?
I will be honest. At the time of the interview, I did not understand this comparison at all. But now, I have discovered that Ambient music is a new genre, a fusion of jazz, electronic music, new age, modern classical and others. And this makes Donald X’s comparison very … apt.
DXV: Right? Dominion is different every time. I mean, this is a key thing I focus on in my games. It’s something I like. I want variety. I want to have different experiences every time I play. There are games where, you know, the experience the first time you play is great. But it’s always that experience, and I’m just not going to ever play those games very many times. And it’s great for playtesting, too. Because you need to play the game a lot of times, and if it has so much variety then then you’re always having fun. It makes it harder to know that you’ve done perfectly, but at the same time less important.
DTD: I mean, it really sounds to me like you’re still excited about Dominion. I think that’s the important point.
DXV: Yeah, I had more than enough stuff. You know, I’m working on the expansion now that’s in the less fun stages of proof-reading and looking at sketches.
DXV: And, you know we’re hoping it will come out in October, but it always gets delayed and in this era. It may get delayed months for all I know.
DTD: Oh, sure.
The Allies expansion is expected to release in December 2021. Most games are being delayed due to the extended world-wide shipping crisis currently ongoing.
DXV: So, it’s printed in Germany rather than in China, so it won’t be as bad. But I had leftover stuff that could go in another expansion. So you know, I expect there will be another one [after Allies].
DTD: Cool. Well, I mean, if you’re still excited to add new ideas and new things to it, then like you said, who could predict? There might just keep being expansions if there keeps being good ideas.
DXV: It might. I mean, it makes a lot more sense to make spin offs. Way more sense. In addition to the possibility, you know, of just making new games. And the audience for Dominion expansions has to go down, because while there are people who are just going to buy every expansion and be happy, and the online players who would very much like just more expansions to come out.
DXV: You know, people reach a point where they’re like, “I need to own some games that aren’t Dominion.” Or, you know, you have so much variety. You know, before Adventures. And I think from Adventures on, the expansions are so much better, and they’re so packed with content. There’s so much content relative to the earlier expansions.
Adventures was the 9th Dominion expansion, releasing in 2015.
DXV: But at that point, if Adventures had never come out? You add so much variety to this game. Did you need it?
DTD: Well, it’s the old music player marketing question – they used to sell a music player because it could hold 60 million songs. Which nobody in their lifetime could ever listen to.
DXV: Right. I mean you can’t… That is hugely tangential. You can’t listen to more than a minute per minute as… I don’t know how to pronounce his name, but that famous rock critic says [Robert Christgau].
“Hugely tangential” is on my business card.
DTD: I don’t know who it is but…
DTD: Yes, I don’t know how to pronounce it either. I have no extra info for you.
Take No Prisoners is a live album, and contains ad lib speeches by Lou Reed between songs, including the origins of “Walk on the Wild Side”, and a bit of a rant against critics, particularly Robert Christgau. Christgau gave the album a C+, but thanked Reed for pronouncing his name correctly. The “t” is pronounced. Official pronunciation in IPA is “krɪstɡaʊ”.
DXV: You know, once the amount of music coming out in a year is more than the number of minutes in the year, that’s that. You’re not listening to it all, and that’s the situation.
There are 525,600 minutes in a year. If an average song is 4 minutes, this equates to 131,400 songs. It is very difficult to estimate how many songs are released each year, but in February 2021, Spotify reported 60,000 new songs uploaded per day on its streaming platform. You cannot listen to them all.
DTD: Right. And board games seem to have this tremendous drive now, for just more and more and more new content. Which nobody actually has enough time to play. The amount of new games coming out is ridiculous.
BGG reports about 4100 games released in the year 2021. If they each took one hour to play, you could just barely play them all if you use every single waking hour.
DXV: I know at some point in the past, some people commented to me that they felt that… It was at the big prize, the Spiel des Jahres… that companies were churning out games, because they’re like lottery tickets. And the big thing about it, and I don’t know how much that’s holding, how much that’s true. And how much it’s true today.
DTD: I know a lot of the game companies have specifically said they are making less games, just to combat that notion. But I don’t know how true it really is. But that’s been the official statement for a year or two.
DXV: The games, they’re low risk and unlikely to pay off. So you could make a lot of them if you want and see.
DTD: And there were definitely companies that were putting out lots of games. Many of which were forgotten.
DXV: I never even heard about them.
DTD: Ah well, board game journalist here. So, I’ve heard about all of them. [laughs] For good or for bad.
DXV: So, did I finish answering whatever these questions were?
DTD: Yes. I apologize. I don’t try to do “formal interview” at all. Mostly I just chit chat. Don’t feel like you have to exactly answer every dumb thing that falls out of my mouth.
DXV: I just like to. I like to answer everything. I would say it’s a pretty good format so far, except that sometimes I want to spend more time eating. [laughs]
Unfortunately, I tend not to give my interview victims enough quiet time to just eat. I invite them out for a meal, then make them talk nonstop. I think thus far they have all just been too polite.
DTD: I apologize. You want me to tell you some stories? [laughs]
DXV: That’s OK, you can ask questions or whatever you want. I’m getting it in.
DTD: So, you said that you did some programming when you were starting on this stuff.
DXV: Oh yeah, I was a computer programmer for many years, and I did speech recognition and related stuff. And then programmed dialysis machines.
DTD: Well, there, you go. I just find it fascinating that there’s such a high percentage of computer people and programmers in board gaming now.
DXV: Well, math people.
DTD: I think it’s… Yeah, analytic people. People who think in algorithms and formulae. Do you think that…
DXV: … it makes sense?
DTD: Well, I think it makes sense, but do you think the kind of games that you’re making are directly from that? Do you think that having combinatorial games with cards that play off of each other, you think that that comes from a programming background? I know it’s probably impossible to answer that.
DXV: It doesn’t come from that. That’s not why I’m doing it. But it is helpful when you’re trying to do it well. You know, the cards are little computer programs, and you’ve got this impossible task, of you want the wording to be friendly, so everyone knows what the card does, without struggling. And you want it to be precise, so that when it interacts with some other card in a way you didn’t anticipate, they can tell what’s supposed to happen. And those 2 things are at odds.
DTD: Yeah, there’s the battle between complexity and simplicity.
DXV: There’s just the battle against complexity. I guess I’m not quite sure what you mean.
DTD: Well, games seem to strive to make more and more interesting decisions, which leads to complexity. But the push from the player’s side is, it can’t be too complex or else you lose them. So, you have a push for interest which drives complexity, and you have a push for playability which drives simplicity.
DXV: I mean, Richard Garfield at one point said that the enfranchised players tended to want the game to get more complex. So, you’d want to start simple, then add complex expansions.
Richard Garfield may have designed a successful game or two. Richard, call me. Let’s get coffee.
DXV: For me, I don’t view that as a struggle, the fight between simplicity and complexity, because I’m just wholeheartedly on the simplicity side. Instead, it’s a struggle between… It’s a struggle between complexity and anything else you want. Because complexity is a panacea.
DTD: [laughs] OK….
DXV: There are all these things. All these issues that will come up, that you solve by making it more complex.
DTD: That makes total sense.
DXV: Yeah, you know, this card is a little weak. We add a line of text, and now… And you know, it’s always big grades. You know, you can’t just switch a number on a Dominion card, and now it’s perfect. I mean, sometimes you can, because it was that much off. But typically it’s like, “Well, it was +2 coins and this bonus, and it can’t be +2.5 coins.” And so, you end up adding sentences of text. This card is too boring, but we could add a sentence of text.
DTD: And I’ve heard designers say you never want to put exceptions into your rules or your text. You want to try to minimize exceptions and edge cases. You can’t say this card adds two, except when it’s with this card, but especially when it’s with that card, and never when it’s with this card.
DXV: Well sure. Sometimes you will have a combo, an interaction, you need to stop. A combo you need to stop. And you won’t refer to the card by name, but you’ll do one of several other tricks to deal with the combo. You know, it may be that… And you will affect other things. But that will be fine. I’m not quite sure what I’m arguing against. [laughs]
DTD: I think we’re just having, you know one of these goes-nowhere, Aristotlean arguments.
I, personally, am just rambling nonsensically.
DXV: Anyway, flavor is another one. It’s really good to have good flavor. And flavor adds complexity. The most flavorful Dominion expansion is the most complex. By a lot. Both ways. You know. I don’t know how familiar you are with the later expansions.
DTD: I’ve played them, yeah.
DXV: Have you played Nocturne?
DXV: Great, so there’s “Leprechaun”. So much more flavorful than a card from earlier expansions, right? Like “Wharf” is “now and next turn you get +2 cards, plus one buy”. It’s like, there’s no connection to wharfs there, right? It’s just some name on a card.
DTD: Right, the thematic connection just isn’t there.
DXV: There’s a thematic connection between water and duration cards, that I established by just doing that. So that’s good. It’s good to have any of those you can get, right? Like all the +2 action cards being a “village”. That really helps people, and it’s nice. It makes your flavor better, even if it’s just… If you just chose them.
DXV: So, Leprechaun is like, if you have exactly 7 cards in play, you get a wish. And otherwise you get a hex. And then it gains a gold.
Our delightful waitress made a quick appearance to make sure we were doing fine. I must have looked hungry or something. Who am I fooling – I am always hungry.
DXV: And so, you could even read the text for this card, and guess that it was called Leprechaun, which you could never do for Wharf, right?
DXV: But that flavor came at the cost of this… You know, this ability that isn’t super complicated, but is more complicated than it would have been just for the sake of favor. But then of course, it has the hexes which are way over the top complex, because it’s just pile of 12 bad things that can happen to you.
DTD: You gotta add a whole new mechanism, yeah?
DXV: So anyway, so it’s the thing that you’re frequently in, in these situations: What do you care about more? And I care about gameplay the most.
DXV: And so, sometimes complexity loses out to gameplay, and we’ve got the more complex thing. And flavor loses out to gameplay. But I don’t see it as being simplicity fighting with complexity, because I just want simplicity.
I love this idea of evolving simplicity, or devolving complexity, over time. And I do not think I have had it debated quite this well to me before. If Donald X had a microphone, I feel he should have dropped it.
DTD: I guess, I’ve been fixated for a long time about… I feel like the general state of board gaming has been moving more towards a simplicity. Which I think is a good thing. I compare games I played in the 1970’s and 1980’s to games I play now, and it seems like the gold standard is to have an elegant, easy to understand game, with a lot of choices in gameplay once it’s there. But in essence it’s a very simple ruleset. And that was definitely not the case in the 70s, where games had big, huge, thick rulebooks, and they wanted realism. They wanted every edge case.
DXV: Right. I mean the key thing about older games is that… It’s two things. One is that they simulated things.
Boom. Mic hits formica diner table.
DXV: Just endlessly, they would simulate something, and that’s where it would all come from.
DTD: Realism was the goal, yeah.
DXV: As opposed to trying to think of what would be… Like, a lot of my games in the 90s were based on a mechanic. It starts with, “What are we going to do in the game? What kind of decisions are we going to make that will be interesting and different from other games?” And I would have that first, before I had any of the other pieces. It would be, like in the case of Nefarious. It’s a game where we’re all going make a decision at the same time, reveal our choices, and you’ll get paid off based on other people making decisions you anticipated.
DXV: And then it’s like, “OK, what will it be? Mad scientists?” And it you know, it was all that direction. But these older games are all based on, you know, “We’re going to simulate this war.” Or whatever it is. And then having all these details. And the second aspect of it, is it was all just throwing stuff at the wall. There was there was no… And I don’t mean to put down people, who in some cases made good games…
DXV: But yeah, it wasn’t… You know, games survive because people like them, and why wouldn’t they? But yeah, but there was no, you know, there was no filter on the other end. There was no…
DTD: I guess I always put it down to the tastes of the players. Rather than the environment of designing it. And it sounds like you’re pushing more towards the environment of the design. That it was “see what sticks” and make simulations going off of the war games.
DXV: Oh sure. Yeah, I mean, I think people, just, you know, tried games and it wasn’t like they were thinking “What could make for interesting decisions?” They were just, “Here, we made this simulation. It’s this racing game, and it simulates racing, and this is how we simulated it.” And then, maybe it was fun.
Come back next time for more deep Donald X Dominion design discussion. Next time, big boxes, strange variants, and Magic Cards!