Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension

By Jim Cobb 13 Feb 2014 0

Hard-core wargamers tend to look upon fantasy games as fluff; good as a change in pace but not as serious gaming. Illwinter Game Design?s Dominions franchise may have developed into something rivaling the depth of, say, an AGEOD product. The latest evolution of the series, Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension, patched to 4.04 should be the acid test.

 

No Frills, Just Thought

Most of the graphics in this game are functional with a capital ?F?. The strategic maps are 2D, zoomable and scrollable. The colors are pastel blue, dun, pinkish orange and grey. Buildings such as temples, forts and castles are clear and actually quite nice when zoomed-in. Terrain features such as mountains, bridges, forests, marshes, rivers and buildings are shown nicely but not spectacularly. Game symbols such as towers, possession flags and dominion candles give players needed information without eyestrain. These symbols change according to which of the three eras is being played.

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Zoomed out, maps look sparse

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Things look better zoomed in

 

This simplicity is not due to lack of ability on the part of the developers but a conscious design on priorities. A prologue to the manual has a screenshot of what a 3D map would have looked like and the decision for 2D was the right one. Non-functional eye candy simply gets in the way of game play. Information boxes above the map present areas? wealth, defenses, population, level of unrest, resources and status along with the player?s main character, a king pretending to godhood, wealth, income and expenses.

The battle maps represent a crumb to players who need to see things move. The 3D features clearly show what a forest as opposed to shrubs. Units jerk around as they move toward the enemy. Spells light up their targets or crash down like lightning. Underwater battles are more interesting with coral, sponges and waving sea weed. Viewing battles is optional and really only useful in seeing how magic works. The only sound in the game is heard here as troops move, clash and grunt as they take hits. The positive note is the very nice background music featuring medieval recorders and harps throughout the game.

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Battles are nice to see once in a while

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The battle results show more than the animation

 

If the maps are plain, the graphics for commanders and units more than make up for any lapse. Each of the over seventy tribes or nations has carefully illustrated characters ranging from abstract statues to amphibians and regular humans to animals and monsters. The coloring of these figures is not only delightful but very helpful in positioning them in squads, differentiating them on maps and knowing what functions they can perform. Commanders have separate images on the left side of the map with easy to read drop-down menus while the game function and information menus are on the far right. These functions yield information on how many magic gems, site and items that side possesses, map filters showing key elements, statistics and important message. On this side are also army management and a description of magic sites the player controls. Orders and messages are easy to read. The only negative point about unit and character icons is that, on the recruitment and army set-up screens, cheap units are so small as to be almost invisible; opacity must be set high or the translucency of the screen causes the map to blank out the icons.

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The drop-down menu has many choices for the Pretender Friedrich?s orders

 

A game of the depth of this one requires documentation. Fortunately, gaming pro Bruce Geryk teamed up with the developers for a 295-page manual that explains 99% percent of the game with a detailed tutorial and vital appendices on magic, spells and the various abilities of each nation. The only omission is a description of magic items and that is corrected at http://dom4editor.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/inspector/index.html . The manual is in PDF format and can be downloaded from Illwinter?s site; a print version can be bought from Desura. A quick reference guide for shortcut keys and a modding manual can also be obtained from the Illwinter site as the game is played on Steam.

 

Keeping Faith

Dominions 4 is about domination but not the usual boots-on-the ground, wolf-of-Wall Street smack down. Rather, players must convert the majority of the map to their pretender god. This process requires linking the components of the game from step one, choosing a map. The size of the twenty-five maps range from forty areas to over 500 with areas divided unequally between land and sea areas. Large maps are suitable for team play or adding additional AI opponents. The next decision is picking a nation. Each nation has strengths and weakness that should match the chosen map. A largely aquatic map needs an amphibious nation while a large, dry, land mass is a fit for a serpentine race. Environmental weakness can be overcome later in the game but a mismatch early makes play difficult.  Choosing from playing in early, middle or late ages is simply assigning emphasis between magic and technology with the latter being more important in later periods.

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The variety of maps is enormous and new ones can be made

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Nations should match the maps chosen

 

Creating the player?s pretender to godhood is critical and not to be approached casually. Players have 300 points to create a pretender but can get 150 more if the character remains dormant for a year ? twelve turns in the game. If the default icon doesn?t suit, another can be chosen for fifty points, a matter of style over function. The real decision comes in distributing points for magic paths and dominion scales. Magic paths determine which kind of spells and items the pretender can make. The seven paths are fire, air, water, earth, astral, nature, death and blood. The pretender starts out with points for some paths that can be increased fairly cheaply with clicks. Starting a path from zero to one costs fifty points, a relatively heft price. Dominion scales determine attributes of the internal workings of controlled areas. Scales are dominion, order, productivity, temperature comfort zone, growth, luck and magic. The effect of these scales can be seen on-screen by a mouse hover and can be increase on this screen but not during play. Players therefore need to consider how to spend their points. A neat feature in creating characters is using disciples for team play. Disciples? characters can?t win by themselves but can help their pretender. Pretenders can be created separately from the game in the Game Tool function and stored for later use.

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Getting a pretender?s attributes right is crucial

 

After setting up the pretender, players are taken to their home provinces which are equipped with a castle, temple, laboratory for mages and the like to do their nefarious antics. A small garrison is ready to provide a core for an army. The first item on item is to recruit commanders. Commanders come in two general categories, military and magical/religious. Each comes with twelve attributes, seen with a right click on an icon, such as leadership, strength and age as well as attributes such as sacredness or resistance to different attacks. Each also carries weapons and wears armor. Although each type can multi-task, military men can command more units and more squadrons without a morale penalty while priests or mages are better at research, spells and making magical items. More importantly, each can become a prophet, a surrogate for the pretender. Only one pretender can be on the map so players should consider if they want to risk the prophet as a military commander or keep him safe but pretty useless.

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Commanders should also be picked carefully

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Priest?s attributes are shown by the icons in mid-screen

 

Recruitment costs gold and resources. On the lower of the six levels of difficulty, gold seems plentiful but resources depend on the area where recruiting is done. Commanders require fairly large amounts of gold but few resources. Units are the opposite. Weak units are cheap and plentiful but won?t win many battles themselves; strong units drain resources which can go negative in a turn with the units bought by the deficit appearing later. Gold deficits are not allowed. Recruitment need not always depend on the local populace: mercenaries can be bid for and kept if paid well while random events can bring friendly monsters and passersby to players? doors.

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Recruitment is simple; affording it is not

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The bidding for mercenaries is on!

 

Before going forth, players should buy religious or magical commanders to research the seven schools of magic. Spells and magic items are tied to these schools and gems that correlate to the magic paths. Magical activities depend on how far the research goes up in the schools. Other activities in characters drop-down menu include casting global spells, empowering heretofore inaccessible magic paths with the expenditure of gems, finding magic sites to get new characters and hunting virgins for sacrifice in the lab. The last character to be recruited should be one with the ability to hide for use as a spy.

Players who have a military bent should set up their army. Recruited unit appear as garrisons in the set-up screen. Selecting them and clicking on a commander will put a squad in the commander?s box. The number of unit a commander can control is a finite limit but the number of squads is unlimited but a morale penalty occurs if the number exceeds the commander?s optimum number of squads. Squads can be positioned by ranks and given formation and battle orders such as ?hold then advance?. Commanders themselves can be given the same type of instructions.

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Squads are positions relative to a box

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Squad orders are like most tactical games

 

Off to Win Hearts if not Minds

After all that preparation, game play seems fairly simple. Left click on a spy, turning the counter white, and left click on an adjacent area to see the path arrow grow. Right clicking on an adjacent province shows a vague idea of the military there. If that force appears weak, army commanders can be sent in as was the spy. Ending a turn completes movement. A message then appears announcing events and battles. Battles can be viewed in 3D but simply clicking on the message brings up the results and losses. Random events include positive things like finding gems or increased popularity; negative events can be droughts, unrest or curses.

Activity should be taken in newly acquired areas. Local defense forces can be raised cheaply with clicks although raising ten or more units can cause unrest. Commanders can build temples to increase dominion, forts and castles to defend the area and rationalize tax collection and build labs for the mages. Local forces, often with valuable unique skills, can be recruited. Follow-on carriers can act as missionaries to spread the faith, improve fortification or hunt for even more virgins. More commanders should be recruited at the home province to raise more armies and speed research.

This cycle of acquiring areas, recruitment, research and improvement continues for a few turns but soon matters become more complicated. Aquatic areas can only be entered by non-amphibious commanders equipped with the Ring of Water Breathing. Invitations to arenas for death matches are received; sending a strong warrior commander can bring benefits. Armies may come upon areas with few resources so long stays to improve the area leads to soldiers dying of starvation and disease. Unrest pops up in areas. Except for flying units, mountain passes cannot be crossed until the temperatures on both sides are equal.  More importantly, thrones of ascension appear on the map. Claiming these with the prophet increases dominion greatly and gaining all of them all but cinches a victory. The roadblock is that an active opponent will also vie for the thrones, attacking players? areas from several directions and besieging fortresses while destroying temples in conquered provinces. Forging magical weapons becomes more important as well as more research. Fortunately, the pretender has awakened by now and is able to use his considerable powers in battle.

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Forging weapons and magic items can determine a game

 

Leading armies, the pretender may choose to attack the enemy?s peripheries to diminish his gold and dominion or a bold leader may attack the other pretender head-on and attempt to settle the matter quickly. If a pretender falls, priests may be able to resurrect him. Thrusts and counter-thrusts added by global spells and other magic makes play resemble the Seven Years or Thirty Years Wars with religious domination being a common goal.

Few fantasy games even approach the level of elegance and difficulty of Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension. The number of maps, nations, difficulty levels, pretender options and multi-play combinations guarantee players years of action. Hard-core strategy gamers should give the panzers a rest and play this game.

 

About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad

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