I’ve had the chance to play Eminent Domain a few times in November. I taught the base game along with the Escalation expansion to several new people. It really is a gem of a deck builder. I have an on-again-off-again column called Overlooked Gems where I review games that are quite good but one that was usually dismissed by the gaming community. Long time readers may recall my post about Terra Prime. Now I’m reviewing another overlooked gem from the same designer, Seth Jaffee. Let’s look at why this is such a good game.
Overlooked Gems: Eminent Domain
Oh no! Not another deck builder!?
The deck building mechanic can trace its origin to the 2008 publication of Dominion. In a deck building game, players will start with their own small deck of cards. They will add cards to it during the game–the goal being to improve their personal deck’s efficiency and point scoring ability.
Dominion is themed around building a medieval town. With its considerable popularity (7.68 on BGG), it was only a matter of time before others took the deck building idea and applied it to other themes.
This is what Seth Jaffee did with Eminent Domain. Sort of.
Everyone starts with the same cards in their respective decks. Players will acquire additional cards each turn called “role cards”. Players will play cards from their hand to take their turn, presumably to further their point scoring efforts. The game ends when two piles of role cards have been exhausted.
So far, this sounds a lot like Dominion. You add cards to your deck on your turn, presumably to score points. The game end is triggered when enough piles of cards are depleted.
But Eminent Domain has a few things going for it.
Lifting the best from Glory to Rome and Dominion
Eminent Domain took the deck building aspect of Dominion. This is singularly the best part mechanic of Dominion. But Dominion is largely a 4 player solitaire game. Yes, with some of the expansions you will have to pay attention to your opponent’s purchases. But largely Dominion will come down to your own efficiencies and not your timely responses to your opponent’s decisions.
Enter: Glory to Rome. In 2005, Carl Chudyk authored the unlikely game Glory to Rome. This is a card game but it isn’t a deck builder. Instead, you have a hand of cards and you play them, usually one at a time.
But the cards have several uses. If the card is in your vault, it’s worth victory points. If it’s in your clientele, it’s a client. If it’s in your stock pile, it’s a resource. And if it’s in your hand, it’s a role. Suffice it to say, the cards are very busy.
In addition, Glory to Rome doesn’t feel like four player solitaire. During your turn, you will either play a role card or “think”. If you think, you draw a card. If you play a role card, everyone else can follow your role or “think”. This idea was lifted by Eminent Domain. And it works well when laid atop the deck building.
In Eminent Domain, you will take a role card on your turn. Your opponents will either follow, playing the same role card or they will “dissent” and draw a card. The effect this has is players will stay engaged when it’s not their turn.
Plus Eminent Domain has multiple use cards. Every card has icons on its top left corner. The more icons you play of the corresponding type, the more powerful the role is. It’s possible your opponent could select a role, you follow the role and you get a bigger benefit from following because you have more icons. This interaction makes Glory to Rome (and Eminent Domain) more interesting than Dominion.
More than the sum of its parts
I don’t want it to sound like Eminent Domain is just a merger of Dominion and Glory to Rome. Eminent Domain adds an important mechanic missing from both of these: the action step. In Eminent Domain you are obligated to take a role. But before the role step you may take an optional action. The cards in your hand all have actions listed on them. You may take a single action during your turn. And the actions you take are what will make you good at the game.
When you take the Research role, you will be able to get upgraded cards like Improved Colonize, Improved Warfare, etc. And these cards are similar to their standard counterparts except they have better actions on them. Finding a way to get the improved actions that synergize with your strategy is a key element of the game.
And the action step is a nice, simple difference between Eminent Domain and its counterparts.
Based solely upon base game, Eminent Domain is a 6 on a BGG scale.
It’s the Escalation expansion that bumps this game up to a high 8, low 9.
Eminent Domain: Escalation kicks butt and takes names
I was always lukewarm on Eminent Domain before the Escalation expansion. The game seemed to be on the cusp of greatness but needed a nudge. Escalation gives it a shove.
Escalation does what most expansions do: more stuff. There are more advanced cards you can research, more planets you can colonize, etc. Escalation also does what many game expansions do: adds some new mechanics. But Escalation avoids the “more mechanics” pitfall which besets some game designers. The new mechanics in Escalation patch the weak areas of the base game or breath fresh life into underdeveloped areas of the game.
The base game came with three different ship miniatures. But the pieces were all equal. This seemed odd. Well the expansion differentiates between them. You can acquire fighters, cash them in for destroyers and then cash in destroyers for battlecruisers.
Some planets you may scout out will be bustling planets or pirate havens. These planets have lush resources for you to harvest but will require a destroyer instead of fighters. And if you have a battle cruiser, you can spend it in lieu of any conflict cost to acquire a planet.
But the best new addition to Eminent Domain, bar none, are the scenario cards. Players are randomly dealt a scenario card at game start. Each is unique. Each gives you a specific planet. Everyone starts with a level 2 research card. And everyone’s starting deck is different. This makes the game so much better.
While your opponent might start with some advanced surveying technology, you might start with weapons emporium. Your path to victory will be quite different than your opponents. And the interactions and role choices matter greatly.
The nice thing about the scenario cards is: you don’t need to be an expert at the game to understand them. You might not be the most efficient at playing each scenario but the additional rules for the scenarios are not complicated. But the best part is the asymmetry. I love asymmetrical games.
There was another expansion for Eminent Domain: Exotica. It adds exotic alien planets along with asteroid planets. I haven’t played this yet. After doing this review, I will do my best to get it to the table in December.
And if that was exciting enough, Seth has announced the release of another expansion: Oblivion. This will add another mechanic along with turning the Political action card into an action/role card. This should keep the Eminent Domain universe fresh for many years to come.
And speaking of the Eminent Domain universe, you should try Eminent Domain: Battlecruisers. It’s a nifty take on games like Citadels or Libertalia.
And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Seth will update his Terra Prime game into an Eminent Domain universe game…
Where you can play Eminent Domain in Muskegon