Late to the Party: Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension

Image from Dominions 4 Steam Homepage:

Price I paid: $17.99

Available on: Steam

When I was told Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension would let me play as an army of illithids and creatures from the void that rose of from the depths of R’lyeh to sow insanity throughout my enemies across the world until the entire planet was part of my cult, I couldn’t drive home fast enough so I could purchase the game.

Dominions 4 is a turn-based, strategy game. I suck at strategy games. I hate micromanaging, which is often important in the genre. The only thing that sounds worse than “turn-based strategy game” is “real-time strategy game that castrates you as you play.” At least if it is turn-based, being slow doesn’t become a crippling handicap. But I wasn’t going to let my distaste for the genre stop me from playing it. I needed to adopt the world into my cult of brain-devouring illithids.

After sculpting the type of nation I wanted to play, I was waging war, globetrotting, and getting my face pushed in by the AI armies who knew what they were doing. After failing so miserably, I took a step back and examined the game a little more.

Random events, both good and bad, can occur during the game. At the beginning of the game, luck is one of the things you can put points into, thus making more positive things happen.

In my mixture of bias for the genre and my excitement over making the world go insane and join my death cult, I found that Dominions 4 takes away many of the things I loathe about strategy games. It also gives me some things I’ve learned to love about the genre, and it lets me easily do one thing I’ve never done before in a strategy game.

Let’s start with what it takes away. If you occupy an area on the map, you get its resources, gold, and whatever else that plot of land possesses. You don’t have to mine for minerals or select specific units to collect things. Gold, supplies, and other resources are automatically added to your total resources and you use them how you see fit. This means pretty much everything you do revolves around balancing resources with units that are actually doing interesting things.

While limiting micromanaging gives it an automatic one thumb up, it’s what Dominions 4 adds that makes it so awesome.

First, you can choose from over 20 nations in three different time periods (all fantasy-based. No sci-fi or modern day settings). The nations change in each period. This giving you some starting ground if you’re familiar with them in another period, but it tweaks them enough to keep them interesting and fresh without feeling completely unfamiliar.

You also get to choose a pretender god, the physical symbol or creature of your religion. I’m not even sure how many of these there are. Each nation seems to have access to certain ones, though the selection was always vast (at least 20 choices per nation, I think).

This is screen... You will stare at this screen and its submenus for 90% of the game. It brings up strong emotions of joy and dread. It's an odd thing to write when, out of context, this screen shot doesn't look terribly captivating.
This is screen… You will stare at this screen and its submenus for 90% of the game. It brings up strong emotions of joy and dread. It’s an odd thing to write when, out of context, this screen shot doesn’t look terribly captivating.

You can win or lose the game in a number of different ways. Naturally, you can build or be defeated by a great army. You also have to keep track of how popular your pretender god is among the people of the world. If people stop believing in your power, your pretender god disappears, his/her army crumbles, and you lose the game. This adds an element of balancing military might with religious domination. Producing priests and building temples can spread the word of your religion, but both take time and resources. It is a way to beat a foe with superior military might without losing a soldier.

Most importantly to me, Dominions 4 let me do one thing I’ve never done in a strategy game before: role play. If you like filling in the gaps with your own details, this game is perfect for roleplaying. While it doesn’t have “RPG elements” or a leveling system, there are so many options and ways to accomplish a goal that you can play a whole game with a specific mindset and stick to it. Every game I’ve played has had a theme to it, and even if I failed to win, it only added to the stories that came out of those games. Though I will say you get what you put into it. If you fill in the missing details, you can make the world rich and entrancing. If you expect the game to tell you everything that is happening, you probably won’t enjoy it as much.

Another aspect of the game that made it easy to role play was a lack of scripted events. Everything felt organic, and nothing ever happened twice. When I faced familiar nations, they didn’t possess the same army build. Events didn’t follow a linear chain of events. It truly felt like a living, breathing world.

There’s actually a lot more you can do, but I don’t have time to cover it all.

Dominions 4 is not without its flaws. Primarily is its barrier to entry. Dominions 4 is about as easy to newcomers as a flying brick is to your nose. There is no tutorial, and the player’s manual, which you’re supposed to read, is 397 pages long ( I’m sure it would be useful to read that, just like I’m sure it would be useful to know every word in the dictionary. However, I have other things I want to do with my life.

I will say that it was one of the best learning through failure experiences I’ve ever had in a game. I lost my first game because I didn’t know what the candles meant and everyone stopped believing in my religion, causing me to lose. But every failure, small and large, painted a more interesting narrative. I rarely made a mistake twice because of the impact and how it played into the story of what I was trying to accomplish.

As you might have noticed by my screenshots, the graphics look like they belong on something you might pop into your original PlayStation. Not long into playing, the visuals stopped registering as anything but perfectly adequate to me. The sound effects, however, can be a bit jarring and cheesy. Again, I got used to them fairly quickly.

This was another of my epic attempts that ended in utter failure.
This was another of my epic attempts that ended in utter failure.

I also have to admit, I am enjoying the game a lot more because I can call up the friend who got me into it anytime I have a question I cannot find an answer to. While I have heard the online community around Dominions 4 is very helpful, I haven’t tried to get answers that way yet. Without my friend, I’m not sure how different my experience would be.

I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, but I have heard it isn’t as simple as “find a game.” When I do try it, I will update my review or post a new one.

But all of those problems were mere moments of confusion or discomfort in my 30+ hours of glorious battle and embarrassing failures. The fun I had before those issues arose softened them and the fun I had after quickly removed it from my mind.

In all the games I’ve played, I’ve only won one of them. But I had so much fun losing the other games, trying new nations, devising new strategies, and learning the mechanics, I may have had more fun going out in a blaze of glory than conquering the world. If I can be awful at a game and still have fun, I can’t do anything short of recommending it. The price might seem a bit steep, $34.99, but I can’t say it’s over priced. There is so much to do, there’s so much replay value, and it’s so rich with content, it is worth it for how many hours you can dump into it. If you are a person who enjoys loads of details to fiddle with, there is plenty to tweak. If you don’t want to dive into the deepest chasms of min-maxing your nation, then there is a solid game on the surface that doesn’t make you suffer (too much) for not knowing everything about it.

If you’re not convinced, wait until it goes on sale and then snag it.

If you’re still not convinced, here are a few highlights from my time playing it so far:

  • I went for broke storming an enemy castle and took it. Then I was immediately attacked and my army became trapped in that castle. I survived for three years of constant war by defending the breach in the castle wall with a few dozen poison-spewing hydras and a handful of archers. My inferior numbers eventually grew too few, and my enemies overtook the castle and wiped out my nation (I lost that game).
  • I recruited an assassin, spent a small fortune giving him two magical daggers, magic armor, a magic helmet, along with a few other magic items, and sent him to sneak into the enemy territory and kill the commander of the army. My assassin was discovered and killed before he could take two steps toward the commander (I lost all of those magical items).
  • I raised an unbeatable army of mindless drones controlled by a hoard of illithids who made my enemies flee in fear or paralyzed and slaughtered them. I overtook nearly half the world before I lost the game because my pretender god fell out of favor with the people and no one believed in him anymore.
  • By chance, one of my mages was given the chance to enter into a contract with a demon. If he agreed, for every person he sacrificed, a demon would rise from Hell and fight for him. He is currently raising a small army of demons.

Lead by a giant serpent believed to be a god, I built an army so powerful the world trembled before its might. I misclicked and sent the serpent and a mere 40 soldiers to fight an entire enemy army while the rest of my soldiers watched.
9/10 would accidentally murder a false god again.

Jesse Galena

Twitter: @RexiconJesse

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