Any good way to add a handicap in Dominion?

I play Dominion pretty regularly with one group of friends, but only occasionally with another group. This creates a pretty big experience gap between me and the second group, and I'm afraid they might lose interest in the game if I win the vast majority of the time.

What are some successful handicapping methods you have tried? Something that still challenges me, but levels out the playing field a bit.

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Personally, I don't hold back. I figure they won't learn if I take it easy on 'em. Then, when they earn a win on their own it is much more sweet. That doesn't mean I won't offer advice on their first couple games, or whenever they ask, just that I won't handicap myself in any way. – Pat Ludwig Dec 19 '10 at 19:36
You are getting a lot of answers with some form of "I haven't tried this, but". You should consult the Guidelines for Great Subjective Questions and refocus your question to encourage folks to share their actual experiences and not to answer based on conjecture. – Pat Ludwig Dec 20 '10 at 6:14

Probably the easiest form of handicap would be to subtract a certain number of VP's from your score at the end of the game. That should allow of a pretty fine grained control over you handicap and you can still play exactly the same as you would in your other group.

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+1 - this is clearly an easy and efficient way to go about things. The experienced players can still be happy that they played a good game if their final score would have been enough to win without the handicap; and you have the great advantage that it'll be very easy to tell when the newbies start doing well enough for the handicap to be forgotten. – thesunneversets Dec 20 '10 at 0:20
+1 for simplicity. My only gripe with this solution is that you lose certainty as to the handicap's size. The effects of scoring e.g. -10 points are much different when e.g. the winner scores 50 than when the winner scores 30 (assuming the winner's score is a good metric to estimate the other players' scores as well). – Jon Dec 20 '10 at 1:41
-1 for not being practical. I don't think this is really very effective honestly. I've won a game before w/ a score of -1. I've had close games, and games where someone wins by a landslide. If you're playing w/ Monuments or Bishops scores can be pretty ridiculous, whereas other setups can lead to low score differentials. – aslum Dec 20 '10 at 5:11
@Jon & aslum: Good Point. Maybe instead of a fixed number you subtract something like 5% of the best score? – Kempeth Dec 20 '10 at 8:42
For all the great ideas here, I think the simplest approach may be best. I can quietly remove a Province from my score pile at the end of the game (or more/less if its a high/low scoring game). – keithjgrant Dec 20 '10 at 18:46

As an informal handicap, when I'm playing in a game like this I usually try to make myself take my 2nd strategy - instead of doing the most obvious thing on the board, I come up with something more oddball and see if I can make that work.

Another thing that's not a huge handicap but can help is letting the less experienced players choose the 10 Kingdom cards, so they can pick things that fit into their own comfortable strategies.

I use both these techniques when playing with my wife (she plays every few months while I play 3 times a week at lunch) and thought I still win a lot, she has more fun this way.

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I'd upvote this twice if I could. I really think this is the best answer (better then my answer!). – aslum Dec 20 '10 at 5:13
Bonus: it's also fun to make something wacky work out! – lilserf Dec 20 '10 at 5:41
I love the idea of playing with your 2nd best strategy. Not only is a handicap that doesn't make the other players fell inferior, but it also gives you a chance to try out new, perhaps more risky strategies you might not have otherwise played out. – Adam Wuerl Jan 8 '11 at 16:57

The aforementioned "gain a Curse on each shuffle" handicap is pretty harsh, and may not be appropriate for all card sets. It's conceptually interesting, though.

Consider letting the other players get a number of extra turns at the start. That'll let them ramp up a little before you jump in. Alternately, give each other player a special "extra turn" token that lets them take an extra turn at the end of their normal turn. (Eh, actually, I don't like that idea as much, now that I've written it...)

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This is one of my preferred methods as it changes the game the least. A victory point handicap I suppose is the 'best', but it makes it EXTREMELY obvious that you would've won if there was no handicap, which is no fun. If you let the other players take 3 turns before you're first one, the game will change very little, and it hides the fact that there actually was a handicap at the end of the game. :) – Gordon Gustafson Apr 9 '11 at 21:04
I really think this response should be at the top -- letting newbs simply take a couple bonus turns at the start of the game is a great way for them to get a subtle but significant advantage, and helps them grow faster by forcing them to independently evaluate cards instead of parroting more experienced players. Do you mind answer-ifying this one a little more? e.g., starting with the answer's actual suggestion rather than a comment about someone else's suggestion. – warbaker Nov 22 '11 at 22:54

I haven't tried this so I can't say how big the handicap will be.

Another thing you can try is simply skipping your first turn. This is probably a lighter handicap.

Update:

I don't know why it didn't occur to me earlier, but of course you can also start by adding one or two Curses in your deck. Or swapping Estates with Curses, to keep the deck size constant.

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I like this suggestions, although I don't know how it would play out IRL. – Tuxhedoh Dec 19 '10 at 15:56
I would +1 but you haven't tried this, who know, this might be a great answer and maybe its not? – Pureferret Nov 1 '12 at 13:11

I will often pick a good card that I'd normally want >1 copy of and try to win without it. This is similar to @lilserf's great answer of picking your 2nd strategy, but a little less harsh. Like that answer, it's polite in that it's not at all obvious that I'm taking a handicap. Also, I can choose card(s) that are particularly annoying, either attack cards or cards that tend to make turns take a long time (e.g. King's Court).

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Tweaking with the starting deck is a handicap that scales on most Kingdom setups and, in particular, replacing Copper(s) with Silver(s). Before analyzing this, here is why some other handicaps would not work:

• Deduct points: it's simple to apply, but not simple to design it, as it's arbitrary. You have to decide before the start of the game, but on what basis are you going to decide it? -1 point? -5 points? -10 points? If you have Colony-kingdoms with trashing and no Curses, 1-5 points would do no difference. On the other hand, in a game with Sea Hag / Ambassador every point would count. It's still a handicap I would recommend if you'd like something quick and dirty.
• Insert curses between reshuffles: that's too much of a handicap, I wouldn't enjoy the game in the first place. Moreover, it would make Cursers, like the Witch, lose their power.
• Let your opponents open 5/2; still depends on the Kingdom. If Mountebank/Chapel exist, it's indeed a good opener; on the other hand, if Ambassador is in the game, it hurts not to purchase him first turn. What is more, that's the "softest" handicap, as you can easily overcome an opponent's 5/2 opening, if you're more experienced.
• Action limiting, extra virtual money per turn, etc, are difficult to monitor and enforce.
• Extra turns is something that could work actually, but you have to keep track of them and it lengthens the game a bit. However, they could be a very good equivalent of what I'm proposing below.

As follows, you need something simple. Tweaking with the starting deck is easy to apply and does not alter much the flow of the gameplay. Even so, tweaking with the starting deck is not trivial and should be done with care. Here are some common/proposed handicaps which I feel they wouldn't work in most cases.

• Replace your starting Estates with Curses / Give your opponents Duchies instead of Estates. This would have an impact in Remodel/Salvager/Bishop-oriented games; or in Duke games, the extra Duchy could indeed determine the game. But other than these cases, it wouldn't make a difference. A solid play would be able to bridge these differences in little time.
• Give your opponents 8 Coppers and 4 Estates; that's worse actually than the original starting deck. Not only you're giving them two extra bad cards, but you're also slowing down their deck cycling. Even just giving them an extra Copper would be bad.

So, it all comes down to: replace some Coppers with Silvers. This has the following advantages:

• Even with just a single extra Silver, in lieu of a Copper, your opponent may be able to buy earlier a crucial Gold, or a key 5-cost card and play them before you do. This earlier power shall help them avoid buying unnecessary weak cards (Spy, Councilor, Woodcutter) and get them buying Provinces earlier. It's a serious advantage, which however is not impossible to overcome; if the experience gap is considerable, it will give the experienced player a challenging, but not impossible-to-win game.
• I consider this more-or-less equivalent to the extra turns. If you give extra turns to your opponents, they can buy and use earlier some key cards, like Moneylender, Witch or even just the Silver. However, it's much easier to control and it plays faster. Only difference, that they have a few worse cards in their decks.
• You can very easy adjust the difficulty level. If you're feeling you need a serious handicap, give them 2 or 3 Silvers, instead of Coppers; if you need a lighter handicap, one Silver would do the job and you'll still see a difference even with one Silver.
• Easy to set up, doesn't affect your own deck (barring some earlier curses that might arrive) and doesn't disrupt the flow of the game.
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Along the same lines as giving yourself less starting resources, you could allow the other players to start with more... either silvers instead of coppers, or maybe 2 coppers and 2 silvers.

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I'd say that just replacing one copper w/ a silver would be a pretty huge advantage. Potential for a first turn gold. – aslum Dec 19 '10 at 20:25
Giving other players a more powerful starting deck would hurt their ability to learn the general strategies of the game. – keithjgrant Dec 20 '10 at 18:48

I don't know how much open information there is in Dominion, but one thing you could try is offering helpful suggestions to the other players mid-game. If someone makes an obviously inferior play, you could point it out and suggest something else. That's what our group does, especially when one person is introducing a new game.

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As a general rule, you don't know what another player's hand contains until they actually play. Having said that, in my group, if we see someone new make a boneheaded move, we'll usually let them change the cards they've played this turn. – Powerlord Dec 20 '10 at 15:43
I like this, as the best long-term option is leveling up your friends so that you don't need to play with a handicap. I'd additionally suggest that you do a post-mortem: after the game was over explain what your strategy was and why you selected that strategy given the kingdom cards that were available. My guess is most beginning players don't really have a cohesive strategy at all, even at the level of something simple like big money. – Adam Wuerl Jan 8 '11 at 16:56

This is a bit wacky but it struck me just now and I was quite tickled by it... you could handicap a good player in Dominion by ADDING estates to their deck; they would technically start off with more Victory Points, but their early draws would be terrible.

The experienced players might want to compete over how many extra estates they could put in their deck and still survive, it'd take a brave player to add more than a few!

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When playing a series of games we use the following house rule: Starting w/ the whoever came in first each player picks a kingdom card to remove. Whoever came in last gets to pick 2. Then the last player divvies the randomizer deck up amongst the players, with each player getting an about equal portion of the randomizer deck to pick from, but the last place player getting two portions. Each person picks their randomizers and reveals them at the same time.

Note that we keep the randomizer deck sorted approximately by cost of the cards from low to high. For example, we're playing a series of 3 player games. Al won, Bob came in second and Carl last. Al would pick a kingdom, then Bob, then Carl picks two. Those kingdoms are set aside (if we're using the Blackmarket a couple cards from each go into the Blackmarket deck)

Carl decides he wants to pick from the expensive cards, and so takes the bottom half of the deck, Bob wants to pick from the cheap cards and takes the top quarter, leaving a quarter for Al to pick from. Once everyone has picked a card to add in (Carl picking two) they reveal them. This means each game changes a little, but some of the previous stuff is still in play.

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We experimented with meta-games involving everybody but the winner getting to pick the cards that went into the next kingdom -- such as, play with the same kingdom, but each runner up player in descending point order throws out one kingdom card from the old set an picks a new kingdom card for the new set. This sometimes had the positive effect of at least forcing the better players to think up new strategies. – Vynce Jun 19 '15 at 1:03

At the start of the game after seeing the available kingdom cards, allow the junior player(s) to choose a kingdom card the senior player(s) will be disallowed from gaining by any means this game.

For a harsh handicap, ban the senior player(s) from two or even more cards. This forces you into your "second strategy".

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A simple way to handicap yourself a bit might be to replace your initial estates w/ curses. Obviously this won't be a good handicap always (FREX if there is an Ambassador or Chapel in play), but if Upgrade, Remodel, Salvager or the like are in play it could give a pretty decent advantage to the new players.

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The easiest thing to do is to just start later. Dominion has a distinct (though slight) first player advantage. So start last, every game. (The rules even say to have the player to the left of whoever last won to go first.) If that's not enough, just do nothing your first turn, or two turns. This has the advantage of being completely legal under the rules as written and so no changes need to be made to the game at all.

When playing against poorer players, I sometimes handicap myself by not allowing myself to intentionally gain attack cards. Sometimes I also play a slightly worse strategy than I otherwise would play. But in my experience, unless it's overwhelming, just play fast and well -- get more games in, and they'll get better. And if they're really bad, sometimes just play treasure bot to make sure they're all above base-line.

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If you want a more significant handicap:

Every time you have to shuffle your deck, you could gain a Curse just prior to shuffling. This would provide a more continual handicap, rather than one you can just overcome in a few turns (like a weakened starting deck).

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This isn't a huge handicap, but...

Consider allowing them to always have a 5/2 split for money the first two turns, and you always have a 4/3 split the first two turns.

Since the 5-cost cards all tend to be powerful, this gives them an advantage sometime during turns 3-5.

One caveat: Don't do this during a game without 2-cost actions.

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If I were to choose a handcap, I believe I would either add or replace existing cards in my starting deck with curse cards. This would be a handicap in both total victory points and in unusable cards in your deck.

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Newer or less strategic players tend to favor a higher luck to skill ratio in games. So, if your play group doesn't mind a house rule, you could across the board have everyone reshuffle their deck every turn. This changes the game, for sure, but it is fair.

If you want to singly handicap yourself, you need to decide if it's going to be a one time handicap or ongoing.

One-time:

1. Tweak starting deck (less copper/replace VPs with curses)
2. Skipping turns
3. etc.

On-going:

1. Everything costs you 1 extra
2. Per-turn action-limit
3. Curse every-turn etc.
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"So, if your play group doesn't mind a house rule, you could across the board have everyone reshuffle their deck every turn." This wouldn't be fair if either Chancellor or Counting House (and to a lesser extent, Wishing Well) are one of the Kingdom Cards. – Powerlord Dec 20 '10 at 15:40
IMHO you wouldn't even be playing Dominion anymore. It would basically turn the game into a luck-fest. The point of going through you're whole deck is so you're guaranteed to draw all of you good and bad cards, and this would completely destroy that. Normally Dominion is about 97% skill and maybe 3% luck. This rule would make it more like 30% skill and 70% luck. – Gordon Gustafson Apr 9 '11 at 21:01
All good points, and I fully agree. However, I still maintain for the OP's question this would balance the game more and still let the others players improve to the point where you're playing 'real' dominion. – Neal Tibrewala Apr 10 '11 at 4:34