Remember how I mentioned that I would tell you about Dominions 3? Today is your lucky day. First off, here is what I said last time:
Dominions 3 looks like someone fell in love with Master of Magic and then decided that it wasn’t nearly complex enough. And that it needed more gods, wars, and magic. At a glance, it looks like something that will most appeal to a certain core of strategy lovers, but the concept is absolutely wonderful regardless of your interest in the genre. You play a god rushing to fill the gap left by the disappearance / death of The Old God, and you must expand to outdo all the other pretenders and secure your own position. It has territory based command and control, resource management, spell research, a military focus, and more numbers than you can shake a stick at. Several of my friends are very excited about it, and I’ll let you know more when I’ve played it for a bit. If it is more accessible than I anticipate, I will do my best to proselytize and spread the good word of the new god, Dominions 3.
That sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it.
I have to admit that my own time sitting in front of this game has been severely limited. To make up for this, I have read all the way through this excellent Let’s Play account, and watched and conferred with my housemates as they play their own games of godly geographic conquest. I may not have the most experience with the game, but I’m far better informed than I had been a few weeks ago.
Why haven’t I fired up my own copy of the game, you ask? I fear the time commitment and micromanagement involved, for one thing. I’m also not a fan of the way that the game’s interface punishes you for wanting to understand what’s going on. Despite all that, I’m pretty sure that I’ll give in and be playing the game some time in the next month. Let me talk about the bad things before I tell you why my resolve is crumbling.
Did you ever play Heroes of Might and Magic 3? Did you ever wonder what the special abilities of some of the units were? The game tells you, right there on the screen, that your silver pegasi are “magic dampeners” or something like that. But it never tells you what that means. Dominions 3 is like that all over. It gives you tremendous piles of numbers, and sometimes tells you about the interesting things that will happen when you cast a spell or equip someone with an artifact, but you can never be sure that the game is giving you the whole story. Much of the time, a unit’s special abilities will be listed and will be partially explained if you click to get more information. But crucial bits of info that might help you make a good decision are often missing or not clearly stated. Most of the things that I know about the game’s internal systems have been shared with me by my friend Thomas, who loves getting into the nitty gritty details. Where he learned them, I do not know. He might have picked them up from the manual, which is the size of a small textbook.
Part of what I’m trying to communicate here is that showing me lots of numbers and abilities without telling me how they interact in-game will probably end in my frustration. This is especially true when there isn’t enough information to parse the interactions that I manage to observe. I do enjoy learning how all the various factors interact, and I enjoy learning that by watching them in action, but a certain degree of knowledge is necessary to even have a basis for judgement.
For comparison: I love Crusader Kings 2. I’ve started playing Europa Universalis 4, and I’m becoming quite fond of that game as well. In both of those games, playing well requires riding a rising flood of data, cutting away what you need to understand from everything else that is irrelevant to you, and then acting on it in-depth across your various holdings. But both games are masterful in the way in which they give you access to truly prodigious quantities of information, and they make it quite possible to do all that they ask of you. They have their failures, and there are times when what I really want is an even more informative tooltip (or better yet, several!), but for the most part the game tries to tell you everything you need to know, and does it in a fairly clear fashion.
It’s hardly fair to compare two of Paradox’s flagship strategy series with a game made by a very small studio, but I will freely admit that I’ve been spoiled. I haven’t read a game manual in ages (I know, I know, I just lost whatever shreds of credibility I might have had), and I don’t usually expect to have to do research on forums in order to understand the basic workings of a game. It’s no real surprise that, when its information presentation is compared to that of some of the best in-depth strategy games that I know, Dominions 3 simply can’t hold its own.
So why is it that I’m liking the game more and more?
It’s not because of the micromanagement involved. The game thrives on repeated attention to minor details, and you will have to learn how to focus on all of the various elements of running a growing empire with very little ability to rely on automation. Troop movement, tactical orders, and proper spellcasting all take their toll. ZorbaTHut’s Let’s Play does a better job of describing this experience in depth than I could ever do:
I was noticing it then, and I’m noticing it now: my biggest enemy at the moment is my own dumb mistakes.
I’ve mentioned how micromanagement in Dom3 becomes painful. This is well past the point where it’s painful. I’m frequently spending half an hour to an hour just giving orders to units, and I’m not always getting those orders right. We’ve had some moderate botches recently. Nothing catastrophic, lately, but if things keep going the way they’re going, it’s only a matter of time.
Suffice to say that the experience of late-game mop-up on a large map seems very similar to putting your brain in a vise. A fun vise, but a source of steadily growing pressure nonetheless. Though Zorba clearly had a number of extreme advantages at that point in the game, it seemed like the other players might have been able to cause an upset if they capitalized quickly on one of Zorba’s mistakes. Very unlikely, but possible.
And I’m not falling in love with it because of the time commitment, either. Dominions 3 is one of those games that can and will pull you in and keep you. Adam Smith’s words on Dominions 4, (over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun), apply equally well here:
The learning curve is like a giant roundabout but if you’re happy to keep on turning, changing your approach and mindset at the start of every lap, there’s an enormous amount to see and do. It’s a game that suits after action reports, full of myths, monsters and madness, but while the stories are enjoyable, they don’t paint the full picture. Anyone hoping to forge stories of their own will require an enormous reserve of time and patience.
No, I’m falling for this game because the flavor and concept are just so good. I have a weakness for this sort of thing. I love Master of Magic, and I enjoyed the Civ 4 mod Fall from Heaven 2, but Dominions 3 really delivers on the feeling of striving against your godly foes as you slowly build up world-shattering powers that will allow you to wrest control of the globe from your opponents. Despite its opaque and byzantine intricacies, and despite the fact that I know any large-scale game will drive me mad as I try to stay on top of managing my empire, I want to play. Unlike most other games that I’ve seen try to take on the mantle of Master of Magic, Dominions 3 recognizes that it isn’t the same thing; better yet, it acts on that recognition to make a game that looks fun in its own right. I’m extremely excited by that.
So, if you like the idea of playing as a god and striving to conquer the world, you should check this game out. It is complex, sometimes difficult to understand, and may very well cause you to rant in frustration, but it also looks like an excellent game for anyone interested in flavorful and fantastical strategic domination of their opponents. If you want to overrun your enemies with hordes of mind-blasting cephalopods, you can. If you’d like to guide the faerie realms to dominance, it’s got that too. Civilizations inspired by the ancient Greeks? Check. Ancient Egyptian lizards with powerful necromantic magic? Can do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear Ambition calling.
Dominions 3 is, I understand, a game best enjoyed with friends. Other human beings make the game far more fun, as you have to deal with betrayal, backstabbing and bribery on your quest to become the best in the land. It is also, from what I’ve been told, best enjoyed with the Conceptual Balance Mod, which fixes a number of glaring imbalances in how gameplay evolves from early to late game. Please don’t blame me if this game consumes far more time than you wanted to give it.