Dominions 5 is an astounding game.
As a longstanding indie darling, the magnum opus of Illwinter Game Design has long been the poster child for iterative design: more the product of small adjustments over time and continuous development than a series of leaps and bounds. With Dominions 5 (Dom5), Illwinter has brought the full force of four previous titles as well as 15 years of development and fine tuning to bear for the latest entry in the series, and it shows – if you know where to look.
The player takes on the role of a “Pretender,” an immortal magical being that is the chosen god for one of the many nations (read: factions) featured in the game. The goal of the game is to spread your dominion (get it?) as far and wide as possible, fend off the other pretenders in the game, and ascend to become the supreme being – the god of all gods – of the world of Dominions. In order to make your dreams of godhood a reality, you will take control of one of the many and varied nations in the game. There are straightforward human nations, lands ruled by giants and the descendants of angels, demonspawn, lizardmen, and underwater creatures straight out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. You won’t find any Tolkien inspired races here. Instead, the races and nations are fantastical versions of our own religions, history, and mythology come to life.
If that sounds relatively straightforward, don’t be fooled. The Dominions series has a reputation for complexity and inscrutability, the kind that tends to either fascinate or terrify the uninitiated. So, how does Dom5 present itself to someone new to the series? Can a mere mortal like me decipher the mechanics and get sucked in?
Dominions 5 is a game that marches to the beat of its own drum. If Illwinter pays any attention to trends in modern strategy game design, it’s hard to find much evidence of it. Exploration in Dom5 is a perfect example of the studio’s idiosyncratic mechanics and unique perspective.
For one thing, there is no fog of war on a Dom5 map. Once you start a game, choose a faction, and let the random map generator do its thing, the world is laid out for all to see. You don’t have to wonder where the mountains or coastlines converge to create chokepoints; everything is visible. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to find in a game of Dom5 or no reason to explore the world. That’s because the province borders and terrain are pretty much the only thing known to the player at the beginning of the game.
There are no empty provinces in Dom5. They either belong to your nation, the enemy AI nations, or are in the hands of independent armies. Unless you do some exploration, you only know what is going on in your own lands – not all that helpful for an upwardly mobile immortal being with an eye towards ruling the world. To uncover the obstacles to your ascension, you have a few tactics at your disposal.
First, just sharing a border with a neutral or enemy province gives you some information about your nearest neighbors and soon-to-be future loyal subjects. It’s useful and free, but the information you get from shared borders is limited and vague. For example, hovering the mouse cursor over a neutral province just across your border might tell you something like, “There are around 40 units in this province, mostly composed of heavy infantry with some archers and some light cavalry.” It’s better than nothing, but it’s not very specific.
Better information can be obtained by sending in a scout unit with a decent stealth rating. Don’t worry, every nation has at least one. They are plainly labeled and are usually cheaper than used socks. Even then, you won’t get to see exactly what forces the enemy has down to the unit. Dom5 just doesn’t work that way – a little uncertainty is always kind of baked in. But the size of the army will be more accurate and you usually get some information about the army’s commander.
Depending on your nation’s scouts, you might also be able to attempt an assassination on the enemy army’s commander, foment unrest in their province, or commit other skullduggery. A scout unit that has the trait “Spy” will be able to tell you even more accurate military information, economic statistics, magic sites, unrest levels, and the like. Stealthy priest units will also be able to give you information on the strength of a rival pretender’s dominion in the province.
Magic is another possible method of exploration. Depending on your pretender’s magical abilities, and those of your nation’s casters, you may be able to use a scrying spell to scout a province. Since it’s magic, you basically get all the information there is to discover. But scrying spells are only available in certain schools of magic and you might not have the magical bona fides in that school to be able to cast it.
Speaking of magic, it is very important to explore provinces under your control. You want to find any magic sites that might be hidden in the province. Why? Because magic sites generate magical gems, which are necessary to cast the more powerful spells in the game. To find magic sites, you need to search a province with a unit that has some ability in that particular magical school (usually a commander of some kind). So, if you want to find fire gems you would search your provinces with a mage who knows fire magic. He might find them, but if there are any water or nature magic sites in that province, they will remain hidden until an appropriately skilled mage comes along. Each province must be searched individually, so keeping a couple of mages on hand for searching duty is generally a good idea.
Expansion in Dom5 comes through conquest. Because empty provinces are as rare as hen’s teeth, the only way to expand is by taking provinces by force. Once you kick out the current occupants, you become the owner of the province and the resources it generates.
From the point of view of a traditional 4X game, Dom5 is pretty light on empire management. You won’t find a queue for buildings, there are no worker units to improve resource sites on the map, and no individual population units to move from farming to production. But there are some interesting decisions to make. You won’t build many buildings, but what you do construct, and where you choose to do it, can have a massive effect on the course of a game.
For example, you’ll need to erect fortresses to hold your territory. If the AI sends a doomstack your way, and it will, they will have to whittle down the walls of the fortress before they can actually attack your army and attempt to take the province. This can take several turns depending on the level of the fortress in the province, the size and composition of the invading force, and the supply level of the defenders. While this is going on, you have the opportunity to send another army to relieve the besieged forces trapped inside the walls.
But a fortress is far more than a wall built to slow the enemy’s advance. For one thing, a fortress allows you to recruit the bulk of your nation’s units in your newly acquired province. Otherwise, you are restricted to conscripting the natives – basically whatever the independent forces were that used to control the territory. Most of the time, your nation’s units are better than anything the independents have (not always!), and moving all your armies from the capital takes time, especially on larger maps. So you will want to build fortresses as you conquer new lands and expand your holdings. Even so, you won’t be building a fortress in every new province you take for a variety of reasons to be discussed in the exploitation section of this review.
Your new provinces will also need to be defended. Rather than having to build actual armies and have them sit around doing nothing, Dom5 has a system that allows the player to hire static defenders one province at a time. You can set the number of defenders a territory has for a one time cost, though it is limited by the total population of the province. If you hire a force of 15 units or higher, there’s a chance every turn to detect stealthy enemy units that might be hiding in your lands. At 20 units or higher, your defenders include more advanced troops. If you happen to have a regular army in the province when the enemy attacks, your opponent will have to face both groups at the same time. On the other hand, the AI can also hire province defenders…
Dom5, unlike most 4X games, features a second kind of expansion. After all, you are a pretender god! You are a spiritual being! Expanding the range of your dominion (i.e. the power of your god) is just as important as taking on new real estate.
Called dominion, this works a lot like influence or cultural borders in other 4X titles. It’s the area of your pretender god’s control, where he/she/it is worshipped, and where his/her/its power reigns supreme. The provinces your nation controls are marked by your nation’s flag. Your pretender god’s dominion is delineated by a highlighted border similar in appearance to borders in recent Civilization titles or Galactic Civilizations 3. But unlike other 4X games, the borders of your dominion have power. When you create a pretender at the beginning of a game of Dom5, one of the things you do is decide what the effect of your dominion is – maybe it brings more order to the land, increases its production, increase its magical-ness, or even changes the climate of the lands under your sway. The magical effects of your pretender’s influence spread as your dominion spreads. Poor provinces can become richer, rebellious populations more orderly, hot lands can freeze over, etc. And these aren’t just nice bonuses. Spreading your dominion across the map and eliminating worship of your rival pretenders is one way to win the game.
You can spread your dominion a few different ways. The presence of your pretender in a province increases his/her/its dominion in that province and those nearby. You can use various priest-y type units to preach the good word about all the ways your god is awesome. You can also build temples that help spread your dominion from your capital out to the borders of your territory and beyond. The reach of your dominion can be just as important as how many provinces you have under your control.
As with the other “X-es” so far, Dom5 does its own thing when it comes to exploitation. Provinces are milked for all they are worth, but in a fairly passive way. Population is taxed to generate gold and resources are gathered for weapons and armor without much input from the player. There are ways to improve a province’s resource generation, as discussed above, but most of the work happens in the background. That said, there are some things the player has to decide for themselves.
One of the toughest calls to make is where to build the fortresses discussed above. Technically, you could build one in every province you control, but it’s normally not a great idea. For one thing, they are kind of expensive. A basic palisade costs 600 gold – a significant expense, especially early in the game. Depending on the nation you are playing, 600 gold might represent the cost of a decent army, so opportunity cost is definitely a factor.
Finances aren’t the only consideration. Beside serving as a fortification, fortresses are also centers of supply and administration in your empire. When you build a fortress in a province, the amount of resources you get from the province doubles. Resources are like iron deposits in a Warlock 2 game; you need it to build certain units. In Dom5 all units cost at least a few resources. The more heavily armed and armored the unit is, the more resources (and gold) it costs to recruit. A fortress also pulls in additional resources from surrounding provinces. The trick, however, is that a fortress can’t draw those additional resources from a province that has a fortress of its own. So building fortresses right next to each other isn’t a great idea, from a purely economic perspective, most of the time.
Fortresses also extend additional supplies into nearby provinces. Supply is an important consideration for your armies. Each province has a supply rating based on its terrain. More fertile provinces can support larger armies than barren ones. If your army is in a province without enough supplies, your troops can literally begin to starve to death. Unless your nation is undead, in which case, rock on since your guys don’t eat. Fortresses help solve this problem by extending supplies into the provinces around them. So throwing up a fortress might make it easier for your army to pass through some tough provinces on their way to ruin your opponent’s day.
While it may sound like fortresses can do it all, the fact that they are multifaceted actually lends them a fair amount of strategic depth. You really have to give some serious thought to where you build them. Maximizing resource generation is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it might be better to build a fortress at a natural choke point on the map instead. The mechanics really force some interesting decisions about what is important to your nation, in the current game, based on the map and the opponents in front of you.
The only other building available for construction in Dom5 is the laboratory. Like the other two buildings, laboratories serve multiple purposes. By default, your nation’s mages can only perform research in the capital. Building a laboratory in another province, however, means that any mages in that province can also lend their intellects to the research effort. Laboratories also serve as a rapid transit system for the magical gems you have been passively gathering from the magical sites in your territory. Your mages might need gems in combat depending on which spells you order them to cast. Finally, a laboratory means that rituals (think global spells in most fantasy strategy games) can be cast from the province. Ordinarily, rituals can only be cast from the capital. Overall, laboratories provide magical logistical support that is desperately needed as your territory expands and your capital city gets farther and farther away from the front lines.
Research itself is simple but elegant. Rather than a research tree or semi-randomized spell lists, Dom5 takes the path of research categories. These correspond to the various spell schools and are divided into levels based on spell power, complexity, and gem cost to cast. So you don’t have to worry about which specific spells to research. Instead, it’s better to know which school the spells you need are in and point your research team in that direction. Fortunately, it’s not hard to figure out which spells correspond to which schools. A simple right click on the school name on the research screen pulls up a list of spells that are available. I also heartily recommend the manual, available in PDF format for free on Illwinter’s website, which contains a full list of spells along with informative descriptions and statistics.
There is no diplomacy of any kind with the AI in Dom5. It’s kill or be killed. And while some may roll their eyes and mutter some complaint about its absence, I think it makes sense in this game. For one thing, diplomacy is rarely done well in 4X games and is often merely a portal to abuse the AI. You can’t do that here. But there is also the lore of the game world to consider. Thematically, you are a pretender god. Your only goal is to ascend and become the one true god of the world of Dominions. There can be only one – Highlander style! What exactly is diplomacy going to do for you? That said, diplomacy and temporary alliances are common in multiplayer scenarios, and it is even possible to set up permanent team games with the AI in the set up phase of the game.
Combat happens a lot in Dom5. After all, it’s a game about a war of ascendency of competing pretender gods. But you won’t actually be conducting the battles yourself, as in Age of Wonders 3 and most other fantasy strategy games.
That’s because turns in Dom5 are simultaneous. During your turn you tell your armies where to go, your researchers which magical schools to investigate, and which provinces your scouts should explore. But that’s all you are doing – giving orders. None of your orders take effect until after you hit the “End Turn” button much like recently released Oriental Empires. Once you do, the AI players queue up their orders and then everything is executed simultaneously. That’s important, because it means that the enemy army you planned to attack may not actually be there when your troops arrive on the scene. Instead, you have to try to anticipate where the enemy might go while planning your own movements, something which makes extensive scouting important throughout the course of the game.
In terms of combat, that means that the actual bloodshed is taking place in that nebulous time between the turns where the player has no control over what is happening at all. So what can you do to influence the outcome? Well, for starters you can arrange the troops in your armies into formations ahead of time and set up orders for different unit groups. You can also have your spearmen march forward and attack the first enemies they come across, while your cavalry hesitates for a bit before making a dash around the flank to hit the mages in the rear of the enemy formation. Your spell casters can be even ordered to cast specific spells if you want, or you can just tell them to just generally do their own thing. The range of available orders for a given unit group is fairly small. But there is a lot of variety on offer when you get the various groups that make up an army working in concert with each other.
When a battle occurs, your army will execute the script you laid out for them, regardless of what the enemy does. Fortunately, there is a lot of feedback available to help you determine how effective your troops are. The end turn summary gives you a list of everything that happened in the simultaneous execution phase, including the battles. Click on it and you can see a detailed casualty report, including which of your unit types did the most damage to the enemy. You can also watch a replay of the battle itself. The replay shows you exactly what happened and included a pretty detailed log of who cast which spells and things like that. You can even pause and fast forward if you want.
If you miss the battle report in the turn summary, don’t worry! You can still access it any time while setting up your orders for your next turn. The battle replays are fun to watch and really your only chance to see your units in action. But you can also see what your opponents are using against you and whether your troops are working together the way you intended. Depending on what you see, you might decide to make some changes to your orders and formation.
Speaking of armies, most of your time, money, and resources will be focused on training troops, setting up armies, and smashing them into things in the name of your pretender god. Troops are recruited one at a time, ordinarily from your capital or a province where you have constructed a fortress. Most of your nation’s units will only be available from a fortress. Each troop type – and they are many and varied – has a per-unit cost in gold, resources (think iron), recruitment points (based on population), and so on. Click on one spearman, recruit one spearman.
Fortunately, you can hit the shift key and click to recruit groups of units at a time, assuming you can afford them. If you can’t, you will see them kind of grayed out in the recruitment queue. When that happens, it signifies that it will take more than one turn to recruit the unit in question. You can also queue up a group of units and check a box that automatically repeats the recruitment every turn. It’s a handy feature if you are trying to build up a larger force over a series of turns and don’t want to hand pick the units every time.
Units are basically useless, however, without commanders to lead them. Commanders are a category of recruitable troop with special abilities or powers. They are similar to heroes in traditional fantasy 4X games, but are not quite the same as those RPG-style characters. Rather, it’s more accurate to think of them as regular units with better stats and a few special abilities.
Most importantly, commanders have the ability to lead troops into battle. The higher a commander’s leadership skill is, the more troops he can take into battle and the more unit groups he can command without a morale penalty. Unlike most 4X games, Dom5 allows you to take more than one commander (and his/her troops) into battle at a time. In fact, if there is an upper limit to how many commanders and troops you can have in a single battle, I haven’t encountered it. So feel free to bring multiple commanders and unit formations along for the ride. You can absolutely have a doomstack in Dom5, though that doesn’t always make it a good idea…
Some nations have commander units that make good “thugs.” You won’t find that term in the manual. A thug is the Dominions community’s slang for a commander that has been decked out in magical equipment, typically created under the construction school of research. When properly equipped, a small group of a few commanders can take independent provinces all by themselves. They won’t win you the game singlehandedly; they’re more like special forces in modern military terms. But they can help you expand quickly while freeing up the main body of your armies to do other, more useful things.
Another reason to bring more than one commander to a battle is that your mages are generally considered to be commanders too. If you want the power of your pretender’s magic on your side in combat (spoiler alert: you do), you need to make sure your armies have a few mages included in the roster. You will need to make sure your mages have some ability in the magical schools that include the spells you want them to cast, as well as a supply of magic gems if those spells require them.
Since you’re basically a god, it’s important to point out that some of your nation’s units will be marked as “holy.” Some nations have several holy units, and there are other nations that only have one. Either way, it means that they are able to be blessed by your pretender or by national priest units included in every faction. The effects of blessing a holy unit are determined by choices made when you created your pretender god. With sufficient magical ability in a particular path (i.e. fire, water, nature, etc.), you can choose from a list of bless effects to bestow on your holy units. Choose the right pretender and spend enough points on it and you can have quite a list of buffs going on your holy units all at the same time. Going for a strong bless strategy while playing a nation with a few different holy unit types can be powerful.
Another element that is important to discuss is strategic warfare. Once you have your armies trained, in the right formation, and their orders are set, you still have a long way to go. Choosing where to attack is just as important as anything else in Dom5. The simultaneous nature of the turns means that anticipating the movements of your opponents is critical. Scouting enemy territory remains important throughout the course of the game. You need to know where the enemy’s big armies are and which provinces are their main troop producing centers (hint: find the fortresses). Take the fortresses out and you take out a lot of their troop production. Often a series of coordinated attacks on several enemy provinces at the same time can be very effective against the AI.
X Factor: Pretender Design
Pretender design is a huge part of Dom5, but it doesn’t really fall neatly into one of the usual four X-es. So I’m going rogue and adding a new section to the standard eXplorminate 5X review format! I’m a mad man! No one can stop me!
Creating your pretender is actually a pretty intricate process and a full description of it is beyond the scope of this review. Besides that, I have no intention to rewrite the manual. Did I already mention that this game has a written manual? Well, it does. It’s free – you don’t even have to buy the game to look at it!
How you set up your pretender, when taken in combination with your choice of nation, is the single most important series of decisions you will make in a game of Dom5. Your options are vast, and the system of spending points to create a pretender god is very flexible. You can create a giant dragon to dominate the battlefield and kill large numbers of enemy troops. Or maybe a human mage who has mastered his own mortality and seeks to ascend to godhood through his vast magical power. You can even have a monolith that shapes the land around it, bending province after province under its sway. It’s hard to overstate just how powerful the pretender creation system is and the amazing variety it allows. The possibilities seem endless, as if any limits are only those imposed by your own imagination. If there was ever a strategy game that had replay value, it’s Dom5.
In many ways, Dom5 is about execution. You choose a nation based on its troops, the kinds of magic it favors, and maybe even because you like the well-written lore. Then you design your pretender god and make the decisions that will define how your faction will play on the map itself. The overall strategy really starts to take shape during this setup phase. The game hasn’t even started yet, but you are already planning how your forces will work together, what magic you will use, and the effects of your dominion on the world. There are important strategic decisions to be made once the game starts, to be sure. But there is a real sense in which the game itself is primarily about the execution of your strategy, the application of it in the “real” world. It’s a fascinating experience that I cannot remember having in any other strategy game I have ever played.
Dominions 5 is an unparalleled experience in strategy gaming. The game features a vast amount of content and allows you to mix and match things in ways that keep things fresh for a long time. The AI won’t blow you away with its pretender design or magic use, but it puts up a decent fight in terms of creating big armies to send your way that force you to adjust your strategy and tactics. You can create crazy combinations and cast world altering spells against your enemies. Anyone looking for a game with the spirit of Master of Magic, if not quite the same feel, should give the Dominions series a solid try. That’s because Dom5 is a very deep game by almost any measure.
The lore of the game is well written and does a lot to help flesh out the world of Dominions. You can learn a lot about it by reading nation and unit descriptions. Even item and spell descriptions have the odd nugget or two if you read carefully. If you have ever wanted to play a faction that evokes the Eastern Roman Empire that rides gigantic snakes into battle, and understand the in-lore reason they do it, Dom5 is the game for you.
In all honesty, this review only scratches the surface of this massive game. I have not said anything about blood magic, communions (channeling magic through other mages to your main caster), or multiplayer. There is just too much to talk about when it comes to Dom5. It’s almost overwhelming.
With all that being said, Dom5 is certainly not for everyone. The graphics are antiquated in a way that may not appeal to gamers grown accustomed to the beauty of games like Endless Space 2. The UI is similarly unique and even the controls stubbornly refuse to follow modern, left click to select, right click to move conventions. If pretty pictures and a slick UI are important to you, Dom5 is going to be challenging. Much like Distant Worlds: Universe, this game eschews fancy graphics for intricate gameplay. The music, while well made and well suited to the game, is limited and is not dynamic in any way, which means that pulling up the latest combat replay doesn’t automatically switch the soundtrack into high gear. Despite these drawbacks, Dom5 is a game that deserves a wider audience than it currently has. The learning curve might be a bit more steep than other 4X games but the view from the top is well worth the effort involved.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer scope of Dominions 5. There is a steep learning curve just to get into the game, but the rewards are immense for those willing to make the climb. Fortunately, there are a lot of good resources on the internet to help make the process a little easier. Besides the excellent manual, there are several tutorial series on YouTube, including one made specifically for Dom5 by well known strategy master Dastactic.
As a fan of fantasy strategy games for many years, I am kicking myself for not trying the Dominions series before its fifth entry. The game is a lot of fun and it has managed to do something pretty rare these days – it has really fired up my imagination in ways that video games haven’t done for me since childhood. It’s theater of the mind in video game form. Dom5 has a lot to offer fans of fantasy 4X, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is not bothered by the 2D unit sprites and low tech presentation.
The idea of writing a review for Dom5 was intimidating, to say the least. I read the entire manual and watched more than one tutorial series before I ever launched the game on my computer. Even now, I have a lot more to learn about this game. There is so much that I haven’t experienced yet, so many nations I need to play, and I can easily see myself pouring hundreds of hours into it in the future. As I said at the beginning of this review, Dominions 5 is an astounding game, and I am both enthralled and intimidated by it.
TL:DR: Dominions 5 is a massive game and learning to play it is a massive undertaking. But anyone who does so is in for some of the finest fantasy 4X gaming the genre has to offer. With an extraordinarily deep pretender creation system, 86 nations across three eras, and voluminous spell book to explore, Dom5 offers an absolutely insane amount of variety and replay value. The graphics and sound effects are old fashioned, at best, and the presentation feels quaintly antiquated. Get past the visuals, however, and the game offers unparalleled depth to those willing to plumb its depths.
You might like this game if:
- You want fantasy strategy gameplay, but MORE!
- You dig lore. Like, really dig it
- You love a game that makes you read the manual first
You might NOT like this game if:
- You demand an Endless Space 2-level of presentation and graphics
- You don’t want to do homework to play a video game
- You think building 47 buildings in every town is a 4X requirement
Micah received a free copy for the purposes of this review. He played 40+ hours of Dominions 5 on a custom PC with a FX-8350 CPU, GTX 970, and 16GB of RAM on Windows 10. He played an additional 10+ hours on a Thinkpad T450 with an I5-5300U CPU, Intel HD 5500 integrated GPU, and 8GB of RAM on Debian 9 (Linux).