Vanilla cards are Action cards that have no effect other than some combination of +Cards, +Actions, +Buy, and + . These are the simplest card effects to understand and execute; for this reason the bulk of the game's vanilla Kingdom cards are in the base Dominion set, whose overall theme is simplicity of effect. They are often a useful baseline of comparison for the effects of similar cards.
Many cards have vanilla bonuses in addition to their other, seemingly more interesting or unique, effects in order to make them more balanced and interesting to play. For instance, a card saying simply "Each other player gains a Curse" would be too weak to be useful as a curser, so Witch has a "vanilla" +2 cards bonus in order to make it playable.
Cards that are the simplest examples of what is seen as a larger family of cards are sometimes referred to specifically as "vanilla". For instance, Village is sometimes referred to as "vanilla Village" to distinguish it from the family of other villages, even though Worker's Village and Bazaar, both in the "village" category, are both vanilla cards themselves.
List of vanilla cards
- Dominion: Festival, Laboratory, Market, Smithy, Village, Woodcutter
- Seaside: Bazaar
- Prosperity: Worker's Village
- Dark Ages: Abandoned Mine, Necropolis, Ruined Library, Ruined Market, Ruined Village
Certain cards could be considered vanilla under slightly broader criteria:
- Great Hall (from Intrigue) and Monument (from Prosperity) are vanilla if victory points are considered a vanilla property along with +Cards, +Actions, and so on.
- Fishing Village, Caravan, Merchant Ship, and Wharf (from Seaside) are Duration cards that have only vanilla effects, but on two consecutive turns.
- Pawn, Conspirator, and Nobles (from Intrigue) and City (from Prosperity) have only vanilla effects, but which vanilla effects they have is dependent on the circumstances in which they are played, or the player's choice.
- Grand Market and Peddler (from Prosperity), Nomad Camp and Border Village (from Hinterlands), and Fortress and Hunting Grounds (from Dark Ages) have special properties when you buy, gain, or trash them, but only vanilla effects while they are actually in your deck.
Thoughts on design
Donald X. Vaccarino has this to say on the subject of designing vanilla cards and their relationships to similar cards:
"Okay the vanilla card problem is this: vanilla cards limit what other cards you can make, without having two similar cards such that one is too obviously better than the other.
For example, Dominion has Village: "+1 Card +2 Actions." It costs. Village means I can never make a card that's Village-with-a-bonus, without charging or more for it. I make Village-with-a-bonus sometimes - Mining Village in Intrigue is one. And when I do it has to cost .... I can do Village-with-a-bonus cards at forever. As long as each bonus is different, the cards don't end up too close. Sure they're both Villages, but is the one bonus always better than the other?
...The solution to the vanilla card problem is not to do vanilla cards. If your basic version of a concept includes a bonus, you can vary the bonus and keep the cost the same. Only when you do the bonus-less version are you stuck with increasing the cost. But you can't just not do vanilla cards. You need them for how simple they are. So in the end you pick and choose. For example Dominion does not have a card that just says "+1 Card +1 Action +." If I made that card, it would limit what other cards I could make. So instead I just do variations on it.