Xenon Profiteer takes one of the more useful strategies found in the paragon of deckbuilding games, Dominion, and builds an entirely new game around it, while also incorporating a delightfully nerdy (well, if you’re into the noble gases, at least) theme. The rules are simple to learn, although they could be written more clearly, and the game concludes in a reasonable enough amount of time that you could play it twice in an evening.
The Dominion strategy in question has a few names, but I think most players know it as the Chapel strategy, named for the first card that allowed players to execute the plan: Keep trashing the least valuable cards in your deck. While deckbuilding implies that you’re trying to build a big deck, keeping a deck small, with only the most valuable cards (worth the most money or allowing strong actions), is a very competitive strategy in Dominion and often difficult to beat when it’s executed correctly.
Players in Xenon Profiteer are trying to trash cards by design, and in fact get at least one chance every turn to trash one or more cards in their hands. The goal of the game is to isolate xenon cards in your hand so that you can use them to complete contracts, cards that return points and/or money in exchange for one to five of those xenon cards. There are four cards showing different types of gases, and on every turn a player may add “air,” a set of one of each of those cards—hydrogen, oxygen, krypton and xenon. (There’s a cute note at the end of the rules on where there are no argon cards.) A turn begins with “distillation,” where a player may remove all gas cards of one element from his/her hand, with hydrogen first, krypton last. If you have no gas cards other than xenon in your hand, you have isolated the xenon and may place those cards on the table or use them immediately to fulfill your open contract. After distillation, a player may add air and also gain $2, and then may choose to either buy a card from the market or to place a bid token on any of those cards, which may be worth $1 to that player later in the game.
Players may also purchase upgrade cards from the central market, most of which are permanent additions to that player’s factory. The central market has two rows of four cards each, one row of upgrades, one of contracts. A player may take a contract at any time, whether or not s/he has enough xenon to complete it. Upgrades cost money to acquire, and then more money to install permanently. These upgrades grant additional powers to players, often significant ones, like rewarding the player with $1 for every oxygen card distilled (trashed), or allowing the player to fulfill one contract per turn at a discount of one xenon card.
If a player can’t or doesn’t wish to buy or take any of the eight cards in the center, there are two options available. One is to wipe one of the two rows, replacing it with four new cards, instead of adding air. The other is to place a bid token rather than buying a card. Each player has five of these tokens and may place one on any of the eight cards. If the player later chooses to buy that card, the price is reduced by $1 for each of his/her bid tokens on the card. If another player chooses to buy it, the player must pay the face value to the bank plus $1 per token to the opposing players who placed them. (More than one player may place a bid token on a card.) This can benefit you in two ways—you save money later or raise the price for an opponent—but typically would come in place of a buy action, unless you have an upgrade card like the one that lets you place a bid token for every hydrogen card you distill.
Games take 30-40 minutes, maybe more if you’ve got an indecisive person in the group, and it plays two to four. The game has a lot of decisions to make, but the individual choices are simple; the long-term planning is what gives the game its depth, especially as the game ends once any player has either completed five contracts or installed five upgrades, so you’re going to have to choose widely among the many helpful upgrades you’ll see over the course of a game. With so many deckbuilding options hitting the market—it seems like every designer thinks he can come up with the better Dominion—it’s a pleasure to play one that doesn’t try to do too much, with one core mechanic that helps drive a game that’s easy to learn but still feels new.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.