Pandora’s Toy Box: Observations on Dominions 4

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Dominions 4

Spring, Year 4 of the Ascension Wars. The rival empires of Jomon, T’ien Ch’i, and Pythium have soaked their borderlands in blood; the prize, the Thrones of Ascension that will allow a pretender god to rule the world. For years, they have battled to little avail; but now a breakthrough seems imminent. After months of siege, a T’ien Ch’i army stands ready to storm Jomon’s fortress in the province of Carnag — and once it falls, the way will be clear to march on Jomon itself.


Morale is high in the besiegers’ camp. T’ien Ch’i soldiers, backed by the steppe horsemen who recently made themselves overlords of the empire, have repeatedly shown themselves equal to the samurai of Jomon. Numbers are on the attackers’ side. Yes, Jomonese shugenja and onmyo-ji mystics have been seen inside the fortress. Yes, rumours suggest the great celestial dragon the Jomonese worship has been raising an army beneath the waves. But so far, neither the mystics nor the dragon have amounted to much. What could possibly go wrong?


By the next evening, the besieging army is no more. Half its soldiers are scattered; the other half are dead. They lie pummelled by ogres made of root and vine, given life by Jomon’s mystics. They have been struck down by shark-headed soldiers from the deeps, by warrior naiads so beautiful they transfixed their foes, by Jomonese ancestral spirits equipped with swords so cold they froze several victims with each swing. Myth and magic have prevailed over mortal man.


One of the victors of Carnag: a spirit general, whom most blades will simply plass through.
One of the victors of Carnag. Most blades will pass straight through him without harm, and his sword does AoE damage.


Welcome to Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension, the latest in a series I’ve described as “strategy [games] of near-unrivalled imagination, depth, and player choice” (at the cost of a steep learning curve). There is a persistent view that this description only applies to multiplayer, that Dominions is worthless in single-player. Based on my experience with the series (plenty with the earlier games, a little with Dominions 4), I don’t agree.


But first, let’s dig into what Dominions 4 has to offer: 2000+ units, 75 nations divided into three eras, 800+ magic spells, and 300+ magic items, inspired by myths from Central America to Japan. That is a lot of possible interactions! The consequence is that in multiplayer, Dominions is perhaps the deepest strategy game ever made, as every player digs through those interactions, tries to deploy the most powerful synergies available (within the constraints of in-game resources), and attempts to counter the others. Single-player is a different beast: the AI simply cannot match a determined player, so Dominions 3′s AI relied on hordes of fodder instead. Dominions 4‘s AI uses better troops, but as the luckless T’ien Ch’i army found out, from the midgame on, even quality soldiers flounder in the absence of adequate magical support. So where’s the appeal?


The answer is severalfold. First, while an expert, min-maxing human player will trounce the computer, not every player is a expert or willing to min-max, and under those circumstances Dominions 4 still offers a fun challenge. I’ve been playing these games for years, yet (on the appropriate difficulty level) I still lose when I get careless! Second, if multiplayer is about finding the best solutions to a given problem, single-player is about experimenting to find the coolest or most creative solutions. For instance, after my victory at Carnag, I needed to seize the remaining Thrones of Ascension, well behind enemy lines — but how? I could have marched out the army from Carnag, backed by a line of mages. Samurai with skin made tough as bark, or turned ethereal so blades would pass straight through; ‘panic’ spells to soften up enemy soldiers;  support from vine ogres and shark men and Ryujin water dragons. I’m pretty sure that would have worked.


But I decided to be unorthodox. The Thrones I needed were all by the coast. Shark soldiers and Ryujin come from the sea. So why march an army across the land, facing the AI head-on, when I could march out of the water? As my fantastic marine corps ploughed through lightly armed militia, Ryujin frost magic landing amidst the enemy ranks, I knew I’d made the right decision.


A highly capable dragon mage, plucked from the pages of Japanese myth.
A highly capable dragon mage, plucked from the pages of Japanese myth.


The ability to tell stories like that, whether in single- or multiplayer, is why I like Dominions‘ gameplay so much. I doubt I will ever see the AI deploy the game’s most potent tools — dead gods plucked from their underworld prison lightning-flinging thunder queens; undead generals tricked out to frighten off foes — much less combine them to best effect. This is not ideal, and for a number of gamers, it will torpedo the single-player mode. But I still enjoy trying out those tools myself, in search of the most spectacular, thematically interesting, or game-breaking combinations (1). If that sounds like your cup of tea, Dominions 4 may be worth investigating further (2).


(1) Final Fantasy Tactics is a great example of this phenomenon; and Master of Magic has a similar reputation.


(2) I believe the developers plan to release a demo.


The above comments are based on a review copy supplied by developer Illwinter.

Series Navigation<< Dominions 4 Q&A, with Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer OstermanAnnouncing Tataraba: A Princess Mononoke Mod for Dominions 4 >>

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