Total War: Warhammer 2 is the fantasy strategy game that everyone is excited this year. However, it does have its own share of lazy design decisions, repetitive gameplay and distressingly safe choices. Do you know what fantasy strategy game that you really should be getting excited about? Illwinter Game Design’s Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith.
Pantocrator is the god of the world, an overlord on a scale that makes all the other deities complete pushovers. At least, that what he was before he disappeared mysteriously. An event like that creates a power vacuum like you’ve never seen and would-be godlings are rushing to fill the gap. Monstrosities banished to languish out of Pantocrator’s sight, antediluvian spirits that fell out grace, dragons, liches, ambitious wizards and others are rushing in to claim the throne.
Dominions is a kickass game that will blow you out of your chair and set it on fire. The sheer variety of the game is astounding and world building is amazing. Lets try to take it from the top. When you start a new campaign, you choose one of the tree ages. The earliest is the most magical, with the eldritch energies of the world’s creation still on the loose and various mythical kingdoms carving out their place in the world with primitive weapons. The late one has an abundance of iron weaponry and the magic has been more codified, even if it has gotten a lot weaker. Mid age is somewhere in-between.
Those aren’t just cosmetic overlays on over 20-plus nations available in each era. You see, as the world evolves from age to age, so do it’s peoples. Civilizations rise and fall, entire races get displaced, killed off, magically scarred or enslaved. Ulm, R’lyeah, Mictlan and many others look, feel and play very differently depending on the age the game takes place in. And nations are very different in general. Some of them start out underwater. Others are just realms of shades and undead that kill everything they touch. Or maybe they’re a historically inspired human nation that augments their organized military forces with mages and priests.
Once you have chosen your era and nation, you know what soldiers and, more importantly, paths of magic your people uses. Now you get to create your pretender god! Some archetypes, like liches, ghost kings and ambitious wise women are usually available to all nations. But some will be available only to certain cultural groups. It wouldn’t make sense for your nation of winged humans to have a giant fishman for a god or have your fantasy Germans lead by a four-armed Bodhisattva. They each bring in their own set of skills and abilities. Some are better at magic, others are at magical research, and some are just powerhouses that can almost solo early armies.
Then you get to tweak them! Each pretender-type has a points cost associated with it (with nations giving small discounts to especially thematically appropriate ones). Anything left over will be used to buy magic mastery and dominion strengths. Beefier pretenders will pay arm and leg for magic while frail witch grandma godlings will get magic on cheap. And for the first time in the series, magic expertise lets you fine tune the effects of your blessings, as well as giving you different effects for your turn undead/smite spells. Buy four levels of earth magic? Now you have 4 points to buy earth-themed bless effects with.
Dominion effects are an old thing. In the game, dominion shows the strength and reach of your worship. If you invested points in it, your dominion might be stronger, provide production bonuses and even influence the climate of the regions. It’s important to spread your dominion and fight the enemy’s because you’re not only stronger while within its bounds, it also shapes the land the way you want. Meanwhile, some nations like Dreamlands have dominions that rapidly depopulate regions and that is something you don’t want to happen unless you’re running an all undead nation.
Once you’re on the campaign map, you can see that it’s separated into regions that your armies move between in a Risk-like fashion. Or, to be more precise, you order your generals and agents to move and then end turn. Campaign map is simultaneous turn based! But how are the battles resolved, then? The AI runs them for you and you can only watch the recordings in sprite-on-3D background-graphics after the fact. You can’t command your armies on the field but you can ready them for it!
You can and should take care of what your generals and armies do on the field. A general will be able to lead depending on nation, experience, magical artifacts and so on between 40 and hundreds of units separated into 1-to-3 “squads”. Said squads can have pre-set formation, orders and place on the battlefield. Your generals and wizards have some even more in depth management, like you can even tell them what spells to cast at the beginning of the battle.
One easy trick is to put your cavalry units to the side of the field and order them to attack “rearmost units” – which usually means cowardly and squishy priests and wizards. The same order does wonders with flying units, like devils and such. But that is just one strategy among many that arise from all the insane combos that you get.
Back on strategic map, you order regions to train troops the amount built per turn depends on such limiters as the amount of gold you have, recruitment points, resource points (a Dominions 5 novelty, which makes populous regions more important) and especially commander and holy points. Commander points limit generals, agents and wizards hired, while holy points are necessary for holy units and priests. Holy ones can be blessed, and while they’re fairly badass on their own right, the new custom blessing system can make the unparalleled face wreckers. For example, generic heavy cavalry or, Pantocrator forbid, knights, are already quite beastly. And then you have late age Ulm with their holy Black Templars which totally wreck anything they come up against.
But then magic goes wild. In Dominions, magic is more than just spells your wizards randomly shoot on the battlefield. No, you also have ritual spells that you order your spellcasters to do the strategic map. From simple auguries (that remotely search friendly areas for magic sites they provide magic gems that fuel your spells) and summoning animals you will soon move to stuff like shielding provinces from magic, teleporting armies and making generic units into heroes all the way into casting global enchantments and pulling horrid monstrosities that Pantocrator hid behind the edge of time and space. And sometimes, those monsters break loose
Magic also allows for crafting of magical artifacts to outfit your heroes with. Your wizard-industrial complex can start out by cranking out a Longsword +1 a month, you will soon move to manufacturing bizarre wands that increase mastery both over fire and troops, armor that makes your characters ethereal (if you really want to make someone into an assassin), cauldrons to feed a hundred troops and even weirder stuff.
And through all the madness, Dominions keeps a strong theme going. The best example, I’d say, is the Blood magic system. While BioWare and some people pretend that blood mages in Dragon Age can be excused, Dominions leaves you no place to hide. You need blood slaves to fuel it, but you can’t pretend you’re using criminals. You are explicitly collecting virgin girls to be sacrificed for spells that will bind devils and imps. You are a bad person. And the whole world is rich which mythical stuff that seems authentic and research in the same vein that makes Glorantha (and King of Dragon Pass) so engrossing.
Now, some criticism. The game is groggy my girlfriend said it’s ugly (I’m infected by grogitis, so I think it’s way prettier than most of of the games our niche sees), the interface is not a looker, and the controls aren’t always friendly. That said, it all serves a purpose, just like in Dwarf Fortress. Simple graphics allow the creators to cram over 1500 different units in the game, and those sprites are super evocative when matched to unit descriptions and abilities. The controls are hard, but they’re not daunting, unlike in, say, Graviteam Tactics just learn the hotkeys and turn on map multimoves.
“Why are you telling me about this game?” asked my girlfriend one day. And when I had to think of an answer, all I could say was that Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith makes me happy. It’s a game by developers that doesn’t give two eldritch shits about what “the market” wants or does. It’s the antithesis of beautiful-but-cowardly Call of Duty: World War II which I reviewed just before Dominions. Illwinter knows what they want to do and they’re very purposefully using the tools and methods to achieve it. And by the fifth game in the series, they have become exceedingly good at it.