Dominions 4 excites the storyteller in me. There are sagas to share and they’re not the sort in which a fisherman becomes a king or a lord protects his homestead from a great slavering beastie. Dominions doesn’t care for trifles and the fish it fries are blasphemous monstrosities that live somewhere in or about the R'lyeh region. This is a turn-based strategy game in which nations and armies are pawns in the service of pretenders, avatars on the verge of godhood, who clash with one another as they strive to be the last deity standing. Here's wot I think.
This is a game in which Zeus can punch Cthulhu in the face and an immortal lich king can reanimate his fallen bodyguard to create a dread army, more powerful than the mortal flesh that the enemy so foolishly flayed from moon-white bones. I finished a campaign yesterday and at one point, in an attempt to explain to the rest of team RPS why I’d been unresponsive for most of the day, I described the situation I found myself in:
“I just hired a sorceress whose special ability has this effect: 'loses less subjects during cross-breeding rituals, thereby creating more freaks.’ She lives in Thing Woods. That I do not know how to perform a cross-breeding ritual is currently the saddest fact of my life.”
In that particular game my pretender was a crippled forge lord, Vulcan on crutches, and he led a nation of centurions and gladiators, a post-pantheon Rome that had chosen its one true god. He went before them into battle, wielding a whip that sparked with lightning and struck with a sound that split the sky.
Using strength of numbers and discipline, I conquered a continent but one rival remained, his capital city a drowned Atlantis beneath the ocean’s waves. Occasionally, amphibious armies assaulted my coastal provinces but they didn’t threaten for long. My defences, built on the fruits of a strong economy, ensured that the only real damage they inflicted was to the value of previously in-demand beachfront properties, which were now downwind from heaped piles of rotting fishy corpses.
Victory conditions have changed since Dominions 3. Previously, I would have had to destroy that city under the sea in order to ascend to my rightful place (perching on a cloud quaffing Ambrosia on the rocks and lobbing the occasional fireball at My People to keep them in line). Dominions 4 adds the Thrones of Ascension, fixed structures that are randomly scattered across the world. The pretender who claims the thrones ascends to godhood. To make the process more interesting, rather than simply being points on a map, each throne is named and grants bonuses/powers to the pretender who holds it.
Conquering the thrones is more complicated than it seems. An army cannot simply destroy any surrounding forces and tap into the power of the mighty furniture – only the nation’s prophet or the pretender itself can claim a throne. The player can turn any ordinary commander into the current prophet of his/her faith but there can only be one at a time. A wounded and aged prophet can be a hindrance and I’ve sent a fair few into unwinnable battles just to be rid of them.
As for commanders, they come in various flavours, including warriors, wizards, and formidable, legendary heroes and creatures. Every nation has its own set of recruits, covering ordinary units and commanders, and magical sites can be discovered on controlled provinces, unlocking even more possibilities. I found the cross-breeding sorceress lurking around one such site, paid her a few pennies and brought her on board. She was the kind of person I wanted on my side, even if I didn’t know quite how to utilise her extraordinary abilities.
The life of a wannabe god is confusing. Maybe it’s the pubescent stage and everything, from spots to sexy thoughts, clears up a little after ascension. There are so many possibilities that it can be hard to focus. Do I really want to go to University? Which one? Which course? What kind of trousers should I wear to the interview?
Replace those concerns with god creation, nation selection, magical research paths and battle plans and you start to realise just how many pairs of proverbial trousers a divine being has to choose from. Like a kid in a candy store or our teenager in a student bar, the Dominions player may well be paralysed by possibilities. When selecting a player character, how is it possible to choose between a fountain of blood that demands sacrifices, granting great and terrible powers to its priests in return, and a giant angry bull that is almost always on fire? There are, effectively, infinite possibilities, with many physical forms unique to a group of nations, and magic and dominion effects chosen by the player.
Oh gods. I haven’t even talked about dominion yet and it's right there in the title of the game. Every pretender has a ‘dominion’, an area of land that falls under its control, where it is worshipped and its influence spreads. During creation, the dominion can have negative or positive effects associated with it and its overall strength is decided, determining how quickly it spreads from temples and the actions of prophets.
A weak dominion might consist of barren fields and an unfortunate populace, cursed and vulnerable to the accidents of life. Selecting these negative effects provides the player with more points to spend on their pretender – more magical paths can be opened up and the power of each one can be expanded. There’s a thematic sense to these choices – a powerful necromancer’s lands may, necessarily, blister with plagued livestock and blighted crops.
Creating themed gods is my favourite part of Dominions 4. I choose a nation that would either suit them perfectly – a Cthulhu and his deep ones – or let them lord it over some poor sods who’d much rather have a kind benevolent ruler but have ended up under the thrall of a sphinx that vomits blood. I have enjoyed the actual campaign part of the game as well but considering how quickly a map can be conquered and victory won, I’ve finished an incredibly small percentage of the games I’ve started.
Here are some reasons for that. The end-game, despite the improvement brought on by the inclusion of the thrones, can be somewhat tedious. In the instance described above, even though I didn’t need to destroy the enemy pretender, I still had to claim an underwater throne. There are many ways to do that and amphibious armies are easily recruited – every new province creates units of its own type rather than converting to the player’s nation. I opted to have one of my mages construct a magic item that allowed my prophet to breathe underwater and then sent him into the depths.
It’s pleasurable to flick through spellbooks, forges and mercenary stacks in search of a solution to a specific problem, and Dominions 4 probably offers a greater variety of specific problems than any other game of this sort. They arise dynamically as well, from the choices made before the game has begun and through the actions of enemies and independents alike. Satisfying as the process can be, it’s also time-consuming, with a great deal of cumbersome army management and research balancing required to reach victory.
Combat is autoresolved but formations can be chosen beforehand. This is important – archers should be set to the rear and large units, such as mammoths, should be placed far away from everybody else. If they flee, they will crush everything behind them. Setting formations is fiddly - as is much of the interface though it’s much improved from Dominions 3 – and while it’s a good thing that different opposition unit compositions require new approaches, it’s sometimes tempting to throw more units at a problem rather than tweaking the specifics.
The game’s scope – GODS AT WAR – led me to expect grander campaigns. Even the larger maps don’t take long to fill, however, and there’s a great deal of micromanagement. The things being managed are cool and all, lots of monsters and magic, but the process can be arduous. Every clever aspect of the map, such as the integration of seasonal changes, leads to further considerations and in a game overstuffed with things to learn about, management can become exhausting.
Then there’s the AI. It isn’t terrible but it isn’t particularly challenging. Teaching a computer to use the industrial revolution’s worth of tools that the game provides would probably be impossible – I’m not convinced it’s possible to teach a human how to operate every nation, spell and unit at its best. There are thousands upon thousands of unique objects – far from the rock, paper and scissors that make up the forces in so many games – and opponents often treat everything at their disposal as a blunt object to lob at the player.
Here’s the thing though - I’ve still put sixty hours into Dominions 4 without touching multiplayer. I’m going to look at that separately next week, including the new cooperative Disciples mode. How have I spent so long enjoying a strategy game with AI that is so poorly equipped in the I department? Here is my secret and I’m going to whisper it because it’s something of a dark one.
I play with myself.
Yes, yes, I know that’s what playing against the AI entails but I’ve been digging deeper into introspective conflict. In my current campaigns, all of my nations are human-controlled but I’m the only person here. Turn by turn, I engineer plots against myself. While I may lack a fog of war to veil my own thoughts (drinking helps), my approach to Dominions relies on a degree of roleplaying. What would this particular pretender do in these specific circumstances?
Despite the cumbersome interface and lacking AI, Dominions 4 is a remarkable toybox and even though I expect multiplayer to be the glue that makes everything hang together, I’m thoroughly engaged by the level of experimentation and exploration that the game systems allow. It’s almost like a more complex Cosmic Encounter, with a great deal of the excitement stemming from unusual and unexpected situations that place two bizarre rules in opposition to one another. It is an enormous game supported by intelligent systems, allowing for all manner of situations to emerge and to be handled as appropriate and possible. I still haven't even mentioned that a campaign can be set in one of three ages, with the earlier ones favouring magic and the later ones seeing military technology advance and the mystical arts waning. These don't just impact stats. There are entirely new nations and altered forms of existing ones in each era.
And as for the cross-breeding sorceress? As is often the case with Dominions, I had to return to the manuals and supplemental spell material to create my freaks. The learning curve is like a giant roundabout but if you’re happy to keep on turning, changing your approach and mindset at the start of every lap, there’s an enormous amount to see and do. It's a game that suits after action reports, full of myths, monsters and madness, but while the stories are enjoyable, they don't paint the full picture. Anyone hoping to forge stories of their own will require an enormous reserve of time and patience.
Dominions 4 is available now.