My friend Josh Wehner earlier this week posted a review of the new card game Dominion, something I was hoping to get to. He has been kind enough to expound on his original review and provide this strategy guide for this excellent game.

It’s hard to talk about strategy for Dominion in the abstract. Unlike most games, a lot changes between sessions, and even small changes in the pool of available cards amount to big changes in strategy. On the other hand, most players start out with the set of cards recommended for new players, the set of cards under “First Game” in the booklet. This is also the set of cards typically used in demos, so let’s treat that as standard, and then talk a little about where things vary when you swap in the other cards.

Begin at the end

There are two ways that a game of Dominion can end. Most games, especially most games using the standard set, end with the exhaustion of the Provinces (8 coins; 6 Victory Points). To win games, you’ll want to have bought as many of these big, expensive Victory cards as possible. And to make those purchases, you’ll want to tune your deck so that you are able to consistently spend 8 coins on that purchase. In pursuit of the lofty Province, you’ll be looking for big coins, aided by Actions that help you draw extra cards.

However, a game also ends when any three non-Province piles are exhausted. This is a little harder to do in the standard game, but I’ve seen it done. Here, your goal is make multiple buys every turn, ideally buying the same cards round after round until those piles are finished. So, look for cards like Woodcutter that give you more than one Buy each turn. Keep an eye out for cards like Workshop which let you gain a card without buying it. Since you need Action cards to make additional Buys, you should also pick up a few +Action cards, like Village. Market is a great all-in-one purchase here since it gives +Action, +Buy, and coin too. But don’t spread your choices too thin. You need to deplete three piles to end the game, so focus on as few cards as possible.

Any way it goes, don’t forget to buy more Victory Points! Try to keep a running tally of the Victory Points in each player’s deck. It may sound obvious, but remember that you don’t want to end the game if you’re behind in points. While you’re at it, you should be paying attention to the kinds of purchases your opponents are making, looking for clues as to their strategies, and be ready to adapt—if they’re trying to run down three piles, it’s best not to help them!

Your first two hands

There’s a trick to figuring out your first two hands of Dominion because you end up with one of two possible sets of hands. You’ll either have 5 coins in your first hand, giving 2 coins in the second, or 3 coins then 4. This happens because there are 3 Estates and 7 Coppers drawn in hands of 5 cards. So when you pick up your cards you can plan your first two purchases because you know what you’ll be drawing next turn.

So, you’re staring at your first hand. You’ve surveyed the available cards. What do you buy?

If I drew the 5 coin / 2 coin hand, I’d go with a Mine over a Market. The Market is a little slow in the early part of the game, and the Mine is better the earlier you buy it. It’s too early to buy an Estate as it will clog your hand with dead weight. However the Cellar is a really great card. It turns the junk cards in your hand into new cards, and because it gives you another Action, you can still play an Action if you draw one.

However, if your one of your opponents buys a Militia, use your 2 coin hand to buy a Moat. While Moat isn’t quite as good on it’s own, often causing you to draw Actions you can’t play, it’s better than Cellar if the other players are trying to attack your hand. It’s not just that Moat protects you from the Attack, it’s that Cellar just doesn’t work as well with only three cards in your hand.

If you drew the 3 coin / 4 coin hand, you’ve a wide range of options. First-time players tend to make two mistakes on their first buys: ignoring Treasure and avoiding over-paying. Those 10 Action cards make for very tempting targets, but Silver is often a better buy for 3 coins than all the rest. Beginning players tend to see Woodcutter as being strictly better than Silver—it costs the same, provides the same number of coins, and an extra Buy. It’s like you get that +1 Buy for free! But remember that you only get one action each turn. Whenever you draw two Woodcutters in one hand, the extra one is dead weight; Silver can always be spent.

The other common rookie mistake is buying something you don’t really want because you’re afraid of over-spending. A card that costs more isn’t necessarily better. Keep your larger strategy in mind and don’t buy something that doesn’t fit. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending 4 coins on a 3 coin card like Silver, Woodcutter, or Village. The combination of cards in your deck is what matters most. Look for cards that go well together even if you over-pay.

So buy a Silver with your 3 coins. If you’re aiming for the Provinces, this will help you quickly build up to 8 coin hands. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for yet, or you want to see what other players are going to do, Silver is a flexible, low-commitment addition to your deck. If, on the other hand, you’re going for the “deplete 3 piles” strategy, a Woodcutter does accelerate your buys and brings along enough coins for an Estate all on his own.

With a 4 coin hand, I’d buy a Smithy if I was using my 3 coin hand for Silver, as it increases the odds that I can draw that extra money in subsequent turns. If I’d bought a Woodcutter for 3 coins, then I’d buy a Village now. Villages make your Action cards better as it gives you 2 extra Actions after you play it, and +1 Card means the Village replaces itself in your hand.

Later turns

If you’re pursuing Provinces you’re trying to build a deck that consistently generates a 8 coin hand. One reliable way to get there is to buy Silver and Gold, but you should diversify a little. Mine lets you trade up one Treasure card for a more valuable Treasure. Smithy draws more cards, getting you closer to 8 coins. Militia slows your opponents down, while you grab more Provinces. You need to maintain a balance of cards in your deck. It’s best to buy Treasure and Actions in the early part of the game and gradually shift to buying more Victory cards as the game moves on.

Alternatively, if you’re trying to deplete three piles, use Woodcutter’s coins and extra Buy to purchase an Estate, while using your own coins to buy additional Woodcutters and Villages. Like the Province strategy you also need to maintain balance, but it’s important for you to end the game before your Province-hungry opponents ramp up to bigger Victory cards. The cards you want, Estate, Village, and Woodcutter, aren’t expensive, and you can still make progress with as little as two Copper in your hand. This strategy depends on speed, so keep on your toes and the game will be over before you opponents know whats hit them.

Whichever route you pursue, remember that it’s easier to fix problems early on, when your deck is small, and you cycle through it more often. The cards you buy in the first third of the game will be played over and over again; the cards you buy later won’t show up as much. If you buy a Moat to defend against your opponent’s Militia, you can’t actually use it until you shuffle it into your deck. It’s best if you can react to your opponents’ purchases, rather than their plays. Buy a Moat when they buy a Militia, instead of waiting until they use it against you.

Other cards

Some of the other Kingdom Cards offer support for strategies you already know, but others offer whole new strategies themselves. Here are some highlights from the base set—if you want to figure the strategies out for yourself, turn away!

Witch puts Curse cards, worth -1 Victory Point into your opponents’ decks and lets you draw extra cards, too. Because Witch gives you +Cards without +Actions, you’ll want to look for +Actions cards like Village or Festival, which you can use to play more Witches each turn. Witch-heavy games can be brutish, with lots of counter-attacks, so pick up a few Moats. Remember that the number of Curse cards must be adjusted to the number of players during setup and that Curses count towards the “any 3 piles” condition that ends the game!

Chapel doesn’t look like much, but it’s one of my favorite cards in the game. Most players avoid Chapel like the plague it seems to be: who’d want to Trash so many cards? The secret to Chapel is that it lets you get rid of worthless cards even as you add better cards to replace them. You’ll have a smaller deck, but it’ll be the cream of the crop, every hand full of Gold. Start by buying Silver and Chapel, then use Chapel to Trash your Coppers and Estates, and keep buying Silver. Soon, you’ll be throwing the Silver away as you buy Gold. A few Gold, in a small deck, makes for fast Provinces.

It’s hard to stop Chapel when it gets going, but you have a few options. One of the best is the Thief, which steals Treasure from your opponents’ decks. Because Chapel has so little cheap Copper, the Thief is more likely to snag their Gold, and because they have such a small deck, the loss of treasure hits especially hard.

Gardens are an antidote and a strategy unto themselves. These are worth 1 Victory Point per 10 cards in your deck. So, if you have 50 cards in your deck, each Garden becomes a discount Duchy. Gardens asks you to build a deck around it, ending the game with a giant pile of cards. Look for cards, like Woodcutter, that grant extra buys, and use every extra buy you gain. (Remember, Coppers cost 0 coins!) Look for cards, like Workshop, that help you pick up as many Gardens as you can. Gardens even turns Curse cards to your advantage.

Remember to re-evaluate cards and strategies as the available card pool changes. It’s a little tricky to win by depleting piles with the standard card pool, but it gets easier when more +Buy cards are available. You might completely dismiss a card like the Village, until you see it putting multiple Witches into play every turn!

The first expansion, Intrigue, is available now, and adds a whole new batch of Kingdom Cards. Many of the cards from Intrigue offer you a choice every time you play them, or combine aspects previously assumed to be separate, like a Victory cards that’s also a Treasure. The second expansion, Seaside, is expected to start shipping in October.

For more information on Dominion and it’s expansions check out the Dominion page at BoardGameGeek. You can even play Dominion online at BrettSpielWelt.