Review – Dominare

Dominare is a one of the four games launched as part of AEG’s new Tempest line (#3, to be precise). In Dominare, each player controls a conspiracy that is trying to exert influence on the new Queen-less political landscape of the Venice-like city state of Tempest. Dominare is an area control/influence game where the players’ ability to place influence around the city, and take other actions, is defined by the characters they recruit to join their conspiracy. The game lasts for seven seasons, with one new agent added each season, as the players try to spread influence without suffering the consequences for being too exposed. Dominare retails for about $60.

The Quick Take: Very nice. I find area control games to be rather hit-or-miss, but Dominare is definitely a big hit. The agent cards are the heart of the game, and they work very well to add variety, keep the game is tight micro-turns, and limit analysis paralysis, while still permitting a lot of strategy. The way that each player’s conspiracy builds up turn after turn gives the game a nice pace, with straightforward early turns with fairly limited options, and just a little bit of power actions kicking around at the end.

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Winning

Dominare is, like most eurogames, going to come down to who has the most VP, after the end of the seventh season, in this case. There are three main sources of victory points, two of which are based on influence on the map. The map is divided into districts (e.g., Senate, Church, Canals), and each district is divided into blocks. Controlling a block is just whoever has influence there (only one player ever has influence on a block; if you place influence on a block controlled by another player, then the influence cancels out and leaves a smaller amount for whoever had more total). Whoever controls the most blocks in a district controls the district (regardless of how many total influence he or she has on the various blocks).

Blocks are worth from -1 to 4 victory points – these numbers are static. Districts are worth a variable number of victory points. Each district starts at a particular number (1-5), but that can be increased or decreased as the game goes on, from 1 to 12 (woe to he who expends effort to increase the VP value of a district only to lose control of it).

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The third main source of (negative) VP is exposure. Each player’s conspiracy is harmed by being exposed and, at the end of the game, players lose VP for their exposure. Whoever has the least exposure loses nothing. Whoever has the most exposure loses 1VP for every three exposure. Everyone else loses 1VP for every five exposure. Balancing whether it’s worth it to take certain levels of exposure can, therefore, be an important tactical and strategic choice in the game.

Basic Gameplay

pic1434773The first decision each player will make each turn is which agent of his conspiracy to reveal (aka, take from his hand and put face up into play in the next available rank). Agents are the heart of Dominare, defining how much and where you have influence, your cash flow, and most of your actions. When revealed, however, the only thing that happens immediately for most agents is that, in revealing them, your conspiracy is exposed a little bit more. Generally, the more prominent the citizen is (e.g., nobles and senators), the higher the exposure, but the more powerful the other aspects of the cards. At this point, whoever has the most total exposure is the Scapegoat for the turn, and whoever has the least goes first.

Second, an event is flipped up, which will have some sort of effect on the board, and also adjust the victory point values of two of the districts.

Third, the players actually collect the influence and cash from each of their agents. This is done in micro-turns, with each player doing his or her Rank 1 agents (those placed in the first season), then Rank 2, and so forth. For each agent, the player will collect a set amount of crowns (coins) and place a set number of influence cubes in district of Tempest from pic1425906whence the agent hails. So you’ll tend to see Senators influence the Senate, clergy influencing the Church, and so on. Each of these districts is divided up into blocks, and influence works block-by-block. By default, all of an agent’s influence drops on one block, but you can pay to split it up if you’ve got the cash.

Fourth, each player gets exactly two actions (three on the seventh turn). This means 15 actions total for the entire game, so each one is precious. There are three sources of action possibilities. First, there are basic abilities that you can always use – gaining 1 measly crown (if you ever have to take this action, you probably did something wrong), spending crowns to drop influence on a block (the more the district is worth, the more this costs), whitewashing (spending crowns to reduce your exposure; this costs more as the game goes on), recruiting new agents (drawing cards off the agent deck to add to your hand), or replacing an agent (swapping an agent you have in play for one in your hand). Second, each district gives its controller access to a specific action. Third, each agent has abilities. Each ability has a number in front of it (1 to 7) – the agent must be in that rank or later in order to use the ability. So agents placed early will get more of a chance to drop influence and generate money, but are less likely to be able to use their abilities.

Setup

Dominare has a double-sided board, with one size having substantially more blocks than the other. The ‘bigger’ side is intended for 5-6 players, with the ‘smaller’ for 2-4, but you can play with 2-6 players on either side of the board if you want a somewhat different feeling game (there will be blood if you play with 6 on the 2-4 player side, and things will be less combative if you play with 3 on the 5-6 player side).

At the start of the game, each player gets 5 crowns and access to eight agents. Three of those eight are chosen, and the rest go back into the deck (there is also an option to just start with three specific agents for your first game). This means that, unless you expend actions, those three are going to be the three you play on your first three turns. This initial pool is later expanded after Round 3, when another chunk of agents becomes available through a draft – each player gets another eight agents cards, picks one, passes the stack to the left, rinse and repeat until all have been taken.

Opinions

pic1450914_mdFirst, the simple stuff – the game box says 2-3 hours, and that’s about right. For a game that lasts that long, there is relatively little setup time – look at that setup section. That’s about as short as my wordy self can do, and a third of that was talking about something that doesn’t happen until after Turn 3. More players do add more time, but the use of the double-sided board helps keep the experience relatively consistent across the 3-6 player range (we did not do any 2-player games).

My basic opinion here is pretty straightforward – Dominare was really good. Having the agent cards determine a lot of the action availability works out really well. The game has a very natural flow to it as your conspiracy expands and expands, but things don’t generally get out of hand because you’re still limited by the number of actions per turn. Having the canvassing phase (the “place influence and collect money” phase) be in micro-turns makes sure that everyone stays pic1430494involved. And it really helps combat analysis paralysis, because you always have one single decision to focus on at a time (and you can do at least some of your thinking as everyone else takes their micro-turns). The pull of focusing on both district control and block control keeps things interesting (for example, there’s a 4VP block in the Church district that represents the Basilica, and that’s as much as most districts start out at).

The game is also pretty easy to pick up for something that takes two hours to play. You do not have a lot of setup, and little intimidation factor. A new player won’t really know what the right 3 agents to start with are, but once that initial choice is made, he or she is down to just the three for the first three turns to it flows smoothly. There are cards for district control with the abilities printed on them. All of the (normal) agents are nicely color-coded so that you can see which district they place influence in. The basic actions work in a straightforward manner, so the reminder card pretty much covers them. It’s a game that, I think has a lot of strategic complexity without having too much up front complexity (I think MaRo has waxes poetic about this with regards to Magic: the Gathering design on a couple of occasions).

pic1419297The one thing that does break this is a couple of the “special” agents sets. In addition to one matching set for each district (Senate, Church, Canals, Swamp, Merchant Quarter, Atheneum), there are three types that have special rules. The Nobles never have influence (but have great abilities). The Artisans can place influence anywhere (but tend to provide very little of it). And the Shadowmen (criminals) can pay start their influence drop anywhere and then pay some more to split it up all over the place (the Shadowmen were the one place we found the rules lacking in clarity). The rules suggest not playing with these your first time through, although the Nobles aren’t really an issue and even the Artisans are pretty easy to grok.

The only complaint that anyone in our group voiced was that, well, the 2-3 hour game takes 2-3 hours. So, yeah, if you really want to stick with buying games that hit the table and are done in an hour, then don’t get this one. But that’s not even really a complaint so pic1438765much as it is a “well, duh,” so I suppose that the lack of clarity in the Shadowmen rules is our only real complaint, and it’s a mighty tall order to get through our group without some sort of gripe about gameplay or graphic design.

The Tempest line concept looks like it works really well too. Obviously, that’s not too important if you’re only going to play this one, but if you pick up more than one it’s pretty cool to see the same characters coming up and, if reading flavor text is your thing, you can see something of the general nature of the character coming across in the abilities. There’s pretty quality art and components as well, which is probably aided by being able to re-use the same nice piece of art (or not having to re-do design on that money punch-out sheet).

Dominare is, in my opinion, the best of AEG’s new Tempest line (which is itself pretty impressive so far, with three out of the four games being pretty good) and if you are the type of player who might have any interest in spending two hours trying to seize control of a city-state with little wooden cubes, then we highly recommend trying it out.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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