Dominion: Running an IRL tournament

I’ve had questions from many people about various aspects of running a Dominion tournament with physical cards. For a while I had just dumped my thoughts into a Google Doc and linked them to that, but the doc wasn’t finished, had gotten out-of-date, and never actually linked to a helpful place for using the scripts I’ve written to help my process. I finally decided to stop being lazy and adapt that into a blog post that I’ll actually be able to maintain, so here it is!

Running an IRL Dominion tournament

So you want to run an IRL Dominion tournament? That’s awesome, I really think there should be more of these, and they just won’t happen without people like you who want to run them. There can be a lot that goes into organizing this, but the biggest hurdle you have is the first one, so if you can get past it, you should be able to tackle the rest of it.

I. Logistics

You need a venue.

I imagine that there’s a tabletop gaming store somewhere near you if you think you can get enough interest to hold a tournament; while there are potentially other options for renting out a space with tables and chairs, a game store is probably going to be the best one. It’s likely you won’t have to pay anything to use the space (except maybe give the store a cut of the entry fees before you make the prize pool) and most of them should be happy to host any event that brings people in the door. Just talk to the owner or whoever is working and ask about hosting an event there.

The problem with most game stores I’ve seen is table space – many of them don’t have that much table space, so even if they let you use all of their tables, it may not be enough to host a tournament of any decent size. I’ve seen many people get stuck on this, where they can’t find a venue with enough table space anywhere near them, or maybe they don’t want to give up all of their table space for 6 or more hours. Unfortunately, this stops a lot of peoples’ dreams from going any further.

I’m very lucky in that I have a local game store that has a ton of table space. The store is Game Swap in Mason, OH; and here’s a recent video of the table space that the store offers, just to give you an idea of how much table space you could end up using for your tournament (I use about half of what’s shown here, and the store has more table space than what the video shows).

Be prepared to schedule around other popular events. For instance, I know to plan my tournaments around the popular Magic: the Gathering events the store hosts.

Another option I’ve seen people have success with is hosting your tournament at a gaming convention. If this is something you’re interested in, you should definitely approach any other gaming conventions near you about details on hosting an event. From what I know, you’ll have a lot less trouble getting a big turnout if you host at a convention. It’s usually not difficult to become a game master at a convention, so maybe this could be a starting point for you, though I don’t have nearly as much experience with this.

…so you have a venue, and as part of that you probably have a date or a small range of dates nailed down as well. Congratulations! You’ve done the hardest part, and the rest of your prep will probably not come with any showstoppers.

If this is your first tournament, don’t expect a huge turnout. You can promote your event a lot and still only end up with barely enough players to make any kind of a tournament format work out — it’s OK. My first tournament only had 9 people, and about half of them were there because one person brought pretty much his entire family. The best way to get more people at your tournament is to just keep having more of them on a consistent schedule (and run them well, of course).

I found that having a tournament every 6 months was about the right frequency for me. For a while they happened every 3 months but I noticed a dip in attendance after a while. When I talked to people they said that it didn’t seem like a big deal to miss one because the next one would be pretty soon afterward. There is such a thing as too many tournaments.

Promoting your tournament:

People need to find out about your tournament, and it’s your job to let them know. For your first event, I would recommend having a significant number of your own friends who you play Dominion with plan to attend. These types of people shouldn’t bail on you because they found something better to do, and I would even consider planning the date of your tournament around the availability of these people. Getting to a game store and playing through that tournament the first time is a huge deal for increasing the attendance for your next tournament, so I would consider that a complete success.

1. Word of mouth: it takes a long time for this to pay off but once it does, man, you start to see the rewards. The best promotion you can get for your tournament is to have people who have been to a previous tournament talking about it. Those people bring their friends, and they bring their friends, etc.

The biggest part of word of mouth is your own mouth. Every time I ever hear Dominion come up or see people playing, I tell them about my next tournament. It feels shameless (it kind of is) but it gets the word out. I used to carry around slips of paper with the information on it that I could just give to people until my wife told me that I should just make Dominion business cards, so I did. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve given these out to and it’s an awesome solution for me. Part of this is because I play a lot in public game stores and people see my storage solution and they ask me about it (so if you have an impressive storage solution, this is a great selling point for your tournaments! No joke!) so there’s a link to a blog post I made about my storage solution as well. The business cards also solve the problem of talking to someone who isn’t into Dominion, but maybe their brother is. Giving them a business card will get the word out to that brother when maybe nothing else will, and that brother can bring his entire gaming group with him, and now you have these new connections which are a huge deal.

2. Social networking: Of course have a Facebook event for your tournament, and have an event for every social network you’re on. But it doesn’t stop there; I admin a local boardgaming group in the Cincinnati area so I’ll promote the event on my group’s page, but there are plenty of other groups out there that will be happy to let you cross-post your event. As an admin of my group I get these requests all of the time and the only time I ever turn people down is if it’s clearly a bot or a publisher trying to get free advertising on our page. Those admins LOVE to have these events to put on their pages so just send them a private message and almost all of them will be happy to link your event at the very least. If you don’t get a response, just try messaging some other admins — any group that’s active at all will have at least one active admin, so sometimes you have to work a bit to find them.

Meetup.com is a huge resource, it’s probably the most success I’ve had from a “social networking site.”

There are also Dominion-specific websites you should promote on. The Dominion subreddit is a great resource, F.DS can be useful, and I may know someone who runs a prominent Dominion blog or two who really wants to promote IRL tournaments. I also started a Facebook group for notifying people about events in the midwest USA area — you are welcome to promote relevant events there (just contact me and I can give you the permissions) or make a group for your area if you think that will help. The online crowd may not be local to you, but they’re fairly dedicated and many of them will travel quite a ways to go to a Dominion tournament.

A couple of site-specific tips:

Once you have the date, time, and location of your event finalized, post it on F.DS as soon as you can. It won’t get buried and people there are more likely to attend if they have extra time to make travel plans.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t bother posting on reddit until the event is closer — things tend to disappear from reddit after a couple of days, unfortunately. You could consider doing one post a month or two before the event, and then another post a week or two before the event.

You can promote your tournament on Boardgamegeek, and I’ve had success with getting people to show up who found out through BGG. Unfortunately, just know that depending on the mood of the moderators, phase of the moon, etc. they may delete your post since they have an incredibly stupid policy against promoting outside content on their site that some people think applies to IRL tournaments (even though they have an entire subforum dedicated to organized play). It’s probably worth posting there, but just be aware of that.

Most social networking sites will reward you for making an event as soon as possible. Just make sure to follow up with “reminder” posts every once in a while, especially as the event gets close. When you’re just starting out it can be helpful for people to know that there’s a real person running the event and that they won’t show up to a place ready to play, and nobody will be there.

II. Format

How do you have a Dominion tournament with physical cards? What format is best to have people play their games in? Do you design kingdoms, play random sets? How do you handle matchmaking? How do you deal with time constraints? There are a lot of questions, and not all of them have firm answers. I’ll give you my take on all of this.

The first thing you need to decide is how many players will be in most games in your tournament. From my experience, people would rather play in tournaments with 2-player games, so that is my recommendation. However, if you are limited on supply card sets or table space, you may need to have 3P or even 4P games be the standard for your tournament. Just be extremely careful when selecting kingdoms for these types of games, as you want to be able to actually test the skill of your players, and this can be much more difficult in games with larger player counts. More on this when I talk about kingdom design later.

The main focus I’ve always had is to make it so that the players have fun. If the players are having fun then everything else falls into place, so everything I do is done with that goal in mind. Granted, a lot of that other stuff is done with the purpose of getting people to have more fun, but still it’s helpful to remind myself that the whole point is to have fun.

With that in mind, there are several things that will lead to more fun rather than less fun…

People shouldn’t lose in a way that feels bad. I mean, it’s Dominion and there’s luck, so that’s not completely avoidable, but through the years I’ve tried to identify the ways people lose that make them feel bad and I do what I can to minimize the chances of that happening.

  • I allow players to stack their decks at the start of each game. This way, nobody can get mad that they lost to a lucky 5/2 opening or something like that. Do I think this increases the effect of skill on the winner of the game? Absolutely not. I’m just removing one of the more visible instances of luck from the game so that the less visible ones will be more impactful, and I’ve found that makes people feel better when they lose.
  • I have a banlist of cards that I don’t allow in any kingdoms used for the tournament. Most of the cards are less popular and infamous for increasing the variance in a particular game. There’s only so much time to work with so you want people to feel like skill decided as much as possible, so removing these cards from the pool will prevent people from getting upset that they lost “another stupid Torturer game.” It’s not perfect, but it shows you’re making an effort and people appreciate it. Here’s my banlist for that reason: Swindler, Ambassador, Urchin, Rebuild, Torturer, Possession, Cultist, Page, Pirate Ship, Cutpurse. Pirate Ship and Cutpurse are OK to use in 2P tournaments, but have caused problems in 3P games in the past for me.
  • I also don’t use Tournament and Black Market in any of my kingdoms because I personally don’t like the cards. I would advise against using Black Market in any IRL tournament because setup is just a nightmare for that card.
  • I use a tournament format that makes it so you can lose a game and still win a tournament. If a tournament is single-elimination from the start, people are going to feel bad whenever they lose, but you can avoid this by using a format that doesn’t require a perfect day to take home the prize.

You should try to be welcoming of all skill levels. Granted, you shouldn’t have to explain the rules of the game to everyone, and I don’t think you need to shy away from using all of the expansions unless you think that nobody at your tournament has seen any of them. Rather, I try to make sure that my kingdoms promote a variety of strategies so that the games feel different to play, and also I have a banlist for cards that can be difficult for newer players to resolve correctly with physical cards: Hunting Party, Scrying Pool, Golem. Along that same line, I make sure I play at least one game against a bot online for all the kingdoms I plan to put in, just to make sure there’s nothing awful about a kingdom that I didn’t see when I made them. People want to feel like their skill matters, so games where Big Money or slogs are the only options aren’t going to be popular unless there’s something people can feel good about finding in those kingdoms.

You want to play as many games as possible so that skill has the highest chance to matter, but the event shouldn’t take too long. Especially for people who lose the first few games and don’t realistically have a shot to win it all, you don’t want to force those people to stick around and play more if they don’t want to. You should definitely have a tournament format that allows people to drop out at any point if they want, and after three or four games, you should seriously consider making it so that only the people with the best tournament scores continue to play. If there’s a real shot at the money people will be more motivated to play hours 6 and 7 of Dominion for the day, but not otherwise. I try and make it so my events are over after 7 hours at the latest.

I enforce a time limit on all of the games in the tournament: 45 minutes. This is a necessary evil because you don’t want to have 20 people just waiting around for 20 minutes just for one game to finish. This also allows people who finish early to feel good about going on a quick food run since you have something that resembles a schedule. I have a banlist of two cards (Tax and Peasant) that is there just because games with these cards tend to take a really long time, and also because they use up a whole bunch of tokens that I could be using for other games (more on how to allocate physical components later). In any case, you’ll need to come up with a graceful way to handle games that end because of time and make those rules clear before your tournament starts. Keep an eye on games that look like they could run long and constantly give them updates on how much time is left, even when it feels like it may be too early. Preventing issues with slow playing and the like is the best way to deal with them.

For my tournaments, the rule is that when time runs out, you play until everyone has had an equal number of turns (or the game naturally ends some other way) and then we count points. With enough warning, people can plan accordingly, as long as you’re clear about which turn will be the last before that turn actually happens. This isn’t the only way, but it’s the way I use, and I rarely have to actually use it.

As much as I’ve said about tournament format, the decision is ultimately up to you. I’ve given you my general guidelines, and now I’ll say a couple more things that I don’t think are really negotiable when it comes to format:

  • Do not add any tiebreakers to the game that are not present in the rulebook — a tie needs to be an acceptable game result. If you do this, then the game you’re playing isn’t Dominion anymore. The only tiebreaker in the rulebook is number of turns taken, and if that’s the same, the game is a tie. Period. Don’t count Provinces or Duchies, or Golds (ugh) or anything else.
  • Do not take any information from a game other than placement — don’t distinguish between a win on turns vs. a win on VP, and don’t even record the VP totals at the end of the game. Once again, this turns the game you’re playing into something very different than Dominion and it will cause you more trouble than it’s worth.

With that said, here are the documents I use that outline the tournament format I use for my 2P and 3P tournaments. You don’t have to do it the same way as me, these are just an example.

Kingdom Design:

I get a lot of questions on kingdom design, and unfortunately I don’t think I’m all that great at it. This is in spite of the fact that I do design all of the kingdoms used in the final rounds in my tournaments and I get a lot of positive feedback from it. There are a lot of different approaches you can take for designing kingdoms and I’ll talk about them briefly here, but really you have a lot of freedom when it comes to what kingdoms you use.

If you’re looking for a completely designed kingdom, you can start from a number of different places:

  • Take a powerful card or combo and design a kingdom to make it bad
  • Take a weak card and design a kingdom to make it good
  • Have a restriction (no village, no draw, no trashing, no +Buy, etc.) and design a kingdom to either exacerbate or deal with that restriction in a creative way (restrictions breed creativity!)
  • Use an unconventional synergy to get around a restriction you place (Secret Passage/Vagrant/multi-type cards as the only source of draw, for example)
  • Take a popular card like Menagerie and design a bunch of synergies around it to make a board that’s just fun to play
  • Take multiple strong strategies and put them together in the same kingdom
  • Use attacks or landmarks to try to invalidate some or all of the potentially good strategies you allow

These principles can work for kingdom design for any purpose. I have a few pointers that are a bit more specific for designing kingdoms for IRL tournaments, though. Mostly these are things you want to try and avoid, but not always

  • Try to avoid having a visible source of game-decisive luck that is out of the players’ control. My banlists are there to try to minimize this, but you should still be careful of things like Mint as the only thinning, or various attacks that can have very good or very bad results for one player.
  • You generally don’t want to have a kingdom where the only thing you can do is Big Money or some type of slog — make your kingdoms feel unique or have some type of decision that feels difficult.
  • Try to avoid kingdoms that will regularly take a very long time to complete; you don’t want every single game with a given kingdom to run into the time limit, but at the same time you want to have games that feel different, so if all of them are over lightning-fast that’s also not ideal.
  • You want to be extremely careful of junking attacks in games with more than 2 players. Sometimes, even the strongest deck control resources are not enough to help you get control of your deck in games like this, so make sure you don’t include games like this where it just feels like the same “claw your way up to Duchies” thing that so many 3+P games turn into. A tournament is not the place for this kind of thing.

These can be hard goals to attain, and it can be hard to predict what people will do when they’re playing your kingdoms in your tournament. Regardless of whether a kingdom I have is designed or not, I like to go online and do at least a little bit of playtesting to make sure the kingdom is fun and somewhat interactive. The more playtesting you do, especially with other human beings (which can be difficult because many of the people you might want to test with could be playing in the tournament so you can’t bounce ideas off of them), the less likely it is that you’ll run into these issues.

There are a decent number of resources online for playtesting your kingdom — many people from different countries are usually happy to playtest some kingdoms with you and give you some feedback, and getting another set of eyes on your kingdoms can be much better than just playing with the bots.

I like to try and take out weird, counter-intuitive rules interactions so they don’t come up during the tournament. If there’s one that I really want to keep in, I’ll write a little rules reminder and include it with the kingdom, just so nobody has any nasty surprises. I know that other organizers choose to leave these in (some will even design kingdoms around them) so if you think your players would appreciate that kind of thing, then by all means go for it.

Most of the kingdoms I use are randomly generated. This is because I like the idea of randomly generated boards being a test of Dominion skill, but I do filter out kingdoms that look like they won’t work well for a tournament setting.

I wrote a Python script that helps me generate random kingdoms (here’s a link to all of my tournament scripts). I tell it how many copies of each card I have access to, and how many tokens, mats, etc. I have, and it keeps track of what I’ve used for each kingdom I’ve already generated. It presents me with a randomly generated kingdom using only the components I still have available, and if I decide I like it, it will record that kingdom and mark all of the components needed as used so future kingdoms it suggests won’t offer something that’s already in use.

There are times that I will make tweaks to kingdoms after the script generates them, mostly to make setup and cleanup easier (I like to minimize how much I have to unsleeve and resleeve cards) but I usually try not to change the board in any meaningful way.

When I select randomly generated boards, I usually don’t put too much thought into it; I skim over the board and think about what I would do, and if it’s not an easy choice for me, I usually just say I like the kingdom and move on. After I generate enough kingdoms and then a few extra, I’ll go through and rank them and just pick the best ones to use for the tournament.

It’s very likely that table space at your venue could be the limiting factor in how many people your tournament can have, so you’ll know exactly how many kingdoms you’ll need. However, if you’re lucky and have a venue with basically unlimited table space like mine, the next limiting factor in how big your tournament can be is likely to be the number of base cards you have access to (Copper, Silver Gold, Province, Duchy, Estate, Curse). If you need to, you can just buy the base cards box for $15 a few times to up your supply, but chances are people will ask if they can bring anything when they RSVP to your tournament, so I usually have a few people bring their base cards with them. In most cases I don’t need them, but it’s come up a couple of times and it’s nice to have a bunch of extra supplies on hand just in case you have a big turnout. Keep in mind that you’ll need a lot more of these and a lot more kingdoms if you plan to have a 2P tournament, so if you’re limited in any way, you might have a 3P tournament just for that reason.

I guess you can have a tournament that consists of 4P games, but man I don’t recommend that. If you can do anything at all to stop that from happening, please do. I think everyone will be happier.

III. Preparation

I start preparing for my tournaments about three months in advance. Most other people I know start a week or two in advance. I like to take a long time to work on my designed kingdoms and completely finalize them before I move forward with any other aspect of preparation, and it’s nice to have a date nailed down because about half of the people who attend my tournaments need to make travel plans to do so, so I like to give them a lot of time.

Staying organized is extremely important for me. I usually end up borrowing kingdom cards from other people so I can have at least two copies of each card, and I want to make sure that everyone’s cards get returned to them in good shape on the day of the tournament, and nothing gets lost. As for the mechanics of the tournament, they basically run themselves on the day of the tournament — in fact I was able to automate everything (including kingdom design and prep) enough that I could have a friend moderate the tournament and I could play. I lost horribly. The point is that I’m prepared enough before the event that everything is pretty well taken care of.

You can prepare in whatever way works for you, but this works for me so I’ll share the details of it in case you want to use any of these ideas.

Once I’ve finalized the kingdoms I design, I use the kingdom generation script to generate a bunch of other kingdoms and eventually I decide on about 12 to 14 additional kingdoms that I’ll prepare for the day of the tournament. I put them into a spreadsheet that looks like this. I color code every kingdom card and any sleeves used, all of the extra components, supply cards, everything; according to who it belongs to. I’ll make adjustments to the kingdoms if I have to in order to make this more organized — I want to minimize the situation where one card in this set belongs to me, and the rest of it belongs to someone else, for example. While the finals are taking place, I’m able to start cleaning things up so I can return peoples’ cards to them, and I’ll frequently have offers to help clean up so being organized helps a lot here. I carry a paper copy of the color-coded grid of all of the kingdoms in my pocket on the day of the tournament just in case there’s a last-minute change or addition, I’ll have it for reference.

About a week before the event I’ll pick up all of the sets I’m borrowing and start setting kingdoms aside. I used to just put the kingdoms in ZipLoc™ bags in a big stack, but recently I acquired some plastic trays that are very useful for moving around kingdoms after they’ve been gathered together. I have pieces of dark cloth that I use to cover the kingdoms while they’re not being played, and I label each kingdom with a “table number” so that I (or my script) can keep track of who has played what table and I can assign people to tables. You can just use cloth napkins or cut up some fabric for this purpose. Without these covers, people will get curious and go looking at kingdoms they haven’t played yet, and be tempted to talk about them, which can cause some issues. I also use small zip-top plastic bags to store any extra components, just so they don’t go flying around and get lost — you can get these in any craft aisle and they’re pretty cheap and handy to have around anyways.

I use a Python script I wrote to take care of matchmaking on the day of the event. If you use a similar tournament format to me, it may be useful to you, but you can do other things as well. The important thing is that you ensure that nobody plays the same kingdom twice, and it’s nice if people don’t have the same opponents too often, and if people are paired with other players of similar skill. Some people just have pre-set paths for each player to take for their games (this is what I do for the finals of my 3P tournaments) which will also work, but you’ll have to come up with a scheme for those paths to accommodate any number of players, since it will be different based on that. Some people prefer to enforce a multiple of 3 players for 3P tournaments so you don’t have to deal with 4P games, they do this by having one or two friends on hand who are OK playing or not playing, just to even out the numbers — this makes the paths a lot easier to come up with (though it gets more complicated if people want to drop out of the tournament).

In any case, you’d prefer to not have down time between rounds of the tournament, so as much pre-processing as you can do for matchmaking will be very helpful.

IV. Day of

There are a few things about the day of the tournament that you should probably be kind of ready for. At the beginning of the tournament you should probably be ready to give a welcome speech, explain the format of the tournament, any special rules you have, etc. You’ll also want to make it very clear that if they have any questions they can call you over, but they have to accept your ruling even if they don’t like it.

Past that, I’m mostly just focused on answering questions, replacing card sleeves that tear, handing out extra tokens for people who need them, enforcing the schedule (set an alarm, don’t rely on yourself to check your watch enough), and talking to people.

Make sure you don’t give any (serious) strategic advice. Many people will ask you for it, but as a moderator it’s important that you don’t give out any advice, even if you don’t think you’re a good player. Whenever I’m asked for strategic advice I will either tell people to wait until they’re done with the game they’re playing (and then I give that advice privately) or I will give them advice that is obviously a joke. “If you buy Copper every turn, eventually you will draw a hand of all Coppers” or “how many Curses can you buy this turn?”

Hopefully this answers a lot of questions you may have about putting on an IRL tournament for Dominion. If you have any other questions that I didn’t address here, feel free to contact me at adam@adamhorton.com. Good luck!

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