#80 – Dominion: Empires [Expansion]

box

The world is big and your kingdom gigantic. It’s no longer a kingdom really; it’s an empire. Which makes you the emperor. This entitles you to a better chair, plus you can name a salad after yourself. It’s not easy being emperor. The day starts early, when you light the sacred flame; then it’s hours of committee meetings, trying to establish exactly why the sacred flame keeps going out. Sometimes your armies take over a continent and you just have no idea where to put it. And there’s the risk of assassination; you have a food taster, who tastes anything before you eat it, and a dagger tester, who gets stabbed by anything before it stabs you. You’ve taken to staying at home whenever it’s the Ides of anything. Still overall it’s a great job. You wouldn’t trade it for the world – especially given how much of the world you already have.

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?)

Alright, time to wrap it up. With Dominion: Empires, we mark the end of a long series of Dominion reviews that I’ve done (with the exception of the upgrade packs, which will happen later). It’s been … a lot, but I’m excited to share the last one with you (for now, since I assume more expansions will happen in the future, plus as I said I have those upgrade packs). As with the other expansions, Empires does require the base game (or the Base Cards) to play.

In Dominion: Empires, you’ve already got most of everything (maybe a subtle nod to the kinds of players that would buy Empires in the first place), but there’s always more to get. Sure, you can add to your empire, but it’s difficult to get something for nothing, so you might have to take on a bit of debt to do so. Additionally, Empires adds a few more interesting mechanics that can make even Kingdoms you’ve played a dozen times seem fresh and new. By now you’ve already gotten your Dominion; can you build an empire?

Contents

Setup

Another huge Dominion set, here, with 24 sets of Kingdom Cards (29 different types of cards, total, if you count … well, we’ll get to that) (and honestly even more if you count each Castle separately):

kingdom-cards

There are just so many cards

Give each player 3 Estate cards and 7 Copper cards. That will comprise their deck. Next, set aside the base cards (CopperSilverGold, EstateDuchyProvince, Curse), and then set them up:

  • For 2 players:
    • Use 8 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards. For a two-player game with Castles, use one of each Castle and order the pile from least- to most-expensive (least-expensive on top, as you might guess).
    • Use 10 Curse cards.
  • For 3 players:
    • Use all 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards. Order the Castle pile from least- to most-expensive (least-expensive on top) if you’re playing with those.
    • Use 20 Curse cards.
  • For 4 Players:
    • Use 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards. Order the Castle pile from least- to most-expensive (least-expensive on top) if you’re playing with those.
    • Use all 30 Curse cards.

Next, you can set aside your VP tokens (remember those from Prosperity?):

vp-tokens

Also, set aside some new tokens — they’re called Debt tokens, and we’ll talk more about that later:

debt-tokens

Grab your randomizer cards and choose 10, or use Randominion, an old favorite:

randomizers

In the off chance you get a randomizer card that refers to two cards, that’s what’s called a split pile, and you should put each of the sets of five down on top of each other as specified by the card itself. Then, before being finished with setup, there are a few things you should take care of.

Remember Adventures‘s Events? They’re back with even more!

events

Additionally, there are new cards called Landmarks. Landmarks add an end-game (or during-game) scoring mechanic (think Secret Missions from Tiny Epic Galaxies, Favor tokens from Castles of Mad King Ludwig, or Bonus Stars from Mario Party):

landmarks

They’re also extremely green. Anyways, you should use no more than two Landmarks + Events (two cards total, mind you), so you can shuffle those together and pop two out. I really like the Salt the Earth event, personally. Once you’ve done all that you should have a pretty robust Supply:

supply

Now, give each player their deck, have them shuffle it and draw five cards, and then you should be ready to start:

setup

Gameplay

If you still don’t know what a deckbuilder is, please see my Dominion or Dominion: Intrigue reviews for a brief (ish) explanation.

Empires, mercifully, doesn’t add any totally new card types that I’m aware of (other than Landmarks, but those aren’t really playable per se and Gatherings, but those aren’t like, tricky to figure out or all that distinct), but it does introduce a thing called split piles, in which two cards are stacked on top of each other.

split-pile-cards

These cards are all playable, there are just only five of each. You have to empty an entire ten-card pile before that’s considered to be an empty pile in the Supply.

Also, Empires adds Castles, or a set of Victory cards that are reminiscient of Dark Ages’s Knights:

castles

These are almost all unique and, unlike the Knights, are bought in order. But we can talk about that later.

Either way, 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), provided you can pay its cost (bottom-left number).

Note that some cards have a new number in the bottom left against an orange background. That’s called debt, and there are a few cards that will trigger that:

debt-cards

The cool thing about debt is that it costs you nothing to get into debt. If a card only has a debt cost, you pay for it by taking that card and these debt tokens:

debt-tokens

If it has a cost and a debt cost, you pay the regular cost and then take that many debt tokens, too. Generally, you can only pay off debt during your Buy Phase, but there’s one little snag — as long as you have any debt, you cannot buy more cards (even if that would just cause you to accrue more debt)! Note that debt works very similarly to Potions in Dominion: Alchemy, in that it’s a separate and distinct, yet present part of the card’s cost. So, for instance, cards that let you gain a 4-cost card would not let you gain a card that costs any debt, since that’s an additional cost. Many cards let you take on debt, but you cannot just elect to take on debt, nor can you take on debt unless a card specifically would give you debt (so you can’t buy a King’s Court on turn one by taking on debt, since it doesn’t cost debt).

Anyways. Debt’s a lot of fun. Another type of card you will see is Gathering cards. These cards, when played, accrue VP tokens onto the pile which can be gained later. It’s a cool effect, since other players can snatch the VP tokens you’ve spent time gathering up, or you can chain actions together to put a bunch of VPs on the pile and then help yourself to them. There are a few types of Gathering cards:

gathering-cards

All cards have a title (top), a cost (bottom-left), and their type or types (bottom-center), but their effects are different, as you’d guess, since there are so many different types of cards. Generally, Action cards will have some effects (in addition to extra text, if necessary):

  • +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.
  • +X VP[s]: Gain X VP tokens. These are worth points at the end of the game.

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 some number of those in every set.

After the Action Phase comes your Buy Phase, in which you play Treasure cards to accumulate money, and then spend that money to either purchase cards from the Supply or activate Event cards. Treasure cards can be Humble Castle (value 1), Rocks (value 1), Copper (value 1), Plunder (value 2), Silver (value 2), Gold (value 3), Capital (value 6), Charm (value ?), Crown (play a Treasure twice), and Fortune (x2 to the total money you’ve gained from Treasures / +Coins if you haven’t already yes I know that’s preposterous), and you should also count +Coins you got during the Action Phase. Unless you got +Buys in the Action Phase, you can only buy one card. Note that you can spend money on Events to gain their effects, but only as long as you have Buys.

Now, the Clean-Up Phase. As mentioned previously, discard every card (actions, treasures, etc.) in front of you from play (except for Durations that are still in effect) 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. But how does the game end?

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 (don’t forget to count the Landmarks!), and whoever has the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

As always:

  • You use different numbers of Victory, and Curse 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 (generally) scale with player count and you might be competing with multiple players to get them.

For Empires, it affects some of the Landmarks, sure, but the real competition is that the calculus becomes a bit different on Gathering cards and split piles. Suddenly it’s possible in a four-player game for two players to buy two Catapults and now you have a very low chance of getting one (since there are only five). Similarly, when do you try to take from a Gathering card? It might be a while until it gets back around to your turn. I still generally prefer Dominion at lower player counts, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a four-player game; it’s just usually slower.

Strategy

Given that Events and Landmarks can retroactively significantly change a variety of Kingdoms and strategies, I’m going with a lightweight approach to writing these strategy articles. As always, if you’re looking to go deep, I recommend the DominionStrategy wiki.

  • Castles. It’s difficult to go too in-depth on all of the castles, but essentially if you’re going to go for the Castles, go all-in (sorta like King Ludwig). You get significant benefits as you buy more and more Castles, so… it’s worth it. Just watch out for other players trying to get in there, too. On the plus side, King’s Castle is the most expensive (debateably) card in the game (at 10!), so that might be enough to keep other players out.
  • Generally, the split piles are meant to synergize. You should play them together whenever possible, since you’d really rather put Rocks on your Catapult than Silver, but both hurt if they come raining down on you. Other cards like Encampment get returned to the Supply unless you reveal a Gold or a Plunder, making it harder to buy subsequent Plunders, which are pretty good.
  • Crown is a great card. It’s essentially a Throne Room or a Throne Room for money, which is delightful. Note that it doesn’t work on Fortune, since Fortune only doubles your money the first time it’s played. However, it does work with Capital, where you get 12 money but only 6 debt, or, essentially, 6 money for free.
  • Speaking of which, Capital isn’t a terrible early buy. I use it to get Golds pretty often, which gives me more real money to pay off all the debt I accrue. If you can get a bunch of Golds early on, you … have a better time. Sure, you take a lot of debt, but it works out. It almost makes more sense for this card to be called Loan, in my opinion. Note that if you somehow managed to not discard it from play (say a Herbalist lets you put it back on your deck or you trash it via Counterfeit), you don’t take the 6 debt at all. Which, as you might surmise, is pretty amazing.
  • Chariot Race is easy to win if you’re loaded. Hey, at least it’s thematically consistent. You really want to play Chariot Race if you can set up the top card of your deck to be expensive (that King’s Castle, though) or if you know your opponent is going to reveal a Copper (perhaps from playing a previous Chariot Race) or something. It’s really good if you win, and so-so otherwise.
  • Keep an eye on the Gathering piles. Each person definitely has their own “when do I take the VP from the pile” point, but that’s different between most players. I don’t have a strong recommendation, here, but I wouldn’t normally let it get over four. It’s best if you control the Gathering piles via Crown, King’s Court, or Throne Room or something. That way, you can pump them up via the first two plays of the card, and then take the VP on the third one (depending on how you take them).
  • Donate is pretty solid. Donate is a preposterous trasher, but it comes at a high cost. If you’ve ever wanted to look through your entire deck and discard and trash every card you don’t want, this might be a good way to do it. Buy too many Rats in Dark Ages? Fixable. Junk up your deck? Fixable. Want to aggressively pivot? Fixable. What a delight.
  • While it’s not always a feasible move, there are probably very few things more satisfying than buying the Dominate Event. 14 money for 15VP? That’s pretty excellent. Also, it just lets you turn the screws on your opponent if you can manage it. But you’d probably need a Fortune or some fancy Crown effects (or some serious Capital) to afford it…
  • If you can get an early lead on Provinces, might be worth Salting the Earth. That lets you trash a Victory card from the Supply, which might not be what you want unless you can prevent your opponent from closing the gap between you. Helpfully, if that Victory card has an on-trash effect, you get to do that effect, so it might be a good decision depending on, say, what Castles are in play.
  • Good luck with the Windfall event. If you can draw your entire deck, gain 3 Golds. That’s awesome, but not always the easiest to do without some strong draws or strong trashers. Probably worth it, though?
  • I think that the Wedding event is better than Gold. It’s a “7-cost” (4 money, 3 debt), sure, but you gain a VP token and a Gold, which you might be able to get on your first turn. That’s a big deal in some games, but not all. Generally if I open 4-3 and that’s available I go for it because why not. Really ups your early-game buying power, which might give you a slight edge.
  • Have fun buying Copper for the Fountain Landmark. Don’t make the mistake as someone I played with and shoot for 20 Copper; there’s no extra bonus. 15 VP for 10 Copper. Settlers might pair nicely with it, though…

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • I love debt. I think it’s a great mechanic, it adds a bunch of stuff to the game, and it’s overall really cool (especially since it can significantly alter the standard 4/3 or 5/2 [or vice versa] openings, similar to Baker from Guilds). My only complaint is that it’s occasionally possible to forget you have it, so maybe put the tokens on top of your deck or something?
  • Split piles are also really cool. I love the thematic consistency across piles and I think it has great impact on the game, as it adds tension when the last card is drawn from a split pile, showing the new cards underneath. Additionally, it’s great for Cornucopia since they’re differently-named cards.
  • Landmarks can breathe new life into old Kingdoms. Since they add a game-end (or during-game) scoring mechanic, Landmarks can really spice up older games (similar to Events). Lots to do!
  • Lots of great things come back. More Duration cards, more Events, and +VP Token cards are all back in full force for Empires. Donald X has said the theme is roughly “different paths to victory”, and this is definitely an exemplary set for that.
  • The new Events are amazing. Wedding, Tax, and Dominate are among my favorites, along with, of course, Salt the Earth. All great.
  • Expansion feels more interactive. Perhaps that’s the Events and Landmarks, but I feel like I’m watching other players’ turns more in Empires. Then again, might also be the Gathering cards…
  • Some cards are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Villa, for instance, lets you go back to the Action Phase from the Buy Phase; Fortune doubles your money; Capital is a 5-cost 6-value Treasure. What a time to be alive.

Mehs

  • This should not be your first Dominion expansion. There’s a lot going on here (perhaps too much for a new player), so I’d highly recommend shying away from this one until you’ve gotten a few other expansions under your belt. The reason this is a Meh rather than a Con is because once you have, this is one of my favorite expansions (if not my favorite).
  • Not really sure why Gathering Cards are their own separate card type. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it seems like it doesn’t get a ton of use in this expansion. Perhaps subsequent ones will have more to do with it.
  • Feels like a tiny bit of power creep. A lot of these cards seem a bit powerful, but I’m not sure if that’s just what a totally new expansion feels like.

Cons

  • Debt can slow down games. If you get slammed with debt and have to spend a bunch of turns paying it off, it can make the game take a bit longer, especially with the bidding Landmark where one player can accrue as high as 40 debt, which basically ruins them for a while. Events such as Tax can also do this by adding debt tokens to existing Supply piles, making them less desirable, but if players are taxing Provinces or Supply piles that are running out of cards, the game can be extended.

Overall: 9 / 10

in-progress

You know what? I’ll go for it. Dominion: Empires is my favorite Dominion expansion. That’s part of why I saved it for last, yes, but I also needed time to replay all the others to make sure it wasn’t just hype. I love the new mechanics it adds, I think the new cards are (mostly) great, and I am always happy to play it. Unfortunately, it’s not the expansion I’d start new players with (see, all the additional mechanics), but I think it’s definitely the one with the most staying power for me. It’s always good to end on a high note, and since I’ve been reviewing these expansions for a little over six months, I’d definitely say Dominion: Empires is a must-have.

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