Review: Eminent Domain – A Twist on Deck Building
Deck building has taken the gaming world by storm. For a while, the deck builders were all very similar, using it as their central mechanic. Buy cards from a communal offering and put them in your deck. Then, use them to get points. But, soon after, new takes on deck building started to emerge. One of the first to use deck building as an element in a greater game was Eminent Domain.
Eminent Domain, or EmDo to its friends, isn’t really a deck builder. Instead, it is a role selection game that layers a deck building mechanic on top. The goal isn’t necessarily to build the best deck, though certainly that’s an important aspect of the game.
The Basics. In EmDo, the player draws a hand of five cards. Then each turn that player may take an action, must select a role, and then discard as desired. Unlike a true deck builder, there are only ever five options to choose from, and they are the same five each time.
Each card has an action ability allowing you to produce resources, draw more cards, or even thin your deck. But the more interesting aspect is the role selection. There are five cards with six roles (one card does double duty). Each role has a separate symbol. The player takes the role he wishes, then boosts it with as many of the same symbols from his hand (generally like cards) for a desired effect. The card that was taken is then added to the player’s deck. In this way, the decks theoretically become more efficient if players repeatedly take the same role.
Roles are used to scan for new planets (which are drawn from a separate planet deck), then players must take them over through colonization or warfare, have them produce or sell resources for points, and engage in the all important research. When a role is selected, all other players can follow that role and do the action if they so choose. The research role allows the player to look through a separate technology stack of cards that can be added to his or her deck. This is where the players can really differentiate their approaches.
Research allows you to improve on the basic roles, or even to get new and better cards for better actions on your turn. A rare few even stay permanently in play to constantly provide their bonus. While a number of different strategies for conquering and acquiring planets are available, any player ignores research at their peril.
Points are gained, generally, through trading in the resources that planets produce, and for each planet conquered as well as for some of the more advanced research. At game end, the player with the most points is the winner.
The Feel. EmDo plays slightly differently depending on what your opponents do. Sometimes it’s best to go the colonize route. After all, if other players are doing it, you’ll be able to follow on their actions and get more plays in during the game. But sometimes going it alone can be good. A single player focused on warfare might only get to play on his turn, but he ensures that he does not aid any opponents since they are unlikely to follow his role.
Including deck building as an aspect of the game is a fantastic design choice. It forces players to not only maximize their planets and production, but also to ensure that their deck contains the right mix of cards to keep the engine running. There have been several turns where I have taken what might be considered a sub-optimal role just to ensure that I have an extra copy in my deck. It forces players to consider more than just their planets and resources.
There is also a wealth of research cards available to the players. Rather than use a subset, the whole of it is available each game. But, because of the sheer number of them, any given game will see only a handful of research cards enter play. Though the large number can be a bit daunting for beginners, new players will often hook into one or two cards and put them to good use.
EmDo also forces the players to pay careful attention to their opponents’ plans. You want to be able to capitalize on their role selection as much as possible. So this is not multi-player solitaire, but instead a highly interactive game, albeit one without direct aggression. For a card game, players are still placed very much in control. For instance, unlike many deck builders, you can retain as many cards in hand between turns as you like. That way if you draw a few research cards, but need a few more to get that awesome tech card you’ve been eyeing, you can retain that research and hope for the rest in your draw.
This game is great fun, but it is not without its flaws. I think EmDo is exceptionally susceptible to gaming groupthink. Because players can act on their opponents’ role selection, if a particular group decides that the colonize role is superior to the warfare role (for example) that can lead to some pretty quick and lopsided games. The same is true for the technology cards that are purchased with research. Some of their usefulness is more immediately apparent and those tend to be viewed as the “good” cards.
Even without groupthink, though, play can be repetitive. Because all of the cards are available in each game, it allows a player to pursue the exact same strategy each time if he or she so desires. Doing so, though, would be a travesty. There are numerous workable and winning strategies in EmDo. If you do the same thing every time, the game can get artificially stale very quickly.
Components: 4 of 5. The cards are the right size, have good gloss, and easily stand up to shuffling. The same is true of the planet and technology cards. The resources are wooden discs so they meet the euro standard. The game also allows you to accumulate ships as a resource. And while wooden discs would have been fine, EmDo provides plastic molds for ships. In fact, they are the same molds used in a more recent release.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Despite the inherent luck factor present in any card game, EmDo really hits the nail on the head. The cards provide an important consideration, but the players are given tools necessary to place the odds in their favor. They can use actions to gain additional draws or cull cards from their deck. Role selection assists with the deck composition and players can retain cards from turn to turn. At all times, players feel very much in control.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. EmDo plays smoothly each game and, aside from the technology cards, is easy for a new player to pick up. It combines role selection and deck building in a way that compliments both. The rulebook is also very clear, providing instruction and explanation.
Despite my earlier admonition against arbitrarily deciding that some cards are better than others, I think there is a large swing in the relative value of cards. Probably the best initial technology is Improved Trade which allows the player to simply gain a point as an action. Purchased early on, that single card can be worth four to six points or more over the course of the game. Also, some second tier technology, like those that give bonuses for trading the same or unique goods, are only situationally good, as opposed to other technologies (such as bureaucracy) which provide an always valuable ongoing benefit.
Replayability: 2.5 of 5. This is EmDo’s weakest area. Although the game offers numerous strategies and options to keep things fresh, it allows the players to establish a very defined routine that makes the game feel samey. Using a subset of technologies to help guide things in each play might prompt players to re-evaluate their preconceived strategies. Perhaps an expansion will address this. An innovative player will find a lot here, but players who settle in on one tactic will find their enthusiasm waning quickly.
Spite: 1 of 5. This is not a “take that” game in the least. In fact, there are no cards that allow direct assaults of other players. The only vestige of spite is in acquiring a technology card that someone else wanted, or in snagging the last role card. Both of these are more likely to happen if they help you (thus, they wouldn’t be “spite” as herein defined), but it’s not outside the realm of possibility to take something another player wanted just so that they wouldn’t get it.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. EmDo is an interesting take on deck building. It’s a game that features that mechanic while not being a deck builder per se. Instead, that is just one mechanic in an overall blend that allows players to conquer planets and grow their systems. EmDo will definitely give you several enjoyable plays, but resist the urge to settle on a particular strategy. Explore the game a bit and you will find a lot to love.