The cultural origins of Russia aren’t something you’d expect to be addressed in a fantasy strategy game. The fact that you can find a synthesis of mythology and anthropology derived from a long-running historical controversy in the nation backgrounds for Dominions 4 demonstrates just how far from elves and orcs an erudite game designer can travel in creating a compelling, fascinating milieu. And still populate it with fireballs and broadswords.

After the jump, a study in red.

The genesis of the first Russian state and its culture have long been a tendentious point in Russian historiography. Known as Kievan Rus and centered on that city before the rise of Muscovy half a millenium later, its origins have been fiercely debated by Russian, Scandinavian, and western European historians, none of whom know what a dominion spread check is. Proponents of the “Norman theory” emphasize the references to Varangians, or Vikings, in The Primary Chronicle, an Old Church Slavonic text compiled in the 12th century and a key source for understanding the history of the Eastern Slavs. Nicholas V. Riasanovsky’s seminal A History of Russia is probably the definitive history of that nation in English, and in the second chapter on Kievan Russia, it cites a relevant portion of the Chronicle.

They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes: these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chudes, the Slavs, and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, “Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us!” They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, in Byeloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of the Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs.

But what would happen if you took this foundation story, emphasized the Norse mythology associated with the Varangian migrants, and added an instantly recognizable reference to a Teutonic invasion a la Alexander Nevsky? From the Dominions 4 manual:

When the Vanir arrived, the land was inhabited by humans and Chudes, an exalted race of great strength and beauty. The Chudes and the humans had intermingled and neither race dominated the other. The Vanir came as explorers and traders, but conflict over a sacred site led to war. The Vanir were victorious and founded the city of Novgard at the ancient site. The Chudes and the humans of Rus joined causes and tried to drive the Vanir out, but the humans were weak and easily tricked by the illusions and magic of the Vanir. Soon the Chudes found themselves at war with Vanir as well as their former human allies. Then arrived the Black Knights of Ulm. The former conflict between Vanir and Chudes ended as the three peoples of Rus rallied under Novgard to defend their land. When the Ulmic threat was averted, a kingdom had formed under the rulership of the Vanir.

I’ve gone through my old copy of A History of Russia several times, and even borrowed a copy of the most recent edition co-authored by my former professor Mark Steinberg, and nowhere in it does it say anything about whether the early inhabitants of Rus were Air/Death mages, or if they had the glamour ability. But it’s remarkable that a game about the ascension of a pretender god in a fantasy world can instantly evoke a complex historical question with some text and pixel art. Co-designer Kristoffer Osterman has a talent for lending weight and depth to his creations through this kind of intricate synthesis of myths and history. The tales of Vanarus of the Middle Era and Bogarus of the Late Age take a proto-Russian landscape, anchor it in a Norse mythology, and garnish it with equal parts Slavic folklore and Eastern European history. Where Vanarus emphasizes Scandinavia and the early Russian city-states, Bogarus continues the tale through Muscovy and the Time of Troubles, with boyars and peshtsi, fur hats and Orthodox censers. But what truly separates Dominions from similar games is that here, Ivan the Terrible and his oprichniki can gather not to sow terror amongst the peasants, but to turn back a threat lying just across the mountains: horrible tentacled star-creatures, mages of terrible power and the spawn of a pretender god in the distant underwater city of R’lyeh. If that doesn’t start you at least imagining your own historically based fantasy fiction series, then you are suffering a serious crisis of imagination.

In the Dominions 3 manual, I wrote a section on general strategy and several of the testers did yeoman’s work outlining suggested pretender builds and general strategies for almost all of the nations. But one thing that was missing was an explanation of how to analyze a nation and come up with strategies from scratch. So much of Dominions is knowing how to look at a nation and maximize its strengths. But that’s hard to do without knowing the universe of units entirely: a unit may look great from an attribute standpoint, but it can be too expensive or too limited in availability to build a strategy around. Dominions forum participant Zinegata has written a nice guide to evaluating a national capabilities in Dominions 4. I love Zinegata’s conceptualization of a nation as an engine that turns gold, resources, and gems into combat power. Each nation has a different mix of components that comprise this fuel. It’s a good read and highly recommended for people trying to figure the game out.

But people do best with concrete examples, so in addition to resources like this, and in response to the requests for a formal strategy section in the manual, I wrote a fairly long analysis of one nation, Bogarus, and outlined one possible strategy, explaining how the Bogarussian units fit into the overall game. You can read about that for free in the new manual, starting on page 111. The first part of this article is taken from that section. Maybe it will convince you to try something new, whether it’s a new nation (if you already play Dominions 4) or a new game (if you don’t).

The newly updated Dominions 4 manual (one volume, 397 pages) is available for free download here. And read this for more thoughts on the manual and the world of Dominions.