Updated: Oct 24, 2020
With the grandaddy of deck-builders, Donald X Vaccarino's Dominion (Rio Grande Games) now 11 years old, it is hard for a game that sticks so closely to the established formula to feel fresh. In that, Heart of Crown almost succeeds. Designed in Japan by Ginkgo, Heart of Crown (Japanime) originally came out three years after its progenitor, but a 2017 English-language Kickstarter campaign garnered it new attention and, although two expansions are not going to offer the variety of Dominion's umpteen billion cards, it would seem to me a worthwhile alternative, especially if you like the well-drawn cutesy manga-style art by Haniwa, Yuji Himukai, Medilore, Chosuke O-ide, Yuki Takahata and Nemigi Toto.
Let's start with the less inspired, what Heart of Crown did not change: the currency and victory points (VPs) are almost identical ('Estates' cost one more) as is the base A-B-C structure (Action, Buy, Clean-up); many, many of the cards have effects that feel like direct clones of Dominion ones: attack, defence and curses. The upshot is that mechanically, tho' certainly not visually, it all feels quite same-y. To be fair, that's not necessarily a bad thing: entry to the game is facilitated by familiar mechanisms and, heck, Dominion was a ground-breaking game and why fix what isn't broke?
There is more good than not-as-good. First, Heart of Crown is a bit quicker than Dominion; there's no Gardens-deck trudgery going on here. You will have to cull some currency cards at one point and you can move on those deadweight VP cards for free while retaining the VPs... wooo! The point of the game - its skin-thin theme - is to back a princess to the throne and, when doing so, set her up in a domain with 2-3 cities to call her own. This takes a chunk of valuable buying power out of your deck. It also makes the decision of when to do it important; especially as each princess has their own special ability.
A graphic design tweak adds another positive: '+X Actions' is no longer text based; instead, large arrows on the cards show if you have another card-to-play slot available. Thought has also gone into the box design: the compact box incorporates dividers illustrating every card and with sufficient space to additionally incorporate both of the available expansions with all cards sleeved!
The game addresses the irritation of having the right action card come up at the wrong time. You can keep - at no cost - an unplayed Action card for the next hand by placing it on a city in your princess' domain. Some attacks can target kept cards, so storing cards is not without risk. The domain also prompts another couple of mini-dilemmas: you can't buy from the Market and put VPs in your domain in the same round, so timing (and a little luck) is key; plus, the chaff you start with is worth negative VPs, so while getting them out of your deck this way improves your engine, it also slows your progress to the 20 point end-game trigger.
While Heart of Crown's changes to the deck-building core are generally for the better, having to buy your domain does engender a somewhat scripted feel to proceedings. Dominion was about the 'tipping point' of switching your engine from gaining cash/cards to VPs; here, you simply HAVE to get cash as you can't have a domain without it. That effectively directs you down a 'big money' route. The game is quick enough that you might not find this an issue, but the base set's mix of cards made me feel I'd seen a lot of what the game has to offer after only a few plays, though that may well just be because I've played so many other games of this ilk. Certainly, the base set of Heart of Crown alone offers a wide variety of set up options (10 recommended alternative combinations of cards for the market, plus a set of 'randomiser' cards for generating your own unique set up).
Do does Heart of Crown 'kill' Dominion? No. Is there any point in having both? Probably not. The appealing manga-style artwork and compact box aside, the big USP for Heart of Crown is the operation of the princess' domain: a second-act cue that you're making your break for the end-game; a place to keep cards and where all the game's main differences reside. If you enjoy deck builders and this feature sounds interesting, then this is a game you'll want to check out.
(Review by David Fox)