Do you want to control a fountain of blood constantly refreshed with sacrifices as you send a prophet out to spread your religion? How about being a serpent commanding giant spiders, crushing armies in an attempt to reach godhood? Provided you can overcome the steep learning curve, then Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension may be for you.
Dominion 4 is a simultaneous turn-based strategy game. Each player takes their turn and then all movement and decisions happen at once. The main goal is to spread your dominion and claim the thrones of ascension to defeat the pretenders and become the true god. This is achieved through sending out armies lead by generals, building temples, and researching spells.
On the surface Dominions 4 looks like many other turn based strategy games, but digging down a bit you see that there are a ridiculous number of systems at work. Starting a game you choose what age you begin in, which effects magic, technology, and nations to choose. Then you choose a nation from over 25, and then you choose or create a god. Right off the bat, there are an overwhelming number of options to deal with.
The many systems at play is where the game loses me. You have to deal with supplies, gold, magic gems, temperature, and a huge host of other factors. Early in a match it’s all manageable, recruit some generals and troops and start expanding. Each territory has neutral units you have to take out. You work your way towards a throne and build temples and forts along the way. Once the opposing gods come into play and all the neutral nations are gone is where Dominions 4 becomes a bit too much to handle.
As your nation gets larger each turn, there are a bunch of messages and battles whose meaning isn’t always clear, such as what temperature changes meant and what effect they had. Other times my religion lost influence or unrest would grow but again I felt confused by the cause and effect of all these systems. Global spells can be cast, provided you have the proper magic gems, which can be converted in a lab. The entire simulation running seemed to operate at a larger level than a more segmented game like Master of Magic. In Master of Magic, you are researching spells and summoning monsters, but you focus on cities which are somewhat disconnected from each other. In Dominions 4, each space has a wealth of stats, and many different aspects have consequences for other parts of the game.
While controlling this large nation game, you constantly have battles that play out automatically. You have a fair amount of control in setting up an army. You give the AI orders, telling them what unit types to attack, put them in formation and then watch them go. The battles are neat to watch, and useful for understanding the way the game functions, but after a while you just skip to the casualty report. This aspect is another example of the overall complexity as there are over 2,000 unit types to contend with. Some are really interesting with humans that turn into werewolves, frost giants, and all kinds of mythological beings. The problem is that one nation will have five different infantry units that seem really similar, but each having detailed stats and backstories, making it unclear if there is a discernible difference between them.
Multiplayer is a big part of the series but the developers do not make it easy. While the simultaneous nature of the turns makes it a great game to play by email. The problem lies in the archaic nature of the whole system. There is no lobby of any kind, so you must join in the forums and set up a game in advance. You then email your save file to the server that you are playing on and wait for a response to get the next turn. There is a form of network play but it requires knowing the IP address of the server beforehand. There is an active fan base, but along with many other parts of Dominions 4, the entry bar is set rather high.
I enjoyed some of my time with Dominions 4. Sending several armies and a prophet off to claim a throne, while I planned to send my god to another front is not a common occurrence in a video game. The emergent narratives and themes are rich if a bit convoluted. This is truly a niche title with a dedicated fan base. I personally feel it would be better served to cut the game down and give it more focus, but the biggest fans seem to love the complexity on offer. If you’re someone who wants to dive into the histories and systems of a world that has been evolving since 2002 then you could do worse than Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension.
[+Rich emergent narratives] [+Play by email multiplayer] [+Very mod friendly] [+Deep systemic gameplay] [-Too many systems] [-Incredibly steep learning curve] [-Too much and too little feedback] [No in game tutorial, only in manual]