Dominions 4 is a turn-based fantasy strategy game produced by Illwinter. You play as a god attempting to rule the world. You use massive armies, wonderful magic, powerful artifacts and the strategic powers of a chess grand-master to defeat your enemies and ascend from Pretender God to Pantokrator (the title of God, literally meaning ‘all’ and ‘might’, so all-powerful or omnipotent).
Dominions 4 is the most intelligent, deep and inspiring fantasy game I’ve ever played. It takes inspiration from every possible facet of real-world mythology and popular fiction, including the pantheon of ancient gods, fantasy tropes and Lovecraftian horrors. A host of lovingly created, interlinked backstories, unique mechanics, surprisingly emergent gameplay interactions, and 2D sprites compose the key elements of the game. The result is a game that never fails to surprise, test and inspire.
eXplore: Dominions 4 has a depth and wealth of content I’ve never before witnessed in another game. Some of the highlights of this added depth start with 2000+ monsters (with descriptions based on real mythology) and continue with a combined total of over 800 spells (make a second sun, steal the sun, awaken the frost giants of Illwinter), 300+ magical items and over 75 races. These are but a few of the features that make this game stand out.
The game allows for more flexibility in starting conditions and opening gambits than any other title I’ve played. You can start with a three-headed dragon leading a small force of sacred troops with flaming swords or you can create a dormant god, with powers that are only useful once you’ve reached the late game and can cast the powerful game changing spells like Wish, Utterdark and Unleash Imprisoned Ones. To get there, however, you must progress through one of the 7 different magic schools the game has to offer (Conjuration, Alteration, Evocation, Construction, Thaumaturgy, Enchantment and Blood Magic). Each school of magic has 9 research levels (including level-0 or innate spells like Holy, which use a different mechanic entirely). You can narrow your focus to one school or element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Death, Nature, Astral or Blood). Before all that can take place, though, you have to start a game, and that must start with a map.
There are a multitude of random, scripted, official maps and lovingly crafted community-made maps. In addition, the game features its own map editor. So you can have a wrap-around map with hundreds of provinces, seas, caves, ports, wastes and forests, or instead opt for a small island with impassible mountains and set two starting locations with custom defenders in every province.
While most maps have random starts, maps can be scripted into scenarios that include custom independent troops, defined starting locations, race choice, map settings and fixed positions for otherwise randomly placed special sites on the map. Players can select from three ages that change the nature of the world in many ways (such as the rarity of magic, resources and the adoption of armor and armor-piercing weapons, like crossbows, by the neutral races). The early age features high magic fantasy with lots of powerful beings and demons. The middle age is the standard fare that players have come to expect – an almost generic fantasy world. This age features knights in heavy armour, and magical creatures brought into the world via powerful summons. It embodies a time of hope, growth and development for most (but not all) races. The late age is best described as a crapsack world, full of vampires, the undead and horrible, bloody rituals. Empires have clearly fallen, and not all the game’s races make it as far as the late age, and those that do have evidently lost much along the way.
Each age features a different set of races, over 75 in total and growing with each free update. Players can follow the story of a race, including all the highs and lows, by playing with that race through each of the three ages. Each of these races can be customized, with a large selection of gods and varying effects on your dominion, or belief level in your provinces and troops. In Dominions 4, a little white candle represents what is perhaps the most important feature of a god. This candle measures belief and, without belief, it doesn’t matter how good my scales are (scales being indicators, such as order and productivity, that each represent the influence of belief on the output of provinces). Should my territory fall under the sway of a heathen god, I would no longer benefit from my awesome scales, but more importantly, I run the risk of a “critical existence failure.” With no believers left, my god simply ceases to exist and the game is over.
My god has another feature: the choice of a magic path, which grants special abilities to a pretender god’s sacred troops. These blessings can turn the tide of the early game. For example, A Fire magic of 9 grants flaming weapons and an attack boost, letting you chew through most neutral armies, while a Nature 9 grants additional health and regeneration – extremely powerful with a force of giants that have very low attrition and can grow in experience. Part of the charm of the game comes from perfecting and defeating a bless-rush strategy, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each and every choice made, even before the first turn ends.
There is a whole host of major features I haven’t yet discussed that impact the exploration portion of the game: thrones (the victory point mechanic), specific units and abilities (there are thousands), scouting (do you hire scouts, spies, assassins or use magic?), movement (flying, teleporting, amphibious troops and terrain that you need to consider), and spells, of which there are hundreds, many of which are unique to a particular race and age. In short. I’ve never played a more detailed, deep and intelligent game. Sure, it was created by a tiny team and has very 90’s art. However, if you can look beyond that, then the eXploration is second to none in Dominions 4, which alone makes the game worth every penny paid for it.
eXpand: Dominions 4 is, first and foremost, a game of tactics. It is not primarily about building cities, wonders or means of creating crops. It is about raising armies and deploying them against an enemy. Maximising mobility and flexibility to make use of every asset at your disposal is critical. Researching new spells, constructing magical items or enchanting the world with powerful global spells form the meat of the game’s goals
Of course, building forms an important part of this process. Initially, players construct forts, without which they are limited to recruiting the rabble of independent forces in a province. These forts take time and significant resources to build, but they allow for the taxing of surrounding lands, the supply of armies and they can withstand enemy sieges delaying the advance of enemy armies and protecting your researching mages.
After the construction of a fort, several other options are made available to the player, including roads, towers and other defensive structures – a feature not available in Dominions 3. In the end, however, it all feels a little lackluster. While units are given carefully drawn sprites and rich descriptions, the buildings are left generic with no descriptions drawn from mythological inspiration. It’s the first small hint of disappointment in the game
Clearly then, this game is not about city construction. Instead, the focus is placed on gaining territorial advantages through logistics and strategy. In this, the game truly shines. Maps incorporate many different terrain types, including mountains, rivers, seas and coastlines, and building placement matters. Likewise, seasons become a crucial component because rivers freeze when both sides are cold and mountain passes thaw when both sides are hot, altering the landscape in important ways. There are also many logistical considerations to take into account, as troops can starve if you expand over the desert without building a fort to resupply them from. You have the option of expanding with a highly mobile force facing high attrition or a slow, sacred army with lower attrition and lower maintenance costs. You must develop your troops, gain experience, add magic items to your commanders and always keep in mind the concerns of injuries, age and supernatural corruption (such as, curses, horror-marks, possession, seduction, assassination and even parasitic horrors ready to burst forth upon death).
Much of the empire management in the game is simplified for convenience, but the underlying framework is in place to allow for more complexity than you might expect from the simple options presented. Want to sneak an army through neutral territory that proves too difficult to take by force? Want to assassinate neutral commanders and rout their leaderless, fearful troops? These are definite options, as are the opportunities to choose from using sacred forces, your awake and powerful god, cheap hordes or freely summoned undead. All of these are, of course, military options.
Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of economic development in the game, aside from searching for sites of magic income, and building forts, temples and labs.
Dominions 4 doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does do it does extremely well: thematically, logically and, most importantly, enjoyably.
eXploit: You’ve explored, met some enemies and captured a swathe of land. How do you exploit that land? Taxing the population is the first order of the day, a mechanic done automatically for you (unlike Dominions 3 where you could play with tax rates). Gold is the main resource for hiring both troops and commanders, building new structures and covering the high upkeep costs of all your troops. If your god is nice (relatively, at least) you may have a dominion of growth, where the population (and tax incomes) increase each turn. Alternatively, you may instead have a death dominion, where tax quickly falls as the population plummets toward 0 and you must rely on troops that don’t need food, or wages, or air, as is the case for most undead. Each type of terrain also has different defenders and different populations – farmland having higher population and wastes having lower.
Each province produces important resources to equip hired troops. It’s not carried over from turn to turn so you’re forced to crank out expensive knights one at a time in resource-poor farmland, or you can find a nice site in the mountains with a mine, build a castle to collect resources from nearby provinces and produce a small army each turn. This has the effect of making terrain really matter. Added to that, each province has its own set of troops to hire, so a forest fortress may have lion tribe warriors to augment your forces while the underwater province may supply your army with its merfolk. The game also utilizes holy points, which serve to limit the number of sacred troops you can recruit each turn from each province. Combined, these features force you to think about where to hire, what to hire and when to start hiring. Logistics are a massive concern, as armies move at the speed of the slowest member so you often have to split your forces and hope you have planned ahead well-enough.
Magic requires a greater investment than merely capturing a province. You must actively search with your mages for sites of magic power. These sites can provide you with gems (for summoning and casting powerful spells) or they can have other effects, like allowing you to recruit new units and commanders or summon strange creatures. It takes a great investment in research, searching for magic sites and summoning powerful beings to be able to cast the late game spells, but it is worth it in the end to have the ability to cast a spell that covers the world in strands of arcane power or captures some of the essence of death, making the entire world more lush and fertile.
Beyond resources, I also think of the task of eXploiting the opponents. It’s hard to adequately judge this aspect of the game.
Dominions 4 has both single and multiplayer options, so let’s start with the single player mode.
The AI is quite simplistic, and when presented with the many options in Dominions 4 it struggles against even basic strategies. It will often hire hordes of useless units, and poorly script its armies. Thus, single-player feels more like practice than the game proper. It is still fun, however. The higher difficulty settings that give the AI enough of an advantage that it poses a significant threat through numbers and the ability to expand without being distracted by other concerns.
But, and it’s a big but, there is zero diplomacy in the single player mode. The AI will declare war on you, but there is no peace, no trade and no way to intimidate or enslave another race, which is a shame for an otherwise great title.
Multiplayer? The excellence of a multiplayer game is measured by the community, the lobby options and the ease of function. In multiplayer games in Dominions 4, you can send messages, have teams, trade items and money, roleplay and backstab. The games tend to be long, so they can be hard to organize, but it’s possible for other players to take over the slot of another or turn player empires over to the AI. For what it is, the multiplayer option is generally quite good.So, in forming a result for this category, I’m taking an average of these aspects of the game: detailed and interesting resources, a strong, active and friendly community for multiplayer games and a nearly non-existent AI and diplomacy for single-player. Personally, I’m primarily a single-player, and despite the game’s shortcomings, I’ve managed to rack up 223 hours of single-player fun. Although on one hand, you can eventually learn to predict the AI and grow bored of it, on the other, it isn’t terrible either. Players should enter the game with the expectation that it will be mostly combat-focused.
eXterminate: Given its combat-oriented nature, this aspect is where Dominions 4 really shines for me. The sheer number of options, tactics, spells, units and terrains that must be considered make for a game that is unlimited in its potential.The same unit can be used in many different ways. A fire mage, for example, can be a glass cannon, throwing fireballs from the rear or they can summon fire elementals with gems. They can also empower themselves in battle to cast increasingly powerful and more frightening late-game spells, or protect themselves with magic and dash into combat, before bursting into flames with immolation, having a form of temporary and limited immortality with phoenix pyre. And all this from just one unit!
Dominions 4 has an entire mini-game revolving around the idea of creating ‘Super Combatants’ or ‘SC’ – powerful units able to take on entire armies alone, often teleporting or flying behind enemy lines. Strategies can be employed by the player for making these units, fighting them and for mixing them with regular armies. There are several different grades and types, from thugs who need full army support to unique and expensive summons, like the elemental Kings and Queens. Each race has this mini-game built-in to allow for the creation of these unique units, as well as summons, spells and items.
Dominions 4 manages to make the late-game fun by consistently allowing for a sudden reversal of fates. You may have captured almost all of the known world, only to find yourself under simultaneous attack on a dozen fronts from strange creatures that can teleport into battle, join in communion with lesser mages and serve a single master, who enslaves an entire army on the first turn. The addition of thrones (specific magic sites that provide benefits when captured) makes a victory point option not merely possible, but also justified and fulfilling to accomplish.
In the end, I think the only failing in this area is the lack of direct control during battles. All battles are planned out before they take place. During your turn, you have the opportunity to assign units to commanders, establish formations and issue basic commands, but all your best-laid plans can be foiled by clever enemy tactics. It’s the joy of the game and also a compromise of sorts. It would certainly be nice to be able to issue more specific orders, or view the enemy layout and equipment before deciding on a plan of action. However, it is the uncertainty of this aspect that makes the combat so interesting. I can’t fault the game for taking a path that allows for my mages to be flanked by a flock of birds, a god to go berserk and forget to cast spells, or for mycommunion to result in sucking the life from my own mages resulting in a hollow, pyrrhic victory.
eXperience: Ultimately, Dominions 4 isn’t going to be for everyone. Here are a few of the game’s drawbacks that may put some players off: Price. The game currently retails at $34.99 on Steam and is rarely heavily discounted (the Steam winter sale had it for 75% off). That said, from my hours spent in the game, it’s been well worth the full price.
Art: 2D sprites, no matter how good they are, are still 20 years out of date.
Difficulty: It’s easy to mess up in Dominion 4. This isn’t a casual game to pick-up, but represents a cerebral challenge with a steep learning curve. You’ll likely need to pick up the manual on several occasions while learning the ins and outs of the game.
UI: On the largest maps available, it becomes a chore to issue orders, organize armies and sort units. Any nation with free spawn (units appearing in friendly territory) can give you repetitive strain injury from the sheer volume of clicks necessary for management.All that said, the game is exceptionally deep and growing with every update. The developers talk to the fans and discuss planned updates and the schedule (e.g. a recent patch added four new races, while other patches have added new mechanics to older races as well as adding lots of new unique units and spells. They also have plans for a future underwater patch that I’m personally looking forward to). The UI has improved over Dominions 3 – mages now start automatically researching, repeat orders can be issued, and keyboard shortcuts are available to reduce the clicks needed to perform actions (although mouse-only gameplay is still possible).
The experience of Dominions 4 has made me look at all other fantasy strategy games in a different light. I now often find myself asking, “Why doesn’t this game have X?” or “I love this feature in Dominions 4. Why doesn’t this title have that?”
It is clear that the developers care about the under-the-hood calculations and mechanics, when even things like dice-rolls and random numbers have several pages of explanation in the manual. Illwinter came up with a novel idea on how to integrate their own version of the random number generator. As a result, instances of a militia unit taking out a veteran monster can happen because of lucky strikes. To see the full effect of this feature, you’ll need to play the game.
Personally, I quite enjoy a nice bell-curve distribution and the opportunity it allows for rare and improbable events to occur, like an old man punching out a dragon. There’s also a table included in the manual that shows the probability of a unit hitting with different attack and defense values, which reveals the benefit of having excellent defense stats and the inherent limitations of gambling on not being struck during combat (i.e. even the best defence stat will be overcome 1% of the time, and even more so if you’re fatigued and surrounded.)
TL;DR: Dominions 4 will easily eat up hours of your time. You’ll be constantly thinking about your 4-armed god and the fun you’ll have making them nearly unstoppable. On the flip side, you might struggle to get past the price and the game’s 2D sprites. The weak single player A.I. can be overlooked somewhat by the title’s strong multiplayer experience and customization options. Love it or hate it, Dominions 4 is a game you will remember.
You might like this game if:
- You want to play as a god.
- You want a a depth of content that includes thousands of different units, hundreds of spells and units and many different races.
- You like 4X games to be light on empire management, but have significant depth every where else.
- You enjoy a good multiplayer game.
You might NOT like this game if:
- Simplistic art gets in the way of you having fun.
- You like depth in your empire managment.
- You aren’t interested in paying full price for an indie title, as it’s rarely on sale.
- You enjoy being challenged by the AI.
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