Illwinter is a game company composed of a Swedish duo that has only ever made multiple iterations of two titles: the more famous Dominions series and the Conquest of Elysium series. As you can tell from these screenshots, their games have only very basic graphics and user interfaces that absolutely require reading the manual to make sense of. Still they have managed to garner quite a fanbase for themselves and in fact it was by playing Dominions 2 that I joined the forum of their then publisher Shrapnel and from there to the Quarter to Three and later Broken Forum discussion boards.
I spent a lot of time on Dominions 2 back in the day but the game requires a lot of time and dedication and really only shines in multiplayer so I never played the newer versions. It was in fact one of the very rare moments when I was actively involved in a multiplayer community. I never played any version of this older series which I heard was a lighter game that works better in single-player so I thought I’d pick it up when it was on sale a few months back. Any illusions that I had about it being easy to pick up and play were quickly dispelled when I was confronted with the graphics and the elementary UI so yes, I had to read the manual cover to cover to understand how this game is supposed to work.
For those who have no idea what these two series are about, Dominions is akin to an epic scale turn-based strategy game with a ridiculously deep magic system. Compared to that, Conquest of Elysium would be a lighter, faster-playing turn-based game more similar to the Heroes of Might and Magic series. You control one or more commanders who lead armies around the map but there is no way to build new cities and very limited ways to improve them. You spend resources mostly to recruit units or cast rituals that also usually recruit units. You couldn’t directly control combat in the Dominions game but you could set up scripts to direct how they behave before each battle. You can’t even do that in this game as all units move, attack and cast spells automatically so the only element you have control of is the composition of your army.
The objective, as always, is to wipe out the other factions by eliminating all their commanders or their citadels. This is made more complicated by the fact that the map is inhabited by independent forces and wandering independent armies spawn with some frequency. It is quite common to see AI factions being wiped out because they left no one to guard their sole citadel and it got taken out by independents. Finally much as with the old Master of Magic game, there are multiple planes of existence which are accessible through special portals. I haven’t actually played long enough to explore them much as the one time I sent an army through to the Elemental Plane of Air, I was thoroughly trounced. I expect that it’s possible to obtain some truly powerful units and items there.
The truly great thing about this game is the staggering number of classes you can pick, each with different units, game mechanics and playstyle. For example, the human Baron needs only gold and iron, have no access to exotic units and possess little magic. However it has strong basic troops, can build a variety of siege engines and can fortify its villages. This makes the faction easy to play and rather strong at the beginning but you can feel rather helpless later when enemy mages toss around army-killing spells. On the other hand, the regular troops the Troll King has access to are crappy goblins who are best ignored. However the Troll King himself is an immensely powerful warrior who constantly regenerates, so he can take over entire cities by himself. In addition he can recruit more trolls at irregular intervals and when his mother arrives, can transform ordinary forests into Troll Forests which are hostile to other factions.
Luck does matter quite a lot as the maps are randomly generated. I’ve had my citadel spawn right next to a nest guarded by a powerful independent monster for example or on a peninsular cut off from the mainland by a desert. Obviously this is also why the performance of the AI factions vary so much. I think this is why this game is also compared to a rogue-like. You do want to do your best to win of course but it’s fun to just experience what happens and each map is small enough that, win or lose, you can go through a game fairly quickly. The descriptive blurb that comes with each unit makes for some humor and it can be pretty crazy to see what can happen in a game. There are all kinds of Easter Eggs too. One time I encountered an adventuring party that is obviously meant to be the Fellowship of the Ring.
I will say that this game does an addictive quality to it and it can be a lot of fun. However overall it’s not a good fit for me as I’m not the kind of person who likes rogue-likes. I don’t like all the randomness and lack of control, such as the special units that can be hired and can make quite a difference. I also rather do like to build up my cities and infrastructure. It’s very frustrating for me that there are all kinds of cool magical items in this game but getting them is mostly random. Crafting them was a key part of the strategy in Dominions. For all these reasons, I find that I much prefer the more traditional grand strategy games. Perhaps I will check out the new Dominions 5 one day just to putz around a bit with it in single-player.