This post is a guide to the basic Dominion strategy. While just a game, terminology akin to that used in warfare can help comprehension. A game begins with strategy but hinges on tactical ability to implement that strategy. And, strategy begins before the first cards are ever played. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with this concept, read the post on the Dominion Board before moving on.
Be sure to take a look at all the cards on the board. Try to plan your path to Victory Points (VPs) by sequencing your buys (and remember that VP tokens can be gained from cards like Goons, Bishop, etc.). After a while, you will be able to see the key cards quickly on most boards. In games where both players are experienced, it is often a race to see who can gain the key card or cards the quickest. So, before you buy a single card, try to plan which cards (and how many of them) you are going to pursue.
The Main Basic Dominion Strategies
Linear chains hinge on being able to draw your entire deck each turn and are usually centered around Laboratory (if only playing with the base game). Each turn ideally allows you to draw your entire deck and finish the turn with a terminal action card (one that doesn’t give any further actions, like Witch). For the base Dominion game, Witch is a good terminal action. Remodel can also work, particularly late in the game. Generally, however, if expansions are available (or if you are playing online), the next two strategies (or a hybrid of the two) work better.
This basic Dominion strategy is chaining together action cards that give more actions with action cards that give more cards (like Village and Smithy, for example). This strategy allows huge draws once the engine is cranked. To make this strategy successful, cards that grant actions are needed and cards that give cards when played are needed. +3 cards is a good benchmark, although some give more (Envoy, Council Room, etc.). Don’t forget to pick up an extra buy and some treasures to make sure you don’t have a deck that can’t reliably buy what you need to win when you need it. Cards like Worker’s Village and Festival give actions and buys, while cards like Wharf and Council Room can supply both cards and buys. Also remember that trashing dross cards can streamline your engine, but watch out for Curses which can really throw a wrench in your engine.
The “Big Money” strategy is what it sounds like: getting lots of treasures in your hand of the biggest denominations available. Throw a significant +Cards action card (like Envoy or Smithy) into the mix, and the strategy becomes an end in itself. Basically, you just buy treasures at every opportunity. If you have less than 6 Coin, you buy a Silver. Less than 8 Coin? Buy a Gold. Buy straight treasures and then Provinces each time you hit 8 Coin. A pure Big Money approach will average four Province buys by turn 17, and, if you throw a Smithy into the mix, four can usually be bought by turn 14. Most new Dominion players can’t defeat Big Money (if you aren’t attacked). So, if your strategy after evaluating the Dominion board doesn’t improve on Province buys buy those turns, you’ll likely do better by sticking to Big Money.
Basic Dominion Strategy: Pay Attention!
It is critical that you learn to pay attention to all aspects of the game. Doing this sets apart the good players from the mediocre. Know what cards you have in your deck. Know what cards have been played. Know what cards are yet to be played. By doing this, you will gain more and more control over your deck as your draw pile thins. It is imperative to pay attention to the number of cards left in your pile so that you don’t have to reshuffle into disadvantage. If you pay attention you’ll be able to play your higher-powered cards more and your less favorable cards less.
For example, suppose you have a hand with three estates, a copper, and a +Cards action card. Two cards are left on your draw stack. By all means, draw the cards and force a re-shuffle if you can. This will cause the junk in your hand to be excluded from the shuffle. Next, suppose you have a hand with a +Cards action, 3 Golds, a Silver, and one card left on your draw. You want the high-value cards in your hand to be re-shuffled and available during the next deck run-through. You do not need the +Cards to buy a Province. So, don’t play it! By foregoing the action card, the draw pile will not be depleted until after the cleanup phase is completed. The Golds will all be shuffled in and available on the next draw.
Basic Dominion Strategy for Defending Attacks
There are 4 main categories of attacks in Dominion: discard attacks, junk attacks, trash attacks, and deck order attacks. Moat defends against them all, but is a weak in that it is a terminal action (no further actions are generated by playing it). Lighthouse also defends against all attacks and is generally a better option since it isn’t terminal. More specific defense tactics depend on the type of attack…
Militia, Goons, Margrave, Cutpurse, and Torturer are all examples of discard attacks. You can defend against them with cards that let you draw back your hand (Library, Watchtower, Menagerie, etc.). Be careful, however, as cards that normally need bigger starting hands can become a liability quickly as there is no longer enough cards for them to have anything to do (Chapel, Remodel, etc.).
Junk attacks are some of the most devastating attacks in the game. Having your deck clogged with Curses and Coppers can be very frustrating. So, basic Dominion strategy must account for them in any game. Witch, Sea Hag, Familiar, Mountebank, etc. can cripple a deck quickly. Masquerade and Ambassador are two great defenses against receiving junk. Also, Watchtower and Trader allow you to trash junk cards as you receive them. Another way to avoid getting Curses is to give them to your opponent as soon as you can. They are limited, so the more you give away, the fewer you can receive. Junk attacks can actually help a Gardens strategy, and Farming Villages/Adventurer-type cards can just skip right over Curses. Also, Salvager can net you some Coin by trashing the more expensive junk you are given (by Swindler, for example).
Trash attacks are a huge pain for most people. They spent time and Coin to purchase a perfect action for their deck, and then turn around to see that card they just lovingly selected get eaten alive by a Saboteur. Pirate Ship can also trash treasures as an attack, but most people don’t mind their coppers being trashed. Gaining cards is an effective strategy against Saboteur (Ironworks, Talisman). You can also trash back hoping to hit their attack cards. And, using Remodel, you can undo the effects of Sabotuer.
Deck Order Attacks
Spy, Rabble, and Bureaucrat are examples of cards that mess with your deck, namely making your top card weak. Sea Hag is a particularly devastating attack because it discards your top card and replaces it with a Curse. To defend against these attacks, the best thing do is to use cards that skip or discard the top card yourself. Adventurer, Golem, Venture, and others will dump the weak card as they search for treasures or action cards. You can combat them with deck inspection yourself through Scrying Pool, Spy, etc., but that merely undoes the damage done by your opponent and doesn’t bypass the effect altogether.
If you think you are going to be attacked, play defense from the beginning. Also, attacks slow down the game by making it harder for everyone to buy Provinces. With this in mind, don’t wait too long until you start buying Duchies as the likelihood of the game ending by three card stacks being eliminated is increased. And, sometimes, the best defensive strategy is to have a good offensive strategy!
Basic Dominion Strategy: Ending the Game
The game ends when either the Provinces (or Colonies) have all been purchased or any three card stacks have been depleted. When the game is drawing to a close, you should know exactly how many VPs you have versus how many your opponent has. This is critical to remember (or check if you are playing online with the point-tracker), and many a game that should have been won has ended up being lost due to haste or unclear thinking. A discussion of basic Dominion strategy wouldn’t be complete without a few comments about each of these possible endings…
Some people purchase Provinces as soon as they hit 8 Coin in any given hand. While this can, on occasion, be a good idea, buying Provinces (or Duchies/Estates) too early can clog your hand with non-performing cards and allow your opponent to chip away steadily at your once-hefty VP lead. It is much better to have a targeted time to begin buying Provinces. Even if you fall behind by a Province or two, building purchasing power into your deck can allow you to easily surpass your opponent’s VP count as your plan comes to fruition. There is one rule that is generally a must-follow. It is the “Penultimate Province Rule.” The penultimate (or second-to-last) Province is a powerful card. In an otherwise equally matched game, buying the second-to-last Province often means defeat is imminent, especially if you were the first to play. If both you and your opponent have 3 Provinces, it is usually better to buy a Duchy and take a 3 VP lead. If he then buys the penultimate Province to take a 3 VP lead himself, you then buy the last one for the victory. Of course, there are exceptions and exemptions to this rule. Following it, however, will often improve your winning percentage.
The Basic Strategy of “Rushing the Game”
In games where purchasing power is diminished (like games with lots of attacks), it may be more effective to win by taking advantage of card stacks that have been almost depleted. These are often stealth wins by a more observant and crafty player. It matters not who has the best overall hand, only who holds the most VPs at the end of the game. In games where actions yield gains of other cards (Border Village, Haggler, Ironworks, Talisman, etc.), card stacks are depleted much more rapidly than normal (this can also happen on boards with two or three clearly superior cards or combinations that are pursued by all players and also in games with heavy cursing). A perceptive player can notice the rapid diminishment of multiple stacks, buy one or two Victory cards, and then “Rush the Game” by buying the last card or two needed to void 3 separate piles, even if it is a Curse.
Basic Dominion Strategy: Conclusion
This post is just introductory material that covers some of the key concepts. There is much, much more to the game. Learning the Dominion cards helps. Playing lots of games helps. So, keep playing, keep having fun, and keep reading for more tips and help. Before getting into more specifics and nuanced Dominion strategy, take a look at the Dominion Cards.