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Kingdom designing

I was watching/listening to episode 8 of your podcast where you did have a bit about tournaments and designing kingdoms.
I was considering running a tournament at some point this year with a few of my friends here in ireland. I'm currently waiting for the reprint of guilds+cornucopia to have physical copies of all sets. I'll probably go for RGG-style 3-player games as I have about 9 dominion playing friends and enough base cards and space for 3 tables at home. You've convinced me that if it works out, I should consider organising a few more tournaments.

I'd be interested in some more information on how you design tournament kingdoms to be interesting and how you evaluate how skill dependent they are.

For interesting kingdoms: You mentioned having something obvious, as well as something that makes it less good. The opposite approach also seems useful: have something ordinarily weak with an uncommonly large amount of support. In either of these cases, you might have achieved that with 6 0r 8 kingdom cards. What do you do with the remaining kingdom cards?

I don't know where to start when looking for skill dependence in kingdoms.

I'm also interested in more discussion about tournament formats, but I think that would work better in a forum to be easily searchable and to gather input from more people.

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Adam Horton

There are a few questions you ask:

  1. What are good ideas for kingdom design?
  2. How do you tell if a given kingdom is more or less "swingy"? (Has a lower or higher luck component)
  3. What are other interesting ideas for tournament formats?

I can say a decent amount on each of these things based on my experience, but my IRL tournament is tomorrow so I might not be too quick in getting all of my thoughts down. I'll write as I have time and post when I can, I have a few minutes now so I'll get started.

A main challenge IRL tournaments face is that Dominion is a high-skill, high-luck game; a lot like poker. In poker tournaments, people play hundreds, or even thousands of hands, to decide a winner. In Dominion, there just isn't time for that. Even online "tournaments" which skew the format as heavily as possible in favor of skill (I'm thinking of the League here) can't necessarily say that the best player wins each division, and usually you're playing 30 games each season. I think the best you can hope for is that the person who wins the tournament is someone who is good at the game and who played well. Most tournament formats I've seen can say this.

If you go for an RGG-sanctioned event (which I think you should do if possible, though if you hold it at your house I don't think they would like that, but maybe they would, I'm not sure) then the format is mostly decided for you. The important thing is that losing one or two games shouldn't completely eliminate someone from winning.

There are two factors to balance IMO:

1. You want to play as many games as possible so that skill has the highest chance to influence who the winner is; but time is limited, and people don't want to just play Dominion all day.

2. You want to make it so that people can still lose a game at any point and not be eliminated, but you also want to have an exciting conclusion to the tournament (playing the last game even though the winner has already been determined is less exciting).

Different formats will put you at different places on each of these things. My advice to you is to read your audience and figure out what they want: if they are more competitive and passionate, it's probably OK to play more games. If some are and some aren't, try to have eliminations halfway through so that the people who are less into it have to spend less time.

It may be a cultural thing, but from what I've heard, Americans tend to prefer the exciting finish, and they like to have one final game to determine the champion; where Europeans would rather eliminate the possibility of someone winning all of their games, then losing the finals match, so that the winner of the tournament has a worse overall record than the guy in second place.

I can give specific examples of tournament formats that I've seen done successfully if you'd like, but I need to stop typing for now...

OK let's continue with this. I'll aim to talk about this question for a bit now:

2. How do you tell if a given kingdom is more or less "swingy"? (Has a lower or higher luck component)

So there are some cards that are notorious for this: Torturer, Urchin, Cultist, Rebuild, Swindler, Sea Hag, Tournament. At least these are the ones with that reputation. Of course, this is up for debate, but the easy thing to do is to compile a list of all of the cards anyone might dislike and exclude them from your tournament -- there are plenty of cards in Dominion so there are still plenty of things you can do, I'd just advise against remove all attacks from every game or something like that.

You're not going to completely eliminate luck from the game, that's just part of Dominion, but you can try and reduce the way luck affects things, at least in the most visible ways. I'd say the biggest example of visible luck is a lack of trashing. Trashing of any kind increases the skill cap on a given game, or at least it decreases the "variance cap" on that game. It makes sense that the cards I listed above mostly fit into that definition in one way or another:

Torturer is a junking attack and a strong snowball effect. Urchin is a trasher but sometimes you just don't get one because of bad luck, even though you did everything you could. Cultist is a really powerful junker. Rebuild is so strong without trashing that you usually don't go for it and it doesn't have a mitigating factor to help increase skill all that much. Swindler is a junking attack with  huge disparity between good outcomes and bad outcomes. Sea Hag is a junking attack that can lead to blowouts if I flip your Hag with my Hag. Tournament has a junking attack that there is only one copy of so you have to be really careful that there's some high skill around getting to it and/or dealing with it.

But there are others. Mint is a big offender in my mind: it's pretty easy to wake up on T3 with five Coppers and that means you just win the game -- nobody wants to lose to that in a tournament setting. Any game without trashing increases the chances of drawing a dud hand and losing the game, and it feels really bad. If you at least give the option of trashing then you can say that there was a way to deal with this situation and that's skill.

The other one I ban because of this is Page -- that's because Warriors can trash other Warriors and seeing your Champion at the top of a shuffle vs. the bottom is usually game-decisive when it happens that way.

So for me, I'm not really trying to reduce the amount of luck that goes into kingdoms I design because I don't really think I can have a significant impact on that, but rather I take away the most visible luck factors that I can, and I try to include trashing options on most kingdoms (and interesting decisions to make on the ones without trashing).

Hopefully this is specific enough...

  1. What are good ideas for kingdom design?

There are a couple of ways to approach coming up with good kingdoms, but I should probably say that playtesting is the best thing you can do for your designed kingdom. And the more playtesting you do, the better kingdoms you'll end up with. Playtest with a lot of different people, and make sure to set different strategies up against each other. But that's not really the question.

How do you come up with ideas to build kingdoms around?

There are a few ways I've seen people do this. One is to give yourself certain restrictions and make everything else in the kingdom focus around those restrictions. For example, let's say I want to make it really really hard to get +Buy, so maybe there's no village and the +Buy is terminal. Maybe the only +Buy is Spice Merchant or Forager so you have to gain a card with Workshop just to have something to trash. Recently I built a kingdom where Tragic Hero was the best +Buy but there was no way to play a Tragic Hero, still have an action left, and keep the Tragic Hero around (all of the villages drew you two cards), so you had to gain them from the trash with Rogue, and try to play them with Ghosts to get the most out of it.

Maybe the restriction is that there's no trashing, but you have other ways to do good things. Focusing on what you can't do, then trying to do good stuff given that restriction can lead you to interesting play experiences.

Sometimes I like to focus on one card, or two cards that go together, then build the kingdom around those synergies or counters. I made a kingdom based on the synergy between Villa and draw-to-X, so I thought of the cards that would give that kind of deck the most raw power and just went crazy with it. When it was sufficiently crazy, I added in some other stuff as a distraction to reward someone who could find the "hidden gem" I put in there. Sometimes I'll take a really "obvious" combo and then put in a counter for it, then a way for the combo to deal with the counter, then a way to counter that. I'll go a few layers deep until I feel like stopping.

Sometimes I want to make a deck that's just fun to play. You can start by taking popular cards like Menagerie, Fishing Village, or whatever your group likes, and give it all of the synergies you can think of. Playtest it and see what people go for, then either play it up or give other options. You can play it a few times and see what feels fun to do, then build on that.

Some people will start with trying to make a bad card really good in a game, or a good card really bad in a game. It can be really satisfying to see Mountebank on a board and have it actively help you if your opponent picks it up. Give yourself challenges for this and see if you can do it.

I like to hide little nuggets in my kingdoms, very strong strategies that require some commitment but aren't really obvious. If you find them, you'll usually win the game with them. I don't mind if there's one "clearly best" strategy though other people like to make it so that multiple strategies can compete and be somewhat evenly matched; that's just personal preference I think.

Hopefully this is a good starting point. There are probably a lot of other ways to go that I haven't thought of, they are just as valid, I guess they aren't really "my style." Maybe other people will have helpful answers as well.

A great example for some of those I saw recently is Stream Highlight 172 in which Philosopher's stone is good and you want to gain copper with jesters. Candlesick maker gives necessary buys and the coin token smooths over luck. Scheme, mandarin and menagerie seem like they give good opportunities to incorporate additional skill.

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Adam Horton