There are three types of cards in Dominion: actions, money, and victory points. Actions do things, money lets you buy cards, and victory points are all that matter in the end. You could also divide cards between the base cards, which are the same in every game, and kingdom cards, which vary between games.
The base cards are money and victory points in three tiers. Copper costs nothing and is worth 1, Silver costs 3 and is worth 2, and Gold costs 6 and is worth 3. If you are wondering why you would pay 6 to get 3, you pay 6 once to get 3 every time you play that Gold for the rest of the game. One Gold is worth three Coppers, so its cash cost is more but its card cost is much less. We will discuss the economy of cards next week. An Estate costs 2 and is worth 1 victory point, a Duchy costs 5 and is worth 3 victory points, and a Province costs 8 and is worth 6 victory points. Again, you see the same relationship of +3 cost for a new tier of value. There are also Curses, which are -1 victory points, are not technically victory point cards, and are given out by a few actions. In the base game of Dominion, these stacks of cards are your unvarying infrastructure for every game.
The kingdom cards are where the excitement comes in. There are 25 stacks of cards, mostly actions, and you use 10 per game. The abilities they give you and the interactions between those abilities are what keep Dominion fresh: there are more than 3 million combinations of kingdom cards, so just using the base game, you could play your entire life without repeating the same set of 10. Alternately, your rule book starts with some suggested sets of 10, known to have interesting interactions and providing common experiences you can discuss with others. The recommended starter set is a common point for online discussion.
“Pick 10 of 25” gives you a combination of randomness and reliability just as the deckbuilding mechanic does. You can reasonably expect to get some boring but practical cards along with some cards that are more potential for being home runs or strikeouts. The range of cards will support multiple playstyles, and you will want to adjust your playstyle based on the cards available. Random sets often give you cards you ignore because they do not create useful interactions, which can be viewed as unfortunate or like a game of Settlers of Catan where an interior desert tile makes competition for the good resources that much more fierce.
With new players, setting out the 10 kingdom cards is a time of learning. Everyone starts reading, discussing how the cards interact, and asking rules questions like “what happens if I play X and then Y?” It is how you learn some of the complex interactions in the simple rules. Some of the action cards are themselves complicated, and the rule book has a section to explain every card for exactly this reason, a sort of FAQ. It is a beautiful Theory of Fun moment. Experienced players get to recreate that experience when using a new expansion.
For experienced players, setting out the 10 kingdom cards tells you what sort of gamers you are playing with. Some will give excited squeaks at the sight of favorite cards. Some are generals, surveying the terrain upon which the coming battle will take place and deciding what forces to bring to bear. Some get another drink and don’t really look at the cards until they see what they can buy that turn. Attack actions might generate a mix of groans and squeaks; the generals see wildcards in their plans, while other players like a bit of chaos in their cards.
There are three methods of picking ten, but I have never seen the third in use. The first is to use a recommended set of cards, as you are (ahem) recommended to do for your first game. The developers pick out some favorite sets and include them with the cards, and they indeed have interesting interactions and usually a few strategies built in. The second is to randomly pick ten, which adds increasing variation as you add in more expansions. This seems to be the most common. It gives you more variation in your play, which works well when some but not all of your players are generals: it reduces their ability to plan and theorycraft ahead of time, and they (we) tend to enjoy the challenge of composing a plan as the cards hit the table.
I credit the design element of kingdom cards for a great deal of Dominion’s success. It makes many games of one, supports diverse playstyles, is enjoyed by both strategic and chaotic players, and creates a natural path for expansion sets, which Dominion has exploited to its profit.
We return next week to discuss the in-game economy of actions, coins, and cards.