Recon #3: Eminent Domain

This is a podcast about Tasty Minstrel’s game Eminent Domain by Seth Jaffee.
It has more introductory information than previous Recon episodes because the game isn’t as widely know.
I’m a big fan of the game and my favorable opinion shows through.
As usual, I will try to give you enough information to play competently and make reasonable decisions starting with your first game.
Enjoy.


I hope to be posting more regularly starting now, so stay tuned.

Below is a rough transcript of the podcast:

Welcome to another episode of Recon from Play Boardgames Better. This episode covers Eminent Domain; a new deck-building game from Tasty Minstrel Games.

First, lets be clear that it is not a game about getting land for municipal development. It is a deck-building space empire game. In Recon, I won’t concentrate on rules or reviewing the game. Other folks have done a great job of that.

But a short review: this is a great game if you like the deck-building genre. It is streamlined and the length is just right for the depth. The ratio is probably the golden mean. There appear to be several viable strategies for victory and player interaction, while indirect, will make you realize it is not multi-player solitaire. If you are not able to capitalize on your opponents’ strategies you will suffer from inefficiency, the deadly sin in Eminent Domain.

My son, an ardent and effective Magic player, likes this game immensely and beat my play into shape quickly. Your card shark friends will have an early advantage, but pay attention and your game will improve. After I got respectable playing my son, I managed to win the New England regional championship at TotalCon. It wasn’t a big tournament and I don’t think my skill will translate into a win at the World Boardgaming Championship, but I’m getting decent.

The toughest aspect of the rules is the distinction between action and role (it seems simple once you get it, but when you teach the game you realize its not THAT simple). For an action, play one card from your hand and do what it says under action. Then, for a role, take any card from the top of the stacks in the middle and do what it says under role The role is augmented with the matching symbols on cards from your hand plus planets and technology cards you control showing the same symbol.

Opponents may, if they have cards/planets with the required symbols “follow” your role, performing the same role, or “dissent” and just draw a card. Dissent seems an unfortunate choice of words for the “not follow” action. I just wish I had a better one. If the theme were that you are competing leaders working for the same galactic hegemony, dissent would be a sensible label, but if that is the theme, it got lost somewhere in development.

The other tricky concept is that cards acquired by research go to hand, not the discard pile as they do in many deck-building games.

You will notice many deck trimming cards. This is not an accident. Culling your deck during a game is a very important operation. Not a requirement, but if you aren’t altering your deck by removing cards at some point, you should have a very cogent explanation to give yourself if you lose. If your deck becomes a chaos-ridden monstrosity you had better already have a lead and try to hold it as you push the game to an end.

The game ends when stacks run out in the middle. 2 and 3 player games end when one stack depletes. 4 player games end when 2 stacks deplete. An extended 3 player game removes 1 or 2 cards from each stack at the start of the game and runs until 2 stacks run out. Typically, the first stack to run out will be for a “shared” strategy. If everyone uses colonize and not military, it will be a short game. The more divergent the players’ strategies, the longer they will have to implement them. Every turn you will pull one card off one stack and if you have a strategy heavily based on one role, you will deplete that stack relatively quickly.

The other game end condition is depleting the Influence tokens through Trade. As in Race for the Galaxy, this also ends the game. Its less common than depleting stacks, but a real trade engine or two can do the trick and, unlike Race, the number of Influence points available does not vary with the number of players.

The Planets

Most of your victory points will come from planets you control, so lets look at the distribution of their values and extra effects.

You will start with a 2 point planet that costs 2 colonize/2 ships to take over. Of the 6 start planets, there are two of each type: fertile, advanced or metallic. Each can produce one resource of one of the 4 kinds: Silicon (purple), water (blue), food (green), iron (orange). I’m just guessing on the silicon/iron colors based on the planets that make them. 2 of the start worlds make iron and 2 make silicon. There is one planet for each of the other resources.

There are 27 more planets in the standard deck to survey and take over in the base game. There are 9 of each type. They score from 2 to 5 points at the end of the game.

The expansion/bonus planets add 9 cards. 3Are Prestige planets and 6 are Utopian planets.

Takeover Costs

Except for the start worlds, no planet has equal colonize and military take over costs. For each set of 9 planets of the same type, there are 3 sets of costs:

3 planets cost 6 fighters or 3 colonize cards.

3 planets cost 5 fighters or 4 colonize cards.

3 planets cost 4 fighters or 5 colonize cards.

The 6 Utopian planets cost 6 fighters or 5 colonize cards.

The 3 prestige planets are 5/6, 6/5 and 7/4.

On average, a planet costs one more fighter than colonize card. This isn’t changed by the bonus planets.

Each planet type is pretty consistent and meant to support a strategy.

Resource Distribution

The three planets of a type with identical cost will produce the same resource (if any). All planets of a type will have among them the same pair of symbols. For example, the 6/3 Fertile planets have a food and water resources and the 4/5 Fertile planets have food.

Many planets have a role symbol that will let it supplement a role.

For metallic planets, it is survey or warfare.

For fertile planets, it is colonize or produce.

For advanced planets, it is trade or research.

The third card in each 4/5 and 5/4 set expands your maximum hand size by one.

So there are 6 of each symbol type and 6 hand size expansion cards.

The utopian cards have one of each role symbol distributed across the 6 cards.

The distribution of Influence points across the planets is a little tricky.

There are 7 two point planets, 14 three point planets, 5 four point planets and 1 five point planet. So 3 points is the typical planet and 3 is the average value (2.96). The 9 bonus planets are 6 two point planets and 3 six point planets. This adds 40 points over the 9 new planets. This makes the planet values more variable and raises the average to 3.33 points.

All the 4 military/5 colonize planets are 3 Influence points, unless they expand your hand size. Then they are only 2 Influence points.

The same holds true for the 5 military/4 colonize planets, except for the metallic planet with hand size expansion. It has 3 Influence points, but doesn’t produce a resource.

The 6 military/3 colonize Advanced planets are all 4 Influence points. The one with no role symbol or hand size expansion produces a resource (silicon).

The 6/3 Fertile planets are 2 Influence points for the 2 with role symbols and 3 Influence points for the one without. They all produce both water and food, though.

The 6/3 Metallic planets are 4 Influence points if they have a role symbol and 5 Influence points for the planet without.

Resource Production

Different kinds of resources are only important when using some of the advanced research cards. But they can be quite powerful.

Only the Metallic planets make iron and only 5 of the planets do that. They are 5 of the 6 cheaper cards.

Only Advanced planets make silicon. 7 of the planets do that, all the cheaper ones and the 3 Influence 6/3.

The fertile worlds make food on the 4/5s, water on the 5/4s and both on the 6/3s.

A little thought shows that it is cheaper to colonize if you want to set up a trading strategy. You can get the uber fertile planets very inexpensively and have a good chance of having your colonize capabilities augmented by planet symbols.

Warfare seems to be disadvantaged all around, but especially in trying to build a trade strategy. Maybe warmongers should go for slash and burn and research for power. That is certainly what the Metallic planets lay out. Will an analysis of the Technology deck restore warfare’s efficiency?

Technology

There are 6 kinds of Level 1 Technology cards and 4 of each kind. These 4 are distributed in pairs in 2 of the 3 kinds of planets. Each has an action that is better than a standard role card’s.

Improved Colonize is in the Metallic and Advanced decks. It lets you settle 2 planets or settle a planet and place the card under another planet. Each has a Colonize symbol. The other symbol is one of anything else except produce.

Improved Survey is in the Fertile and Advanced decks. It lets you draw 3 cards from your deck into your hand. Each has a survey symbol. The other symbol is one of anything except warfare.

Improved Production is in the Metallic and Advanced decks. It lets you produce 2 resources. Each has a production symbol. The other symbol is one of anything except colonize.

Improved Warfare is in the Fertile and Advanced decks. It lets you draw 2 fighters or attack a planet. Each has a warfare symbol. The other symbol is one of anything except survey.

Improved Trade is in the Metallic and Fertile decks. It lets you collect an influence marker (without using a resource). Each has a trade symbol. The other symbol is one of anything except research.

Improved Research is in the Metallic and Fertile decks. It lets you draw a card and remove up to 3 cards in hand from the game. Each has a research symbol. The other symbol is one of anything except trade.

Aside from the attempted symmetry, the distribution of Level 1 research seems to go against the grain of the corresponding Level 2 and 3 research described below. For example, Improved Warfare and Improved Survey are not in the Metallic planet deck, but the higher level research cards in the Metallic deck are focused on warfare and survey advantages. That continues for the other decks. The Advanced deck doesn’t have Improved Trade or Research, but the higher level technologies focus on those. Similarly, the level 2 Fertile technologies concentrate on colonizing and producing, but Improved Colonization and Improved Production are in the other decks.

Total role symbol distribution across the technology deck is even, with each symbol available 8 times in Level 1 and 3 times in Level 2 over all deck cards. Each symbol is also featured once in the 2 Level 2 technologies that just put symbols out for you.

So far this is all about symmetry, but what are the strategies, or at least operational concepts that the technologies support?

To get planets out you need a cycle of survey followed by colonize or attack. Only Survey Team (Metallic, Level 2) supports survey directly. Improved Survey actually just cycles your deck faster. For the Survey role, these cards are just one Survey symbol.

Colonize actually gets a minor boost from Improved Colonize. You might settle 2 planets for an action, but that is very tough to pull off. More likely, you will settle a planet and then stick the card under another planet to get ahead on colonizing it. Terraforming (Fertile, Level 2) is the only higher level card that helps, but note that you have to ignore “discounts” provided by symbols on your planets or permanently placed technologies! The ability to count as 2 colonize symbols and then colonize can be quite efficient, though.

Warfare gets the most advantages from advancing technologies if you can get several Metallic planets.

Improved Warfare is flexible and getting two fighters is one of the best Level 1 capabilities. The big advantage is that 3 of the 4 Metallic Level 2 technologies directly assist with warfare. -2 to Warfare costs can be a big advantage if you are out of the trade war anyway. The others are great, too. The Level 3 Metallic card gives you one of two awesome capabilities. Having 2 actions may seem the obvious choice, but reversing the order of role and action can let you survey a planet and attack it the same turn. That could be a huge advantage if used correctly, especially if your strategy is planet/research only. Weapon Emporium is potentially useful for a Warfare strategy, but you usually have a better use for fighters. It could help you end the game sooner by depleting the influence tokens while not leaving you falling as far behind in trade.

The Produce/Trade cycle has 4 helpful cards. There are 2 in each of the Advanced and Fertile decks. The Abundance/Fertile Ground card is perhaps the weakest of the set. If you are going for a produce/trade strategy these cards will greatly increase your take.

None of the cards directly helps with Research, although the two symbols on Data Network (Advance, Level 2) is nothing to sneer at.

The remaining cards are about efficiency. This is mostly about getting rid of cards to tune your deck. Data Network, Streamlining and Hyperefficiency are there to do just that. The other kind of efficiency is cycling through your deck quickly to get the cards you want in hand. Adaptability, Dissension, and Data Networks do that. Notice that Data Network works both ways. Dissension is more powerful when there are more players in the game. Of course, that also makes the Bureaucracy flip side more valuable, too. Adaptability is probably the most powerful card in the game. To get it, you have accumulated Research cards, and quite possibly increased their density through pruning. Now you can execute a produce trade strategy very quickly, even if you have to acquire more advantageous technologies. Adaptability can be very powerful if your opponents are likely to pick roles you would want to follow. In a 2-player game this is less likely, but your opponents will always be afraid you will follow once you have this ability.

So what are the strategies?

Research

First, lets be clear that a certain amount of research is required. Even a very efficient survey/warfare cycle is not going to win a game on its own. That said, I’m not sure you can generate enough Influence with research to win the game directly. In the latest set of games between my son and I, the player who got 2 of the Level 3 technologies lost every time. This could just be a fluke, but it does demonstrate that research alone is not a strategy.

Pruning Your Deck

Early in the game, you have to emphasize getting planets and some technologies. Then you have to decide how you will win the game. This might involve massively destroying much of your deck and rebuilding it into a point engine. At the very least, your most used roles will have put too many of some cards into your deck, slowing down your ability to get the other cards you need in hand. Aggressive use of research cards for their action may be more effective than getting a single fighter or placing 1 colony card. You will end up with more Survey cards than you want pretty soon, too, unless you are so clever and lucky that you can just follow to explore planets.

While it is possible to just manage the chaos, you would probably prefer one or more of the technologies that give you real card destroying power. Even Streamlining keeps your deck from growing bigger.

My son Rich says:

You mention the importance of thinning your deck out. I think that it
is even more important to do so in this game than in, say, Dominion.
Why? Because this game gives you cards in your starting deck that may
not be useful for your strategy. In Dominion, you start with Victory
Point cards and Gold cards. Sure, they’re not the best ones. But just
about every strategy in the game involves having Victory Points and
Gold. On the other hand, in Eminent Domain, you might have some cards
in the starting deck that become completely useless. If you’re on the
Warfare plan, then the two Colonizes are just not very good.

Hand Size

Six of the planets will increase your hand-size by one. Its a good advantage to get some and a big disadvantage to have fewer cards in hand than your opponents. Ideally, you’d like to be able to choose from your entire deck, but that is unlikely. Having a bigger hand size has the obvious advantage of more cards to choose from for actions and roles, but it also has the other advantage of cycling through your deck faster. So think carefully before throwing one of these planets back into pile for someone else to have.

Scoring is How You Win

Most of the point scoring in the game is a two step process:

Survey to get a planet, Colonize or Warfare to score the points (and get any other benefits of the planet).

OR

Produce goods, then Trade to score points.

Research can score points directly, but it typically follows a planet colonize/conquer earlier in the game.

Except for Survey, you would like a reasonably large number of the cards you need available, so it will be a while before useful cards geta in the way. For Survey, though, what is the right number? You don’t need to see every planet and each planet is useful, but it is likely that one kind of planet best fits your strategy and you want at least a pair of those planets while the Technology cards you need are available. A draw of 3 or 4 planets gives you a good selection, especially if you are seeking a planet type. Getting hand expansion or a specific type of good is tougher. For example, there are only 6 planets that expand hand size. You can expect them to be grabbed the first time through the planet deck Drawing 5 or 6 planets to look at is probably overkill and at that point, Survey is cluttering your deck.

Produce/Trade

If you are going to pursue produce/trade, you need to decide when you have enough potential production and start dumping colonize/warfare cards as you collect produce/trade capabilities.

I think that 5 to 7 production spots is as many as you could probably fill or empty in a single role play even after tuning your deck. There are only 24 Influence tokens available before triggering the end of the game. The more players in a game, the sooner you better start the cycle. Once you start that, it is a signal to any slash & conquer strategy to end the game as soon as possible. If you are getting bonuses for production/trade of any kind you will soon be racking up points faster than any other player. That is a reason to start the cycle early.

Conquer/Technology

Basically this calls for using Warfare to conquer as many planets as quickly as you can, augmenting that ability with Technology. First you want one non-metallic planet to be able to pick up one or more improved warfare.

Then you want two metallic planets to be able to get at least two of the level 2 technologies that accelerate your plan for conquest. After that, any conquered planet is a good planet. You’ll probably be throwing away survey and even warfare cards. Don’t turn your nose up at a chance to grab a level 3 technology, but the level 2’s are your best friends.

Colonize/Technology

I’m not sure this is as strong as the warfare route if you are going to ignore produce/trade, but it can probably be made to work. There are technologies that benefit colonization, but they don’t pile on the same way. If your game has multiple players going after warfare or produce/trade, you might get away with grabbing all the colonization advantages and make a run for the end game before the others get all their advantages going full tilt.

Mix and Match

I haven’t experimented with a mixed strategy. I think you have to declare early if you are going military or colonize, but I could be wrong. It might be possible to grab a planet early with one method and then dump it for the rest of the game. However, I think it would be inefficient, because you need at least a third colonize or Warfare just to get your starting planet quickly.

I feel the same about doing Produce/Trade in a half-hearted way. You would need to pick a few of the role cards up instead of what you really need, just so you can follow the role of others. It might work by minimizing the advantage of players going all-in on Produce/Trade, but it is probably also slowing down your strategy.

I hope you found this view into the game Eminent Domain informative and enjoyable. If you haven’t had a chance to play it or have only played once or twice, I encourage you to spend some time on this game before you decide if it is good match for you. I think its a great game, especially for its length, and worth repeated play. It is also nicely produced and not very expensive. It will give you new ways to think about deck-building and strategy in general.

Thanks for listening.

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