Monday, November 7, 2011

Eminent Domain, Kickstarter, and You

Eminent Domain was an early product of Kickstarter, the web site that allows independent projects to crowd-source their funding. I've been following Kickstarter with some interest. When I first started hearing about it, I was dubious of its impact on the boardgame market. I felt it would simply allow a bunch of lousy games that couldn't find publishers – usually for good reasons – to get published and further dilute the quality in what is already a pretty diffuse marketplace. I honestly don't think we need more games published each year, we need better games. In which case, Kickstarter wasn't clearly going to help. But as Kickstarter has matured, I've become more optimistic. Smaller but still professional publishers are putting better-quality pitches up, and I've even backed a couple projects. I actually feel like I’ve been able to make more informed backing decisions than I can when, say, I decide to pre-order a GMT P500 game. So I’ve come around to the idea.

So what about Eminent Domain? Is it any good? And what does it say about Kickstarter?

When to borrow, when to steal

I took a wait-and-see attitude to Eminent Domain (I didn't back it). GMT has been using a Kickstarter-like publishing process for their games for over a decade, and history says that the single most important thing to take into account is the track record of the designer. This designer’s last game, Terra Prime, was a dog's breakfast: lots of ideas liberally lifted almost directly from classic games (Starship Catan, Starfarers of Catan, with maybe a touch of Merchant of Venus), but re-assembled in an only minimally coherent way. As is often the case, the re-assembly lost the less tangible aspects that made the originals great: tight pacing, good tension, and a working narrative arc. Terra Prime took forever to play and large chunks of it had no pulse.

The origins of Eminent Domain are clearly similar. It’s a role-selection deck-building game. The designer is obviously a fan of Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome, from which he has lifted quite heavily. And deck-building games are hot, hot, hot.

The object of Eminent Domain is to build up your interstellar empire and score lots of victory points. You do this first by surveying the galaxy for planets, and then adding them to your empire either through conquest or colonization. You can then use those planets either as a springboard to acquiring technology (which gives you game advantages as well as points) or producing and trading goods. You do all these things each turn by selecting a role: survey, warfare, colonization, produce, trade, and research. Sound familiar?

You start with a deck with 2 cards of each role (except warfare, for which you get 1). The new idea in Eminent Domain is that when you select a role, you claim a card from the reserve supply of that role and add it to your deck. When performing a role during your turn, you can then add cards from your hand to "juice up" the role and get bonuses (one ship per Warfare card played, for example). Then, other players can "follow" your role by playing their own matching role cards from their hands to gain the advantages of that role, sometimes in a reduced form, sometimes not.

Having written these last two paragraphs, I realize Eminent Domain is a lot harder to explain without just saying "it works just like produce/trade in Race", or "colonizing planets is a lot like building buildings in Glory to Rome", "dissenting is just thinking", or "planets with icons are just clients". In fairness, Eminent Domain is less of a straight microwave job than it first appears. Various aspects of the source material have been mixed up a bit, and none of the mechanics are straight copies of the originals. Still, the overall sense is that if you took the basic planet and role structures of Race for the Galaxy, implemented them with a Glory to Rome-like lead/follow card mechanic, and made it a deck building game, you'd end up at Eminent Domain.

This is only an overview of the systems, there is actually a bunch of stuff I'm glossing over here. The rules are available for download via BoardGameGeek, so check them out if you want more details. Read them closely before playing – the mechanics are all familiar but there are a couple pointy nuances (acquired research cards go directly to your hand, for example, and colonize icons on planets don't work the same as all the other icons) that are important.

The problem is …

Fundamentally, the problem with Eminent Domain is just that it’s really boring. What exactly has gone wrong is a little murky, but I think there are a number of things, all interrelated..

Firstly, I believe that there is some basic mis-calibration at work in the engine. For the game to end, the players need to exhaust the supply of one or two different roles, depending on the number of players. Remember every time you choose a role, you are adding one from the supply to your deck whether you want to or not, so that puts a cap on the number of times that role can be done before triggering the end. The problem is that to do anything, you need to acquire planets. You can't meaningfully research without two matching planets. You can't interestingly do produce/trade until you've got 2-3 planets. So if you've got 4 players, that's maybe 15 of those actions before you can do anything else interesting. There are only 16 Warfare and 20 Colonize role cards in the middle – a number which doesn't scale with the number of players – so you've draining a significant chunk of those roles before you've started, especially if players chose a preponderance of one or the other, as is likely to happen since there is an advantage to "drafting" off of other players role choices. So by the time you've gotten to the point of being able to start thinking about a research or produce engine, the game is well on its way to being done. A player who is going heavily into warfare just runs out the clock while you struggle to get something going. A meaningful mid-game or late-game phase to the game doesn't occur; you build the foundation, then you're done. Meanwhile, there are 16 Produce/Trade role cards, more than you could possibly ever need, and 20 survey cards, similarly more than you are ever likely to need. If a bunch of those cards had been moved to the Warfare or Colonization supplies, it's possible it might have extended the game enough to give trade and research a chance; but no. As it is, players doing Warfare or Colonize have all the control over how long the games goes while Produce/Trade have no leverage at all.

Secondly, due to the first problem, there is just no way for the players to differentiate themselves. You're going to have to settle or conquer a few planets to do anything at all. So you need to get a bunch of those cards into your deck. Then you can choose to do a little research, or maybe some produce/trade, but by the time you start into this there just isn't much time left, so you can never build an engine that might allow you to put some distance between you and your fellow-players. I kid you not, my last three games of Eminent Domain the scores were 20-20-20-19, 16-16-14, and 17-16-15. The players do lots of stuff – because settling or conquering most plants is likely to involve 3-4 steps of building colonies or fighters – but they never get traction with the game system.

Thirdly, because you add a new role card to your deck each time you take that role, it becomes too hard to pivot strategically. Which is doubly problematic, since the game forces you to start out doing warfare or colonization, since you have to add a couple planets before you can do anything else. After you've built up this core of planets, you need to decide whether you should pivot to doing produce/trade or research, or if you just keep going after more planets. It's true that getting points through colonization and conquest is harder than making and selling resources, but the problem is that your deck is full of warfare and colonization at this point and you have only your starting produce/trade cards. To pivot, you need to both get more Produce/Trade cards and cull your deck of all the excess Survey, Colonize, and/or Warfare cards. This inertial effect is quite damaging. It is additionally problematic if you're using the Kickstarter promo cards, which include several high-value prestige worlds which offer large rewards for colonization and conquest and so further skew the game in that direction.

Lastly, perhaps the most fatal problem with Eminent Domain is the lack of interesting card differentiation. What made Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome so much fun was not the mechanics of building buildings or colonizing planets, but all the interesting things built on top of those mechanics: the endless search for killer combos or mixes of capabilities that produced useful engines; the tension over whether you’ll complete your engine in time; the fear that you opponents are going to beat you the punch. All this is missing from Eminent Domain. Planets' special traits are very coarse (an occasional icon to boost a specific role – even the type of good they produce is immaterial unless you have one of two specific high level technology cards). All the individual role cards are the same. The first-tier research cards are just dual-icon cards. The second tier research cards offer some potential, but since they just go into your deck like everything else they are too hard to wield, and the game is simply not long enough for them to be interesting. You will likely only be able to acquire 2 second-tier research cards, or one third-tier card, typically just as the game ends.

All this means the game has no arc, no narrative. It's just a minimally interesting tactical exercise that is never allowed to develop.

Back to Kickstarter

So, Eminent Domain is what I fear about Kickstarter. It's a concept that is viscerally appealing to gamers: Deckbuilding! Space conquest! Mechanics “borrowed” from Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome! And we've got some great graphics! All these things are true, and if you take it direct to the traditional game consumer you can sell it. But this is a game the traditional gatekeepers – established publishers – hopefully would either have rejected, or would have forced more development work onto. They would have been fulfilling an important function, and by allowing someone with a seductive idea to bypass them and get a game published with greatly reduced financial risk, Kickstarter allows a game that is at best mediocre to suck up resources that would have been better allocated elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, that all sounds a little snotty. Traditional gatekeepers are dying in every corner of the economy where they are not protected by statute. Those gatekeepers, whether they were professional journalists, travel agents, radio DJs, or stock brokers, provided useful services but also controlled access in ways that weren't exactly problem-free either. As consumers, whether we are Kickstarter backers or not, we should expect to have access to more choices, which is good. It also means that we have to take a lot more responsibility for our choices, whether we want to or not.


  1. Kickstarter is still pretty new, especially for board games. I think you're seeing a lot of 'novelty' use of the tool. Give it a couple years and people will stop using it just for the fun of doing so, and will hopefully pay closer attention to the likely quality of the release before contributing.

  2. I agree with most of this, though I'm not quite ready to give up on EmDo yet. I think you might be undervaluing the Level 1 tech cards, as a way to get roles without having to take them from the common stacks; if multiple people are doing this, the game lasts longer. I also recommend playing until two stacks are gone, with three players. And the upcoming expansion might address the boringness issues (I haven't looked at it yet).

    I am also wary of the idea that "established publishers" are the right gatekeepers. I think crowdsourcing the development process is a viable alternative; they tried to do this with EmDo, by making the rules public and allowing wide access to the print-and-play files, but I don't think they took the beta-test feedback seriously enough to make any significant changes. This might have been more excusable if the game hadn't taken almost a year to come out, but I think they were locked into finalizing the game pretty early on and then had to deal with production delays.

  3. I actually agree crowd-sourcing has upsides, and that medium-to-large game publishers are not always good gatekeepers. At the very least, Kickstarter provides an excellent way for good, professional designers to get new or unusual products funded which a traditional publisher wouldn't stomach the risks for.

    But look at all these small-press or self-published games, and what is the overwhelming theme? They are in desperate need of a competent developer. Publishing companies can at least theoretically provide this.

    As for whether there is life for Eminent Domain in the long term, after players come to grips with the system, I actually think it's possible. If you want to go Consume/Trade, maybe you really need to go via Level 1 tech ... I dunno. But it's really hard to buck the trend of what everyone else is doing, because you have to synergize with them. Everyone has to do Survey and Colonize/Warfare, and odds are somebody is going to be in it for the long term. And if the first half-dozen "learning" games are boring, what's the point? Was Race for the Galaxy boring until you mastered it? Glory to Rome?

    I do agree that if you play with 3, you should play until 2 roles are exhausted rather than the standard 1. I think neither is ideal, the game needed to scale better between 3 and 4 players generally, but playing to just 1 exhaustion seems silly.

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