#64 – Dominion: Dark Ages [Expansion]

box

Times have been hard. To save on money, you’ve moved out of your old castle, and into a luxurious ravine. You didn’t like that castle anyway; it was always getting looted, and never at a reasonable hour. And if it wasn’t barbarians it was the plague, or sometimes both would come at once, and there wouldn’t be enough chairs. The ravine is great; you get lots of sun, and you can just drop garbage wherever you want. In your free time you’ve taken up begging. Begging is brilliant conceptually, but tricky in practice, since no-one has any money. You beg twigs from the villagers, and they beg them back, but no-one really seems to come out ahead. That’s just how life is sometimes. You’re quietly conquering people, minding your own business, when suddenly there’s a plague, or barbarians, or everyone’s illiterate, and it’s all you can do to cling to some wreckage as the storm passes through. Still, you are sure that, as always, you will triumph over this adversity, or at least do slightly better than everyone else.

Base price: $45. (Generally around $30 – 35 in practice.)
2-4 players.
Play time: ~30-45 minutes.
BGG Link
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)

Another Dominion expansion review! I think at this point there’s just Guilds, Adventures, Empires, and Alchemy left, so I’m over halfway. Hooray!

As it turns out, Dark Ages was the first game of Dominion I ever played, though I didn’t realize it at the time. (It might actually have been Dark Ages + Alchemy? I remember either Spoils or Potions.) I actually had thought for a while my first game was with Cornucopia, but after noticing the Pillage card, I realized I had played a while before with this set.

So, if Prosperity is all about having money and spending money, Dark Ages is the opposite. You have so little money to start that you can’t even afford Estates, the staple starting Victory card of Dominion. Instead, you have some Shelters, the opportunity to get Ruins, and a whole lot of Rats. Will you manage to raise an empire from this squalor?

Contents

Setup

So this is a massive Dominion expansion, adding in 35 sets of Kingdom Cards, among other things:

kingdom-cards

That’s just a lot of cards. Yeah, there are more than 35 here, but some are, like Ruins (5 cards), Urchin / Mercenary (a pair of Kingdom Cards), and all 10 individually-named Knights (one Kingdom Card set, but 10 differently-named differently-arted cards).

Yes, you should set aside the base cards (CopperSilverGold, EstateDuchyProvince, Curse), but as I mentioned times are a bit tight, so rather than getting 3 Estates to start, you get 3 different Shelters:

shelters

Which are, with the exception of Necropolis, pretty much terrible (in my opinion). Necropolis gets a pass for that +2 Actions, but isn’t doing a whole lot else unless you draw it with more Action Cards that you definitely don’t have when the game starts. Give each player one of each Shelter and 7 Coppers. If you’re mixing this with other Dominion sets, do what you do for Colonies in Prosperity: shuffle the 10 Randomizer cards and flip one. If it’s Dark Ages, use Shelters, if not, don’t. This keeps the proportions fair.

As you should expect or have memorized if you’ve read my other Dominion reviews, you should remove certain amounts of cards, depending on your player count:

  • For 2 players:
    • Use 8 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use 10 Curse cards.
  • For 3 players:
    • Use all 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use 20 Curse cards.
  • For 4 Players:
    • Use 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use all 30 Curse cards.

As always, you can use Randominion or a similar app or shuffle the randomizer cards and deal out 10:

randomizer-cards

Note that if any of the cards have “Looter” as a type, you’ll also need to add in “Ruins” cards:

ruins

But, you’ll need to handle them a specific way; you need to shuffle them before setting up the pile, as they’re mixed and you can only see the card on top if you choose to gain it / have to gain it via a card effect. The rest of the pile should be face-down. You’ll use the same number of Ruins as Curses (10 for 2 players, 20 for 3, 30 for 4, etc.), and I’ll note that again in Player Count Differences.

You may also be playing with Spoils, if Bandit Camp, Pillage, or Marauder are in your Kingdom Cards:

spoils

So set that pile near the Supply, but not in the Supply. Similarly, you might be playing with Madman or Mercenary, if Hermit or Urchin are in play, so do the same thing with that:

upgrading-attacks

Lastly, there are a few weird piles, like the 20-card Rats pile or the Knights, which are all differently-named:

knights

Just do what you did with Ruins and shuffle the Knights, keeping only the top Knight face-up and the rest of the pile face down.

Right, so, you’ll have your Kingdom Cards and your Base Cards, forming the Supply:

supply

I actually like this layout a LOT. Will probably use it for future games.

And you’ll give each player their starting deck and have them shuffle and draw 5 cards. Once your play area looks like this, you’re ready to begin:

setup

Gameplay

If you don’t know what a deckbuilder is, I describe it in detail in my Dominion or Dominion: Intrigue reviews. As of this point, I’m assuming that you do know what a deckbuilder is or you’re just enamored with my writing style. Either way, Dark Ages adds a few new things, so I’ll try to talk about each in turn.

More in line with, say, Seaside, Dark Ages adds in a few new card types (Shelters + Ruins), but also has a strong theme, a la Hinterlands. Rather than focusing on what happens when you gain cards and giving cards effects when gained, Dark Ages focuses instead on what happens when you trash cards (remove cards from the game) or giving cards on-trash effects (or just generally interacting with trashed cards). This generally leads to a fairly interactive set of cards, so I’d say that if you’re finding your Dominion games aren’t interactive enough for your tastes, Dark Ages can fill that gap pretty well. That said.

As with all expansions / instances of Dominion, your turn has two phases: the Action Phase and the Buy Phase. During the Action Phase, you can play one Action card. During the Buy Phase, you can reveal and play Treasure Cards and then buy one card from the Supply (the Kingdom cards + Treasure cards + Victory cards + Curses or Ruins, if that advances your strategy in some meaningful way), provided you can pay its cost (bottom-left number).

All cards have a title (top), a cost (bottom-left), and their type or types (bottom-center), but their effects are different, otherwise the game would probably be fairly dry. Generally, along with some potential explanatory text, Action cards will have some effects:

  • +X Card[s]: Draw X extra cards into your hand.
  • +X Action[s]: You may play X additional Action cards during the current Action Phase.
  • +X Buy[s]: You may buy X additional cards during your Buy Phase, provided you have the money to pay for all the cards you buy.
  • +X Coin[s]: You have X additional money to spend during your Buy Phase. Poor House has a – Coin, which will decrease the value of the +Coin, but it can’t cause you to lose money when you play it. Just as an FYI.

If you have no +Action cards, you only get to play one Action card before your Action Phase ends. Action cards that lack a +Action are generally referred to as terminal Actions, and you generally will see a reasonable number of those in every set.

To reiterate how trashing works briefly since there’s so much trashing happening, some cards allow you to “trash” a card, or remove it from play and place it in a Trash pile near the Supply. Other cards have effects when they are trashed. Note that you cannot trash a card unless a card’s effect allows you to do so.

There’s also a new rule that gets basically defined for the first time in Dark Ages called the “Lose Track” rule, which pertains to cards that can “lose track” of cards that they’re supposed to affect later (either they attempt to trash a card that returns itself to the Supply after being played, they try to move a card in the discard pile that’s already been covered by another card gained to the discard pile, or something else). It can happen a fair bit with this expansion.

After the Action Phase comes your Buy Phase, in which you play Treasure cards to accumulate money, and then spend that money on cards from the Supply. Treasure cards can be Counterfeit (value 1), Copper (value 1), Silver (value 2), Spoils (value 3) or Gold (value 3), and you should also count +Coins you got during the Action Phase. As usual, unless you got +Buys in the Action Phase, you can only buy one card.

Now, the Clean-Up Phase. As mentioned previously, discard everything (actions, treasures, etc.) in front of you from play and discard any cards left in your hand, and then the next player takes their turn and so on / so forth until the game ends. Which, is:

GAME END

There are two possible ways to end Dominion:

  • The Province pile is exhausted (there are no more Province cards).
  • Any three piles in the Supply are exhausted.

Note that the second case includes Coppers, Silvers, Golds, Curses, Duchies, and Estates, as well as the normal Kingdom cards. Now, count how many Victory points you have among your cards, and whoever has the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

Generally by now, I’ve asserted that the primary differences in various games of Dominion based on player count are:

  • You use different numbers of Victory, Curse, and Ruins cards.
  • There are additional turns that are taken between your turn, and you get fewer of a specific Kingdom card on average since they don’t scale with player count and you might be competing with multiple players to get them.

I would say that this (save the Ruins bit) is generally true regardless of what Dominion set you’re playing with, so I’ll try to focus on Dark Ages-specific stuff.

With Dark Ages, I don’t see any particular differences between player counts, other than it might be more helpful to gain cards that let you pick up card from the trash (Graverobber / Rogue), since it’s likely that the Trash will be larger, especially since a number of cards ask each player to reveal the top two cards of their deck and trash one.

Strategy

I would argue that this is a more difficult expansion to play well than the others. There’s a lot of finesse and card synergy required to pull off the right combos, here, and playing poorly can just leave you with a deck full of Rats (and often will).

Here are a few things I’ve done or taken away from playing with Dark Ages. It’s not an exhaustive list, but if you’re looking for more information, I always recommend the DominionStrategy wiki. And this article on Rats, because that’s the only way I figured out how to use it, and I’m honestly not totally sure I actually know.

  • Feodum is great if you’ve got a Silver-heavy game. And which expansion loves Silvers? Oh, that’s right, Hinterlands. If you’ve got Hinterlands’s Trader and Feodum’s in play, you can do pretty well for yourself. Though, rumor has it there’s a card in Guilds that makes Feodum into a real, well, masterpiece. Naturally, Hinterlands’s Jack of All Trades works great here, too.
  • Fortress is generally great, unless you actually want to get rid of it. It prevents deck trashing attacks since it goes right into your hand, it can be trashed for “trash a card and gain a card costing +X” and still end up in your hand, or it can be trashed as fuel for all the Rats you’re playing with your weird Rats strategy. No matter what, it stays with you. The only issue is if you’re trying to get rid of it, you might have a spot of trouble.
  • Get good at trashing. As should be obvious from the trashing-heavy theme of this expansion, you should understand by now that trashing cards isn’t the worst thing you can do (and in fact, often can be really good, if you’re using Altar or Salvager or Bishop correctly). Even cards you might not usually want to trash (Gold, for instance) might be worth trashing in the context of some cards (Forager, also for instance, since it gives you +1 for each type of Treasure in the Trash, or Counterfeit might let you play that Gold twice and almost get a Province).
  • Market Square can be pretty useful. In games with a lot of trashing, Market Square is the equivalent to Hinterlands’s Tunnel, as it lets you gain a Gold when a card is trashed by discarding it. This includes when you trash cards (such as playing Counterfeit to trash a Gold for 6 money that turn, allowing you to nearly buy a Province and gain the Gold back via Market Square), or when your opponent trashes cards (such as a Knight “trashing” your Fortress, allowing you to gain it into your hand and a Gold into your discard. Generally helpful to have around.
  • Cornucopia kind of loves the Ruins and the Knights. Each of the Knights is a differently-named card (and so are the Ruins), so if you’re playing with Cornucopia and its emphasis on variety, it’ll synergize well with those sets of cards. The Shelters, too, since they are all differently-named.
  • Leave the Baron at home. If you’re playing with Base Dominion + Dark Ages, it makes Baron terrible as an opening card since you don’t typically have Estates in your starting deck. Though it’s funny to watch someone buy one and then realize it, so … your mileage may vary.
  • Rebuild is awesome, generally. The ability to essentially “upgrade” one of your Victory cards might seem weird for Dark Ages, but, hey, gotta rebuild that castle sometime. For extra fun, play with Hinterlands‘s Tunnel and just name Tunnel every time. If you’re lucky, you’ll discard a bunch of Tunnels and gain a bunch of Golds, which is pretty much never bad. There are other solid synergies, here, but basically point is that Rebuild is pretty good, albeit vulnerable to some attacks.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • I really love the idea of the Knights. A pile of similar but differently-named cards? Awesome. It’s one of my favorite things about this expansion, and there’s a lot to like here. Empires brings it back around with their Castles, and I like it there as well, but I was super intrigued by Knights when I first played with Dark Ages.
  • Rats is delightfully weird. That’s about all. I don’t totally understand the strategy, and I’ve seen one of my friends wreck himself with Rats, but it’s fun that the option exists.
  • Shelters change the game up in a good way. It forces you to think about openings (the first two hands of the game, I mean) more than I typically would, and the Necropolis is often a nice card to have in deck, even if it’s a worse Village.
  • Well-made, thematic set. I think that Dark Ages is a great theme for an expansion centered around trashing. The cards all are solid (especially Rats, which is just, perfect for the theme both in terms of flavor and actual card effect).
  • Adds a TON of new cards. This is one of the largest expansions for Dominion, and it’s awesome. There’s a LOT going on, here.

Mehs

  • Pretty high complexity. I would not teach Dominion using this expansion to a new player. I’d generally start with Base + Seaside to learn, Base + Prosperity to learn a longer game, or Base + Intrigue to learn some potential new strategy avenues. Once you add in things like Dark Ages, you’re really taking the game to the next level as I’d argue this is one of the most complex Dominion expansions as of writing. You might see this as a pro if you’re looking for more depth, but if you’re just getting started it’s rather complicated to understand. Especially given the nature of trashing, you’re a bit more likely to screw yourself over accidentally if you’re very new and don’t quite understand all the nuances of the rules, yet.
  • Complicates setup a fair amount. Okay, do we need Spoils in play? What about Mercenary? Ruins? There are a lot of extra cards that might be required for your speciifc game of Dark Ages, which adds a bit of time to setup / teardown. Rather than remember them all, I use Randominion to just tell me what I need, but it’s still extra stuff to do before you can play.

Cons

  • Fairly attack-heavy as an expansion. Yes, there are plenty of cards that aren’t attacks, but this expansion adds a lot by its very nature, so it’s not one that my less-attack-prone friends often want to play.
  • At least, in my experience, slows the game down a bit. With all the trashing and attacks, the game runs a bit slower, which also makes it a bit less new-player-friendly for my groups. I also play with some players with severe AP, so this is not normally the expansion I break out for them.

Overall: 8.25 / 10

in-progress

Overall, I’ve come to expect a certain level of quality from Dominion expansions, and this is no exception. I think Dark Ages is an excellent expansion, but it’s not my personal favorite. It’s fairly attack-centric (which makes sense given the flavor and theme), which is often frustrating for me. Additionally, since it changes up a significant number of the base Dominion’s rules, I don’t often get it to the table with new players. When I do play it, I enjoy it, and I think it adds a ton to the game. That said, I wouldn’t recommend picking it up first (which, given that it was released after Hinterlands, seems reasonable). I’d wait until you feel like you’ve gotten a solid handle on what Dominion “is”, and then look to expansions like Hinterlands and Dark Ages to offer a chance to show you what Dominion could be. They’re very different expansions, sure, but they offer a huge variety of ways to change and improve the game, and I really appreciate them for that. Dark Ages is an impressive (and massive) Dominion expansion, and I think it’s a great addition to the Dominion line.

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