Tom vs Bruce: Dominions 4

Bruce: Playing multiplayer Dominions is pretty straight forward. Start the game, click on “Network” and select “Setup a Dominions Server.” Great, we think. Get the IP address and that’s that. But somewhere since games stopped requiring you to have Gamespy to play with other people, Tom and I developed a problem with ports. Specifically, opening them. We’ve done this a million times for a million different Toms vs. Bruces. Worst case, you have to put the game in the DMZ, or something. I think that’s because Koreans are so good at multiplayer. But this time, no matter how many firewall settings we tweak, we can’t connect to each other. Frankly, we can’t even verify that the ports we opened are actually open. How did multiplayer gaming suddenly get this hard?

Tom: My initial response to the faffing about with ports was to think that something was wrong with Bruce’s computer because he was too busy studying build orders or some such thing from the Dominions 3 manual. Which he wrote. And which is still surprisingly relevant to Dominions 4. But as I try to set everything up while he mutters stuff about nature four, air two, hammers two, it turns out that even after all these years, we’re both incompetent at figuring out how the fuck the goddamn internet works. It’s time to appeal to a higher authority.

Bruce: In the end, Illwinter very kindly sets up a server for us and we play that way. But it bodes ill for our venture against the AI. What else has changed since we ventured into the world of multiplayer Dominions?

Tom: New races! New units! More choices! How do we each approach the wealth of options to decide which race we’re going to play in our co-op game against two random AI races?

Bruce: Every time I sit down with a new game of Dominions, I feel a little like the first time I sat down with it: completely paralyzed. Which nation should I choose? What magic paths should I choose for my pretender? Does this amulet go with my greaves and buckler? The only difference is that now I eventually get over it, because no matter what decision I make, I will realize 20 turns into the game that I should have done something else.

Tom: I pick the Berytos people because their name sounds like burrito, so I can name my god Los Grand Berytos.

I spend most of her points setting up a dominion that promotes order, productivity, growth, and a point of heat for warmer weather. By the way, these are the same things Obama would have given us by now if it wasn’t for Congress.

Bruce: One of my first games of Dominions (specifically, Dominions II) was as R’lyeh. I think one of the things that hooked me on the game in the first place was not only the ability to play as such a wide range of nations but also the ability to play as a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft baddies. Seriously, you can play as R’lyeh, and summon things out of The Void? Why did nobody think of doing that earlier, in Civilization for instance? Isn’t Cthulhu a civilization?

Tom: Everyone knows that Cthulhu is an Elder God. The Civilization games haven’t had meaningful religion since Civilization IV.

Bruce: In any case, I was pretty much hooked when my Starspawn started summoning horrors and harbingers and weird monster things all over the place. So maybe I can recapture some of that magic here. Ftagn!

Tom: While Bruce starts peering into the abyss, our beginnings are much more prosaic. Our home province happens to be called Berytos. What are the odds? It’s at the tip of a peninsula, just south of provinces occupied by large armies of Lion Tribe and Jaguar Tribe units. Since we’re a nation of merchants, we love coastal cities for the extra income they give us. This is also perfect for working alongside a water race like Bruce’s fish people. We’ll make great neighbors. I predict wonderful things.

Bruce: That’s a funny thing about this new Dominions 4: we actually will make great neighbors. That’s because I’m Tom’s disciple. Not in the sense that I love Little Big Planet games or that I don’t consider documentaries to be movies, but in the actual game sense of Tom being a pretender god. If you remember your old Dominions classes in college, you probably remember learning that in the world of Dominions, there can only be one god in the end. So you couldn’t have permanent alliances, or team wins, or certificates just for participating, because the whole point was that YOU BECAME THE GOD. Not the vice president of sales. You can have a million of those.

But another funny thing about Dominions is that we’re always learning and discovering. And sometime recently, we learned that there actually were alliances in the world of Dominions, but not between gods. Instead, some gods had disciples. So to simulate this, Dominions 4 allows you to play as someone else’s disciple. Your pretender only has magic paths, and doesn’t have scales or dominion. He functions as a prophet, and spreads the dominion of the actual pretender god (the other player). In fact, you can’t appoint prophets in this kind of game (called a disciple game) because you couldn’t do that in real life, either.

Tom: What Bruce is getting at is that we’re rocking my dominion scales. Also, he has to call me “my lord” in this game.

Bruce: Turns out we’re in Early Age. That’s not the Cthulhu nation I remember. In Dominions, that starts in the Middle Age. But in the complex backstory of the history of the world of Dominions, Early Age R’lyeh is the Time of Aboleths. This is a time of slavery. The main R’lyeh units are all slaves, cheap units with low morale but the ability to have their morale improved by commanders with the Taskmaster ability.

Tom: Okay, I didn’t realize I was working alongside a slave nation. I want to make it clear that I don’t support slavery, I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave and Glory, I’ve been meaning to see Amistad ever since it game out, and I’m an abolitionist in case that’s still a thing. Blood slaves, on the other hand, are totally okay because a bunch of my units are blood magicians.

Bruce: Tom is using blood magic? That should get this game an NC-17 rating, don’t you think? My slaves are these frog and merman creatures, who happen to be amphibious. But they have terrible stats, including low morale and basically no armor. In fact, this whole nation is quite challenging. To me, I mean.

Aboleths have some problems. One is that they’re aquatic, meaning they can’t leave the ocean. Actually, that’s a huge problem, so let’s just discuss that for a second. They can’t leave the water. Which is great for games where you’re trying to conquer the sea or raise the Titanic, but in Dominions, most nations have to leave the sea and, you know, fight battles and stuff. And come to think of it, once you raise the Titanic it technically is out of the sea, so even then it isn’t a big advantage to be an aboleth.

Tom: Welcome to the saga of my first battle! The time is early summer. We have recruited a mercenary team of 30 archers under the command of Arnaud the Captain. We also have 15 of our own Berytian archers, who feel understandably slighted that we’ve hired outside help. We line them all up in the back and promise the local boys that we still value their services to the crown yadda yadda yadda. We put up front our squad of 24 Berytian soldiers, who are pretty much standard-issue soldiers with armor and short swords. What makes them distinct from other races is the tasteful mauve trim on their armor. Or is it fuschia? I’m not good with that sort of thing. I’m a commander-in-chief, not a costumer. Plus, Illwinter doesn’t let us customize our unit colors. I’d have gone with something more like a royal purple.

The group is commanded by a captain named Aiakides, and accompanied by Los Grand Berytos, a pretender goddess who is so hot that mere mortals won’t dare attack her. This is expressed as a stat called “awe”, which is basically a saving throw enemy units have to make before they’ll attack. She’s not much of a fighter at this point, but she begins every battle with a pair of lionesses at her side. As we research more magic, our goddess will have more spells at her disposal. Hence the team of Berytian sages toiling away in the castle library. But for now, she’s just a giant hot chick with a couple of mean cats in tow.

Did I mention she’s naked? Because that’s what my friend’s nine-year-old son asked when I was showing him this game.

“Is she naked?”

“No, no, I’m sure she has something on. It’s just sheer.”

“She looks naked.”

“No, not at all. That wouldn’t be practical.”

Time to saddle up. We march north into Dragon’s Pointe against an army of 50 Lion Tribe units. Or maybe 70. We can’t be sure. Our scout keeps changing his mind. It turns out the enemy consists of a 34 archers, 23 warriors, 9 heavy infantry, a pair of conjurers, a sorcerer, a circle master, and a complement of blood slaves. During the battle, the sorcerer, whose name is Finfag, mindburns one of my lionnesses. What a jerk. The lionness, who has run ahead of everyone else to attack the enemy, then gets killed by friendly archery fire. Whatever, lion. Can’t handle a little mindburn?

The Berytian soldiers and the non-stupid lionness quickly turn back the warriors, but then the wave of skeletons raised by the enemy magic users proves more difficult. The soldiers eventually break and the archers are left to drive back the skeletons with arrow fire.

Meanwhile, my pretender has flown into the ranks of enemy archers and she’s behaving as if she was some sort of tank. Which isn’t working well, since her awe can only get her so far against that many units. Plus she’s naked. Her attacks consist of pretty much kicking and scratching with her bare hands. She goes down, but not before keeping the enemy busy long enough for my archers to rush forward. They go toe-to-toe with a mess of summoned soulless warriors and they’re doing pretty well for a while. But the thing about soulless warriors is that they don’t have to worry about morale because they’re dead. My archers, who aren’t dead and therefore do have to worry about morale, eventually break and are routed from the field. Plus my pretender is dead. And we got beat by a guy named Finfag. Bruce sends the people of Berytos his heartfelt condolences with this message:

The next turn, having killed most of the enemy warriors and archers, I hope for a quick victory against four stupid magic users, one of whom is named Finfag. So I send in the survivors. They still can’t penetrate the wave of summoned undead. So it looks like I’m going to be a one-province empire for a while.

“This is boring,” my friend’s nine year old son announces. He goes into the other room to play Skylanders. I’m tempted to join him.

Bruce: Tom has forgotten the first lesson you learn in fantasy physics class, which is that undead are very susceptible to fire. And Peter Cushing. He also hasn’t read page 84 of the manual in which I explain that when you put your troops in a line, they move very slowly. So the Master of Circles is getting more time to summon his skeletons. In Dominions parlance this is known as “skelly spam.” Tom needs some priests or some fire mages. Preferably both.

Tom: I’m not about to sit around and wait until I research fire. So I open the mercenary screen and hire a barbarian army and a pirate army for the low low price of about 250 gold. I handily win this time. It turns out the undead are also susceptible to money.

Bruce: About four and two-thirds femtoseconds after I built my pretender with Death and Earth magic, I realized what I should have done: get at least Air 1 on my pretender so I could forge Amulet of the Fish and bring some of my Aboleths out of the sea. That’s terrible, and an example of how pretender creation needs to come after a lot of careful consideration of your nation’s strengths and weaknesses. But when you jump into a game and choose a nation, you can’t examine your units statistics. That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be in the manual.

I wonder if Tom can make an Amulet of the Fish?

Tom: I’m fighting a war over here. I can’t very well just put everything on hold to make jewelry for you, Geryk. I barely got a chance to enjoy ruling Dragon Pointe before Atlantis’ coral guard comes surging out of the sea and takes it from me. After all the hard work I did driving out the Lion Tribe? Here it is, the first year of the game, and I’m already going to head to head with an AI player. Isn’t this where you’re supposed to protect my flank, Geryk?

Bruce: We have a problem, which I just realized. While it looks like I can just swim out into the rest of the ocean and confront Atlantis in some kind of abyssal armageddon, I can’t. Because while the graphics show a strait or channel (let’s call it the Berytos Narrows) between the provinces of Berytos and Tiny Willow [How cute. -ed] those are actually two land provinces. And my armored tritons of ungoliant can’t enter land provinces, because they have the Aquatic ability. That goes for all my weird aboleth shenanigans as well. So while I am master of the seas, I am master of the three-province non-wrapping-from-north-to-south seas. The larger wraparound east-to-west seas are solely the domain of Atlantis.

Tom: No wonder Dragon Pointe was so well defended. It’s the site of one of the Thrones of Power, which I can’t capture until my pretender comes back to life. It also has two special sites. That I have found. The Canyon of Wild Winds and the Sparkling Fields both generate air gems. Along with my Temple of Storm and Flames back in Berytos, I will corner the global market of air gems. There actually isn’t any such thing as a global market in Dominions, but if there was, I would have it cornered. I’d be the OPEC of air gems.

Bruce: Tom is searching for magic sites! I’m so proud of him. This is the kind of thing that a lot of people forget to do, which is why they run out of magic gems. According to someone who knows a lot about the world of Dominions, a level-1 search will reveal around 60% of the sites of that path in any given province.

Tom: Why do my units in Avoca keep getting cursed by random events? Literally. I have an army infected with curses, which means they’re more likely to take on permanent afflictions during battle. I should have let Bruce conquer this territory.

Bruce: There is probably a magic site in Avoca that Tom hasn’t found that is cursing his units. Finding the magic site doesn’t make it curse you any less, but at least you know for sure to avoid it. I love the fact that in Dominions, stuff goes on that you may or may not notice, but is still very much part of the world. I also love the fact that the units being cursed are Tom’s.

Tom: It’s the second year of our not-going-so-smoothly campaign against Atlantis and Sauromatia. Or, as the people of Berytos call them, the fish and lizards. It’s a crisp autumn day. My main army, under the command of the generously bevoweled Aiakides, is clearing out a mountain range along the east coast to secure a patch of resources for an advance fortress.

Meanwhile my mages are gobbling up random neutral territories for the greater glory of Los Grand Berytos, who isn’t dead, but just sleeping (several holy commanders are literally praying for her return). My attack mages lead a rabble of undisciplined Lion and Jaguar Tribe units from the jungles around Berytos. They come to a province called Olypha. It’s an unassuming patch of farmland, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the map. You might call it the Arkansas of this continent. But as they march into Olypha, they see someone else has gotten there first. The ghost king Penetor, from Atlantis, is leading a tiny force of ghosts and war shamblers. This is Atlantis’ pretender god! As an incorporeal spirit surrounded by auras of fear and cold, he handily routes the neutral defenders of Olypha. At which point it’s our turn to go toe-to-toe with Penetor. Incidentally, his actual name is the exact same as his porn name.

The ghosts rout most of our Lion Tribe warriors. Way to go, guys. You’re a disgrace to cats everywhere. But the Jaguar Tribe holds out admirably against the hearty war shamblers, who are basically fish tanks. Get it? Fish tanks. Ha! Fish tanks! Berytos has powerful priest warriors called brides-in-waiting. Reem, my first bride-in-waiting, spends some of her precious fire gems to call fire elementals onto the field, which turn the tide of battle, but not before the Jaguar warriors have turned tail and run from the sole surviving war shambler, called a Living Pillar for his powerful defensive armor. Seriously, guys, you’re embarrassing me. These are fish. You can win them at the county fair by throwing a ping pong ball through a hoop. You carry them home in clear plastic baggies full of water.

What happens next is pretty mystifying. After a drawn out slogfest between my fire elementals and Atlantis’ Living Pillar, my army’s morale finally breaks and everyone retreats. I seem to have lost the battle. Except that I didn’t. The province is mine. My army, somewhat depleted but otherwise functional, is sitting pretty in control of Olypha. Furthermore, I show that Atlantis’ god has been killed.

What happened? Not that I’m complaining. But I’d like to know how this came to pass. So I call in an expert.

Bruce: That was weird. I watched Tom’s battle a bunch of times, and I can’t explain it in any other way than 1) that is how it actually happened in the world of Dominions, or 2) it’s a bug. We eventually verify with Illwinter that it was a bug in how the battle was replayed, and not how it happened. We’re using slightly different builds than the one Illwinter is using to host the game. Illwinter has now “de-patched” to accommodate us. That shouldn’t happen again.

Tom: I just found a skull mentor in Dragon Pointe. This doo-dad considerably boosts my magic research and provides a steady income of death gems. It also looks sweet on a bookshelf next to my Blue Oyster Cult albums.

In the early spring of the third year, I find the home province of Atlantis, just off the east coast of my peninsula. I guess it wasn’t so lost, after all.

Fortunately, the areas where Atlantis can come ashore are walled off from the rest of the continent by a mountain range. Another mountain range to the north should make it fairly easy for Bruce and me to control the bottom of this continent. We have a geography fortress. Now for the other half of the continent.

Bruce: I’m frankly making a giant mess of this game, which is something I should have expected when I jumped into a nation I had never played without having a plan mapped out beforehand. I’m recruiting a lot of aboleths and my research machine is cranking out more results than NIH. But I don’t really have the magic paths to take advantage of it. My slave mages are pretty weak, and my amphibious slaves are as well. I could start summoning a bunch of units, but I don’t have the paths to summon a lot of nasty creatures, either. I could try summoning some sea trolls, but they cost a lot of upkeep. And the Sea Troll King isn’t much better at magic than my slave mages.

Tom: In the early winter of the third year, after a lot of hard praying from various holy commanders and brides-in-waiting, Los Grand Berytos is back and ready for action, nakeder than ever! She’s slowed by a permanent limp that will hopefully keep her from plunging into mobs of angry enemy soldiers. But just to be on the safe side, I put her on desk duty in the castle, casting summoning spells. She can cash in some of our gems for an army of scorpion beasts, flying things, ogres, and whatever else I can afford.

Bruce: My western frontier with Atlantis is held by my fortress in The Black Marshes. It’s a perfect place for my pretender the Ghost King to set up shop. Unfortunately, his shop is his laboratory which gets destroyed by a random event. If this were that movie about the evil witch king, I’d be all like, “Please, his laboratory gets destroyed just like that?” But this is Dominions 4, which means that this is how it actually happened in those times. Sometimes your magic lab of evil just falls apart. And Ghost Kings don’t buy insurance. Anyway, he had been casting some Death rituals to summon these rotting elephants called Behemoths. They’re pretty terrifying monsters with the Trample ability, which means they can just run over enemies and squash them. Because they’re undead, they don’t get scared and run away, because who ever heard of a scared undead?

Tom: Dominions 4 is better than Last of Us, Super Mario 3D World, and Grand Theft Auto V, because none of those games has undead elephants.

So here we are, beginning our fourth year. Most of the neutral territories have been gobbled up. This stage of the game feels like a dog chasing an icecube around a linoleum kitchen floor. The AI armies race and skitter around among my territories while I try to run them down. We meet, I smash them, they retreat and reform. Meanwhile, someone is casting spells or some such treachery that causes my interior territories to be overrun by bandits, foul spawn, and even ettins. Ettins! Where did those guys come from?

Bruce: At least Tom can smash armies. On land, I’m getting as good as I give, or however that saying goes. I just found Sauromatia on the western edge of this continent, or the eastern edge of the sea, or however you want to describe it. And it’s actually Sauromatia that’s the pretender with Atlantis being the disciple.

I’m fighting a pretty conventional war with undead and troll summons, plus some hill giants, against a bunch of Living Statues. Apparently one of our opponents is an Earth mage. But with some Earth and a little Death, I can cast Hidden in Sand, which summons a bunch of undead sand people!

Tom: Dominions 4 is better than Bioshock Infinite, Gone Home, and Rome II, because none of those games has undead sand people.

After an extended gem shopping spree, my newly reconstituted Los Grand Berytos goddess sets out with a hundred (100!) Berytian lancers and a bevy of summoned beasts including ten ogres, ten scorpion beasts, and three flying poisonous snakes called amphipteres. Say that word. Amphipteres. Fun, huh? These summoned beasts are the spice in my massive army stew. First stop, the Throne of Spring in Dragon Pointe, right next door to my capital, that I was unable to claim because my goddess died in the first turn. Bruce has another one of the Thrones near his starting point. Sauromatia and Atlantis each have Thrones near their starting points. The first team to capture all four Thrones of Power wins. So we’re two thrones down, two thrones to go. We’re half way to victory. Assuming Bruce doesn’t lose his Throne.

On my northern border with the enemy, I’ve finished building a fortress in The Two Woods. Such a cozy little patch of forest. The perfect place for a stronghold or a suburb. From here, I’ll easily be able to drive north to grab the next throne. Oh, wait, no I won’t. The AI just built his own fortress on top of the throne. That’s annoying. The territory is suitably named Impassable Mountains.

Fortunately, I’ve got my summoning magic sufficiently researched and my stock of air gems high enough that it’s time for an army of gryphons. In the capital of Berytos, all my brides-in-waiting assemble for a delightful multiseasonal ongoing gryphon summoning party. Evites dispatched!

Bruce: The AI has finally figured out that I’m not really holding the western frontier with anything other than province defense. But then it forgets, or thinks that even though these provinces only have province defense, there must be some invincible army in the next ones. So after taking a couple provinces from me, it goes away. I take them back.

Tom: It turns out Impassable Mountains was a terrible name for the territory with the enemy fortress, because we totally passed them. They are, in fact, entirely surrounded now. I am moving in a hundred lancers from three directions to lay siege. The third Throne will be ours shortly.

Bruce: I am so jealous of Tom having all these fancy units. The difference between playing against the AI and against other people is that there are plenty of strategies to handle massed units, but they involve coordinated magic, which the AI is terrible at. This is the point at which in some other game you’d just say well the AI sucks, but then you compare it to me, and I’m not exactly doing a stellar (ha!) job of coordinating my magic, either. So from that perspective you might say the AI is pretty ok.

Tom: So the Impassable Mountain fortress is defended pretty well by a band of raiders and archers, lead by a chieftain and a warrior priestess. My three captains with their hundred lancers are unable to prevail. All three captains are killed, half the lancers are killed, and the survivors scatter leaderless into the surrounding territories. This is going to take a stronger force. A stronger force with magic. And maybe gryphons. For now, I just need to keep the AI contained.

Unfortunately, it looks like Bruce is getting pushed backwards to the confines of his three-province ocean. Is he cleverly ceding territory to gain the upper hand tactically? That sounds like something Bruce would do. But just to be safe, I dispatch Mooza, a bride-in-waiting, with an army of 80 gryphons to assist Bruce’s beleaguered fish out of water empire. Well, “empire”.

Bruce: I am not beleaguered! Even now my army of shambler thralls and slave troopers is marching through Tiny Willow [How cute. -ed] to bring the battle to the Atlantian Ocean. My first target is The Ancient Blue, an evocatively named province which would be the Patagonian Sea of Dominions if this world had a Strait of Magellan. But it doesn’t, so my amphibious troopers trudge out of the sea and back in again. I could have wiped out this entire ocean long ago if I had any way of getting my aquatic-only Tritons around Cape Horn.

Tom: While Bruce keeps tracking muddy water back and forth, I’ve got a Sauromatian fortress to seize in the Impassable Mountains. Here comes Los Grand Berytos herself with 100 lancers, 10 ogres, 10 scorpion beasts, and 3 flying poison snake things. Let’s try this again. And for this battle, I’ve explicitly told Miss Berytoes to “stay behind troops”. Her job is moral support and generally loitering around looking awesome.

The battle opens with a cluster of enemy archers thinning the ranks of my lancers as they close to battle. They clash with a handful of enemy lancers and some things called sea dogs that are, literally, sea dogs. Actual dogs. From the sea. Sea dogs. And almost all of my lancers immediately route. What? That leaves Berytos’ pair of summoned lionness to hold the center while my ogres advance on the left and my scorpion beasts advance on the right. As the terrified lancers flee past her, Berytos busies herself casting things like ironskin, flying shield, personal regeneration, mistform, and various other spells that don’t need gems because I forgot to give her gems when she was back at home.

The ogres circle around back as they’ve been instructed and get promptly chewed up by raiders guarding the enemy archers. Seriously? The AI tells units to guard its units in the rear? That’s hardly fair considering I almost never tell units to hang back, much less guard my commanders, because I figure that’s just fewer units in the main fight.

My scorpion beasts close with the enemy lancers and dogs who are rushing forward, undeterred by the sight of giant frickin’ scorpions. And now here come my amphipteres spitting poison at the dozen or so enemy lancers closing on the now spell-protected Berytos. She lets loose with a burst of shock lightning and commences to kicking, scratching, and spitting with this small group of lancers. This isn’t good news. Remember how that went last time, Los Grand Berytos? Remember how you went to sleep for several years and came back with a permanent limp?

Meanwhile the scorpion beasts scuttle valiantly into the waves of enemy arrows, fired by archers guarded by raiders, commanded by an undead Mound King commander.

Berytos is fighting for her life against the lancers. An enemy commander with a bane blade, which is bad news, is drawing near. Luckily, my army routes. All my troops skedaddle off the field before Berytos gets her fool self killed again, or baned by a bane blade. Time to rethink my strategy against this goddamn aptly named Impassable Mountain. And time to stop sending my goddess into battle. She needs to return to more traditional domestic duties like summoning gryphons every turn because all those air gems aren’t earning any interest.

Bruce: Okay, my eastern underwater offensive failed. Badly. I was a bit overconfident, and violated the first rule of Dominions combat, which is that an army divided in two is much less than half as strong in each of its parts. But all along I’ve been violating the second rule of Dominions, which is never use a bunch of force when you could solve a problem using your spellbook. The Gateway spell is Astral 4 (meaning one of my Mind Lords can cast it) and it can transport him and his army to any friendly province with a laboratory in it. All I need to do is capture a province in the Atlantian Ocean, build a lab, and presto: I can transport an entire Mind Lord and his army there. Why didn’t I do that just now, when I controlled The Ancient Blue? I must have been temporarily insane from The Void.

Except it’s a Thaumaturgy 5 spell, and my Thaumaturgy research is zero. Ok, boys, let’s schlep it across the continent the other way. At least that way we’ll have fought some battles before the teleportation hits.

Tom: It’s winter in the fifth year and we’re not making much headway. Bruce is actively losing headway. Luckily my bride-in-waiting, Mooza, has arrived at Bruce’s territory to relieve some of the pressure from the Atlanteans and Sauromatians. After several battles, she has a few Berytian soldiers clustered around her as bodyguards — two can play at that game, AI! — and a depleted force of gryphons. Yet she finds herself right next to Scytha, the site of a High Throne closest to Bruce’s starting point, one of the four points we must capture to the win the game. The Sauromatians have built a fortress here. Mooza can’t take it with her meager force of surviving gryphons, so she does what any nation in my situation would do. She spends money.

The money buys us a motley force of four mercenary armies for the assault on the Sauromatian fortress. The Elephant Corps led by none other than Hannibal atop his own elephant; renowned veteran commander Bernard the Brave with his pikeneers; the slightly less renowned and not-quite-so-veteran Dante with his spearman; and Ferrus, the Adept of the Iron Order with a small group of mindless mechanical men in plate armor. With Mooza bringing up the rear, they set out against the fortress in Scytha, defended by a cluster of mounted raiders and lancers, some amazons on foot, and a whole mess of archers. Bernard and Dante soak up arrow fire while the Elephant Corps rushes forward on the left flank. The gryphons pounce immediately on the enemy commander, who’s defended by raiders. Gryphons don’t really have a long life span. They’re brittle shock troops. Fantasy cossacks, if you will.

The enemy amazons surge into Ferrus’ mechanical men, which seems like a good match-up, but for whatever reason, the stupid elephants decide to cut all the way across the battle lines to attack the amazons. Stupid elephants. I had told them to attack the enemy’s rear, and here they are chasing the closest shiny object. The rest of the battle, which should have been elephants rolling up the flank while the pikeneers, spearmen, and mechanical men advance neatly, is instead six elephants braying and stomping and running amok, lumbering to and fro to attack whatever’s closest. We win easily, but it’s not pretty. It resembles bowling in an open parking lot more than an actual battle. Elephants, man. I guess they get the job done.

Bruce: Elephants and other trampling units (like my rotting Behemoths) are great for smushing units with high protection, as long as they have low defense. All you need to do to a unit is hit it in order to do trample damage. I guess the high-defense units (hard to hit) are just jumping out of the way and stuff. The problem with elephants is that when they rout, they go straight for the rear of the battle, and if they go through your own units, then too bad.

Tom: I’ve had it with this fortress in the Impassable Mountains sitting on one of the thrones we need. I’ve attacked it a couple of times and was unable to lay siege, so now I’m “going all in”, as they say in baseball. I’ll spare you the detailed orders of battle, but suffice to say it’s a little bit of most things and a whole lot of a few things. All told, including commanders, 313 dudes march into the so-called Impassable Mountains in later winter of our fifth year. Here is a picture:

I don’t see what all the fuss was about before. We easily seize the territory. Now to starve out the fortress, which we’re also doing down in Scytha.

Bruce: The fortress of Nom has fallen! Instead of bringing up a large force to break my siege, the AI kept throwing penny packets of troops in every turn, and in the world of Dominions, that doesn’t work. But possibly the more exciting thing is that I just finished researching Thaumaturgy 5, meaning the Gateway spell is available as soon as I can build or capture a laboratory in the Atlantian Ocean and teleport my Aboleths and Mind Lords in. In the meantime, I’m going to concentrate my forces at Nom to push into the ocean from the east. How’s that for some circumnavigation?

Tom: While besieging the Sauromatian fortress in Scytha, Mooza got jumped while I was renewing the deal with her mercenaries. Since the armies were off signing paperwork or whatever, she was basically alone on the field when a small enemy force jumped her. She died. What a terrible end. Killed because of contract renegotiations.

Bruce: I had a similar experience in the province of Nom! Instead of patrolling the province, my commanders were all sitting in the fortress, making battle plans in the way you can probably remember from that documentary about the elves and hobbits. They were all drinking beer, or probably mead, and discussing thine lord’s wishes, when Atlantis took over the province. I had forgotten to even build any province defense, although it would have been a waste of money. So now about 50 Shamblers of the Deep, Reef Dwellers, and Atlantian Spearmen are at the gates while “three huge sea trolls tower over the army.” Whatever. I have sea trolls, moose-riding trolls, regular old troll trolls, and even some hill giants. Plus my pretender is heading over from Black Marshes with a bunch of undead horsemen he got by casting Pale Riders which he read about in a Zane Grey novel.

So I’m going to break this siege, and use the battle as a testing bed for my communion, which I swear is not some sackreligious thing but is instead a totally legit Dominions thing you do to get more magic power. Communion Master and Communion Slave are two awesome spells that haven’t been well documented in the game until just recently. I’m not sure why the guy who wrote the manual didn’t deal with this earlier. Basically, if you have at least one level of Astral magic, you can channel the astral power of all your communion slave mages to your communion masters. After a very complex calculation involving exponents^n your mages get extra levels in all the magic paths they already know, and almost as importantly, they can spread the fatigue from spells they cast among their communion slaves. It’s a great spell for certain nations. Go look it up in the manual on page 100 if you don’t believe me.

Tom: At least the walls are down in the Impassable Mountains. Now to storm the joint. Los Grand Berytos has flown in to join the action — please don’t get into fisticuffs again! — and claim the Throne of Winter when we’re done. Meanwhile, I’m sending reinforcments towards Scytha to try to get that castle back while Bruce battles for his little puddle and the nearby wetlands. All that mud down there just seems so non-glorious. Speaking of which, I’ve got such big armies running around that they’re starving and catching diseases.

Bruce: Tom should be forging things like the Enormous Cauldron of Broth to increase his supply capacity.

Tom: Vats of broth are old and busted. Summer swords are the new hotness. We’ve crafted a few of these. You thrust them into the ground and they make food for a hundred soldiers. Seriously. That’s a thing in Dominions. A food growing sword. No point beating those into plowshares!

Bruce: Meanwhile, I’ve worked my way west across the southern edge of the map and taken Amiridon, which I keep hearing in my head as “Am I right on?” I feel like I should be riding a Vespa. Now I plunge into the Atlantian Ocean, the site of my horrific failure about twenty turns ago. I’m going to go for a relatively undefended province with no fort, as my plan is to take it, and then build up a ton of province defense while one of my mages builds a lab. Then, I will Gateway a giant army of Mind Lords, Aboleths, and fishy creatures from R’lyeh into it. The only downside to this is that it costs me 10 Astral gems per spell. It’s worth it, though.

Tom: A Vampire Count and his entourage just attacked me in The Mirks. I love the sound of that. It’s exactly what you’d expect in someplace called The Mirks. It didn’t go well for the Vampire Count. One of the advantages of having lots of money is that you can just pump it into defenses for backwater territories like The Mirks. Although I’ve been having a hard time with a couple of specific fortresses, I’m running roughshod over the AI everywhere else and now I’m filthy rich. Check out my pink line on the income graph:

I splash a few more armies ineffectually at Scytha while moving my main army across the top of the map towards the farthest Throne. A couple of fortresses fall easily as I advance. As winter of the sxith year sets in, it looks like an open run to the final throne. But I peel off a For Serious army to take the fort in Scytha. This should be over soon. The troops will definitely be home by next Christmas. Is there Christmas in Dominions 4?

Bruce: It worked! I built lab in The Ancient Blue and for 10 Astral gems, Yakht’Hoob my Mind Lord and his army of Tritons uses the spell Gateway to transport into the laboratory. “Hi everyone!” he says in Cthulhu language. And then all my mages spend a turn using 5 Water gems each to summon Sea Serpents. We’re about to have a pretty fearsome underwater force. Too bad it took us 60 turns.

Tom: In the seventh summer of our campaign against the AI, I am about to launch the Mother of All Battles. 600 units are attacking the Sauromatian capital, which stands between me and the fourth throne. We don’t really need to attack it, but I’m far enough ahead of everyone else that I figure “why not?”

Behold.

Every Creative Assembly game wishes it looked this epic.

Bruce: So this is what it has come down to: Tom grabs all the glory besieging capitals, while I tie down enemy forces on a secondary front. I feel like Gen. Mark Clark.

Tom: I don’t know which Marvel superhero Mark Clark is, but the more appropriate reference would probably be the ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Bruce is keeping the stormtroopers and AT-ST’s busy with rocks and logs while I do all the daring raids with laser blasters, lightsabers, and hot princesses.

But it turns out I was wrong about the Sauromatian capital being all that stands between me and the fourth throne. The Sauromatians have built a fortress on the throne. So that’s all that stands between me and the fourth throne. Once I knock down the walls in Sauromatia, I’ll handle the fortress next door. This is basically mopping up, and my mop is a couple hundred of gryphons.

Bruce: This game showed all the weaknesses of the AI, but even more so the weaknesses of the, um, “expert” players. First of all, I should have built a lot more slave mages and a lot fewer aboleths. I should have asked Tom to forge me an Amulet of the Fish, if he could.

But the AI did what it usually does, which is to mass a bunch of units, defeat some of your armies, and then decide that you have probably learned your lesson and don’t try that again you know. That’s the only explanation I have for the AI’s tendency to appear on your border with a large army, fight a couple successful battles, and then vanish without pressing its advantage. Or maybe it’s scared that you have something in reserve. “Those humans are smart,” it is probably thinking. “They would have a reserve army ready to beat up on a poor computer.” So it loses its nerve.

Tom: As with many strategy games, the end of the game is considerably less interesting that the stuff before the end, because it consists mostly of me waiting for armies to show up. It’s as thrilling as watching a parade.

The funny thing about these last several turns is that Dominions 4 doesn’t yet know the game is over. It keeps throwing cool stuff at me. For instance, a dude unique to Berytos shows up. His name is Ba’al Hammon, truncated to Ba’al Hamm on the unit screen, which makes him sound like the unholy sibling of Jon Hamm. Every turn, he eats 80 people from whatever province he’s in. Ba’al, not Jon. I have no idea what Jon Hamm eats. The eating of people upsets the locals, so Ba’al causes unrest wherever he goes. He fights with lightning and thunder fists. He knows all sorts of magic. He is heavily armored and can lead an army larger than any of my other commanders. He’s really tall. Unfortunately, I never get to see him in battle, because it will take him too long to cross the map. Where was this guy when I couldn’t take Dragon Pointe?

As Ba’al is eating his way across the map, I assemble enough units for the Stepmother of All Battles. We beseige, storm, and seize the fortress in the Sauromatian capital and then do the same to the fortress in the adjacent territory with its final throne. Los Grand Berytos captures the Throne of Zeal.

Bruce and Tom win.

Tom: Well, I win for us.

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