Eminent Domain Review
In 2011 Tasty Minstrel Games published this game under Kickstarter project which was one of the games from TMG that pioneered games through crowd-funding in Kickstarter. The game was designed by game designer Seth Jaffee who also takes the title of head of development in TMG, and also responsible for games like Terra Prime and Wizard’s Tower. As you guys might recall or aware about how this game is similar or resemble Race for The Galaxy (you guys should know this game. But in case you don’t, you suck then.) up to some extent, it’s definitely different from that legendary game.
The title Eminent Domain does somehow give such a sci-fi feeling into it with unknown jargon about political, science or even sounded geek / nerd enough for common folk. I am for example not really good at English but vocabulary is my strongest suit, did not know what’s that about. As I looked at some kind of dictionary in the net, this is what it means:
The power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality, or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property.
And I still don’t get it. Never mind… In overall the game has Sci-Fi theme with planetary exploration throughout the universe, which relate to planets. galaxy, spaceships and else. In this game, players become a leader of an Empire ‘that only Seth Jaffee knows what’, and they will competitively expand their empire by taking another planets (by any means necessary) to gain points and such. By the short description of the game, it’s more or less sounds like space 4X game which you need to explore, expands, exterminate and exploit, in which maybe there is a Space 4X element inside.
They are beautiful. Yes, this is the very fist time I encountered Gavan Brown’s awesome works. He made the planets really stood out, subtle with contrast and kinda have a radiant effect. It’s very gorgeous, all the Sci-Fi design and icon elements are perfectly designed and placed with stunning role icons, and he did that over the dark black background, magic! The game has easy to differentiate icons but also cool and brilliant. The design shapes are mostly geometrical shape in subtle form, pretty much solid 3D vector design element, playing with awesome combination between color tones, shades and shines. And when I looked at his other works on games like Undermining and Skyline, I knew that he’s a specialist with this kind of style. I am his fan for this style.
3. Game Components
Eminent Domain is a card game, which is pretty natural that the game does come out with mostly cards. The other components are resource tokens in 4 different colors (blue, green, purple and orange), small board, planet & player tiles, ship miniatures and Influence tokens. The cards quality is great, not sure how the durability since I sleeved my cards. I do recommend to sleeve them since the cards will be often shuffled. The resource tokens are fine, though it’s nothing of important, but they are somehow smooth in edges and paint, a plus on the component quality. The board is thick, with glossy finished (maybe this is one of the stand out components in the game) just like the box. At first I thought glossy finish is a bad idea, but as it turned out, it really stand the test of time. The bad thing about glossy finish is, frictions and scratch easily wear the glossy surface, which could make a devastating result on the look of the surface. The only thing that confusing is the ship miniatures, it has good looking shape (plastic material, just the same thing like Eclipse ships) but many people wondered why the ships come with 3 different sizes, when the rules explain they don’t have the same value. The designer (or TMG) explained that they’ll be used for future expansion (nice planning don’t you guys think?). The Influence tokens are in pentagonal shapes, some in black and in blue color. The blue is only used for end game purpose. One thing about the rulebook, though it lacks some detail examples, the paper material quality is top notch. Love the smooth finish, one of the best rulebooks out there. Oh yeah, one last thing, the box is awesome, sturdy as it is and of course also with the glossy finish just like the board.
4. Game Play
Eminent Domain is played in several rounds, based on several conditions, one being one or two of the roles are depleted or the black Influence tokens are depleted. These conditions trigger the last round. At the beginning of the game, players get a random face down starting planet tile which they put in front of them, a starting deck consist of several roles (2 cards each for Colonize, Research, Survey, Produce/Trade, 1 card each for Warfare and Politic) in total of 10 cards, they shuffle them and draw 5 cards to form their hands. The other role cards are placed on the board based on the type of roles while the planet cards are shuffled and placed face down beside the game board.
Starting with the first player clockwise, each player performs their turn one by one. A player’s turn consists of 3 steps, Action, Role and Clean Up.
Action step is optional, players do not have to commit this step, they may skip this and going straight into step 2 (Role). This step allows a player to play one card from his hand and do the action described on the card text under “Action” text. The player immediately take the action and then continues to the next step, Role. Unlike Action step, Role is a mandatory step, meaning each player must take the step no matter what. Taking Role step is choosing one of the 5 roles available such as Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade or Research. After a player choose a role, he take a card of that role to his play area and then he may ‘boost’ the role with cards from his hand (boosting a role is playing cards that have the same symbol with the role that the player choose.). For example, when a player choose a Warfare role, he takes a Warfare card (if any) from the role stack and he may play cards that have a warfare symbol from his hand to boost his role. Role is a very simple action based on that role but have the weigh based on the number of symbols played for that role. If a player play a Warfare role and play cards that have 4 additional symbol of Warfare, he gets 5 symbols in total. In this case, the Warfare role let players to collect a fighter for each Warfare symbol on his play area (or he can attack a planet instead of collect fighters). Not only role can be boosts by cards from hand but also some planets provide role symbols that count toward boosting a role.
After the active player complete a role, another players in clockwise order from the active player, may “Follow” the role or “Dissent”. Following a role means the player may take the chosen role with only cards from his hand (he’s not taking a card from the role stack), there are limitation upon what actions of a role that following can do, for example with Warfare role, following players can only collect fighters not attack a planet. If a player does not want to “Follow” he can “Dissent” which mean he draw 1 card from his deck to his hand, just that simple.
The next step is Clean Up. This step is also a mandatory, which the active players may discard or keep all or some cards that still in his hand, the cards on his play area are discarded, and then he draws cards back to his hand limit (normally up to 5 cards). When a player already finish this step, the next player will take his turn.
As I mentioned above, there are 5 roles in the game and I will explain all those 5 roles below.
Survey cards provide an action to draw two cards from player’s deck. while the role provide planets. When taking a Survey role, the leader (active player) may draw planet cards as many as the Survey symbols, while other players may “Follow” with -1 symbols. The planet cards drawn this way do not all come to player’s play area, the player needs to choose only one from the drawn cards, the rest are discarded. Players must choosing planets face down, they cannot look on the front side of the planet cards before deciding which one to keep. Unlike any other cards, planet cards use 2 sides, the front side shows the planet’s worth, role symbols, planet type, bonus, name and also the type of resource(s) it generates. The back side only shows the type of the planet as well as the cost to attack and colonize it. So in other words, player can only consider what to keep based on these information, what planet that he wants and how he want to expand, either by colonizing or attacking it.
Warfare is one of the two available options for players to acquire a planet (the other way is Colonize). Keeping a card from Survey role does not entitle a player to acquire that planet. The planet was only surveyed (you can say this is the explore aspect of the 4X in the game) and you need to acquire it to be officially own the planet. Face down planet cards in your tableau contributes nothing in the end so, it’s always a good thing to expand your empire with planets especially those that give you benefits along the way. Warfare action lets you collect 1 fighter from the supply (just take a ship miniature from the supply no matter the size). The Role also lets you collect fighters as many as the Warfare symbols that you commit. As exception, the leader may attack a planet (only one planet, no matter how many planets or fighters available in his disposal) in his tableau instead collecting fighters. This can only be done by the leaders (active player), the other players that “Follow” can only collect fighters no matter what the leader choose (attack or collect fighters). To attack a planet, a player must return a number of fighters from his possession to the supply based on the value on the planet cards with ship icon. This value determines how many fighters needed to successfully attack this planet. After returning the required fighters, the player flip the planet cards face up. This shows the exterminate aspect from the 4X by attacking a planet.
Aside from attacking a planet, players can Colonize it. Colonize action lets players to tuck a Colonize card under the planet card or settle it. This card is considered stuck until the planet is successfully settled or attacked. Just like Warfare, planet cards also have a Colonize value to be meet. Once a planet has a number of cards equal with the Colonize value, he can choose to settle (Expand) the planet with Colonize action or Role. Just like the Warfare, the leader may tuck Colonize cards or settle it instead. Players that follow the Role can tuck cards under a planet card. So Colonize has the same function as Warfare, the only different thing is the means of getting there. While they seems similar, actually they have completely different approach. Warfare collects fighters, while Colonize tuck Colonize cards under a planet card. This means, when you collecting fighters, the cards are simply discarded and you will be getting any, but Colonize don’t Unsettled planet cards that have Colonize cards under, hold your Colonize cards, they’re not instantly discarded after use, they only back into your discard pile once the planet has been settled. So the play mode is different, which it has advantage in one side and disadvantage in other side, it’s up to you which one you want to choose or maybe you can choose both modes.
Produce/Trade (Exploit) is one of several ways to gain Influence points. Players gain 1 Influence point for each resource token traded. So before players can trade resources with Influence points, they need to produce the resources first. This card is the only one that has 2 functions, As to Produce or to Trade. So during action players can play this card either to Produce 1 resource (given he has an available slot in his planets to contain a resource token) or to Trade a resource (only if he has a resource to trade for). With Produce/Trade Role, players can do the same with action but with more capacity instead of only one resource. Of course this is restricted from the available slots and resources. Each resource slot in a planet can only contain 1 resource of the designated type (unless the slot has question mark icon, in which player can choose what type or resource he want to produce each time). So players cannot stack a resource token in a single slot.
Research cards provide action to thin a player’s deck. The action lets players to remove up to 2 cards in player’s hand from the game. So if a player does not need specific roles, he can remove them from his deck to keep his deck efficient. This action is usually used later in the game after a player managed to build his tableau and needs to keep his deck efficient enough for his tableau engine to work at it best. When taking the Role, Research symbols give players a technology card. Technology cards are divided into 3 types based on the main planet types (Fertile, Advance and Metallic). These technology cards are not random, players can choose from the available whenever they take the Research Role, of course with condition. They must meet the required Research symbols (there are 3 levels, 3 or 5 or 7 Research symbols) and also they have acquired the minimum prerequisite planets.
On the promo bonus planet cards, there are Utopian planets, which is new type aside from the original 3. This kind of planets useful for Research role, which it can mirror one kind of planet that you already acquire (so for instance a player only have 1 Fertile planet and 1 Utopian, if he can boost the role to 5 Research symbols, he can take the cost 5 technology cards that required 2 Fertile planets, the other Fertile planet is mirrored by the Utopian planet. But players cannot use 2nd Utopian planet to acquire a cost 7 technology card.). Acquired tech card is immediately placed in player’s hand, which he can decide to discard or keep for next turn during Clean Up step.
This card is not among the 5 Roles but available at the first of each player starting deck. Politic card can only be played as action, which lets a player to remove the Politic card out of the game and take any one card from the available roles. This give players flexibility and different approach early in the game between players.
5. Replay Value
So, basically the game has some good-looking replay value based on the role cards. You can choose what strategy to choose when playing, whether by collecting planets, heavy investing on technology cards, exploit the resources on your planets or maybe you hunt down the prestige planets that give you big punch on Influence points. So, there they are, and the combination of them could give you a good solid replay value. But don’t get too much high hope for the different kind of play. It’s basically the same game play experience, been that done that. It’s not like you can always find surprises on your each play. Of course you can try different technology but the feel is still the same, the different technology only provides flavor on your already known dish. The only random thing in the game is your card draw and the planet cards.
So as you see based on the brief game play explanation, players need to collect Influence points, and to collect them, there are 3 possible ways, settle / attack planets, trade resources, points from technology cards.
Planets always give players points (Prestige planet gives the most points with 6 points while the other planets can give 2-3 or even 5 points based on the detail specification of the planets). So, it’s the easiest way to collect points, since at the start of the game you need to get planets to work up your table and collecting planets are something that already up in your alley. Either you choose to collect them with settling or attacking. As I explained above settling need the Colonize action or role in which it will hold down your cards in planets before it’s settled, so it could be a good thing or bad. A good thing if you want to slim your deck at the moment, but it’s not if you don’t have enough colonize card or symbol left in your tableau or hand. Symbols from planets are definitely important since you can “Follow” other player’s role even if you don’t have cards in your hand. But for Colonize, you still need cards tucked under planets aside from symbols on your tableau. Unlike Colonize, Warfare has more flexible way and easier to control since you collect fighters and spend them to attack planets. The cards still cycled as normal from your discard to your draw pile. Sometimes it’s a good thing to check for planet’s requirement when doing survey, since the requirement is not the same, on settling or attacking them. Of course you can choose to use them both (Colonize and Warfare).
The main concept of the game is really lies on the tableau building aside from the deck building. Players improve their deck to build their tableau. Build tableau means made an engine to generate points. Which in this case, planets are the engines. Not only they give end game points, they also the source for collecting points from resources. Once you get a good foothold of planets that generate good deal of resources you should shift the play with produce and trade them to get points. Start thinning deck from Survey, Warfare and Colonize cards.
The last thing is by collecting Technologies. Technology cards require planets and Research symbols to achieve so get the basic requirement fast, and then choose cards that could help you remove cards and more draws and also Research symbols. Tech cards with 5 or 7 Research symbols give Influence points at the end of the game, there are the things you need to after.
The hard thing is to balance all the strategy so you can maximize them as effective as it could. I still think it’s the hardest part of the game, timing the balance of strategies during the game.
My Thought of The Game
When this game was known to people, the first thing that they remember is, of course, Race for The Galaxy. Can’t blame them alright, it surely looks the same. Planets, Sci-Fi, cards, and role selection? Well, either the designer put a challenge to his awesome idea or he couldn’t think something else, trying to play fencing with the famous game from Thomas Lehmann. Of course I must agree this one has better artworks (kudos to Mr. Gavan here), but one to his own taste. Looking deeper to the game you will even more sure about it with the same role selection of produce, trade, survey, attacking or settling a planet and also different planet types (no wonder, no wonder). But there are major differences between these two games, Eminent Domain has something that Race for The Galaxy doesn’t, which is deck building, and this deck building mechanic is what makes this game interesting. Seth Jaffee not only tried to design a game as good as Race for The Galaxy, but also better in a way. In Race for The Galaxy players draw cards from a communal draw pile, in which you can safely said it’s too random. Building an engine that is very crucial to win the game but really depending on your card draws is really gives me the ‘butterfly on my stomach’ feeling. So if you fail to get card that you need, you need backup plans (many backup plans). But in this game, the random card draws are minimized to your personal deck, and you build your deck with cards that you already know what by taking it from the Roles.
At first I experienced teaching games to other players and they somehow found minor difficulty on the role symbols and how to really really understand the principle of the role step. But once they understand that, it’s so simple and the icons really help them. The game plays quite fast, around 45-60 minutes on a 4-player game, the only downside is the Technology cards, since all the tech cards are available to all players, selecting and examining them take some time, not to mention you are new to the game. It’s a good thing to set aside tech cards for first play to let new players get used to the game flow. I found this game is quite good and it managed to find a heart in my collection, though obviously based on my plays and game experience it needs more play times and I sucks at this game. It’s hard to win the game (at least for me, but thank God it’s still not as bad as me playing Race for The Galaxy). Don’t think I dislike Race for The Galaxy, I think it’s one of the great games and worth having and playing. Love it in fact, but I could never win the game and I decided to stop playing the game with the fear I might hate the game if it keeps going the same (stupid me, shame indeed). So in short, Race for The Galaxy is a great game but it’s not a game for me, while Eminent Domain really hit me in the face compared with Race for The Galaxy.
It’s a bad thing that my girlfriend does not really into (or can I say she dislike.. same thing goes with my most favorite game, Eclipse) the theme of sci-fi, especially anything that has to do with aliens and it’s home (PLANETS), so it’s a hard work to ask her to play the game.
As with the game play, I find it hard to keep the deck balance in time. At first of course you need to build your deck with survey, colonize / warfare, but in the end you need to run the engine and invest in produce/trade and research, so to keep things efficient you need thinning you deck, which I find the most difficult part from the game. A good polished game indeed, but I’m afraid people mostly compared the game with Race for The Galaxy as they look the game pretty much a clone or you can say RfTG wannabe. The game recently has it’s expansion, Eminent Domain: Escalation, which contain new cards and fixed typos with scenarios that are new to the game. It should be interesting which gives you more replay value and at last the use of different size ships, but I still not yet getting it, considering it rarely hits my table. Maybe one day…
Images are courtesy of BGG users and publisher.