Saturday, February 1, 2014

Dominion's "Solitaire Problem" and 21st Century Competition

The card game Dominion, designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and released originally in 2008, has risen to stand alongside games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride as a mainstream Eurogame classic both in Europe and the US. The game has received multiple prestigious awards, released nine separate expansions, and sold well over a million copies worldwide. Despite all this praise and popularity, however, the game has received criticism for its supposed “solitaire problem.” Specifically, the solitaire problem points to the game’s lack of not only direct player competition, but any kind of significant player interaction at all. The solitaire problem has failed to impede Dominion’s popularity, however, perhaps because the game remains highly competitive despite the lack of interaction. In many ways, the indirect conflict exhibited in Dominion captures the ways in which the Western view and practice of competition in general has changed in recent decades.

To better understand this claim, one must be a little more familiar with the rules of Dominion. Dominion helped widely popularize the genre of card game known as deck-building, meaning one of the game’s primary mechanics involves the players building a personal deck of cards from a communal pool. Essentially, these games remove some of the problems of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering by allowing all players access to all the cards in a given game, while also integrating the personal deck-building into the actual gameplay. To build their decks, players must buy cards from a “Kingdom” of ten different action cards to add to their decks. Players may also purchase higher denominations of coin cards, which becomes essential to succeed as player hands consist of only five cards per turn and any unused cards on a given turn are discarded only to be reused when their deck runs out and is reshuffled. However, players must balance the purchase of coin and action cards with purchases of the third kind of card, known as victory cards. Victory cards represent parcels of land and are the only cards that provide points to the player, and only these points matter for victory in the end. However, victory cards provide no other benefit to the player during play, and so purchasing too many victory cards too early will weaken the player’s deck and slow their progress significantly. The challenge to the players, then, is balancing coin, action, and victory card purchases to optimize their personal decks such that they end up with the most victory points in their deck by the end of the game, which comes when the pile of “Province” cards (the highest denomination of victory card) is gone, or any other three piles of cards are gone.
With a basic understanding of the rules, one can see the logic behind the solitaire problem. The game has no combat, no auctioning, no trading, no negotiation—indeed, no direct conflict or interaction at all. The only agonistic element of the game is the race for points before the cards run out, and the only time other players’ actions matter to you is when they buy a card you wanted to buy or buy the last card in a pile that will end the game. Indeed, it is possible to play an entire round of the game in complete silence, without the players speaking to or acknowledging each other at all. Limiting competition and player conflict is a common trait of Eurogames, the tradition of game design from which Dominion springs, but some view that this game takes that principle too far. This would at first seem quite the flaw in game design, especially with Stewart Woods claiming in his book Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games that social interaction is by far the element most players derive the most pleasure from in playing games, and “while the design of eurogames tends towards indirect or asynchronous interaction, the fact remains that the intellectual challenge to which players attribute so much of their enjoyment       is focused specifically upon engaging in competition with others” (172). However, while the competition in Dominion is anything but direct, it reflects well on contemporary attitudes toward competition in general in the Western world.
Competition in Western civilization has changed significantly in recent decades; everywhere, conflict is less direct and more about the subtle and persistent positioning of resources in relation to others with the same interests. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker proves this to some extent in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he outlines how the course of human history has actually tended toward less violence, not more. While Pinker deals specifically with violence and not competition, this large-scale decline in violence necessitates other avenues for conflict resolution on both macro and micro scales, and civilization has adapted accordingly. In politics, this shift is evidenced by the Cold War. In business, this results in the odd dances that have grown up around product launches, perhaps most visibly in the technology sector. Take, for example, the recent release of new gaming consoles by Microsoft and Sony, both very calculated affairs to try and woo consumers while never directly attacking the competitor. The two companies even tweeted each other congratulations on their console launches as if the success of each did not at least in some measure depend upon the other’s failure (PlayStation, Xbox). This is the kind of polite competition Western culture has grown used to, causing increasing discomfort with direct attacks of any kind. Dominion has proven that this sensibility spills over even into spaces of play, and this kind of indirect competition is still competition enough to make for an exciting game.
Ironically, then, perhaps the game’s true flaw is its medieval theming. The game attempts to simulate competing monarchs racing to grab up land, but history proved several times over that such competition was seldom so polite as a game of Dominion. A medieval land-acquisition game would be a much more accurate mimesis of the period if it included some system to simulate violent conflict over disputed land; however, such conflict might overcomplicate the relatively simple rules of Dominion that arguably have helped make the game so popular, and one can easily understand why Vaccarino skipped over such a system for this particular game. On the other hand, as Dominion already reflects the sort of polite competition common in both business and diplomacy of the twenty-first century, perhaps the game could benefit from a theme that reflects that. Instead of monarchs competing for the land, the exact same mechanics could be used to simulate technology companies snatching up patents, for instance. The lack of direct conflict would not be an arbitrary limitation, then, but a reflection of the situation executives find themselves in daily—competing for limited resources but never able to directly fight for them, only strategize for superior positioning in the market. Perhaps part of the fun for players of Dominion is the possible role-playing a time period far removed from their own, but with Wood’s conclusion that the theme of a eurogame is “considered less important than the production quality” (163), why not make the shift to a more appropriate theme for the mechanics?

Yes, Dominion has a solitaire problem—but only as far as Western civilization today has a solitaire problem. If games really are as reflection of their times and culture as Marshall McLuhan suggests, then perhaps the lack of direct player conflict is one of Dominion’s most admirable traits, not its most glaring flaw. Perhaps Dominion helps teach a better way to compete, the more civil way human history has taken thousands of years to develop.

Works Cited
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
PlayStation. “Congrats, @Xbox @Microsoft! #NextGeneration #GreatnessAwaits.” 22 Nov 2013, 6:00 a.m. Tweet.
Wood, Stewart. Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2012. Print.
Xbox. “Congrats @Playstation. From, #Xbox.” 15 Nov 2013, 7:00 a.m. Tweet.


  1. The author of this article seems to not be very familiar with the cards contained in Dominion...even in the base game alone there are several cards (such as Militia, Spy, Witch and Thief) that create direct interaction between players. Expansions to Dominion add ever more interaction cards.

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