Dominions 3: The Awakening
Publisher: Shrapnel Games
Release: October 2006
Format: PC downloadable, CD-ROM
Genre Keywords: 4X, Turn Based Strategy
I'm not much of a strategist; most of my many hours spent with the original Civilization consisted of appeasement of the AI while I build-up my forces, and subsequent unleashing of massed armor on the hapless musketeers. Needless to say, I never got past the Warlord difficulty (second easiest) but I enjoyed the world- and army-building aspects of it. Much the same strategy was used in Disciples, and I did not manage to progress much past the 30% mark of any given campaign (when things get tough and a little repetitive). However, there was something compelling about building up your empire, researching the improvements to obtain the various types of combat units, and seeing your foes melt away on the map - so I've tried many different games over the years, but it was always just dabbling.
So I heard about this crazy Dominions (at the time Dominions 2: Ascension Wars) game from some folk at a certain respected (by far!) forum I frequent. It sounded crazy cool, and the PBEM (Play By EMail) game has been going on for months with no signs of ending. There were hordes of the undead, spreading decay wherever they went. There were Atlanteans, amphibious races from the deeps, limited to their watery domains but stretching flippers and tentacles onto land eventually. There were some proud barbarians straight out of Cimmeria, all furs and two-handed swords, going berserk when wounded and relying on pure numbers for victory. There were Indian Yavanas, Yakshinis and Devas, leading a host of sentient apes into battles won with massive flights of arrows and the Devas' glorious immortal beauty, striking down mortals who would dare look upon them. And there were even the Dreamlands hosts of R'lyeh, bringing their insanity to the world with powerful, yet unpredictable magicks, horrorific troops and tentacular commanders. Iä! Iä! Nngi banna barra iä! Iarrugishgarragnarab!
Now, this, this I had to see.
The Dominions series are created by Illwinter studios (2 guys) out of Finland and published by Shrapnel Games, one of the last online refuges of PC-based, independently produced war- and strategy-games. Dominions is a turn-based game of province conquest, income management, army customisation and management, combat tactics and management and ultra-light diplomacy (single player that is, multiplayer you can make diplomacy as intricate as you like). Finally, there's bit of stat-based hero management, as your units age, obtain experience and battle wounds, learn new spells and obtain power-up items (crafted by trained mages and based on supply of magic gems). It's a blend of Civilization, Risk, Heroes of Might & Magic, Europa Universalis and about 10 different mythologies, fictional and historical. Just for kicks, there is a dash of roguelike, Nethackish randomness, in that in any particular battle any of your carefully groomed commanders may die a sudden, horrible death regardless of how well-protected you think they are.
The game plays out on a series of hand-drawn (or randomised) maps separated into provinces; each province is a unit containing an army, one of each type of buildings, zero or more magic sites and of course multiple borders with other provinces. If two friendly armies meet, they merge; if two unfriendly armies meet, they fight. The victor keeps the province until it is invaded by another opposed army, and so the game goes until all provinces are owned by a single owner - there is no room for peaceful coexistence here, as the game's premise is that your nation is led by a Pretender God. The stakes are ultimate godhood, and there can be only one (so all alliances are by the game's nature quite temporary). So here is the Risk/Europa Universalis comparison.
A province provides your empire with resources - these vary by terrain type and in some cases random chance - but each province will have a value for cash income, resource availability (recruiting armies), supply power (keeping armies fed). Fields will generally have greater production but less defense, and mountains vice versa. Provinces are initially populated by indigenous inhabitants whom you can recruit after conquering said province. These also vary based on location and chance; you might get Atlanteans on a coastal province, you might not - but you probably won't find them in the desert. In addition, each province has a chance of having magic sites, which your magic units can search for - chance of detection varies on the skill of the mage doing the searching. Magic sites can bolster your research, increase your magic gem income, or provide a new type of troop for recruitment (a Labyrinth enables Minotaur recruitment, for example). Finally, each province can be improved by building structures that boost aspects of a province such as production, dominion, research or defense - structures take money and a set number of turns to create. This covers the Civilization income management and city-improvement portion.
Now we come to the lifeblood of the game, and copious blood it is - the combat. As I mentioned before, when two armies meet they duke it out - but it's a little more complicated than that. First of all, your armies need commanders - recruiting units only gets you an army that's stationary in that province; you need commander units to actually move your armies around with. Once you grab one (or several) of those - and there are many choices ranging from priests, mages and warlocks to dual axe-wielding barbarians, shamblers from the deep or vampiric nightmares - you can split up your fighting units into squads under that commander's er, command. Since the combat is automated, you may wonder why you would want to bother setting up squads - glad you asked! While you cannot control your troops during an engagement directly, you can do two things to prepare them for a fight - set up squad disposition and squad orders on the field. For example you can place the archers and mages far in the back, and order them to keep back and fire (arrows or spells). You can put your melee units to the front and split them into two squads so they attack from above and below the battle field, while your "tank" units (usually giant creatures like minotaurs, battle elephants or dragons) take the middle. Each squad gets its own location and set of orders - so proper squad arrangement is one of the keys to victory. Orders can get fairly sophisticated - you can order hold, attack, retreat or fire in any order (well, except after retreating obviously), and you can select which foe you'd like to attack; you can also tell your mages whether you want them to use their discretion or to cast specific spells. Here's an example:
It might be a good idea for your fast cavalry to rush the archers and tie them up early, so that your slower moving but better armoured troops have time to walk up unmolested and trample those pesky rangers. All the while, your mages first cast Iron Skin on your front line, and then commence hammering the enemy monster unit with lightning and fireballs; one priest is on full time bless or heal duty. Of course no plan survives battle intact, and it may turn out that their archers were a mere feint (they only brought 2) and the majority of the forces actually consists of Abyssian heavy infantry that not only has far superior weaponry and armor, but also happens to emit heat so fierce your units start to burn and retreat in panicked chaos. War is hell.
So this is the Heroes of Might and Magic comparison (it even looks a bit like that game's battles), except you don't have direct control. The indirect control means there's a lot of battles that play out quickly, which tends to be important on a huge global map.
The last bit of Heroes comparison comes from the fact that you can create powerful units out of any commander type through research, magic empowerment and proper equipment; in fact, some pretender gods (your god is also usually a commander unit) take the field themselves so prepared. Your Pretender God has the capacity to become the most powerful unit of them all, if you constructed him (or her, or it) at the start of the game with this potential in mind. The strategic portion of your game begins right there, with the creation of your God and the influence s/he's going to exert on your Dominion - the area of influence within which your God's rules prevail. More on this later.
You usually have a bit of intel on enemy troop movements, as you can see the armies' compositions in provinces directly adjacent to any of your units - you can also send hidden spies deeper into enemy territory. What you don't know are the precise numbers of each type of unit in that army, nor what commanders they have (unless they're unusually powerful), nor how they're separated into squads, nor (of course) what their orders are going to be. It's a game of tactical guesswork about what your enemy's going to do with their forces and coming up with something optimal. The battle then plays out according to the orders the both sides have given, and the winner keeps the province while the loser scatters.
And that is pretty much it for the game mechanics! Gather your troops, organize your army, invade province and repeat. Naturally, there is a lot of depth to each of those steps but you should be able to play the game armed with just that knowledge. Since I am long-winded I shall illustrate a bit of that depth but if you're curious about the game then this is a good place to stop and go grab the demo (at www.shrapnelgames.com); it's limited to 40 turns, but that's plenty of time for things to get interesting.
Other things you can do
Obviously when you're traipsing around these provinces, you want to have the best possible troops with you. To get these, you have some options: you can Recruit them straight out, you can Hire mercenaries for a few turns, you can Summon some monsters, you can Reanimate some corpses, or you can hope for random events to bring you more forces. Once you've conquered a province, you want to be sure it's a nice, secure and profitable province - to do that you can Construct Forts or Labs or even Temples if preaching is your preferred way to global domination (it also lets you hire sacred troops). Don't forget to have your mages search for magical sites - you can always use extra gem income. Finally you can levy provincial defenses (PD) - these are troops that are specific to that province and will take part in defensive battles, but you can't take them with you. The cool part about PD is that it is replenished every turn the province stays yours.
Then there's research, which is another way of bolstering your armies' strength. You get to research in several schools of several paths of magic, ranging from Thaumaturgy to Blood Magic and embracing fire, water, earth, air, spirit and more - there are 600 spells in the game for your destruction, summoning, farseeing, artillery or enchantment pleasure. Of course you have to have mages capable of casting these spells, or you can use gems to boost their power to the desired level. Don't neglect this part, as in later game it's not uncommon to see a single high-powered mage unit steamroll over basic grunts; at least invest in some protection spells.
Those are the basics; the rest depends on what nation you're playing. There may be blood sacrifices, hunting for blood slaves, putting down uprisings (often resulting from the blood hunts), ritual spell casting and forging of magical items of great power. You can also utilize priests to preach your message to the world, assassins to infiltrate and dispatch enemy commanders, or send in bards and informants to sow discontent amongst the enemy. Finally, you can send messages to your rivals on the world map, along with bribes - but there are no mechanisms in the game for alliances so at most you're buying deferment of hostilities. In the end, this is a game of warmaking and warmaking there shall be.
At this point you should get what the game is like, and the basic concept of what you do during a turn - upkeep, recruit, research, move and attack. What binds all of this together is the rich flavor of the nations involved in these conflicts, and how their flavor echoes on their units, their tactics, their special abilities and their gods. Here's a few samples (you can't get away without at least one list, sorry!) and their accompanying Pretender God limitations and effects (otherwise known as Dominion, also configurable at the start of the game):
Abysia - a nation of magma-spawned humanoids, its units emit heat so fierce that ordinary materials like leather, wood and flesh smoulder and burn on contact. Abysia gets no ranged weaponry (bows would burn) or light armor (ditto), making its units well armoured but expensive. In addition, grouping Abysian units too close to fleshy humanoids may prove detrimental to the latter. As faith in their fiery gods falls over time (the game contains Early, Middle and Late Age versions of all nations) Abysia cools down and turns to blood magic to sustain the fading embers of its religion; fire magic wanes as well. The gods available to Abysia range from fiery winged demons to wizened fire mages potent in their craft, and their Dominion turns the lands under their control into hot but productive and highly ordered domains. Any cold-based nation will have an extra hard time fighting under Abysia's dominion.
Ermor - a republican, disciplined nation much like Rome in its prime, Ermor has several layers of cheap, plentiful overlapping infantry for you to play with. However, its power-hungry priests, never satisfied with the legions at their commands, start to delve into death magic and reanimation of the fallen of many wars, which eventually leads to empty wastelands full of wandering, mindless undead. Late Age Ermor is an unstoppable force powered by the cycle of death and undeath. Ermorian deities cover the entire spectrum of liches, wights, wraiths and vampiric queens, but a few titans are available as well. Ermor's Dominion is highly ordered but sparsely populated as it relies on vast quantities of the dead for its armies - an army invading Ermor territory will find nothing to support their advance.
Mictlan - a vaguely Aztec-themed society of weakly armed and armoured (but numerous) warriors, and powerful magepriests in tune with all aspects of nature, Mictlan does not gain Dominion in the normal way (through preachers and temples). Instead, the Mictlan must offer regular blood sacrifices in order to maintain their grip on the world. With this dedication come a lot of sacred troops - units which gain powerful special abilities when Blessed on the field of battle and cost less to maintain. For the Mictlan pantheon you can expect magical burning glyphs, immobile stone faces and a mighty winged serpent. Mictlan's very magical and research and spells cost less under its Dominion, but it suffers a bit of natural unrest due to the frequent sacrifices.
R'lyeh - I'm not sure that anything needs to be said about this; suffice to say, most of your units are either insane naturally, or become so due to their enslavement by horrors from the stars. As you may imagine, this makes them a little tricky to play since you can't count on them to always do exactly what you require. God design and Dominion? No, I'll just let you guess here.
Let's see, what am I missing, perhaps some features? Here's another list, I promise it's the last one:
- Random Map Generator (woo!)
- 300 page manual (they don't make them like this anymore!) written by strategy veteran Bruce Geryk
- 14 nations across 3 distinct ages
- Full Pretender God customization, including new Awakening options (the longer your God slumbers the more powerful s/he becomes)
- 600 magic spells, including powerful out-of-battle artillery attacks, long-range scrying and monster summoning
- Play-By-Email and network multiplayer
- Flexible single player options, set as many computer players as you like, and assign them allegiance, difficulty level and behavior (defensive, offensive, balanced) as you like
- Small but dedicated community, including tons of premade maps (if you don't like, or can't generate your own) and mods
- Surprisingly intuitive interface with copious tooltips.
- Hand-crafted sprites straight out of 1992! (no, really, the graphics are a blend of the bizarre, the simple, the handpainted and the pixellated - there is precious little eye candy here)
And I'm done. I have Ermor and Helheim to crush. and the "one more turn" effect is calling me.