Dominion: Dark Ages – Thriving through The Fall
Good news: Dominion Dark Ages is a lot of fun.
The design is excellent. My first impression was that Donald X. Vaccarino created Dark Ages set with a mechanic first – printing a lot of “When you trash this card” abilities – realized that theme worked well with a “Dark Ages” concept, created a list of cards that would work well in The Dark Ages, and designed excellent top down Dominion cards around that. It sure does look like the expansion formed itself from nothingness with a few strokes of genius. Reality, though, is not that simple.
In “The Secret History of the Dark Ages”, Mr. Vaccarino mentions that many ideas in the expansion were warped from early Dominion design. Vaccarino had a good understanding that Dominion would have a long shelf life, and planned multiple expansions from the start. Dark Ages wasn’t a great idea that came together with ease; it was an idea for an expansion by the name of “War” which was slated to come out much earlier. But “War” was shelved because it’s original theme, tons of attack cards, proved too overbearing.
Over the years, “War” dispersed cards into other sets, and absorbed loose cards until it gelled into Dark Ages. Seen from this angle, with many mechanics in Dark Ages pushing on five years old, it’s a piece of amazing that the expansion can feel fresh and modern. There’s also a certain inevitability, too, that Dark Ages would have this effect, since each expansion taught Dominion’s design and playtest what clicked in their game, and what squawked. Dark Ages encapsulates the feeling of experimentation that Dominion provided on release four years ago without trailing into embarrassing mechanics that look more fun than they play. There are attack options, but nothing as egregious as the ‘feel bad for having played it’ card ‘Saboteur’. There’s some goofiness, but nothing as infuriating as watching a player take fifteen minutes to resolve all of their ‘Possession’ cards. And while I haven’t played Dark Ages enough to know there aren’t any broken cards in it, at least nothing jumped out at me like Shanty Town did in Intrigue (Though, the value of Shanty Town in Intrigue may have more to do with a low number of cards that provide +2 actions. A lot of cards in Dark Ages seem to grant plenty enough actions. Again, this is first impression stuff. I could be wrong).
What’s really nice about Dark Ages is how it handles many themes, while providing interesting toys to play with. Here’s a quick rundown of some individual features:
- ‘When you trash this card’ is a solid mechanic to build around. Since Dominion is about sculpting a victory point snagging deck, trashing your low value cards is a high priority. For many new players, however, removing cards from your deck can feel wrong. Why would I want to destroy my Copper? Don’t I buy things with Copper? Many of the ‘When you trash this card’ cards though incentivize destroying your card. If trashing your Squire grants you a Knight, why wouldn’t you want to do it?
- There are three extra card piles that aren’t in the supply. They consist of two actions: Madman and Mercenary; and one Treasure: Spoils. You gain these cards as an incidental bonus when you play other cards. They provide a boost to your deck, but after you play them, they go back to their piles.
- Rats is an action card with an extra large pile. When you use play a Rats card, it gives you +1 Card, +1 Action and let’s you trash another card, but forces another Rats into your deck in the process. It’s great at tearing all the cheap value cards out of your deck, but, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a deck full of Rats.
- Twelve Knights make up an Attack-Action pile. When you play a Knight, your opponent reveals the top two cards of his deck and trashes a card of their choice with a cost between three and six. If they trash a Knight in this manner, though, both Knights get trashed. Each Knight, however, is an individual, and gives you a small bonus when you play them. Sir Destry, for example, gives you +2 cards, while Dame Molly provides +2 actions. Since the new and complicated part of the card is always the same, players only need to give the Knight pile a quick scan after one has been bought, to see what the new Knight does.
- Various attack actions force Ruins upon other players, which come from a face down pile of random action cards that have fallen into disrepair. The ruins take up much the same design space that Curses did, except, instead of doing nothing, these Ruins still provide a ‘benefit’. The Ruined Library, for example, still nets you +1 card when you use an action to play it. They’re all worse than a Copper, but you can fight through a hand full of Ruins, where a hand full of Curses was a dead turn.
- The initial setup in Dark Ages doesn’t start with three Estates. Instead, players are given seven Copper, Hovel, Necropolis and Overgrown Estate. Hovel trashes itself when you buy a Victory card, Overgrown Estate draws you a card when you trash it, and Necropolis grants +2 Actions. It’s nice to see some alternative starting cards that do something new and nudge players toward the ‘trashing’ mechanic.
Those are the cards and mechanics that stick out as different from base Dominion, but there’s many more interesting mechanics that an article of this size can’t broach. All in all, Dark Ages provides players with 40 new cards to look at (and that counts the twelve Knights as one card, the four Ruins as another, and Hovel, Necropolis and Overgrown Estate as one more). Compare that to Hinterlands, the last large expansion, which came with 26 cards. Sure, there are no place mats or tokens to pass around in Dark Ages, but the game doesn’t suffer from dropping those gimmicks for more cards.
Dark Ages isn’t the last of the Dominion expansions, but it is the penultimate expansion for the foreseeable future. Vaccarino has one last trick to pull out by the name of Guilds, scheduled later in the Spring, but for now, we’ll make good use of the fall. It will be sad to see this chapter on gaming close, especially since Dominion seems to have found an excellent sweet spot of strategy and fun. I know many players, when we first played Dominion in 2008, envisioned it as a new Magic: the Gathering. But it seems that Vaccarino knew just how many legs his product could support and where they would carry his game. He’s done a great job, and, hopefully, he’ll go on to design an even better game. For now, though, I’m enjoying Dark Ages. It’s some of the best ruination I’ve ever seen.