I am lucky enough to be eating a nice brunch in a lovely diner with Dominion and Kingdom Builder designer Donald X Vaccarino. My food is nearly gone, and Dominion design questions are flying. Unfortunately, Donald’s storytelling and my rapt attention are not allowing quite enough time for my guest to eat.
DTD: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. So, having worked on Dominion for a while now, it sounds like you feel that the expansions and the game is getting more complex over time. Kind of taking that Richard Garfield approach.
We had talked earlier about Richard Garfield’s belief that enfranchised players crave complexity, so games should start simple, then add complexity with expansions. Richard Garfield is, of course, the designer behind 1997’s Dilbert Corporate Shuffle. Oh, and Magic the Gathering.
DXV: Oh well, you’re stuck with that. And I mean, I’m struggling to fight against it. You know, in the main set there’s “+3 cards.” Well, that’s been done.
DXV: Really short bits of text that are compelling get harder and harder to come by.
DTD: Oh yeah.
DXV: It’s another reason it’s really good to do a spin-off. And a spin-off cheats by putting text in the rulebook. And of course some of the Dominion expansions use this cheat, too, right? Like in Renaissance, there are Villagers and Coffers. And there’s the mat to explain what that means, and the rules in the rulebook. And I haven’t cut down on rules, because they’re there. They’re just not on the card. But now, the card can just say “+1 Coffers.”
DTD: Yeah, you’ve added a big new mechanism that applies to lots of cards, so you don’t need to put it on all the cards. Or have I misspoken?
DXV: I’m just, you know, taking a bite of pork chop.
I have been so entranced by listeening to Donald X that I forget to give him any time to eat. Needless to say, I have finished eating, and I’m not sure Donald X has gotten a chance to start.
DTD: And don’t feel obligated. I mean, I don’t want to take you away from the food. The other big trends that are going around right now, are to redo games and make big deluxe versions and reprints of games. Have you thought about this with Dominion, now that it has so much expansion and so much audience behind it. I’m sure it’s been approached to you.
DXV: About what?
DTD: Dominion. Doing a big huge deluxe edition.
DXV: Well, there’s the big box, which is just Dominion and Intrigue currently. You know, it’s a reasonable product, because it gives you a lot more variety in one box. And gives you the components necessary to play with 6 players, if you’re so foolhardy.
DXV: But I did revise Dominion and Intrigue at some point. Dropping some cards, and adding some cards to make them better.
Dominion released second editions of the core set and the Intrigue expansion, and both are packaged together in 2016’s Big Box.
DTD: Right, the Adventurer was out at one point, right?
DXV: Sure, that’s a card that got replaced.
The Adventurer card was one of the first jobs done by game designer and illustrator Ryan Laukat. Someone should interview that guy.
DTD: You get that Magic [the Gathering] effect then, where you need to keep a log of “These are the cards that are currently legal, and these are the cards that currently are not.”
DXV: The idea isn’t to gouge our fans. We like our fans, and we’re doing well enough.
DTD: Oh, no. But if you’re improving a game with expansions, you’re kind of not allowed to remove things. It’s always additive.
DXV: Sure, I mean, especially online. I mean online, everyone is fine with a card changing. Because they’re used to that from video games. This was too powerful, and now it has been nerfed. It would be great for online players, if I could go through and tweak some of the cards that are the most overpowered or underpowered. But for the physical game, you can’t do it. Anything like that you want to do, we have to do it the way we did the Intrigue and Dominion Second Editions. Where, instead of tweaking the card, we’ve just replaced it with a new one. And we’ve sold them separately. So, anyone who… No one has to feel like we’re trying to rip them off, and make them buy the whole product again.
DXV: You can just buy the new content. And if they don’t want to throw away their old content, then it’s just like a little mini-expansion. And then for new players, they get just the better cards. We’re giving them the better product, and we could do that. But, just actually just changing a card, like “Oh Wharf is powerful, and I’d like to make a little weaker. I’ll move the “+ buy” from Wharf onto Merchant Ship.” Which would be ideal. Well, I can’t do it, because, like, we can’t sell the product that’s “Here’s Wharf, but slightly weaker.” That’s a really crappy product to be trying to sell people, and some people would feel obligated by it. We don’t make them obligated to buy it. So, we have to just replace it utterly, or leave it in there.
DTD: Yeah. And I’ve seen some companies that get away with it, where they’ll sell a packet of “These are replacement cards. Replace the ones in your old version. Throw away the ones you had.” But, that’s the price of being established.
DXV: I mean, the long term fix is still, that you want to be making spin-offs instead.
DTD: You want a good game.
DXV: Instead of making expansions. You know, there are issues with making a game with a lot of expansions. You know, you want to have set up rules for yourself well enough at the beginning that you don’t blow it and get, you know, 2-card infinite loops or whatever. You want to have phrased everything, taking into account the stuff you haven’t made yet. Which I was able to do a good job of at first, because I made so much of it in advance… What was the question?
DTD: I don’t even remember! I’m just rambling. I think it was the problem of not being able to remove things with expansions, or at least not without big backlash. And you’ve hit it exactly.
DXV: Right. I mean, I’m doing it. I replaced these cards.
DTD: You want to make a new version. You want to make a spin-off game, a new game that drags in… Or doesn’t drag in, but attracts the people who liked the original game.
DXV: Right. And I did this with Winter Kingdom. And I don’t know if it will be a success or not. When it came out, there was like a pandemic, and… [laughs]
DTD: Yeah, that was pretty recent. And the Kickstarter just delivered not that long ago, right?
Winter Kingdom funded in April 2020 for $108,491 on Kickstarter, and delivered the following November.
DXV: But, yeah, you know Kingdom Builder got some expansions, and now this is a… You know, it’s a variant game. It’s actually, it’s much closer to Kingdom Builder than I was expecting my Dominion spin-offs to be, to Dominion. But it’s different in some ways that sounded better, and I like it better. And there it is. And it didn’t make Kingdom Builder go out of print.
DTD: Oh, no, no. Well, I think people are used to it at this point. They’re used to having spin-off games that don’t kill the original game, by any means. They build off of it.
DXV: But you were asking about these products. You were asking about “big box” type stuff, which I don’t think we have any plans for, beyond what we’ve done.
DTD: It just seems to be a big trend now, that people want to do a big glitzy deluxe box.
DXV: I mean, you just can’t put it all… It’s because they’re so big.
DTD: Too many cards.
DXV: Yeah, it’s not like we sold you a box of air, and here’s this tiny little product. I mean, the boxes have a lot of air in it, but you know… It’s a tray to hold all the cards.
DTD: There’s a lot of cards in there. And you certainly… I mean, not to disparage, but you don’t want to do it the same way that Carcassonne tried to do it. They have a ton of expansions. And it seems like every couple years Carcassonne puts out the Carcassonne Big Box, which picks 2 or 3 expansions. But there’s been like 4 Carcassonne big boxes, that arbitrarily pick different expansions. So it just doesn’t seem the right way to do a big giant…
There have, in fact, been 6 Carcassonne Big Boxes released over the years, the most recent in 2017.
DXV: I just think you can’t do it. I mean, I don’t see the benefit even, right? To the consumer, you’re gonna need to come up with your own storage solution, and there’s… I think Rio Grande may endorse one, but you know…
DTD: There’s plenty of companies doing that.
DXV: Yeah, so it’s not like the “Big Box” is going to provide your storage solution. It might not be the one you wanted anyway, if you picked one. And then [if] it’s just like buying all the expansions – just buy the expansions. It’s like why do we need to package them together?
DTD: It’s true.
DXV: There’s at least a little sense to packaging Dominion with Intrigue. Because it provides the support for five to six players, which otherwise you need to get something else to provide that, right? You can buy another copy of [the] base cards to get it, but this gives it to you on top of two products. And, you know, if you wanna start with more cards, it’s good too. It’s good to have more variety from the beginning. And one expansion is a lot of variety on top of the main set.
DXV: And it’s just hard to go bigger than that. It’s 1000 cards!
DTD: I was going to ask, counting all of Dominion expansions right now, it’s about 1000 cards? Or, there’s more than that.
DXV: No, a thousand cards was [just] Dominion plus Intrigue. I mean, they are 500 card products. There aren’t 500 unique cards. There’s only the seven base cards, plus 26 or so unique cards. I would have to actually look this up. [laughs]
With my quick and admittedly subpar math, I calculate that Dominion plus the 15 current expansions give a grand total of 5,150 cards in about 380 types. I say “about”, because some would argue whether the trash card, or the money cards, should be counted. Plus, there are at least 10 promotional card types I did not account for.
DTD: I didn’t know if you knew it off the top of your head. I curious just how many cards there are with all of Dominion?
DXV: In each of these products… The number of unique cards is… Uh, I know it’s more than 300. I mean, if it were. If they’re all just 25, but they aren’t, would be 25 times 15, as of the new set, counting the main set. Which is an easy number to calculate. There’s 375.
DXV: And then they’re not all 25. Some of them are bigger. But none of them are smaller. Or, that’s not true, I think Empires may only be 24 cards. But several of them are 26 or 27 cards, and then some of them are 30 cards or whatever. And then there are the things that are the extra cards, that aren’t Kingdom cards. You’ve got to count those. They’re cards. And then there are promos. And then there are all the landscapes. There’s a ridiculous number of landscapes at this time. There are at least 100 landscapes, right? There’s events in three expansions, but one of them only has like 13. And there’s Landmarks and Projects and Ways of… So yeah, over 100 of those. You know, all the later expansions just have so much content.
And that is why I waffled with the word “about”. Plus, are the unique Landscape Cards all different “types”…?
DXV: It’s very easy to tell when you’re writing the artist’s notes, how much content you have provided. But also, when you’re playtesting it, and it’s like, it’s so hard to playtest all the landscapes. You only see one in a game. I mean one or two, depending on which kind of thing I’m testing, and with the Ways you only got to see one. But with events we would put out two. And so, just to see them all once, you’re playing 25 games or however many it is.
DTD: Oh yeah.
“Ways” are a Landscape introduced in Menagerie. When you play a card, instead of doing what is printed on the card, you may substitute what is printed on a “Way”.
DXV: And maybe, you need to see them more than once to really know if you’re happy. And then there’s all the ones that didn’t make it. You had to see those, too. Anyway, that was all a big tangent on this topic of big boxes.
DTD: Oh yeah.
DXV: We also haven’t considered doing like a sampler, though somebody else has. You know, like in some languages you can get a sampler.
DTD: There’s a… Yeah, there’s a beginner’s version. I saw that. In German.
DXV: I didn’t even mean that, but that’s true too. No, there’s a beginner’s version in Dutch. There’s a sampler in German. And the Japanese did re-themes that mixed up the cards in different ways. That were anime. I only actually have one of those. Sub… I don’t know.
I had quite a bit of trouble finding references to these anime and sampler versions of Dominion. I do not doubt they exist, but like so many things, may be unauthorized copies.
UPDATE: Donal X pointed me towards an authorized Japanese Dominion retheme from Hobby Japan here.
DTD: Do you still enjoy playing it?
DXV: Oh, sure, yeah. It’s different every time.
DTD: I know. And you’re always playing with new things in there. Well, I know a lot of designers kind of work really hard on their game, and then when it’s done, they’re kind of done with it for a bit.
DXV: Well, of course. I like playing my older games, for the most part. You know, including some unpublished hits.
DTD: Sure, sounds like there were a lot of them.
DXV: And usually I play the prototype, but not the published version, because the prototype is usually better.
DTD: [laughs] OK.
DXV: Sometimes we play the published version. But you know, I don’t play them a lot. Like, it’ll come up. It’s like, “Oh, let’s play a game of Greed.” And we play game of Greed, and it may be months before I play another game of it.
DXV: But when I’m playtesting an expansion, of course I’m playing that game a lot.
DTD: Right. Because you really want to know if that’s working. So, you said you’re playing in a regular game group. And other games come in from other designers, of course.
DXV: [shakes head]
DTD: Not too often?
DTD: Never? Your gaming group is just playing your games and playtesting your games?
DXV: And other games. You know, commercial games.
DTD: Well, that’s what I meant. Not prototypes from other designers, but published games from other designers. I was wondering if there’s…
DXV: We did play a couple games with Wei-Hwa and Tom. Tom Lehmann. Wei-Hwa Huang. I played Roll for the Galaxy before it had come out.
DTD: Oh yeah. I was impressed with that design. I thought that was really good.
DXV: I liked it.
DTD: I liked it better than Race [for the Galaxy]. I don’t know, it wasn’t easier, it was just more intuitive for me.
Tom Lehmann created the award-winning game Race for the Galaxy in 2007. An excellent tableau building card game, Race has been criticized for being overly complicated and for having somewhat cryptic iconography. The dice version of the game, Roll for the Galaxy was released in 2014 in collaboration with Wei-Hwa Huang. Roll was widely considered to be as good as Race, and many felt it addressed these aforementioned issues with the card game.
DXV: I think it has some interesting new things in it, and somewhat addresses Race’s issues. Tom [Lehmann] is a very friendly guy. So, he can take it, me criticizing his game. [laughs] Race, it has this… You know, Race is very similar to San Juan.
2004’s San Juan, by designer Andreas Seyfarth is generally considered the card version of his 2002 Spiel nominated board game Puerto Rico. Race for the Galaxy shares a core mechanism with both Puerto Rico and San Juan, so the comparisons are common.
DXV: And I’ve played way more San Juan, and San Juan is way more approachable, and Race has all this confusing iconography. And even if it’s just repeating what the card does, it’s really over the top. And you really want… And Race has this significant problem, that you’ll have a bunch of cards on the other side of the table. And it matters what they are, and you have no way of paying attention to what they are. It’s not possible.
DTD: Certainly not at a glance.
DXV: Not if, not if you haven’t played a lot of games of Race. There’s no way I’m paying attention to those cards. And it matters what they are.
DTD: Oh, it’s got a reputation now.
Race for the Galaxy, as good as it is, is generally considered complex and somewhat obfuscated. It is currently #68 on BoardGameGeek’s rankings of all games.
DXV: And this is so easy to deal with, by color coding them by which action they trigger on. Right? Race color codes by which resource you’re producing. But instead, you just want to color code by which action triggers it. So, this planet triggers on the eye, so it’s blue. And this planet triggers on produce, so it’s orange. And so on.
DXV: And then I could look across the table, and I could so look at all those orange cards.
DTD: “He’s producing like crazy. I gotta watch out for that.”
DXV: “He is sure going to want to do that. Maybe we could do it this turn.”
We are talking about the social-predictive nature of Race for the Galaxy. In Race, each player picks a single action type they would like to do. Then, everyone in the game gets to do all of the selected actions. So if you can guess with some certainty what action another player will pick, you know that you do not have to pick that action. Therefore, seeing the other players’ cards, and therefore predicting what they will do, is crucial to playing well.
DTD: Because it is a game of predicting what the other people are going to choose.
DXV: And so, you can do that, game one. You can know that much, and look across the table, and be in a way better position then somebody is, with the actual Race, where it’s just like, “I know I have to care about that, and it’s impossible. And I’m not going to even try.” And then your experience is, “It was this whole game of me knowing that I was playing poorly.” So those are things that I would pick. But I didn’t… I mean, I barely played Roll for Galaxy. I’ve played three or four times, and I certainly didn’t feel that as badly, and I don’t know if that’s… It didn’t color code that way, so I don’t know why that is.
DTD: It just felt like a tighter game.
DXV: Oh, maybe it’s just because I care less what the other person is doing?
DTD: [laughs] That might be. You still have that prediction thing, where you want to guess.
DXV: I would still like them to do what I want them to do.
DTD: But I think there’s more mitigation about what you can do if they don’t pick the way you want them to pick. Yeah, I was impressed with Roll [for the Galaxy] a lot.
DXV: And the economy is very nice. The whole way that you have some varying number of dice, and spend your money to buy them, and all that. Very nice.
Although you earn more and more dice in Roll for the Galaxy, you do use them up, and need to spend cash to “recharge” them.
DTD: So, I was leading into what are some other designers’ games you played, that you’ve been really impressed with? Either mechanisms or games or…
DXV: Well, the big one is Magic [the Gathering]. So, I would fix it up a lot, let me tell you.
DTD: It has grown just on its own inertia. It is a monster.
DXV: Well, Magic from the beginning had two bad problems that they’ve never fixed, and they’ve barely addressed. I think it’s fair to say that they’ve addressed them a little. And the first is that no one knows the rules.
Our wonderful wait staff delivered the check, which I promptly snatched. Remember that, board game designers – interview with Dice Tower Dish, get a free meal. So worth it.
DXV: And when I say no one knows the rules, there may be judges who know the rules. But players do not know all the rules of Magic. They cannot deal with…
DTD: There’s so many at this point.
DXV: The big problem is, you have like conflicting static abilities, or whatever they call them today. I’m an old timer. [laughs]
DTD: I’m not a young timer.
I believe they are still “static abilities.“
DXV: And I contributed to the expansion rules. You have conflicting stack abilities, and there’s no way to know how to order them. Because it’s just this list on this page that you have to go look up. That no one is memorizing.
DTD: Yeah, and every card, every expansion, is just adding to it.
DXV: I don’t know if that’s really a problem. Every card, every expansion, is adding another ability that you would want to learn, if you want to know what everything does without reminder text.
DTD: I thought you were leading up to the combination of the Power Creep, and the interactions becoming so geometrically overpowered.
Power Creep is the term used to describe items becoming gradually more and more powerful as expansions are added to a game, and is especially prominent in collectible card games. Each expansion needs to be more exciting, and more powerful to catch the eye of the consumer.
DXV: Well, they shouldn’t. Power Creep… First of all, there’s no such thing as Power Creep in Dominion. And it’s always a bummer when people say, “Blah blah blah, Power Creep.” Power Creep has no, there’s no advantage to [Dominion] expansions being more powerful than previous ones. It’s strictly a negative.
DXV: The whole reason you would have it in a collectible card game, is because it’s an advantage. Because it makes people buy the new set, to compete with the older sets.
DTD: It’s exciting.
DXV: But you’re not buying a set to compete in Dominion, just to play with it. And if the new cards are powerful, it means you don’t buy the old cards, and it’s making the game worse. So, there’s every incentive to not have any kind of Power Creep, and no incentive to have it. So, that’s that. In Magic, there is incentive to have Power Creep, but in the long term it will kill you. And so, what they have adopted, which you can read all about, is what they call an “Escher Stairwell”, where some aspects of the game gradually get powerful.
The mind warping stairwell in question is from the 1960 lithograph “Ascending and Descending” by M. C. Escher. M. C., by the way, stands for Maurits Cornelis, which is a fantastic name.
DXV: And then… Well, all aspects of the game gradually get more powerful. All aspects. And then the ones that hit the top plummet to the bottom. So that it keeps wrapping around. So different aspects are powerful at a certain point in time.
DXV: So, if you’ve been playing for a little while – Wow, look at all the amazing new powerful stuff in the new set. You have to have it. And it’s true for set after set. Right, it keeps getting more powerful. And then you might notice, “Oh, now the direct damage got a lot worse. I don’t want that.” But there’s all the other cards that are good. And so, this is their scheme to try to have Power Creep without having Power Creep. Because actual Power Creep ultimately screws up the game. Because there is a good power level for the cards. You know, the power of the cards determines how fast the game is, and how skill-based the game is. And so, you don’t want it to get out of hand. Now at some point they did ramp up the power on creatures, so that all the older expansions have just an endless parade of creatures you would never play with.
To date there have been almost 100 expansion sets for Magic the Gathering since 1993. And over 20 Core Game sets. So the power level has been readjusted quite a few times over the years.
DXV: And this was to get creatures more in line with spells, and I haven’t analyzed the situation to know how good of a job they did. But there was a good reason for that, even though it looks sad if you’re an old timer.
DTD: Sure. And I mean, I played Magic from beta version to the first few expansions, and then just kind of dropped it. So, I don’t know much about new Magic.
DXV: Yeah, I mean I played magic from Revised, which was slightly after you, but just you know, Arabian Nights and Antiquities. And I got them.
DTD: I had all of those! And I think I stopped right after Antiquities.
DXV: Oh, I played from there through the Time Spiral block, which was when I made Dominion. And since my Magic night died, it stopped really being worth it to buy the new expansions. And I just have a tiny amount since then, either from picking up the piles of commons people would leave after a draft, not to play with, but just to use in my prototypes as card backs.
Magic the Gathering cards are categorized as Common, Uncommon, or Rare. During a draft, players open lots of new packs, and tend to leave the Common cards, the garbage, behind.
DTD: Oh sure.
DXV: Though I still have tons of those from older sets too, and they sent me some cards for “not contributing” a card to whatever addition of the main set. They decide, as a promotion, to have famous game designers contribute one card, design one card for the set. And I had already had a magic card in an earlier set, just one. But I’d had that thrill.
DXV: And so, I wasn’t so thrilled. You know, like it wasn’t enough to make me sign a contract I didn’t agree with. And their contract said, like… It was ridiculous. And it was all this stuff, where they were just trying to make you… The contract made it clear that the damage to Wizards of the Coast if some card leaked out, you know was some who-knows-what incalculable, huge amounts of damage. And I don’t believe that’s true, and I don’t like signing contracts that are just garbage. I don’t want to sign a lie and say, “Oh, I agree with that.” There was no way I was sharing their information. If the contract just said, “I won’t share it”, that would have been fine. I wasn’t going to share it.
DXV: And no one I know cares anyway. I don’t even have a friend would be excited, “Oh, what’s in the Magic expansion?” I don’t have that friend.
DTD: I find that funny. I get a lot of designers who will tell me, or playtesters will tell me, “Don’t talk about this!” And I think, “There is literally nobody I know who would even know what I’m talking about.”
Ah, the joyous world of niche hobby nondisclosure agreements.
DXV: Yeah, I mean there’s people who would post a Dominion expansion if they had the spoiler. And would be excited to read it, even though it was spoiling it. I think in general, most people would prefer to not look at it, and just wait until I previewed it, which would be more exciting. And then try it, actually get to play with the cards. But there are people who would be excited for that, or who would post it. And I hope they don’t come across the information. Because it would suck for me. But yeah, for the most part the world doesn’t care. And Magic is like, “Maybe they care more about that than anything.” Because you could win money playing Magic.
DXV: So maybe you’d want to play test the cards extra.
DTD: Oh, there’s so much money in that now, yeah.
DXV: Yeah, anyway, so I didn’t sign that contract, so I didn’t get a card in that set. I tried to get them to change it. They changed it to something worse. I said “No, that’s worse.” Then they said, “Well, we can’t change it, because it would be unfair to the other game designers.” Which was just the kind of nonsense that somebody says to get rid of you at a certain point. And then they sent me some lovely parting gifts. Which included 6 packs of whatever expansion. [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] The things that they have to give away.
DXV: Very friendly. Yeah, right. Some sleeves. They’re very hard to use. I can’t combine them with any of my other sleeves, but I can make a very small deck that uses them, and I did eventually. For a Dominion expansion. Oh no, what I’m thinking of is an unpublished game. Anyway, I mean, if the game company doesn’t want me to talk about it, then you know, then I don’t talk about it. That’s fine too. But anyway, this was… I like to answer these questions.
DTD: Oh certainly.
Head back next time for some more lunch, and the conversation just runs the whole gamut of topics – some Netrunner deep design notes, Amazon top sellers, and digital Dominion. And of course, what’s a little Knizia talk among friends?