What I'm Playing: Eminent Domain

By Will Smith

I may be late to the party on this 4X deck-building game, but I'm catching up fast.

My favorite part of the annual pilgrimage to PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, is spending time in the massive board gaming area. Every year, I sit down and play games--new and old, with friends and strangers alike. The experience is great--you check out any game they have in stock, find an empty table, place the game you want to play on it, and sit down. Within five minutes, like-minded individuals interested in the same game sit down, and you're up and running.

One of the games I learned at PAX this year was Eminent Domain. Eminent Domain applies deck-building mechanics to the tropes of a 4X strategy game. Like PC classics Galactic Civ and Master of Orion, Eminent Domain gives you a compelling multiplayer experience where you build an interplanetary empire (and collect victory points) by eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating. He who collects the most victory points, wins.

As with 4X computer games, you can amass victory points in a variety of ways--taking control of planets (peacefully or by force), researching new technologies, and producing and trading resources. That's where the similarities end--in order to succeed in Eminent Domain, you have to shift through multiple strategies through a single game--making constant adjustments to your deck as you go. Let's walk through how a typical game goes.

Turns are straightforward. There are two phases to each turn--the optional Action phase and the mandatory Role phase. Most cards have slightly different, but complementary, behaviors in the different phases of the game. In the Action phase, the player whose turn it is expends a card to accomplish a task--add military force, add a colony to a planet, cull cards from his hand, draw more cards to his hand, etc. In the Role phase, you gain a card that lets you fulfill one of the larger objectives in the game. Your opponents can also follow-on the same role, performing a limited version of the same role. This gives choosing a role three-different consequences--you need to try to choose roles that will let you gain victory points, manage card distribution to avoid crapping up your hand, and avoid accidentally helping your competition.

To excel at Eminent Domain, you need to first discover and colonize (or conquer) a handful of planets. However, unlike most 4X games, constant expansion won't win the game for you. The real trick lies in finding the perfect moment to shift from expansion mode to focus on trade and research. Because of the way player-specific planet and research-card bonuses work, each player's optimal shift will likely happen at a different time.

The game is fun and easy to learn--especially if you're familiar with other deck-builders. After I played my first game of Eminent Domain at PAX, my wife and I hunted down a copy at the show and have played pretty much nightly since.

There are a handful of things I find very compelling about the game. It has the "simple to learn, difficult to master" feel of the best German-style boardgames. I love that the follow-on mechanic solves the waiting-for-your-turn problem many deck-builders suffer when played with larger groups. The necessity to shift your deck at the right time gives players an opportunity to make stunning comebacks that don't feel cheap. Games move fast enough that you can play on a weeknight, a two-player game typically takes us between 30 and 45 minutes to play. And finally, the game uses a bunch of tiny plastic spaceships to represent the invasion forces. Tiny plastic spaceships are always awesome.

My only real complaint about Eminent Domain is that the instructions are incomplete and occasionally unclear. The edition I bought included several bonus cards, which weren't explained in the rules provided (although they are on the website). The first time you play, you'll probably find yourself looking up rules clarifications online.

Eminent Domain is for 2-4 players, it takes about 45 minutes to play, and costs $40. It was originally a Kickstarter project.