I get new games all the time. It's the upside to writing game reviews. In fact, the only two upsides to the whole gig are the free games, and the ability to write off-color humor. But since the end of last year, I've been waiting to find a truly awesome game, one that got me so excited that I want to play it over and over, and not just keep it in a closet until I run out of space and donate it to the Red Cross or Amnesty International or some other organization that doesn't need it at all, so that I can feel good about myself because I contributed something entirely useless.
Well, last week, I got one. It's the first real keeper I've scored in months. It's called Eminent Domain, and it gets more fun every time I play it. It's gotten so I can barely get any work done without wanting to play it again.
Eminent Domain is a game where Wal-Mart gives a bunch of money to the city so that they can buy your house and turn it into a parking lot across from a football stadium. That is actually a really crappy game to play, unless you're Wal-Mart or the city councilman who gets to buy a new convertible with the graft Wal-Mart gave him. Fortunately, the Eminent Domain that I got last week is not that game. Instead, it's a game about exploring planets and discovering science stuff and blowing things up.
Now, we've seen a lot of these kinds of games. They're usually some massive, four-hour marathon game (unless they're an eight-hour marathon game) and they cost like 80 bucks because they're chock full of plastic spaceships and planet tiles and moon bases and piles and piles of cards. This is the first time, however, that one of those explore-and-dominate-in-space games is a deckbuilder.
Yep, it's a deckbuilder. I know a lot of people, disgusted with the whole deckbuilding idea, have just thrown up in your mouths and left for the bathroom. Good riddance. We don't need you. We need people who will play Eminent Domain, because it's so much fun that I plan on preaching it like a cardstock religion. You can call me Holy Reverend Spacekiller. I won't respond to that, or anything, because that's just stupid, but you can call me that anyway. Come to think of it, you could call me pretty much whatever you want. It's not like I could stop you.
But Eminent Domain is not like other deckbuilding games. There are no piles of intriguing cards, mixed up every time to be something different. There are five cards. Well, OK, there are way more than five, but there are only the five different card titles. They're stuff like survey (to find new planets), colonize (to settle new planets), and warfare (to blow stuff up and steal new planets). And on your turn, you don't buy them. You just get one, and then you do what it says, and then everyone else gets to do what it says (but they don't get a card).
It would seem like this would be a pretty dull game that would get old really fast, because it's not like you go, 'hey, colonize is interesting, and all, but this time, let's get rid of it and play with Spinach Factory. That has a neat power.' But the thing is, you can try a different strategy every time you play. Because doing a thing adds that card to your deck, the more you do something, the better you get at it.
The key thing that makes this game not like any of the other deckbuilding games out there is the fact that you can do stuff on other people's turns, if you have the card. That means that if you really like war, and someone else goes to war, you can jump in and have a little war of your own. If another guy decides to produce goods to sell later, and you're the merchant king, you'll get more out of his turn than he will. Research and colonizing and surveying all become more powerful the longer you do them, leading to a really interesting game where every decision matters, not just because you need it to help you out, but because you don't want to throw out freebies to everyone else.
Interaction in Eminent Domain is around the high end of middle. You won't attack your opponent's planet and nuke his guys from orbit, but at the same time, every time you take a card, you're opening it up for the other people at the table. It's critically important to choose a strategy that both benefits you as much as possible, and allows fewer bonuses to other people. People who hate games that don't let you sucker punch your buddies might not love Eminent Domain, but it's not one of those solitaire games where everyone plays the system. Your strategy absolutely must take into consideration the actions of your opponents, or you'll feed them the game.
I think the reason I really like Eminent Domain, possibly more than just about any other deckbuilding game, is that it does an exceptional job of feeling like a game about building an empire in space. Even the theme in Nightfall (still my favorite deckbuilder) is little more than an excuse to buy cards and play chains. But in Eminent Domain, the actions you take actually feel like you're doing whatever it is you're supposedly doing. When you colonize a planet, you can imagine the ships launching to set up homes on alien planets. When you use a warfare action, you can picture the fleets of warships you're assembling. And when you decide to produce, you can really see all your wage slaves breaking their backs in sweatshops to make you affordable sweaters that you can buy at Wal-Mart (right before they turn your house into a hot-dog stand).
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have obtained a copy of Eminent Domain, not because it's hard to get (it's not) or because the publisher is particularly stingy (they're not). I am lucky to have landed the game because it is the most fun I have had playing games this year. And that's not to say that I haven't played some fun games this year, it's just that this one is so very damned fun. It might not appeal to fans of bloodshed and nut-kicking, but it's thematically consistent, interactive, clever and tense. If you've hated every deckbuilding game before now because it didn't feel like anything but a bunch of combos and tricky rules, try one more time. Eminent Domain is worth the effort.
Different enough to bring a fresh idea to a rapidly stagnating game concept
Full of tough decisions and smart plays
Difficult to 'solve,' because every strategy has a counter
You're not just playing against the game - you're playing against your friends
A deckbuilding game about space that actually feels like a game about space
Won't let me blow up my friends
This is one great game, and even better, it's not stupid expensive.