This review has been late in coming. Somehow, every time I sit down to write it, I found myself opening Dominions 4 and wanting to make “just one more move.” Then a portal through time would somehow open up and I would come out of a trance at 3 A.M. with another empire destroyed, but nothing actually written. Luckily, I’ve managed to take screenshots during these gaming sessions, otherwise the only record I would have of that time is the stories of empires that have been subdued in my head.
Dominions 4 is the latest installment in the Dominions game series, a series which has a cult-like following of people who relish the meta game of strategy games. In Dominions, you can win a battle through sheer numbers, by blessing a small group of elite soldiers that can fly behind enemy lines, by cursing enemy leaders so that they are marked for death by Horrors from the netherworld, or any number of other methods. The sheer volume of spell effects means that there is a counter to any tactic, as well as a counter-counter, and a counter-counter-counter… you get the idea. There are global enchantments that can cover the world in darkness, which you might want to try if most of your units can see in the dark. There are flying chimeras that breathe poison gas. There are blood slaves that you can round up and sacrifice for powerful magic effects. I’ve only come to really use about half of the possible magic research tree in the month I’ve been playing this. There’s still so many spells to mix and match, to see which combination can provide unparalleled success. So far, I have yet to find one strategy that is “overpowered”. It’s because where other games have rock-paper-scissors strategy, Dominions has entire ecosystems of counter-strategies.
Starting a game in Dominions 4 can be more intimidating than actually playing it. First, you choose the age that you play in, which affects available nations to play. Think of it as cross-section of Dominions history – before, during, or after certain nations have risen or fallen. Do you want to be an ancient kingdom of lizardmen who turn conquered territory into rotting marshlands where only they can survive? How about a race of cave-dwelling humans who ride cave drakes into battle? There are about 75 nations to choose from, and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but nothing so absolute that you are at immediate disadvantages based on race alone.
Next comes possibly the most crucial part of the pre-game setup – choosing a Pretender. The objective in Dominions 4 is to dominate all other nations so that your “Pretender” may lay claim to true godhood. Your available Pretenders greatly vary based on the background and history of your nation. That kingdom of lizardmen? Their pretender might be a Great Sauromancer with powerful magic, or a Devourer of Souls, who devours the souls of anything it can get its jaws on. A nation of Asyrians might have a god who is constantly wreathed in flames, and set troops who approach him on fire. There are also immobile gods – statues who grant research or magic bonuses to nations.
Actually playing Dominions 4 is relatively straightforward. You have two basic unit types: commanders and regular units. Commanders can each lead a certain amount of troops, and are usually either magic-users, priests, or fighters with great martial prowess. Commanders allow you to set up the formations and battle commands of your squads, while also providing morale bonuses, blessings, magic boosts, or other assistance. They are crucial for gameplay, as if you have no commanders, you have no way to manage your troops, or even move them from province to province.
Where Dominions 4 shines is its battle system. Battles are automatic, with numerous factors that tie in to how a battle goes. Troops can get diseased, permanently wounded, and even scared off the battlefield. For example, if your enemy is fielding a terrifying monster and your commander can’t inspire your troops well enough, the enemy might drive your troops back further into your territory without ever firing a shot. Or your Pretender might get wounded and walk with a limp for the rest of its days, slowing its movement. So, when you’re arranging your army’s formations, you have to consider more than just troop power; almost every battle will require some tweaking. When fighting undead troops, it’d be wiser to have a commander attempt to banish masses of them, rather than trying to smite them one at a time. But that same spell that is so effective against the undead will have no effect on living enemies, so having them use the same spells would just be a waste of turns. Combat is turn-based, so there is a certain amount of predicting what your opponent’s armies are going to do. It’s like a massive game of chess, except that you can get an upper hand by having more information about the capabilities your opponent’s army has.
You can also turn the game in your favor outside of the battlefield. I personally prefer to stealthily assassinate enemy commanders before moving in my main forces. If units don’t have a commander on the field, they blob up into a big group, and are much easier to route. That’s just one of many ways that you can win, however. There are horror marks, which make the receiver of the mark subject to regular attacks from demons. There are also global enchantments, which require a huge amount of research and materials, but also semi-permanent, epic results that last until the caster is killed, or the enchantment is dispelled by an enemy (usually at huge prices). The enchantment Utterdark throws the world into darkness, reducing almost all productivity, and causing shadows to attack enemy territories. Celestial Rainbow is a global enchantment that creates large amounts of gold in the two provinces that it targets, and can also make enemy spells fail. Blood Vortex creates a huge pool of blood that lures civilians all around the world into it, increasing access to blood slaves (for those who practice foul blood magic). There’s many global enchantments to upset that game in your favor, but they take a lot of research, which can only be done through mages.
For the most part, Dominions 4 is very similar in gameplay to Dominions 3. However, in Dominions 3, all provinces had to be conquered to declare yourself a true god. Here, Dominions 4 thankfully makes a departure. Thrones of Power are randomly scattered around the map, and if you can take all of these, you can win the game. There are even victory options for holding a certain percentage of thrones for maps with more players, or just so you don’t have to take that pesky underwater throne. As Dominions can be a game that becomes monotonous towards the end game, this helps with that a lot. It also adds a bit more overall strategy regarding which provinces to conquer. Aside from production, gold, magic, luck, and other terrain features, players are all going to have to make their way towards the thrones of power.