In those first optimistic days of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when talking heads were legitimately suggesting that things might be “back to normal” after a few weeks of relative quarantine to “stop the spread,” my wife and I began a casual exploration of the world of board and card games. Oh sure, we’d obviously played board games before, because who among us didn’t grow up with a ratty old Monopoly or Life board? But I’d always been curious about the more complex modern world of genuinely adult board and card games; the sort of boxes that retailed for $60 at hobby shops and represented a seemingly insurmountable investment and learning curve. If ever we were going to bite the bullet and make that investment in something that we could potentially play together for years, let it be at the start of a viral pandemic where we might be forced to stay inside for a while. You know, for a few weeks or months.
Fast forward two years, and we’re still dealing with COVID-19, although the experience has now coalesced into a series of peaks and lulls—periods in which it becomes relatively safer to go abroad, and spikes in which we feel like it’s right back to March of 2020. Only now, we’re significantly better equipped for such doldrums, because we have games. It’s not a huge collection, to be sure, but in the last few years my wife and I have dipped our toes into several of the biggest genres. We’ve dabbled in Eurogames like Catan or Ticket to Ride. We’ve cooperated, at least briefly, to battle an all-too-real threat over games of Pandemic. We’ve brought fast-paced, casual card games like Sushi Go! to brewery taprooms, or taken a spin off familiar archetypes with games like Blokus or Upwords.
And unfortunately, there’s one thing that pretty much all of these games have in common … they’re really not ideal for two players. In every case, it’s possible to play with only two people, but the true spirit of the game is designed to cater to three or more.
This is the primary pitfall of being into board games at a unique time when you can’t physically be around too many other people, or wanting to play games when you don’t have many local friends who are also interested in playing. Suffice to say, my wife and I don’t have many couple friends in our current city, where we moved six months before the pandemic arrived, and fewer friends still who are “board game people.” As much as we’d like another Pandemic participant, on an average weeknight we’re pretty much limited to just the two of us. And for almost two years, we largely accepted that this would be an inherent downside to our new gaming hobby.
And then we finally found Dominion. And let me say, it’s a genuine pleasure to play a game of Dominion on a Monday evening and not feel like you’re missing out by not having a third or fourth player on hand. Unlike practically everything else we’ve played, Dominion isn’t hamstrung by having merely two people in the room. Instead, it almost feels like the two-person experience is Dominion at its most pure—an ideal, deck-building strategy game that continues to feel fresh no matter how many times we play it. It’s the game we never knew we were looking for, the entirety of this goddamn pandemic.
Dominion is played with a delicate balance between building resources, attacking your opponent, and amassing victory points.
Now, the veteran board/card gamers in the audience will likely be quite familiar with Dominion already, and may very well be looking at this little revelation of ours with the wry amusement of those who have long known better—I’m like a guy behind them in line at a McDonald’s, excitedly suggesting that they need to “try the fries!” Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion has been around since 2008, and it’s an institution in the gaming world that spawned an entire genre of deck-building card games in its wake. It was immediately successful, and has remained extremely popular, with no fewer than 14 expansions to date, which each take the base game in wildly different directions by introducing entirely new gameplay mechanics. Dedicated players know all this, but the more casual gamer—or those like my wife and I who were always curious, but ignorant—are likely to have no idea. It’s easy to forget that big, boxed board games are intimidating to a lot of people, myself included, because they represent both a significant upfront investment and the threat of having to learn complicated rules for a game that may not even be fun. In the face of that potential learning curve, you can hardly blame people from just queuing up another episode of Bob’s Burgers instead.
I beseech you, though—if you’ve ever really wanted to get into card games, and you’re looking for a game that genuinely plays well with only two people, check out Dominion first. The original, core game set (without any of the expansions) represents countless hours of entertainment, is easy to learn, and remains mentally engaging time after time.
What does gameplay actually look like? Well, Dominion is a medieval-themed deck-building game, in which each player is generally trying to amass wealth and power by growing their kingdom faster than the opposing player. Each two-part turn is spent using action cards to confer certain bonuses and abilities, and treasure cards to buy additional cards, which slowly grows the size of one’s deck. Games typically take 30-45 minutes, depending on player strategies and which cards are used, and at the end of the game the player who has amassed the most victory points is declared the winner. Each game, meanwhile, tends to be radically different because the action cards that are available cycle through many iterations and combinations.
Enjoy annoying the hell out of your opponent? Play Witch over and over until their deck is choked with curse cards.
The joy of Dominion is that it falls quite comfortably into the “easy to learn, hard to master” camp. Anyone can feel like they have at least a semi-comfortable idea of how to play after their first learning experience, but there are deeper strategies and card synergies my wife and I are only now coming to appreciate after playing dozens of games against each other. It helps that we’ve proven to be well matched, with each of us seemingly equally likely to win any given game. There’s even a layer of meta-gaming that slowly begins to emerge when you play against the same person repeatedly—you learn their preferences and favored strategies, which can help you begin to craft a response of your own. It’s like training against the same chess player every day.
It is noteworthy, likewise, that I’ve never gotten tired or bored of playing Dominion with her, because, well … I get bored with games pretty easily. When we play a game of Pandemic once in a blue moon, I’m likely to veto playing it again a few nights or even weeks later. Not so, with Dominion, which we’ve played countless times in the last few months. The level of competitive parity we have, combined with the ability to customize each matchup by simply switching out the action cards, makes for an extreme level of replay value. It’s an experience unlike any of the board or card games we’ve played before.
Even now, it feels like we’re still just starting on our gaming journey with Dominion, with way too many expansions to still acquire, and an entire genre of new games to potentially explore afterward. I’m thankful to have found a game that suits us so well, and happy to report that even if you don’t have a second person to play with, you can still experience Dominion as well—there’s a free online version now on Steam, which allows single players to go 1v1 against a decently sophisticated A.I. This ultimately isn’t the easiest way to learn the game, but it’s rare that any game of this nature is viable as a single player experience, which is just one more thing that Dominion has going for it.
I just wish we’d found Dominion back in March of 2020. Lord only knows how many of those expansions we would own by now.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for what is primarily film, TV and alcohol writing, occasional card game lapses notwithstanding.