Dominions is one of those "If you know, you know" game series. Across 22 years, it remains untroubled by the usual quest for ever-greater graphics fidelity or conceptual execution. Dominions is instead the product of two people focused intensely on game mechanics and a sprawling game world. The premise is that the god-of-gods is dead and somebody, preferably your pretender of choice, is taking up the throne of creation. The latest release, Dominions 6, drew me deeply back into the fold with its promises of a somewhat-deeper user interface and much, much larger battlefields to throw down on.
I'm writing here because I want you to know how fun and funny Dominions is, and give you perspective on the pretty low bar of buy-in to have fun with it. I'll walk through rolling up a faction and talk a bit about the surprises that come along the way.
One of the most absolutely joyous things about Dominions is that—as a strategy game and as a wargame—it hinges around an absurd range of kinds of units, magic types, magical spell schools, items, terrains, and events. You can mix-and-match all manner of strange deities with now over 100 different fantastical nations based on societies drawn from history, fantasy, and mythology. There's a Roman Empire and a Mythic Britain, sure, but there's also a West African Spider Cult and a hidden kingdom of Amazons and a nation that's just a hole into the underworld with infinite shades and ghosts pouring out.
Me? For this round, I've chosen the obvious. One of the new factions is a nation of newly civilized dog-men, Andramania, ruled by an upper dog-man class of philosophers and legislators. They are very civilized and do not pee on prominent landmarks anymore, thank you. One of the funniest things in life is a dog wearing human clothes—this is indisputable.
Gods in Dominions 6 can also take new forms, and one of those is a golden rolling elephant statue that has gained divine authority because people worshiped it. Mine's named Squeaky, because what does a dog love more than a giant toy to chase around? Nothing, I submit to you. A dog chasing something it should not catch is also, probably, on the list of funniest things.
Anyway, we give Squeaky powerful Astral magic, for doing sorcerous stuff, with a sideline in nature magic for summoning animals and earth magic for making itself even more invincible.
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The Dominions multiplayer community likes to go big, theorycrafting optimal strategies using in-depth plans of magical formula and such. Perfect combinations of magic artifacts and spellcasters using precise arrays of spells in order to obliterate their enemies, culminating in perfect use of incredible global spells that cause eternal winter or extinguish the sun or convert every tree in the world into a worshiper of your god.
There is nothing optimal about my plan here, because I chose it to be funny and I am playing singleplayer. Do not @ me, Dominions heads, or I will send this army of dog-men to poo on your lawn.
A Dog's breakfast
An adventure starts simply enough, with a generated map and five other pretender-gods out there somewhere to fight. I spend the first turn recruiting a bit of extra muscle and scouting nearby provinces—never wise to wander blindly into the sometimes very strong independent armies guarding them.
I figure I can trust in the strength of my dog guys, so I send them and their starting commander off to deal with a province of light infantry and archers nearby. They steamroll it without taking a single casualty. I'm curious as to why, so I check a dog warrior's stats for some hints before I spot the key detail: It turns out that dog-men are very large. Something like twice as big as a person but smaller than a horse—400 to 600 pounds. Minotaur sized.
My funny adventure about dog people has turned out to be a slightly different story because the dog people are huge and can bite the head clean off an unarmored man. To top it off, Andramania's trained troops come complete with a power that lets them fight in close formation despite their size. The men-at-arms with greatswords? The elite senatorial guard? They can pretty much bisect anything horse-size with ease.
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My dog army has turned from cute to terrifying in short order. This is one of the best things about Dominions—there are so many interesting stats and details about any given suite of units that cooking up new strategies and swapping tactics mid-game really matters. Here's a good example: Enemy massing a unit with a shield of fire surrounding it? Get pikemen, who can poke it from further out of the hot zone. It's wargamers' wargame stuff that rewards attention to detail and fastidious planning.
Expansion's going well, and I take over some other nearby provinces without issue. Then one of my further-ranging scouts spots the black candle symbols that mark an enemy pretender's dominion. Then the troops.
It's a really bad one: Lemuria. I don't know all the factions in Dominions by heart, but I do know the signs of this one. They're basically a society where, once their big Not-Fantasy-Rome empire fell into decadence, someone messed up a big necromantic spell and opened up a hole directly into the underworld. Now out march a continuous stream of spectral legionaries alongside other ghosts, shades, and specters.
That's bad because no matter how swole they are, my dog dudes' very normal weapons have a hard time hurting ghosts. Like, a baseline 75% chance to just straight-up do nothing.
It's also bad because I've been neglecting the second layer of Dominions' strategy. See, every province has a nation that physically controls it, but it can also fall under a Pretender's Dominion. The Dominion is who holds spiritual power there. Who the populace worship effects reality in a province, for better or worse. The Dominion of Squeaky is mild: Everything's a bit more orderly and it's a bit warmer outside. The Dominion of Lemuria's horrible god however brings profound misfortune, waves of disease and death, wintry chill, and to top it off spontaneously reanimates those thousands who died from war and disease as free undead for its war machine.
Conveniently for me the solution is the same for both: Priests. Priests will preach the power of Squeaky, obviously, and also build temples that will passively spread his power. Priests can also cast conveniently potent anti-undead and anti-demon spells.
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Oh, and Squeaky itself finally woke up and got moving. Not sure where my god-statue had gotten to—maybe lost it beneath the couch for a while. Long story short, Squeaky rolled in with a few old priests and a few young priests, went full-on exorcist on Lemuria, and within a dozen turns I was the proud owner of the vast stretch of worthless, lifeless wasteland where Lemuria once stood.
That immense waste of resources wasn't great, to be honest. It left me in bad shape for the wars to come. I had a nation of flying men and fire worshippers to the south, harsh battles that would involve a lot of my spellcasters getting executed by aerial ambush before I assigned dedicated protection details. I had a horde of civilized dryads, satyrs, minotaurs, and centaurs to the east, all of whom had the gall to pretend that they were somehow more civilized animal-person hybrids than my doggos. Somewhere out there was a weird Greek city-state throwback led by a giant and terrible sun lion, to boot.
Games of Dominions, as they have for decades, start weird and get weirder. I'm delighted that Dominions 6 has made me a zealot once again.