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Friday
Dec162011

Eminent Domain - A Review

 

Tasty Minstrel Games has taken their games to new heights with the space themed, Seth Jaffee designed board game Eminent Domain.  While the title of the game may sound like the sort of legalese a cheap polyester attorney would feed you right before demolishing your house to make way for an interstellar bypass, in execution Eminent Domain forgoes any legal wrangling and instead tasks players with discovering and settling planets to score influence points. Any sleazy space attorneys that may be part of these proceedings have, thankfully, been abstracted out of gameplay.

In Eminent Domain, players attempt to score influence points by discovering planets, colonizing or attacking them, and researching technologies. Each planet gives different benefits to the player, allowing him to excel at certain actions or trade resources for points. Players take turns selecting a role card from the center of the table, and performing any instructions on the card before adding the card to their personal deck. By using cards in their hand, and special features of planets on the table, players can enhance the effect of certain roles. Whoever can best manage their deck, and make the best role choices will ultimately gain the most influence, and win the game.

Eminent Domain is reminiscent of several different modern games. The role selection mechanism that was popularized by San Juan and Race for the Galaxy is featured prominently in Eminent Domain’s gameplay, as is the deck building paradigm that Dominion pioneered. Despite this obvious influence, Eminent Domain manages to take these two disparate ideas of role selection and deck building and merge them together into a unique mash-up that has a flavor and strategy that stands on its own.

 

Components:

Right out of the gate, the components in Eminent Domain scream high quality. The artwork is colorful and pleasing, and the components are rugged and well made. This is especially redeeming, as Tasty Minstrel Games suffered some production issues during their freshman attempt at publishing games a few years ago, when a large majority of the first print run of the game Homesteaders was shipped from the factory with critical manufacturing flaws. Not willing to be knocked out so easily, Tasty Minstrel Games has shifted production of their games to a different, highly respected manufacturer, with absolutely stellar results.

Board – Although Eminent Domain is more of a card game than a board game, it includes a glossy board to hold the various cards that players will collect through the game. This is not only nice because it helps organize the play space, but it is also functional in imparting rules information to the players when all of the cards of a certain type have been collected.

Cards – Gameplay in Eminent Domain centers on the manipulation of its various cards. These cards are printed on linen stock and display vivid, colorful artwork. The cards are good quality, but they have black edges, and even after a single play the edges of my cards started to show some whitening. Because the cards will be constantly shuffled during play, Eminent Domain (like most deck builders), is a candidate for card sleeves.

Cardboard Bits – The few cardboard bits found in Eminent Domain are thick and sturdy. The Influence Point tokens, starting planets, and player reference cards were a joy to punch from their cardboard sheet; some even fell out out on their own, impatient to play. This may seem like a small detail, but it's actually very important to me. When I first open up a brand new game and find that the cardboard pieces are difficult to punch, causing them to split or tear, it makes me anxious and affects my enjoyment of the game. I plan to keep my games around for many years, and knowing that pieces aren’t going to be defaced before the first game has seen it's first play is greatly appreciated.

Spaceships – When first opening Eminent Domain, one finds carefully packaged in a baggie, inside of a small box, a set of small, black, plastic spaceships. The spaceships come in three different shapes, with each shape a differing size. The spaceships serve as simple counters to denote a player’s current military might, but they look really neat, and are a lot of fun to handle. It could be argued that wooden cubes or cardboard tokens would serve the purpose just as effectively as these little plastic fighters, but during play, little touches like this really help reinforce the theme. It is a bid odd though that the ships come in three sizes, because the size of the ship has no relevance in gameplay. Seth Jaffee was kind enough to talk to me about these interesting components, and I came out of the exchange with much more information about the ship tokens came to be, and what the future holds for them - You will have to wait till the conclusion of this review for that juicy info though!

Rulebook - The rulebook is very colorful, and has large, detailed illustrations of the game components. It is easy to understand, and the fact that it doesn't contain a wall of text makes it very inviting to read. As a nice thank-you, the manual also has a list of all of the people who contributed financially to Eminent Domain's Kickstarter birth.

 

Setup:

Since Eminent Domain is a card game at it's heart, setup mostly involves separating cards and putting them into the correct piles on the board. There are three major classes of cards: Role cards, Planet cards, and Technology cards.

The Role cards will make up the brunt of a player's deck, and are sorted into the five roles that a player can choose on his turn: Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, and Research. Each type of role card has two distinct abilities printed on it; one for the Role phase, and one for the Action phase. Once sorted, the role cards are placed in piles indicated on the game board, and each player is dealt a hand of 10 predetermined Role cards that will make up his starting deck.

After the role cards are set up, the technology cards are separated by type and placed next to the board, as well as the planet cards which are shuffled together and placed face down in a pile. The resource markers, spaceships, and influence tokens are then placed in piles near the play area.

Each player starts the game with a random unexplored starting planet in his play area. These starting planets are easily differentiated from the other planets by the fact that they are printed on a thick cardboard tile.

Once the game has been set up, players shuffle their deck and then draw 5 cards to make up their starting hand. Play is ready to begin.

 

Gameplay:

Play in Eminent Domain is deceptively simple. Each gameplay turn is separated into 3 distinct phases: Action, Role Selection, and Cleanup.

During the Action phase, a player may play a card from his hand, and perform the action listed in the "Action" section of the card. This action is restricted to the current player, and unlike the Role phase that will be described next, it is not performed by other players in the game. The action phase is optional, and a player may find himself forgoing an Action phase and saving his cards to take better advantage of the Role phase.

After a player has performed his action phase, the mandatory Role phase begins. During his Role phase, a player chooses one of the Role cards from the center of the table: Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, or Research. Each role will give the player a specific ability, printed in the "Role" section of the card, but while the action phase gave an exclusive ability to the player, every other player in the game is allowed to take advantage of the selected Role card during the role phase.

Role cards also give the player an opportunity to "Boost" a role's effect by playing cards from his hand, or utilizing the special abilities of explored planets in his tableau. This is where the deck building portion of Eminent Domain really becomes apparent. When you select a Role in the Role phase, the card you take makes its way into your discard pile, and eventually your deck. This means the more you select a certain role, the more likely those Role cards will be in your hand, and the more cards you will have available to enhance the effect of a particular role.

Each Role card has a very specific purpose in forwarding a player's strategy:

Survey - The Survey card allows the player to draw cards from the planet deck, and place it unexplored in his tableau. Planets do not score points, or give effects to players until they have been explored, so this is just the first step in expanding an empire. Players can "boost" the Survey role by playing more survey cards from their hand, increasing the number of cards a player can look at before choosing a planet to explore. Since planets have differing abilities, having a larger number to choose from allows the player to better select planets that align with his larger strategy. The player who chooses Survey as a role, automatically gets to look at and take a single planet card without playing any additional cards, but players who wish to use this role on another player's turn must play at least two survey cards from their hand. This limitation avoids the uncontrollable proliferation of planets by making planets more expensive on other players' turns.

Colonize - While the Survey role will allow players to get planets from the deck to their tableau, the planets cannot be utilized until they are flipped over to the "explored" side. Each planet has two values printed on it's unexplored size: The first is the number of colonies needed to settle it, and the second is the military might needed to conquer it. The Colonize action works towards the first objective, by allowing players to build colonies on the planet, or if there are already enough colonies on the planet, to "settle" the planet and flip it over onto its explored side. While other players may expend colonize cards and add colonies to a planet during an opponent's colonize role, a player may only settle if he was the one who chose the role.

Warfare - While some players may choose to go the peaceful settlement route, those bloodthirsty gamers may wish instead to conquer planets with with military might - and that's where the Warfare role comes into play. Similar to the colonies in the colonization role, a player may use the warfare role to amass ships to conquer planets. If the player already has enough warships to meet the attack number on the planet card, he may choose to Attack instead, by returning the required number of ships back to the supply, and flipping the planet card to it's explored side. Like the colonize action, only the current player can attack a planet, but all players may discard Warfare cards, and use planet abilities to gain more spaceships.

Produce/Trade - Many planets have the ability to generate resources that can then be sold for influence points. The Produce/Trade role is used to activate these planet abilities. When selecting the Produce/Trade role, the player announces which aspect of the role he is exercising. If he produces, he may place a little wooden resource disk on a production planet; by boosting the role, he can produce on more than one planet. If the player chooses the Trade role, then the opposite of Produce occurs, and the player may remove a resource from the planet, return it to the supply, and gain an influence point in return. By boosting the Trade role, the player can perform this action on more planets. This Produce/Trade cycle can really start to pump out influence points for the player if he has built his deck in a way to facilitate this economic engine.

Research - With the previous four roles, the gameplay is pretty straightforward: Players Survey to gain unexplored planets; then they settle or attack those planets; and finally generate influence points by gaining more planets, or using the Produce/Trade role to sell goods. The research role breaks this predictable cycle up a bit, and is really what adds character to the game. The research role serves two purposes: The first is to allow the player to purchase technology cards with special actions that are much stronger than the base role cards; the second is to allow the player to tailor his deck by removing unwanted role cards from his hand.

The research role may be the most complicated to understand for new players, because it has an action that allows players to remove cards from the game entirely. New players will often ask me why anyone would want to use an action that makes them discard cards, but after several plays the importance of removing cards from a deck to make it more effective becomes very apparent: At the start of the game the ability to Survey and Settle/Attack is extremely important, but as the game progresses those actions can clog a player's deck; especially one who is looking to utilize the Produce/Trade abilities of his planet. Because of this ability, the research role actually becomes one of the most important roles in the game.

The technology cards that can be purchased with the research role are also very important. Most of the technology cards act like super-powered role cards, with expanded actions that are stronger than their simple role counterparts. In conjunction with the research ability to remove cards, players can trash the more basic role cards, and increase the likelihood that one of the powerful technology cards will be drawn.

 

After a player has taken his action, selected his role and played any cards to boost it's effect, the newly drawn role card and all the cards used to boost it are put in the player's discard pile. The player may also choose to discard any number of cards from his hand, before drawing his hand back up to 5 cards. When the player runs out of cards in his deck, he shuffles his discard pile to create a new deck.

While this is the basic flow of the game, there is a bit more depth when actually looking at the special powers of the planets and the different technology cards. Many technology and planet cards have icons on them that correspond to a particular role. A card with one of these icons can be used just like a role card when boosting the matching role. Planets may also give other abilities, such as allowing a player an increased hand size. I wanted to wait until after I had described general gameplay before discussing this iconography, not because it is difficult to understand (in fact, it is very simple), but because Eminent Domain shares a lot of mechanical similarity to another icon heavy game: Race for the Galaxy. While Race for the Galaxy's iconography can take a while to learn, and is complicated to some, the iconography in Eminent Domain is very straightforward and very easy to understand. Simply put, if there is an icon on a card in Eminent Domain it means one of two things: either it increases your hand size, or it can be used like a Role card when boosting a role effect.

 

Conclusion:

I enjoyed playing Eminent Domain. It's mechanics and theme really fit together in a pleasing, easy to understand whole. Where some games may mire the various actions in complexity, the purpose of the various roles in Eminent Domain are clearly defined, making it easy to create and execute a strategy. The addition of Technology and Planet cards add spice to the game by introducing some rule changing properties and effects which keep Eminent Domain from growing stale, and keep players on their toes.

Deck building as a game mechanism has been polarizing gamers lately. With a large number of games trying to jump on the Dominion bandwagon, many people have become fatigued with the idea. But, those gamers who dislike deck building games may not want to discount Eminent Domain out of hand. While Eminent Domain does contain a deck building mechanism, it is not presented in the same manner as most deck builders. In fact, Eminent Domain's gameplay is closer in feel to a role selection game like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy than a Dominion style game. The deck building acts almost as a mechanism to simulate gaining experience in a given role, and doesn't offer the perpetual card combos that can drag out player turns in other games.

Players who own Race for the Galaxy may find Eminent Domain jockeying for the same spot on the game shelf. Eminent Domain has unique mechanics that allow it to easily stand on its own, but with such a similar theme, and role selection mechanism, both titles may feel like they scratch the same itch. Eminent Domain is certainly a more directed game experience; it's fairly small subset of planets and powers allow players to strategically shape their empire - and drawing cards doesn't feel like a fishing expedition. As a result, the Eminent Domain player may feel more empowered, and have more control than the Race for the Galaxy player. By the same stroke however, Eminent Domain can feel like it lacks breadth of content, with the handful of planets appearing somewhat anonymous, and without personality.

Eminent Domain is a very approachable game, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Its gameplay is simple; perhaps deceptively so. The choices that can be made, and they way different actions interact with each other, appear straightforward and understandable. While this is great from an accessibility standpoint, it also means that players may feel they have a handle on the game after the first few minutes of play, and mistakenly think that it lacks depth. Given a few games however, it becomes apparent that the workable strategies in Eminent Domain are much more varied and subtle than first glance. Understanding how to use the Research cards is a big part of opening up the greater depth of Eminent Domain, and may take a few plays before it really clicks. Once it clicks though, Eminent Domain changes from an entertaining diversion, to a truly fun game teeming with strategic choices.

There are many different paths to victory in Eminent Domain, but some strategies might seem overpowered to the new player. Take Warfare vs. Colonization as an example: When a player uses a colonization strategy, his colony cards are tied up during use, because they must be placed under the planet to be colonized. Only when the planet is settled are those returned to the deck. Warfare, on the other hand produces spaceship tokens which can be stockpiled to attack a planet later. After producing the ships, the Warfare cards go right back into the discard pile, and eventually make their way back into the player's hand to produce more warships, whereas the colony cards languish out of play under a planet.

This is assumption that Warfare is unbalanced is deceptive, though, and one of the situations where the subtlety of strategy in Eminent Domain really shines. Although a Warfare strategy will generate lots of ships for the player, the player may instead chooses to settle planets with colonization icons on them. Using this alternative strategy the player will find that the number of colonies needed to settle each planet decreases with each new planet. Pursuing this strategy far enough, with enough icons in his tableau, the player can settle a planet in a single action without having to first add any colonies to it. This means that a player using the colony strategy is able to take over planets in less turns than a player using the warfare strategy. A player using a colony strategy may also choose to keep colonies out of play, under unsettled planets, as a strategy to change the distribution of cards in his deck. Strategies like these add a subtle balance to the different roles, and may not be apparent at first glance. But, as players become more familiar with the game, the possibilities unfold into a very rich game-space.

While most of the design in Eminent Domain is surprisingly elegant, there are a few parts of the design that seem almost superfluous. The two that immediately come to mind are the plastic spaceships, and the resource counters. Don't get me wrong, I think the spaceships are really cool and help solidify the space theme, but the three different shapes are a bit disorienting. It feels like the different ships should each have a unique purpose, and not just act as simple counters. The colored resource disks also seem out of place. Each planet produces one of four different resource types, but these different resources aren't really relevant to gameplay aside from a couple of technology cards that give bonuses based on diversity. Whether a planet produces water or silicon is largely irrelevant. I thought that perhaps these components were added to the game in anticipation of an expansion that would more appropriately use them, and the mere presence of the different sized ships and different types of resources made me wonder whether there is added depth just beyond their painted surfaces.

Instead of speculating about this, I went straight to the horses mouth and contacted game designer Seth Jaffee. The story behind the components in Eminent Domain actually turned out to give an interesting glimpse into the game development and production process.

Eminent Domain originally called for small back disks to represent the warfare counters, But as it became apparent that Eminent Domain would exceed its Kickstarter funding goal, Seth Jaffee and Tasty Minstrel founder Michael Mindes wanted to add some cool bits to the game that would add to the theme and increase the production value. The original plan was to design custom fighter tokens, but the cost of making the molds was prohibitive. They did, however, have access to the ship molds that were used in the game Galactic Emperor, and decided that using these ships would add to the theme of the game (I agree that it does!) while still meeting the budget. These molds happened to have all three sizes of ships in each mold, and as a result, every copy of Eminent Domain comes with those three different types of ships. Seth Jaffee is currently designing an expansion for Eminent Domain, however, and he tells me that he has some ideas for utilizing the different types of ships. In his own words:

"I am working on an expansion ... [where] the small ships will remain Fighters, the medium ships will be called Destroyers, and the large ships will be called Dreadnaughts. The difference between them is really sort of like a military tech tree in a way - they are used for different things, not just 'destroyers are equivalent to 3 Fighters' or anything like that. So for those who can't stand the thought of 2 different ships both being '1 Fighter,' sit tight! Some time next year you will probably have an expansion that makes them different!"

As for the differing planet resources: that was a design decision to add a bit more theme to differentiate the planets, and also give players more strategy when utilizing technologies. While it may seem that the game should support planets or tech that require specific types of resources in their purchase price, in practice, those choices unbalanced the game. Seth does have some ideas that he hopes to include in the next expansion to take more advantage of the different resource types; and he even hints at a "top secret" idea for a future expansion sometime after that (maybe it's those infamous polyester space attorneys absent from the base game!). He has certainly piqued my interest, and I am excited to see what is in store for Eminent Domain's future. Waiting won't be TOO hard though, because the base game has plenty of depth packed inside of its box to keep me entertained for quite a while.

After many plays, I have come to the conclusion that Eminent Domain, through it's easy to understand rule set, colorful cards, and sturdy components, is most definitely compelling - and perhaps more importantly, a lot of fun! Eminent Domain is a game that seems to exist to defy preconceptions; no matter what you may think about the individual game mechanisms that make up the game, Eminent Domain is sure to surprise you, and may just sneak up on you to become one of your favorites. It is certainly proof that a game can be greater than the sum of it's parts.

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January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

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