Temple Gates Games is launching its Dominion digital board game on mobile and PC after four years of development.
Theresa Duringer, CEO of Temple Gates Games, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the work to “digitize” the beloved board game kept a team of eight busy and it’s now ready for its 1.0 launch. The officially licensed game is debuting on iOS, Android and Steam.
The deck-building game has been out in beta form as a free title, with more than 500,000 downloads to date. The core game will still be free, but Temple Gates Games will charge for expansions and bundles. There is a huge amount of content, considering the core game has tons of cards and 15 expansions.
Besides Duringer, the team includes Jeff Gates, Donald X. Vaccarino, Keldon Jones, Laura Shigihara, Dylan Librande, Jimmy Chi and Chris Haga.
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Dominion came out as a card game in 2008 and it ranks in the top three board games in terms of awards, and it is played by millions of fans around the world. It was the first to popularize deck building.
“It’s a personal favorite,” Duringer said.
In the game, you expand a small kingdom to a mighty Dominion. You collect as many victory points as you can by building a powerful deck. The tons of cards and expansions and ongoing promo packs make Dominion one of the most extensive and replayable boardgames in the hobby.
While Duringer’s team specializes in digitizing board games, she is worried that the tabletop board game industry and mobile app industries are like continents drifting apart. She said that in the last decade, boardgame publishers have shifted from nurturing one evergreen title toward the “cult of the new.”
Kickstarter has enabled lots of tabletop designers raise money for their hobby and turn their work into real businesses. But Duringer said that flashiness often wins out over mechanics. Glitzy components are pricey, so games have a high upfront cost. As a publisher, if you make all your money on your boardgame up front, you’re less likely to justify investing in expanding it rather than just launching your next Kickstarter, Duringer said.
Meanwhile, mobile app developers have shifted from releasing many apps, to maintaining one app. Mobile SDKs have become increasingly liquid, often changing standards several times a year. While Microsoft has invested in backwards compatibility, something Steam games and customers benefit from, mobile platforms haven’t followed suit.
It costs thousands of dollars per year of dev resources just to keep an app maintained on the app store amid the increasing and shifting technical requirements, and that’s before budgeting any new features, Duringer said. So, app developers are incentivized to focus on only one app, rather than pay this repeated cost across several apps.
Overall, physical boardgames are moving towards a diversified publishing model, while app developers are moving toward a one-game-as-a-service model. That spells changes ahead for board game fans.
Last of the old guard
Duringer sees Dominion as the last of the old guard. It is one of the few board games with characteristics to compete with these changing trends.
The base game of Dominion is a set of 250 cards and a plastic insert to organize them. The gameplay reflects this streamline-ness as well; you aren’t deckbuilding to cross a map or slay a dragon, you are deck building to build a deck.
This streamlined design continues to resonate. With fifteen expansions and counting, Dominion boasts a huge catalog of content that is still expanding, room for deep mastery, a huge player base, and infinite replayability all on top of a Spiel des Jahres winner that defined a genre.
Even with all these advantages, the adaptation of Dominion to digital has been a bumpy ride, Duringer said.
“Dominion is the last great board game app,” Duringer said. “It is a game that existed before Kickstarter moved the industry in a different direction. It didn’t have an existing app. Everything after it is hard to justify five-star treatment.”
After the success of fan-platform, Isotropic, in 2013 Goko launched a commercial web version that lasted until 2015 when it was passed to Making Fun and deplatformed in 2016, citing server costs. ShuffleIT, a company formed by top Dominion players implemented a follow up web version, dominion.games, that remains successful, but a mobile adaptation still floundered.
Temple Gates Games inherited the project in 2019 after delivering Race for the Galaxy and Roll for the Galaxy, other Rio Grande publisher titles. Before the pandemic, Duringer had a stroke of luck in coincidentally running into designer Donald X. Vaccarino in a cafe, and she pitched him. He seemed skeptical but followed up with an email saying he wanted her team to do the digital version.
To ameliorate player frustration at having invested in now defunct versions of the game, TGG is honoring past purchases of previous app customers.
An AI plus
Duringer said that Temple Gates Games brings to the table a new kind of AI capable of extending a multiplayer game to also serve a puzzle audience. She said 90% of players prefer playing vs AI. Along with a mobile-first implementation that doesn’t require a persistent internet connection, it’s a win win: lower server costs for Temple Gates Games and more flexibility for players.
The Dominion AI was created by Keldon Jones of Race for the Galaxy AI fame. It is the first to use the techniques behind Alpha Zero in a shipping board game app. This is the most advanced AI in modern boardgames. The impact of this is that a game designed to be multiplayer can also deliver a strong single player experience to a puzzle audience.
As the game grows, with 15 expansions and counting, the AI won’t have the usual drop in skill as new content is added because there is no static set of rules managing AI behavior to get outdated. The neural network learns through self-play and keeps up with new content relatively easily.
“We run a few training rounds to update it rather than gutting and trying to extend an existing ruleset for every expansion,” Duringer said. “Our daily puzzle audience has grown five times in two years. About half of our players play the Daily Dominion, which faces players against our AI. The popularity of this puzzle proves the value of including this new style of AI.”
A silver lining
The game has multiplayer with real-time async and match-made modes. It has smartplay options and on screen log to smooth play in a digital context, and innovations including a wordle-like Daily kingdom that players across the world can play and compare strategies on.
There are perks you can’t get in a physical game, such as hints. Hints tally VP, coin, and other dynamic amounts in real time and if a card has a conditional bonus which is met or can be met, a hint will let you know that its bonus will fire off.
This can be helpful in deciding which cards to discard and which to keep. Most importantly, it has enough cards to make 100 septillion kingdom combinations and loads of customization options to wrangle it all to fit players’ needs. All optimized for lightning quick play on phones, tablets as well as PC.
“We see this work paying off. The Dominion beta alone has exceeded the downloads for recent megahits like Wingspan and Terraforming Mars on Android,” Duringer said.
Dominion may be the last of its kind in another way.
“It’s only possible to offer the Dominion Base Set for free because it has so many expansions offered for purchase,” Duringer said. “If there were just one or two, we’d almost certainly have to charge for the Base Set and we’d see a fraction of the downloads. Those many expansions exist because Dominion is a holdover from an era of games where publishers weren’t pressured to move so quickly to the next title.”
The silver lining for this crisis in the viability of digital boardgame apps is that there are a lot more players flooding into the medium of tabletop games, thanks to games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering — Arena, as well as indie hits Slay the Spire, Monster Train, Inscryption and DotAGE.
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