Full disclosure: A review copy of Dominations was provided by Luma Imports.
Hey, look, the mini reviews are back. It’s been a while, mostly because I have this whole Thing about “When do I publish a mini review vs. a standard review” and the games I was writing up mostly didn’t meet my qualifications. For you, the last mini review was Little Town (justifiably, also because it’s funny to have a little review of Little Town and I subscribe to my own particular humor), but I wrote that in like, December, so it’s been a while for me. And will be maybe a while still! I have more reviews in the pipeline that I’ve been getting written up, but this one has been hanging overhead for a while so I wanted to get a chance to publish it. Sword of Damocles, but from a board game review standpoint, maybe? Unclear. Anyways, let’s talk about Dominations: Road to Civilization, from Holy Grail Games.
So you’re just getting started, but in a like, geological sense. Like you’re some of the first people around, and you’ve decided that you want to finally get that bread. Literally and figuratively. You want to build a civilization that will stand the test of time, but in a way that’s legally distinct from any other civilization titles. While you’re working on that branding, you also need to build up! Focus on building Knowledge! Acquire land! Build statues of yourself! You know, all that good stuff. Your opponents want to do the same, but frankly, they invented the wheel and you’re kind of jealous, so it might be worth making nice for a while before you can use your considerable influence to get them to teach you how to make a wooden circle. Dominations is a game of … that. You play as one of many famous civilizations trying to build and amass both influence and victory points, and you do so through three simple phases each turn. On your turn, you first place a tile and use that tile’s indicated icons to generate Knowledge in one of six Domains. You then use that Knowledge to build Monuments or build / upgrade Cities, and finally demonstrate that Knowledge further by acquiring Mastery Cards, which give you a permanent effect of some kind. Mastery Cards start to build out a Civilization Tree, which is essentially a record of all known knowledge. That’s cool too. Your opponents do the same, but the board is a shared space, so you may interact with your opponents to your mutual benefit, based on how the tiles end up. They may even try to wrest control of a Monument from you by placing massive Cities that sprawl in comparison to your tiny towns, though that’s another game entirely. You’ll have to balance a lot of these competing factors (and factions) if you want to push your civilization out of the footnotes of history and onto the front page. Are you up to the challenge?
Player Count Differences
So, if you’re a long-time reader of What’s Eric Playing?, first off, thanks, but also, you can probably imagine how this might go. It takes longer with more players! It’s already a long game! Et cetera! That’s what’s going to make this all the more interesting when I flip the script. I actually don’t particularly mind Dominations at higher player counts! I’ll elaborate. A major thing that I like about this game (and I’ll explain in Pros) is that almost all of the player interaction is positive. I don’t do things to harm you; I do something and you derive a fringe benefit based on your locality or you get to go next, potentially reaping an additional benefit. That’s much better than you being able to disassemble something or block something that I’ve spent an hour working on. Granted, that’s not entirely out of the question, but you’re pretty rarely incentivized to actively screw over another player, since you have so many irons in the fire that you need to trace through on your turn. This largely leads to players collaboratively building up a shared area, which is cool, and occasionally grabbing things that your opponents might need. Dominations, however, anticipates that latter case, and fixes it pretty critically. As mentioned earlier, players get Mastery cards, and in other games this would be the primary thing that other players can swoop out from under you. In this game, however, you cannot have more than one of any particular Mastery card, and the only difference between the various Mastery cards is the relative location of their Nodus icons. That very much improves the overall experience of the game, for me, because it takes what could be a major issue and reduces it to an almost unnoticeable one. It’s possible that you may miss out on a specific combination of Nodus icons if you’re late to the Mastery card party, but while unfortunate, it’s probably not going to mess up your strategy too much unless you needed some number of Nodus icons that you can no longer get. This was a bit of a long-winded rant on the subject, but, it’s an important thing to me! Additionally, at higher player counts, you can typically pull off a few better combinations, as there are usually more places available for you to place a tile that aligns with a tile in your hand. That’s useful! Useful enough, in my mind, to justify the extra amount of time that each player takes to play the game. Plus, you (typically) get a more dynamic assignment of roles at higher player counts. Anyways, long paragraph, but given the focus on positive player interaction, the expansion of the play area’s size, and the per-player Mastery card limit, I’m inclined to be fine with this game at any player count. I likely won’t get this at four players that often, but that’s likely more of a function of me having not left my house in like a year.
- Whenever you get additional tiles, take the opportunity to discard tiles that aren’t necessarily useful to your long-term goals. You essentially want to start focusing on building cities that allow you to get Mastery cards and expanded Reserves so you can get even better Mastery cards. If you need green / blue / purple locations, and you only have red / orange / yellow, well, once per Age, you can discard your unwanted tiles and draw new ones. It’s worth doing that. If you want to get particular, you can also discard tiles that have unfortunate nodes at the points, but I think your returns are likely diminishing at that point, as having the camp be the color you need is how you boost your Reserves.
- Use your Objective card to motivate your decisions! Early in the game, you may have no plans whatsoever, so … why not work towards some of your Objectives? They can usually at least tell you what colors to focus on or what city types you want to emphasize. There’s not often too much that you can do about things like 35+ Influence or even Monuments, early on, but you can set yourself up for those things later by prioritizing sprawling lines of cities or expanding your Reserves to be able to build the Monuments.
- Watch out for your tile placements! If you place poorly, you may end up giving your opponent ideal spots for their own tiles! Sometimes you won’t have a good choice, but, generally, giving your opponents access to creating a Locus or access to high-value spots on a Monument is usually not ideal. If you can’t avoid it, you can’t avoid it; sometimes a spot is too useful or gaining a Monument’s placement is too important to not take advantage. One fix for this is that the Farmer lets you place two Land Tiles, so you can potentially cover one bad placement with the Farmer, should you have access to that.
- If you want to play aggressively, you can look at your opponents’ Objective card to try and block them. I … wouldn’t recommend this, just because it’s usually a waste of your time. It’s hard to completely block players unless they pretty aggressively overextend themselves. That doesn’t always happen. You can’t block players on Mastery Cards. You can’t block players on Influence (not really, at least). You can block players on placement, but you need to have them essentially walled in between two players and only able to expand along one line, which you then cut off. That doesn’t always happen. I wouldn’t really encourage this lifestyle unless you want to play a long and hateful game that … will probably end up aggravating you more than the player you’re looking to do harm to.
- You don’t always need to level up your Cities. There are some benefits, mostly around the Influence increase and the Reserve limit increase. That said, you don’t need more than 10 of a resource to buy Mastery cards. Certain Objective cards do not really care about the level of your Cities, for instance. You can do pretty much everything you want to do with Level 1 Cities, but keep in mind that certain Advanced Mastery cards do reward cities based on level. That may be worth considering leveling some up, depending on how your civilization unfolds. Just don’t necessarily invest the resources required to level up your Cities without some goal in mind.
- You do, however, need to build Cities of a variety of types so that you can increase your Reserve for those resources, allowing you to purchase high-level cards. Yeah, like I said, if you don’t have a Reserve of at least 10 you’re not buying any Level 2 or Level 3 Mastery Cards. That’s okay to start with, but you really do need some high-level cards to make progress in the game. Plus, you need that upper Reserve limit for higher-level Monument cards. So while the height of a City might not matter, having Cities of various types might be particularly important to your advancement. And they can help you control Monuments, which may apply to certain Objectives that you have.
- Keep in mind that high-level cards also have prerequisites, so keep an eye on their costs before you invest in getting them. The Level 3 Mastery cards have requirements that you must have either an L1 Mastery of some other color or at least an L2 Mastery of the same color before you can buy that L3 Mastery card. The specific card has its own requirements, so check the card. There is one Mastery card that lets you avoid prerequisites, so that may be helpful for you based on your own goals. But if you spend a lengthy amount of time setting up a turn or two to get resources for a Mastery card you can’t afford, you’re going to have a bad time.
- You can also focus on Monuments! They’re a good way to get extra Nodus spots for your Objective card. If you want to avoid building Cities for some reason, using your Build action on additional Monument spots lets you gain a Monument card instead of placing a City, which can essentially let you double-time on gaining Nodus colors that you might need for your Objective card. Plus, they usually have other fun effects and bonuses that are worth looking into, especially if you’re planning to develop another Mastery during the next phase.
- Try to pick a Monument that aligns with your Civilization. This is mostly just to make sure you’re giving yourself a good shot at success. If you can get Monument Cards that are easy for you to place / surround / gain cards from as part of your Objective card, then you will likely be able to make even greater strides towards getting the Big Points on your Objective card. That’s good! We like that. If you pick a Monument that has no colors in common with your Objective card … you’re just making it more difficult for yourself, especially if your opponents pick Monuments that benefit them.
- Look for opportunities to gain points from played Monuments! There are often high-value cards you can gain or extra spaces on the Monument tile you can build nearby that will let you get a lot of points quickly. The player with the most points wins, so, you’re going to want to pretty frequently get points, he said, in a Strategy section of a Serious Board Game Writeup.
- If you’re going to take cards with Corruptio, place the Corruptio as far away from the core of your Civilization Tree as you can. I generally place it pointing away from the center of my Tree and usually a few cards off. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have, but you’d rather not build towards it since it’s completely a dead-end, as far as Nodus options are concerned.
- In many games, it seems like exchanging resources for other resources is a bad idea; it’s definitely a good idea in Dominations. I have this weird tension about it because it seems like a raw deal, but getting 4 of a resource you don’t want means you almost can build a new City in a resource you do want, which is super useful! Try to swing that as often as you can, especially since your Knowledge all goes away at the end of an Age.
- Early Influence gains aren’t the worst thing in the world, but if you’re the only player really focusing on your Civilization Tree, you may not be able to get that much from your assimilations, so it may not be worth going all-in on that until later. You should keep in mind that you always score Influence as VP at the end of an Age, so it might be worth getting Influence early since Age 1 Influence is worth 3VP (similar to The Castles of Tuscany), but that’s up to you, since you won’t really get any useful Mastery cards to assimilate until Age 2. Still, a L1 Mastery Card can be useful in some contexts, so, keep an eye out. And some players do manage to get higher-level Mastery Cards early enough that you may still be able to assimilate a few. See what you can make work!
- If you’re going last in an Age, keep an eye on other players’ Knowledge and see which Roles you can swipe. This is my favorite thing to do, honestly. There’s one Mastery Card to look out for, since it boosts your effective Knowledge by 3 for calculating Roles, but if that’s not in play (or if you have it), you can spend your last turn trying to set yourself up to acquire as many Roles as possible for the next Age, which can put you in a really good place. It’s worth trying, at least. If you’re significantly ahead in one Knowledge type, even after developing a Mastery Card, it’s worth spending the remainder on converting it to other Knowledge types so that you can potentially swing Roles for those types.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the historical speculation of the game in terms of the different Objective cards. There’s something to the idea of “historical accuracy”, a term that I find deeply boring past a certain point. It’s nice to learn things about history; it’s less interesting, in my book, to be constrained by what is. Dominations isn’t; it concerns itself a bit with what was and more with what could be. I like that! It’s ambitious without being disrespectful. Essentially, what happens is your Objective card has 5 objectives on it. 3 relate to the historical role of that civilization in some way. The other two are speculative; what might that civilization have strived for as it pushed towards modernity (if they are no longer around) or maybe in the future? I think that kind of thing is very cool. It’s not explicitly an alternate history game (and Dominations isn’t particularly concerned with history), but I think it’s fun.
- I think the Civilization Tree is a cool feature. As I frequently mention, I really like games that give me a sense of progress as the game develops. The Civilization Tree is a pretty explicit version of that idea, I’d say, as you build it up through Mastery Cards and Monument Cards over the course of the game. I like that each element gives you an ability and / or points and that the connections between the elements matter. It’s a management problem that interacts with your cities and tiles without overwhelmingly affecting it. I particularly like that it feels connected enough that it doesn’t feel like I’m playing two separate games. Players that focus on certain colors of Knowledge and build their Mastery / Civilization Tree around those colors will just have very different playstyles. And that’s interesting!
- I also really like that assimilation isn’t a negative thing, and you instead gain a copy of the card that’s already been played. This is probably one of my favorite things about the game, as it allows you to essentially copy another player’s strategy, rather than steal it. This just means that as one player builds up, the other players can follow behind, which is great. It also encourages players to diversify, as you don’t want to go through all the trouble of getting the most Influence in an Age only to already have every possible assimilation target already taken.
- In general, there’s a lot of positive player interaction: the only negative interaction is swiping a monument or location that your opponent is going for. I suppose there’s some competition around roles as well, but building next to a player benefits them, which is a nice bit of positive player interaction (or something that encourages players to stay away from each other). Similarly, a Locus activation can really benefit a player if they have a stake in one of the six tiles in the Locus, so you are somewhat rewarded if you and another player work together to build up the Locus. It’s better if you build your own Locus, but that’s sometimes harder to land.
- The art style is pretty nice! It’s bright, diverse, and colorful, which are my big three in a lot of situations. It does look really good on the table, especially when you have a few of the big monuments mixed in. There’s a nice sprawl to the game, even if it does use up a bunch of table space. I had to use my longer table, and I’m really hoping the photos turned out.
- Realizing the Mastery Cards are mostly copies of each other for those specific Domains helps make learning the game a lot easier. That’s not always the case (particularly for Level 3), but L1 / L2 each have some Mastery Cards that are the same across all Domains, just specifically for that Domain. If you got that memorized, it’ll be easier to just keep track of the Unique ones.
- I like how your Mastery Cards help build on each other. They generally reward you for pursuing a very specific type of Civilization, which is cool! The hybridization of it allows for multiple different strategies to be rewarding and still fun. Every game I play I try to go a completely different and new route than my previous game (usually by picking a new Objective Card that I haven’t chosen before).
- The Knowledge Reserve limits / Knowledge reset each age is interesting, since it kind of forces you to get your stuff together each Age. I like that it all goes away and resets, frankly, though as you progress you can get Mastery Cards that allow you to start each Age with some Knowledge (and gain some Knowledge each turn), both of which can help you keep moving forward. The limitation (and the per-turn action limits) are nice, however, as they force players to be strategic about what they spend (and particularly, what they gain, since they don’t want to waste Knowledge).
- The game builds on itself quite nicely. Yeah overall, Dominations is very nicely constructed and I’m really excited to see what else gets added to it. The land tiles sync up well with the Knowledge system and Mastery cards, and all of that plays nicely with player interactions around Mastery Card gaining and Locus creation and Monument placement. It’s not seamless, granted, but the stitching of these various game systems together works very well and leads to some cool in-game effects.
- High cognitive overhead, again, as to be expected, but it can be difficult to remember to do everything you need to do at the start of your turn, during your turn, at the end of your turn, and at the End of the Age. The challenge here is that if you have Mastery Cards that chain off of each other or give you bonus abilities or effects, then you suddenly have Big Turns where you need to start by gaining Knowledge, choose a place to play, determine if standard, Locus, or Monument rules apply, gain Knowledge accordingly, potentially gain additional Knowledge, see if other players gain Knowledge from proximity, decide if you want to build a City, upgrade a City, or build a Monument, decide if you want to get a new Mastery Card or upgrade an existing one, and then decide which one you want and potentially where to place it. That’s a lot to keep track of and plan for before your turn starts, and you may just want to close your eyes for a bit after each one. That’s sort of the Nature of The Beast when it comes to heavy games, but the various levels of interaction (and interaction between those levels of gameplay) can make it tough to remember everything. If you’re having trouble, use the player turn reference or make your opponents check their own Cities for resources.
- This game is far heavier than my usual fare, which introduces its own challenges. This is kind of an odd one, because while I quite enjoy playing it, I also don’t see myself playing it that much in the future unless we plan specifically for it? My friends are not typically into heavier titles, in my experience, so I end up playing mostly light games (partially because they’re also easier to review, since they just have fewer complex systems interacting. This mini review may be longer than many of my standard reviews, as a result. It’s got a similar problem to Spirit Island, which I love: I enjoy playing it but just can’t quite get the stars to align so that I can play it frequently. The challenge of having a bunch of board games, I guess? It’s more a situational complexity than a thing about the game in particular, but, hey, my review; I can meditate on whatever I want in this section.
- There’s a ton to read, unfortunately, which can make learning the game pretty tough for new players. Yeah there’s a lot of text, here, and a lot of symbols. Usually you want to see one or the other, but, for the Mastery Cards, there’s not really a clear and consistent way to describe all of their effects with symbols that don’t just make things even more complicated. As a result, you have sort of the worst of both worlds: players need to consume a lot of text, which leads to during-turn time wasted reading, but players also have to spend time looking up symbols and learning those, too. It just means that there will be a time where a player reads a Mastery Card for the third time and says, oh, I actually don’t want to build this, and walks back a chunk of their turn. That’s relatively expected in a game like this.
- Initial setup can be a bit complex, too, as is to be expected with games like this. Similarly, there’s a lot of setup work that needs to be done. This is a minor Con, given that the game has given a lot of care to organizing its internals so that you don’t need to do too much setup, but, just getting everything punched out and organized the first time takes a while. I would recommend setting aside some time before game night to do that, if you’re picking this game up. You really don’t want to have to do 30 minutes of punching, then rules, then game; it kills the momentum. Just set aside the time, put on a show you like, and punch the game out. There are a lot of bits.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Dominations is great! Yes, we’re outside my wheelhouse, but I spent a year in my home trying new games. I can play the occasional two-hour civilization game or extremely dry Euro now; I’ve upgraded. Expanded my horizons. Lived the dream. Become the dream. Et cetera. We’re workshopping that last bit. But believe me when I say there’s a lot to this game. It sprawls, both physically and in terms of the cognitive complexity required on your turns. I think that’s cool, personally. It means that there’s a lot to explore, a lot of variety, and while there are some cards I usually go for, that’s not necessarily true every game. It depends on my objective, what Monuments are in play, and what I think I can get away with. I particularly like that this is a bright and colorful game, as, frankly, I need that kind of thing to hold my attention. It looks good on the table, even if it’s all over the table. I need bigger tables. Making a note of that for the future. But while I would heartily recommend playing this game if you haven’t tried games on the heavier side, I will also note that we’ve mostly invested time covering short, fun, family-and-casual games here on the site. We don’t play a lot of heavy stuff. Take my recommendation with a grain of salt if this is your first foray into the world of heavier gaming. I like Dominations a lot! I just think that if you’re out here fresh off of a game of Rhino Hero: Super Battle and you go straight to Dominations, you’re going to experience some whiplash in terms of cognitive complexity. I certainly did, at least, and I play a lot of games. Doesn’t mean it’s not fun! It’s just a very different experience than what I usually play on the site, and I wanted to note that. I think that Dominations has a lot of moving parts, but the reason I like it is that all those moving parts work well in concert with each other to make a cohesive experience. It’s like a massive orchestra of a game: you don’t always see or hear certain things in the background, but Dominations is designed to bring certain mechanics (like roles, or Locus creation) to the forefront at the right time for them to be interesting and relevant. Would the game be simpler without them? Yes. But I think something would be missing, as well. This leads me to the conclusion that Dominations does a good job justifying its complexity, rather than just being two separate games hastily stitched together, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy playing it so much, and still am kind of thinking of playing it now. What if I had picked a different Civilization? Would that have changed the game for me? For everyone? And that’s a satisfying thought to have after a fun-but-complex game. It makes me want to try something new the next time I play, rather than relying on a potentially-successful strategy in a new context. It’s a long review, but Dominations is a long game. If you’re looking for something on the longer side, you want to escalate to the heavier side of board gaming, or you’re just interested in some light-but-friendly competition over the course of a few hours, though, I would pretty strongly recommend trying out Dominations! I’ve really had a lot of fun playing it, and I’m looking forward to the right opportunity to play it again.