This summary for Playoff Game Three was written by Eauxps I. Fourgott. Many thanks for volunteering to put this report together!
The third and final playoff game of the season featured two groups of leaders, starting in the north and south of the map, that couldn't be much more different from each other. In the north were the more aggressive, low peaceweight leaders, who also were the leaders of this group who had gone out and accomplished things in previous seasons. Huayna Capac, coming in from a dominant-yet-narrow Wildcard win, and Mao Zedong, coming in from a solid second-place finish, were the only two leaders to reach the playoffs five times in the first six seasons, and were the favorites to come in first and second place in this game as well. Their neighbor Alexander had a less consistent track record of success and was, in fact, favorite for First to Die in this match, but he had exploded onto the scene with his uber-dominant win last season, and followed that up with another strong opening round performance this season, albeit one where he ultimately finished in second place.
There was considerably less excitement attending the southern trio of leaders on this map, all rather passive and high-peaceweight AIs who hadn't done much in previous seasons: Churchill and Sitting Bull had never made the playoffs before this season, while Augustus Caesar had had only two unimpressive appearances. Augustus had about half the field picking him to finish either first or second thanks to a juicy capital city, and that was about all the crowd support this group enjoyed. But all three had put on strong performances in the opening round this season, Augustus and Churchill winning and Sitting Bull only not winning due to turn order, and now they had the chance to make this their breakout year.
Huayna was the only leader in this game to start with Mysticism, giving him free reign to found the first religion - Taoism, as it turned out. None of the other leaders bothered to make an attempt to found the second religion, and in fact, all five ignored Mysticism until 65 turns into the game! That would have ripple effects throughout the game, as everybody except Huayna suffered from a lack of culture for the entire landgrab phase. It also ensured that Taoism would be the only widespread religion in this game, as the second religion wasn't even founded until the very late date of Turn 56, when Huayna researched Polytheism. Sitting Bull and Augustus would both later found and convert to their own faiths, but everybody else in the world would eventually become Taoist believers. During the early landgrab phase, Huayna pulled out to an early lead, in city quality if not in city count. His first three plants were all in fertile floodplains locations, and as the only leader with a source of culture early in the game, he had higher-quality cities than anybody else did. On the other hand, Augustus had a fantastic capital, churning out uber-fast wonders with his Industrious trait and close sources of both stone and marble, but otherwise his position looked terrible. He went for a far-flung jungle plant with his third city of Cumae, one that proved completely choked and unproductive - and then he chose to train a settler there and nowhere else! That resulted in a repeat of the wacky 90-turn settler situation that we'd seen from Hannibal back in the opening round, completely throttling Rome's expansion. Eventually he managed to get some health there to double the training speed, and started building settlers in Rome again after building every wonder available, but serious damage had already been done by that point.
As the map got mostly filled up with cities, it started to become more clear who was doing better and worse. Sitting Bull was in a solid second place, having gotten out a good landgrab and teched Mysticism before anybody else. Mao and Alexander weren't looking so great, both getting boxed in by Huayna's culture after slow starts that had largely settled cities to the north and south - not towards Huayna in the center. Churchill was looking even worse - he'd founded two troll cities right on the border with the city of Rome, but once it expanded borders from all Augustus's wonders, both of those cities were overwhelmed with Roman culture, leaving him with only four cities remaining that could actually control most of their first-ring tiles. Augustus was somewhat on the upswing with this development, as well as with pushing out a few more cities himself, but he was still a long way behind. Even at this early date, Huayna Capac was looking like a runaway, with a much better economy than anybody else, much more territory than anybody else, and a favorable diplomatic situation as Taoism started to spread to his neighbors. He'd already reached a position where he would be difficult to stop.
The first wars came fairly early this game, with a pair of significant war declarations on Turn 79. In the southwest, Churchill gifted one of his culturally pressured cities to Augustus - only to declare war two turns later and march in to try and take it right back! Why'd you even gift it over in the first place, Churchill? Nottingham was actually EMPTY at the start of the war since it had been so recently gifted, but Augustus was able to whip a single archer, which combined with the walled hill location was enough to completely halt Churchill's assault - and yes, those were walls that Churchill had built in Nottingham before gifting it over. Augustus had no metals at the start of this war, yet it quickly became clear that this would nevertheless be a completely fruitless endeavor for Churchill, who was unable to break through the Roman archers' defense without catapults. The two empires would fight for many, many long years without a single city ever changing hands, dragging both leaders down to the bottom of the scoreboard. Over to the east, Huayna Capac attacked Sitting Bull in a much more decisive war. He was able to catch the Native Americans unaware and underdefended, and thus forced his way into two different cities in fairly short order before signing a peace treaty. Without wasting a ton of time or soldiers fighting a long, drawn-out war, Huayna had managed to deal a significant blow to his closest competitor, further extending his own lead while putting Sitting Bull's prospects in more doubt.
Then dark clouds started to appear on the horizon. Mao launched an attack on Huayna, in a war that made a lot of sense in terms of position on the map, but strategically was a horrible decision. Mao was completely boxed in by Incan culture, with no other neighbors, and the pressure to attack Huayna must have been enormous. However, Mao also only had six cities, no Construction tech, and no hope of making actual progress against an undistracted Incan empire. Huayna also had the bigger army, and quickly marched up and took the border city of Xian, leaving Mao with only five cities. He turned his attention to slowly attacking the rest of China, his back to the rest of the world at the moment. At first, it didn't look like this would be a big deal for anybody except Mao. Alexander sure didn't seem to take notice, as he soon marched his armies in the opposite direction and declared war on Augustus. That particular war proved not to be terribly impactful, distracting Augustus but ultimately not changing the status quo in that war. Augustus wasn't able to make any advances on his foes, but his Praetorians allowed him to hold easily against the catapult-less English and Greek assaults. Realizing the futility of this conflict, Alex quickly peaced out and assessed his other potential targets, soon settling on one. He spent several turns sharpening a dagger, then plunged it into Huayna's back on Turn 137.
The clouds had moved in and covered the Incan sky. Huayna Capac was now caught in a two-front war with his two northern neighbors - one of the worst scenarios for him that we could have imagined at the start of the game. And yet, it looked like he was already strong enough that it didn't matter: Alex's main stack assaulted the city of Vilcabamba while it had just four defenders inside, but he came up short anyway thanks to the longbowmen garrisoned there. By this point, Huayna had a higher score than both Alex and Mao combined, and it seemed that it did translate to a decisive edge that would allow him to successfully fend off both of their assaults. This wasn't a great situation for him, but as it was, he could handle it.
And then the clouds burst: Sitting Bull came in with his own war declaration on Huayna! The storm had broken, and this would be the critical moment of the game. Either Huayna would successfully leverage his lead and hold out against the three-front war, proving truly unstoppable, or else the three would overpower him, dragging him down to elimination, and it would be anybody's game. Stunned by this turn of events, unsure which of his three enemies to target, Huayna wasn't able to continue on the attack, and all three of his rivals launched fresh assaults of their own. Sitting Bull quickly recaptured both of his former cities that Huayna had nabbed. Mao was able to wrest one of his two captured cities back as well, and Alex's fresh assault on Vilcabamba proved enough to capture the city this time. It looked like Huayna had suffered one attack too many, and he wasn't helping his case by continuing to push infrastructure in his cities during the war. Those would help him to maintain his economic lead if he survived, but the lack of new units was making it harder to weather the existing conflicts! Was this too much for Capac? Would he be finally overwhelmed by this storm of attacks?
Then a gap appeared in the stormclouds: Alex was willing to sign peace! Huayna inked a treaty with him on Turn 154, not getting Vilcabamba back but still relieving the pressure on his western border. A new cloud came in to fill its position: less then ten turns after the treaty, Augustus marched his own stack up and declared war on Huayna. Capac was now back in a three-front war, having been attacked by every leader in the game except for Churchill. It seemed that he just couldn't catch a break this game! But then it became clear that the cloud of Augustus was a thinner one than the cloud of Alexander. Augustus had less cities and was farther away, so he wasn't as severe of a threat to the Incan empire. Huayna was able to fend off his initial assault, kill off Sitting Bull's latest attack stack, and start moving in with an assault on Sitting Bull's lands. He hadn't fully recovered yet, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that he was stabilizing. Mao was able to capture another Incan city, but by the thinnest of margins, and it looked like his offensive was petering out. Huayna started to capture Native American cities, pushing Sitting Bull back into his starting corner. Augustus injected a bit of doubt into the proceedings, successfully marching up and recapturing one of those cities for himself, but then sunlight burst out over the Incan empire, as the tide turned permanently in Huayna Capac's favor:
The turncoat Alexander had swapped sides, and he declared war on Augustus! The Roman attack stack was quickly slaughtered, and Alex's attack ensured that Augustus couldn't continue committing forces to an assault on Huayna, once again relieving the pressure on him. This final setback proved to be too much for Mao and Sitting Bull: realizing that they couldn't win without more help, both soon agreed to hand over one of their captured cities to Huayna in exchange for peace. Now Huayna was only at war with a single rival, on the favorable side of a 2v1. Thanks to the peace deals, he had ultimately come out of both of the eastern wars with one more city than he had before, slightly bettering his position despite the odds while still nurturing his economic lead throughout. The stormclouds had lifted, Huayna had weathered the worst, and now there was nothing left to stop him from claiming his victory.
Huayna was now ridiculously far ahead in the same vein that we'd seen from Pacal and Mansa Musa in the two previous playoff games. His tech lead was enormous, he had a much bigger production base than anybody else, and his closest technological rival, Augustus, was being badly hampered by the two-front war. As for the others, Sitting Bull and Mao had both been badly crippled, now occupying the last two spots on the scoreboard, and were just huddling in their corners and hoping to make it out alive. It was now Alexander and Churchill vying for the second-place spot: Churchill had made it all the way up to second place by just sitting in place and building, tossing a bunch of fishing villages down on the southern coast and making no other aggressive moves. He also enjoyed good relations with the northern coalition thanks to shared religion. Alex was badly behind in terms of economy, but with a lower peaceweight and more insulated position, his long-term position was safer. Augustus also had a shot if he could survive this war, doing much better in tech than any of the other four trailing leaders, but until and unless he could fend off the multiple assaults, he was in a bad situation.
It wasn't long before things got shaken up again, this time from the most suicidal move of the game. Mao apparently decided that he'd rather die with honor than huddle in a corner for the rest of the game, or something along those lines. Whatever the reason, he went back to war with Huayna Capac less than 30 turns after he'd signed peace. Mao really had no other options for aggression, but this was still a ridiculously bad move for him to make. He actually managed to recapture his original city of Xian at the outset of the war, but his offensive wouldn't last for long before Huayna got the flower of his army over to counterattack, and Huayna was also in the process of researching Rifling to completely end Mao's chances. This gave Augustus some form of relief, with no Incan assaults coming anymore, but he had an even bigger problem on his hands: Churchill had gone back to war with him! Churchill had utilized his long period of peace to build up to having the strongest military in the game, and the English units quickly swarmed over the border into Roman territory, finally recapturing Nottingham and then pushing further in. The big crux of this conflict was the city of Rome, powering Augustus's economy through its treasure trove of wonders, most notably the Great Lighthouse. If Augustus could hold it long enough, he would finish research on Rifling and unlock that generational tech edge to hold out against England. Could he make it?
No, he couldn't. Churchill's huge army came in against the city of Rome, and they won decisively. Augustus's capital fell, and his economy collapsed in a single turn. That one city had been the heart and soul of the Roman empire, and without it he didn't stand a chance. Now it was now a race to see who would be the first to die: Augustus had virtually no core after the fall of Rome, but Mao was the one facing down Incan rifles and cavalry. Ultimately, the difference here came down to who focused more on the assault. Huayna was lackadaisical in his war with Mao, continuing his eternal infrastructure push and not bothering to actually mount a coordinated assault. On the other hand, Churchill was focusing exclusively on his war with Augustus, and thus proceeding much faster. So it was Augustus who died first, never managing to finish Rifling research despite being less than ten turns away before his capital was taken.
Despite having signed peace with Augustus earlier, Alexander managed to capture the last city, declaring a single turn before Augustus's death and sniping the kill out from under Churchill's nose. As for Augustus, he had played horribly in this game and fully deserved his fate. He did a terrible job of expanding, never settling more than six cities, and then failed utterly to achieve anything in war despite holding the advantage of Praetorians over Churchill. He built a bunch of wonders with Industrious + Stone + Marble, and that let him be stronger than he would otherwise have been with his small core, but as the game went on, he wasn't even able to continue doing that, as Huayna's larger empire was reaching their techs first and building them instead. Founding and adopting his own religion later in the game was the kiss of death for Augustus, as it ensured that he had no true allies and kept Churchill and Alex at odds with him, continuing to come after him until he died.
It took a little longer for Mao to exit the scene, as Huayna continued to only disinterestedly probe at his civ's remains, but eventually the inevitable couldn't be delayed any longer and Huayna took the last city. Mao suffered from a bad position in this game, boxed in behind a runaway Huayna Capac, and from the end of the landgrab phase he really had no path to bettering his position. You can fault him all you want for attacking Huayna multiple times, but he really didn't have any other choice unless he wanted to just sit back and do nothing. But that doesn't mean that Mao wasn't at fault at all here - he did a terrible job of expanding, settling secure coastal locations instead of contested land and helping to allow Huayna to become such a monster in the first place. It was his own fault that he was this far behind, and that weak opening combined with this particular position was enough to destroy any chance he had in this game.
With two leaders out of the picture, Huayna was still the runaway, and nothing was going to change that. The only question was if he would keep fighting and win by Domination, keep teching and win by Spaceship, or do neither and go for a Cultural victory instead. Churchill was now in a strong second place after absorbing Rome, and had unlocked Redcoats already to further ensure his security. He would have no trouble advancing... unless Huayna chose to attack him and knock him out. Alex and Sitting Bull were both far behind the other two and would need Churchill to die in order to have a shot at advancing. Alex was doing the best he could now to improve his position, marching across the map and attacking Sitting Bull, but he was having a rough time of it. Sitting Bull had rifles where Alex did not, and the long supply lines for Greece made it far easier for Sitting Bull to defend his territory. But soon, the picture became much bleaker for Sitting Bull: Churchill and Huayna both declared war on him and moved in, and that signaled the end. Native American riflemen weren't too bad against Greek grenadiers, but add English redcoats and Incan tanks to the mix and they had no chance. It was a total toss-up in terms of who would take the spoils; ultimately each leader took two cities, with Alex managing to snipe the kill once again:
It wasn't the most deserved fate for Sitting Bull, who had gotten off to a good start before getting targeted early on by the monstrous Huayna. Sitting Bull clearly had a better landgrab phase than anybody else except the Inca, but still was no match for Huayna when he came calling with his early war declaration. Of course, his early city placements could've been smarter, his economic management better, and his defensive preparations stronger, so you can't say this was a fully undeserved fate, but the luck of the draw was in play as much as anything else with this early strike. Sitting Bull was permanently set back after having two of his cities poached, and his game went downhill from there. He made a game attempt by joining the dogpile on Huayna, but he wasn't strong enough to fend off the superior Incan forces once Alex dropped out, and from then on he was stuck just waiting to die. Perhaps striking against England instead would have helped him to become stronger, but that also would have done nothing to slow down the Incan victory parade - there really was no path to victory by that point. Sitting Bull had gotten off to a better start than Mao, but in the end, his position was just as hopeless anyway.
And now it was just the final three leaders, and the end of the game was rapidly approaching. Huayna had flipped on the culture slider during the war with Sitting Bull, and even on the first turn of his attempt, his third city was less than 40 turns away from going Legendary. Huayna had founded 5 of the 7 religions and cleaned up most of the wonders in the game, leading to a monstrous cultural output that wouldn't take long at all to come to fruition. The countdown was already at 20 turns by the time Sitting Bull was eliminated, and so there simply wasn't enough time for things to get shaken up any further. Huayna was too busy focusing on his cultural attempt anyway, and didn't want to go to war. Churchill liked both of his neighbors, so he wouldn't attack either of them. Alex did want to stir up some more trouble and started plotting war again, but those plans didn't have time to mature before Huayna put a lid on the win.
Out of a trio of impressive economic performances in this playoff round, Huayna Capac's was the most impressive. Unlike Mansa Musa or Pacal, he didn't win by staying out of war for long enough; indeed, he was at war with one or more foes for the majority of the game! Instead, Huayna played such a good opening compared to everybody else that he was already practically unstoppable by the time the map filled up and the wars broke out. He was attacked by four of the other five leaders in the game at some point, and twice faced three-front conflicts, but he was strong enough to withstand all of that while only ever losing a single city that he had founded himself. Even with almost the entire field working against him, he was able to come out on top, and end up dominating the field despite the long odds. Getting into this good of a position may have relied on Mao and Alex to get off to poor starts, but winning from such a hostile situation was extremely impressive nonetheless. Most other leaders would have fallen here, but not Huayna Capac. Perhaps more than any other winner this season, he earned his victory, and he'll almost certainly be the one to beat as he seeks to become AI Survivor's first two-time winner.
As for Churchill, he played a terrible opening, expanding at a mediocre rate, waiting forever to put culture in his cities, settling multiple cities where they'd be engulfed by Roman culture, and then gifting a city to Augustus, only to immediately attack it in a war that dragged him down for centuries without providing any gains. At the time that Huayna Capac and Sitting Bull first signed peace, Churchill had seemed to be a dead man walking and doomed to irrelevance in this game. But once his long war finally ended, he did an impressive job of recovering from the abysmal start, cramming extra cities down wherever he could and biding his time until the perfect moment came to strike. Churchill was the only leader never to attack Huayna Capac, so perhaps it's no surprise that he eventually came in second place to him. Instead, he adopted the northern civs' religion to ward off attacks, and waited until first Augustus and then Sitting Bull had been worn down by attacks to come in himself and conquer their gassed civilizations. The absorption of Rome put him easily in second place, and in the end he was far more successful than any of the other leaders on this map sans Huayna Capac. Churchill thus has made more of his opportunity than anybody else making their first playoff appearance this season, and becomes possibly the last leader ever to advance to the Championship after never having made the playoffs previously. He'll face long odds and low support against this murderers' row of a Championship field, but already he's had his best year by far.
Finally, Alexander was the true troll of this game. His backstab of Huayna came at a critical moment to help embroil Capac in a dangerous three-front conflict... and then, right when it looked like they might be about to break through, Alex peaced out and left the other two leaders to their fates, swapping sides as he later attacked Augustus to keep him off Huayna's back. He successfully kissed up to Huayna enough to keep him from ever declaring war in revenge despite his earlier betrayal, and later swooped in to steal multiple kills of dying civilizations, thus ending his season with a currently-leading but not-entirely-deserved four kills despite failing to make the championship. Alex never faced a serious invasion and thus survived with his entire core intact, but with conquests of a mere four cities vultured from distracted civs, this was hardly an impressive outing for him. The championship might not be quite as interesting with Churchill there instead of Alex, but few people were sad to his season end here.
Looking back at this game, there were two major early factors that set up the midgame action, and later two big turning points that cemented how it would go. Early on, the biggest factor in this game's results was the poor expansion of Mao and Alexander, which allowed Huayna to expand to such a strong position while also weakening them so that they had a harder time posing a credible threat to him. Another major factor was Huayna's early attack of Sitting Bull, which knocked his biggest threat down a peg and weakened him for their future conflict - that might well have tipped the scales in Huayna's favor later on. After the giant war broke out and Huayna faced his 3v1 conflict, the great turning point in that war was his peace treaty with Alexander, shortly followed by Alex turning around and attacking Augustus instead. That secured half of Huayna's border, allowing him to focus exclusively on the other side, and having Alex as an ally instead of an enemy was the relief he needed to stabilize and come out victorious. Had Alex not signed peace, Huayna could very well have been slowly dragged down by the three leaders until finally being eliminated, but that treaty signaled the end of the true threat to his position. The other big turning point was Churchill attacking Augustus and taking Rome, dealing a knockout punch to the second-place leader in research, setting Augustus up as first to die, and setting Churchill up as the second-place leader. That position had been up in the air before the declaration, but afterwards nobody except Huayna was capable of touching Churchill.