Review: Domina

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This game was selected as one of our two June 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.

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I love managing things in games. Transit companies, spy agencies, aquariums, apartment blocks for monsters… you name it, I’ll manage it. Typically management games work best when you have clear goals to work towards and clear ways to get there. Domina doesn’t like to play by those rules, though, and it might be a better game because of it. After all, managing a roster of rowdy gladiators doesn’t imply much in the way of stability or safety, and it wouldn’t be a very exciting game if victories were so predictable. What you get here is a lot of blood and chaos in a very simple package, which makes for a great sim to play in short, entertaining bursts.

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You’re a citizen of the decaying Roman Empire, and manager of a ludus for gladiators. A grand tournament is coming up in Rome within the year, and those who make a good showing in it may have a hand in shaping the future of the empire. If you want that to be you, you’ll need to whip your fighters into shape with training, exhibitions, challenges, and lesser tournaments to build their skills and prove their worth. A lot can happen in a year, though, from robberies and murders to upsets and rebellion. There’s more to keeping your ludus running that throwing people into a pit with a few knives, and falling down on the job could mean death for your men and destitution for yourself.

The vast majority of Domina plays from the balcony of your ludus, where you observe your gladiators training in the courtyard. There are slots for around 16 warriors, purchased from slave pens or won in competitions, as well as three hires who can upgrade various parts of your operation or provide more underhanded services. You can direct your head trainer to research new techniques to teach your men, and you can direct the individual training of gladiators if you notice particular weaknesses. You’ll also be attended by the local magistrate and legate, whom you can earn the favor of for all kinds of services, including exhibition matches and sponsorships.

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Each of your gladiators has a whole raft of stats, from physical attributes to morale and AI ratings, as well as equipment based on their class of gladiator. When you are challenged or send them off to a tournament, it’s these details you’ll need to compare to determine good matchups. Of course, the techniques they learn and the passive bonuses you get from your employees and special fate cards you earn can make a big difference, too. There’s a definite learning curve to picking good matches, as well as training up your teams. I didn’t realize at first how much more progress warriors made from exhibitions and actual fights over training in the courtyard, and wasted a fair number of weeks (and lives) doing effectively nothing. You’ll need to manage your money, too, as several important upgrades are hugely expensive compared to most of your concerns like keeping your food stores stocked and your training equipment upgraded.

There’s plenty to manage here, and plenty of strategy to it, and even some decisions to make in story events that pop up periodically. But it all comes down to the gladiator fights that happen every week or two, challenges leveled against you that you can accept if you think you can best the challenger. These can be 1 on 1 fights, a sequence of duels, big group melees, or horribly lopsided one-versus-many setups. Using everything you’ve prepared and learned from the ludus, you’ll have to put forth teams to answer these challenges, and be richly rewarded if you win. And if you don’t, it more than likely means the death of your chosen gladiators.

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The thing is, these people are going to die at some point because of how wild Domina can get. Tracking stats and picking good matchups are important, but sometimes your star gladiator is going to get tangled in a net and stabbed right in the brain in the opening seconds of a fight. Anything can happen here, and the variance in damage and attacks can feel like throwing a fistful of dice that all come up ones. I’ve seen veteran gladiators do single-digit damage to unproven foes, I’ve seen newbies stab a giant for 500 damage, and I’ve seen unarmed slaves snatch a sword from the ground and cut through a squad with it. All the preparation in the world will only nudge the hand of fate a little, and so the real preparation you need to do is bracing for death and being ready to start from scratch after a particularly nasty fight.

Domina knows this, and makes it easy to get a fresh recruit from zero to murdergodhood in a matter of in-game days. Because this was the life of a gladiator, where no matter how grand or mighty you might be, death may await you in the very next pit. Think of this as a risk management game, where the risk of death is constant and not all that crippling. The worst that can happen is you waste a few thousand denarii on outfitting your star, but that kind of money can be made back with a handful of good fights. As the stakes get higher and you start taking on chariot races and big-time tournaments this can get more stressful, but by then you’ll have a much better idea of how to at least stack the deck in your favor. After losing my best gladiator, I still went on to immediately win my next three major tournaments, so it’s never the end of the world.

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It also helps that the presentation here is top-notch. The pixel art is just as evocative as it needs to be, with chunky blood and limbs scattering on the sands of different pits all across the empire. More than that, though, is the absolutely insane soundtrack that Domina has for every battle, scene, and menu. I really have to call this out, because it’s probably the most well-orchestrated and satisfying soundtracks for a management game ever, and a serious contender for all-time great gaming music. The riffs during battles, the low rumbles during training, and the reserved melodies in menus were more evocative and immersive than any of the visual design. And with that, Domina really ticks all the boxes for a great gaming experience. It looks good, sounds amazing, and plays really well with its simple strategy and resulting chaos. It’s not the kind of sim that I’m going to lose months of my life too, but it is the kind that I’ll eagerly look forward to fooling around with whenever I have a spare moment.

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