Dominion: What does it mean?

As a content creator, specifically as someone whose content revolves around talking about Dominion at this point, it’s important to me to be able to speak clearly and be understood. It’s also important for me to follow what all communities I have access to are saying about the game, even if I don’t choose to directly engage. I want to make sure I’m giving the best commentary possible, but also make it accessible to anyone who could be listening or reading.

A while ago I did a survey on the community’s use of the word “engine” as it applies to Dominion. What sparked this was the fact that I wasn’t ever able to communicate what I meant when I used the word to someone who didn’t already know what it meant, and I wanted to see if there was some kind of clarity, or more accepted definition or focus that I could latch onto.

So I posted about the results and over the last year or so I’ve been trying to figure out how to reconcile the fact that I don’t think the term “engine” is useful for me in spite of the fact that many people still choose to use it. I think I’ve arrived at the idea that the word is OK to use in the context of describing a certain deck, as long as the deck is adequately described in other ways, and then labeled as an “engine” for ease of discussion. Talking about “engines” as a class or archetype of deck isn’t useful because it’s not clear what that means, and the best analog I have found for discussion is the distinction between drawing your deck and not drawing your deck.

During that time, I’ve tried to pay close attention to the language I use and that other people use and find other words that may or may not have accepted meanings and try to adjust the way I talk about Dominion to be clearer. I made a second poll asking about three terms, and the results are in.

Let me be clear, this is not an attempt to shape the way that others talk about the game, but rather an exercise for me to hone my ability to be understood by everyone who reads or listens to my content. If that’s not a priority for other people, it’s certainly not my place to tell them not to use certain words. The only reasons I’m publishing my findings in this article are:

  1. I feel like I owe it to the people who kindly filled out the survey to show them that it wasn’t for nothing.
  2. There has been some interest in the results.

If you don’t like the data, well sorry, it’s just data. If you don’t like my conclusions or interpretations of the data, you’re entitled to disagree. In fact I’ve had many constructive conversations in the past about the “engine” survey from people who disagreed, and that has shaped the way I now talk about the game. I’m hoping the same thing happens here, and I believe the process has already started.

So let’s get to the results and see what we can learn.

This survey asked three questions:

  1. What does “swingy” mean in Dominion?
  2. What does “cycling” mean in Dominion?
  3. What makes a card/event/project/etc. “good” or “strong” in Dominion?

I’ll address each question separately, but I’ll start by linking the raw data spreadsheet and posting the composite image of the results before going into more detail. The survey had about 40 responses for each question, and every response that appeared more than once got a category that can be seen in the image below.


This is a word that has been used in many different contexts throughout a few different games. I had an idea of a few different ways it could apply to Dominion and I had heard a few different things, but I wanted to see what people really meant by “swingy” when they were talking about Dominion. The results were actually more unified than I thought they would be, and there is a narrative to how a few terms fit together here that seems to be clear enough and somewhat educational.

A majority of the responses referenced two main concepts. First, that swingy cards had a component of luck, or some factor outside of the player’s control; and second, that the difference in outcomes between the best result and the worst result, based on this luck component, was large. So a swingy card could be great or awful for you (or anywhere in between), and you won’t know which it is until you’ve invested some resources into buying and playing the card.

There are two other responses on the list. “Powerful” may have originally referenced other games where swingy cards could provide turns where a player who was behind could “swing” the game into their favor, but in Dominion it stands to reason that any card that doesn’t at least have the potential upside of being very powerful for its best outcomes won’t be such a large force on the game, even if it is swingy as referenced by the other definitions above.

It also stands to reason that if powerful cards have large random effects, that it could result in luck determining more of the outcome of the game than normal, as opposed to skill. While this is a logical consequence of the rest of these categories, the fact that it isn’t well-represented in this poll is probably because I see this more commonly referred to as “high luck” or “low skill” cards rather than “swingy” cards.

In fact, there are metrics that can be used to measure the skill component of card over a large set of games — you simply see how well the leaderboard could predict the winner of a given game of Dominion, and see which cards are involved more often when the game result doesn’t match what the leaderboard predicts. Current data from online games has been used to calculate this, but unfortunately due to a technical limitation of the online client, only games including players from the very top of the leaderboard (a small fraction of the total games played online) have their games included in this data, and the bias in this data calls the accuracy of these statistics into question.

But as far as “swingy” goes, it seems we at least have a narrative here and some language that can be understood by just about everyone without too much confusion. Hooray!


Going into this I had my own way of looking at cycling — we had done a podcast episode where we labeled “cycling” as something specific — anything that helps you play your best cards more often — but of course it wasn’t a universally accepted term. I wanted to get some hard data on what people think of when they think of cycling, even though I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the results.

My expectation was that in most peoples’ minds, cycling was tied to the effect of moving cards from your deck to your discard, which is equivalent to shuffling more often, and indeed the data supports this with 3 out of every 4 answers specifically mentioning this effect. It’s not that I’m terribly surprised to see this, but it does mean a few things to me personally, in that it will probably affect the way I speak about these ideas moving forward.

The reason I wanted to use “cycling” to mean what I had was because I found it more educational to focus more on the “why” rather than the “what” of the matter. There have been discussions around what constitutes “good cycling” and “bad cycling” and I’ve seen these concepts cause confusion in people who can easily lose focus on the overall goal. It’s similar to my issues with the way “PPR” is presented. Memorizing effects and lists of situations/exceptions where those effects can be good or bad is not a good way to internalize a concept; explaining the goal and inviting the listener/reader to take in the situation and figure out the answer for themselves is not only a more approachable concept, but it’s more directly relevant to real games of Dominion, so it’s not surprising how much success I’ve had using this method.

Given this data, though, it seems that I can do better in clarifying my message by using a word other than “cycling” to get my point across. It seems that within the Dominion community, the definition of “cycling” is standardized to the point where trying to assign a different viewpoint or definition to the conversation around that word can potentially be more difficult than it has to be. On top of that, other card games use “cycle” or similar things as keywords, which have a somewhat easy analog to this concept in Dominion of shuffling more often, so I think it’s best to try not to step on that.

The solution for me is to find another term to use for this concept. While I haven’t figured out exactly what it should be yet, once I find that term it should be clearer what I’m talking about, which is the real goal here.

“Good” or “Strong”

I’ve been doing card ratings for a while, and after all this time it’s been pretty clear to me that I haven’t seen a universally accepted way people have for determining if Dominion cards are “good” or “strong” — I haven’t even come across anything that’s even internally consistent unless it doesn’t have much bearing on real games of Dominion. This is pretty similar to the way I felt about using the word “engine” in the past, but I was hoping that the poll for this term would either show a few things that are more prominent, or at least spark some discussion on some things that work or won’t work.

The data doesn’t show anything that’s very clear. There are a few metrics that can potentially be helpful in a card’s effect on win rate or gain rate, and these can at least theoretically be calculated without bias; but unfortunately due to current technical limitations, it’s not possible to get enough data to get good numbers here and I don’t think it ever will be.

It’s also clear that this isn’t the full picture and that the problem is much bigger. There are subjective ways of looking at what cards do, and there are many different ways of weighting different statistics that could lead to different results. I’m not sure that the data by itself is enlightening of anything (other than that it reaffirms my belief that conclusions based on card ratings should be viewed extremely skeptically) but hopefully something more educational can come from discussing these results.

For example, discussions after the “engine” poll revealed to me that the main relevant distinction to be found is whether or not a player is drawing their deck. This helped to put many things in perspective, including separate concepts that were at least clearer to me. Hopefully something similar can be done with the results of this poll too.

4 thoughts on “Dominion: What does it mean?

  1. trivialknot

    I suspect that when it comes to card strength, many people are using additional criteria beyond what they say when they try to define it. For instance, I define strength based on the impact the card has on player behavior, but when it comes down to ranking cards I’m relying a lot on intuition, and my intuition is surely informed by how often I want the card, how much it makes you win more, how good of a deal it is, etc. I could even justify this by saying that cards don’t typically impact the strategy if nobody is buying it, and it doesn’t help people win. Likewise, if someone defines strength by the winningness of a card, they could argue that if a card distorts player behavior then it must be a pretty winning card.

    I think to separate out all the definitions of card strength, we would need to imagine new cards that are unambiguously strong by some definitions and not others. Like the example I brought up on discord, of a project that costs 0, and immediately gives you +1 Buy and X VP. Or imagine a card that gets bought 50% of the time, but is practically mandatory in those games. It may also be interesting to see how many people think it makes sense to rate the strength of landmarks, heirlooms, distinct cards within a split pile, as well as basic cards like silver.

    Not that it’s particularly important to hash it out. I think we can be satisfied that card strength refers to a cluster of different things, and different people use it in different ways.

    1. Adam Horton Post author

      Yeah I’d tend to agree. There’s also the additional complication that if you have multiple metrics by which to measure card strength, you have to figure out how important each one is relative to the others.

      For example, some people seem to care much more about the percentage of games when a thing is ignorable/not mandatory. Are they wrong? I don’t think so, but it’s not necessarily wrong to care less about it either.

      So yeah the takeaway is that when you’re reading data based off of this concept, you have to keep that in mind. I only consider myself disagreeing with other people about a topic like this after I’ve had a productive conversation about it with them and still see that there’s a discrepency there. It could theoretically be tested by rolling 20 or so kingdoms, forcing in the card in question, and talking about its role in each of them, then seeing where disagreements lie in the context of a real game of Dominion. I’ve never been a fan of more abstract discussion of power levels.

  2. trivialknot

    As for “playing your best cards more often”, I’m at a loss as to why this needs to be a category. That includes stuff like… trashing bad cards, gaining more copies of good cards, drawing cards, drawing cards while discarding bad cards, rearranging cards, and managing which cards go in each shuffle. I don’t entirely remember what you said on the podcast episode about cycling, but is there any universal strategy advice that applies to all these situations? Is there a reason we couldn’t just use separate words to describe each of these strategies? e.g. “deck control”, “spamming”, “sifting”, “card rearrangement”, and “shuffle management”.

    1. Adam Horton Post author

      “Playing your best cards more often” is the “why” behind what all of those effects are trying to accomplish. Good decks do this and knowing the various methods of doing it (spamming, filtering, etc.) can be valuable for someone who looks at a card like Scheme or Border Guard and wants to understand why it’s good so they can then figure out when it’s good.

      It may not be strictly necessary to have a special term for “playing your best cards more often” — as long as there’s some other way to keep the “why” at the front of the discussion about all of these topics. The way “cycling” is used in conversation doesn’t do this well, with the discussion of “good cycling” vs. “bad cycling” and the absence of when to do “cycling” instead of (or along side of) other ways of achieving the same goal.

      The names of terms aren’t so important to me, but framing discussion in terms of “why” instead of “what,” even in this case, seems valuable to me. Hope that makes sense.

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