(PC Review) Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension

Developer: Illwinter Game Design
Publisher: Illwinter Game Design
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Players: 1-20+
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
Pentium 4 1 GHz Dual Core, 1 GB RAM, 500 MB Hard Drive space

You know you are in for a long haul when a game comes with a 116-page manual that’s a required read.  I undertook what I had assumed were the proper mental preparations to tackle Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension, the latest grand strategy title from Illwinter Game Design: reading (and re-reading) the manual and playing (and replaying) the tutorial. However, I quickly found myself humbled by a string of defeats at the hands of a monstrous army of variables, variables for variables, and, well, actual monsters. Through my endless battles and constant researching, I slowly uncovered an increasingly complex strategy game with myriad systems that were as demanding as they were rewarding.

As a pretender god, players select one of three different ages in which to lead one of several factions to victory by having their chosen ascend to godhood as the Pantocrator. In the world of Dominions, and as it tends to be with Thrones of Ascension, the simplicity of that sentence belies the layers of mechanics and planning behind each facet.

Even before beginning a game, players will need to choose which of three distinct eras they wish to dominate. Each age reflects a period in the world but all follow a general trajectory of magic waning in influence before the resurgence of mages and factions evolving as new ideologies are embraced and calamities endured. A faction initially based on celestial worship evolves into a bureaucratic-heavy state before declining into one led by ancestor-worshipping, barbarous warlords, while others will be split apart by civil war or overwhelmed by dark magic and powerful foes. Simply following a faction through the different periods is fascinating, as the lore-rich world, infused as it is with real-world mythologies and influences from ancient societies as far apart as Africa and Asia, provide for a wide variety of unit and evolutionary combinations.

There are also more fanciful factions and units, including Amazons, Atlantians, ghosts, ogres, lizard men, and zombies, as well as units that can fly, walk through walls, and live underwater. Army composition potential is almost endless, and even though unit types break down into roughly the standard military archetypes—mounted, long range, and melee—the numerous stats offer an intimidating array of strategic possibilities. Units have the typical stats for morale, armor types (if any), encumbrance, and weapons (slashing, piercing, blunt, etc.), but also those for being able to travel in wooded areas without penalty, go without eating, function mindlessly (immune to spells), never heal,  insane, and on and on. Each era shakes up these stats, and they can shift the player’s entire strategic approach to combat for a faction, from a cavalry-centric force to one with a heavy emphasis on mages.

After picking an era and deciding which faction’s lore sounds interesting enough to warrant taking on the mantle of their god, it’s time to choose the pretender’s avatar and dominion stats. Godhood is achieved by spreading dominion and claiming thrones spread throughout the word—there are options to tweak victory conditions as well—and dominion is spread by achieving victory on the battlefield and by the presence of your pretender, temples, and unit designated as the pretender’s prophet. Those factions who prefer blood sacrifice go about things slightly differently, but they would, wouldn’t they?

Dominion isn’t actually military control but the influence of the pretender. However, to gain access to as many provinces as possible, it will be necessary to cut a path through enemy territory. As a dominion spreads in a province, neighboring provinces will be affected depending on nearby structures and the stats that were tweaked on the setup screen. The pretender’s options consist of dominion, order/turmoil, productivity/sloth, heat/cold, growth/death, fortune/misfortune, and magic/drain. Design points are spent to increase these in order to maximize the faction’s chance of victory, but these points are also shared with the pretender’s magic abilities. There are eight paths of magic: fire, air, water, earth, astral, death, blood, and nature. Changing these not only alters the pretender’s proficiency in that path, but they can also lead to additional general benefits, such as increased strength and health. The avatar also affects stats, with some being monoliths and statues (and pebbles and fountains) unable to move but strong in magic and others weak in magic but highly skilled in leading troops and engaging in combat. Those who want to have a juggernaut pretender can opt to leave them in imprisonment for a period, either in a dormant state or actually imprisoned, which delays their entrance into the world but adds additional design points to the pool. Optimizing point allocation is an important metagame, and as much else in the game, it’s difficult to get the hang of.

These armies can either garrison provinces or be sent out under the banner of a commander to conquer new territory. Units can only travel when under the direction of a commander; any unit in a leaderless province will default to guard duty. Movement and actions on the world map and on the battlefield are turn based, and the range an army is able to travel on the world map during a turn is determined by the commander’s stats and how they stack up against terrain penalties. Leaders are not only from the military class, whose higher leadership stat allows them to take charge of larger numbers of troops and break them up into squads, but they also represent stealth units, priests, and various mage types. Military commanders will be augmented by the other types, but they frequently do much of the heavy lifting. As a result, they can be equipped with special stat-boosting forged items made by practiced hands adept at handling magical gems. All units gain experience, but a military leader who does so will be able to command more troops and instill higher morale; however, they are also vulnerable to the same afflictions as other leaders and can be felled by a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. Those with sufficient stats can command squads, which can then be placed in a general position relative to the leader and, depending on the unit type, given combat commands. If they are disciplined, they can be given formation orders (e.g., skirmish, line, double line, etc.) and attack orders (e.g., attack closest enemy, hold then attack, etc.); undisciplined troops can be positioned but cannot be given either order type. If multiple commanders are in a province, their armies are combined and displayed on the same mini-map when positioning a squad, which makes it fairly easy to set up an elaborate formation. Warfare is similar to the system found in Legion and other Slitherine titles in that players only have a say before combat and watch the AI battle it out. Post-turn messages inform players of the engagement’s outcome, with options to check out a summary of each side’s losses and to check out a replay of the battle to see how their plans panned out.

Other unit types can command soldiers, such as mages, but they frequently suffer from low leadership stats which results in small squads with poor morale. Still, while a military leader might instill confidence in their men (or krakens or shades or what have you) and command 100-plus soldiers, the mage or priest with their lowly handful of unmotivated troops will still make their mark on the battlefield by flinging fireballs, instilling courage, healing the wounded, banishing the undead, and summoning all manner of otherworldly creatures to send into the fray. Each has access to a handful of standard spells, but gaining access to new, stronger spells will require research on their part. After a new level has been unlocked, the mages need to be leveled to the appropriate level by empowering them through that path’s associated gems. Those same gems are required to cast the more powerful spells, which makes them a precious commodity, and searching for them becomes paramount when entering a new province. After they have been found and mined, the gems must then be shuffled to the appropriate commander through either another leader serving as a courier or via a constructed lab within a held province.

The cost associated with non-military units is high, in both money and the time it takes to manage gems, which can be irksome to keep up given the numerous magical paths and number of  mage types available and recruited; still, seeing the unleash havoc on a battlefield is always a pleasant sight. Magic’s importance varies with the chosen era, but a powerful mage or priest should never be underestimated. In addition to combat- and magic-oriented leaders, there are also mercenaries. If it looks as though the enemy is preparing to launch an assault on a weak province, mercenaries can be hired to help fill the gaps. Mercenaries actually require that players bid on three-month contracts, and if won, they serve for those three months and offer the chance for a renewal on the fourth month by doubling the winner’s next bid before putting their services back on the market. These act as mini-armies, coming complete with their own commanders and squads.

As with military commanders and soldiers, mages and priests can be given commands to follow. General orders allow players to bestow some autonomy on their units while also making sure that they behave in a certain way, such as retreating, attacking, how and who to attack, and so on. More specific instructions can be given as well, such as to wait a turn, cast a spell, cast a specific spell, attack, etc. Up to five specific instructions—one per turn—can be given before the general orders are followed, and these commands can also be saved for future use with other leaders. As helpful as saving orders can be, there are several hindrances to the commander system. One of the most frustrating limitations is the inability to move troops without a leader. On mid-sized and larger maps, it becomes incredibly tedious to have to assign often-expensive commanders as escorts to shuffle troops around. Furthermore, troops that break in combat scatter to nearby friendly provinces, which requires a laborious regrouping process of recollecting them, reassigning them to a leader, and then reassigning formation and battle orders. Combat becomes increasingly common as factions ramp up, and all of the little actions that continually cropped up and multiplied in the meantime begin to bog the game down, and it starts to feel as if too much of the player’s time is being taken up by monotonous and repetitive busy work.

The foundation of any kingdom is its provinces. As mentioned, the dominion of a province can be affected without having any boots on the ground, but at some point, there will come a time to send in the troops. An invasion can be softened up by sending in a scout-type leader, allowing them to not only reconnoiter the territory but also work towards causing a general uprising. Sending ahead a scout is critical to victory because getting solid information about a territory is only possible with a unit in the province; having a nearby province only offers a muddled sense of the resources and units within. After settling on which province to invade, it’s time to unleash the dogs of war—sometimes literally. Defeating the independent forces or a faction’s garrison will add that province and its means to the player’s kingdom. As mentioned earlier, mages can search for magical sites, which can lead to a number of finds within the province, one of the most helpful being a pool of gems to harvest. The allocation of these can lead to stronger spells, new magic paths, and greater proficiency in unlocked paths. Given the game’s complexity, it’s fortunate that there are two general assets to worry about: gold and resources. Gold is used to recruit soldiers and commanders while resources are used to arm them. Units are recruitable up to the max of gold, but they can be queued up beyond the limit of the available resources for the next turn, for as long as there is gold available; gold also accumulates while resources do not. Each province has a supply value as well, which acts as a check against too many stationary forces as it represents the max size that an army can be maintained in the province before starvation sets in.

A sudden disruption in a kingdom’s economy can cause all manner of harm, from resetting recruitment queues to troop desertion due to lack of funds. Many possibilities can be planned for, such as an enemy build-up near a border province or mounting unrest, but others cannot. The game includes an element of unpredictability by having random events. These can be just as destructive (e.g., heretical preachers spreading unrest or random horrors unleashed) as they can be positive (e.g., the discovery of gold or gem caches), so it pays to be attentive even in down times.

How effective a province is administered and protected is determined by its unrest level and any constructed structures. Buildings are constructed by order of a garrisoned commander and can only be built if there is one in the province. Some buildings, such as labs and temples, allow for gems to be transferred to garrisoned commanders and spread dominion, respectively, while forts allow for a more thorough gathering of resources. “Forts” is a catch-all term to describe a fortified structure built to better administer and protect a province, which varies by the faction’s development level of the era being played; for example, early ages start with palisades while later ones will have access to citadels. These can not only be upgraded to increase supply to better withstand sieges and host larger forces, but they can also help in negating terrain penalties. Another significant benefit to a fort is that it gathers all of a province’s resources, rather than the default 50 percent, as well as additional resources from nearby provinces. The resources gathered from a neighboring province are from its untapped half, which can in turn increase an administered province’s take several fold. Fort placement becomes increasingly tricky, however, because fort influence can conflict and become too great a drain to efficiently maximize gathering on those provinces in the middle.

Yet, forts do even more. After a province is conquered, its regular forces can be recruited; however, with a fort, a faction’s own units can be called up, save for any limited to the capital. Forts provide an excellent example of the mechanic interplay at work in Thrones of Ascension. The natural purpose of a fort is defense, yet constructing them as such will severely limit the kingdom’s economic potential, which limits its ability to expand and spread dominion. However, not making forward locations to recruit faction-specific units or to secure chokepoints opens the lands up to invasion. They also tie down commanders for several turns, which makes timing their construction important as well. Very little is as simple as it seems, and that is precisely why the game is so fascinating.

Forts also help to illustrate some of the game’s eccentricities. Commanders set to ‘defend’ in a province without a fort will engage any invading forces. However, those set to ‘defend’ in a province with a fort will not actively engage the enemy but stay behind the safety of the walls and allow themselves to become besieged. The way to prevent this from occurring is to set them to patrol the province, which is also how brigands are captured and unrest lowered. The idea of a patrol fending off brigands makes sense, but the idea of an entire army patrolling for invaders seems less evident—or much less so than an army set to defend. This allows for greater tactical flexibility, but it also requires a lot of fiddling to ensure that a force isn’t besieged and its garrison and resources locked down. That lack of intuitiveness is pervasive throughout the game, and it’s why the manual is so important and the tutorial so disappointing.

For a game as rich and layered as Thrones of Ascension, the tutorial’s simplicity is alarming. Not only does it have to be played alongside the manual, as it isn’t scripted but a simple scenario created so that it plays out according to the steps laid out in the manual, but it gives an incredibly limited view of what the game entails. After playing through it and reading the manual several times—good luck absorbing it all in one go—I was still being consistently defeated by an AI that seemed to have limitless resources and world-conquering armies at their disposal. It was only after watching several playthroughs and tutorials on Youtube and taking advantage of the Disciples mode, which allows players to team up with the AI to spread dominion against single or multiple enemies, that I finally got a handle on things. To be clear, I spent dozens of hours coming to grips with the game, and I’m nowhere near the level of being able to comfortably battle other players. This is a review of the single-player content only, and the multiplayer component, which allows players to connect to other player’s games (servers), is something I won’t be approaching for a long time. Much of the game’s cumbersomeness is a result of its interface, which breaks out information between several menus and relies on hotkeys to help smooth things out. For those who have never played the series before, these shortcuts only help after the hours have been spent coming to grips with the systems and interface. Things like pop-up info boxes with names or summaries for spell effects, stats, and units or comparison windows are absent, which makes for a lot of menu wading. Something as basic as a waypoint system is also missing, and the amount of needless micromanagement this requires is both unnecessary and incredibly frustrating. Adding up all of these elements—moving commanders province by province, having to move soldiers by commander, recollecting forces after battle, etc.—amounts to a sizable span of time spent doing nothing more than monotonous clicking and tapping. In a game that is so involved, I would rather spend my time planning and scheming rather than literally connecting the dots.

Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is an involved, intimidating, and exasperating strategy game that is a must play for fans of the genre. The game’s web of variables, based around three ages and over a dozen evolving factions, leads to nearly limitless replay, and such varied matchups as Faux Romans with legionnaires alongside serpent cataphracts and hydras vs. Undead Faux Romans that raise the dead and destroy the lands they invade, and the insanity-inducing armies of the Sleeping God/Cthulhu vs. human ninja and samurai. The game requires players to jump through far too many hoops but remains well worth sticking with, as it provides a lore- and content-rich system that is as satisfying as it is trying.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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