Dominions 4 diary part two: war elephants, hurricanes and fallen gods

Tom Senior

Tom's rules: 1. Play as an obelisk. 2. Destroy all other gods. Rule 3. No blood magic.

Last week my pretender god Balboa conquered a quarter of the world of Valanis despite spending most of the time asleep. It's a good time to come out of hibernation: Lanka has two other nations ruled by competing wannabe deities.

Dominions gives you a vague summary of an army before it attacks, so I know about the wolves, harpies and maenads that are about to strike my river fortress at Dragon Pointe. It's not until I see the replay of my 175-unit army meeting their 250-strong force on the field that I see the truth. Centaurs and satyrs line up alongside horned snakes that tower above the throng. Crocodiles waddle around the feet of ogres, minotaurs and centaur wizards. A couple of dryads hang near the back, casting spells under the protection of a flock of crows.

Alone, apparently too gross for his comrades to bear, Mimer the Foul Spawn lingers behind the vanguard. Foul Spawn are the “horrible results of cross-breeding experiments”. The human upper torso hanging out of Mimer's giant grey spider abdomen hints at the disgusting union that must have given rise to this specimen. The woodland creatures at his flanks don't seem to mind, though. It's the most spectacular feat of cross-species collaboration since Disney's Fantasia.

Luckily for me, they didn't bring anything that can kill a war elephant, and I have 21 of them. Nobody really needs 21 war elephants, but last month I discovered that I can recruit them from the central town of Doven and have been doing so enthusiastically ever since. I lose 43 ape bowmen and demon ogres in the ensuing battle, but Pangaea lose 200 units. Victory!

Elephants and Centaurs are not friends.

The buzz of confidence I take from the win is dulled by news that a hurricane has struck one of my territories, killing 150 civilians and increasing unrest in the province. It's another symptom of the negative aura I gave my god at the start of the game. The citizens of Lanka will live short, unlucky lives, but for their sacrifice, Balboa the obelisk gets to be brilliant at death magic. I accept that this will be of little comfort to the folk plucked off the face of Valanis by rampaging storms.

In the aftermath of the battle, Mimer the Foul Spawn teams up with a powerful black harpy commander, recruits some spare wolves and satyrs, and charges deeper into my territory. Their buddy roadtrip movie comes to an abrupt end when they try to lay siege to a fortress full of 200 elite demon ogres. Meanwhile, in the northern province of Talito, a local slave-lord has a crisis of conscience and donates a blood-slave to my blood-slave dungeons, which I never ordered to be built and desperately want to un-build. They seem to be impossible to get rid of, unfortunately, and there are now 96 blood-slaves trapped in their depths – a fact I'm trying really hard to ignore.

I need to focus on magic instead. I've managed to claim a quarter of the map in the early game, but as the turns tick by, magic becomes increasingly important. Every nation is researching ever-more powerful spells in their chosen disciplines and the top tiers unlock apocalyptic options. I order every fortress I have that isn't on a frontier to start training one mage per turn.

Pincer strike! Tactics!

I choose to train ape sorcerers called Yogini. They're expensive if you want to turn them into good battle mages, but I'm more interested in their research expertise. In Dominions 4, you have to use thousands of research points to unlock new tiers of magic, and then train individual battle mages up to that tier so they can use the new spells. I'm building batteries of Yogini researchers to unlock Alteration spells, mostly because of a high level Alteration ability called Bone Grinding. When cast in battle, it breaks the bones of every unit on the field.

Logically, in that scenario, the player with the most ghosts wins. I eventually plan to have a lot of ghosts. Also, at the very top of the tree, there's a top-tier death magic spell that could win me the game if my military arm fails.

Within a few turns my research batteries are reading furiously. Back in Lanka, rocky Balboa is researching, too. He's a pretender god, so he's worth three Yogini on his own. You wouldn't know it to look upon Balboa's rocky, guanostained surface, but he's actually pondering the primal forces of the universe, and thinking of new ways to raise huge undead monsters.

In the south, Dragon Pointe is my bastion against the encroaching forces of Pangaea. In the north, I've built a fortress in Giant's Rest to hold off Mictlan. Giant's Rest is conveniently situated near the elephant town of Doven. Units can't move without leadership, so I do a few return trips with my demon ogre commanders at Giant's Rest to shepherd my elephants to the front line. There they do a great job of repelling Mictlan's cultists, which include Moon Warriors with their night vision and obsidian clubs, and quick-and-tough eagle and jaguar warriors.

Map conquest: 25% complete.

There are long, bloody battles at both fortresses in the next 12 turns. A cloud mage called Elohar is so impressed by the might of my elephants at Giant's Rest that he joins my faction. Deep within my territory, some citizens start worshipping a false pretender god. “The leaders of the group were swiftly killed,” I'm told, “but faith has decreased and unrest is rising.” Next turn a message informs me that “the Vale of Infinite Horror has been found!” and some of my units are cursed. In Glade Woods, just north of the embattled fortress of Dragon Pointe, a barbarian horde slay 450 citizens and take the province for themselves. Internal strife is proving far more damaging than the combined might of two pretender gods.

That quickly changes when Pangaea stop messing around and throw an army of 323 units at Dragon's Pointe. I check the army description: “Four huge Swamp Drakes were seen towering over the army. Several Harpies could also be seen flying over the army camp.” After a gruelling year of relentless combat, my defending forces have been reduced to just 83 units. If I lose Dragon's Pointe, the 300-strong force will have free passage to my second circle of fortresses, just a few territories away from Lanka itself.

I need to reinforce, but my nearest significant army is based at the northern tip of the map, at Giant's Rest. The two forts are separated in my territory by an impassable river, but behind enemy lines, I can see a bridge. I decide to decamp my army of elephants at Giant's Rest, leaving it entirely exposed, and charge them through enemy territory to strike the huge besieging enemy army from the rear. But will my beleaguered southern forces hold long enough? This my Helm's Deep. In my Helm's Deep, the Riders of Rohan ride war elephants.

A fortress can't recruit troops while under siege, so I'm going to have to find another way to bolster those 83 doomed units. Dominions 4 keeps track of the number of dead in every province, and thanks to a bloody year of relentless siege defences, there are a lot of fresh, unburied dead in Dragon's Pointe. My two generals there, both demon ogre Raksharajas, happen to be good necromancers. I order them to raise new units of 'soulless' undead warriors, which take on the bodily forms of the corpses at hand. So it happens that the ape archers that died defending the pass rise again and return to their duties alongside the undead forms of the warriors that killed them.

My elephants are halfway to Dragon's Pointe when the Pangaean forces smash the gates. They'll charge next turn. I check the spells I've unlocked, and double check all of my territories to see if I can muster something, anything to help defend the fortress, but to no avail.

The Pangaean forces charge through the gates at Dragon's Pointe the very next turn. The start-of-turn notice tells me there's been a major battle there, and I click on it reluctantly. I read the result and, shocked, read it again. The Pangaean forces – led by a mighty 12ft tall Pan, two minotaur lords and a deadly dryad mother, and leading a force including five foul spawn, a squad of man-sized killer mantises and hundreds of crocodiles, swamp drakes, horned serpents, vine men, wolves, harpies and satyrs – have been routed. Dragon Pointe's noble defenders have turned away a force three times their size, and lost only 30 units. The Pangaeans lost 200.

How? I watch the battle replay, and note the heroics of my two Raksharaja generals – notably, Adra, my most experienced and powerful warrior-mage. He discovered the elephants at Doven. He led the vanguard during my initial expansion. Now his long campaign at Dragon's Pointe has made him terrifying, and given him the trait 'legendary cruelty'. Enemies that get too close can flee rather than face him, and some will be cursed with a terrible affliction for just looking at him. Dozens of lowly Pangaean warriors fall prey to his furious presence. In addition, 45 of their number were wolves, who were entirely wiped out by my demon ogre warriors, along with 73 maenads, and every vine man on the field. I've misjudged Pangaea. Their forces are weird and scary, but poorly trained. A single experienced demon ogre is worth three of their number. I don't need to wait back in my castles, I have the units to charge ahead and take their land.

The Pangaean survivors of the assault retreat across the river, and find themselves sandwiched between the defenders of Dragon's Pointe, and my elephantine rescue force, who now have no one to rescue. Their manic charge through Mictlan and Pangaean territories has given them a perfect flanking position. I order both armies to charge the decimated Pangaean force.

In the month since the Pangaean retreat and my flanking attack, winter has fallen. The snowy ground makes it easier to pick out the Pangaean units in the battle replay. Their general, Peisandros the Pan, survived the fortress assault and finally falls to my swarming demon ogres, and the undead forces I summoned in Dragon's Pointe. Amid the centaur warriors and horned serpents, I spot a few lizard warriors. They're ordinarily loyal to C'tis, the god who's been sitting south of my capital, ominously quiet for the entire game. It looks as though Pangaea has taken some C'tis territory and started recruiting lizard warriors themselves. An unseen war with Pangaea would explain C'tis' reluctance to strike at my borders, but a reckoning with the lizard folk is still a strong possibility.

Pangaea's main force is defeated, and I'm determined to seize the moment. Dragon Pointe's defenders and the elephant army join forces and rampage through Pangaean territory, taking three fortresses across the river. I have a serious foothold, and Pangaea aren't throwing much back at me.

My mood sours with the news of “a dire portent”. That means one of the gods has cast a top-tier spell with widespread influence. R'lyeh, the Cthulhu-esque nation confined to the seas (for now), has blessed all of its followers with supernatural health and stamina. “This sets a bad example for your faithful whom have not received a similar benefit from their worship,” I'm told. That's not even considering the storms, barbarian attacks, strange diseases and witch curses that have afflicted my longsuffering citizens since Balboa awoke.

R'lyeh is a big problem. The faction lives and fights underwater, which means I'll need to recruit amphibious troops or craft some fancy magic items to enable my existing forces to fight him. One of the Pangaean territories I've taken lets me recruit aquatic lizard warriors. I set them training immediately. If R'lyeh is casting global spells already, he's a major threat. It's another reminder that I need to keep pace with the magic game, but my army of researchers are doing good work. I'm rocketing through the tiers of Alteration magic, and have finally unlocked Bone Grinding. Now I need a mage to cast it.

I take another fort in Pangaea, and next turn receive a message stating that “Dinomede the God of Pangaea has been permanently vanquished. At the end she did not rule a single province and she now has nowhere to return.” I didn't kill Dinomede, but I don't have time to find out which faction is responsible. Mictlan has sent a 300-strong force into the fresh territory I've carved out of Pangaea's former lands, led by a mighty general called the King of Legends. Then another dire portent strikes, suggesting that the faction of Arcoscephale, who I haven't met yet, has grown a sacred Mother Oak that signals that their leader Modic “is the rightful ruler of this world”.

The oak must burn. The King of Legends must die. Mictlan and R'lyeh must be stopped. One god is dead, but Balboa's work has only just begun.

Come back next Sunday for part three, when the giant lizards arrive.

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