The basic idea of Dominion is to use the resources in your deck of cards, which somewhat abstractly represents your dominion, to increase the size of your deck. In the end, the player with the best deck wins.
There are three basic kinds of cards: treasure (money), victory points, and actions. Treasure is used to buy more cards, but is not worth anything at the end of the game. You win by having the most victory points, but VP cards are useless and use up precious card draws while you're playing. Action cards increase the effectiveness of your deck by giving you more things to do on your turn, but are also worthless when the game is over.
The basic gameplay is simple: play at most one action card; buy at most one card; discard all of your cards; then, draw up to a full hand of 5 cards. The rest of the rules are on the action cards, which let you do things like play more actions, draw more cards, buy more cards, and so on. Cards don't stay "in play" on a tableau, they're constantly cycled from your draw deck, through your hand, into your discard pile (which is reshuffled as needed: often).
Dominion does a fairly good job of capturing the deckbuilding aspect which is implicitly present in other collectible card games, but it's done during gameplay instead of between games. Most of the strategy is in deciding which cards to buy for your deck. You need to find a combination of action cards which work together while protecting you from other players' attacks, while maintaining a good balance of action and treasure cards and ensuring you have enough victory points to win the game.
The game comes with 25 different action cards, but only 10 are chosen to be available during each game. This greatly increases the replayability of the game. Acitons which seem useless in some games may be very important in others when different cards are in play.
As someone who enjoys playing CCGs, I find that Dominion provides many of the same small, enjoyable moments that CCGs do. There is the enjoyment of building a good deck, and the satisfaction of actually drawing the cards you need to pull off a "killer combo." You also cycle through your deck very quickly and discard your whole hand every turn, so it's easier to just do the best you can with each hand instead of having to decide which cards to use and which to save for later.
As I've said, player interaction is very limited in Dominion. There are a handful of "Attack" action cards which typically have a minor negative effect against all other players unless they have a "Response" card to prevent the attack. This method of interaction makes it impossible to take down a runaway leader, but it's also impossible for a third place player to play "kingmaker" and decide the match between the first two places.
The overall feel of the game is a "race to the finish" with no one around to spoil your plans: you just need to come up with the best plan to get there first.
Although the gameplay is very different, Dominion shares many traits with another card game we also like a lot: Race for the Galaxy.
- Quick play time (usually under an hour for 2-4 players)
- The basic gameplay is simple
- Most of the rules are on the cards
- Indirect and limited player interaction ("multiplayer solitaire")
- Not much downtime between turns
- Fun to play even when you lose
- Enough randomness, but not too much
I've played probably 20 times over the last few weeks, and plan to play even more. I'm likely to pick up the Dominion: Intrigue expansion soon, for more action card options and the ability to play with more than 4 players at once.