Why I’m Playing Dominions 4

Dominions 4 is a hard game to recommend. And I am saying that even as I am genuinely enjoying it. Dominions as a franchise has an amazing ability to capture the imagination. In fact, let me tell you about the latest moment that did.

I’m clicking through the list of spells that my mages can cast between turns, normally summons or enchantments. One in particular draws my eye: Call Wraith Lord. They sounded neat, and I’d rather just summon one to see what they’re like instead of looking them up in the manual. And they’re cool. Great stats. Fear aura means enemies have to make morale checks to be able to attack. Ethereal means 75% of nonmagical weapons whiff. High map movement. Decent Death Magic casters in their own right, allowing me to repurpose them as mages if need be. And if they die inside the lands my Pretender God has dominion over, they’ll respawn at my capital.

My mind begins racing. I begin checking my mages to see what magic items they can forge. Swords to give my Wraith Lords frost attacks with AOE splash damage- Which my Wraith Lords resist. Amulets to give them more strength and more magic resistance. Shields to force enemies to make Awe checks as well as Fear checks. Helmets to make their bodies like iron, robes that will make them invulnerable to all but the strongest physical attacks. Boots to give them more map movement and more attacks. I summon and forge and start to form Wraith Lord strike teams, two geared up Wraith Lords wading into enemy provinces and obliterating the enemies they meet. I feel the rush of power and know that yes, despite its complexity, I like this game.But that’s not where this story begins…Some years back, on the always fantastic LP Archives, an LP of Dominions 3 was posted, authored by a user named ZorbaTHut. This was the beginning. From here, the seeds of interest were sown in my mind, because the game that I saw as I read the LP fascinated me.

ZorbaTHut played as Arcoscephale, a nation heavily inspired by Greek history, with some neighboring influences from Macedon and the Mediterranean. Armies of heavily armed hoplites, flanked by skirmishers and heavy cavalry, and sending lumbering war elephants in to trample the enemy and break their morale. And on the home front, oracles and mystics form the magical backbone, accelerating the nation’s research through the magical schools. It began with hoplites and elephants. It ended with Zorba summoning elemental kings and queens, and ripping broken and insane Titans out of the depths of Tartarus to heal them and make them fight for his Pretender God: Mrs. Butterworth. Because you get to name your Pretender God and Dominions is a serious game.

But it wasn’t just that growth in power that had me excited. I’ve played Galactic Civilizations and worked my way up from tiny little boats to massive doom fleets. Or Total War games where I can lead a nation through hundreds of years of history and technological growth. Or Civilization where you go from guys with sticks to hitting the panic button and nuking everything because it’s the only way to stop the player conquering everything.

There is a noticeable shift in the feel of the game. Usually, everyone begins with conventional armies, people in armor hitting each other with physical weapons or shooting each other with bows. Some nations have access to Trampling units to fuel their early expansion, large creatures that literally crush smaller enemies in the tile they move in to. Some nations have Sacred troops that they choose to boost into powerhouses via a Bless. But then magic begins to play a part.

Maybe your nation has very good battle magic access and so you begin to supplement your armies with teams of mages to enchant them, or rain down damaging spells on your enemies. Maybe your nation has strong magical summons. In the game from the first half of this article, I was Middle Age Agartha. MA Agartha has a national spell called Rhuax Pact, where for five fire gems your mage calls up one of the Kings of Elemental Fire and gets some Magma Children. Magma Children are pretty killable, but they deal a lot of fire damage and they retaliate with fire damage when struck with melee attacks. So I would summon up a pile of Magma Children and send them through, protecting my mages with heavily armored bodyguards while the Children raced through enemy lines like a flame through paper. But Agartha also has the ability to animate statues, creating extraordinarily difficult to hurt troops who will fight forever (as long as they have leadership), so I could diversify in my armies.

And then things grow late, and you start to look at heavy magical firepower in each battle… or Supercombatants. Powerful creatures, geared out with magical gear, each of which is the match for conventional armies or province defense. My Wraith lords were my first Supercombatants. I had them operating in pairs, which was probably overkill. And then I still had a surplus of magical gems so I began summoning Kings of Elemental Earth and Fire, and the corrupted King of Elemental Fire: The King of Banefires. To close out the game I had magical beings rampaging through. My mortal armies took a backseat, either securing secondary objectives or providing siege power. But once it was time to storm the castles, the supercombatants took over.

However, while Zorba’s LP is still fantastic, it only gave me vague dreams. While this may be cruel to say (I apologize if you read this, Zorba), he didn’t seem to engage (from a reader’s perspective) in a real titanic late-game struggle. Most of the players gave up control and went AI, and while there were real battles, the game didn’t seem to go past the midgame. But I still saw Dominions 3, and was interested. This interest would turn into a full gripping of my imagination with a second Dominions 3 LP posted years later.

The authors of this are Lilli et al, because it was a multiplayer game and each player posted, at least for a while. Unfortunately, only three actually posted until their end in the LP. Buildscharacter as Hinnom, TheDemon as Lanka, and Schneeble (ultimately) as Sauromantia. Because Buildscharacter posted most completely (and memorably) from start to finish, I biasedly think of Hinnom’s story first. And the story is epic.

Buildscharacter begins to expand, and discovers that the player he finds most threatening, TheDemon, can be easily trapped on an island of territories with only three land exits. So he begins an early war to stop TheDemon, calling in the aid of Sauromantia, and despite the difference in the amount of resources both sides can field, TheDemon still holds his own. And during this time, other nations are fighting their own battles. But then someone makes a push for the victory.

Lilli unleashes armies of Zmey, three-headed dragons that can fly and strike unpredictably, carving swaths through the map. The situation is so dire that Buildscharacter is forced to join forces with TheDemon in an alliance against her, each doing their part to distract, cripple, or tie down her forces so they can counterattack. Lilli has to leave, but replacing her in control of her nation is a new and politically savvy player, doing his best to overcome the preset alliances as everyone catches their breath, and then the second major series of wars begin.

Seriously go read that LP. Start with Hinnom, then read Lanka or Sauromantia, then read everyone else who didn’t post completely.

The grand struggle and the diplomatic battles certainly caught my interest, but being able to see first-hand seven different nations through their posts impressed on me how incredibly diverse the Dominions setting is. Arcoscephale is inspired by ancient Greece and Macedon. T’ien Ch’i is essentially an Ancient Chinese mage bureaucracy. Sauromantia is a land of Witch-Kings and Amazons living with lizard people. Mictlan is a magical Aztec empire. Pangea is a land of beastmen- Satyrs, centaurs, minotaurs, et cetera. Hinnom is drawn from apocryphal Old Testament legends about the Nephilim, a race of giants created when fallen angels mated with humans. And Lanka is a land of monkey castes ruled by demons pulled from Hindu mythology (specifically the Ramayana- Lanka is the kingdom controlled by Ravana, the Big Bad to Rama’s Big Hero).

All of those nations remain in Dominions 4. And those are seven nations out of the seventy-five in the game, divided over three eras of play. These nations do not have their origins in a vacuum either. There are several nations with alternates, such as the good Bandar Log to the evil Lanka. But many nations are also shaped by interactions with each other. In later eras Arcoscephale has encountered the monkey tribes of Bandar Log and a population of one of the castes has taken up residence in Arcoscephale, allowing them to recruit Cerulean Warriors- Giant armored gorillas. Half the nations in the game are shaped by Ermor’s fall from a Rome-inspired empire embracing a new faith into a land of the dead and necromancers.

Berytos in particular is shaped by other nations. At their core, the nation began with Greek-inspired traders, somewhat like Carthage. They have a strong naval tradition, able to use the Sailing skill and having a lot of mages with Air and Water. As they roamed to trade they encounted Hinnom, the land of the giants, ruled by the Melqarts. The people of Berytos said, “Holy crap you’re six-fingered magical giants that’s awesome come make us awesome.” And so the Melqarts extended their bloody cult (Not a profanity, I do mean blood sacrifices) to Berytos. But then the Melqarts left to complain about how their dads were deadbeats who left them fallen angels banished to Tartarus by the Pantokrator.

Close enough to Berytos was the land of Machaka, a nation inspired by African tribes and folklore. Living in Machaka was a race called the Colossi, giant humans. Not giants, but just large people. The game assigns a regular person a size of 2, Colossi are size 3, actual giants are size 6 I think. Refugee Colossi nobles, warriors, and sorceresses heard about Berytos and in my headcanon heard how they worshiped the absent Melqarts and said, “Heh, suckers.”

So the Colossi moved into Berytos and said, “So… you’re all about the Melqarts. We are also all about the Melqarts. Go Melqarts. In fact, they told us to come here and help you guys prepare for them to arrive. These sorceresses are actually our Melqart priestesses, and they’re actually the Brides-in-Waiting for then the Melqarts do return. You can believe us, honest.” And so with that the Colossi set themselves up comfortably in Berytos society… but it turns out the Melqarts are real, and have real influence from afar, and what began as a ploy to seize religious power turned into an actual order of high priestesses, just as devout in their bloody sacrifices to the Melqarts.

These nations all have their histories, shaped by internal events and each other. A lot has gone into crafting a really rich world, and the developers want you to know this. The Dominions 4 manual actually contains a chapter that is nothing but the inspirations and design process for each of the nations. And they are not so conventional, Bogarus is inspired by medieval Russia, and Nazca is drawn from Incan lines. Some of these transformations are drastic: Ulm goes from a land of barbarian smiths (directly inspired by the Riddle of Steel from the beginning of Conan the Barbarian) into a feudal kingdom into a dark and Gothic land of Inquisitors forbidding magic and fighting against the dark things that creep in the woods. Bit by bit the land that eventually becomes Jomom grows to be ruled by human samurai warriors rather than their demon oppressors.

That Dominions 4 contains a chapter of the manual exclusively to talking about the inspirations for each nation brings me to another thing I enjoy about this game: It’s a labor of love. It’s a hobby project, made by friends who want to see their project come true. It’s mentioned how some were working on Dominions part-time, and how they deliberately kept the graphics simple to focus on the strategic depth of the experience. They made Dominions 4 because this was the game they wanted to make. A deep strategy game with an epic fantasy setting drawn from all around the world.

It’s a hobby game for hobby gamers, for people whose imaginations are captured by the possibilities, who see the opportunity to do something incredible in the strategic depth of the game. And there is a lot of depth. Planning your army’s movement is huge, especially if you’re trying to catch an invading force. Once a battle is met it’s AI controlled, all you can do is place your squads and script them, so clever scripting is huge. Being able to effectively use battlemagic is huge as well. And in multiplayer games, the diplomatic field is huge, as you try to form alliances and keep people out of your invasions.

This is the game that has been consuming my time this week. And I have not regretted a single moment of it.

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