Dominions 5: Total War’s Ugly-Savant Little Sibling

Dominions is Total War’s unsung little brother. We could stick a 4X label on it, but it’s really a turn-based strategy game. 4X elements are present but secondary. It’s a game at least as good as it is ugly, and by God it is ugly.

A great battle between a nation inspired by the Roman Empire and another mixing Hebrew and Inca inspirations.

The war for apotheosis

In Dominions, we embody a pretender to the throne of the gods, just that. Pantocrator, the supreme being who ruled the world since time immemorial suddenly disappeared. It is an opportunity for all secondary divinities to try their luck to become the new undisputed master of the world. Whether you are a powerful prisoner of a statue, a dragon, a titan, or a “mere” mage, you take the lead of a nation that worships you loyally to establish your supremacy.

The various nations proposed (86+) and their potential gods are all more or less directly inspired by real mythologies (Greek, Sumerian, Irish, Aztec, Japanese, etc.) or fictitious ones (Lovecraftian, among others) and offer incredibly diverse gameplay and background possibilities. Much of the time saved by the two co-developers by perusing rudimentary graphics has clearly been invested in writing detailed descriptions  for each peoples, god, unity, magical object and ‘fate’ that are appreciated for their immersive power.

A Concept Tree common to all Nations

Regardless of your nation or your god, you will have access to a common core of spells and you will have to extend your influence on a map initially populated by neutral armies. You can most often recruit these neutral armies once their province is conquered. In the most frequently used game mode, the map will have a number of “ascension thrones” to capture and hold. As long as you hold a throne, it will give you an effect, most often beneficial, sometimes with counterparts or a downright bad effect for most nations, but beneficial for some. Once a number of thrones are captured, you win the game.

The overwhelming majority of nations use four types of resources, two national and two local. National resources are gold, collected by taxes, and magic gems generated by magical sites to be discovered in the provinces. Blood slaves, who are virgins destined for the sacrifice of blood magic, are an exception, for although there are a few sites that generate them, it is bloodshed organized by your blood mages to the chagrin of the populace who constitute its main source (said populace revolts if you abuse of bloodhounds). Note that “except for blood magic” is a recurring theme. The local resources, specific to each province, are the “resources“, which depend on the raw materials available (wood, metal, stone) and recruitment points, which depend on the number of inhabitants, in other words on the available workforce. Thus, each unit has a gold cost, a resource cost and a recruitment point cost. Gems (and slaves) feed rituals (off-combat spells), magic crafting, and the most powerful combat spells.

 

This close-up shows us that even samurai can turn back when confronted with spirits and other undead.

The units have a good score of stats ranging from the number of VPs to the length / range of their weapon through their armor (with a distinct value for their skin and equipment) and their life expectancy (yes, your units can to die of old age). Are you starting to get an idea of the depth of the game  ? That’s good, because it’s far from over.

 

In addition to the wide variety of “builds” for your suitor (you can imagine that an alchemist, a sphinx statue and a giant boar do not have the same kind of stats at all), its orientation can take two main directions: blessings and the dominion. You can invest a limited number of points in the build, blessings and/or domain. Finally, you can choose to start the game with a god that is awake, asleep or imprisoned. The last two options delay the arrival of your god in the game but give you more creation points.

 

The god creation screen. It shows the chosen physical appearance, the magical orientation, the blessings, the domain and the initial status of our god.

 

Depending on the magical orientation of your god, he and his holy troops can benefit from various blessings. Thus, a fire god can make his troops very resistant to fire, surround them with a shield of fire or make their weapons incendiary, while a blood god can allow them to manifest a bloodthirsty rage, allow them to spread the damage received to nearby allies (blood pact) or to have the same amount of damage recejved to any attacker who deals damage (blood revenge). In short, many effects are very thematic and more or less powerful depending on the investment of points.

The points invested in the field make it possible to modify both the speed at which your domain expands (which is independent of the military occupation of the territory) and the effects that apply to the provinces you control. These effects can be positive, such as bonuses or economic penalties, climatic (yes, it also matters) or magic (luck, search speed, etc.). Bonuses cost points, while penalties give them.

So your god can be an outstanding craftsman that will not leave your capital or a colossal unstoppable monstrosity that conquers provinces on its own or at the head of your troops, or a still statue inhabited by a spirit whose the blessing will turn your sacred troops into demi-gods on the battlefield.

Then, when the game begins, you have a small starting army and your capital with all its infrastructure developed thoroughly. Moreover, the infrastructure is fairly minimalist , because besides the ramparts (which then improve  into forts, fortresses, even citadels) there are only the temples (which extend your domain and allow the recruitment of sacred units ) and laboratories (which are used to recruit magi, perform rituals and research, and make and equip magic items). It’s not terrible, because we have enough things to manage as it is.

The battle plans screen that allows you to define the disposition of the troops and your strategy.

 

At each turn, you can give movement and attack orders to your armies, which they will execute when you move to the next turn. In case of combat, the army will deploy according to the battle plans that you have defined in advance during your turn and will try to execute them at best. I say at best because you will not know the deployment and the composition of the enemy army in advance (at least not precisely, unless you use clairvoyance spells or spies. The morale of your troops also affects their reliability. Note that to win a battle, it is not necessary to kill all opposing troops. You only have to rout them. Depending on their morale and the command ability of their general, they will attempt to reach an allied province. So we can gamble on strategies undermining morale, but it will not work against soulless enemies (undead, elementals, golems, etc.) or very disciplined troops.

The map is the screen on which you will spend the most time.

I will stop here as to the detailed description of concepts, but know that the magic system is very elaborate , that one of the schools of magic is a crafting school that allows you to manufacture magic objects and golems and that this part is embellished with random events (good or bad, depending on your luck stats in a field). Several schools of magic allow you to invoke units that will cost only magical gems and above all, which do not cost maintenance, which can become life-saving in certain scenarios ( too much necromancy kills the taxpayer). Otherwise the spells vary from the simple buff for caster to accelerated aging of all life on the map, through a meteor shower that devastates everything on the battlefield, including allies or the summoning of an elemental for an assassination attempt against the opposing general . And as mentioned above,blood magic would require an article in its own right … in the long run, through human sacrifice , it allows you to summon the lords of hell to fight on your behalf, at least until that they have enough. But these dark rituals will often make you pay more than the blood of your slaves …

 

Nothing like “gifts from heaven” to get rid of giants.

 

Dozens of nations spread over three eras

The main factor of variety lies in the large choice of nations to lead, and there is something for everyone. Some are specific to one era, others are available in all three eras, while evolving from one era to another (for example, the Chinese-inspired nation is a people of alchemist monks in “early ages”, an imperial bureaucracy in the “middle ages” and was conquered by hordes of Mongol-inspired steppes in “late ages”). The epoch is determined at the beginning of the game and does not change during the game. In the first era, the magic is abundant, the technology is rudimentary and the populations are reduced. In the last period, it is the opposite, and the middle period is, as its name indicates, a happy middling. The available gods are not usually specific to a nation, but rather to a “geographical group”. For example,many nations are inspired by the Greco-Roman world , including a nation inspired by Carthage. These nations have access to a common tree of gods, and each has at least one god exclusive to that nation, or at least a reduction in cost for some builds. In the same way, each nation has magic spells or exclusive objects, which are added to the common core, accessible to all.

Underwater battles have their own set of constraints: (live) troops must have a way to breathe (or be aquatic / amphibian by birth), the majority of ranged weapons do not work and the available spells are also different. In addition, the iron equipment will rust and therefore break more easily.

That said, the differences are not just thematic. Some nations have a really specific gameplay. For example, the “early age” version of the Aztec-inspired nation can only expand its domain by sacrificing blood slaves to its temples. Some nations are underwater (including R’lyeh, for lovers of Lovecraft , or Atlantis ). Still others are very much tied to an extreme climate (the ice giants of Niefelheim , the Abyssia lava beings , etc.). Undead nations can not (for the most part) produce troops by conventional means, but the population is gradually transformed into endless (almost) armies of undead from their sphere of influence. The domain of the “middle age” version of lizardmen produces a toxic mucus for all warm-blooded living beings, etc. and so on … The variety is amazing, and it’s pretty well balanced! There are obviously nations considered more powerful than others, but given the asymmetry, the result is very satisfying.

The undead can really reach obscene amounts of troops (7500 here).

meta

For my part, I discovered Dominions 4 late and Dominion 5 as soon as it was released. With hundreds hours of play on the 4th and twice that on the 5th, we can say that the game has entertained me well, and I played only solo. So in terms of Playtime, its incredible variety will satisfy the most greedy among us. The developers site clearly lists  what’s new compared to the 4th , so I’m not going to repeat it here.

From what I’ve seen on Reddit, the Steam forum and YouTube, there is also a community of fans who play the multiplayer mode, and some will even say that this is where the game really shines. Not having participated, I can not elaborate on that Keep in mind, however, that the player community is a small hard core one , as the game is not as well known and sold as a Total War. It can be a plus, as players will be invested and concerned about maintaining a good reputation in a small circle, but it can also be a negative, simply because it will be harder to find people to play with in your time zone.

Another highlight of the game is the development team. They are only two people, they have their full-time jobs to take care of, but they provide for us abundantly. The game documentation is ultra-complete and free to download. The patches regularly add new content and balance the game according to the players’ feedback. They make sure that the game is very moddable , so that the community can add even more wealth to the proposed content. Finally, they even communicate on the weak points of the game, as for example on the fact that they would have to review all the architecture of the game in depth to allow a localization. Basically, too much work for too little gain.

 

I LOVED

  • The variety of gods and nations
  • The depth of combat and magic systems
  • Balancing, overall
  • The fluff texts
  • The OST, including the main menu theme

I disliked

  • The graphics, it must be said
  • The need to have the game explained to you by a friend or YouTube tutor
  • The Mage Combat Orders System, which galley with short-range spells
  • Some random events are really disastrous
  • Some gods/bonuses are really worthless

 

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