Dominion's Hidden Lore

A few theories about the history of the realm.

Posted on 12/28/2016 by Tim Rice

Dominion Boxes

In 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino and Rio Grande Games gave us the deck-building card game Dominion, and it went on to release ten expansions (so far) and sell millions of copies worldwide. Even though it has become a massive success, critics often fault the game for having a weak theme. A lot of people don’t even know that you play as a monarch, and the cards are supposed to represent assets for your kingdom (your dominion). As the game progresses and you acquire more influence, your rule over the land becomes stronger and stronger.

Even though I love playing Dominion, I agree that it is difficult to feel immersed in the theme of this game. For some reason drawing, discarding, and shuffling cards just doesn’t give me that supreme ruler feel… However, ever since I first played this game I suspected that there was something more...hidden behind the surface of the cards.

It started with a single clue, and not long after that I realized the magnitude of the intricate web that the designer laid out. There is a complex and engaging story weaved into this game, told in the form of subtle hints in the cards. Every great franchise has a solid foundation of history and lore behind it, and I don’t see why Dominion should be any different.

I’ve spent some time (at least a half hour) unraveling some of the history of Dominion’s realm, and now I’m finally ready to share some of my findings. Strap yourselves in, because you’ll never look at Dominion the same way again.

Meet the New King

Dominion has become a large game with hundreds of cards, so where does the story start? Perhaps we should begin our search at the first thing new players read: the rulebook. The excerpt below is from the first page of Dominion’s rulebook:

Opening Passage
Source: Dominion Rulebook, Rio Grande Games

At first glance, this passage may look like meaningless flavor text. But if you read it closely, doesn’t it sound a bit strange? You don’t need so many words to explain the concept of the game, and somewhat peculiar concepts are emphasized. It almost reads like a poem...or perhaps a riddle.

It is clear that the protagonist of this story (hereinafter referred to as Dom) is a young ruler with imperialistic ambitions. Dom seems to have different values than his parents did when they were in control; while they were satisfied ruling a small, happy kingdom, Dom is more interested in power and influence. He doesn’t seem to think much of his neighbor’s kingdoms, clearly he thinks that his banner is the only one that can “bring civilization” to those “verging on anarchy”. Is this a tale about a kind and noble ruler, or a power-hungry and ruthless one?

Interestingly, there are three words in the passage that eventually became card titles.

  • Minion - from Dominion: Intrigue
  • Treasury - from Dominion: Seaside
  • Feodum - from Dominion: Dark Ages

Why would these cards in particular be highlighted like this? Let’s take a closer look at the cards themselves, to see if we can flesh out more of the details.

Dom's Rise to Power and the Ghost Minion

Minion Card
Source: Dominion: Intrigue, Rio Grande Games, Christof Tisch

One thing I noticed when I began this analysis is that there are some fascinating and peculiar things going on in these cards when you look at them closely. In the art for the Minion card, it depicts a middle-aged man holding a short sword and standing next to a portrait of another man. We can assume that this man served as one of Dom’s servants and that his duties relate to combat in some way (considering he carries a sword) but what else can we learn about him?

Also, what significance does the man in the painting hold? I think we can assume he is some sort of monarch based on his attire. He also must be relatively important considering he has his own portrait on what looks like a castle wall. Could this be a depiction of Dom (the ruler that the minion is serving, and the one the player takes the role of)? This character also appears in at least two other cards, believe it or not. Take a look at Village from the base set, and Venture from Dominion: Prosperity.

Village Card
Source: Dominion, Rio Grande Games, Claus Stephan
Venture Card
Source: Dominion: Prosperity, Rio Grande Games, Lee Smith

Obviously it is difficult to know for sure whether or not these three illustrations are depicting Dom, but my reasons for believing this go beyond the physical resemblance.

The art on the Village card seems to depict a peaceful village receiving a red-cloaked man carrying a flag. Isn’t it interesting that the man on the horse seems to be the focus of the illustration rather than the village itself, as the card is named? You can see some of the villagers blocking the road to the village and facing him, perhaps they plan to question the approaching man? It certainly looks like this is an unexpected arrival at least.

It’s not a stretch to say that the man on the horse is Dom, and he’s about to take over this particular village. It fits in with his desire for a larger empire which we learned from the opening passage, and why else would he carry a banner in this way? Whether this was a peaceful takeover or a violent one is not clear. Who’s to say there isn’t an army close behind?

As for the Venture card, we see Dom sitting on his throne and offering a bag (of gold, supposedly) to an adventurer. Based on the card title we can assume that this gold is compensation for some sort of mission that the adventurer must (or already has) completed far away from Dom’s castle. This also fits in with the character’s motivations.

You can also see that red and white colors are prominent in both illustrations which suggests that those are the colors that represent Dom’s empire. There are several other cards that reinforce this claim, but I won’t go over all of them.

Minion Art
Source: Dominion: Intrigue, Rio Grande Games, Christof Tisch

Now that we know that the man in the portrait is Dom, let’s take a look back at the Minion art. The more I look at this illustration, the more strange it seems. Have you noticed the eerie white outline bordering the minion? Nothing else in the picture has that... Also, why is he holding the sharp end of his sword? It’s almost as if he doesn’t care if he cuts himself...or perhaps he can't...

This is kind of a wacky theory I suppose, but I believe there’s some strong symbolism in this image that suggests that the man on the right is actually dead. If the ghostly outline and the way he holds his sword isn’t enough to convince you, notice how the illustration was split in half with Dom on one side surrounded by a brick wall (a representation of the physical world) while the area behind the minion is hidden behind a red curtain...isn’t that kind of a strange place to put a curtain?

So what’s the story that the artist is trying to convey here? How did this minion die? I have a theory. Since we know that Dom is a relatively young ruler, and the minion pictured does not look young at all, I think it’s safe to assume that this minion served Dom’s father before Dom took power. If that’s the case, and the minion was loyal to Dom’s father, you can see that there may have been some disagreements between him and Dom since it has already been established that Dom did not agree with his father on how a kingdom should be run. This would be especially true if the transition of power was not peaceful...

If you go back and read the opening passage again, you’ll notice that the narrator makes a point to say that Dom’s “parents wouldn’t be proud” of the direction he wants to take his kingdom. This wording suggests that Dom’s parents are no longer alive, otherwise the narrator would say that his parents are not proud. So what happened to them? Death from natural causes? I don’t think so.

All the evidence we’ve examined so far seems to point to a violent takeover. We have Dom, an ambitious, imperialistic, and impatient young man that values power above all else. The only thing standing in his way from controlling the kingdom is his more responsible and docile parents, who he resents (we know this from the opening passage). Would Dom wait around for his turn to rule? Or would he seize power as soon as he had the opportunity?

I haven’t yet figured out how the fratricide took place, but if Dom was smart, he would do his best to ensure that there was no trace back to him so that the kingdom’s followers would remain loyal to his family. Whatever it was, I’m sure it looked like a horrible accident to most. However, secrets rarely last long in a castle.

I believe that the minion illustrated on the right of the card, who was a loyal servant to Dom’s father before he was murdered, was a member of the resistance against Dom’s rule. There were those that suspected Dom’s involvement in his parents’ deaths, and a coup was formed to overthrow him. The art on the card symbolizes this conflict where the man on the right represents a failed attempt to assassinate the new king (remember the sword) and Dom’s portrait on the left represents his new order. It is clear which side won. When Dom caught wind of this treason, of course he had the minion and the rest of the coup killed as well. With no one else in his way, Dom was free to rule as he pleased.

The Cloaked Man of the Feodum

Feodum Card
Source: Dominion: Dark Ages, Rio Grande Games, Matthias Catrein

From the opening passage, we also learn that the land is riddled with “fiefs, freeholds, and feodums.” I actually didn’t know what a feodum was before I started doing this research, it’s kind of an obscure term. Feodums were an essential component of feudalism; they were a division of land that lords granted in exchange for some kind of service or fee. It can also refer to a lord’s estate. This card was also highlighted in the opening passage, so let’s take a look at it and see what we can learn.

At first glance, there’s not all that much to analyze. We can see a beautiful landscape with an estate (probably the lord of this particular feodum’s) on the horizon. We can also see a few workers in the foreground tending to the fields. If you look really closely, you can see that the estate is flying a red banner, which suggests that this feodum is under the control of Dom’s empire.

The only part that looks a bit weird is the strange dark man in the middle of the field. At first I thought he was harvesting, but it doesn’t look like he’s holding any tools, and if he was in the middle of harvesting then we would be able to see some of the progress that he had already made (he wouldn’t start harvesting in the middle of the field). I can only conclude that this guy is simply standing in the middle of the field, pointing at the estate. Seems a bit out of place to me…

Thief Card
Source: Dominion, Rio Grande Games, Julien Delval

I was stumped until I realized that there’s one iconic Dominion character that prefers all-black garb, the Thief. The artist is subtly indicating that there is a thief planning to steal from this estate. The plot thickens. We don’t know much about this thief (he prefers it that way) but the illustration seems to depict him in action. Perhaps this is the night when he sneaks into the estate with sinister intentions. But what could he have his sights on? The final piece of the puzzle of course. The royal treasury.

Treasury Card
Source: Dominion: Seaside, Rio Grande Games, Ryan Laukat

Whoever organized this treasury clearly didn’t think things through very well… It appears as if they just threw every valuable thing they had into a room without any regard. Nevertheless, this appears to be an extremely wealthy estate; they have more gold than they know what to do with. Which makes it all the more odd when you realize that the door to this room has been left ajar… Or has it?

Surely whoever manages the crown’s finances isn’t so incompetent that he/she would leave the door to unimaginable wealth open. It doesn’t even look like there’s any security system in place at all, from what we can see. This makes me think that either the security system was breached and the thief is about to enter the room, or the door was left open intentionally by someone at the estate (sabotage!). Either way, this treasure is ripe for the taking (assuming it can be carried).

A heist of this magnitude would surely be enough to spiral the realm into a great depression, if not a terrible war as well. I suspect that this event was the trigger that began the era alluded to in the Dominion: Dark Ages set.

Final Remarks

I could continue, but this post has gone on long enough already. I’m only scratching the surface here, there are hundreds of other cards to analyze and probably just as many more hidden secrets. What looked before like a few unrelated cards has become a tale of a ruthless king’s rise to power, a failed coup, and a royal heist.

You might be thinking that I’m making connections that were never meant to exist, or that my arguments are made up of far too much speculation. Even if that’s true, thinking about the history of the world of Dominion makes playing the game a lot more interesting.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading! I had a lot of fun writing this post. If anyone has any more crazy Dominion theories, I’d love to hear them. Until next time, cheers.

Thanks for reading!

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