Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension
Dominions 4. If you’ve played Dominions 3: The Awakening, the mere mention of another entry to this utterly unique series should send shivers down your spine. If you haven’t, then… well, this article might not be for you. In that case, I recommend getting up to speed with my game diary RPS Ascension, or maybe taking a look at some articles I wrote about one of Illwinter Game Design’s other titles, the similar-yet-distinct Conquest of Elysium 3.
Returning to those of you who know exactly how remarkable this series is, today we’re going to walk through my first match, and take a look at a few of the ways Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is refining its own formula.
I’m tempted. Naturally. I’m looking at the setup screen that lists all of Dominions 4’s many available factions for the Early Age, and I’m having the hardest damn time choosing which nation to lead to supremacy. I could have chosen the Middle Age, with its newfangled iron and steel, or the Late Age’s magic cataclysms and desperate cults, but the Early Age, the era of magic, mysticism, and bronze, has always stood out as the purest distillation of the wild mythology of this series. It’s also the era I’m most familiar with (or at least it was in Dominions 3), and it has occurred to me that the best way to learn the differences in this version is by playing as someone familiar. So that’s one decision down.
Still, I’m tempted. Not only are all my old favorites still there, but new delights like Ur, The First City and Berytos, The Phoenix Empire beckon, begging me to abandon any notion of actually figuring this thing out, and instead diving in headfirst, drinking deeply of the game’s many options without bothering with tedious things like screenshots or note-taking. I’m in a panic, in the true old sense of the word — in fact, I’d very much like to play as Pangaea, a familiar faction I never really learned, which happens to be governed by actual panii.
My level head prevails, though only because I see that my favorite nation Ermor is available. Ermor, New Faith the game calls it; the pseudo-Roman culture that’s doomed to splinter and corrupt in later ages, now enthusiastic and pristine and ready to take on the world. So be it.
Mere minutes later I have my Pretender, the new god of Ermor, and I’m struck by how simple the design process is compared to Illwinter’s previous offerings. Oh, there are the same number of options, but this time they’re all on the same screen, more clearly presented and explained. In this case, Remus (that’s his name. Its name) is a demilich, a pile of musty old bones that nonetheless communes with the living through its powerful death magic. Its dominion — the ability of its influence and power to creep across the land — is also quite strong, and its people are blessed with order, productivity, and, most of all, luck. With that, the game begins.
The First Turn
Taking stock of my surroundings, it’s a small map, wrapping around at the east and west. I’m in the far south, safe against the sea and the map’s edge. A good starting position, I reckon.
There’s one enemy nation in this game, and he must be north of me, beyond the Dragon Ridge mountains. The usual first-turn chores need doing: I ordain my single scout a prophet of Remus’ good tidings, have Remus himself start researching some basic spells, and open up the recruitment panel to add a few more troops to my centurion’s slight fighting force.
In the recruitment panel, the first real difference is immediately apparent. Not only have all the sprites been redrawn and are now more detailed, but the interface itself is much improved. There are separate queues for commanders and regular units, and the option to repeat each territory’s recruitment instead of having to re-queue your order each turn is welcome. There are even powerful units that require multiple seasons to recruit.
I choose an Augur, a weaker mage with a good research rate, and quite a few of my weaker heavy infantry, and with some satisfaction set the infantry to “repeat recruitment.”
The Forest of Gila
On the next turn, it’s time to take my first territory outside of the city of Ermor. There are four options: Serenity, which is unreachable underwater; the Stone Grave Mountains, which are full of barbarians; Dragon Ridge, which looks looks like it could turn my heavy infantry into freshly-trampled paste; and the Forest of Gila to the west. This last one is guarded by apes, and if they’re anything like the monkey-nations of Dominions 3, I should be able to march right over them with little problem.
With a few new troops added to my centurion’s little band, I open up the battle screen to give everyone the preemptive orders that will play out in combat. Turns out even this has been refined. Rather than every unit being a solid square block of soldiers like in the previous game, it’s now possible to order companies to take formations like lines to prevent flanking and skirmish positions to take less damage from arrows and spells. My heavy infantry don’t seem to like being ordered into a line, getting a small penalty to their morale, but since I’ll be outnumbered by the ape-people, I figure this downside is negligible compared to being swarmed by club-wielding gorillas.
My centurion, a heroic mage kind enough to join my side this turn, and two companies of heavy infantry march into battle.
The battle is short. Only a few of my weakest levies are killed, and the apes are put to rout.
I immediately order my mage to search for magic sites to produce gems, the centurion to patrol to suppress unrest, and I open up the province defense menu to make sure my new acquisition is properly cared for—
Turns out, the inner workings of province defense have been both overhauled and clarified.
The more apparent change is that you no longer need to guess at what province defense values mean. Paying one gold gets me one ape commander, one little spider-monkey guy with a club, one ape archer, and one ape warrior. More money gets me more, and I don’t need to sift through a chart to figure out that 20 gold means the province is now better-defended than it ever was when it was an independent territory.
The second change: apes are defending the Forest of Gila. In Dom3, province defense meant your national troops were the defenders. This was often a bad thing, as some factions had superior troops, so it was pretty easy to rip through the undefended underbelly of certain teams and rather hard to penetrate even lighter-defended locations of others. Now each territory is guarded by the auxiliaries you can recruit there — so since this nation lets me hire apes, apes are what defends the territory. There are a whole slew of ramifications to this, from different territories now having intrinsically different defensive values to being able to predict an enemy’s defenses with greater accuracy, but let’s leave speculation for some other time.
Let’s skip forward a couple dozen turns.
I’ve now taken a few more territories, securing my main southern island. Turns out it wasn’t as easy as I thought — remember how I thought my back was safely to the sea? Turns out the other nation was Oceania, an aquatic nation that has a tendency to crawl out of that very same ocean. Which they have been doing quite a bit, taking my territories as soon as my main armies leave them and running when I come back. I’m wearing myself thin against province defense, then wasting my money raising fruitless province defenses of my own that the Oceanians sweep away with little trouble.
(Side-note: I feel badly that my random opponent turned out to be Oceania, as some of their graphics are placeholders. I don’t think any of my pictures reveal any issues though. If you notice any oddness, rest assured everything will be sorted out by the game’s release.)
Another problem is that the Oceanians have managed to lock down not only the ocean, they’ve also conquered the entire northern landmass. And I can’t get there. At least not very often.
See, another addition in Dom4 is that there are now rivers littering the countryside. Most of the time these are totally impassable unless you’re an aquatic nation like Oceania, which means they’re free to raid me from across those rivers, and I can’t do much in retaliation. My only recourse is to wait until winter, when the rivers freeze solid and I’m able to march a couple armies up into the enemy’s hemisphere, though the spring thaw means my men are now trapped without hope of relief until the following year.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse as my troops stay on the move to avoid the very large and very pissed-off army that seems to be pursuing them. Having made landfall in Gwelledun, they then flee east to the weakly-defended territory of Mnace, then north to Ripewoods, where they manage to conquer a nearly-empty fortress. They weather constant assaults, losing more troops with each attack. Eventually the territories they vacated are retaken, meaning their resource income is so slight that they can only recruit a bare handful of new troops each month.
Thankfully, by the next freeze, I have an army ready in Stone Grave Mountains to march across the river to the Oceanian fortress at Barra for some payback.
Instead of guessing at my losses, the new battle summary shows exactly how many soldiers, and of which types, both sides lost. It’s an excellent resource that’s far easier to use than the meticulous battle-watching that Dom3 encouraged.
I’m also learning more about the battles themselves. Certain summoned creatures aren’t quite as powerful as they were previously, as they’re “undisciplined” and can’t be given orders or formations. An interesting tradeoff.
I’m losing the strategic war, but each battle ends with far costlier losses on the part of my aquatic friends than in human lives. And anyway, I don’t actually need to conquer Oceania to win…
Thrones of Ascension
One of my few problems with Dom3 is that matches almost always ended by consensus rather than through actual victory. It was just too hard and too tedious to wipe everyone off the map.
In Dominions 4, that’s a thing of the past.
Scattered across the map are “thrones of ascension,” special magic sites that will cause your Pretender to ascend to godhood. Each one confers some small benefit to your nation when claimed, though don’t think conquering them is as simple as occupying their host territory. In order to acquire them for yourself, you have to use a powerful priest, your prophet, or your Pretender himself. This means you need to expose some of your most valuable pieces, and of course the enemy can filch your thrones right out from under you.
There are three thrones in my game, and I need all three in order to claim victory. The closest one is underater in Serenity, and until recently it’s been completely out of reach. The one in Ophaleph was mine for most of the game until the Oceanians came out of the sea to steal it, necessitating a painstaking counter-siege. The third is far in the north in Ripewoods, which has been mine since my expeditionary force barely held onto it two years earlier.
Now, with a priest armed with a Ring of Water Breathing, the throne of Serenity is captured for Remus! Game won! And I didn’t even need to invade the obscenely-defended capital of Oceania!
These are just some of the additions in Dominions 4, which overnight has become my most-anticipated PC game of the year. Expect it in late August, and feel free to check out the Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension site for more details, such as team games, limited range ritual spells, improved random maps, mountain passes that can only be passed in summer, new weapon damage types like “blunt” or “sharp,” global random events, extra buildings to improve castles, and improved AI. It’s going to be great.