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Card Game World Domination: The Rise of 'Dominion'

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Most of the highly regarded “German-style” board games on the market today are true board games, with physical boards that are either set up at the game's start or built as the game goes along. Very few card-based games grace the top end of the BoardGameGeek top 100, while most of the games that are there are relatively complex strategy games. And the majority of those games were authored, as you might guess, by German game designers. One glaring exception is the card-based game Dominion, designed by U.S.-born Donald X. Vaccarino. Since Dominion won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award in 2009, it's become a global success, selling more than 300,000 copies worldwide in 19 languages and spawning four separate expansions.

The concept behind Dominion is simple, a major reason it has crossed over to the point where you can find it in a mainstream store like Barnes & Noble. Each player starts out with a deck of ten cards, seven treasure cards (used to buy other cards) and three Estate victory cards (worth one point apiece at the end of the game). Constantly shuffling and dealing cards from his own deck, each player builds up his deck by buying action cards, more treasure cards, and eventually more victory cards, with the goal of acquiring the most victory points when the game ends – usually when the pile of Province victory cards (worth six points apiece) is exhausted. It is extremely easy to learn, and the wide variety of action cards – 25 in the base set, with only ten used in any specific game – leads to a number of possible strategies and an absurd number of variations on the game. (There are over 3.2 million possible combinations of ten action cards you can draw from those 25 options, and the expansions bring the total number of possible combinations to over 17 trillion.)

Vaccarino designed Dominion over the course of a weekend, because he had a game night coming up that Monday and the game he'd been working on – an expansion for a fantasy-themed cards-and-dice game called Spirit Warriors – wasn't close to ready. He'd had the idea for Dominion six months earlier, but only sat down to work on implementing it on that weekend in October of 2006, banging out the prototype in “a few hours, including Googling up art” for the initial set of cards.

The beauty of Dominion, according to Vaccarino, is that it solves the problem of other card-based games, where an action card is played and either discarded or sits in play for the rest of the game. When you play a card in Dominion, it goes into your discard pile and is eventually reshuffled back into your deck, to be used again at some point in the next handful of turns. That feature keeps gameplay simple: You are never confronted with too many decisions, or forced to keep track of too many things going on in front of you or across the board. You draw five cards from your deck each turn, and your decisions are limited to the cards in your hand. Not only does that keep the game simple, it keeps it moving, so no one is ever sitting around waiting for too long.

Another elegantly simple game mechanic is that on every turn, a player can play one Action card and make one purchase, called a Buy. He can play an action card that gives him more actions, or more buys, or the right to draw more cards, but the foundation of each turn is one Action, one Buy, and the Cleanup phase, where the player puts all cards from that turn on his discard pile and draws a fresh hand of five from his deck.

Vaccarino says that the only major decision he faced when designing the game was determining how players would be able to buy action cards. Most card games leave the player's choice of cards up to the randomness of a central deck of set of decks: You get what you draw. Maybe you can put a card back and draw a new one, but there's both a strong element of randomness and the possibility of imbalance involved in any such system: You draw a mediocre card, revealing a better one for me. While mulling over options for improving this particular game mechanic, Vaccarino decided to punt on the decision temporarily, placing all ten action cards out on the table and allowing players to choose any of them that they liked, using their one Buy opportunity per turn. “That way,” Vaccarino says, “if a card was broken I'd find out right away. Well, of course we liked just buying whatever we wanted and so I never did replace it.” Dominion still features that open-market concept: Any player can buy any card at any time as long as he has sufficient treasure cards in his hand and the pile of that particular card is not exhausted.

[Image courtesy of EndersGame at boardgamegeek.com]

Vaccarino found that Dominion was so popular with his friends that he decided to try to find a publisher, eventually showing the game (along with several others) to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games at the Origins Game Fair in 2007. Tummelson agreed to publish the game after several play-testers loved it, eventually breaking down Vaccarino's large set of cards into what is now the base set and several expansions.

Dominion debuted in 2008 and was a near-immediate success, winning the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (“Game of the Year”), boosting its European sales dramatically and giving it a chance to trickle into the more stolid American gaming mainstream. Vaccarino says he wasn't shocked that the game was a hit, because everyone who played the game before it was released “adored it … the people who'd played it weren't some special sampling of the population that adored garbage.” He says he'd always hoped that Dominion would have its own shelf at the game store, the way that Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne each have their own shelves containing the original game and its myriad expansions. Having seen Dominion and its expansions in book and game stores, I think his dream is well on its way to fruition.

As for his post-Dominion plans, Vaccarino says he has other games in the pipeline. “In interviews people will ask me, 'What do you do for a living?' And I always say, 'Right now I make Dominion expansions, but one day I hope to be a game designer.' It's the truth! I have some older games I'd still like published, and I'm making new games. I have two games lined up to be published currently ... I have other games waiting for me to submit them to publishers, or waiting for publishers to look at them.”?

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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