Dominions 5 – Anatomy of a Turn: MA Phlegra

The Anatomy of a Turn

People spend varying amounts of time doing their turns, which obviously changes as the game progresses and there is more to do. I tend to do my turns quickly – some spend countless hours testing and re-testing every possible variable. However each turn is, or should be, an example of the strategic thought processes of the player which reveals both how they are thinking about the game – which again will vary from ‘not very much’ to ‘quite a lot’ and should in both cases show how they think the game works, what will lead them to victory, and what they think of the other players and nations in the game.

Each turn should, in theory, be a microcosm of an individual player’s game style and therefore give insight both into the game and the way they consider their choices and make them.

In-game, you will often use scouts to scrutinize the movements and recruitment choices of other players as a way of gauging what they intend and what they are thinking – that is the effect I am attempting to reproduce in Anatomy of a Turn, albeit with direct commentary from the player in question – which is to say, me.

The Turn in Question: Phlegra, Ungainly Giants

The turn in question i’ve chosen to dissect for you is turn 12 of a game called Extremely_Thirsty, in which I am playing as MA Phlegra. In addition to DE (Dominions Enhanced, which adds a bunch of summons and things to the game, many of them national, but all of them usually weaker than the better vanilla options) this game has a mod suggested by me and implemented by Summer where all starting troops for all nations are replaced with Water Queens (including commanders). Each nation receives 2 commander Queens and 24 troop Queens, which resulted in a very fast expansion (although as Water Queens are not the most impressive Elemental Royalty ungeared and in melee, with some notable casualties).

You might question the validity of an analysis of a turn in a game that has a game-changing mod like that, which is good – critical thinking is always appreciated. However the mod doesn’t change the game that much – recruitable units are already beginning to outpace the queens in importance, and as the game goes on the relevance of the queens will steadily drop, leading to a fairly normal game as things go. Not only that, but most of the strategic considerations I will be attempting to communicate are fairly situation-irrelevant – even if the mechanics change, ability to work out the correct course of action still uses the same rules, which are to some degree game agnostic and nearly universal.

There was a third twist on this game – random gods. Gods were randomly generated (by a third party pressing ‘r’ on the pretender design screen) and players were only allowed to alter the scales and awakeness, not the bless, chassis, or paths of their dominions-chosen god. This was the case largely to avoid the usual well known bless combos and so on, and is my preferred mode of play. However, it hugely altered my game strategy and situation.

Don’t Put The Giant In A Corner

The map we are using is generated by AIDS which is an auto-map-generator and the main competitor to Carto which came first and is very similar, but I prefer ‘AIDS’ as it tends to have less giant clusters of farmlands and giant clusters of swamps for no reason. Albeit, I still prefer hand-made maps for both art quality and often being more interesting to play on. It was my first time playing on an AIDS map, and also my first time using the Clockwork Hounds’ direct connect bot, which I found fairly salubrious except for an extremely long hang-time when connecting through the dominions client (during which, alt-tabbing crashes everything).

At the start of this game I played fairly cautiously with my water Queens, not having tested them in singleplayer and thus not knowing how well they fared vs various indies. Other people blind expanded and expanded to a greater size than I, but I also wished to preserve my queens – not through some cunning strategy involving them, simply because I liked having them and wanted the neatness of protecting them while still playing to win. I however lost one of the troop queens in expansion, during a bump with Arcoscephale – where I stood to lose many of my queens of the deep and seas (who only regenerate underwater) to his queens of the lakes (which regenerate above water, aka where we were) except that he’d left his commander-queen in front of his troops – when she bought the proverbial farm, the rest of his queens fled due to lacking magic leadership.

However, let’s get into the meat of it.

This is the world as seen by my scouts.

I am bordered by Vanarus, T’ien Ch’i, Arcoscephale, Xibalba, Bandar Log and (in the water) Ys. I have major borders (meaningful ones) with Vanarus, T’ien Ch’i, and Xibalba.

Now, first things first – I have scouts. I found scout provinces but I would have built them regardless. That is because you need scouts to at the very least see the shape of your neighbours. Scout coverage of all provinces is very nice but the minimum is the shape of your neighbours’ borders – how big they are, who they border, how they expanded, where their forts are, if their provinces change hands to someone else suddenly. That is all extremely valuable information.

Now as you can see, i’ve annotated that map of the world. In the next section i’ll explain why.

Know Your Enemy

Now, judging your enemy is a very key skill in dominions. A lot of people will talk about getting the measure of players and so on. That’s definitely a thing but it is mostly useful for diplomacy and manipulating the people behind the nations. I am more interested in what people do in games and thus learning how they play, which I try to divorce from the players, although not always or with total success. ItwasTuesday, who is in this game as Ys, is someone i’ve played against many times and who has a strong playstyle that I generally expect whenever he’s in a game with me. Very similar to mine, in fact.

I’ve also seen Imp, the player of Xibalba, talking in the strategy chat on the Discord server this game was created on and his talking about organizing coalitions and playing in diplomacy-heavy style also stuck with me (as much as I didn’t really want it to – I much prefer to create understanding of people via their in-game actions).

I’ve labeled the above map with some pretty bald statements.

Here, i’ll explain some of them, how I came to those judgements, why I put them there, and how they might change in the future.

T’ien Ch’i: I have labeled TC as ‘Not a Threat’ – this does not mean that TC won’t attack me, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t dangerous. Threat, to me, is simply that in the short term I need to manoeuvre troops and mages with the expectation of countering an attack from that direction or take pro-active action to end the threat. I am vulnerable to someone who is labeled as a threat, either via terrain, unit matchups, or their skill/type. For example, Hegemony_McNickles is never not a threat to me, almost regardless of situation. He’s always someone I have to have a couple dozen knives in reserve against and often he’ll overcome my predictions anyway.

TC has only an awkward connection to my lands with terrain I have good access to to either combine for a decisive battle or provide a wide skirmish front, lost a commander water queen to me in an expansion bump, has not expanded very well, is building the worse kind of footmen, and is building forts and recruiting units that seem like a defensive spread to me – it’s unlikely i’ll be facing a concerted push from him except as part of a coalition. If there is a coalition, though, my judgement is he will definitely be part of it.

Arcoscephale: Arco has a small expansion but he’s placed a fort in a very interesting location and has been building the right kind of blockers (but also chariots?). There’s a lot going on there and mixed signals – he could be setting up ethereal speed chariots alongside communion based tactics and just have had bad luck with expansion, or he could be accidentally building the right kind of hoplites and just be planning to run chariots at people. His queens could be in his cap because that’s the right place to respond to invasion from any direction from, or just because it’s his cap. He could have that fort there because it’s the ideal place to secure that part of his empire that can’t be secured from the cap, or because it’s a high pop farmland on the border (or just on the border). His expansion is an interesting shape that encompasses several farmlands while providing good access to a lot of neighbours while being finicky to invade and not having unsecured provinces – but is also just mostly his cap circle. On the balance, i’m going to label him as not a threat because when in doubt I tend to assume people are not doing some cunning plan but rather what they seem to be doing, his movements don’t seem incisive enough to be planning a big move to overcome his weak expansion, and arco doesn’t really have a great matchup vs Phlegra anyway.

Bandar Log: I didn’t label this guy (forgot to) but BL is Not A Threat at this stage. They want to get out their research, not fight my pikemen or xbows, much less my queens or Gigantes. Also the way they have expanded indicates they want to hold a stable chunk of land at most at this stage.

Vanarus: Vanarus is a Threat for two reasons. 1. Large and aggressively-shaped expansion. They expanded with the goal of creating bases for a war, which they are equipped with the right kind of troops to prosecute. 2. Empire shape accesses both ‘branches’ of my lands and the area I think of as the most vulnerable area – the south-eastern half of the provinces, without clear chokes or much in the way of ability to focus troops on it. Everything about the way they are moving indicates they are looking to take a strong position early, which means I need to prepare for them to push my way.

Xibalba: Early on Xibalba sent me a message saying they weren’t going to take the coastal province at the very eastern edge of my empire, and that I was free to take it. That immediately labels Xib as diplomatically active even if I didn’t already know that from the Discord chat. He also secured an early cave and the army movements i’ve seen were focused. I haven’t scouted him mostly due to the strong impression i’ve already gained of the type of play to expect – Xibalba won’t invade on its own without an advantage but when it comes it will come with significant force and/or allies – and the allies won’t be the person to focus the might of my forces on, but rather the danger will be to concentrate on them first and leave Xibalba’s advance unchecked. Diplomatically active players are always a danger, and often have significant experience in ganging up on people, making them more dangerous in those kinds of situations. Giving them a hard enough punch to the face that they back off before dealing with other invaders is generally indicated, and sometimes you want to hold everyone else at your borders while dropping the meat of your armies into their lands. Xibalba is a bit of a slippery foe to fight in MA and hard to get to grips with, which is actually a bad time for Phlegra that relies on people confidently closing into melee range to be met with various elemental stuff and buffed troops.

Ys: Ys is labeled as ‘Not My Problem’ largely because it is uw. Tuesday is not the kind of player who is going to sit there on my coasts constantly harassing me (and thus wasting time and not trying to win) therefore I know if he comes at me it’ll be with the intention of killing me and taking my stuff. However, there’s another uw nation and his land holdings are on the other side of the pond from me – there’s little reason he’d come my way, and until r’lyeh is dead I don’t particularly need to worry that he will. While Tuesday is someone who can win games, Ys doesn’t play to his usual strengths and fighting him is very definitely a worry for later (if he wins the uwbowl).

Jotunheim: Jotunheim isn’t a neighbour but is labeled as I have decent scouting of them. They are labeled as not a threat as their unit choice and expansion clearly show they are not going to play aggressively and even if they neighboured me I wouldn’t expect a rush. They also have the Far Away label as people who are too far away from you often just don’t matter unless you’re in the throne rush danger area of the game.

Know Yourself

Now, as I mentioned, in this game the gods are randomly generated. If your god when imprisoned still leaves you unable to afford neutral scales, you are able to ask for a reroll. My god was one of those gods but I decided to keep it. Why? Well, with water queens at least helping with expansion, I could actually take this monstrous thing, and it really tickled my fancy.

There we have, in all his glory, Fluffy Feather Lizard Friend. A guy who gives a damage bless to a nation who has no sacred units except a commander priest and whose big giants don’t really need any help doing damage even if you shroud them. A gryphon who took S when it’s not a path he already has and then took it all the way to 9. How could I not?

However this left me some major difficulties in pretender design. In the end I dumped order and prod, which is very unusual for me. I typically play all nations as mass production – I rely on lots of troops and mages to allow me to fine tune my approach to enemies by losing things at first and then totally destroying whatever they have, as well as being able to fight on as many fronts as necessary (although often at a ruinous cost to my research). Thus I build a lot of troops and generally make sure all my research mages are combat mages. This costs me lots of gold and res, so I rarely take bad scales. These scales are awful for gold, recpoints, and res. I’m effectively playing at a handicap, doubly so since I took the gryphon dormant instead of imprisoned (because if I have this stupid Fluffy Feather Lizard Friend, at least I can have him flying around doing stuff).

Phlegra is a very interesting and potentially very powerful nation. Not due to the Tyrants or Gigantes – they are cool guys with definite uses, but they are not the strength of the nation. SCs can defeat players on their own, but only if those players do not know how to kill SCs or are outplayed. Likewise buffed giants have very solid counters. The next thing people think of when they think of this nation is the autocommunions – slave mages and oppressors autocommunion into voltron. But no, those guys aren’t who I mean either – the slave mages will die a lot if they have the wrong paths or the oppressors default to the wrong spells and anyone goes past turn 5 on them, and each slave mage still costs 2 commander points unlike pythium’s communicants (which are troops and much more disposable).

No, I mean these guys.

Every single Trophimos Sage has e2, a2, w2, or f2 in addition to a research bonus, for 115 gold. They are excellent combat mages with absolutely no fat on the chassis. Slave mages and oppressors will have uses for me – later, i’ll make some, when I have more forts, and the Big Spells that will be all I use them for – even then, it takes quite a lot of Slaves to push the Oppressors up since they start at 1, unlike Arco mystics who have base paths of 2 usually.

Helote Soldiers cost 8 gold, which already makes them notable for human infantry, and are armed with a long spear, a shield, armour, and a helmet. Being slaves they also have the upkeep of a 4g unit, and I don’t lack Taskmasters to bring their abysmal morale at least up to ‘decent’. The upkeep is not a big issue for me – generally, I expect people to die fighting my wars often enough that recruitment cost is more important. But a fully armoured guy with a spear and a shield is really good for just holding the line, and him costing 8g is the icing on the cake. Really, not taking prod3 for this fellow is a bit criminal. That I have the required E to buff his prot and str, and a few other good buffs to put on him as well solidifies the core of my strategy.

Quickswitching buffed helotes backed by evos, elemental spam traps, and point buffed gigantes or tyrant/queen SCs is a really tough to counter set of tactics and I can have if not my usual amount of it due to scales, at least some of it if I have time to research and don’t get pushed by someone I need to kill. With this current income, i’ll only get to that stage slowly – more land would help, but getting bogged down into a war without war-winning tech is a recipe for bad times so letting this percolate until at least const 3, ench 3 and conj 5 (summon X elemental, legions of steel, strength of giants) is probably a smart play.

This leaves me playing passively, which is unusual for me. I usually play fairly aggressively, even in dominions 5’s much slower and bless focused meta (which as a scales player often leaves me without the unkillable tools to kill someone early), but more and more I have been in positions where it simply doesn’t make sense to kill the first person I like or don’t like the look of. Of course this is fairly intolerable – i’ll be taking steps to increase my war potential as fast as possible to turn this course of events around. Partially this is due to Water Queens – queens of the lake take some killing if buffed, and everyone has enough to be a real bother. But also just my unusual scales and position leave me wanting more of a tactical reserve before I even start raiding a neighbour, as two local Threats this early means action might be heading my way.

Independent Contractors

Despite it being fairly early, i’ve taken the step of building a lab to slowly produce Lion shamans. Unlike most shamans, lions don’t need a temple, which is Savings ($$$) and they have a nice sprite, second only to bear shamans in my opinion. Some people might be like ‘but the sacred shamans have less upkeep!’ or whatnot, but money in early game is far more important than money later – if later Phleg doesn’t eat someone and has upkeep issues due to me buying guys faster right now, then later Phleg should suck it up buttercup – their fault for not eating someone. I had the option of bear tribe and some other tribe also (wolf?) but I went with Lion immediately.

Phleg has native full elemental plus Death (1 or 2) on their cap only Tyrants. I’ve got 2 tyrants for sitesearching, but they need more research to thug or SC so i’ll be making a mixture of them and cyclops smiths out of the cap. Phlegran giants cause unrest and with my turmoil that’s really an actual issue, as well as a few of my provinces apparently having unrest increasing sites – i’ve got unrest everywhere, and with already low income, that’s a killer. But adding N to my repertoire is extremely important, as N does a lot of things I need – not just gear if I empower into n2 but also things like wolves to act as siege chaff or bugs to act as battle chaff. It fills a lot of holes and while i’d prefer Lizard Shamans (who wouldn’t), in a pinch i’ll use these tribal guys. I expect to make one of these every 2 turns (no fort there) for the rest of the game.

A sitesearching cyclopes found these a few turns ago, and they represent a significant dilemma for me. On the one hand, it gives me sitesearchers to help my god be more useful. On the other, i’ve already committed to two fortbuilds and now must commit to another as well as paint a target on my face by having powerful indie mages other people will want walking around, as well as pay for them, and find uses for them etc. It’s easy to get fixated on some thing you find, or powerful mage or whatever, and forget the basic combat tactic you’ve decided on for the nation, and these sorceresses are definitely potentially that. Also, their air is largely wasted on a nation that has air as communion masters, a god that can make air hats, and a2 natively, although replacing oppressors in air slave communions with these sorceresses will allow me to use fewer slaves (at the cost of a turn to join the communion) because a2 base + pots.

A major saving grace for them is their pricetag. While they are StR, meaning for the distraction and target on my head I don’t get a lot of firepower, they only cost 165g. That means my gold starved phlegra can potentially afford them, whereas some site mages seem to cost the actual earth and piles of gold that I couldn’t afford. While that leaves them still dangerous, it means they are overall a boon, just one that complicates matters considerably.

Going Forward

While eventually i’d like to have a nice toolkit of different tactics to mess up the day of anyone who tries to mess up my day, and in a normal game i’d have about 800 helotes ready to zerg rush a neighbour(kekekekekekeke), at this stage I have neither of those things and while I have a few small surprises for people (nothing says Hello like an a10 gryphon dropping elementals out of a trapeze, and no-one expects phlegra to have 100 wind guided xbows turn 12) I am pretty much going to have to wait and play very reactively.

I have something of a reputation as an aggressive player as I don’t cloak my intentions in diplomacy, but really I tend to take very few risks with my position and am probably a more defensive player. I just understand that the best way to defend your lands and vulnerabilities is to take the fight to an enemy, and I do so knowing generally that I have a lot more force waiting in the fortress i’ve made out of my ‘core’.

‘Core’ is a very important concept to me in dominions. Your core lands, are the ones you don’t want disturbed. This is like your breadbasket, your logistics routes, your blood hunting spots. Often i’ll organize my forts and troops and things to create a zone I can absolutely defend, where anyone coming in will face a barrage of counterattacks from multiple directions and deep stockpiles of mages and troops. That’s my ‘core’ and it’s where I keep my stuff and controlling it allows me to react in multiple directions to developments. Even if the majority of my income is coming from other provinces, I still ultimately consider everything outside the ‘core’ disposable and will happily skirmish across it or simply retake (rather than garrisoning in depth) if the disposable areas are raided.

In this game I don’t have a core – I both lack the troop and mage depths to defend one, and my empire itself is far too small to have both disposable and core regions. Without a strongpoint to defend while attacking wildly in every direction, my usual strategies are not necessarily going to be employed. But over time, i’ll probably develop some degree of stronghold (currently it’s a single province where I have my xbows, queens, and a bunch of helote), and then my usual warmongering ways will resurface.

Anyway, that’s all. Hopefully you liked my analysis of this turn, and perhaps even learned something from it. I’m off!

Written by RE

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