Dominions is a series with some history, which I came to somewhat late in the game with the third iteration. It is far and away my favorite fantasy strategy game, not least because of its commitment to offering you an unbelievably fresh experience every time you play. Although it can take a week to finish a large game, there are still what I would consider to be heavily roguelike elements interspersed throughout that make it a great candidate for exploring how such elements can be applied to something as seemingly far from roguelike as epic turn-based strategy. Some things are more standard (such as random map generation) and others (such as designing your pretender god, and the extraordinary effect it has on your game strategy) are not. Let’s look at the premise of the game.
You are (or your avatar is) a demigod, living in a world where the previous god has apparently disappeared without a trace. You, along with some other number of extremely powerful individuals, are determined to seize godhood for yourself. A more epic premise can hardly be imagined. Although you are powerful, you are in a world where many (and I mean MANY) different nations are vying for military control and you must put yourself at the helm of one and lead it to victory against its foes, ultimately stamping out the religions of the other false gods and banishing them from the world forever, proving once and for all that you are the true God.
The first thing that will become apparent about the game when you dig into it is the variety of units, nations, magic spells, and items is immense, probably an order of magnitude higher than most other games of this type - I mean over a thousand different units, and 40-some different nations with vastly different unit types, spellcasting ability, priesthoods, and scouts. Pretty much every fantasy mythos is represented here: Atlantis, Arthurian legend, ancient egypt, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, ancient norse mythology (of particular import since the game’s two designers are Swedish), ancient Rome, the Amazons, ancient China, Japan, the list goes on and on. You want to play as frost giants? No problem. You want to play as a nation based on the Aztecs that focuses on Blood magic and sacrifices? Got that covered. You want to play as a lost tribe of Israelite angel-kin? Done. Lizard people? Yep. Undead? Boy howdy. This massive variety all by itself ensures that you will never play the same game twice, and you’ll have to come up with a strategy for dealing with each foe, depending on which nation you’re playing as.
However, the other major factor of choosing your nation is customizing your demigod, or Pretender God as they are called in-game. This has immense ramifications for your strategy. You could play as the same nation and with three different gods have three completely different approaches to the game. Depending on the nation you select, the actual physical forms of your Pretender available will change, but they range from monstrous creatures to powerful mages to immobile fountains and enchanted statues. Each one has certain magical skills, religious influence (called Dominion, appropriately), physical attacks and special abilities that can be used to complement or supplement the nation you are playing. Then you have to choose what magic skills they have - not only does this matter for your God’s own spellcasting and item crafting, but it determines the bonuses that sacred units get when they are blessed - for nations that plan on using a lot of sacred units, this choice forms a core of your strategy. Furthermore, your Pretender’s dominion can be set to provide bonuses to provinces under its sway, or set to penalize them in order to gain character points to spend on more magic skills or other things.
I’ve been playing this game for years and have never gotten bored with it. Dominions 4 is out and I will probably get it around Christmas time, and do a little comparison. From what I’ve read of the manual, there are some nice tweaks and updates as well as a few new features, but even if it’s merely a slight improvement over this game, and it looks to be more than that, it will be well worth playing.
Gameplay is turn based, with all nations submitting their moves simultaneously and everything being resolved automatically before a new turn is generated. This includes combat which is completely automated. The brilliance of how combat is run in this game, despite a few small flaws, is one of the coolest things about it, and has greatly influenced my attitude towards automatic combat in general. Although you cannot directly influence combat as it happens, you can provide positioning and tactics to your units, and more detailed tactics for your commander units. The strategic choices you make here greatly affect your combat success, and only quite a bit of time spent with the combat system will really get you a handle on it. Morale is a very big factor in this game, which I like even though I get destroyed because of it fairly often. If you think about it, battles rarely involve large armies fighting to the last man - even brave people are much more discerning than that. Undead or mindless beings will fight until they are killed, but anyone with a brain will eventually decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and frankly if they live they can actually do some good later on in the war instead of dying pointlessly immediately.
Simultaneous turns means that information on your enemies’ movements is even more invaluable than sequential turns because you won’t know where they’ll be next turn before its too late to react to it. That means if you are about to attack a province on the front lines of the enemy that appears to be empty, they could move a friendly army into it from a province further back as you attack and you’ll get blindsided. Therefore having scouts up a province or two into their territory to keep an eye on their troop movements is key to preventing devastating and pointless losses. Some scouts are especially hard to root out, or can cause uprisings in the province or even assassinate enemy commanders. It took me a while to figure out how to use scouts effectively, but they are critical, unless you have some Astral mages who can scry for you.
I don’t want this to turn into a tutorial on the game, they’ve provided a good one themselves, and I’m here to review this, so let’s do this.
Graphics: 5/5 Daggers
Considering that one person made almost all the art in this game, and that the art consists of thousands of units alone, nevermind all the other assets, the sprites look great. It doesn’t really have much in the way of animation, usually a two or three frame attack or spellcasting routine, but considering that the battles don’t happen in real-time and you’re just watching a replay (and that hundreds of units can be fighting at the same time) it still looks fine. Some of the spell animations look quite nice, and the fact that this game can be run on old computers is something I appreciate. The battlefield itself is rendered in 3d, but the units operate on a grid based system to calculate movement as well as how many units can stand in one square. The randomly-generated maps are a little rough around the edges, but many of the community provided maps and official maps look lovely, like a game board. In fact, the relatively static nature of most of the art and animations of this game makes it feel more board-game-like, and since I love board games I find it charming. I realize that most other people would probably knock the score down because it is a little old-looking, under-animated and undetailed, but once again, if one person has accomplished all this, a standing ovation is in order.
Sound/Music: 4/5 Daggers
The sound in this game is adequate for the task. Arrows flying, enemies screaming in pain, nifty spellcasting sounds, etc. It gets a bit repetitive after a while, but when you’ve been playing the game for a long time you tend to only watch battles that don’t turn out how you expected them to, or to make sure that a spellcaster is casting what you’ve ordered them to. A little more variety would probably have been helpful here, but I don’t have any problem with the sound effects in this game.
As for the music: oh, man. The music in this game was written by two people with “Musician of the Realm” status in Sweden, some kind of official designation from the government saying that you are legit. And the music is legit. It’s basically fantasy-style folk music, presumably in Swedish, all with live instrumentation and an extremely lovely female voice, who I have to assume is one of the two composers. All the music is catchy, and perfectly suited to the game. I saw some people on a forum complaining about the lack of variety, I suppose there are maybe 6-8 songs in all, but considering the outrageous quality (and my obsessive nature with music I like) I really can’t be bothered to get upset about that. Hours of this stuff is just fine with me.
Gameplay: 5/5 Daggers
The learning curve is the only thing that would knock this game down a bit, if I cared to do it. I’ve only recently beaten a game against all Normal AI, and probably could beat Difficult at this point, if I had the patience to finish a game entirely. I often play only to the point where I know I just have to mop up the few remaining weak provinces or what have you and then move on to a new game. In order to get the most out of this game you have to commit to playing a lot of it until the whole process of spell research, cycling armies, conjuring magic units, forging items, recruitment, and so forth become relatively easy for you. However, if you want a game so deep you can fall for a month before you hit the bottom, you’ll find your time investment rewarded so greatly it hurts. The gameplay is what makes this game, I can’t not give it a top score.
RogueScore: 4/5 Daggers
The extraordinarily procedurally generated nature of this game, with random maps, outrageous variety of nations and units, extreme Pretender God customization, and so many different spells to try and units to summon that your brain will explode, provides a replayability that rivals any roguelike I’ve ever played. Furthermore, the game autosaves every turn, so once you move forward a turn the die is cast and you cannot go back, a fantastic nod to roguelike play that forces you to deal with your mistakes and learn from them, rather than save spamming until everything goes properly. Admittedly, I accidentally end the turn sometimes by hitting a keyboard button and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I suppose an end turn confirm would be a good idea if they’re going to have no take-backsies.
Final Score: 5/5 Daggers
Despite only adequate sound and somewhat dated-looking (though pretty) graphics, Dominions 3 is a singular vision that provides everything an epic fantasy wargame player could want: battling +gods, epic magic, battlefield strategy, cool magic items, and mouth-watering replayability. I’ve played a lot of really amazing fantasy strategy games in my time: Age of Wonders 1&2, Master of Magic, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and Dominions is still far and above the winner in terms of feeding my need for an epic, engaging experience. It’s on Steam. Get it. Get it now! Or maybe just get Dominions 4 if you can spare the extra dough. In any case, these two Swedish game designers deserve some kind of trophy, or medal, or a pile of grant money. Thank you SO much for making this, Ilwinter Games. You have my undying support.