Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dominions 4 - Thrones of Ascension: Review

Version Reviewed: 4.01
What I like: Deep mechanics, incredibly detailed world, excellent manual.
Not So Much: Information not always presented in an easy way.
Other Stuff You May Like: Multiplayer
The Verdict: If you have the time and love deep strategy games, give it a try. The world is detailed and immersive.

About my reviews

Official site: Dominions 4

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Illwinter Game Design.


Dominions 4, for those who don’t know, is a strategic game set in a fantasy world with magic, mythology, and a whole lot of personality. The premise is a novel one – each player controls a different nation led by a pretender god vying to spread its religious influence. If successful, the pretender attains godhood and the game is won. The game supports human vs. AI and multiplayer via email or a host. My Dominions experience is completely in the single player arena, but many people swear that multiplayer is where the game shines.

The Dominions franchise has a reputation for being very deep and a little hard to penetrate. I would have to agree that there are a lot of details in the game and an abundance of content. I read the manual, all 100+ pages of it to try and digest the information. It is well-written and delves into the details of the game mechanics. I wish all strategy game manuals attempted to be as thorough as this one. Since I’m new to the game I wouldn’t readily realize if some of the details were missing, but I didn't notice information that was wrong. After reading the manual I did feel like I had a good grasp of the mechanics, but due to the vast amount of information I couldn't keep it all in my head as I began to play. I can’t imagine trying to play Dominions without reading the manual. In these days where it seems every franchise is getting streamlined, it is nice to play a game that isn't afraid to be complex.

Getting Started

Since Dominions is essentially a game of world domination having a variety of maps to play is important. There are 25 premade maps + 3 sizes of random maps. There is even a separate random map creator under the tools menu to create random maps of variable size. That requires an extra step or two, but it does allow for more control of the map creation process.

The peoples of Arcoscephale saw the coming of the new god and prayed. The energy stirred him from his slumber; the cries of the people gave him shape. Rob appeared to them in the form of a Gorgon, but he could have chosen another. If Rob’s advent was delayed he would have arrived with even greater power.

There are 3 different eras the game can take place in which affects the availability of nations and the magic in the world. There are dozens of nations spread across the eras, each with their own bit of history which feels consistent with the units they command. Some even have their own special twist on the standard mechanics. Most players will probably recognize the inspiration for at least some of the nations whether it is Greek mythology, Roman history, or something else. Even though some nations have similar units, they have their own set of stat tweaks or sets of abilities to give them a different feel. Other nations have much more noticeable differences.

Each nation has their own set of physical forms for their pretender god. The physical form defines the base stats and special abilities. In addition to these predefined abilities, the player gets to spend design points adding skills in schools of magic and dominion scales. There is a large variety of physical forms to choose from – blood spewing fountains, dragons, human forms, and more. Each form has its own back story which makes the world of Dominion a richer place to visit. The player gets even more design points to spend if they delay the arrival of their pretender god, which adds a nice strategic choice. And yes, I did just realize Rob the Gorgon is a girl.

The player also gets the opportunity to tweak some of the variables that affect the world – controlling the speed of researching spells, availability of money, or more. Most importantly for me is the ability to control the number of provinces players start with as I prefer to start small.

Game Play

The Economy

Like the Paradox family of grand strategy games, the world of Dominions is split into provinces of varying terrain. Terrain affects things like army movement, economic properties, spells and the likelihood of finding magical sites. The economic side of Dominions is actually pretty simple. Controlled provinces supply money and resources used to hire units and pay for their maintenance. The more provinces you control, the more money and resources available to train units. A handful of province buildings can be built, but there isn’t a huge variety here. It’s definitely not Dominion’s focus.

There are a couple of aspects to this system that make it interesting. Forts, a building that can be constructed, are the glue that holds the economy together. Controlled provinces don’t contribute their income unless it connects to one of that nation’s forts through provinces they control. Controlling expansion to make sure these lifelines remain intact is important.

Forts also provide access to recruit your national unit types. If a province doesn’t have a fort, only units native to that province can be recruited. These tend to be weaker than the national units. Forts also are efficient at utilizing the resources in its province and the surrounding friendly ones. More resources mean more units can be recruited from that fort. Fort development is one of the strategic choices regarding the world map.


And Rob spoke, “I need a prophet to help spread the word. Eurypylos, you will be he.”

A pretender’s dominion is the lands he exerts influence over because the people there believe in him. The belief begins in his nation’s starting province(s), but there are many ways to encourage is spread beyond the borders. First of all, the mere presence of the pretender will increase belief. How can people not believe if they see him with their own eyes? Temples can be built in the pretender’s name which helps spread the word, or the show can be taken on the road with units which have the priest skill. The pretender can also name a prophet to carry the torch of the fledgling religion. Inquisitors can even visit the provinces of rival pretenders to discourage belief in them.

Provinces that fall within the dominion of a pretender start to mold to his will. These are the scales that were set during pretender creation, scales of opposing values – order vs. turmoil, productivity vs. sloth, heat vs. cold, growth vs. death, fortune vs. misfortune, and magic vs. drain. Over time the pretender’s dominion will more closely reflect his will by migrating to his scales. Now you can see why it is an interesting trade off during pretender design, choosing less favorable scales for more design points.

Why is increasing dominion so important? For one, a pretender without dominion is nothing at all. He is eliminated from the race to become the one true God. A very real effect is the bonuses pretenders get in their own dominion and the penalties they get in enemy dominion. These can have a huge effect on their performance in battle. The bonuses and penalties also apply to the pretender’s prophet. Some nations receive special bonuses within their pretender’s dominion such as the ability to scry – free scouting reports that are more accurate than the ones provided my scouts. Armies have higher morale when fighting their pretender’s domain. There are more ways in which dominion affects the worlds. It’s important.

The only scale chosen during the creation of Rob the Gorgon is 2 on the sloth scale. This reduces income and resources in each province where sloth has spread (see my home province of Arcoscephale where there are 2 levels of sloth – the sawed wood), but also gave me more design points to be spent on my magic path skills. The reason I chose the sloth scale is that Arcoscephale philosophers get a research bonus in provinces that have sloth. It fits into their back story as they are modeled after the ancient Greeks, who used the extra leisure time provided by slaves to follow scholarly pursuits. It’s little touches like these that make each nation feel different.

To the east in Fowanshire lies a Throne of Ascension. Rob was pleased with its location as they usually bestow benefits to the nation that claims them. Legends say it is usually in the form of magic gems, but other benefits have been rumored. Once enough Thrones have been captured the other pretenders will be no more. I will be the One True God. We must send Pytho the Scout to see who is making Fowanshire their home because we must drive them out.

Capturing Thrones of Ascension is the default (and in my opinion most interesting) victory condition. It eliminates the need to completely conquer all other nations, either by military force or through the spreading of dominion.

Scouts are stealthy units that have a chance to remain undetected by enemy forces. They are useful for gathering intelligence about enemy troop strength. These scouting reports aren't perfect, but they are worth getting. There are other stealthy units too, even ones that try to seduce enemy commanders of the opposite sex or try and perform an assassination. These can be powerful tools in conquest, because units without commanders flee the field of battle. As you can see, we don’t have any useful information about Fowenshire yet because it hasn't been scouted. That little icon below its name specifies it is a wasteland – which produces less tax income.


If forts are the glue holding the economy together, commanders are the hammers used to get things done. Armies are useless without commanders – unable to move on the strategic map and will rout from battle. Deciding what tasks to assign available commanders is very important. They construct province buildings, conduct research, look for magic sites, cast rituals (spells cast at the strategic map level), and of course lead armies to go kill things. The amount of commanders that can be recruited per turn is limited; so many times you don’t have as many commanders as you want.


Rob the Gorgon had the seeds of magic power within him, but his people had not yet learned the spells to make use of this power.

The knowledge of spells must be learned through research. Only mages - units skilled in a magic path(s), or a few other types of units are capable of performing research. If they are assigned to research, they generate research points depending how skilled a researcher they are. Of course if they are performing research, they can't be traveling the world conquering lands in your name, so the need for research must be balanced with the need for spell casters. There are hundreds of spells divided into 8 schools of magic. Research is allocated to one or more of these schools of magic.

Knowledge of a spell isn't enough to cast it though. Each spell has a magic path requirement. There are 8 paths of magic that units can be skilled in to varying degrees. One spell may require a 3 level skill in fire magic, while another may require 2 in water magic and 4 in earth magic.

When deciding what schools of magic to research, take into consideration what paths of magic your pretender and units are skilled in as there isn't any benefit researching a spell that none of your units have the ability to cast. If you look at Rob the Gorgon above you can see he (she?) has 5 earth magic (hammers) and 4 nature magic (trees).

The magic paths you units are skilled in are fairly static, but can be improved with forged magic items or harnessing the power of magic gems gathered from magic sites. These same magic gems are also used to forge magic items and cast some spells, so choose wisely on how to use them.

Waging War

All the aspects of the game already mentioned are there for one reason, to support sending troops off to fight battles and take over provinces. The sheer number of different types of troops is staggering. Some are just basic variations of ranged units, light infantry, heavy infantry, cavalry, etc., but others are more fantastical. Dragons, mechanical warriors, summoned elementals; trust me when I say there are too many to mention.

While battles are hands off affairs, the player does have some control during the army setup. First, commanders can lead a limited number of troops based on their leadership. These troops can be organized into squads and can be positioned relative to each other – for example, protecting archers from melee attacks is generally a good idea. There are also a number of formations each squad can deploy in – box, line, etc. This mostly affects how easy it is for the enemy to get around your troops or break through their lines, but also has morale and speed implications.

Each squad can also be assigned a battle plan, such as attacking the closest enemy or trying to get to the rear most troops – which tend to be the missile units, spell casters, and commanders. Archers can be told to fire and keep their distance if the enemy starts to get too close. Taking out enemy commanders is a quick way to end the battle because without a commander the regular troops will rout. Getting to the troops in the rear can be difficult as contact with any troops along the way will stop their advance and force them to fight. Fast flying units have a much better chance to get to the rear unhindered. After the pre battle setup, you just get to watch the replay or view the after battle report.

Commanders also have their own orders. It is generally a good idea to keep them safe since if there isn't proper leadership for the regular units, those units will rout. Some commanders are tough enough to enter combat, especially your pretender and prophet if they are in your own dominion. Mages can be told to cast specific spells for their first 5 turns, but after that only general orders can be given.

The hands off battles are simultaneously one of the cooler features and most frustrating. The level of involvement feels about right for a strategic level game. It would be nice to have some sideline shouts ala Football Manager during a battle to give the troops some basic guidance. There isn't any type of troop browser, so even if you know you're facing a certain type of troop (based on sending your scout into the province ahead of time), there isn't any way to view the stats and abilities of that unit. This either forces the player to try and remember the strengths and weaknesses of the units, keep a list, or consult external information. The unit stats and abilities are incredibly detailed and interesting, but I just wish there was an easier way to consult information within the game. Once the battle starts the player can gather information by right clicking on units, but by then you're already committed. It would be very helpful to bring up some side by side information about both your troops and the enemy’s when deciding whether to launch an attack. Of course the enemy information would have to only include what is known via scouting, but could include some general information about the enemy nation – such as what kind of magic their mage units typically use.

Compounding this issue is the fact that the player usually only knows the main types of troops they will be facing. Scouting reports don’t include information about single units, like commanders. Since many commanders have spell casting abilities it is impossible to know what you’re up against. On one hand this is good. Not having omnipotence makes the world feel more real, but it is an obstacle to learning the game. When you consider that there are hundreds of possible spells, the learning curve is quite steep. After some learning and remembering the nation summaries, the player can start to get a feel for what they might be facing, but the UI should provide the tools to evaluate your troops in relation to a potential target.

Illwinter made the underlying combat mechanics quite detailed. I got giddy just reading about how it all works in the manual, which went into nice detail. I feel like I have to share some details. Attack determines the likelihood of a melee hit, while defense is hit avoidance. Don’t forget to factor in the unit’s fatigue, which accumulates with each attack they make or spell they cast – some units accrue fatigue faster than others. Multiple attacks against a target in the same round are harder to defend. If the defender has a shield, did the strike hit the shield? If so some of the damage will be mitigated. Maybe the defender had a weapon that allowed him to repel the attack? Where did the strike hit? The head, torso, arms or legs? The size difference between the attacker and defender may limit where the hit took place. A human with a lance may be able to hit a titan in the head, but one armed with a dagger can’t. Location matters because some hits may cause afflictions. Damage is determined by the strength of the attacker, the weapon they use and the protection of the defender. There are 3 types of physical damage which get handled differently. Then there are missile attacks. The attacker doesn’t necessarily hit the target they were aiming at and gets less accurate at longer range. Even if it lands off the mark, it may still hit a friend or foe. Did I mention the insane amount of spells? How about the fact that mages can craft magic items which affect their user’s performance? Then there is the morale system that decides when units will rout from battle.

Units can also have special abilities that fill in details beyond the simple number attributes. Does the target of an attack inspire awe? If so, the attacker may be unable to go through with it. Is the unit a berserker who will never rout? Simple fire resistance isn't that unique or exciting, but what about a unit that can try and seduce a commander to your side before the battle begins? I believe there are over 200 such abilities, some standard fantasy fare, but others more imaginative.

There is so much to consider when deciding if your army can win a battle against its foe. It is definitely more art than science. I’m sure if any veteran players are reading this, they are laughing and saying it just comes with experience. Give it time greenhorn, Dominions isn't mastered in a day, or week, or month.

Unfortunately even with the full battle log turned on it can be difficult to determine what exactly is happening. Why is that enemy squad routing? When I right click on the fleeing members all of their morale seems pretty high. While the log shows some of the die rolls, I don’t think the morale checks were one of them. I feel that the battle log information needs to be a little more complete, especially regarding morale and spells. It would also be nice if there were some way to match the messages in the log with the units affected by the action.

Graphics, Audio and UI

Dominion’s visuals certainly aren't cutting edge, but in general are pleasant and able to communicate the information. Unit sprites while small exhibit a certain amount of character. Watching armies battle, with spells flying across the way generated a certain amount of excitement.

The music also fit the fantasy world perfectly. I feel I must have heard each song 100 times by now but I never wanted to turn it off. I would love for them to offer even more songs.

Dominions doesn't really employ standard UI practices, but after spending some time with the game it didn't take too long to get comfortable with it. The biggest issue was a lack of pertinent information. Spell descriptions don’t always clearly explain what the effect of the spell is. I find that frustrating. Members of the community stated they think it emphasizes the sense of wonder. You can decide where you fall on that issue.

The army recruitment screen basically just shows images of the troops to train. The player has to right click on the unit to get any useful information. This makes it impossible to compare different units. I resorted to making a spread sheet. The game really needs to figure out how to present information is a useful way. On a more positive note, many elements have hint messages that describe what they are and right clicking brings up extra information.


I have to agree with what I've been told by many veterans of the game. The game is complex enough, with plenty of content in the way of nations, units, pretenders, spells, and magic items, that Dominions can provide a challenge for the solo player for a long time. I've been playing on normal difficulty and have won about 50% of my games – many of those simple setups vs. 1 AI opponent. There is a lot of growing room. I couldn't begin to judge if the AI plays a smart game, but it provides me with a challenge.

Technical Performance

The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...

In reviewing Dominions 4, I've felt that I’ve said both too much and too little. To get a feel for the game I think many of the game's details must be presented, but there are so many details it is impossible to include them all. Nor should a review mention them all. There are surely more entertaining and better written reviews, such as those at Quarter To Three, and Rock, Paper Shotgun to name a few, but I never really feel like I have a great feel for how a game plays from their reviews. I hope my review is useful to some folks.

Dominions needs to be applauded for not following the same design as typical 4x games. It certainly plays differently than other games I've played. I’m usually not too swayed by things like back story and flavor text in strategy games, but Illwinter does an awesome job making their world feel real. Every unit, spell and ability feels like it belongs. I think people who appreciate immersiveness in their strategy games will appreciate what Illwinter has done. The units and combat mechanics make battles come alive, because these beings feel real.

Now this game is probably not for everyone. Players should be prepared to read the manual, struggle through remembering the details of all the content, and look up mechanics that they forget how they work. That being said, this is not a game you need to be afraid of. The manual does a great job explaining so much. If you have the time and desire to learn the ropes you'll be rewarded with a rich experience. If you like deep strategy games, if you like fantasy and have the time, try Dominions 4. Now that Illwinter self publishes its price makes it a much more attractive purchase.


  1. welcome back. forget rps you are the best strategy game reviewer. i would love to read your review of matrix world in flames as long as you don't have to take out a second mortgage to buy it. thanks for coming back.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment. I'm glad you find my reviews worthwhile! I just looked up World in Flames, seems brutal. Doesn't look like the initial release will have a single player (vs AI) mode.

  2. A very good review; written for someone who is wondering what all the fuss is about. Well done.

  3. Very comprehensive review--thanks! Glad that you're back, Rob.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Glad you found the review useful!

  5. Excellent review, Rob. But it seems as if it could have been written for D3. The game looks almost exactly the same. I paid top dollar for D3 and eventually tired of it. Why should I consider this game? What improvements have they made - or maybe I missed something in your article. Anyway, on to reading more of your reviews!

    1. I didn't really play D3 enough to know what is new so the review is from the point of view of a new player. I know the Thrones of Ascension victory condition is new, along with a new team-based multiplayer option. I'm sure there is a change log somewhere on the D4 forum. Sorry I can't be of more help.

    2. Well, it's on sale for $11 at Gamersgate (1/4/14), so not much to lose. And thanks for pointing out those other new elements.

    3. Sorry, I meant 1/7 - Today.