PBEM Forever: Dominions
PBEM Forever is a series about the best play-by-email games that aren’t merely digital board games. And, in the final ouroboros-like turn of the screw, today’s subject happens to be about the very same game that started this site.
Dominions was the first thing I ever wrote about here on Space-Biff! No, I don’t mean Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino’s inaugural deck-builder that spawned one billion imitators. I’m talking about Dominions, the series whose imitators were limited to its own four sequels. Of all the many PBEM games I’ve played over the years, this is the one I’ve invested the most time into. And it’s probably the one I still understand the least.
That’s a compliment, by the way.
I’ve heard Dominions called ugly. “The graphics are one of those things you have to put up with,” people say, like the graphics were scrawled by a child or I’m deciphering ASCII art.
I don’t see it. Sure, perusing the screenshots on the Illwinter Game Design page, there’s a certain crudeness there, and going backward volume by volume brings back memories of just how shoddy the interface used to be. But there’s also an undeniable charm to the whole thing. That battlefield blend of three-dimensional backgrounds and flat unit sprites represents the necessary utility of the series’ indie heritage, but it’s other things, too. Limitless, in the sense that adding units is a snap, as the game’s eighty-plus distinct factions can attest. Crisp, in that a mere glance at your fielded army unspools large quantities of information. Click any unit and you’ll be rewarded with additional layers to consider. In most cases, click those layers and despair as further strata are peeled back. Evocative, with just enough detail to get the imagination firing, but not so much that the rows of units start to seem a little too similar. It’s like the Total War series before you could peer close enough to realize you’re leading an army of clones instead of individuals.
Those cumulative details are Dominions’ greatest strength, and also why most of its screenshots feature battles in progress. The game is about those battles. In a single game, you’ll probably fight a hundred of the things, each for some scrap of land, and they’re uniquely suited for asynchronous play via email. That’s why, instead of opening with the maps (which are also pretty) and the spreadsheets (which are sheer utility) and the intimidating list of hundreds of spells (yikes), we look instead at those clashing armies. It’s an appropriate entry point. Most of the time, I find myself rewatching the previous turn’s battles even when I’m provided a serviceable list of casualties. I tell myself it’s to see how a particular formation performed, or whether my heat-generating units were spaced too closely to my heat-vulnerable infantry, or whether flanking cavalry are threatening to get around my infantry lines.
Really, it’s because I like watching my little army smash itself against someone else’s little army.
In most games, armies are the means to an end. The same is true in Dominions, but not quite so wholly. Yes, you’re an awakening pretender god trying to transition the realm into your own brand of monotheism. Yes, you want to smash the enemy’s capital city, assassinate their false god, burn the last vestiges of their faith from the countryside, and claim the thrones that will mark your ascendancy. There are goals. But the perfect army, sustained by the perfect heroes, the perfect pretender, is an end in its own right.
Take the above images. In the first one, you can see a race of Fomorians. Disgraced giants, they’re tough in battle but prone to becoming overwhelmed by a dozen spearheads getting forcibly inserted into their knee joints. What’s a big boy to do? Employ tiny humans, of course. Also, in this case, raise some undead fodder to absorb ranged fire and magic projectiles. Once the enemy is worn out — which can happen, both because every single action accumulates fatigue for every single individual unit and because you’re probably lobbing draining spells all over the place — it’s time for the big guys to charge in and make raspberry jelly.
In the next, you can see Abysia. Lots of dudes in red armor, right? Look more closely. Their faces are red, too. That’s because they’re magma-people, burning so hotly that any ranged weapons would burn to cinders before they could be loosed. Yet the focal point is that half-ant half-lion thing. That’s my pretender. That’s me. And with the amount of equipment I’ve forged and piled on myself, the quantity of alterations and thaumaturgies coursing through my blood, I’ll be the first one through the breach of that (very empty) fortress. I have more to fear from starvation than enemy blades.
And here, those aforementioned nations are locked in a minor struggle. You caught me: I was playing both sides. Dominions offers enough toys that it’s one of the rare games where I’ll do that. This is drawn liberally from every corner of human mythology. Ancient Greece? Think more broadly. The Norse? Sure, and breeding flying Conan-types kitted out with the best steel armor is a sight to behold. Feudal Japan? Naturally. China? India? A different portion of India? Celtic druidism? African shamanism? Jewish Kabbalah? Inquisition Christianity? Ancient Mesopotamian cities? H.P. Lovecraft’s weird racial anxieties driving the world gradually insane, minus the derogatory stuff about black people? All present and accounted for.
More importantly, note how these two armies have leaned into each other. Fomoria’s fodder is spent and Abysia will soon be running down a rout. They also stationed themselves too closely to the militia they hired, and now their own auxiliaries are going up like struck matchsticks. Whoops. Over the next few in-game years, both armies will refine their approach. The Fomorians will fight with spears and slings to beat the heat. The Abysians will stop positioning themselves directly next to their fleshier allies. Those counter-tactics will be adapted to with further counters. Again the wheel turns.
And then, among the seriousness of arranging the right spells and units and commanders, something like this happens:
Ahem. Let’s talk about why Dominions works so well as a PBEM game. The specifics have less to do with all those fancy battles and more to do with screens like this:
Everything that happens in a battle begins here, with commanders leading formations of units. The baseline concept is simple. Formations can be positioned in relation to one another and given simple commands. Most of these come down to a matter of priorities — whether a unit will attack right away or hold position for a moment, whether they’ll throw their javelins or immediately close the distance, whether they’ll shoot at the largest mass of manpower or the largest monstrosities.
Your actual commanders benefit from some extra granularity. It’s still possible to issue them only a single command, and the most common are “Cast Spells” for flinging whatever pops into their heads and “Stay Behind Troops” so they don’t die prematurely and send their attached formations fleeing the battlefield in grief. Then there are times you’ll want to tailor their behavior, at least for the first few turns of the battle. As I mentioned earlier, there are loads of spells to research, and picking the right ones can swing testy fights in your favor. For example, fielding an army of cave-blind troglodytes means that temporarily blotting out the sun will hamper your foes far more than yourself. You’ll need properly leveled mages, the right assortment of gems, and maybe some darker tricks like communions or blood slaves to boost your mages to the proper aptitude, so it pays to curate your research, groom the proper sorcerers, and tell them when you want them to spend a whole bunch of fire gems transforming the battlefield into a raging inferno and when you’d much rather they didn’t waste any resources on some upstart peasants.
Over the course of five titles, these options have grown in both quantity and distinction. Where formations were once limited to perfect squares, certain units bring additional tricks to the table, like arranging themselves into a defensive line to prevent flanking or practicing good social distancing to diminish the impact of arrow volleys. Holy units can be blessed with special powers you assigned while designing your pretender. Squads of stealthy hunters can slip behind enemy lines while assassins go mano a deus against pretenders who’ve been caught with their holy loincloths down. Its breadth of expression is wild.
Which only makes its steadfastness as an actual PBEM game all the more impressive. Everyone takes their turn at the same time, submits their files manually or via somebody’s server, and the game calculates the outcome of any conflicting marches, battles, and spells before spitting out the next turn. There are peculiarities to learn, like how the turn order actually works or what to make of armor classes or why a lowly militiaman can poke a dragon to death. Such details can be pried from the tome-like manual, but much of the time these are tidbits rather than essential information, especially if you aren’t looking to play against those who’ve transformed the manipulation of Dominions’ systems into an art form.
That said, a few things strike me as essential to understanding Dominions, all of which could be considered either words of caution or recommendation depending on how one takes their play-by-email games.
I mentioned a few weeks back that Solium Infernum, another game about designing a demigod and putting them through their paces, is best played with a moratorium on external chatter. Dominions is the inverse. Diplomacy exists, but it’s as stout as a pack of Hoburg militia attempting to defend a wasteland province — as in, flimsy. Oh, there are ways to formalize a relationship, but they’re determined during setup, not over the course of play. In-game messages and gifts can be sent, but there’s nothing preventing an ally from deciding to cloud trapeze an entire army into your kingdom’s soft underbelly.
It wasn’t even until the fourth Dominions that a victory condition beyond “kill everything” existed, one of many small improvements that made each iteration feel like one step closer to a playable game. This victory condition revolves around Thrones of Ascension. These are peppered across the landscape, and claiming them with a sufficiently powerful priest or your pretender bestows a bonus and inches you closer to triumph. This clarity can also lead to situations where your proximity to ascendancy is so easily measured that opposing nations are pushed into a détente just long enough to break your stranglehold.
In other words, where Solium Infernum was all bureaucratic formality, Dominions is less tamed by procedure. Some of its best plays come down to multiple nations staring across at each other, all roughly equivalent in strength, wondering who will make the first slip.
Other times, it isn’t nearly that close.
Want to play Dominions on easy mode? Pick a faction of giants and grind the punies under your size-68 heels.
Balance is clearly important to Illwinter, as attested by their regular updates. It just isn’t quite as important as letting some nations run roughshod over certain others. For every perfect matchup, there are giants who will crush their opponents, steel-armored barbarians who seem incapable of death, horsemen whose mesmerizing properties mean they only suffer one in four hits, or tedious stalemates between land-dwellers and aquatic nations. Certain teams can be painful to struggle against, like one that transforms everything within its dominion — the measure of its spreading faith — into hordes of undead, or another that gradually drives everyone in the world insane.
To its credit, these off-kilter bouts aren’t all bad. Sometimes they’re the best part of the whole thing. Weaker nations can become powerful thanks to the robust spellbook and the possibility of recruiting independent forces and mercenaries. Many of my best memories hinge on wars that put their players on uneven footing, those that forced me to adapt or pursue unexpected strategies. In one, a campaign against the undead involved a crusade of over a hundred priests plus a few thousand troops to keep the hordes at bay, calling down holy fire and carrying sacks of wine to keep everyone fed as we marched across the ashen plains. In another, a four-way alliance slowly defeated a world-spanning opponent, only to turn on each other just shy of triumph and see the empire rise to victory in spite of our efforts. Once, I summoned an army of a few hundred fire snakes. No good reason. Just because they were fire snakes and I had the gems to spare.
That’s the sort of thing that keeps me coming back. Year after year, iteration after iteration, battle after battle. Plenty of games pick a mythology and stick with it. If they’re determined on a mashup, they stick to the safe offerings, Greek and Norse and Egyptian, maybe Japanese. By contrast, Dominions looks at the menu and goes, “Sure.” That after five iterations it’s one of the finest PBEM games out there is just the icing.