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Dominion: What is an engine? Revisited.

Over a year ago I wrote an article, where the point was to use data to try and figure out the value in the term "engine" when it comes to Dominion. This is meant to follow up on that article, and also provide some personal commentary based on my experience with this topic.

What is the instructive value in a word like "engine" in Dominion? That may seem like a simple question, but it's actually two separate questions, both of which are not exactly easy to answer. The two questions are:

1. What do people mean when they say "engine" in the context of Dominion?

2. How can someone use the strategic distinction that the word "engine" provides to improve their Dominion play or understand the game better?

The previous article really only aimed to answer the first question, and between the data and my commentary, there wasn't exactly any clarity. I had shown a graph and narrowed the responses down to seven categories that probably have some part in what people mean when they say "engine", but that's where the discussion ended. There was no consensus on which, if any, of these terms were even the most commonly accepted, so when I see the word "engine" used in a conversation, I'm usually left guessing what the person is actually trying to say unless more context is given.

So what that means is that there are enough widely different things that people mean when they use the E-word that it's not worth it to try and nail one down and stick to it. That's OK, it still has a place in conversations between people who have an understanding, but there are other places where "engine" is just not the right thing to say if you want other people to understand what you're saying. Here are a couple of examples:

"Engine decks tend to be better than big money decks."

"X tends to be better for engine decks than it is for other decks."

"On this kingdom I want to build the engine."

At face value these look like innocent enough statements, but if you're trying to understand what strategic or instructive value is actually there and you try to dig into them, you'll find that without a definition of "engine" that is explicit and shared by the speaker and the listener, these statements don't actually say anything useful. It's not enough to assume that the listener already understands enough to know what you mean by "engine" via some more abstract or implicit definition of "engine," because those type of people don't stand to benefit from statements like that anyways.

Either I'm just trying to exchange ideas with someone, or I'm trying to teach them something new. Statements like these don't serve either purpose, and in practice they just tend to obfuscate any real insight for the purposes of trying to make the speaker look smart. Look at how smart I am because I can say things that you don't understand! It may seem like I'm saying something that only really applies to people who write articles or make instructive Dominion content, but anyone who is serious about improving their Dominion skill should aim to fully understand why what they believe is true so they can more rigorously question what they can't adequately explain, even to themselves or other players of similar skill.

And this is why my goal has always been to be able to speak in a way that will actually be instructive, to help people get better at the game because of what I told them -- because I get the benefit of that as well. I used the concept of an "engine" to help get to where I am in the game, so if there's any strategic insight left in there, I want to make sure it isn't lost -- I continue to see people afraid to commit to decks that aim to have bigger payloads and the materials I've already made haven't been enough to get past this issue. So the second question aims to dig deep into the data with my own critical mind and try to find what's in there that can actually help people. Once I find it, maybe I can come up with a more effective way of communicating it to people. This is where I take a good hard look at the seven categories I left off with before:

Draws/”cycles” a lot
Consistency
Buying power/payload
Growing
Actions (villages)
Synergies
Card Value Property

If I'm looking at this, just trying to find new insights I haven't explored before, I can start by eliminating the things I've already fleshed out: Buying power/payload is a concept I've explored in-depth with success when I talk about payload and deck control. Actions/villages and draw are other well-defined concepts I've talked about a lot, and even the concept of "cycling" (playing your best cards more often) is something I have material on and have had success with teaching, and this covers "Consistency" about as well as I could expect (I personally believe that word is a bit of a rabbit hole, it's so hard to nail down what that word actually means in a general sense when it comes to Dominion). So what does that leave us after the first pass?

Growing, Synergies, and the Card Value Property: "A deck whose average value per turn derives from its total deck composition, rather than its average deck composition."

These are all similar in concept and are actually results of one concept in Dominion that it turns out, I haven't been talking about enough: drawing your deck. A deck that draws itself every turn is fundamentally different enough, and this exact property is what causes it to be fundamentally different. Drawing your whole deck causes these three remaining items, with the Card Value Property being the most precise way of describing exactly how to get there.

After well over a year of observation and looking for this specific thing, it’s clear to me that a lot of the time, people really want to talk about decks that draw themselves when they talk about “engines.” But given the confusion that the E-word brings, I definitely prefer to just say “drawing your deck;” or to talk about deck paradigms where one of them is the “whole deck” paradigm. There’s a lot of value in knowing exactly what it takes to enter this paradigm, while keeping in mind that the paradigm is temporary -- your deck isn’t always one that draws itself every turn of the game, you have to work to get it there and you have to work to keep it there: once you stop doing that, you aren’t drawing your deck anymore.

I’m not going to say that whenever anyone says “engine” they mean “drawing your deck,” there are some people that use the E-word to talk about only the concept of draw: "A Village/Smithy engine". Check out the previous article to see ALL of the possible things people can mean! I will say that I think I’ve become better at communicating about Dominion when I stopped using the E-word and kept myself accountable for actually explaining what I mean when I talk; and between the concept of drawing your deck (the "whole deck paradigm") and the other concepts I've l inked above, I'm confident that this is enough to give a complete strategic picture of the game without missing any of the broad strokes.

I want to be clear that I'm not trying to tell people they shouldn't use a certain word. I believe that there are certain situations where using "engine" in strategic Dominion discussion can be constructive (you NEED to provide specific context, in the form of a specific deck you're talking about on a specific kingdom), but I also believe that if I want to change the way other people talk about the game, telling them that what they're doing is bad is not going to make it happen.

I have to come up with a better way of communicating than what they currently have, and people will hopefully see that it's better and start using it. My previous post showed that the E-word had issues, but it didn't present any coherent alternative, and more importantly, I still didn't know what to tell people when it came to whatever strategic advice was behind the concept. Drawing your deck is the last piece of the puzzle. We did it, reddit.

I know my content has shaped the say people already talk about Dominion (as much as some people don't want to admit it). I've "coined" various terms that are used somewhat commonly now like "terminal space", "deck control", and the now widely-accepted definitions of "village" and "draw." I believe these have caught on because they're just good terms -- accessible but they hold up to intense scrutiny. I have no delusions that people will stop using the E-word completely, but I hope that by providing better tools for communicating about Dominion and effectively using them myself, eventually the quality of Dominion discussion out there can change for the better in the long term.