Game Designer Interview: Donald X. Vaccarino

Even if you’re not an avid hobby gamer, you’ve probably seen the hit game Dominion in more and more stores in the last couple of years, including large chains like Barnes & Noble. Dominion has started a deckbuilding craze within the boardgaming industry, and creator Donald X. Vaccarino has agreed to talk with us about (nearly) all things Dominion. Many thanks to Donald for the interview.

Dominion has been very successful, leading to many other deckbuilding games. Certainly some of Dominion’s success comes from the innovation of deckbuilding, but do you also feel that it’s about as good as deckbuilding can get with the Eurogame design goals you had in mind? Or is it possible there’s a more clever way to use the mechanic no one’s thought of yet (though people are certainly trying)?

Well, Dominion is a simple implementation of the concept, adding really the bare minimum to the premise, and the other deckbuilding games for the most part take the entirety of Dominion and then add something. They are not so much deckbuilding games as they are Dominion games. That probably sounds egotistical but there’s no avoiding it. I knew people would make Dominion-inspired games, but it was a bummer that there was so little innovation to that first crop of games. So if I answer the question about those games, yes, I think Dominion is as good as Dominion gets; copying Dominion without actually making a new game is probably not going to be any better. The actual card mix for the base Dominion set could be improved, but there are lots of expansions, so there you go. Of course, any given person may like, say, cats and bidding, so that the cat-themed Dominion with bidding is preferable to them.

At this point there are a few actual new deckbuilding games, with my go-to example being Eminent Domain. In Eminent Domain, which I haven’t played — and this is from memory — you play a role card, a la Puerto Rico, discarding other copies of it from your hand to make it more powerful, and then gain another copy of it for your deck. So this game has building a deck while you play without taking anything else from Dominion. It can be done! Can an actual new deckbuilding game like this be better than Dominion? Sure, who knows.

On a related note, many games that reach the popularity of Dominion (such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne) inevitably lead to spinoff games in addition to the expansions. Have you considered an all-new version of Dominion?

I have. In the long run, you can’t keep making Dominion expansions, and I don’t plan to. There will “just” be 8 expansions, and any further ones will only come out after a delay, if the publishers really want them. I haven’t put any work into any later expansions, and there has not been much left to do on the last couple of expansions for a while now. Whereas the first version of the 8th expansion predates the original game being published.

There are three main reasons to stop doing expansions. 1) Each expansion gives you more variety, but at some point you have endless variety already; 2) Some of the good mechanics to use in expansions don’t work so well with the basic “play any random 10 cards” premise; 3) There are only so many simple cards to make without adding components or rulebook rules.

So my plan has always been to eventually switch from expansions to spin-offs. A Dominion spin-off would be to Dominion as Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers is to Carcassonne. The basic rules from Dominion, some twist, some additional components.

It did not seem worth working on them while there were still expansions to come, so I have yet to make one. I typed up some notes for some years ago though.

I’ve read the story of how you created the game, but not the one where you decided to take the game to Rio Grande Games. How did you decide on a publisher for Dominion?

I had made several trips to show games off to Wizards of the Coast over the years. They weren’t interested in games submissions – for several years there they were only making collectible card games – but I would go up and play my games with Richard Garfield and other Wizards people. So I contacted Wizards first, but they were still not accepting games submissions, and also Richard no longer worked there. So making that trip didn’t seem so great.

I didn’t know much about the game industry. So I looked at the games I owned, and box after box had the RGG logo. Hmmm, maybe RGG was worth trying. I emailed them, and Jay replied 20 minutes later to say, I only look at games at conventions, here are the conventions I’m going to this year. I set up to meet him at Origins and that was that.

You’ve mentioned before that Magic: the Gathering was your primary gaming influence. What were some of your favorite cards/decks/colors?

I am big on card interactions, and especially like sacrificing creatures and making tokens. For many years I mostly drafted, and what I drafted was mostly themed cubes. In the early days I built decks with my best cards, like anyone, and tried to make a few good decks. Then I built lots of decks based on particular card interactions, and then I built highlander decks based on particular card interactions. Then I built “superdecks,” which is where you make 6-8 sets of 30 cards, and shuffle two of them together to get a deck. I am something of a fan of variety! But in the end there was just years of drafting themed cubes. I would build a new one each month, sometimes making up some commons to flesh them out.

It’s kind of unfair to consider favorite colors, since in the early days the abilities were poorly split up among the colors (a problem they eventually fixed), so that blue and black did a lot and red and white did not do much. My favorite decks and cards are ones I haven’t played before.

I “contributed” to the 6E rules for Magic, and have a card in Tempest. I will give you a hint: prior to, say, Champions of Kamigawa, it easily had the worst name of any Magic card ever (not the name I gave it).

Dominion has become a game that’s also played at a very competitive level. Is that the kind of game you imagined it would be? I know you’ve said before you did not expect it to be such a hit with families. What was your initial vision for the public perception of the game?

From the reactions of my friends, I was sure that the game would be a big hit with gamers. As I told many people my vision was that there would be a shelf at game stores just for Dominion stuff. That was the level of success I expected, again just because of how obsessed my friends were with it.

I did not really think about whether or not it would have sufficient skill for high-level play. In general I prefer games to have enough luck that the best player doesn’t always win, but enough skill that the best player often wins. That formula doesn’t necessarily translate into tournament play though.

The high competition of play is what often leads to Magic: the Gathering players “breaking” newly printed cards and causing problems. Have any of the discoveries at high level of play in Dominion surprised you? Maybe some strategies you never saw coming?

I have continued to learn stuff over the years, but I think the only real surprise that came from players in the field was the King’s Court / Masquerade / Goons combo. You trash every card in your opponent’s deck (in a 2-player game). We did not catch that one. I don’t think it’s actually been a problem in real life though. It was a problem briefly online, where someone could propose a game using those cards without you knowing something was up, and then beat you up with it. You do not just look at those cards and think “I will eat your deck with these.”

The nature of the game does not let broken cards or combos mess it up as much as they do Magic. The cards in Dominion that stand out as problems are cards that aren’t especially powerful, but which players have “groupthink” issues with.

While Dominion is seeing competitive play, it’s also now considered a family-oriented “gateway game” in the same vein as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, which just celebrated their 15th and 10th anniversaries, respectively. What do you envision for the future of Dominion in 10 or 15 years?

Those spin-offs! Probably I will get talked into a 9th expansion eventually, but for sure there won’t be 20 expansions in those 10 years; there just aren’t enough simple cards to make. You can do spin-offs for as long as you want though.

Let’s talk about a few months instead of years, what can you tell us about the upcoming Hinterlands expansion for Dominion?

Well I can’t tell you much. There’s a page up at RGG that you can look at, with the flavor paragraph and the news that the functional theme is “cards that do something when gained.” It’s a 300-card set but has no non-card components, so it’s $5 cheaper than usual. We’re expecting it out at Essen, and I will preview cards for the week leading up to it.

Originally the second expansion had two themes, “cards that do something next turn” and “cards that do something when you gain them.” I ended up splitting it up into two sets since each theme had so much I could do with it. The “next turn” set became Seaside, and now here is Hinterlands. One of the meanings of hinterlands is “the land behind a port,” so they even complement each other that way.

If the Dominion expansions are ever all said and done, what’s next for you? Or is that a very unlikely “if”?

While the last couple Dominion expansions will probably still get a few more changes, they’re mostly done and have been, so I’ve already been working on other stuff. Plus there are all those games I made in the years before Dominion, and some of those want to come out too.

I have three games probably coming out at Essen this year. One is a kid’s game from 1995, which RGG is putting out. One is a Euro I guess, from 1999, which Ascora Games is putting out. Finally there’s a new game, from 2010, that Queen is doing.

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