Review – Eminent Domain

Well, we’ve done a written review of Core Worlds and an audio “Core Worlds v. Eminent Domain,” so now seems like a good time to do a written review of Eminent Domain.  Eminent Domain is a space/4X-themed role selection and deckbuilding game with some tableau-building elements.  Designed by Seth Jaffee and published by Tasty Minstrel Games, Eminent Domain retails for around $40.

The Basics

The general gameflow of Eminent Domain is defined by role selection:

–          Survey to find planets;

–          Colonize or Conquer those planets (which are worth VP);  and

–          Produce/Trade for VP chits; while

–          Your options skew towards being better at doing the sorts of actions you’ve taken before.

While this is going on, you can Research to get better cards in your deck.  Every time you select a role, a card for that role goes into your deck, thus pushing you further in that direction.  Victory points are scored for Trading, having planets, and for higher-level Research cards.

Gameplay

Everyone starts with a deck of 10 cards (basically two of each role), and there are a stack of each of the five role cards in the middle of the table.  A player gets to do two things on his turn: (1) play a card from hand for the action on that card; and then (2) select a role, play that card (adding it permanently to your deck) and act accordingly.  Each other player can either follow the role selection, and get a lesser version of the role’s effect, or can dissent and draw a card.  At the end of each turn you can discard what you want from your hand and then draw back up to a full hand.

Each player starts with one uncontrolled (face-down) planet.  Planets can be conquered or colonized (flipped face up), and each planet as two values for how much it takes to acquire the planet via Warfare power or colonists (some are even, some are easier to colonize, some are easier to conquer).

The actions and role effect of the Colonize and Warfare cards are closely linked.  Playing a Colonize card as an action lets you put the card under one of your uncontrolled planets, or lets you gain control of a planet where you already have the minimum number of colonists.  Choosing Colonize as a role lets you gain control of a full planet or put the Colonize card you just gained, and as many other Colonize cards as you want, under the planet.  Following lets you cram as many Colonize cards under planets as you want, but never lets you take control of a planet.  Warfare works in a similar fashion, except instead of putting the cards under the planet, you gain ships (the game has little plastic models for these), and then you can conquer any of your uncontrolled planets (so Colonize has the advantage of getting cards out of your deck for right now, while Warfare has the advantage of target flexibility).

Of course, you only start with one planet, so there has to be a way to access more.  That’s where the Survey role comes in (the Survey card’s action is to draw two cards).  The original surveyor and anyone who follows each plays some number of Survey role cards from hand, and gets to look at that many minus one planets (the selector gets to look at an extra planet).  This means that you cannot meaningfully follow a Survey role unless you have at least two Survey cards in hand.  Each player who surveyed gets to select one of the planets he looked at and place it face-down in front of him, to be later colonized or conquered.

Having planets is the basic way of getting VP in Eminent Domain, so everyone is going to be either colonizing or conquering, and then surveying to find more planets.  But there are two other options.  First, you can Produce/Trade.  This is one card with two role/action options – every time you play it or select it, you are only using one half, and the other part has no effect.  Most planets have a spot on the card for some sort of resource.  Producing means taking a wooden cylinder and putting it on the planet.  Trading means giving that cylinder back in exchange for a VP.  Playing the Produce/Trade card as an action lets you produce or trade with exactly one of your planets.  Selecting it as a role lets you produce or trade (as applicable to what you selected) for every Produce/Trade card you play from hand – and lets everyone who follows Produce/Trade based on the number of cards he or she can play.

Finally, a player can Research (the action on Research lets you strip unwanted cards from hand).  Researching is the only way to put better cards in your deck, as opposed to just adding a greater number of the same five cards.  Selecting Research as a role lets you grab a technology card from a separate stack and add it to your deck.  Which cards you can grab depends on how many Research cards you play from hand (this works for those who follow the role as well; the only advantage to having selected Research is that you get the new role card you just grabbed to add to your total) and on what sort of planets you have – more advanced technologies required more than one planet of the same type (e.g., Utopian, Advanced, Metallic).  The basic technology cards are straightforward enhancements on the standard cards – each has a superior version of the ability and has a second role icon.  So an enhanced version of Survey might let you draw three cards as an action, have a survey icon (so it can be played to enhance the Survey role), and have a colonize icon (so it can be stuffed under a planet as a colonist).  Higher level technologies (which require at least 5 Research cards and at least two planets of the same type) have funkier effects, and are worth VP.

In addition to being worth VP and being involved in the Produce/Trade VP engine, planets also sometimes have role icons on them.  This means that every time you count how many of that card you have, you get to add one in – a Survey icon will let you look at an extra planet, a Research icon will let you get better tech, a Produce/Trade icon will let you do one additional Produce/Trade, and a Warfare or Colonize icon counts towards what you need to control a new planet.

As noted above, each time a player selects a role, he adds one of those role cards to his deck (note: you can select a role even if no cards are left for that role, and there’s a little board to put the role cards on that has the full text of each card).  When two of the decks have run out, the game ends (additional turns are taken if necessary so that everyone got the same number of turns).  Most VP (from planets, trading, and research) wins.

Thoughts/Opinions/Judgments

Eminent Domain is, to me, much more of a role selection game than a deckbuilding game.  The primary strategic decisions are about selecting your role, trying to avoid letting others effectively feed off of your role, and being able to make meaningful plays off of their roles (one of the strongest plays you can make in the game is just being able to follow a Warfare/Colonize and drop 3-5 cards at once).

Yes, this game is also clearly a deckbuilder too.  But the primary deck alterations are simply adding more copies of the cards you already have (plus using Research to strip some of those same cards back out).  This simply does not have the same feel that I associate with a deckbuilding game, that my deck is not just changing, but adding more and more better and better cards to it.  More significantly, as far as which mechanic is the focus of the game, the deckbuilding aspect is more of a side effect of the role selection, rather than a distinct decision.  Eminent Domain is like Dominion only to the extent that any random area control game is like any other random area control game.

The exception to the prior paragraph is Research, which does add plain old better cards to your deck, and this addition is the specific purpose of the role.  I personally gunned for Research in playing Eminent Domain, and it did not let me down as a strategy (plus I probably enjoyed the game more for it).

Even though we at Strange Assembly have done the “Eminent Domain v. Core Worlds” bit, those games don’t play alike, and I don’t see them as competing for collection space.   Indeed, I don’t really see Eminent Domain as occupying the same sort of space as any of the other deckbuilding games out there.  It feels much more like Race for the Galaxy, IMHO, although even that comparison is relatively loose (I have not played Glory to Rome, so I cannot comment on that angle).

The Produce/Trade route seems weak.  You can’t Produce/Trade until you’ve colonized or conquered planets, which you can’t do until you’ve scouted planets, and you can’t do any of this as efficiently unless you’ve researched new cards.  Plus, your own deck is inevitably filled with lots of non-Produce/Trade cards.  So it seems really tough to get anything done on the Produce/Trade front before two of the other stacks run out and the game ends.

I wish this had come with something in the box interior so that you had an option other than throwing everything into a pile and then sorting it out next time.

I think I’ve opined before that Eminent Domain covers all the bases of a 4X game, but I think I want to back away from that opinion.  Eminent Domain superficially touches on the basic aspects of a 4X game – you have to find new planets, develop new technology, can settle new planets, can gain resources from them, and you can conquer stuff.  But you’re not building up in the same way and, probably more importantly, you’re limited to conquering neutral foes, rather than savaging other players.  Not this this is a bad or good thing about the game, just an observation on the feel.

At its core, Eminent Domain is a clever role selection game with a stripped-down engine and novel use of new concepts like deckbuilding (even if you don’t like the game, I think you have to give Jaffee props for integrating the two mechanics so smoothly).  I liked it, found it to have a reasonable mix of luck and tactical decisions, and found the overall mechanics worked well (although, as discussed above, we did not think that the Produce/Trade role was balanced).  And the rest of our group liked it more than that.  I think that where it fell short of exciting for me was that you just didn’t get to build up enough as the game went on – over the course of the game you get your engine running more smoothly, but it doesn’t get that much more powerful.

One thought on “Review – Eminent Domain

  1. I found this game to be fairly forgettable. The game ends far too quickly, the way technology is handled is a mess, as are the technology requirements. What finally killed it for me was that the game plays with the same base of cards each time so each game feels very very much the same. This left it feeling very shallow compared to other role selection games.

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