Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman's Dominions 3: The Awakening can be described briefly as a micromanagment-heavy, statistically detailed, “turn-based,” 4x fantasy strategy PBEM game that draws heavily on world mythology. Describing it in detail is difficult, because it is so richly detailed and because, while it mostly does the things you'd expect a “turn-based fantasy” game to do, it does them in surprising ways.
If you spent years playing Master of Magic, and more waiting for the sequel that never came, or liked the Heroes of Might and Magic games but found them to be too cheerful and too simplistic, or if your favorite game in SSI's Panzer General series was Fantasy General, or if you were ever into fantasy miniature gaming, or if your main complaint about Diplomacy is its lack of ancient Assyrian Shedu and Lovecraftian Elder Things, then you owe it to yourself to check Dominions out.
Dominions 3 is not graphically “state of the art:” the only 3d-rendered elements in the game are the battlefields where 2d sprites duke it out, and some rendered spell effects therein. Likewise, sound effects are limited to functional clangs, clashes, twangs, and explosions. There are no dialog sequences, cut-scenes, voiceovers, insert movies, or even full screen images of the units. The game is so lean and tight visually that it comes as a surprise that it has a truly beautiful score, by Swedish traditional/period music group Draam. It makes sense, however: background music doesn't interrupt play. And if there is one thing Dominions 3 doesn't do, it doesn't waste the player's time.
The narrative premise of the game is this: the Pantokrator, the god over all, has vanished. The resulting power vacuum has led to a struggle between various “Pretender gods” to see which will be the next Pantokrator. These “Pretenders” include powerful wizards and ancient dragons, but also guardian spirits like the aforementioned Shedu, who seek to protect their people, and vanquished enemies of the old Pantokrator, like the giant God-King of the Fomorians. Each Pretender leads a nation with distinctive traits, most based on a specific mythology, from the neo-Roman nations of Ermor and Pythia to Nordic Vanheim to Bandar Log, based on Indian myths about a hidden nation of intelligent apes. In 4x tradition, only one Pretender can ascend to the throne and only one nation can triumph.
There is no campaign mode in Dominions 3, partially because of the focus on multiplayer games and partially because a single game on a large map can take over a hundred hours to play. When starting a new game, one picks a map; picks an age (Early, Middle, or Late); decides how many human and computer players there will be; picks their nations; and then each human player custom-builds a Pretender God or loads one that is already built. Starting a multiplayer (PBEM/hosted) game is a little more complex, but the game's forum has a dedicated subsection that helps players find and keep track of games. There is no dedicated game server, but neither is there a monthly fee for service.
The “main” screen of Dominions 3 is a Risk-like map, divided into provinces. Some maps support victory-point based games, otherwise the goal is to extend either one's material or spiritual control over the entire map. The former is accomplished through military conquest, the latter by Dominion (religious influence) “spread” based on things like temples built, the activities of priests and the simple presence of a player's Pretender or that pretender's Prophet. The effects of Dominion are determined (in part) by traits given to the player's Pretender: some would-be gods spread luck and fertility, others ensure order, some bring drought and famine. As Dominion spreads separately from physical control, one has to think about how these traits will affect other players: a player whose people are vulnerable to cold might take a hotter Dominion than is ideal in order to better fend off a nation that thrives in freezing climates and whose Dominion spreads cold.
There is no tech tree in Dominions 3. Each nation starts able to build all of its normal troop types, and the only buildings that can be built in a province are a temple, a magical laboratory, and a fortification of a type determined by the nation and the province's terrain. Provinces have “local” units, and any province with a fort can recruit national unit types, though some require the province to also have a temple and/or a lab, and some nations have “rare” units that can only be recruited at their nation's capital. Unlike most 4x games, you neither will nor would want to fully develop every province. The effective placement of forts involves judgments not only about a province's resources as well as those of adjacent provinces, the strategic importance of the province, and its proximity to the “front lines” wherever they are or are likely to be.
Magical research is superficially simple: spells are cast according to “Paths” such as Fire and Nature, but researched according to D&D-esque “Schools” including Alteration and Thaumaturgy. The recruitable mages and mage-priests who research spells are also needed to enchant items, summon magical creatures, and accompany armies in order to cast combat spells. Having researched the right spell, and having the right spellcaster in place to cast it can easily decide battles, and games between human players often swing back and forth on the basis of linchpin spells and attempts to counter, work around or enhance them. Magical energy comes from special sites that generate elemental gems, most of which have to be divined with spells that cost gems or by mage(s) physically traveling to and searching the provinces, another difficult division of resources.
Combat in Dominions 3 is unlike combat in any game I have ever played. During a player's turn, one may assign soldiers to commanders and break them into formations of any size, and arrange those formations on the battlefield as desired. Each unit may be given an order, and commanders may be given specific orders for the first five rounds of combat, as well as a general order to follow thereafter. But one has no control of what actually happens in combat. Battles are resolved by the computer “between” turns and the results are announced, along with casualties, along with other beginning-of-turn messages like random events.
One can choose to watch any given battle or not, though one usually wants to, in order to see if and how one's strategy played out. Battles are resolved by the computer in a kind of staggered turn-order that causes formations to act together and are, as mentioned before, the closest thing to eye candy in the game. Even so, there is a fast-forward mode and one can skip ahead to the next turn at any time, so one never has to spend more time than one wants to on a given battle. This becomes crucial by mid-game on any large map, where a single turn may bring the results of a dozen or more battles, each of which could potentially involve hundreds of units. The time it would take to show all of this at Dominions 3's normal playback speed can become prohibitive, and would simply be impossible within in a conventional turn-based or RTS framework.
This gives Dominions 3 a fantastic range of scope, while keeping it all manageable. “Manageable” is a relative term, of course: most large PBEM games of Dominions 3 start with one turn a day and, by the late game, give players 72 hours – three days! -- to submit their turns. But there's something even more interesting that this order-based combat does: it creates a sense of the fog of war in a nearly-unprecedented sense. A formation that breaks their archers with your cavalry on round three may result in disaster when faced with well-guarded mages casting clouds of poisonous fog. A powerful mage-priest may fall to an assassin's blade because of the same carefully-planned orders that allowed him to make your sacred warriors nigh-invincible, etc.
The use of world mythology rather than the clichés of High Fantasy, and the complex but completely non-intrusive histories of the nations of Dominions 3 over the game's three eras give the game a kind of moral maturity: there are knights in shining armor in this game, but doesn't mean that they're the “good guys,” and there are nations that practice human sacrifice (in the forms of “Blood Sacrifice” and “Blood Magic”), but that doesn't make them “Chaotic Evil.” Ugly non-human creatures, like the Bakemono, drawn from Japanese myth, are, for a change, not inherently inferior in either morals or influence. (I found the dynamics of a nation based on Jewish mythology and apocrypha to be so fascinating that I wrote a 20+ page essay about it).
The game also has a highly involved fan/player base, and is easy to mod. Because there isn't a central server, user-created maps and mods are often incorporated into games, making them more relevant than they would be otherwise. I even created a mod nation with original art. I generally avoid “lifestyle gaming” such as MMORPGs or Warhammer miniatures, but I learned how to use GIMP just to create sprites for this game. The last time I edited sprites was using the Warlords II Scenario Builder, some 15 years ago.
In short, Dominions 3 isn't for everyone. For some, however, including this sprite-loving, obsessively-overthinking, twitch-impaired gamer, it's a prayer to the Pretender Gods come true.