Welcome back to dinner with Dominion designer, Donald X Vaccarino. We are lounging through a nice meal at Ole’s Waffle House, and Donald X is talking through some history on Dominion.
DXV: So yeah, I should have done reactions differently. This was a significant mistake, I mean to me.
DXV: Yeah, they should have all been like Sheepdog. Sheepdog is perfect, and exactly what they should be like. But that should be codified into reactions to save even more space, and make them simpler. And then I could have had more reactions. And the way, the whole reason reactions… Reactions were originally like that. So Sheepdog says when you gain a card, you may play this. That’s the kind of reaction it is. So, it’s just that you can play it at an unusual time.
DTD: If … then.
DXV: Yeah. But you can also just play it normally. It’s an action-reaction. And originally reactions were like that, but Moat wanted to be used multiple times in a round, for multiplayer. And so it ended up being “you reveal it to do the reaction”. And then that ended up being how reactions worked. And it’s not… It’s very poor, because while Moat is a good card to work that way, most things you might want to do don’t work so well that way.
DTD: You don’t like that precedent.
DXV: And so, Horse Traders tries to be, has this giant wall of tiny text in order to get the kind of ability I want, where it’s just “if somebody attacked I can draw card.”
DXV: And instead, it should have been something like, when you play it and it says, “if anyone attacked since your last turn, +1 card”. That would have been fine. But it’s all this wording, and really you want it to be that just reactions are cards you can play at unusual times. You play them then. It does what it says when you play it.
DTD: Like the Magic [the Gathering] instant.
DXV: Yes, Magic should also have reactions. Magic doesn’t, either. One of the rules problems with Magic. I mean, not only do you want it to be that Sorcery and Instant are a type. And then being instant, playable as Instant is a type. So that the Flash creatures are just that type, and the Instants are that type. And that’s all simple, and they know all about that. You know, Mark Rosewater says that. But really you want it to be that Instants in Magic are playable when something happens that’s relevant to that card. Not that they’re playable at any time.
Mark Rosewater has been the head designer for Magic the Gathering at Wizards of the Coast since 2003.
DTD: A situational thing.
DXV: Because you don’t need to play them at any time. You don’t need to do that. You play them when they’re relevant. And the amount of gameplay you get out of being able to play the card at any time is very minor. And the amount of complexity you get is bad. And when you’re learning to play Magic, one of the first things you learn is, “Here are all the things you want to do at the end of your opponent ‘s turn.” And it is just so alien.
DTD: Yeah, and it’s a byproduct of the Instant.
DXV: And it’s just something that fell out of how Instants work. “If I can do this anytime, I want to do it at the last possible moment.” When is that?
DTD: And the FAQ on these games is always, “How do I resolve order of effect?” Because everybody is doing crazy things.
DXV: And Magic had very bad rules there for a while. And now it has OK rules for that, that could be better. I still think it is way better to have triggered effects work in the middle of cards when the trigger happens, rather than waiting for the card to resolve, and then stacking up. Because that’s how it works in every other game. Any game that says… All these games say, “When you pass Go, collect $200.00.” And that’s how they all work. They all mean, “After you pass Go, collect $200.00.” Because that’s what “when” means. You have to have done it.
The official rule is written: “Each time a player’s token lands on or passes over GO,
whether by throwing the dice or drawing a card, the Banker pays
him/her a $200 salary.”
I knew it was only a mtter of time before I started referencing Monopoly.
DTD: Don’t wait until you’ve started your next turn and then say, “by the way…”
DXV: And what they don’t mean… They don’t mean that you delay it in any way. If it could happen in the middle of something, it does.
DXV: And it’s a very weird thing that Magic pushes. And I didn’t do it perfectly in Dominion, but that is the way to do its thing.
DTD: I think it’s just the natural reaction. What you want, is you want someone to go, “Haha! This happens to you.” And you go, “Oh no, it doesn’t!” It’s the given in the situation.
DXV: Anyway… So, what else did I blow it on? The scaling for multiplayer – It’s a big question. Do you want to add 3 provinces when you go to 4 players? And I decided not to, on the grounds that the game was slower.
DXV: And so, let’s compensate by having fewer provinces. But you really get the ideal gameplay with either 2 or 3 players, where there’s 4 provinces per player. That’s the game length that everything is set up for. And with 4 or more players, there’s only 3 provinces per player, and the game is faster, and you get to do less. Even though there are fewer cards for you to build with.
DTD: But it’s a compensation because it goes so long.
DXV: Yeah. I mean, with the 5 player game at that point, yes. Go for it. Make the game slower, a bit faster. And there were some things I could have given types to, that would have been very handy later. And I should have had it be the rules from the beginning that you couldn’t play a card without physically putting it into play. And now players are really attached to certain cases. And I’ve actually changed this recently. So, you can’t play a card unless you can put it into play, or are playing it for a second time. If you can play it once, you can play it the second time, even though it’s no longer around. But that is really a bad exception that I’m stuck with, because no one wants to give up the game working like they’re used to.
DTD: They do get a life of their own.
DXV: Except the case I’m fixing is weird corner cases that no one cares about. And the case they’re clinging to happens all the time. But that was another example of an exotic, a thing I did blow it on.
DTD: Well, I know that the online game is has gotten huge, and so many games have been played, and you must have access to all sorts of data from online.
DXV: I do.
DTD: What’s the most surprising thing that you pulled out of the data from the online game?
DXV: The most surprising thing? I don’t know that I can answer that.
DTD: Oh, OK. I didn’t know, because I’m a guy who loves looking at data.
DXV: The most fun thing, the thing I like to quote is, you know, the data includes… I’m going to just ask for some water. And I’m sure I can have those cookies, but I can give them to my kids. [flagging waitress] I didn’t quite get her. I made exciting motions… I guess she is doing something important.
DTD: We have vanished into the corner.
To be fair, we had been in the diner for almost 4 hours now, and I think we were blending in with the booth.
DXV: The thing I like to quote, is there’s this stat that’s “skill.” How skill-based is this card relative to the average card? This is based on looking at – how do games using this card compare to games not using this card, in terms of our ability to predict the winner, based on our knowledge of the winner’s skill prior to the game?
DXV: [flagging waitress again] I missed it. One second, I’ll get her. She’ll just look over here. For all she knows, I could want to order something more, so she may get unduly excited. So I think she simply is not seeing. I could even have another cup of soup. Probably not.
DTD: If you want!
DXV: I had a big meal. It’s OK, I’ll handle this. [to waitress] Could I just have some water? Thanks.
The waitress very quickly filled us up on water, but I have to admit, she did look a little surprised we were still there.
DXV: So, you understand?
DTD: Yes, there’s a skill stat.
DXV: How well we can predict who will win, based on skill, in games using this card relative to games not using it, right? And that gives you a measure of how much this card effects skill.
DTD: Or how skilled you have to be to use the card?
DXV: It’s not necessarily how skilled.
Waitress: Did you want me to take your plates?
DXV: Oh yeah, you bet.
DTD: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. It was delicious.
Waitress: Thank you.
Now that we definitively existed again, we were getting all sorts of attention.
DXV: The number doesn’t tell you the story. The number doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It is simply how well we could predict the winner, based on our knowledge of their skill levels, in games using this card relative games not using it. And why is it that a card would rate higher for this? One could be, “Oh, you have to be skilled to play with this card.” Or conversely, that that the card makes the… The card has a big random component that makes skill less of a factor, right? But it could also be, for example, that the card makes the game longer. Then that helps the more skilled player. It’s up in the air as to what, and this is an important thing with looking at this data. Because they had for example, this chart… Because I contributed a little to this. I mean just, you know, discussing what should be displayed and what it meant. And so they had this thing showing number of copies gained of a card, and how this correlated with winning.
DXV: And some cards would have really weird curves here. It was good to have 4 copies of the card, but bad to have 5 copies, but good to have 6 copies. What’s going on here?
DXV: I mean, it’s this thing exactly, that if the pile sold out, then… Oh yeah, because it’s not showing number of copies. It’s the difference between how many copies you have and your opponent. That’s what the chart is. So it’s, “Do you have one more copy than your opponent, or 2 more copies, or 3?” And it was like, “Boy, it’s good to have 2 or 4 more copies than your opponent. But it’s bad to have 1 or 3 more copies? Why is that?” And the answer is if the pile sold out, you will have, someone will have, 2 or 4 more copies, or even. It will be a multiple of 2. In order to have one more copy than your opponent, the pile did not sell out, right? It has to have been, “Oh, we only bought 9 copies, or 7 copies, or whatever”.
DTD: It’s always even when the copies run out.
DXV: But it’s always even when the pile ran out. And it turns out, “Well, that’s an indicator of how good it was this game. You want to be buying piles that sell out. Those are good ones.
Dominion starts with a pile of 10 cards for each card type. If a high demand pile sells out, the difference between how many of that card each player bought should be an even number. If one player only bought 1 more card than another player, the pile did not run out.
DTD: Yep. That’s pretty cool.
DXV: So, anyway. So this this skill measure, it’s telling us that the more skilled player likes to have this card in the game, but it’s not telling us why it’s good to have that card in the game.
DXV: It could be all sorts of reasons, and it isn’t necessarily that it’s tricky to play with that card. Though that could be it. And so, anyway, so there’s a skill measure, and one of the cards that’s very high skill is Black Market. And Black Market is a promo that says when you play it, you get to look at three cards that we are not using this game, from a big shuffled pile. Three cards, and you can buy one of them, and you put the others on the bottom. And every time you play it you get this choice of three cards that aren’t in the game.
DXV: And so Black Market is notorious as a card people think makes the game all about luck. “It’s all about luck! It’s what you get out of the black market, nothing but luck.” But in fact, it’s one of the most skill-based cards in the game, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Because you’re making these skill based decisions of how important these cards are, versus spending your money on something else in this game. It’s giving you that, and better players make this decision better, and you make the decision a lot of times over the course of the game. And the existence of the Black Market cards means that things that you want in the game are in it. Right? It’s not like, “Oh this game, there’s no Draw”. It’s like, “Well, this game the Draw isn’t there.”
DTD: You could get it.
In other words, skilled players know what other cards the Black Market could produce, and whether the existing card piles are more viable.
DXV: So, it heavily favors the better player. And people always think it favors… that it makes the game all random. So that is a statistic that I like from the public data.
DTD: That’s interesting. I love working with the statistics.
DXV: Kinda means that also those other things are certainly plenty interesting.
DTD: So are you good at Dominion at this point?
DXV: Oh, I’m OK.
DTD: Probably beat me.
DXV: I mean, we had an exhibition game online, that was… People voted on who would play in it.
DTD: They do a lot of these, yeah.
DXV: And it was, yeah me and stef, who was at some point considered to be the best player, and possibly is. I don’t know, but he doesn’t play anymore. He doesn’t play in the tournaments or things because he’s the programmer for dominion.games. And Dan [Brooks], who had won one of the championships. And Mic [Qsenoch], who was another player frequently cited as one of the best players. And we played three games, and I did win one of them. [laughs]
stef, Dan Brooks, and Mic Qsenoch are all prominent online tournament Dominion players.
DXV: And I certainly held my own against Mic when he was playtesting. But I don’t think I’m one of the best players or anything, and I’m at a disadvantage. I mean, I always go last the first game, because it’s bad to go last. And I want to. And I don’t mind. And when I’m playing with good players, well, it’s really bad to go last.
DTD: Yeah [laughs].
DXV: You know, it’s friendly. And then, whoever wins will go last next time. And sometimes it’s me. [pause] I’m trying to evaluate, how good of a Dominion player am I? I also feel obligated to test the things. I’m also always playing these playtest games, and testing things. And there are certain playtesters who will really resist buying the new card, unless it looks broken.
DXV: If it looks broken, they’ll be all over it, breaking it for you.
DTD: But a good player knows what they want to get.
DXV: But they will be like, “That looks like it could be weak. I’m not trying it. I would like to win.” And you know, I need to have somebody buy the card or we won’t know how good it is. And this does lead to playtesting cards on the side of “more likely to be overpowered” than underpowered. So that you play it in the first place, and then weaken it instead of strengthening it.
DTD: Yeah, I get it.
DXV: Because when it’s weak, no one buys it, and you never find out just how bad it was. I mean, they come at it from all angles, but this is a thing. Like, there was a card in the last expansion which I intentionally gave good, you know, strong resources to start with because it was like, “We need to get this into games to see what this attack does.” And the attacks are so hard, they’re so hard to make. They’re the trickiest cards.
DXV: And it totally worked. We bought the card plenty, and got to see the attack a lot. And then I got to decide, “OK, how powerful do I really want it to be?”
DTD: Oh, but it seems like there’s definitely players who are in it to win it. Their entire raison d’etre of playing is winning. But there’s also a big huge group of players, that they want to explore. They want to try everything and do weird combos.
DXV: So my big… Yeah, I mean, Wizards of the Coast are of course the ones who have done all the research into this, with their psychographs. I always say, I have a line… Maybe it’s similar to Knizia’s line, but it’s different. I always say, “Most players lose most games, so it has to be fun to lose.” You know, in most two player games, one person loses. And in most three or more players one person wins, every one else loses.
It has been said that there are three basic player types in Magic the Gathering, called “psychographic profiles“. Timmy is the power gamer; he likes to win big, using big flashy cards and big moves. Johnny is the more creative, exploratory gamer, expressing himself in the cards, and using cards no one else does. Spike is the super competitive player, and will use whatever deck of cards guarantees him the win. Other named minor profiles have been discussed over the years.
DTD: More people lose than win.
DXV: There are co-ops, of course, where we all lose or we all win, but that doesn’t change the average.
DTD: Because they are hard to win.
I have often wondered if the winning percentage in a co-op game is targeted to be around the odds one player wins in a 4-player competitive game. I mean, we are already used to the fact that in a 4-player competitive game, all else being equal, there’s a 25% chance you will win.
DXV: No. I mean it doesn’t mean… Yes, of course you could have co-ops that we won every time. But most people lose most games, so it has to be fun to lose. And if it’s fun to lose, all this other stuff becomes a non-consideration – It’s fun to lose. Your game is set. That’s all it needs, is to be fun to lose.
DXV: Right? I mean, that’s it. I mean, you don’t want to make it so that you have to pursue a bad, a “no fun” strategy to win.
DTD: Oh, I’ve definitely played games like that, like yeah.
DXV: And this is a problem some games can have. Like when you’re playing, I feel like I can use this example… When you’re playing RoboRally, the best strategy is to stay far away from everyone else, and not have the fun interactions. And you don’t want to stop and pick up the special abilities. They’re not worth wasting a turn on. So you don’t get special abilities, which are fun. And you really want to tweak the rules, and I I’ve not played the current, the modern rules for RoboRally. It got revised twice I think.
RoboRally by Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield was first published by Wizards of the Coast in 1994. Avalon Hill started publishing a new edition in 2005, and most recently, a major revision was done in 2016.
DXV: But I’m an old timer. But you know, you want to modify the rules somehow. Like there was a variant in The Duelist, I think, that was: you put a stack of items under each flag, and whoever gets there first, the player to their left picks one to give them. So they get the worst item, and whoever gets there last gets the best one. And in this way, you get to play with items – Yeehaw. And, it’s a big improvement, but you also want to set up your boards or your paths, so that the players will really be interacting. Having the fun the game offers you. And you don’t want it to be possible to pursue a really boring strategy and win. And Dominion has to fight this, too. Where it’s very easy for it to be that the strategy with a card is to want all the copies of it you can get. And it’s hard to not make any cards like that. There are going to be some cards like this.
The Duelist was Wizard of the Coast’s magazine about trading card games, published from 1993-1999.
DTD: Sure. You were also, you were just saying that oftentimes, making a new card that’s interesting, but maybe looks weaker, it never gets bought.
DXV: Yes. It’s fine if you do that for the public. If you know the card is good enough, it can look weak. That’s fine, and people will enjoy that, too.
DTD: Absolutely, but definitely I’ve been in playtest groups where the player who just wants to win or else the game is a waste, will not buy it. And the player who just wants to explore, will buy it out.
DXV: Yeah. So, this was all going back to how good I was at Dominion, right? Because like, I have to buy those cards. Someone has to buy them. I want to win, too. It’s fun to win. It’s fun to lose, and it’s fun to win. [laughs] But you know, so I am at a disadvantage because I’m trying those cards.
DTD: Yeah, you wanna try the new stuff. And you wanna try the things no one else is trying.
DXV: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not one of the best players, but I’m competent.
DTD: Well, you certainly know everything that’s in there. Probably more than anything else.
DXV: Yeah, I know the cards, and I know the rules. Like I’ll pick up on some interactions that somebody might not.
DTD: Now, I’ve played with designers who don’t know the rules of their own games. [laughs]
DXV: Oh yeah? It is embarrassing when you don’t know the cards, and there are just a few cards in Dominion, there are few Landmarks, where the names were so arbitrary relative to what the cards did, that it’s hard to remember which one is which. Which one is Labyrinth and which one is Basillica…
Unlike most Dominion cards, Landmark cards are individual and varied. There’s a ton of them.
DTD: There’s so many of them, yeah.
DXV: And it’s because I had the abilities, and I had names, and I need to line them up or come up with new names. I had lots of good names, and I had lots of good abilities, and it wasn’t… They didn’t always. It wasn’t always anything that made sense.
DTD: Sure. It’s arbitrary, yeah.
DXV: It’s like, again what can you do with “+3 cards?” All you can do is try to be thematic with what you give “+3 cards” to, and that itself is hard to do with basic resources. “+3 cards” is so basic to Dominion. Then it’s just going to need to go on cards, like this attack says, “+3 cards.” And it can’t be they’re always the Blacksmith, or whatever it is. And Blacksmith was a poor choice for that anyway. Mostly I flavor cards that are really just all about drawing, as either exploration or learning these days. And I flavor “gain a card” as blacksmith, like Workshop.
DXV: But Smithy did get out there, and says Smithy on it and +3 cards.
DTD: But, I mean, you made up the rules. And more than that, you said earlier that you were theming things, not… Basically you made an arbitrary decision to theme Water cards as this, and Village cards as this, and that stuck. That became a standard.
DXV: In a few places. And it really helps you learn the cards.
DTD: Oh yeah, I totally agree.
DXV: And it’s been very nice when you’re going to have these simple abilities that nothing is going to stick to. Like again, in Nocturne you have Leprechaun. And if you have abilities that complex, you can have flavorful connections.
DXV: And sometimes you can pull that off as simple abilities. But very often it’s just like, there was nothing you could put on +3 cards that was going to bring it to life. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do that. You should just accept, there will be people who complain about the flavor, and other people who are happy the game is so good.
DXV: And yeah, you really need those cards. And they’re more problematic than that. There’s the Vanilla Card problem. Vanilla Card problem is where, in a game where you have, where you need balance… Because you don’t always. Sometimes it’s like a drafting game or some card can just be better than another one. But in a game where you need balance, and you balance them somehow. Like, you have costs, and everything is balanced. You need to avoid it to be that this card is just better than this other card.
Vanilla Cards are cards in games that are, well, very plain. No glitz, no glamor, just a straight forward single effect. They often came with the first set, and “fill in” the deck.
DXV: This card is “strictly better,” as they call it in Magic. You want to avoid that. Never do that. And some people get really pissed if you do it. They are really mad and hate it, even if it’s not a problem, they don’t like it. And so, and you don’t have to do it. So I just avoid it, I don’t do it. In Magic of course, at some point, it’s reasonable to say they had to do it.
DXV: Though they take it too far, and they’ll have strictly better cards in the same expansion, which I think is just a mistake. It just makes them look bad. Because it’s always like, “Oh look, the rare is the same card, only better.” is the comment.
DTD: It just fills it out.
DXV: Just fill it out a different way. You can do both cards, just don’t put them in the same set. But so, you need Vanilla Cards because they are so simple they help people get into your game, especially with your main set. Or only set, if your game doesn’t get an expansion. And so you want them, but they limit what you can do, because since Smithy costs 4 and gives +3 cards, any other card that gets +3 cards has to at least cost 5. +3 cards and a bonus can’t cost 4. We need to be +3 cards, a bonus, and penalty. And now we’re running into super-complexity.
DTD: You can’t make the Vanilla Cards useless.
Now, Rum Raisin Cards are completely useless. No one needs that. Sorry, bad joke.
DXV: So, the Vanilla Cards limit what you can do. And so, you want to cheat with them. And Smithy manages this because all the Smithys cost 5, right? So they’re not strictly better than Smithy. They do more, but they cost more. But they’re good at 5. It’s kind of like Smithy’s bonus ability is that it costs 4. But there are other effects where it gets to be sad. Like Lab costs 5, and you don’t want Lab with a bonus to cost 6. 6 is a whole another world. And Lab with a bonus, I can do it at 6, but I don’t like to, and I don’t do it very much. Instead, I need Lab with a difference. And that’s a lot harder to come by.
DTD: A different way to improve it.
DXV: A different way to be Lab, like Hunting Party, where it gives you one card that you didn’t have a copy of in your hand. So you can say, “This is better than Lab, but it’s not strictly better than Lab.” There are situations where you would like the Lab. You might even, in a game with both cards, you may still buy Lab before the Hunting Parties run out. And you’ll certainly buy them after they do. [laughs] We’ve got there again. [blows nose] I’m not sick or anything, I’m just having a long conversation.
Little known fact – if you talk for prolonged periods of time, you get a little sneeze and cough. If, however, you just listen and scarf food, you feel fine. So I hear.
DTD: It looks like you are winding down a little bit.
DXV: That’s OK. No, I’ll probably be up till one.
DTD: Oh my goodness. No, I can’t do that anymore.
DXV: I think I need less sleep than I used to. I guess I’ll probably… Maybe I’ll be tired at midnight, go to bed at midnight. I certainly get by with eight hours in a way I didn’t at some point.
DTD: I think as I get older, I can get up early easier. So getting up at 6:00 or whenever I need to get up, I can totally do that. But I still feel tired. I don’t know, that’s a strange way to think about it.
DXV: Well, my understanding is that you get more tired when you’re using your muscles. And the muscle that you really use sometimes is the brain. [laughs]
DTD: Oh, it burns so much energy, yeah.
Theoretically brains burn tons of energy. I’m not sure mine still does.
DXV: So, having a concentrated think and talk thing may really tire you out.
DTD: Well definitely. I mean, you play board games for just a little bit, and you realize that after a big long board game, you can feel exhausted. Some of these big crunchy euros that go on for 3 hours, 4 hours, they’ll just destroy me. And I’m actually having a board game convention at my house next week.
DXV: A convention? Is it apt to call it a convention?
They made shirts. I think that qualifies it as a convention.
DTD: It’s going to be probably about 30 people. 30 or 40. And sometimes I get some industry people coming.
DXV: Is this your first post-pandemic excitement?
DTD: It is going to be my first get-together after pandemic. So I’m excited about it, but at the same time, it’s going to be strange. It’s that whole turning off the switch.
DXV: And who are these people?
DTD: I actually have two [conventions coming up]. I have one that’s going to be friends, and we have a precedent that we’ve done these conventions in the past. I’ve got a decent sized house in Santa Rosa, and I can…
I can report from the future that both ShilohCon and CoreyCon went swimmingly.
DXV: You have more than one house?
DTD: I am very lucky. Almost everything you did with programming, my father started.
DXV: Oh yeah? [laughs]
DTD: So, he created UNIX and C in the 1960s.
DXV: Oh, really? C?
DTD: Yeah, C was named after my mother. Well, the original language was called “Bonnie”, and it became B, and then it became C.
DXV: Well that’s quite a pedigree.
DTD: It just means that I had a spoiled, lucky upbringing. [laughs] So now, I’m taking advantage of it.
DXV: [raspy voice, sniffling] It’s no good. It will all come back in a drink or two.
DTD: It’s true. There might be something in here that’s just setting off your nose. You never know.
DXV: Anyway, C – great language for its day. Needed work. Has gotten it. Starting with ANSI.
DTD: And now dad did another language. It was Go. Google’s Go.
DXV: I don’t know it.
DTD: It’s a new thing. I don’t know how much traction it has. And dad was real big into chess, so he figured, he wrote programs to figure out all the chess endgames. And so he’s got all the 5 piece, 6 piece endgames published. And he was the World Computer Chess champion. So, big chess players would come stay at the house, and they wanted to play his machine. And I hate Chess.
Come on back next time for more deep design discussion including Donald X’s opinions on “un-chessing” games, what Monopoly did right, and some thoughts on copyright and copywrong. Plus I think we may actually leave the restaurant.