I play a lot of Dominion. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s one of the best games of the last 5 years in that it both introduced a new mechanic to games (deck building) and is loved by, well, everyone that I’ve ever heard of playing it. My ex-girlfriend and I had Dominion as one of our favorite activities. So in sum, if you haven’t played it but are reading this: ask me to play a game, I’ll say yes, and you’ll like it. Why? Its short, it plays really well (and slightly differently, which I take as a good thing) with 2 or 3 or 4 players, its relatively quick to pick up, and with 7 expansions, each game is different than the last.
Except, well, when you end up playing a lot of games of Dominion (and with the help of the free online site http://dominion.isotropic.org/play, I have played hundreds of games), some games don’t feel that different. Some cards are bought every time they’re in the game (Chapel, Laboratory, Pirate Ship) and some cards are almost never bought (Adventurer, Chancellor, Secret Chamber all come to mind). Far more often then I’d like there are 5 or more piles that are never touched because the optimal strategy was clear and it didn’t involve half of the cards that were options.
Every new expansion in Dominion has brought about new mechanics (Seaside brought planning for next turn, Prosperity brought in the big money, Hinterlands brought cards that do something as you buy them), but Cornucopia did something different. Rather than introducing a new mechanic, it introduced a new strategy: variation.
The Cornucopia expansion doesn’t entirely fix the problem of not utilizing a larger number of piles, but it does provide three cards that encourage dabbling into piles you might otherwise ignore: Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty.
Menagerie doesn’t reward variation as much as the other two, (in fact, the best use for it seems to be as a counter to Militia), but when you have a good Menagerie deck going, its a lot of fun. Any sort of +action card (Festival, Fishing Village) along with a card that makes you discard (Horse Traders, Vault and yes, even our old friend Secret Chamber) or trash (Develop) cards keeps the menagerie train going, often to excellent results. Two of my favorites to combo it with are Inn and Hamlet, because they give you both +actions AND discarding. Of course, playing with a Menagerie and a Horn of Plenty leads to even better results.
Horn of Plenty is probably my favorite card at the moment because it doesn’t do anything crazy (look at the preview cards for Dominion Dark Ages if you want crazy), but can make you do things a little crazy. Suddenly you decide that maybe you don’t want another silver, but will give that Chancellor a go. I’ll admit: I have fallen victim to the siren’s song and tailored my deck towards having Horn of Plenty buying me 5 and 6 cost cards before. But even more often, I’ve used it to produce a 6 Province beat-down. It’s a five cost card that I often keep track of in the later stages of the game, as it has the ability to do things that other 5 cost cards don’t.
Unlike many 5 cost cards, it needs some help; you can’t just stock up on Horn of Plenty and hope that works out the way you can with Laboratory or Treasury. This fact shouldn’t be understated. The fact that Horn of Plenty is powerful but also can significantly slow down your deck if you try to stock up on them is a feature that I really enjoy. It requires not only seeing a good combo, but recognizing that having too much of one part of that combo can kill it. In this way, Horn of Plenty functions less like a treasure card and more like a terminal action (Festival and Library go well together, but you want more festivals than libraries). The nuance required for Horn of Plenty to work well is just as true for Fairgrounds.
Fairgrounds is again a game changer, but in a different way than Menagerie or Horn of Plenty, in that it provides a different path to Victory from the usual “race to 5 Provinces,” especially in a two player game. And part of what makes it so viable is that it can slow the game down, if you’re going Fairgrounds strategy while your opponent is going for Provinces, they suddenly need to get to 6 or 7 Provinces rather than just 5. Those extra couple of victory cards can bring some engines to a screeching halt. All you need to do is end the game with 15 different cards in your deck. This isn’t the easiest thing, seeing as there are only 17 cards in a standard game. But things can get easier with Young Witch (1 extra pile and the likelihood that you end up with a curse) or a number of Alchemy cards (Potion adds a pile and often slows the game down).
Fairgrounds isn’t an autowin by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a card with a strategy that must be respected, as getting 6 Victory Points for a cost of 6 is very strong. Playing a Fairgrounds deck will often lead to smaller unexpected combinations of cards that while they wouldn’t win a game by themselves (Hamlet and Watchtower) can make a significant impact.
These three cards aren’t the entirety of the Cornucopia expansion, but they are the reason why the Cornucopia expansion ranks highest in my mind. Any time I can go back and play with cards in prior sets that I’ve played with over and over and feel like I’m doing something new, the more I get out of the game.