Sometimes people ask me about the differences between Puzzle Strike and Dominion, so I'll put it all in one place for reference. Even though Dominion inspired Puzzle Strike, the games are quite different. Puzzle Strike fixes what, in my opinion, are numerous problems with Dominion. Now, before you get all bent out of shape, you are free to enjoy and love Dominion. I'm not stopping you or telling you that you didn't have fun playing it. I'm just saying there are several things I consider problems and that I thought I could turn all those things around with improvements on many fronts.
Both games involve a lot of shuffling, and I do mean a lot. Some people are really bad at shuffling and that slows the game down quite a bit. Even those who are good at it can feel bogged down. Changing the form factor to chips that you shake up in a bag makes this easier and faster. Some people tell me this is the most important difference between the two games, but I disagree. I think it's actually the least important difference of anything in this post.
Characters (aka Variable Player Powers)
Playing a symmetric game just feels flat and boring after having experienced so many asymmetric games. Street Fighter with only one character? Starcraft with only one race? Magic: the Gathering where we all start with the same deck? Yes, I'm aware that *during* a game, things can diverge even in a symmetric game, but really that's miles away from a true asymmetric experience. If a given pool of cards has a best strategy, then everyone should be going for that strategy. With different characters (who each have different gameplay), everyone has different strategies even within the same pool of chips.
It's also worth noting that there are more unique character abilities in Puzzle Strike than there are different chips in the bank! Or Kingdom cards in a Dominion set! The point is, there are a lot of them and they greatly expand the replayability. In a 2-player match of the base set, there are 45 different possible character matchups (or 55 if you count mirror matches). And 210 matchups in a 4-player game. Multiply that by the millions of starting conditions from the bank chips, and it's a crazy amount of gamespace to explore. And when Puzzle Strike Shadows is out, that goes to 190 matchups for 2p (or 210 with mirror matchups) and 4,845 matchups in 4p.
By contrast, Dominion has 0 characters (meaning no variable player powers) and zero different character matchups. Or you could say 1 character and 1 matchup, I guess. Now, balancing 45 (or 210) matchups is a hell of a lot harder than balancing 1 matchup, but we had months of tournaments to do so and I think the balance turned out great. Exploring the dozens of character matchups is one of the greatest features of the game.
In Puzzle Strike, you start with three character chips in your deck, while in Dominion, you start with three cards that do literally nothing during gameplay. I like getting to the fun stuff faster, and starting with 3 actions instead of 3 blanks really helps.
Puzzle Strike increases the interactivity a ton over Dominion. I've heard some call that a negative, but that's very strange to me. The point of a competitive game (or even a social game) is to interact, so playing mostly 4-player solitaire would seem to be a drawback. The crash mechanic in Puzzle Strike means you're always interacting with the player in front of you and the player behind. The attack chips are extremely powerful (they had to be in order to be worth buying, given how the game system works), and they mostly affect all players. In other words, they interact with all players. That makes blue defensive chips that much more relevant, as they interact with opponents' attack chips.
I've also heard a few strange comments that Puzzle Strike is "vicious " game. I have to disagree there, too. I think some are confusing legitimate interaction with viciousness. The video game Puzzle Fighter also involves interactivity of sending gems to each other, but that isn't really vicious either. If you want vicious, see Intrigue, and be prepared to lose your friends (note: that's not Dominion: Intrigue, it's unrelated to both Dominion or Puzzle Strike). In Intrigue, you make deals with your friends and then are forced by the nature of the game to lie and break those deals. In Puzzle Strike, you merely send gems to each other, and attack and defend, but you don't even gang up on anyone, and you don't shatter their hopes and dreams, either.
The comeback mechanic in the video game Puzzle Fighter is interesting and rare in games. Not that comeback mechanics in general are rare, but the particular greed-inducing way it works in Puzzle Fighter is great, and I wrote about it here. Puzzle Strike captures that with the "height bonus" rule. By sitting closer to the lose-condition, you draw more chips and are better able to attack and defend because of that. Giving the opponent gems is good (it puts them closer to losing) but also bad (it gives them more drawing power if they don't lose). This tension makes for interesting games where people are on-edge until the very end.
(Speaking of the video game Puzzle Fighter, I also balanced that. You can read about it here.
No Lame-Duck Endings
We're going to need some game design jargon to talk about this one. A lame duck situation in a competitive game is when you're in a situation where you will definitely lose, but the game isn't technically over yet. This is a bad feature that we'd like to remove. It happens in Dominion when there aren't enough 6 VP cards left for you to buy to win, so even if you get the last one or two, another player is so far ahead that he will win. This is futile and a waste of your time. It's actually kind of a trick to make a game with no player elimination, but to have you functionally eliminated, yet forced to keep playing. Actually, being eliminated is preferable in that situation. Further, being in a lame duck situation encourages another deadly game design buzzword: kingmaker.
Kingmaker is when you will definitely not win, yet your actions will determine which of the other players will win. This is a bad thing that we try to get rid of in a competitive game (unless it's Diplomacy or something, where the entire point of the game is politics). Anyway, Puzzle Strike avoids these problems. But how and at what tradeoff?
First, Puzzle Strike has player elimination. That means when you lose, you're out and the game keeps going with whoever is left. At first glance, that's also a bad property, but it's very much on purpose that that's how the game works. Why? First, it gets rid of lame duck, which is really no better in the first place. Second, it's actually strictly better in a 2-player game because you get all the bonuses of player elimination with zero of the drawbacks (there's no one waiting around when someone loses in 2p, the game ends at that point). Third, it allows for a more interesting win condition here, the whole business about gem piles filling up and the greed of you trying to stay kind of full but not too full. To put it another way, it enables a great gameplay system.
Fine, so what's the drawback? The drawback is that in 3p and 4p games, someone will wait to play again if they lose first. How bad is this problem? Because of the nature of the game, you don't really lose right away. It's likely that when players lose, they all lose at about the same time. Also, the overflow rule allows a powerful attack that knocks out one player to actually knock out multiple players all at once, which further lessens any waiting time. Also remember that these games are short to begin with, like 20 minutes, so you might have to suffer like 2 minutes of waiting, sometimes, instead of being stuck in some lame duck situation for even longer. And in return, you get a much more interactive and interesting win condition.
The lack of lame-duck situations also greatly reduces the kingmaker problem. All 4p free-for-all games are probably going to have some degree of kingmaker (meaning politics determining the winner rather than individual playskill at what the game is supposed to be about), but it's a question of how much can you reduce that effect. In Puzzle Strike, the kingmaker effect is tiny indeed, much smaller that you'd expect in any 4p free-for-all game. Even on the micro level of your very last turn (the turn where you lose), you can't even use your buy phase to slightly affect the availability of chips for the next player. You could in earlier versions of Puzzle Strike, but we eliminated even that (very small) kingmaker effect.
Dominion's theme is pretty incidental to the game. Puzzle Strike at least models something, in this case the back-and-forth gameplay of a puzzle video game like Puzzle Fighter, along with the comeback mechanic that makes that type of game so fun.
I hope you don't take all this the wrong way. As I said, I'm not trying to invalidate your fun. What I am trying to do is explain the reason that Puzzle Strike works the way it does, through the lens of starting with a core idea from Dominion and fixing many things that I consider problems. I hope you enjoy Puzzle Strike when it comes out in January, and you can order it here. And a reminder that you can play it for free in the early online version here.