Dominions 5: Gods go to war in 4X showdown for the ages

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This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 317. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

The last time I played fantastical 4X game Dominions for a diary feature I ended up sacrificing hundreds of blood slaves to cast the game world into a screaming eternal night. My demon apes, led by an inanimate lump of rock called Balboa, fled to a floating island where they were finally annihilated. My enemies even killed Balboa’s dog, the bastards.

I think I can do better, and the release of Dominions 5 is just the excuse I need to forge a new godly identity and lead a new fantasy race to glory. This time, I vow, I will be good. There will be no blood slaves. Instead I will woo my competitors with heavenly grace as the ruler of the old kingdom of Arcoscephale. This society is run by humble astrologers and priestesses who heal troops in battle. Compared to the other factions they are lovely.

The game generates some auspicious titles for him and soon Gondalf, Holder of The Windbag, The Invincible and Ever-Triumphant, walks the earth.

Time to design my god. I pick the Titan of Heaven, a noble-looking old fellow with a white beard. I notice similarities to another famous fantasy wizard and, not wishing to infringe on any trademarks, I name him Gondalf. The game generates some auspicious titles for him and soon Gondalf, Holder of The Windbag, The Invincible and Ever-Triumphant, walks the earth. 

Turn one. I survey my kingdom, which is just a fortress surrounded by a collection of unaffiliated warriors waiting to be brutally kill–I mean, er, ushered into the peaceful kingdom of Arcoscephale. I check my recruitment menu and, to no one in particular, say, “It’s time to build some fuckin’ elephants!” My holy decree is realised in only a few turns, and soon mighty Gondalf sallies forth with a dozen elephants to have kind words with the neighbouring independents. 

Gondalf’s domain expands rapidly—battle elephants are very convincing. I am hemmed in by a river that loops around to the north, but I make some progress taking territory southwards and soon bump into an enemy faction. They are the fire folk of Abysia, led by a huge crown-wearing snake called the Solar Serpent. His dapper looks and fine eye for accessorising can’t save him, though. I meet his army and strike him down easily. Gondalf casts ‘Windrunner’ in battle which speeds up all of his elephants. The turbo-charged brick of grey hurtles across the battlefield and flattens the enemy in moments.

Encouraged, I point Gondalf at a nearby Abysian fortress and he starts throwing turbocharged elephants at the walls to weaken them. Meanwhile, to the west the dark forces of Agartha start to make inroads on my territory. These caverndwelling folk are ruled by mysterious ‘Pale Ones’. I raise a second army and send them away to deal with the problem and start recruiting Priestesses to generate magical research and help out in fights. Disaster strikes. My sieging force at the Abysian stronghold is countercharged by a larger army, and this time they have Salamanders. These lizards breathe fire everywhere and elephants hate it.

I receive a worrying message which says, “The Vale of Infinite Horror has been found.” Let’s figure that out later.

In a panic they charge back through their own ranks, crushing one another in a terrible rout. Meanwhile a cohort of Fiends of Darkness, Fiery Imps, Lava Warriors and Spine Devils surround Gondalf and drag him down. With their god dead, the three surviving elephants run off to start a new life. To top it all off I receive a worrying message which says, “The Vale of Infinite Horror has been found.” Let’s figure that out later. 

For now my god is gone, but not forgotten. I can order my Priestesses to pray for his return. With enough prayers and time Gondalf can reincarnate, this time with a better understanding of elephants. Now it’s time for General Adamas—leading my eastern force—to hold back the Abysians and the Agarthans, who are mustering giant scorpions on my borders. 

It takes about a year for my god to reincarnate, and he returns to a smaller kingdom defended by an exhausted but now legendarily famous General Adamas. I plough my gold reserves into a new army for Gondalf, this time featuring some chariots to give the elephants something to race in battle. I send everyone south to take revenge on Abysia. On the way Gondalf swats an Agarthan army featuring a Cave Drake, an Earth Elemental, a Fall Bear (a ghost bear that grows strong or weak depending on the season) and, er, a Magma Child, about which the tooltip only mentions that “they serve Rhaux, one of the Kings of Elemental Fire”. Take that, Rhaux! 

I barge south and successfully take two fortresses. This secures my grip on the region. Unfortunately I then receive another of Dominion’s unexpected messages. “Suddenly an arrow appeared out of the sky and struck Adamas the Mounted Commander straight in the heart. He died instantly.” Er…

Some amount of swearing later, I recruit a new general and redistribute my forces within the eastern wing of my kingdom. I’m pretty sure the arrow must be the result of an assassination spell. In addition to that demon hit squads start materialising to kill minor characters in my dominion. It turns out the Vale of Infinite Horror I mentioned earlier marks characters for death and then sends teleporting monsters after them. There does not appear to be any way to stop this.

I didn’t intentionally set out to recreate Game of Thrones, but Dominion’s equivalent of the White Walkers are coming from the north in force, and I’m not sure I’ve got the elephants to stop it.

I have bigger problems than magical curses. After mostly neutralising Abysia and Agartha I meet the third faction on the map. Caelum is a society run by ice mages. They wear armour and weapons made of magical ice and can command the powers of wind and ice in battle. Now a vast army has set up in a fortress on my northeastern border and it’s bad news. While Abysia, Argatha and I squabbled the ice people bode their time and grew in strength and numbers. 

I didn’t intentionally set out to recreate Game of Thrones, but Dominion’s equivalent of the White Walkers are coming from the north in force, and I’m not sure I’ve got the elephants to stop it. The Caelum army sweeps into my territory and destroys my god’s army. I thought my elephants would hold the line, but I didn’t reckon on mammoths. Caelum has tons of them, and they have Drakes and a massive cohort of winged spear warriors. The mammoths and a trio of what appear to be Yetis cancel out my elephant charge. The fl ying soldiers vanish off into the sky and return moments later, landing right on the head of my god. Gondalf dies again. 

If Caelum chooses to press the advantage and go for my stronghold then I’m toast. Luckily, the army disperses and starts picking off territory to my east. I have an army of Priestesses in my kingdom now. Normally they are busy aggressively researching magic, but I put them right back to prayer duties. There are so many of them that Gondalf returns in just a few months, and in the meantime I have built a new army for him. I’m desperate to amass troops, so I pay a gang of mercenary ghosts to help me out.

I had plans for this campaign. In my last playthrough I cast the Utterdark to condemn the world to darkness. This time I wanted to do the world a favour and cast a powerful wind spell that summons spirits to help everyone out. Bins need taking out? Hand it to your wind spirit and it will be taken care of. Trouble is you need an army of researchers to push the relevant school of knowledge up to high levels, and it takes years to get there. At this point I might be pretty close, but my Priestesses have been so busy summoning Gondalf back from the dead that they are behind on their homework.

Presumably they are part of the mercenary force I hired earlier, but it’s quite possible they aren’t, because I only understand about 60% of what’s happening in Dominions at any given point.

It’s time to shift to survival mode. I need to smash Caelum’s forces with one massive strike, and I should really take that fortress to my northeast. Fortresses take a few months to knock down before you can take the territory, so act as speed bumps against incoming armies. 

I build up an enormous army by the time Gondalf returns. This time, in addition to loads of chariots and elephants, I recruit massive units of javelin throwers to try and counter the threat of Caelum’s flying warriors. I also recruit 100 pike warriors to try and stall some of Caelum’s fiercer Drakes, Wyverns and Yetis. I find a Traitor Prince, 15 ghosts and some ‘Meteorite Guards’ in my home fortress. Presumably they are part of the mercenary force I hired earlier, but it’s quite possible they aren’t, because I only understand about 60% of what’s happening in Dominions at any given point. 

It’s crunch time. Gondalf, accompanied by some wizards and Priestesses, marches north and lays siege to the Caelum fortress. The defending force behind the walls is slightly larger than my own, so even if I break down the walls it will be tough to dislodge them, but I have to try. I continue training elephants at home base with the hope of sending them to help the siege in a few turns. Then I receive another message. I have come to dread these, but this one is good news. The snake god of Abysia I killed earlier has now been completely destroyed! If your ‘dominion’ score goes down to zero then your god can no longer reincarnate and it’s lost to the void. I wonder who did him in.

I will never find out. Suddenly, from the north, the biggest army I have ever seen in Dominions appears. I’m about to be sandwiched to death by Caelum, but I am so close to breaking the gates down. There might be an outside chance that I can break the gates, storm the fortress, and then hide inside it and wait for my second army to arrive in a few turns. 

It does not play out this way. Instead my army is forced to fight a bizarre force made up of 522 monsters and magical beings in the largest battle I think I will ever see in this game. If you gave a child a bucket of blue Smarties and asked them to make a collage of what a war between two magic zoos would look like, you would get this battle. Yetis fight horse cavalry; mammoths fight elephants; Griffins and Ice Drakes fight chariots and the undead. My 20 elephants drag down 88 enemies. My chariots kill three times their number, but it is not enough. The army falls. 

I could reincarnate Gondalf, but my Priestesses will never get round to summoning the happy wind spirits at this rate. My quest is done. Next time I’m going back to sacrificing blood slaves.