Review: Eminent Domain

From Tasty Minstrel Games, Eminent Domain is a game of galactic expansion where you play fledgling space-faring races striving to expand your empire and become the most influential race in the galaxy. For 2-4 players this strategy game usually runs under 60 minutes. As players colonize planets, research technology, and produce and trade goods, they gain influence. The game ends when the supply of influence tokens runs out, or when two supply decks of action/role cards are exhausted. The player with the most influence at the end of the game wins.

Play is centered on choosing cards representing defined actions. Each player starts off with a deck of cards comprised of each action/role card. As they play the game, they will choose a role taking one from the central supply to add to their deck. So as the game progresses, you are slowly accumulating cards for certain actions (which results in your deck having a focus of specific cards). It’s a slight nod towards deck building, however the choices you have a somewhat limited and not quite the plethora of options in something like Dominion or Thunderstone.

When a player selects a role card, they have the option of taking that action as a leader or following it as a role. The leader option is usually a limited action. The follow role allows them to ‘boost’ or add to the action based on similar cards in their hand. So if a player chose to colonize a planet, they’d pick up a colonize card from the central supply and place it under one of their planets. Then they could add more colonize cards from their hand to that planet, boosting the effect of the role card they selected.

What is particularly enjoyable about role selection is that once a player chooses and resolves a particular card, each player in turn has the option to also take that role action (or they can decline and draw a card from their deck). This is an interesting play mechanic as one of the end game conditions is when two of the central supply decks are exhausted (or one with a 2 player game). So while you and an opponent might be focused on a similar action strategy, if you each keep drawing cards from that supply you are quickly advancing the game to end. You might instead want to hold off and try to follow that role when your opponent selects it, and choose a different role on your turn.

This makes for an interesting choice of either selecting the role you want to play, or possibly branch out in hopes one of your opponents takes a similar role that you can follow on their turn. You’ll find yourself looking at the number of cards they are holding, and the state of the planets in their respective empire. If a player has an uncontrolled planet with a large fleet, they likely will choose a warfare role on their turn. If they have lots of resources produced on their planets, they likely will choose to trade those resources in. Do you opt to follow their role choices, or just pick a similar action on your turn? It makes for some fun play around the table.

Another layer to this is the research technologies. Most are an improvement of the basic actions that players can choose. However some advanced technologies allow for very different strategies. The more advanced technologies not only require more research cards to obtain, but also require controlled planets of a certain type. This means you have to make an investment of several turns to build up towards a higher tier technology, and this can be a rewarding experience when a particular combination of cards plays out, making an efficient influence-gaining engine in your empire.

Another facet of the game is the inter-dependency of different roles. While you may want to focus on settling or attacking planets, you also need to survey planets to add undiscovered ones to your region. If you want to dive deep into research, you have to have certain planet types under control in your empire. You need to focus on a particular role and then be able to switch to another once that foundation is set. As you are adding more and more cards to your deck, you have to determine when is the best time to alter your focus (and possibly think about removing cards that don’t fit your overall strategy). To add another wrinkle in decisions, deciding when to jump onto a role chosen by another player is an engaging aspect of play. All of this accumulates to a fun, interactive player experience.

The Good – You have a fun strategy deck building game that has enough meat for interesting choices and a variety of strategies to try out. The interaction initially looks limited but in play, being able to benefit from another player’s choice leads to a lot of back and forth during turns.

The iconography and design of the cards are well done. The tokens and ships are nice pieces of cardboard and chunky plastic. The central game mat is a pleasantly thick board and not a flimsy paper. While the artwork for some cards might clock in as a bit cartoonish for some it highlights the theme well (having a light touch of humor with some).

The Bad – The game turn revolves around selecting role cards. As the exhaustion of role cards is an end game condition, your engine can take some time to build and only a few turns to utilize once it’s in place before the game ends. I’d also say that card combinations not as deep as other games like Race for the Galaxy. While you have some interesting technologies to incorporate in your deck, the unique ones are somewhat limited. Players might also tend to slip into set strategies depending on the starting homeworlds they draw (which are limited).

Also, direct player interaction is not part of the game. It’s all through a sort of proxy with the selection of role cards. While your opponent can take advantage of roles you select, you can’t really do anything about it. Some looking for a 4X type of game where direct warfare against other players as an option will be disappointed.

Lastly, while the components are good overall I did have some dings in some of the cards and cardboard pieces from the player summaries and starting planets. Nothing huge, but certainly expect to sleeve those cards.

The Verdict – I enjoy Eminent Domain immensely. While it may have what initially seem as flaws with the game, through practice you realize they aren’t really much as a major detraction. The initial feeling is one might find the game repetitive. However you realize much of your overall strategy depends on the first few initial planets you control which actually are quite varied.

Additionally, you really have to be fluid with your plans. If your 3 other opponents are going a heavy warfare route you are just adding to the ending the game faster jumping on the bandwagon (by exhausting the supply of warfare cards). It might be more prudent to shift into another strategic role that’s less focused on by others. At the same time, you really want to be able to jump in on the action of other players’ choices for roles. This all goes on under the backdrop of a deck building game, where you want to also try and keep a tightly refined deck of cards. Dabble into too many different things and you’ll have a hard time getting the right cards you need.

This has sort of become my space empire card game choice as of late, replacing Race for the Galaxy. RftG is a fantastic game and one of my favorites. However the learning curve for RftG is so high, I just can’t seem to justify getting it out to the table as much. Eminent Domain is much easier to teach, yet still has some surprising depth and a little more player interaction than RftG.

Eminent Domain is a good game that combines role selection with deck building elements. It’s got enough player interaction and strategy to make for a fun game. And keeping the game to just about an hour means you can easily get a few games in a single evening. It’s a great buy for an approachable, yet strategic, card game.

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