Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Starting Dominions 3: The Awakening

(All screenshots from the Dominions 3 website)

I started watching this video Let's Play on YouTube, and I just had to reinstall Dominions 3. (Yeah, it's a curse.)

I'd bought the game in 2008, but I didn't play much, and I hadn't remembered much of anything about it. As I recall, my computer crashed, and I just never reinstalled it. But I've always got more games than I have time to play, anyway.

Still, that video series reminded me, and it turns out there's still a devoted fan base for this game. (The game can be played multiplayer, though I just play against the computer AI.) In fact, the most recent update was released in November, and the developers are still working to improve the game.

Dominions 3 was originally published in 2006, but it never relied on fancy graphics, so it hasn't aged like other games might. No, this is a pure strategy title. You start with a nation based on world mythology - a nation of men or other creatures - and a 'pretender god,' and your goal is to make your deity the only surviving god in the world. There's no tolerance here, and no peaceful coexistence. Everyone else is the enemy.

But how can I describe what's unique about this game? Think of it as the opposite of chess. Chess is a game you can play for a lifetime, but learn in just a few minutes. There are just a handful of different pieces in chess, with very simple moves, played on a very simple board. It's not easy to master, but it's not complicated at all.

Dominions 3, on the other hand, is a fantasy strategy game with more than 70 different playable nations, 2,000 different military units, 600 different spells in several different categories (two different sets of categories, in fact), 300 different magic items, and a designable pretender god with virtually unlimited options. And that's just the vanilla game, with no mods installed.

The game isn't hard to play, but it's hard to know where to start. Note that there's a very good tutorial included with the game, and you can download a free demo, if you want, to try it out first. Also, that video series I mentioned would be really helpful, too. But to a big extent, you just need to learn while playing. That's what I'm doing. (As I say, I didn't remember the game at all.)

I started by selecting a random nation - for me and my opponents. The game picked Tir na n'Og for me, which, as it turned out, wasn't in my game manual. (Apparently, it was added in a later patch.) But the description seemed simple enough. They're based on Irish mythology, with spear- and javelin-wielding infantry, air, nature, and water magic, and 'average' priests. I think it was a good nation to start with, easier to play than some others, certainly.

But I still had to design a pretender god, and that was harder. For advanced players, your goal should be to design a god who'll take advantage of your nation's strengths and/or shore up your weaknesses. But you really have to know a lot about the game to do that. (Or cheat and look at the wiki for suggestions. But at the start, I think it's more fun to just play the game.)

Since a ghost king was selected for me (that seems to be one of several default options when playing Tir na n'Og), I just went with that. One of the advantages of a ghost king is that new magic paths cost only 20 points each (instead of 50), so I made a god with a broad, but not particularly deep, knowledge of magic, making sure to include those paths - air, nature, and water - specific to my nation.

Since I didn't know which of those 600 different spells I'd need - or even what they all were - I didn't think that specializing made much sense. And my king would be efficient in searching out magic sites, which would provide gems my nation's mages could use. (Apparently, this is called a 'rainbow mage' strategy.) That was the idea, anyway, and it worked well enough. Besides, it let me start playing without spending a lot of time on research first.

My Fir Bolg infantry turned out to be cheap enough to amass in large numbers, with pretty decent stats - very effective in the early game. True, I didn't seem to have any really powerful units, but I had no trouble expanding into the independent provinces nearby. And that gave me more money and more resources with which to buy more military units.

My starting province bordered the ocean, and the first rival dominion I encountered was Oceana, an aquatic realm of tritons and mermen. That was both good and bad. It was good because they were weak on land, no real competition for the provinces I wanted. But it was bad because I had no way to attack them in the water.

Eventually, I could make magic items which would allow my troops to fight underwater, if not particularly well. And if I were lucky, I might discover amphibian units - literally, amphibians - on land somewhere, which I could recruit after conquering the province. But none of those things would help me in the early game. And Oceana could attack me anywhere along the coast, since they did have amphibious units.

But they weren't very strong on land, and they wouldn't be very strong on land if I didn't give them an opportunity. I discovered that they'd already conquered one land province nearby, so I kicked them out of that one and tried to keep them from getting a foothold anywhere else. Still, they were always a threat with, as I say, the potential to attack any coastal province I owned (i.e. no short border to defend).

Thus, my strategy for the early game was to expand rapidly, with my back to the coast, and to fortify those provinces to keep Oceana out. Province defense is expensive at higher levels, but there's no maintenance cost to it. And if they're successful in defending the province from attack, they'll automatically rebuild their numbers, at no cost to me, ready for the next attack.

True, these are weak troops, so they're not very effective later in the game. But Oceana was weak on land, anyway. So, most of the time, my defenders kept them out. Occasionally, I'd have to retake a province after a particularly powerful attack, but even then, they'd be weakened by my province defense. So this strategy worked pretty well.

In the meantime, I tried to research spells and magic items which would allow me to attack underwater, and I looked for amphibian troops (which I didn't find, or not until much later). Since I'd need magic gems to cast those spells and make those items, I set my pretender god to searching our provinces. That seemed like a reasonable plan to me, and still does. Admittedly, I might have done a few things differently...

Later in my expansion, I encountered Abysia, a land of fire creatures (with a fire god). They'd started along the coast, too, and they also bordered Oceana. In fact, they were on a small peninsula which jutted out into the ocean. But they hadn't expanded hardly at all. I don't know why.

It wasn't that they'd been fighting Oceana for provinces - or it didn't seem to be that way, at least - since most of the provinces around them were still independent. Neither nation had taken them. Of course, some independent provinces are pretty tough, so maybe they'd tried, I don't know. (Game statistics seem to show that they were putting a lot of effort into magical research, instead.)

At any rate, it looked to me like I could knock them out of the game entirely, or at least pen them up in their home province, if I moved quickly and boldly enough. That would mean getting between Oceana and Abysia, but I was still trying to keep Oceana from getting established on land, anyway. Abysia had taken some provinces, so I tried overwhelm those before they could react.

Unfortunately, about this same time, I encountered the final three dominions in our world, including two who had become very powerful. (You can see graphs of what's happening in the world, even before you encounter the other dominions, so you always know where you stand in the various rankings.) But maybe I'd better talk about them in a later post.

For now, I want to mention one big problem with Dominions 3. There's a lot to think about in the game, and it gets more and more complicated as the game goes on (especially on a large map, like the ones I like to play). Like many strategy games, the turns get quite long later in the game, too, when lots of battles are happening every turn.

So it's very easy to forget to do something - there aren't any automated reminders - and there's only one saved game. If you forget something important, you're just out of luck. (There is a third-party backup utility you can install, though I've never tried it.)

Two things in particular are easy to forget: (1) buying province defense when you conquer a new province, to prevent an opponent from just taking it over again (and they will take any provinces that are completely undefended), and (2) rehiring mercenaries when their term of service is up. (I can't believe there's no reminder for that one!)

There are other things, too, so I write reminders on a piece of paper, and I check each of them just before I end the turn - every turn. (Later in the game, it can be especially hard to make sure everything is done, so I strongly recommend pressing the F1 key and checking province defense on that page, just to make sure you haven't missed a province.)

I've also had the game lock up - surprisingly often - when I'm watching the battles play out. I don't know what's up with that, whether it's a problem with my specific install or not. It's simple enough to close out of the game and start it up again, so it hasn't been a big problem, but it's certainly annoying.

Still, the game is lots of fun. I still haven't finished my first game, but I'm really tempted to start again and try something different (just because there are so many, many different options I'd like to explore). But we'll see. Certainly, before I finish this game, I'll write another post about the events here, after I encountered my two big rivals.

Note: Here's the sequel to this post. For other posts about specific games, listed alphabetically, see this page.

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