Sunday, April 26, 2020

Song of Autumn

Once you hop on the Fall from Heaven 2 train, it's very hard to get off again. Each game is exciting and fun, but it also tantalizes with possibilities for future games. "Hm, I didn't build any siege equipment all game, I might want to look into that next time. Or even try Luchiurp to make some golems..." "Too bad nobody joined the Overcouncil with me. I need to get that going in another game." "Sacrifice The Weak seems insanely powerful. I wonder if I could use that while keeping hell terrain out of my empire?"

Whenever I start a new game, I'm debating between revisiting previous fun experiences (Khazad, Kuriorates, etc.) and trying some of those novel experiences (finally playing an evil civ, rushing to an early victory, going for a new victory type). Making choices can be hard! Which is why it's sometimes nice to have those choices made for me. Specifically, trying a scenario.

FfH2 does not need scenarios. The base game is infinitely variable and entertaining already. They're a ridiculous addition to an already perfect game, like ice cream on cake or a shot of Baileys in your Guinness. I've written about them at length before, and I've still only played through maybe half of them.

I think this is now the third PC that I've installed FfH2 on, and fortunately I've brought my scenario "trophy" file along with me for each of those moves, so I effectively have a 13+ year mega-campaign going on. More like 5 separate mega-campaigns, really. Dusting off the cobwebs and reviewing the state of things, I have yet to complete any one of the major arcs in the scenarios, although I've unlocked the final scenario for all of them. I think that last time I got stuck on The Black Tower, the end of the Falamar quest chain, where an already-difficult objective is made even harder by the special rules (human units can never heal, and become demons when killed, so you end up fighting nearly every unit you build). I do want to beat that one, but I figured I'd ramp back up to it, and instead tackled one of the more stand-alone scenarios: The Splintered Court.

There's a really fascinating, deep and complex lore behind FfH2, drawing on a wide variety of influences but combined into a really unique dark fantasy whole. These lore bits are scattered all around: sometimes you'll get long entries in the Civilopedia entry, or hear a comment from another leader during negotiations, or some narration when you explore a unique feature in the terrain. A recent delight has been reading Kael's lore posts on the (still active!) /r/fallfromheaven subreddit. But maybe the best single source of lore is the scenarios. You'll learn why Rosier is The Fallen, how the Doviello relate to the Illians, who the hell Decius is and why he behaves differently from every other leader, and so on. Besides straight-up lore bombs, the scenarios ooze flavor, too, with disconcerting and compelling writing and visuals hooking you in and dragging you along for the ride.

I could say many more things about the scenarios (and I probably have in my previous posts), so for now I'll just note two awesome things. First, the stories are surprisingly interactive: at certain critical beats in the scenario, you'll often get an Event pop up that describes something your leader is experiencing (a diplomatic summit, an assassin in the night, a vision from beyond) and give you multiple choices for how to respond. Like with the base FfH2 games, these can have in-game consequences that range from minor (some more gold, a new resource appearing, a change in diplomatic states) to major (powerful new units appearing, new civ-wide buffs being applied). But many scenarios also have branching effects based on these choices, which can drastically change your objectives and lead to entirely different experiences.

The second awesome thing is that those branching choices don't just affect your current game, they can impact other scenarios as well. The decisions you make as Decius in Into the Desert decide who you play as in Wages of Sin, setting up entirely different gameplay and victory conditions despite being the same scenario. And there can be significant bonuses between them: defeating the Lord of the Balors scenario will reduce the power of the Infernal faction in all of the other scenarios. Lord of the Balors is the last scenario in the list, but it shouldn't be the last one you play! It can help to be strategic when determining the order in which you will tackle the scenarios, and not just while playing each one.

That said, for this particular outing I was looking for a scenario which was not tied into any other ones, or at least not obviously so. (There are some notoriously diabolical hidden links between other scenarios.) Reading through the ones I hadn't yet played, I soon decided on "The Splintered Court". This touches on a domain that none of the other scenarios so far have addressed: the elves. Specifically, you can play as one of the Ljosalfar or Svartalfar in their civil war. The three Ljosalfar leaders are joined in a permanent alliance with one another: you automatically share any discoveries, are permanently at peace, readily agree to each others' requests, and act as one entity when declaring war or peace with other civilizations. Except in this game, you are permanently at war with the Svartalfar. Faeryl Viconia is there, in an alliance with two new leaders custom to this scenario: Rivanna the Wraith Lord and Volanna.

I mulled for a while over who to choose. I was very tempted by the Svartalfar; I've always been intrigued by their dark-elf aesthetic, but haven't had a whole lot of experience with the sort of stealth-heavy campaigns that they seem oriented towards. Rivanna and Volanna seem like slightly underwhelming leaders with only a single trait each. On the Ljosalfar side, I was initially leaning towards Thessa: Arcane seemed like a lot of fun, producing super-charged spellcasters, while Expansive seems like an all-around useful trait. But, the special conditions of this scenario include not being able to build new Settlers, so much of her Expansive potential would be wasted. Amelanchier seems like the best all-around choice, with his martially focused traits. But I eventually decided to play as Arendel: Those small culture bumps can be really useful in the early game, and Spiritual would have huge synergy with the strategy I was envisioning: building temples and churning out disciple units.

The scenario opens with an advanced start. You have already learned pretty much all of the ancient-era techs: Animal husbandry, Calendar, Knowledge of the Ether, etc. You have three settlers, three archers, and a Disciple of Leaves. I planted my capital on my first turn, and the next two cities on the following turn. I decided to explore the map with my archers while my cities produced scouts, and then explore with the scouts, too. This proved to be a mistake. After maybe thirty turns or so, barbarians walked up and sacked my completely undefended cities. Whoops! Total newbie move!

I reloaded and started again. I noticed that, while the shape and terrain of the scenario map is always the same, the location of resources is not: in general, it's a more resource-rich map than usual, but the exact locations change from game to game. This second start wasn't as good, so I started over a third time, and finally settled in for the long haul.

Being limited to a military victory was nicely focusing: I usually try to spread myself too thinly in the early stages, pursuing any promising leads and trying to be all-around strong in multiple disciplines, and only start seriously thinking about the endgame after a few hundred turns in. This scenario was a lot more clear-cut (though, I would eventually learn, not as clear-cut as it initially seemed). I was going to need to defeat the Svartalfar, which meant building a potent fighting force. I would build it around my civilization and my religion, leveraging my unique traits.

On the very first turn, I moved my Disciple of Leaves into the capital and spread the Fellowship. Interestingly, this also founded the Fellowship; in normal games this happens in the opposite order, but this way makes perfect sense in a scenario. This also meant that my holy city was in my capital, which is often not the case but can be very lucrative when so.

The first tech I researched was Drama, which grants a free Great Bard to the first person to discover it: Me! The Great Bard can construct the Song of Autumn, so I did. Between this and my temples, I was able to start focusing on Priest specialists, which would eventually ensure a steady stream of Great Prophets.

For civics, I ran with God King, which gives an impressive 50% boost to production and gold in your capital. Because you're limited in the number of cities you can build, it's viable to stay with God King the entire game. For cultural values I stuck with Religion the whole game, which gives some small happiness and culture boosts; in retrospect, since I was Spiritual it might have made more sense to frequently rotate this around, going Nationhood during periods when I was building military units, then swapping in Pacifism during the times I was increasing my infrastructure, so I could build up GPP more quickly. On the Labor front I ran Apprenticeship the whole time, giving +2 XP to new military units : nice for everyone, but especially for mundane martial units, so they can take a promotion before seeing combat. In practice, though, the vast majority of units I constructed automatically gain XP anyways, so it wasn't that big of a deal. I might have been better off with Military State to boost unit production, allow spending gold to rush, and allowing more free unit support. There is a culture penalty, but that isn't a big deal for this scenario after you get your fat cross.

And then there is the economy. I was just Agrarian for a while, even though I didn't have any farms, and just figured the extra 1 point of Health couldn't hurt. But soon my allies discovered Hidden Paths and I decided to adopt Guardian of Nature. Wow! I'm sure I've run it before, but it's been, uh, years and years, I've forgotten how insanely good it is. You can easily get an extra 12-15 Happiness per city, which is more than even a late-game city will be getting from its luxuries or its buildings. And an extra +5 flat Health, but because of all the forests you have that will actually be more like 12 Health. All this adds up to enormous mega-cities even in the early midgame. Finally, late in the game I adopted the Overcouncil. I only had enough time to vote on a single resolution, but it was a pretty useful one. I'd like to do more with the councils in the future.

My capital was my religious center, my military center and my Great Person center. I put all the wonders that boosted starting XP and production in here. Once I started generating Great Prophets, I began constructing the Altar of Luonnotar here: even though I couldn't get the Altar victory, I've seen from earlier games that it can be very powerful at higher levels. And it definitely is! By the end of the game, I was building new Priests of Leaves every 2 turns, and each of them were starting off with 16xp.

The second city wasn't as big of a deal: it was my arcane center, so I created a Mage Guild, and then pumped out one adept after another. As usual, my goal was to start them early enough and get enough of them so I could maximize my Archmages by the time they became available. In this game, though, I never even got to Sorcery, so it ended up being a bit of a waste; in retrospect I should have focused on building more archers or something. The adepts I did build were only slightly useful. At that level, your Air mana is good for Fair Winds; but I never built or used any boats. Life mana is good for Sanctify; but the Armageddon Counter is disabled in this scenario, so it doesn't matter. With the Song of Autumn, I had 2 Nature mana, so each adept already had Treetop Defense. This spell is very useful, as there is a ton of Forest in this map: I would say that over half of all squares are forested to start with, and more will probably bloom over the course of the game. Since all your units are elves, you're mostly quickly moving through forests anyways, so it can be helpful (though not decisive) to end your turns fully fortified via magic. But I could easily have gotten by with just a couple of adepts.

In the third city I constructed a Hunting Lodge. My initial plot was to focus on capturing animals and using them to build my army: in the early exploratory phase of this scenario, you run across a ton of wild animals. It ended up not quite working out like that. My Scouts had really low base strength, of course, and even after getting many promotions they had a hard time winning fights against the stronger animals. They had explored so far that it would take dozens of turns to return home and upgrade. One finally did and became a Ranger, but by the time he headed back out, barbarians had replaced all the animals. So my initial plan failed, but I was still happy with how things turned out. Rangers had the highest raw strength of any unit of mine during the game, with an Attack of 7. And even better, hawks! I'm kind of kicking myself now for not making any Hawks during my Calabim game, I'd completely forgotten how incredibly useful they are. Most units can see 1 square around them. If you're standing on a hill above lowlands, or have spent valuable XP on a Sentry promotion, you might be able to see 2 squares (if mountains aren't in your way). A Hawk, though, can fly up high and recon, clearing a huge (maybe roughly 20x20) field from the fog of war. Including over mountains. This provides invaluable operational insight! You can verify that the lands around your cities are clear of barbarians, or identify any that are approaching and position your defenders to greet them before they can pillage. And your rangers in the field can carry hawks, letting you not just see who's waiting for you in that city several spaces away (I could have used that when Flauros was trying to dislodge Acheron!), but also to look beyond that and see if your opponent is reinforcing their position with more people so you should rush forward and take the city ASAP, or if they're trying to flank you and so you should reposition to meet them in the field. And hawks are cheap, too! At just 20 hammers I think they're the cheapest unit in the entire game, even less expensive than warriors.

You do occasionally get an event where wanderers arrive in your capital and you can decide what to do with them: I think the options are something like supply them as Settlers for 100 gold, equip as Hunters for 70 gold, equip as Scouts for 20 gold, settle for +1 population for free. This event seems to be random. In my first game, I got it twice in my first 30 turns before getting wiped out. In my last game, it only fired once, after more than 100 turns. I did take the settler option, of course. In this scenario, my settlement strategy was the opposite as my earlier Calabim game on a Huge Erebus map, where I struck out far and wide to claim chokepoints. Here, particularly while running God King, and in a state of eternal war, I wanted to settle compactly, keeping maintenance costs low and letting me share defenders between cities. I planted this one to the north, gaining access to three brand-new luxury resources: Gems, Wine and Dye. I decided that this city would build an Archery Range and finally start producing those units. Unfortunately, the game ended before I could even construct the building, let alone the archers.

There is one other option to expand your empire in this scenario: conquer cities. Late in the game, a barbarian city plopped down near my capital, and it was Size 2 before I conquered it. It was within range of Yggdrasil and had some other good resources so I kept it, but it never developed that far.

My public works for this game were basically opposite to my Calabim game. With the Fellowship, your Forests turn into Ancient Forests, giving you solid production and food but no commerce. As elves, though, the solution is clear: Build cottages in the forest! Instead of farms everywhere, it was cottaged Ancient Forests everywhere. And since elves already treat forests as roads, and there's tons of forest all over the map, I only needed to build roads when linking up resources.

Early on, I focused on exploring the map. There are the regular assortment of goody huts and lairs to be found, and the continent feels a little crowded, so it's worth prioritizing some Scouts to ensure good results from those before they all get claimed. I lucked out with technology discoveries and a couple of Great People. I sent a Great Commander back to my capital to form a Command Post, and started a Golden Age with a Great Scientist. After discovering Drama, I learned Military Strategy to get another Great Commander. I attached him to Gilden Silveric. Since your two allies are also Ljosalfar, I'm not sure if they're also capable of building him, so I prioritized creating him early on.

It took a while, but I eventually explored the map, primarily with my Scouts with some help from my Archers; in this game I lucked out on the barbarians and was able to leave my home cities lightly defended for some time, and further lucked out and got some Treant assistance during early incursions. The overall setup is that the three Ljosalfar civs are in the northwest, the Svartalfar in the southeast, Baron Duin Halfmoon leading a werewolf faction (coded as Doviello) in the southwest, and Alexis of the Calabim in the northeast. Everyone hated me, but only the Svartalfar were at war. Much later I met Falamar of the Lanun; after trading maps with him even later, I saw that he hailed from an island to the east. There is ocean all around the continent, except that the western edge touches the map so you can't sail completely around. Boats were irrelevant for the game, though it may be possible to induce Falamar to attempt a landing.

One other mechanic in this game is that each turn is also part of a day/night cycle. It's actually really subtle, but there's some text on the right side of the screen (superimposed over the map) that lists the current hour: Dawn, Morning, Noon, etc. Supposedly these time cycles effect the strength of units; with the Baron's werewolves shifting back into men during daylight and the vampires weakening under the sun. As I never fought either of those factions, though, it doesn't seem to have a big impact on the scenario.

Once I had Gilden built, I decided to try and start the war proper. He isn't that strong of a unit, at a base of just 5 attack and unable to wield metal weapons; but he compares well to other units of his era, and more importantly he's one of the earliest Heroes you can get, so he will have more promotions than anyone else you can meet in the field. I decided to start my war with a very simple pairing: Gilden to crack open cities, stacked with a Disciple of Leaves to help heal him and weather counterattacks.

I started with Volanna, whose mini-empire was located immediately south of the Calabim lands. Her Warriors didn't yet have access to any Copper, and Gilden was able to easily take them down. He was in that exciting early phase of heroism with a big set of unspent XP available. I could check the odds, grab some Combat or Shock if necessary, attack, and then take another promotion to heal up most of the damage.

Oddly enough, when you capture an enemy city in this scenario, you don't get the normal offer to keep it or pillage: you automatically keep every city. This made me slightly nervous. These cities were on the far opposite side of the map, nearly doubling my Maintenance cost. Not to mention that I hadn't planned for a long defensive occupation, just a fast conquering strike. (Remind you of anybody's foreign policy?)

I hunkered down for a bit, then an idea struck me: I was part of an alliance! Why not turn the city over to my allies? It made perfect sense: It was geographically closer to them, so the maintenance wouldn't hurt as badly. The AI is usually a lot smarter at defense than offense anyways. And I could see that my allies were building buttloads of low-strength units, mostly archers and warriors, in contrast with my smaller selection of high-power units. I would be the tip of the spear, pushing through Svartalfar territory, while Amelanchier and Thessa would be the shaft, filling up the hole and denying these lands to our foes.

I initially planned to offer the city to Amelanchier, since he was closer, but then realized that Thessa was closer to these cities than she was to any of the other ones; if I was going to share the burden of maintenance, then it would probably be better for her to carry these ones. I offered her the city gratis and she gracefully accepted, then began moving reinforcers. At the same time, I was bringing in my own reinforcers to join with Gilden: A newly promoted and experienced Ranger, but more excitingly, a brace of Priests of Leaves.

You don't think of Priests as being military units, but they can absolutely fill that role. A Priest has a base strength of 5, better than warriors or archers. And because mine were starting out with more than a dozen XP and a Potency promotion, by the time they saw battle they could easily have taken Command and Combat III or more. Unlike adepts and mages, you don't need to save any promotions for spells, you can dump them all into combat-related promotions. Of course, even without promotions they're incredibly useful, with powerful passive Heal abilities that keep your army moving quickly and minimizing the risk of a counterblow. But they can also be a respectable force to build your army around in the first place.

I also came to really appreciate their tigers. These behave a lot like Skeletons: they can't attack on the turn you summon them, so they take some advance planning, but they remain indefinitely. You have a limited number available: with 5 priests of leaves, you can summon a total of 5 tigers, but it's fine for one priest to summon 5 times, for example. Those Combat promotions you gave your priests translate into Empowerment for your tigers. In practice, mine could usually kill any unit in the field, and could do a lot of damage when attacking a city. It's free to create new ones, so I didn't hesitate to suicide-squad some in the midst of an assault, or simply deleting ones that weren't seeing action. The one slight downside in this map was that the Tigers were the only non-Elf unit I had all game, so they moved through forests at 1 square per turn, unlike everyone else who moved at least 2 per turn. So on long marches, it often made more sense to dismiss all my tigers, then march, then re-summon them at my destination.

My power was growing, with Gilden getting his Heroic Offense and joining forces with my Priests. But the dark elves were adapting and growing more menacing. First, they gained access to Copper, immediately making their cities tougher (definitely not impossible!) to crack. They also had researched Poisons, and assassins took to the field. Most alarmingly, they built two heroes in quick succession: Alazkan the Assassin and Gibbon Goetia.

I lucked out a bit on the timing. I had taken Volanna's first two cities, and she built Alazkan in the third. A newly-born Hero hasn't yet had time to reach their potential, and I was hoping to take him down before he grew too powerful. This was a tricky siege, and honestly I reloaded a couple of times to get the outcome I wanted. Alazkan has high offense but low defense, so he was one of the last units to defend the city but a deadly force when attacking. Like other Assassins, he also attacks the weakest unit in the stack, instead of going after the strongest ones as normal. So if one of my attackers took too much damage while still winning their combat, Alazkan could pick them off afterwards. On the plus side, though, he only had a handful of promotions so far, and he is at a disadvantage when defending (or, presumably, attacking cities). I had him hemmed in pretty well. It would be a lot more challenging to meet him in the wilderness!

It took severally rounds, but I gradually whittled down the defenders. I got nervous once my Ranger arrived and had his hawk recon the area: Gibbon Goetia was marching north, leading a huge stack of assassins and archers! I had my Fawn and a couple of spare Tigers try and draw them off while my main force redoubled their efforts. Finally, I killed Alazkan, and... what's that?! Another Alazkan?! I attacked again in an avalanche of tigers, defeating the assassin and the badly wounded remainders, before finally taking the city.

This time I finally got a popup asking what I wanted to do with it. There was an option to "Return control to the Ljosalfar", which I chose; surprisingly, it went to Amelanchier, even though Thessa already controlled the two other cities. I'm not sure if it was based on distance to the capital or what.


More compellingly, I also got a little story. Volanna had been captured, but Baron Duin Halfmoon interceded. He wanted to take possession of Volanna and turn her into a werewolf, promising me his military aid in return.

I paused for a little while to consider. On its face, this was a solid trade. My objective for the scenario was simply to destroy the two remaining Svartalfar factions; joining the Baron wouldn't hurt that, and might help, as he would project threat from the southwest while I continued pushing down from the northeast. But, playing the other scenarios has made me incredibly wary. This seemed like exactly the sort of thing that would come back to bite me in the ass: what if, saw, it turned out that there was a hidden objective to defeat the Baron at the end, and giving him Volanna would just make him stronger? Or even add a new hostile werewolf faction in some other scenario? I eventually decided that, while the Baron might be helpful, I certainly did not need him. I turned him down, bracing for repercussions, but that was it: no declaration of war, no onslaught of barbarians.

I marched through a small wilderness area before arriving at Faeryl's own borders. By now Amelanchier was participating in the campaign as well, moving some stacks down to help in the fight. There was a bit of a delicate dance with Gibbon as I lured away individual defenders going after individual tigers, eventually splitting and then thinning the stack. Gibbon himself wasn't too bad to take down, but he regularly summons Mistforms, who are much more powerful if shorter-lived.

Oh! I almost forgot. After defeating Alazkan, I finally discovered why I needed to kill him twice. He dropped his special item, the shield Black Mirror, which now any unit could pick up. This unlocks the awesome Mirror ability which creates a perfect copy of the casting unit: it has your current XP, current promotions, current buffs, etc. (The one exception: it does not copy your race, so mirroring an Elf does not give double movement through forests.) This summon cannot completely kill a unit by attacking, but can take it down to, like, 0.2 health or something. It lasts until the start of your next turn, so you can also position it as a defender. Needless to say, I had Silveric carry the mirror. I didn't always use it, but on turns when I had a shot at taking a city, I would always launch the first charge with the mirror: even when it fails, it would strongly damage the best defender, giving everyone else in my stack a much better chance at breaking through.

Dealing with the enemy assassins was the tricky part of this phase, as they could move swiftly through the forest and strike at any sign of weakness, including my Adepts as well as wounded military. It was difficult, but I absolutely loved it, in no small part because I felt like I was fully, deeply experiencing the Ljosalfar/Svartalfar divide: not just through flavor text or background art, but feeling it through the gameplay. My Ljosalfar were dextrous, archery-oriented, worshiping the Leaves, allied with nature. Their Svartalfar were sinister, recon-oriented, following Esus, secretive, hidden, striking unseen, melting into the shadows. We shared the same common traits: living in the forests, we moved quickly through the trees and fought well in them. But those common points only further highlighted our fundamental differences. We just felt different, in the way we marshaled our forces, where we preferred to strike, how we built our armies and what promotions we took.

I survived the wave of assassins, and fortunately it got much easier after this: there were still plenty of defenders left to face, but mostly mundane archers and warriors, supported by the occasional ranger or scout. I did manage to Command a single Adept to join my side, which was cool: he came with his Shadow promotion, granting me the Blur buff for better success against enemy archers. This came in handy along with the standard Treetop Defense. My general MO for this campaign was to move through forest as much as possible and then set up outside of a city, ideally also in a forest, even better on a forested hill. My adepts would make us defensible and my priests would summon tigers. I would count defenders and attackers and decide on a course of action: if I had the numbers, I would soften up with a Tiger Rush and then finish them off with my elven fighters. Otherwise I would just take out a couple of their strongest units with a couple of my strongest, wait and heal up, then continue until they were low enough for the final push. Fortunately, Amelanchier was often fighting by my side during these siege, weakening defenders on his own or at least drawing their fire.

The same general pattern repeated as before: the game automatically gave me ownership of new cities as I conquered them without options for razing, but the final city gave the standard options. For a little while my allies were unwilling to take ownership of new cities via diplomacy ("We have our reasons"), but a few turns later they were happy to do so again; I'm not entirely sure why, but it may have been because of ongoing disorders in those cities. After defeating Faeryl, another event popped up, but this one was merely informative: Faeryl had managed to escape my forces and fled to the remaining Svartalfar faction.

I continued to roll forwards. Thessa never got very involved in the campaign, although she did back-fill her new cities with fresh defenders. I continued my research during the campaign, although I had to dial my science investment back to 50-60% to keep my deficits under control; even after giving away the far-flung captured cities, the enormous sizes in my core led to huge maintenance costs. I eventually finished researching Feral Bond and unlocked Kithra Kyriel, the first Fellowship Hero. I built him and ordered him to charge down towards Rivanna the Wraith Lord's final cities. But it was over before he arrived: the last defenders fell.

As with Volanna, another choice event appeared, this one paralleling the earlier one: Alexis manifested inside the palace, offering to join my side in an alliance if I gave her Rivanna to become her thrall. This was less tempting than the Baron's offer: the war was over, and unless there was some final twist there wasn't going to be any more fighting. I declined to hand over Rivanna or to execute her, instead sending her back to my own capital to face a just trial.


And, that was the end! The end of the game, at least. There was a very long written epilogue. Again, it's been years since I've played a scenario and I don't remember whether this is similar to the others or if it's longer, but it was a fantastic, wonderfully-written combination of dialogue and prose that's now seared into my brain.

That ending... holy shit, how chilling! It's the best kind of twist, one that I did not see coming but that makes perfect sense in retrospect. In fact, it's my very favorite kind of twist: one that is particularly reinforced through the gameplay. I mean, these are the special abilities of these units and of these civilizations. But up until now they've been fairly abstract, mechanical things that you plan around and respond to. But now we're forced to confront what they mean, how they feel, and there's a really intense creeping horror to it. I mean, if I'd read this in a short story collection I probably would have gone "Oooh, creepy!", then set it aside and forgotten about it. But instead it's been lingering with me for a few days now, as my mind continues to chew over what happened and when and how.

One of my first questions was, is this true in the base game as well? I could see this being something that happens during the base game, probably under the aegis of Gibbon; but it's deliciously monstrous to think that it happened at the end of the Age of Ice and has been happening all along.

I also thought back to the endings of Volanna and Rivanna. I started to wonder: had I caused this ending to happen? Taking arcane Svartalfar back to my capital, had I welcomed the wolves into the flock and opened the gate? In trying to do the "good" thing, had I unleashed doom upon us all? If the other leaders had gone to the werewolves and vampires, would we have been fine? Or would some external calamity have befallen us instead?

The more I thought about it, though, a second, more chilling possibility presented itself. What if it isn't just Faeryl: What if it's all three? What if it's been true all along? Thinking back to the events, I don't remember Rivanna or Volanna speaking: what if they were actually my allies? That adds a whole new tinge of horror, watching their fates being decided, internally screaming but unable to be heard. In this reading, the mercy is particularly meaningful; but then it might add its own level of terror later, unseen, as they witness, or at least understand, what has happened and that salvation is not forthcoming.

And again it's tempting to link it back to the base game. Is this why there are apparently three Ljosalfar and only one Svartalfar leaders? Are there actually still three Svartalfar leaders in the main game? I don't know if there's a canon answer, but I probably won't ever look at Thessa the same way again.


What a fun rush! Each of these scenarios has felt different, with some more like dungeon crawls and others like entire campaigns. The Splintered Court struck a really nice balance, with most of the standard 4x mechanics in place, but the permanent alliances and some delicious storytelling really puts it over the top. I continue to be impressed at how the base game improves the scenarios and the scenarios improve the base game, each providing lore and experience and depth to the other.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

River of Blood

As you may have seen, I'm back on the horse and dusting off Fall from Heaven 2. While I did spend a lot of time getting it running on my Mac, I quickly realized that being able to play Civ in bed is actually a terrible idea, so I regretfully parked my nascent Balseraphs game and instead moved over to my proper desktop Windows gaming box. I've long intended to play an evil civ, but have been reluctant, partly for flavor reasons but also because evil civs tend to be more oriented towards conquest games and leaders who are Aggressive or Raiders or Summoners, whereas I generally prefer to take more of a builder approach (at least through the midgame). I followed the very wise advice of my brother Andrew, who has logged even more FfH2 hours than me and has recently gone on his own run, and started a Calabim game with Flauros, who is Financial and Organized.

This turned out to be an excellent setup for a builder game. My surface-level understanding of the Calabim vampire civilization was that their key advantage was that Vampire military units can Feast on one of your cities, lowering the population in exchange for a significant XP gain. This is directly trading an economic advantage for a military one, which I thought put the civ squarely in the military camp. But, there are significant other civ benefits which are of much more interest to builders.

One very early building is the Breeding Pit. It acts a little like a food building like a Granary or a Smokehouse in that it retains some of the food after your population grows, allowing quicker growth overall. But, it also directly provides additional Food resources to the city. I think it's one of the only things in the game that can do that without working a tile, the only other one I can think of is a settled Great Merchant. This is a notable benefit to any city, as it basically lets you add one more specialist or grow significantly faster; it even makes it somewhat viable to settle cities in more marginal areas of desert or tundra that otherwise could never grow.

The big star of the Calabim civ, though, is the Governor's Manor. Available at Code of Laws, it adds one hammer per unhappy population. When I first read the description, I didn't think that was a big deal: If a city has, say, ten happy faces and eleven unhappy faces, then one population member will refuse to work and be an angry citizen, which I thought would give you one hammer. Well, no: it turns out that the building gives hammers based on total unhappy faces, not net unhappy faces, so in the above example you would get eleven hammers! This is huge! Especially since buildings like the Breeding Pit and likely widespread farms will give rise to huge Calabim cities, those same cities will all become big production powerhouses, even if they're settled in wide-open grasslands that otherwise would have zero hammers. This is also cool because, to my knowledge, it's one of the only features of FfH2 that scales up with difficulty level: if you're playing on Emperor, those Governor's Manors will be a lot more powerful than if you're playing on Chieftain, thanks to the greater unhappiness.

Finally, the Calabim also benefit from some rejiggering of unit prerequisites that allow you to build up a substantial military while remaining focused on economic techs. Vampires replace Champions, but they are available at Feudalism instead of Iron Working, and require a Governor's Manor instead of a Training Yard. I got through the whole game without making an Archery Range or a Hunting Lodge or a Siege Workshop - I think that the Calabim don't have access to high-level cannons and such, but I didn't miss them.

For years now, Andrew has been encouraging me to play a Marathon game. I've only ever done Standard map sizes and speeds, but decided to dip my toes in the water with a Large map this time and Epic speed. This slows things down, adding more total turns for each research discovery and building construction and so on. This extra time can be very nice as it gives you more opportunity to use new tiers of units before they become obsolete. I was also hoping for more time to capture and tame animals: I've never completed the Grand Menagerie on any of my games and would really like to, but animals always disappear so fast. In this game I turned on some of the custom options, including Wildlands, which doubles the number of animals in the world; this helped, but I still never managed to capture a Gorilla or Tiger. I also turned on Living World, which doubles the frequency of events, and All Unique Features, which will place every possible unique feature (Letum Frigus, Yggdrasil, Tomb of Sucellus, etc.). Oh, and as usual I played with the Erebus map script, which has fantastic fantasy flavor: every world is unique, but you tend to get a lot of Mordor-style regions and other major chains like the Misty Mountains and Angmar that block off regions. Human civilizations tend to cluster in isolated verdant vales, while barbarians get pushed out to roam vast hostile territories full of ice and desert.

Let's do a play-by-play of how my game went!

But first, some disclaimers. I played this on Noble difficulty; I was doing Prince before, but it's been years and years since I played so I kicked it down a notch. I will totally restart the game if I'm not happy with my initial start (can't find a good capital location in the first couple of turns). I also have a shamefully lax attitude towards save-scumming. I don't regenerate the random seed so I won't re-play negative events; but if I attack with a 90%+ chance to win, and lose the battle, I will totally reload a save and not attack. So, yeah, I'm definitely playing this on an even easier level than it might otherwise seem.

After a few false starts on featureless plains and barren tundra, I got a good spawn near a river running through grasslands with some forests nearby. I founded my capital and immediately started exploring. This is super-dangerous in FfH2, but you usually get a dozen turns or so before barbarians start acting aggressively, and animals will never enter your cultural borders, so it's worth the risk to find some early goody huts. I did pop a few, but throughout the whole game never got anything amazing, usually just gold and I think once a minor tech.

After just a few turns I ran into Perpentach in the middle of a jungle, on the other side of a mountain range just north of my capital. I always automatically sign peace treaties with other civs, but in this case I immediately changed my mind. He was threatening to hit some goody huts that I was saving for my scout to visit. And he seemed uncomfortable close to my territory. And Perpentach is infamously fickle and unreliable. I'd almost certainly be fighting a war against him sooner or later, and I was probably better off taking care of him in the early game. So, I attacked his scout, then headed back to Jubilee. I laid the city under siege for some time, keeping a helpless worker behind the city gates as my Bloodpet fortified on a hill across a river from Jubilee. Meanwhile, I built another Scout or two and mapped out my immediate territory, popping all the huts I could find. Nobody else seemed too close: Hippus were far WSW of me, through some barbarian-infested passages, and the Bannor were led by Decius (evil!!), a ways southwest of Jubilee but seemingly uninterested in entering our land. My capital was at the far eastern edge of the world map; Erebus is a flat-Earth planet. There was an ocean north of the jungle around Jubilee, and I pondered what other civs might lie on the far side.

I eventually conquered Jubilee. I'm trying to remember now how I cracked the city... I might have just finally gotten enough promotions on another Bloodpet who was fighting animals and barbarians to get sufficient combat and shock promotions. I planted a couple of other cities, striking out a little further from the capital than I would like. This costs more ongoing maintenance, but particularly on Erebus maps it can be critically important to put mountain-gap chokeholds within your cultural borders; without Open Borders, you can deny your foes entry to not only your heartland but vast tracts of land beyond. And as in base Civ, it is crucial to gain access to strategic resources, both to boost your own military and to deny it to others; in FfH2, the big things for most of the game are metals, horses and raw mana. (Oh! Maybe that's how I conquered Jubilee, I think I hooked up a Copper resource and used a well-promoted Bloodpet to lead the charge against a stick-wielding Warrior.) I signed treaties with Hippus and Decius but didn't open borders. After rushing for chokepoints, I would have ample time to back-fill interior cities before needing to press outward.

In my earlier, abortive MacBook games I had tried to replicate a strategy that has worked well for me before: Found All The Religions. It takes a lot of focus to do it and you'll definitely fall behind in other techs, but the benefits can be enormous. Diplomatically, you can unite the whole world under a single religion that you control, and reap enormous financial benefits from it; you can also gain major cultural advantages by founding a variety of temples, and, if you're willing to shift between state religions (an easy move if your leader is Spiritual), you can even get top-level High Priests from all faiths. I hadn't had luck repeating that feat across several attempts, though. Losing out on a religious tech to a competitor is a lot more disappointing than getting beaten to a World Wonder: there's really no consolation prize, you're just left with a single disciple rather than a holy city and zero incentive to proselytize the faith. So, for my Flauros game I decided to just ignore the trio of early Mysticism-derived religions and focus on financial and infrastructure techs instead. Religion is helpful for every civilization (except Grigori), but the Calabim don't seem to have a particularly strong synergy, at least not to the same degree as, say, the Lofsjar with Fellowship or Khazad with Runes.

I did get periodic reports as the other faiths were founded. Runes came early, as expected. Surprisingly, Fellowship came very soon after, and Octopus several centuries later; in most of my games Octopus beats Fellowship, so that seemed odd.

Thanks to my Financial leader and my embrace of Aristograrianism on riverside grasslands, my economy absolutely exploded, and I soon catapulted ahead in tech. Before long I had to decide what religion I would found. Flavor-wise, the two Evil religions made the most sense: Esus for the whole "secret puppetmasters behind the scenes" vibe, or Ashen Veil for the whole "drinking blood" thing. The Sacrifice the Weak civic enabled by Ashen Veil was incredibly tempting: each citizen only requires a single Food resource, effectively doubling population caps, an enormous benefit for an enormous civ like me. But I'm always wary of Ashen Veil: the Infernals and Hyborem can be a pain on any map. I decided to think outside the box and pursue the Order instead. On its surface this seems bizarre: the Order is a righteous, evil-smiting organization. But the Order is also extremely Lawful, which does fit the Calabim ethos very closely. Gameplay-wise I was thinking that it would be useful to be able to cast Unyielding Order in my largest cities, further building on my population advantage and letting them grow further. I would discover a century later that this was A Big Mistake: unyielding order doesn't just remove angry citizens; it removes all Unhappiness, which, for Calabim, also means removing 20+ Production per turn! Whoops. I was still pretty happy with the religion; Bless is one of the most all-around useful spells in the game, and their heroes would eventually prove useful, but if I had it to do again I probably would have taken the risk and gone with Ashen Veil. One other unexpected effect of going Order was that it changed my alignment to Good. For some reason I had thought that it would just take me one step towards good, landing me in Neutral; I think that's what some of the earlier religions do, but the late-game ones are more dramatic. I'd kind of hoped to be Neutral to gain access to Druids, but it ended up not making a big difference; weirdly enough, most other civs were or would become Evil, and so turning Good was a net negative for my diplomacy.

I was starting to get curious where everyone else was. So far I'd only met three other civs, and I'd killed one of them. Soon I heard rumors that Orthus had entered the land. As in many games, this was followed a little later by the death of a civilization. In this case Kandros Fir of Khazad perished, and presumably the Runes of Kilmorph with him. Soon after we heard of Acheron the Dragon gathering a hoard. And, not long after that came the sad news that Falamar of the Lanun had died. I'd never met any of them, but mourned their passing nonetheless.

I had thoroughly explored the significant land under my... I won't say "control", since my culture only touched a tiny fraction of it, but it was all land denied to my enemies, except for the plentiful barbarians and occasional animals roaming around. I wanted to press out and see who else was around, and perhaps start trading techs. That would mean going through someone else's lands first, though. For a while I was leaning towards invading the Bannor; but Decius was very pleased with me, and Rhoanna was not. Oddly enough, the Bannor asked to vassal themselves to me, even though they did not seem to be involved in any other wars or even know any other leaders; the fact that they saw themselves as potential vassals made me think that I didn't need to worry much about them. From spying on Hippus from afar I saw that they didn't seem to be fielding any mounted units yet. Much like the Balseraphs, I reasoned that I was probably better off taking them out before they could grow into their power. By this point I had some Moroi that were pushing 100xp, and also some Bears and Spiders that were hugely powerful as well. (Oh! I think a Bear might have helped me take Jubilee, too... but maybe died in the process? It's been a while!) Hippus had been around for a while but seemed to be struggling technologically, with only Warriors to defend their cities. I took a chokepoint of their own on our border, then pressed down into their heartland, which proved to be a large and very well-developed region with a mixed economy. I took and kept every city I got, and spent some time chasing down an escorted Settler, finally attacking and sacking its size-1 city the year after it was founded. Rhoanna remained proud to the end, never suing for peace, and I soon had absorbed her entire primitive-but-wealthy empire.

As is almost always the case in FfH2, whenever you expand to a new frontier you need to prepare for the inevitable hordes of barbarians that will attack you there, and this proved no different. Fortunately, by now I had recruited Valin Phanuel, whose high mobility was invaluable as I responded to threats.

I now had a huge new area to explore. South of the old Hippus lands was a T intersection in a desert. As I would eventually learn, to the west some flood plains rose up into hilly tundra to the southwest corner of the world map, then opened into a large pocket north with ice and snow. To the east lay the ruins of the Khazad empire, and what a pitiful empire it was, ruins dotting the bare desert. Beyond the desert lay still more ice.

As soon as I spotted the Khazad ruins, a living ghost rose to greet me: the mighty Orthus in all his power, swinging his infamous axe. I held him off with a stubborn Moroi who claimed the high ground, but I gave his axe to Valin. I had not realized this before, but besides Orthus's axe giving a significant +1 to strength, it also gives a Blitz-style ability to attack multiple times per turn. Useless to Orthus himself, but incredibly significant for Valin and his 3 movement points. This shining hero of the Order was now by far the most useful human pet in the vampires' playbook, and he could single-handedly rout an entire stack of foes in a single turn.

Just as my war with Hippus was winding down, I had finally started to produce my first Vampire units, as well as my civilization hero Losha. Vampires are really cool: they replace Champions, have one less base strength (5 vs 6) but the same access to all metallic weapons. But they also have Channeling 1 and 2 and start with Death and Body spheres. Their Haste spell is extremely useful, and even better than having a normal Move 2 on the unit: for example, you can move into forested hills, then cast Haste, then move into another forested hill, bringing along any non-vampires who were on the same plot as you. Body 2 gives Regeneration, letting your entire army stay on the move without pausing to heal. Death 1 lets you summon a Skeleton, which isn't that great in practice; I like the idea of using them as disposable rushers to weaken defenses, but they can't attack on the turn they are summoned and are immune to most buffs. But Death 2 gives a Spectre which can attack immediately, great to soften up a city defender. And of course there's the marquee ability to Feast; I didn't pay a ton of attention, but I think you get something like 10-15xp per population. Feasting on a city gives a temporary -1 unhappiness (more hammers!) which lasts for only a few turns. My personal strategy was to Feast on cities that were at or near their happiness cap.

The Bannor continued to ask me to accept them as vassals, and on their third request or so I finally acquiesced, partly because it would take me 30 turns or so to bring my army from the south back up to the north. I've never vassalized anyone in FfH2 before, and I don't remember ever doing it in a regular Civ game either. If I'm fighting someone, I would usually prefer to utterly conquer them and take direct control of their cities; if I'm not fighting someone, I run the risk of getting dragged into wars that I otherwise would want to avoid. After finally doing it, though, I now recognize how awesome vassalization can be. From reading some of Kael's notes, I realized that, once someone becomes your vassal, you can make a single demand for any strategic resources, which they must provide; in FfH2, that means that you can demand the Mana from your vassal's Palace. This is huge, and I think a great argument to accept total surrender rather than directly conquering: particularly in the early game, you could double your mana sources this way. Your vassal automatically follows your foreign policy, declaring war whenever you do and accepting peace when you do. You don't share in research, but I was pleased to see that you can accept a vassal and not provide Open Borders! Even though Decius was now on my team, he wasn't allowed to cross into my territory, meaning I could continue to settle new cities at my leisure without worrying about competition for prime locations.

The vast southern region was littered with barbarian cities. Lots of them were 1-population, and I destroyed a few that were larger since their locations were so poor. But it was a huge struggle down there; multiple times I would lay siege to a city, sack it, march on, and the very next turn see the telltale black border revealing that they had just founded a new city immediately adjacent to the old one. I began to produce and send down more Settlers, starting a long-term plan to build my Culture, push out my line of sight, and eventually bring the masses under control. And while there was very little food down here, there were quite a few resources that seemed worth claiming: incense, reagents, gold, and many many raw mana nodes.

Fighting the barbarians was proving to be an endless (if not terribly difficult) struggle, but one I would have to interrupt. Some fool had discovered Malevolent Designs and let the Infernals into the world. My first inkling this had happened was when Hyborem greeted me in the diplomacy window. Egad! He must have spawned adjacent to my borders. As always I accepted peace, then scrolled through my Large map to find where he had landed. It was either the best possible or worst possible position: he was immediately to the west of my capital, closer to it than any of my cities. That was a potentially threatening position, but also the perfect way to control him. Impassable mountain ranges hemmed in in to the west and north, and my cultural borders closed off the paths east and south. He had a decent-sized pocket, but not enough to found more cities.

One of my biggest policies in FfH2 is "Once Hyborem arrives, drop everything and kill him ASAP". If he's around, it means the Ashen Veil is active, which means that as soon as a war starts Hyborem will get a dramatic increase in Manes: more population, more soldiers, a bigger threat. He's pretty easy to kill early on, though, and even if you can't get to him immediately, he'll always be easier to defeat today than tomorrow.

My biggest firepower were insanely highly promoted (120+ XP) Moroi, but they were also slow and would take ages to reach Dis, so I kept them on barbarian-squashing duty. But Valin could rush north, along with the self-Hasting vampires. And I had another trick in my pocket: I had just research Fanaticism to get Losha, which meant I was one hop away from Righteousness to get Sphener. I lucked out with an amazing event; I forget now whether it was a random timed event or the result of exploring a Lair, but the gist was that I received  a phylactery or something with hidden knowledge inside. I moused over the options to check the rewards, and they were all pretty minor: I think you could study it for +2 Beakers, consume it for +1 Armageddon, or destroy it for -1 Armageddon. I chose the latter option, then gasped in astonishment. A benevolent spirit had been freed, and granted me a free tech! I chose Righteousness: thousands of beakers, instantly delivered. I immediately started building Sphener, the higher-level Order Hero.

I started amassing my strike force on Hyborem's border, glumly looking at how his Hell terrain had despoiled the verdant jungle. Soon Sphener was ready and we sounded the charge, declaring war and arriving on his doorstep that very turn. Sphener is the perfect anti-Infernal unit, dealing Holy damage and with the Demon Slaying promotion out of the gate. Oddly enough, the Longbowmen took priority in defending Dis over Hyborem; I haven't run the math, but that's probably because, despite their far lower base strength, they don't have as many weaknesses against Sphener.

As usual, you need to kill Hyborem twice; though I think this might be the first time that I initially defeated him in the capital instead of on the field. This turned out to be one of the quickest and easiest wars I've had against Hyborem yet, and I could breathe easily.

Around this time I started to think about what kind of victory I wanted to go for. I was running a large, expansionist civ, which positioned me well for pretty much anything, except I wasn't making enough Great Prophets for Altar of Luonnatur. Tower of Mastery was looking very viable: one benefit of running a Large map was that there were sufficient mana nodes to build the tower outright, without even needing the Rites of Oghma or dispelling and rebuilding nodes. (All Unique Features helps here too, as there are some prebuilt sources you can get from the environment.) I started leaning towards a Domination game, which I think is the one victory mode I haven't yet gotten in FfH2. In the past I've tried to go for Domination but accidentally gotten Religion instead; this time around, I was aggressively spreading Order within my own borders but not evangelizing it in foreign lands, so I didn't need to worry as much about it.

Checking the Victory Conditions screen, I saw that I was already in great shape for the population requirement of Domination: I would need 44% of the world's population, and already had over 60%. Nice! Land area would be trickier: This required 58% of tiles (which excludes water, and maybe mountains, but includes ice); I only had 18%, but my next-closest rival just had 7%. I knew that there were huge tracts of land available to be settled, and opportunities to grow my Culture rings in my empire's core; it would be a challenge, but feasible.

I finished thoroughly exploring the nooks and crannies of the southern barbarian lands, finding some hidden pockets but verifying that there were no more civilizations. By my count there were at least three surviving civs that I hadn't even met yet. (This isn't at all unusual on Erebus maps; I've won victories before without even meeting half of my opponents.) I thought I could get close to the 58% land coverage with what I had, but it would be brutal work to settle all that Ice, so I should finally venture forth and do what I had feared to do all this time: get wet.

By this point I had something like 25 cities in my civilization, and only a single one lay on the coast. I hadn't even founded that one, just taken it from Hippus. I started to build a boat. I knew exactly where I was headed: west of the Hippus lands lay an impenetrable mountain chain, but as my culture pushed out I could see what lay on the other side: grassland, forests, horses... and barbarian culture. I wouldn't need to sail across the ocean, just ferry to the other side of the mountains and see what lay there.

I should pause here to describe my economy, which had been pretty consistent throughout the game. I ran the Aristocracy/Agrarian combo, which is especially amazing in Grassland-heavy areas, which covered my entire empire up to this point. Particularly with a Financial leader, this leads to incredible commerce. I ran pretty much the whole game at either 90% research for a significant profit or 100% research for a tiny cost. Jubilee held the Code of Junil and, as in almost all my FfH2 games, this is where I placed the Bazaar of Mammon, settled Great Merchants, and otherwise boosted my gold into the stratosphere. For most of the game I followed the cultural value of Consumption, for a minor boost in gold; as I headed into the endgame, I swapped this for Liberty to double my cultural output and grow my borders / claimed territory more quickly. My Labor stayed on Tribalism for most of the game; I wanted to take Slavery to capitalize on the large population in my cities, and learned to my chagrin that (duh) it is unavailable to Good leaders, which I had become. I eventually switched to Caste System which gives more research and, more importantly for me, culture for each specialist; I wasn't running a specialist-heavy economy, but would end up with at least an Engineer or something in each city, which now could help boost my borders.

FfH2 and Civ IV tend to encourage you to specialize your cities, but my Calabim settlements tended to have very consistent build orders. I would spread the Order there ASAP and start growing culture and collecting tithes, and start work on a Monument for more culture. Once that was done I would make a Governor's Mansion; the extra production from this helps all other buildings come along more quickly. I would prioritize a Breeding Pit if food was scarce in the area, otherwise it could wait for later. Temples of the Order help happiness, culture and increase tithes; in the future I need to remember to build these by making Confessors in my established cities and dispatching them to new settlements, instead of just building Acolytes and forcing the cities to build their own temples. Markets are incredibly cheap for Flauros to build, and by the time a city is done with the above items it can typically build one in just 2 or 3 turns. After this I will alternate between building population-increasing buildings (granaries, smokehouses, etc.) and culture-increasing buildings (theaters, pagan temples, etc.).

I followed the automatic governor for pretty much everything, including specialists, and didn't micromanage worked tiles much. I typically shoot for one Worker per city, though sometimes I will form squads to build out a new route or quickly build up a new settlement's infrastructure. My first priority is usually linking up with my trade network, then building and connecting any strategic resources (even duplicates), then building and connecting luxury and health resources. After that, it's farms, farms everywhere. I think I built a single Cottage in the entire game, and never even worked that tile. After the midgame, I started building windmills on top of hills. All jungles were chopped down. In the early game I chopped forests for production, in the midgame I let them grow for health, in the lategame I chopped them down again so I could plant more farms and get the most from every tile.

I've come to really love terraforming in FfH2. I wasn't able to do as much of it in this game as I would like, since I never gained access to Druids; I did get a few Archmages by the end of my game, but hadn't planned ahead well and so didn't have the Nature 3 sphere ready to go. Still, even low-level Adept spells can be hugely useful. Water 1 gives you Spring, turning inhospitable Desert into good-enough Plains. I made extensive use of Scorch, which can transform Ice into Tundra; tundra still sucks, but at least it can sustain some population. And I learned for the first time ever that Scorch can also turn Marsh into Plains! This is awesome, and something I will need to remember for future games. There were a lot of jungles and a few marshy areas around Jubilee; fortunately there was also a lot of grassland so those cities could grow well already, but they all got boosted even higher once I made every single plot in their radius viable.

I took kind of a kitchen-sink approach to research in the game, with a slight emphasis on Calabim-unique unlocks but otherwise pursuing everything. I only built a Mage Guild in my Capital and eventually churned out a total of 8 Adepts, with the long-term goal of getting 4 lichs and 4 archmages. I got access to every type of mana and spread around my promotions so someone knew everything; in retrospect, it might have made sense to load up on Death Mana for more fearsome summons, but it was fun to try stuff out. I eventually built all four arcane Towers. On the divine front, I made a good number of Confessors to serve military roles, buffing and healing my forces and also being good fighters in their own right; the Command promotion on these is really fun and can eventually provide a great mix of units. I also gave good focus to raw military and engineering techs, gaining access to Mithril around this time and getting fast movement along roads. I mostly neglected the horseback riding, archery and sailing lines; the raw power from my melee units was sufficient, particularly when backed with a diverse magical force.

My expeditionary force finally crossed the mountain range by boat and landed in the barbarian lands: Sphener, Losha, and Valin were freshly blooded from the Infernal war, and soon were followed by highly-promoted vampires and my aristocracy-loving Royal Guards. I found no humans here, but still learned a sad tale: how the Lanun, so bright and promising, were overrun by the forces of Acheron as fire triumphed over water.

I started chipping away at the barbarian empire, which included both settled barbarian cities and captured Lanun ones. But the hoard itself proved inaccessible. In fact, Acheron and his Sons of the Inferno were significantly harder to defeat than Hyborem! I couldn't even get within range of the city without being annihilated by fireballs and fire elementals. I cursed a lot and reloaded a lot. I eventually started making a wide clockwise sweep around the city radius - I couldn't even see the city yet, and tried to maneuver around it while staying out of range, looking for more achievable barbarian targets to subdue.

I was a little flummoxed at how to proceed: if even a highly-promoted Sphener couldn't survive, then how could I even get close enough to take them on? Ordinarily I would consider rushing with cannon fodder, but the big threat from the Sons is their Summoned units, so every single turn they would have a fresh batch to hurl at me.

Well, I hugely lucked out: by sheer coincidence, someone (cough cough the Amurites) cast Arcane Lacuna! This disables all spellcasting in the world for some time; on my Epic game, I think it's around 20 turns. This was a minor inconvenience for my army as I could no longer Haste or Bless, but it was absolutely perfect timing as it denied Acheron his fiery wasteland of death.

I marched up to the city and started attacking. Even with the Sons impotent, this was significantly harder than conquering the Infernals: there was a huge stack of defenders in the city, with many more reinforcing from the old Lanun lands to the north each turn. The Sons are strong fighters in their own right. And of course Acheron himself is no slouch! I took some promotions to specifically help bring him down, but it was still a long, fraught and tricky siege. Fortunately the passive Heal 2 promotion of the Confessors continues to work even during the Lacuna, which helped me keep my forces in shape.

We conquered the city and I decided to keep it. It really was a great city, maybe the best spot on the entire map, with rivers and grassland and sources of iron and ivory in range. The war against the barbarians continued, though: they still held strong reserves in the Lanun cities, several of which were built on hilltops and required more sacrifice to take.

As usual, barbarians continued to pop up in a constant whack-a-mole. I kept every city I conquered; fortunately, unlike the Khazad, the Lanun had lucked out and the territory was all good. I also started ferrying over some settlers to plant my own cities and take advantage of the verdant terrain. Meanwhile, my expeditionary force moved through a mountain pass and into a larger territory on the other side. I still hadn't met another human civilization, but there were more barbarian cities here to fight and conquer. I was now chafing against the Lacuna, unable to heal units that had grown Diseased or Withered while exploring the (still-unpopped!) goody huts and lairs in the area. But eventually it expired and I continued fighting and conquering and planting new cities.

Around this time I finally started researching seafaring techs, which by now only took 1 or 2 turns to discover. I build a Frigate and struck off across the water. I finally learned the shape of Erebus: It was all a single continent, but a vaguely C-shaped one, with the "ocean" separating my tip of the continent from the one where the other surviving civs resided. While we were all one landmass, there were basically three segments of habitable land, each separated by unbroken mountain chains. The big one on which I'd spawned and represented probably 60+% of the landmass was now just home to me, my vassal, and one billion barbarians. The middle segment was the verdant former Lanun lands and a more arid interior, along with a pocket of pure ice, and was probably another ~10% of the map. And finally there was the upper section of the "C", by now almost entirely claimed by the remaining three civs, and probably just around a quarter or less of the land tiles.

These civs were weird. To the far west, across the mountain chain from the icy pocket, were the Elohim, who worshiped the Octopus Overlords (!!). They were the friendliest of the bunch, with some of their native pacifism coexisting with their devotion to the Old Ones. To their east, the Svartflar and the Amurites were locked in a bitter struggle. Svartflar had followed the Fellowship, which I guess is decently on-brand for them, while the Amurites were Ashen Veil and held the blame for the Infernals.

I made peace with everyone, but nobody was super-happy with me. Apparently there was some bad blood between them and the Bannor, though I'm not sure how they ever interacted. I did take Open Borders with everyone and started a few minor trades. By this point in the game I had direct control over basically every type of resource with plenty of surpluses, but I could, say, offer a Banana for 2 gold per turn or something. I do like to sell resources whenever I can, as long as they don't have military applications. It helps relations, and also can disincentivize war, since as soon as they declare war their cities may fall into unhealthiness or rebellion. I was a little surprised to see that I could trade ongoing items for one-time benefits, like offering Gems for a World Map; I had remembered from previous games that you could only offer one-time for one-time and recurring for recurring, but maybe that has changed with MNAI or something.
I was a little startled and amused to see Decius summon Basium into the world. I was like, "Dude! Hyborem is dead. I killed him ages ago!" Apparently the vassalization is transitive, since Basium immediately became my vassal too, which was great since I could then demand his palace mana. He had taken a city in the heartland of the Bannor territory, without coastal access. I didn't give him Open Borders, either, so I think he just sort of sat around and brooded menacingly. It didn't make a big difference to my Domination plans: apparently, you get credit for 50% of your vassals' population and territory. Just conquering the Bannor wouldn't be enough to put me over the 58% threshhold, so I just took my share and continued to focus on the available land.

I didn't really want to fight another war. By this point the game was slowing down considerably, with every single turn taking a good 10 minutes or more of real-world time to complete: issuing Worker orders, spotting and chasing down Barbarians, issuing build orders for my new cities, churning out a rotation of Settlers and Confessors and Workers in my homeland cities. Adding an active war would slow it down even more, and I would need to deal with the complexity of a naval landing. Still, I had noticed that the Amurites and Svartflar were both very unhappy with me and at war with each other, and I thought it might be worthwhile to at least nominally participate in that war to improve my relations with the other party (and protect against the faint-but-not-discardable possibility of a surprise attack). I hemmed and hawed about which side to support, and eventually decided to answer Faeryl Viconia's call to join her in battling against Valledia the Even. First of all, attacking the Svartflar is a big pain in the ass, doubly so when they're running Fellowship for full Turtle Power, so if it did come to a shooting war I would rather be fighting archmages than invisible elves. Secondly, the Amurites were Ashen Veil, so taking them down would lower the Armageddon Counter. I'd been keeping a close eye on it and lowering whenever possible, by Sanctifying city ruins and otherwise cleaning up, so it was just in the low teens by now, but still... in the absence of a compelling counter-reason, that seemed like the best way to go.

My involvement proved to be very minor. Despite neglecting my navy for basically the whole game, I was able to quickly assemble a small flotilla of three Frigates. They explored the entire (not huge) ocean, defeated some scary sea monsters, then prowled the Amurite coast, pillaging the fishing nets and bombarding the city defenses. I didn't have huge insight into how the main war was unfolding, but it looked like the Svartflar had penetrated deep into Amurite land, only taking maybe one or two cities but posing a much bigger threat. I'm not sure if the Amurites were similarly operating within Svartflar territory or if they were playing a purely defensive game. Not my problem! The war ended up not having a big effect; Faeryl still had a highly net-negative disposition with me despite our shared military struggle, and never warmed up enough to become a trading partner.

But, that was fine. By now I had my map to victory in mind. I had already settled all of the available good land. There would be two elements to my success. First, I would settle all the available bad land: in particular, the many icy regions at the extremities of my empire. Secondly, I would boost my culture. I've done this ages ago when pursuing Legendary Culture victories in vanilla Civ IV and my Kuriorates game way back in the Fire release of FfH2. But this would be my first time with a breadth-first rather than depth-first strategy. I wasn't trying to maximize my culture in my biggest cities: I was trying to quickly grow it in my smallest. (That said, whenever my radius did grow in one of my larger cities, it might mean 30 or more plots coming into my territory, which is a huge help!)

Fortunately, by now I had constructed the Nexus, providing Obsidian Gates in every city. In past games this has been crucially important to military strategy, especially when launching an invasion of another continent, as you can immediately funnel a vast force into a beachhead. In this game, it proved very useful for my "settle all the things" strategy. I would produce a Settler in my capital, then teleport him along with a Worker, a Confessor, a Bloodpet and a Paladin into a tiny Population 2 city on the edge of my empire, then move them seven squares out into the frontier and Found a new city. I kept an eye on my victory condition and was pleased to see that Territory rating continually moving up: small, but with noticeable improvements with every turn.

Finally I decided to flip the switch, turning off my research and maximizing culture. In retrospect I probably should have done this sooner; I was so far ahead of everyone else that I didn't really need a tactical advantage, and in any case I only had maybe a dozen or so techs left undiscovered (Omniscience, Mithril Weapons, Stirrups). Once I did turn it on, with Cultural investment at 90%, every single turn I would get 6 or more cities' borders expanding.

Unlike, say, Tower of Mastery or Altar of Luonnatur, other civs don't seem to be alarmed when you're going after Domination, so fortunately I never had to fight the Elohim or Svartflar. I watched each turn as my culture pulsed further out and my territory ticked higher. And, maybe just five turns or so after going Full Culture, it finally happened: I won a Domination Victory!

It feels good! I've been playing this wonderful mod for thirteen years, and I'm still doing brand-new things in it, accomplishing new personal milestones and encountering surprises. It really is endlessly rewarding. And this is all still just with the base mode, not even touching any of the modmods yet! When I was jumping back into it I was debating between trying out Magister Modmod or Extra ModMod Unofficial, before deciding to reacquaint myself with the main game first. I'm glad I did; the quality-of-life improvements for MNAI are very invigorating on their own and make FfH2 more enjoyable than ever before. And it's humbling and exciting to think that, any time I want, I can switch over to an entire new game that stands on the shoulders of this one. We may be sheltering in place for quite a while longer, and it seems likely that I'll have still more Fall From Heaven 2 experiences before this is all over.