January 17, 2014 4:30 PM | Lena LeRay
Last month, the newest in Illwinter's Dominions series of games was released on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The series has been around for over a decade and has made a name for itself as a complex strategy game based around historical myths and legends rather than Tolkien-esque elves and dwarves. Complex is a pretty big keyword from that sentence; one of the game's features is that it has a 397-page PDF manual which goes in depth about all of the game's systems, complete with the underlying formulas. Some people might want to run away screaming from that wall of text, but those who delight in plumbing the depths of game wikis to figure out the best way to play a game will feel right at home.
For those unfamiliar with the term "4X", it was coined for the original Master of Orion and refers to games in which the goal is to "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate". There have been many games that fall into this category, with the Civilization series being perhaps the most well-known. Personally, I hadn't heard of the Dominions series before this entry, which is the first in the series to be published independently. Previous entries were published in cooperation with Shrapnel games, though Illwinter has taken advantage of the modern indie-friendly ecosystem to strike out on their own.
In Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension, you play a demigod, called a pretender, who is trying to expand his or her religious dominion and ascend to godhood. There are a number of possible victory conditions in the game which can be chosen at setup, but the default victory condition is to claim all of the Thrones of Ascension, special locations on the map which give have special effects for your empire in addition to their status as points of capture. Taking the Thrones means expanding your empire to reach reach them and sending someone in to claim them in your name. This, of course, entails managing your territory, finding resources, researching new magics, building up troops, and generally expanding while defending what you have.
When summarized like that, it all sounds like par for the course for this kind of game, but Dominions 4 asks you to manage things at a different level than do most games of its kind. You don't really manage land at all. You can build buildings in your provinces which affect the resources that are generated there and what actions you can take within that province, but most of the game is about managing units and resources to good effect. Even managing units is different from the norm, however. For one thing, you never have direct control in a battle. Battles happen in between your turns, and although you can view a replay of a battle at the beginning of a new turn, your only controls are things like showing team colors under units' feet and speeding up or slowing down the action. The outcome of the battle was a result of how you prepared your commanders and their squads ahead of time. What equipment were the commanders wearing? How powerful was their magic? What spells had you researched for them to use? Where were squads located on the battle field, and in what formation? What general orders did you give to squads and commanders? How did all of that stack up to whatever preparations the enemy had made?
Commanders are the only units that can be upgraded through research, which focuses around magical abilities. Other units can only be recruited, and the units available to be recruited vary from province to province. Finding magical sites in a province can add to the units available for recruitment there in addition to having other benefits, but only mages can find them and mages take twice as long to recruit as non-mage commanders. It also takes up the mage's entire turn, which could otherwise be used leading an army into battle, crafting magic items, or researching magic, among other things. Combine that and some other factors with the fact that there are over 2,000 types of units in Dominions 4 and recruitment of units becomes one of the most delicate operations you can perform.
Dominions 4's magic system is similarly involved, though in the interest of keeping this article well below the length of the manual, I'll move on to talking about the user interface. It's very detailed. Mousing over things gives you tips, clicking on things lead to more windows, and right clicking on things lead to other windows. Illwinter doesn't seem to have been interested in the newfangled trend towards simple UI design, and for a game this complex I don't see how they could have done so, anyway. That being said, the interface isn't really confusing. If you want more information about something, you can either click it or right-click it to find out what you need to know. There are some indicators on the world map view that I would say aren't colorblind friendly, but those indicators also have tooltips or can be clicked through to bring up a different window with detailed textual information which makes the color-coding mildly inconvenient rather than game-breaking. The graphics won't wow you and some things look very similar at a glance whether or not you can see all colors, but there again the tooltips and text indicators usually come to the rescue. The control scheme can take a little bit of getting used to, particularly when it comes to moving from province to province, but once you get used to it it's very easy to find everything you need because all the connections between windows make sense.
The game supports multiplayer, of course, but for those who can't get together at the same location or even be online at the same time, the game supports play by email. Since all players' turns are resolved at simultaneously at the end of the turn, players can send their actions to a host who then incorporates everyone's turns into her own game, resolves it, and sends the game state back to her friends. I think anyone who has started a multiplayer game of Civilization that never got finished because the players never felt like playing at the same time again can see the benefit of that.
Multiplayer is the only arena in which diplomacy takes place, by the way. You can send messages and items to other players, but the game does not enforce any deals made, which opens things up for double-crossings, double-double-crossings, scams, and whatever else players can think up. AI players do not engage in trade or negotiations at all.
Modding has been supported by the series for a while now, and even though Dominions 4 hasn't been out on Steam for long, it was released on Desura earlier last year and the modding community is going strong. There's a thread on the game's Desura forums in which one member of the community is trying to keep a running list of all of the currently working mods.
All in all, Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is a deep game that rewards foresight and long-term strategy. It seems to have a vibrant and loyal community, and for those with the patience to learn it, the game promises to provide dozens if not hundreds of hours of engrossing gameplay. This is not a game for everyone, but those who get into it could easily get lost in it for days.