Playing Dod – The Detail of Dominions

Dominions is extraordinary in scope. It’s a fantasy game series by Illwinter Games, now in its fifth iteration, that eschews Tolkienesque high fantasy for something steeped in real-world traditions of folklore and myth.

All of them.

That’s very nearly not exaggeration. Each in-game nation is meant to evoke a specific facsimile or fusion of historical civilisations and religious traditions, with a few notable exceptions that are more overtly fantasy-inspired.

I’m certain there’s some particularly obscure culture that isn’t represented, but alongside some obvious ones in Norse, Celtic, and Greek legends, there’s playable nations inspired by Mesoamerican, Mesopotamian, Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, African, and Zoroastrian myths. There are some based on Old Testament biblical traditions, and even some quite obscure pre-Christian Scottish and Irish legend. The whole thing is a roiling melting pot of world cultures poured into one huge fantasy setting where all these myths and legends are real.

The setup for each new game is that the previous one-true-god, named the Pantokrator, has either died or disappeared, and powerful beings worshipped by each nation are vying to take their place. You control the pretender god worshipped by a specific nation and each has a huge variety of thematic choices for deity. There are Olympian and Egyptian-inspired gods, sphinxes, dragons, biblical-style golden idols, huge primordial serpents and countless, countless more. I’ll picture them throughout; have a look through them to understand the breadth of influence Dominions takes from world cultures. There are hundreds of playable deities.

The Pantokrator’s identity is left intentionally vague and it’s implied that bouts of all-out holy war occur with some regularity in the fictional history of Dominions, as each new Pantokrator rises and falls. It even features three separate time-periods, between which some nations disappear, some new ones emerge and some evolve into later iterations that are generally based on the real-world trajectory of their historical counterparts.

This is the list of playable nations for the just the Early Age; there are two more playable time periods.

That alone doesn’t quite qualify for “extraordinary in scope” though. Having over 86 playable factions doesn’t mean much if it’s just four score and six visual themes. No, this is a game for the apotheosis of nerd: the people at the intersection of history buff, fantasy enthusiast and armchair strategist. The actual mechanics of having such a rich buffet of cultures and legends to choose from are dizzying.

Every single unit in the game is simulated to what can seem a frankly tedious degree; each individual subject’s strength, skill, speed (both marching and in battle), accuracy, toughness, bravery, armaments, supply consumption, upkeep, leadership ability, even the threshold they suffer from old age at, is categorised and assigned numerical value. Every in-game nation has a unique roster of soldiers and critters they can field, many of them dauntingly diverse.

What Illwinter have created is an uncanny facsimile of how this mythical world might operate, and you might ask, “how?” How do you decide how to precisely value the physical strength of a gryphon numerically, or how many hit-points a giant ought to have? They do it by assuming that a regular human soldier will have a baseline of roughly 10 in most statistics and extrapolating from there. So, a giant roughly three times the size of a human will have 30 hit-points. It’s an elegant solution, because weighing how strong or tough a fictional creature is becomes that much easier when you decide how a real-life person compares. Humans are something we understand; dragons and hydras are not.

The numbers aren’t just numbers, either. They’re meticulously considered to turn a fantastical world into something approaching plausible. Despite the prevalence of lone monster-slayers and demon-hunters in modern fiction, even the most skilled human wouldn’t stand a chance fighting a giant three-headed hound by themselves. Warriors using heavier two-handed weapons will typically be assigned a higher strength value. A giant will consume more food than a human. Trolls, subsisting as they do on sticks and stones, don’t need to be supplied with regular food. A soldier will lose effectiveness if they sustain injuries. They might have a limp or a strength-reducing chest-wound. They might lose an arm, an eye; they can lose both of each. Sometimes they’ll go mute, which might limit their ability to cast spells or lead troops effectively. To be clear, this is not just for important generals and wizards, but for each individual soldier as well. It’s staggering.

All of this is on top of rarer unique traits certain classes of unit have, all of which are simulated in the game’s mechanics. Some are skilled at surviving in forests and they’ll march faster through them. Skeletons and zombies don’t need to eat or sleep, able to march day and night, which is reflected in their statistics. Cold-blooded creatures will tire quickly if forced to fight in a cold climate, fatigue being something the game also tracks because of course it does.

Some traits are more exotic. A powerful witch might curse her killer permanently upon death. There are demons who thrive on chaos, becoming more powerful in lawless and tumultuous regions. There are supernatural beasts that are tied intrinsically to the seasons, their strength waxing and waning depending on the time of year. Other creatures can heal at a superhuman rate and some grow back lost limbs given time. This list is far – very far – from exhaustive.

This might seem like unnecessary detail, but unnecessary detail is what makes Dominions special. It’s hard to have an outsider grasp the degree to which Illwinter have managed to circumvent their spartan visual design. There’s appeal in the simple pixel-based unit art, but by modern standards it looks horribly outdated. By avoiding the time and effort it takes to make an all-singing, all-dancing battle sim like the Total War series, Dominions is in many ways more fastidiously true to life than the most bombastic grand strategy titles.

And they do it all with a tiny development team. The credits for the latest game, Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith, has eight names. Eight. One of them doesn’t really count because he seems to be credited as the guy who made the trailer. Another wrote the manual, which is for the most part unchanged from the previous game. Even accounting for their special thanks section there’s around 25 people total credited with involvement and who knows how minor some of those contributions could have been. Let’s be generous and assume the eight given a proper credit did the majority of the work.  Development teams for far simpler games can be several times this size, even more.

As far as can be told from the credits, however, there are two people who do the hard work of graphics, programming and design: Kristoffer Osterman and Johan Karlsson. Information on their small, obscure company is sparse, but as far as can be told, they are the only two permanent members of Illwinter Games.

If you consider the dedication it takes to continually design, alter, and update each new version over the course of 16 years since the release of Dominions: Priests, Prophets & Pretenders back in 2001, you start to get a grasp of how unique the duo are. Why make something like this? There are plenty of one or two-person development teams that produce simpler, user-friendly experiences that appeal to more people. But Osterman and Karlsson don’t buy into that. Consider that even though the first game was released in 2001, tentative development began in 1997. That’s two decades of chances to pack it all in and make something with a wider appeal. That’s two decades worth of reputation-building they could use as a platform for releasing something more popular.

The series is iterative; it’s not like they’re building everything from the ground up each time, but each new game doesn’t wallow in the gene pool. There’s generally some big new feature or two, along with redesigned, rebalanced content; whole new nations, critters and spells. It’s still a massive workload and explains why I wasn’t able to reach them for comment in the runup to writing this, as the pair were busy developing their latest epic. Given how many patches its had in just the first fortnight, they’re still busy.

There’s so many numbers in the world of Dominions. In many ways the numbers are the world. You could remove graphics entirely and it would function much the same if it was just a series of menus. Let’s indulge the game’s silliness for just a moment; what happens when these two, fight?

This duel on its own is dauntingly complex even if these monsters aren’t particularly powerful. Remember there’s a vast array of stats that will impact this battle. Then there’s the unique quirks and idiosyncrasies of each combatant; one is spectral and difficult to harm with mundane weapons, the other resistant to poison and so on. Then there’s the equipment each combatant might wield. If these monsters were one of the game’s demigods or powerful wizards they would be able to tip the balance with spells or using magical trinkets. How these numbers interact with each other not only determines the outcome of the duel, it is the duel. The flesh and blood of these creatures is numeral. The building blocks of their DNA are numbers zero to nine; anything else is just a different combination of that.

Now scale that up to a titanic clash involving hundreds and even thousands of combatants that looks like this.

Each combatant is as complex and considered cog and how they might spin is different every time. The interactions are endless, each battle a what-if scenario that pits legend against legend like the most carefully considered game of who-would-win-in-a-fight ever conceived. Or if rock-paper-scissors had a thousand moves instead of three.

That something like Dominions exists is puzzling. I wasn’t able to ask Osterman or Karlsson directly, but digging into the manual a little offers some insights. There’s a long section titled “The Origins of Nations” where they discuss where ideas for the different playable factions came from, which is worth a read even if all this talk of wizards and numbers can send you into a coma. It’s obvious the pair have a deep love of world cultures and history, even if some representations in the game can come close to crude pastiches of them.

A cursory glance at Illwinter’s website also has answers. It has a couple of recommendations for games they love and they’re both similarly obtuse, roguelike titles stepping straight out of a time when esoteric, obscure, and often downright unfriendly was the norm for fantasy videogames. Dominions stands in that grand tradition of figuring it out for yourself. It’s as much about exploring its world as it is about conquering it.

It may be unforgiving, but everything has a logic to it. It seems that Illwinter made Dominions the series it is today because damn it that’s what makes sense, because of course giants eat more than humans. There are nations in the game that rely on blood magic, sacrificing humans to fuel their arcane war-machine. Other titles might use this as grim window-dressing, but Dominions will have you tearing out clumps of hair trying to work out how to corral up human sacrifices on an industrial scale without losing too much tax income.

There’s some dry jokes in the manuals about historians updating their studies on the world of Dominions:

The roads in Dominions were not constructed by its inhabitants. It does not appear that any of the roads described in the chronicles were actually built during the time those chronicles were written. Roads began and ended with the creation of the world, through mystical forces. You can no longer build road improvements in Dominions 5.

It’s a cute way to address changes from the previous games, here informing the player that they’ve removed the road-building feature. This small conceit of writing a history is probably the closest to a mission statement as you could find for Dominions. Each new game will be different, in its own way a history you yourself write, but each reveals more of the guts and inner workings of the world at large; how it functions, breathes. It’s important to Illwinter that however utterly ridiculous it may be, a fantasy world ought to make sense. If no one else is going to make one that does, it’ll just have to be them. Maybe it’s no more than a desire to make a world that works motivating Illwinter, just the pleasure of seeing the clockwork whirr into a strange life.

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