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Card Game World Domination: The Rise of 'Dominion'

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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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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