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Classic card game Dominion is getting a scary good new AI

Developers claim it can ‘master cards that have yet to be designed’

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A knight riding along a rural road in key art for Dominion. Image: Rio Grande Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dominion, a modern classic among tabletop games, is getting a new digital app. The collaboration between publisher Rio Grande Games and developer Temple Gates Games will be the first to apply an advanced artificial intelligence to the game, one that has been trained on a neural network. Developers say this new approach, designed in partnership with AI researcher Keldon Jones, is so adaptive that the AI is capable of playing — and winning — with cards that have not yet been created.

In Dominion, players take on the role of monarchs competing to build the most valuable kingdom. Each round, between two and four humans spend in-game currency to refine their decks, optimizing them for the given rules in play for that particular session. But those rules — called kingdom cards — change every time you start a game. They can make certain in-game resources more or less valuable, and even change how player abilities and other cards function.

A sample of the Dominion app in action, showing the player hand and the kingdom cards currently in play. Image: Temple Gates Games/Rio Grande Games

“You might see a combo of two or three cards that you won’t see again for 100 games,” programmer Jeff Gates told Polygon. “Even for super-experienced players, there can be an entirely new way to play the game that you might have never played before in 1,000 games.”

Including all of the game’s 13 expansions, Temple Gates CEO Theresa Duringer says there are more than 66 sextillion possible combinations. That diversity keeps Dominion in the running as one of the best tabletop games ever conceived. It also makes building a top-tier digital AI — traditionally some variation on a giant spreadsheet filled with if/then statements — nearly impossible.

“Your AI tends to be kind of limited by the skill of the developer that is scripting the AI,” Duringer said. “You have to script it all, which is expensive. It takes a ton of time to do. And every time you add an expansion [...] you have to redo everything.”

The solution that a neural network provides for Temple Gates is the ability to run tens of thousands of simulated games ahead of time, before the player even shows up to play. Those repetitions make the AI stronger and better at playing the game. For this Dominion AI, developers went extremely granular with the inputs.

“Instead of having a concept of a card in our neural network, we have a concept of each of the components of a card,” said Duringer. “The card has a cost. The card has a victory point value. The card might give you an extra buy or an extra action. If we can just understand these components, we don’t need to know the ‘value’ of a card. We can surmise it on the spot by understanding those components.”

A female knight holding a red banner in card art for Dominion. Image: Rio Grande Games

Essentially, Temple Gates broke the cards down and explained them to the AI the same way you might teach a new human player how to play the game. The result, Temple Gates said, is a more competitive opponent and a cheaper AI, both in terms of development cost and computing power. In fact, Temple Gates says all the math happens on your local device, not in the cloud.

“The first time we hooked it up [with the base game] was kind of magical,” Jeff Gates said, “It demolished me over and over again. I’ve been playing Dominion casually, in person, for years. I’ve probably played 100, 200, maybe more games. And this AI just consistently demolished me on the base set of cards.”

But the team went further and began adding in some of Dominion’s 13 expansions, including many cards the AI had never seen before. They were stunned when the AI kept winning.

“One of the crazy things about this AI, and one of the claims that we’re making is that this AI can master cards that have yet to be designed,” said Theresa Duringer. “The way that we know it does that is that we’ve seen it in action [...] and had it master the expansions.”

Fans of Dominion know that the game already exists in a digital format. Dominion Online has been running for years, facilitating multiplayer matches with all the fixins, including a competent AI of its own. But Temple Gates says its new app will far outstrip Dominion Online’s capabilities for those who prefer single-player games.

You can expect Dominion for Android, iOS, and Windows PC via Steam soon. The final game will support networked multiplayer alongside the AI, and include cross-platform play. There are also pass-and-play and asynchronous modes, which will make it an excellent choice for both in-person and long-distance games across multiple time zones. Temple Gates said the base game will be free on all platforms. Fans will be able to purchase expansions for $5 to $10 each.

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