The second playoff game featured several popular leaders from past seasons of AI Survivor as part of an overall field of veteran competitors. Everyone present in this game had made the playoffs at least once in past seasons and four of these six leaders (everyone aside from Asoka and Augustus) had reached the championship game on a previous occasion. Each of these leaders had some area of expertise in which they tended to focus. Julius Caesar would try to win the game militarily using his Imperialistic trait for fast expansion into a praetorian-fueled conquest. We would also be experiencing a Roman mirror match for the first time in this game, although Augustus would likely focus on wonder building instead of aggressive invasions. Willem was expected to have the best pure teching power thanks to his Financial trait while Asoka would emphasize culture and founding as many religions as possible. Suryavarman and Mao would likely fall somewhere in between on the spectrum, both of them experienced leaders with many successful prior games under their belt. This game looked to be a free-for-all that could end up moving in a number of different directions.
We knew going into this game that Asoka would found the first religion thanks to his standing as the only leader with Mysticism as a starting tech. Sure enough, Buddhism popped up nine turns into the game in India's second city, placed to the west of Asoka's capital on the border with China. It was unclear who would pursue the second religion, however, and dozens of turns passed with no one making a run at Polytheism tech. Eventually it would be Suryavarman who established Christianity at the late date of Turn 45 with the religion popping up to his south along the Dutch frontier. The extra culture produced by these religions would ended up causing significant tensions between India/China and the Khmer and the Dutch.
This was a somewhat larger map than some of the others rolled for AI Survivor games and it was important for each leader to claim their fair share of the nearby terrain. Asoka's culture allowed him to dominate the local borders surrounding his capital at the cost of potentially making enemies of his low peace weight neighbors. Asoka's cities were planted far apart from one another as he went with a looser build than we typically see from the AI leaders. China was the nation most affected by the Indian culture, with Mao planting a single city to the south and then dedicating himself to founding a collection of small tundra fishing villages in the far north. He would end up with half a dozen of them by the time that the landgrab phase concluded. Julius Caesar chose fairly weak locations for his first two cities, including managing to miss out on his nearby iron resource, but his Imperialistic trait kept him in the mix thanks to having cheaper settler costs. Augustus was his typical self, off doing his own thing in the corner of the map without interacting much with the other leaders.
Most of the tension in the early game was centered upon Suryavarman and Willem on the western side of the map. The Khmer had headed due south with their starting settler to establish the city of Hariharalaya and this was the spot where the Christian holy city also happened to appear. Willem's early settlements went to the south of his capital but then he pushed to the northeast with a bold move to found Rotterdam, with Nijmegen backfilled afterwards to connect together Dutch territory. Both Suryavarman and Willem were Creative and the two of them soon had a lengthy overlapping border creation friction between their empires. Although the two leaders had a similar low peace weight and eventually adopted a shared Christian faith, this was one of the powder kegs of the map waiting to explode.
Elsewhere, Asoka caught a stroke of luck when Julius Caesar picked up his Buddhist religion via a random spread. This was hardly unlikely since Caesar's Roman territory wasn't far away from the Buddhist holy city, but the adoption of a shared Buddhist faith helped to reduce tensions in this part of the world. Mao would end up founding a very late Taoism via Monotheism tech with the result that China found itself practicing a different religion from all of its neighbors. This was an ominous sign for Mao and a rather unlikely sequence of events; it's pretty rare for the Monotheism religion to still be sitting there unclaimed 80 turns into the game. Much of the community attention was focused on Julius Caesar, the heavy favorite in the picking contest with roughly 50% of the first place votes. He did well enough in getting to five cities and then seemed to have some kind of brain fart as he ceased expanding altogether. There was a Roman settler en route to found another city in the southern tundra and a stack of units about to capture a barbarian city, then all of a sudden both of them turned around and headed home. We can only guess that Caesar started plotting war and his AI programming gave up on any attempt to expand peacefully. This was a horrible decision as it left Julius Caesar stuck on five cities, not nearly enough to be a serious threat. Augustus would end up quietly settling almost all of the southern regions along with capturing the barbarian city on western Rome's doorstep.
Asoka was hardly covering himself in glory:
He was the favorite as First to Die in the picking contest thanks to his high peace weight and pacifistic tendencies. Asoka lacked access to early copper and as predicted he was very slow to research Iron Working tech. What we didn't anticipate was Asoka inexplicably skipping Wheel tech, leaving him with a roadless empire some 70 turns into the game. Indian cities had tons of culture but were stagnating at small population sizes because there were no resources connected thanks to the lack of roads. Unable to train any units other than warriors and archers, Asoka would have crumpled in an instant if anyone had attacked him, and with his borders pushing against Mao and both Caesars, everyone expected someone to head after him. Instead, no one launched an invasion and Asoka's bluff ended up going uncalled. In time he researched The Wheel for roads and then Iron Working for a source of metals (post Turn 100!) to remove his vulnerabilities. This felt like an unusual turn of events but we'd have to go back and run more tests of the map to find out for certain.
Instead the first war of the game broke out in the west, with Suryavarman launching an attack against Willem on Turn 78. This conflict had been predicted by many of the community submissions prior to the game beginning and the early date of the war suggested that it would prove to be an ineffective slog. Both leaders had their early game strategic resources connected and both leaders had Creative culture + city walls for defense. Without catapults available to break the defender's advantage, the attackers on both sides kept getting slaughtered over and over again. We've seen this pattern an inordinate amount of times in AI Survivor, early wars usually dragging down both sides to no gain. After the first few Khmer attacks crashed into Dutch defenses to no effect, we weren't watching the fighting too closely because it was obvious that the warring wouldn't have any significant effects. And then this happened:
What the heck?! How did Suryavarman capture Willem's capital? With... spears and chariots for his army?! I still have no idea what happened and we don't have the autosaves available to go back and investigate further. My best guess is that Willem left himself underdefended in Amsterdam and Suryavarman landed one or two low-odds victories to snowball his stack into a conquest. There's no way that this should have happened given how the warring had been a complete stalemate for the first two dozen turns of the fighting. Now it looked like Suryarvarman had the potential to finish off the remaining Dutch cities and run away with the rest of the game. This did not happen, however, as the Dutch resistance stiffened and Suryarvarman found himself unable to make further gains. It was simply too hard to push any further into thick Dutch culture with no siege units to break through the defenses. Willem even managed to recapture Amsterdam - only to hand it back to Suryavarman in a peace treaty. What the heck, Willem?! He had the former capital firmly under control, there was zero reason to sign it away to the Khmer. By the time that this war ground to a halt, both Suryavarman and Willem had been knocked far down the leaderboard and seemingly out of contention. Another case of an indecisive pre-Construction war that turned everyone into a loser.
Meanwhile, Julius Caesar had been plotting war for more than a dozen turns now. Western Rome was still stuck on five cities and desperately needed to control more territory, even as the lethargic Augustus was out to ten cities thanks to settling the tundra and capturing cities from barbarians. The prime moment to attack Asoka had passed but there was still time to make a play for the nearby Indian cities. Or alternately the Dutch were barely holding out against the Khmer and would have collapsed quickly if hit with praetorians. Instead, Caesar opted to strike out against the Chinese to the north:
This was a bit of a weird decision given that there was almost no border overlap at all between Rome and China. The religious differences must have been tugging at the diplomacy here with Mao unfortunately landing that extremely late Taoism and leaving himself stuck in an unpopular faith. Julius Caesar wasn't strong enough to make any headway against Mao and Guangzhou looked to be in little danger of falling to the invaders. Then the diplomacy continued turning against the Chinese: Suryavarman decided to leap into another war by attacking on Turn 123 followed by Asoka unexpectedly piling on a dozen turns later. Suddenly Mao was stuck on the losing end of a 1 vs 3 situation and his successful early game of peaceful expansion went up in smoke. Mao would have been well served to attack India during the dozens and dozens of turns when Asoka had no resources connected. India had been in the extremely dangerous situation of having lots of border pressure and a low power rating and a giant peace weight difference with China. But Mao decided to build a bunch of icy fishing villages instead and now it was too late, Asoka had come calling with a bunch of friends.
Amongst the three military allies, Suryavarman was the one who had made the worst decision. He still lacked Construction tech for siege units and that meant a whole bunch of Khmer units suiciding into Chinese Protective defenders to no purpose. Mao had teched to Feudalism and his City Garrison + Drill longbows were not intimidated by the Khmer axes and swords and chariots. Western Rome and India did have catapults and they fared much better, slowly sieging down one city at a time and capturing it with the use of collateral damage. Asoka took the first border city of Guangzhou and it looked like this could turn into a runaway Indian conqest, but then Caesar unexpectedly managed to grab the finishing blow at Shanghai and the Chinese capital of Beijing. Thus instead of Asoka grabbing all of the spoils this turned into a true partition, with India taking half of the cities and western Rome getting the other half. Caesar even managed to get the kill credit on Turn 195:
While this war was taking place, Willem had been biding his time and preparing for his own strike. He launched a perfectly timed war on Turn 168, catching the Khmer army off in China and immediately recapturing the city of Amsterdam. (Amusingly this city had "we long to return to the motherland" unhappiness because it had been gifted away in that prior peace treaty!) Suryavarman had been in constant war for the last 100 turns and his cities were underdeveloped and exhausted from endless warring. Willem began rolling up the Khmer cities one by one, slowly gaining in strength all the while. We were seeing something remarkable in this game: two near-dead leaders (Julius Caesar and Willem) manging to turn things around and resuscitate themselves after disastrous early games. Caesar had been stuck on five cities before miraculously managing to conquer a second core in former China while Willem had lost his capital city - twice! - before going on this new invasion. Julius Caesar liberated one of his captured cities to Suryavarman, presumably because it was surrounded by Khmer culture, and then opportunistically declared war on the very next turn and recaptured it. AI logic at its finest. Willem ended up claiming the bulk of Khmer territory but Caesar did vulture three cities for himself, including stealing the finishing blow:
This felt like a narrowly missed game for Suryavarman. With slightly better luck and more care in picking his targets, he might have been able to overrun Willem and emerge as a true juggernaut in this game. Similarly, Mao was in prime position to capitalize on Asoka's early game weakness and for whatever reason chose not to pull the trigger. Both of them paid for their missteps by being consigned into the dustbin of history. In the aftermath of this round of warring, the four remaining leaders found themselves in a surprisingly even situation. While Asoka and Augustus were clearly the top two leaders, Julius Caesar and especially Willem were on the rise. The Dutch and western Roman leaders had forged a strong friendship thanks to their Buddhist faith and "mutual military struggle" bonuses, and since Asoka was "Pleased" with everyone and unwilling to engage in future warfare, the low peace weight leaders had the potential to divide and conquer their remaining opponents.
This operation began with a poorly chosen war by Willem as he attacked Augustus on Turn 234. Augustus was ahead in technology and had splendid infrastructure in his cities thanks to never having engaged in combat throughout the entire game. Willem was doing his usual thing where he ignored Rifling tech and that meant Dutch knights and maces and crossbows fighting on the other side of the continent against eastern Roman rifles. It was an obvious losing matchup and the Dutch units were scattered like quail. Augustus even managed to push across to Willem's territory and capture the city of Utrecht. That was about the point in time when Julius Caesar piled into the conflict to help his ally:
Western Rome was significant behind in overall technology but for the moment the two sides had equivalent military units, lots of rifles on both sides of the Roman civil war. While Augustus had the mounted advantage since Julius Caesar still lacked Military Tradition for cavalry, western Rome countered by having a battery of cannons on hand for rapid sieges. Julius Caesar also benefitted from his late entry into the war; we've repeatedly seen how the AI leaders do a better job of concentrating their stacks before conflict starts and then often take prizes from weary combatants. In any case, Caesar started with the former barbarian city of Hsung Nu and began pushing to the east. His offensive made the questionable strategic decision to focus on the icy fishing villages in the extreme south, places that were easier to capture but held little real value. Even as Willem opted to sign a peace treaty and exit the fighting the war ground on between the two Caesars.
Augustus soon discovered the critical Assembly Line technology, upgrading his cities with factory production and outfitting his rifles with shiny new infantry outfits. Julius Caesar still kept pushing onwards despite this tecnological disadvantage, offsetting his weaker units with more total cities training soldiers for the fighting. This was a critical moment in the game: if western Rome could take a few more cities, the weight of numbers would be too great to bear and eastern Rome would collapse completely. If Julius Caesar could consolidate all of the Roman lands under his banner, he had the potential to challenge Asoka and maybe escape this game with a shocking Domination victory. But it was not to be: Augustus discovered Artillery technology and the addition of the new siege units seemed to pass him over a tipping point. The city of Arretium was repeatedly attacked and narrowly held, followed by a slow retreat of the western Roman forces. We could visibly see that Julius Caesar had hit the high water mark of his conquest and the tide was starting to recede backwards. Western Rome was hurting due to Caesar's persistent refusal to research Assembly Line tech and unlock infantry, factories, and power plants. If Caesar had gone for the tech at first opportunity he might have been able to push onwards and end this war.
The other problem for western Rome was hideous, crippling war weariness:
This was naturally thanks to the Statue of Zeus, the second-most poorly conceived wonder in Civ4, which Augustus had constructed during his long turns of peaceful building. The entirety of the fighting had taken place inside the purple borders of eastern Rome and Julius Caesar's cities were on the verge of revolt due to all of the accumulated war weariness. This was likely the main cause of an eventual peace treaty that ended the Roman civil war on Turn 318:
Julius Caesar was lucky to get this treaty since he had clearly been losing the recent turns of fighting. The front lines had been shifting further and further to the west and it was doubtful that western Rome could have held Tarentum and Ardea for any length of time. (Tarentum was inexplicably given to Julius Caesar in the deal, another one of those cases where the AI can't understand the strategic picture of what's likely to happen next.) With the wider Roman conflict finished, we were essentially locked into our finishing results. Julius Caesar had been unable to get over the hump and complete his conquest of eastern Rome, ending up with a little less than half of Augustus' territory. It had been the correct course of action since it was his only chance of scoring enough points to move on to the championship, a valiant effort that came up short. The endless fighting had left Julius Caesar laughably behind in technology, more than a full era trailing behind Asoka, and he hadn't managed to accumulate enough population or territory to move into second place. The war had also wrecked the game for Augustus, although his inert and passive gameplay hardly deserved to be rewarded with another appearance in the finals.
The real winners of the Roman civil war ended up being Asoka and Willem. Asoka continued to be "Pleased" with everyone else in the game and therefore would never start a war of his own volition. At the same time, the aggression directed against Augustus resulted in him being given another free pass. No one ever started a war with Asoka throughout the entire game, and he had accumulated enough territory from the earlier conflict with Mao to allow him to tech up to a spaceship victory. After the Chinese conquest was finished, Asoka sat in his corner building away undisturbed until the game ended. The other big winner was Willem, who used the long turns of Roman fighting to dial up his economy and pass both of his competitors in research. He soon passed both of them on the scoreboard as well and never looked back, locking up the second place spot in a cakewalk. Given more time he might have been able to compete with Asoka for the overall victory but the earlier weak state of the Dutch empire left Willem too far behind to catch up. It was nonetheless a remarkable comeback for someone who lost his capital 100 turns into the game.
There were some final war declarations from Julius Caesar and Willem against Augustus but they only affected the scoring in the picking contest, not the outcome of the game. (Despite fighting with rifles/cavs against tanks, Julius Caesar managed to capture Augustus' capital in the final turns of the game. Quantity over quality.) Asoka launched his spaceship and won the game ten turns later without anyone ruffling a hair on his head:
We had a lot of strong AI leaders in this game and the outcome that we ended up getting felt like a weird result. My guess is that Asoka probably wouldn't be lucky enough to go the entire game without ever suffering a war declaration in most scenarios. This game would have been a very different place without the Mao dogpile taking out one of the early competitors, or without Willem losing his capital to Suryavarman in strange fashion, or without Julius Caesar inexplicably stopping his expansion on five cities for no clear reason. If he'd created his typical core of 8-10 cities before looking to engage in warfare, this game would have played out completely differently. Still, kudos to Asoka for pulling out what appears to be an unlikely victory. Between Washington and Asoka, the favorite in the First to Die category ended up winning both of the first two playoff games of Season Five. We'll have to take another look at these games for our alternate history scenarios to see if the community was misreading these games or if the playoffs had fluky results. Time will tell. Until then, thanks as always for watching and reading.