Game Five shaped up to be a match where the seeded leaders would finally return back to form. The community was heavily banking on Suryavarman and Willem to emerge victorious from the game, with more than 90 percent of the contest entrants picking one of these two leaders to win. Willem was the favorite and seemingly everyone who didn't have the Dutch leader was relying on Suryavarman. Given their past history of success, these two leaders looked like the safest bets to survive and advance to the next round. As for the other leaders, there were two American civs up on the northern end of the map which would cause a great deal of confusion due to their overlapping names. Lincoln had a capital city named Washington right next to a competing leader also named Washington! On the southern side of the continent, Ragnar was expected to ruin someone else's game and the big question was who that would be. Bismarck had excellent land around his capital but suffered from the disadvantage of being, well, Bismarck with a long track record of ineffective gameplay. If he was ever going to do something noteworthy, this was the moment.
This was a game where the early turns had immediate consequences which would affect how things played out for the rest of the match. Lincoln and Washington sent their settlers directly towards one another, with Washington's red America winning the settling race. This created additional room for Willem to expand in the northwestern corner of the map while Lincoln was forced to walk his starting settler slowly towards the south. This was one of the rare games where no leader started with Mysticism tech and the religions were open for anyone to grab. Willem ended up opening with Mysticism into Meditation research and founded Christianity in his second city. Then he continued researching Polytheism and grabbed the other early religion as well, winding up with a double Holy City to his south. Later on, he would found the THIRD religion of the game as well to claim all of the early faiths for himself. This wasn't particularly necessary and Willem likely would have been better off investing his strong Financial research into more of the non-religious parts of the tech tree. It did mean that there were no religions at all on the southern side of the map in the early going which was a strange outcome.
Nonetheless, it was a strong early game for Willem who claimed all of the disputed territory in his region thanks to Creative culture and all of those religions. Washington was forced to settle to the east where he crunched Lincoln on land in a setup which was bad for both American civs. The southern side of the continent had a bit more territory and the leaders down there did a good job of claiming it. Bismarck was making use of the gems resource and nearby floodplains to expand into a classic ring around his capital. Ragnar was tossing his cities in seemingly random directions and refusing to research Mysticism tech which resulted in Viking borders sprawling out all over the place in a way that seemed designed to cause later conflict. Suryavarman raced out to four cities and then paused to start constructing wonders. He had stone at his capital to help speed along the Pyramids... then switched into Universal Suffrage civic when they finally completed. As one of our Livestream viewers quipped, that would surely be useful for all zero of the towns that he possessed.
The direction of the competition was starting to take shape after 50 turns of gameplay. Willem was the score leader and the research leader thanks to having the Financial trait and all of that religious culture. He'd done a fantastic job of muscling Washington out of their disputed border region and looked to be in a great position to continue expanding down into the central jungle. However, Willem made a serious error in tying up two of his cities on wonder builds. Stonehenge in the capital wasn't a big deal but he couldn't exactly afford to have his second city spend the next 30 turns working on the useless Temple of Artemis wonder. This would slow down Willem's expansion rate noticeably and leave him with fewer cities than the Dutch should have claimed. Usually the biggest limitation on the AI's expansion is lack of economy to support more cities and that definitely wasn't the case here. Willem simply became too greedy for more cultural stuff and failed to train enough settlers.
We had expected Suryavarman to be the other big powerhouse in this game but he was slowed by his own double wonder builds in the Great Wall and the Pyramids. Instead it was Bismarck and Ragnar who moved to settle in the contested jungle belt at the center of the map, both of them approaching ten cities apiece by the end of the landgrab phase. Ragnar in particular captured a barbarian city to the north of Suryavarman and essentially cut off the Khmer from further expansion in what had to be an unlikely turn of events. With the two American leaders still relatively stunted on territory, it looked like the other four leaders would be the main contenders in this match.
In terms of the religious diplomacy, Willem was choosing to stick with the Christianity that he had originally founded out of his three competing religions. Once he established the Monotheism religion of Judaism, he began spreading Christianity with Organized Religion missionaries to his neighbors. Ragnar was an early convert to Christianity from a random spread although Bismarck picked up Judaism before Willem's missionaries could arrive. He would eventually convert Suryavarman and flip Bismarck back into Christianity to establish a clean sweep of the southern leaders. In the north, Washington was the first to Code of Laws and founded Buddhism as a religion, eventually converting over to his local faith and then getting nearby Lincoln to convert as well. Thus the two high peace weight leaders were both united together in a religion that no one else followed while the lower peace weight leaders on the rest of the map were all running Christianity. This was dire news from a diplomatic perspective and it felt like a matter of time until the two American leaders were targeted for attack.
But it was border tension that led to the first war, not peace weight, as Bismarck made a bid for one of Ragnar's nearby settlements along their shared frontier. There was some religious tension here as well since Bismarck was still running Judaism at the time but the main driver of the conflict was Ragnar's aggressive city plants which competed with the German cities for local resources. This looked like the perfect scenario for Willem to run away with the game, as Bismarck and Ragnar exploded into conflict while leaving him alone to tech in peace. It appeared as though the two combatants were evenly matched, and after Bismarck captured the border city of Uppsala at the start of the war, the fighting settled down into the inconclusive bloodletting that AI Survivor fans are so familiar with in the pre-Construction era. When Bismarck paused his unit training to build the Mausoleum, Ragnar used the opportunity to recapture Uppsala and the stalemate continued. Meanwhile, Suryavarman was plotting war and launched his own attack against Lincoln. The Khmer strike turned out to be surprisingly toothless though, suiciding a bunch of swords and axes against a heavily fortified American border city. This looked to be another pointless war in which both combatants would wind up being losers.
Then the larger strategic picture of the game began to shift in rapid fashion. Bismarck and Ragnar signed a peace treaty after less than two dozen turns of fighting, with Ragnar inexplicably giving back the city of Uppsala to Bismarck. The German leader had only a single border city to show for his warring but he had managed to avoid getting stuck in one of those grinding conflicts that can last for centuries. This freed up both Ragnar and Bismarck to engage in new conflicts and it wasn't long before the Viking warmonger was eyeing his next target. A short time later on Turn 128, Washington found himself attacked by Ragnar and Willem together as both leaders had apparently planned separate invasions that began simultaneously. This was again the perfect setup for Willem as it appeared that he would be able to partition the territory of red America together with Ragnar and pick up some easy conquests. The one and only potential flaw in the plan was Bismarck who was back to plotting war against. He was "Pleased" with Willem and had just fought a war against Ragnar - surely the Germans were planning to go back to war with the Vikings, weren't they? Well....
As it turned out, the Dutch were indeed the victim of an expertly timed backstab from Bismarck and this would end up being the single biggest turning point of the game. (I apparently missed the war declaration itself in the screeshot but circled the German units crossing into Willem's territory above.) Willem would not get to enjoy an easy consumption of Washington's territory, instead he would be forced to fight for his life against the powerful German military. This was a strategic disaster of the highest possible magnitude for Willem and it was even paired with a tactical disaster as well: both Willem and Ragnar were besieging the American city of Atlanta but Willem attacked the target first, lost all his units, and then Ragnar swept in to take the prize. The gameplay had flipped enormously as a result of Bismarck's invasion; if he had chosen to attack Ragnar instead, the Vikings would have been sucked into a long and unproductive conflict while Willem easily cleaned up Washington. The Dutch likely would have run away with an easy victory from that point. We'll have to explore some of these scenarios when we look at the alternate histories later on after the season concludes.
In the here and now though, Willem was pretty screwed. His well-known AI preferences cause him to be a monster at teching and chasing after a Cultural victory but a fieldmouse when it comes to training units. Willem continued building wonders in his capital city even as his southern border was being overrun with German units. Bismarck had to be delighted at the lush territory that he was capturing, full of world wonders and cottages that his Financial adversary had been developing into towns. After taking the southern Dutch cities, Bismarck stalled for some time outside Willem's capital as he paused his war effort to build his own grocers and banks and universities. This allowed Ragnar to be the first leader to achieve a complete conquest, as the Vikings had never stopped spamming more units in every city. Washington put up little to no resistance and the red American civ was the first to exit the game on Turn 192:
Washington failed to achieve anything of substance in this game. He was pushed out of the disputed territory to his west by Willem and then likely sealed his fate by founding Buddhism which was a religion practiced by no one other than the equally weak Lincoln. He needed some breaks to go his way in this game and they had never materialized. As for the victor, Ragnar had picked up quite a bit of land thanks to his successful conquest and the Vikings were now the largest civilization in the world in terms of territory, albeit with an oddly-shaped empire that intruded on everyone else's borders. However, Washington had left a poison pill behind for Ragnar in the form of his religion, with Ragnar switching over to Buddhism once he gained control of the holy city in former American territory. This broke up the shared Christian faith of the southern leaders and with Ragnar still nursing a grudge from Bismarck's earlier invasion it seemed like only a matter of time until the top two nations on the scoreboard returned to war. Sure enough, a mere six turns later Ragnar launched a new attack against Bismarck and the battle for first place was underway.
Ragnar enjoyed some initial successes as he used his huge stack of knights and berserkers to hit German units trapped deep in Dutch territory. The two leaders were fighting in the shattered remnants of Willem's territory and Ragnar's ability to use the Dutch roads via Open Borders gave him a mobility advantage in the conflict. The big problem for Ragnar lay in the realm of technology: Bismarck had already unlock grenadiers at Military Science and was beelining for an early Rifling tech. Ragnar was about half an era behind Bismarck on the tech tree and the Vikings wouldn't be able to unlock their own rifles and cavs until dozens of turns after their adversary. Ragnar needed to inflict massive damage against Bismarck before his tech lead could make the Germans unstoppable and Ragnar simply wasn't having that degree of success. Therefore it was probably a savvy move for Ragnar when he signed a peace treaty with Bismarck after a dozen turns of fighting on Turn 219. This would give the Vikings a chance to tech to their own rifles/cavs and hopefully fight Bismarck while both sides remained at the same tier of military technology.
Of course this meant the end of the road for Willem. With Ragnar jumping out of the conflict, there was nothing to stop the shiny new German rifles from overrunning the last remaining Dutch cities:
Amusingly this was in the same city where Washington had made his last stand a short time earlier. Ragnar captured the city of Buffalo and gifted it to Willem only to see Bismarck take the spot for himself. The lengthy conquest of the Dutch was a smashing strategic victory for Bismarck, greatly expanding his territory and delivering over all of the wonders and religions that Willem had established. There was a double shrine city where Willem had founded Christianity and Confucianism which was worth a ton of gold for the Germans. Bismarck could now sit back and push infrastructure for a while in his new domains. He wasn't too far away from reaching Assembly Line and unlocking the super-late German unique factories. Ragnar had more territory but Bismarck had better research prowess and better developed cities. There was a sense that time was on Bismarck's side and that Ragnar would have to conquer more land if he wanted to keep pace with his rival.
Naturally Ragnar was in the process of doing exactly that as he had launched yet another war against Lincoln starting on Turn 237. Lincoln and Suryavarman had been the forgotten leaders of this game, fighting an initial war and then signing peace only to return back to war and then sign a second treaty with no cities changing hands. Not much had been expected of Lincoln in this game but Suryavarman's ineffective gameplay was a major disappointment to those who had backed him in the picking contest. The Khmer had largely remained stuck in the southeast corner of the map and thrown away several armies ramming their heads against Lincoln's southernmost border city. Ragnar was vastly more powerful than Suryavarman by this point though and once he started his invasion the cities of blue America began falling left and right. How much longer until Bismarck chose to enter the war? If Ragnar could run over all of Lincoln's territory then he'd have a real shot to defeat Bismarck in a lategame showdown.
Instead, the outcome of the game was largely sealed by a third party as Suryavarman bizarrely chose to pick a fight with Ragnar on Turn 254. This was an unexpected outcome as it would have been more likely for the Khmer to join together with the Vikings in crushing Lincoln while scoring diplo points for mutual military struggle in the process. Ragnar and Suryavarman working together might have been able to face down Bismarck after conquering Lincoln's domains. But with Suryavarman entering the fray on the opposite side there wasn't much hope for Ragnar in the long run. The Viking leader even briefly lost his capital to Suryavarman's main stack before taking it back and by that time the damage had been done. Ragnar was forced to expend units chewing through the Khmer military while Bismarck was building up and continuing to tech ahead the whole time. The Germans joined the fighting against Ragnar on Turn 271 and at this point the poor Vikings were stuck in a 1 vs 3 conflict. It was Ragnar's own fault, of course, as he had declared war against every remaining leader other than Suryavarman and his sprawling empire caused border tensions with everyone simultaneously. He hated everyone else and everyone else hated him, that pretty much summed up the diplomatic screen.
Ragnar put up a good fight but the outcome of this latest round of warring wasn't in doubt. Bismarck had a larger army and a more technologically advanced army, fielding infantry and artillery while Ragnar was still stuck on rifles and cavs. Ragnar's AI pathfinding also suffered from being pulled in three different directions as we've often seen when the AI finds itself at war with multiple opponents. The Vikings captured most of Lincoln's cities and induced the Americans to sue for peace, then turned and gave Suryavarman a pretty good mauling as well. The Khmer were down to four or five cities at one point since the main Viking stack had been operating in that part of the map. Unfortunately for Ragnar, he'd been losing cities left and right in the west to Bismarck and the Germans kept grinding forward one bit at a time. By Turn 300 Ragnar's score had fallen below Suryavarman and things only got worse from there. The war finally came to a conclusion with Ragnar's elimination on Turn 329:
It was a tough break for Ragnar who had been one of the strongest AI leaders in this game and certainly did more to advance to the playoffs than Suryavarman or Lincoln. At the same time, however, Ragnar's insane aggression and proclivity to do nothing but train units in every city was leading inevitably to this outcome. Ragnar is practically hardwired to make enemies of everyone else and fall behind in technology to his rivals. There's a reason why he has a poor track record in AI Survivor as his personality leads to the Vikings self-sabotaging themselves over and over again. This was about as good of a game as we were likely to see Ragnar play and it still ended up in failure, if a highly entertaining and memorable kind of failure.
Bismarck was a lock to win the game at this point and the remaining drama concerned who would finish in second place and what the victory type would be. Lincoln and Suryavarman were fairly close in score and the balance could be tipped in either direction if another round of warring were to break out. When Ragnar was in the process of being eliminated, it had looked like Bismarck would reach the Domination threshhold only for him to fall a few percentage points short when he liberated a series of captured American cities back to Lincoln. Bismarck was also getting close to finishing the tech tree and winning via spaceship but he opted to start plotting war again as he evidently wanted to take the military route. Either of the remaining leaders could have been the target though Lincoln was more likely since Bismarck was only "Cautious" with the Americans. We soon found that Lincoln was indeed the loser of this unlucky sweepstakes as the German military swept across the border on Turn 345 followed by the Khmer piling on to the war a few turns later. Obviously Lincoln had no chance at all and barely managed to cling to life with a single city remaining when Bismarck hit the Domination limit about a dozen turns later:
Lincoln was fortunate to make the Wildcard game while Suryavarman was exceedingly lucky to reach the playoffs after doing virtually nothing the whole game. They were both in the right place at the right time to avoid the far worse fates that they probably deserved. As for Bismarck, this was by far his best result in AI Survivor history after playing a thoroughly dominant game from start to finish. Eauxps I. Fourgott had a nice summary of Germany's performance in this match at Realms Beyond: "Bismarck's conquest of Willem came to a pretty embarrassing halt midway through, but otherwise this was a great performance from him. He executed a strong opening, took full advantage of Willem's failure to expand properly, was able to put on enough of a show in his initial attack of Ragnar to get a city ceded to him in peace, followed that up with an expertly-timed backstab of Willem, used his tech edge to be able to eventually stymie Ragnar when he backstabbed him, rather than immediately folding, and then was unstoppable once he finished absorbing Willem. Bismarck's best strength here was his teching, which was superior to anybody else's in this field and made up for sometimes subpar play in other areas. He also timed both of his big backstabs well, doing an excellent job of catching his enemies off-guard while they had their forces tied up elsewhere, and that helped ensure that those wars went his way to hand him the win. On the whole, certainly not a flawless performance, but also an overall very good one from Bismarck, giving him a deserved first trip to the playoffs!"
This is one of the games where I'm very curious to see what happens in the alternate histories of the same map. Until then, thanks as always for reading and following along with this season of AI Survivor!