Game Eight hosted the final competition of the opening round, a larger map with no fewer than four Financial leaders drawn into the field. Between Hannibal, Darius, Wang Kon, and Victoria there was good reason to believe that the tech pace would be brisk. The favorite for this game was none of the Financial leaders, however, with a little over half of the community picking Justinian to emerge victorious. The Byzantine leader lacked horses at his starting position but otherwise seemed well positioned to expand across the map and start conquering his rivals. This map also featured Zara Yaqob in a repeat showdown of the Season One championship game and then finally Montezuma to inject some insanity into the proceedings. Monty's local terrain was rather strong and there was a real possibility that we would see the Aztecs as a competitor in this game - at least, if Montezuma could avoid his usual insane behavior.
Justinian, Montezuma, and Wang Kon all started with Mysticism tech and there was an immediate race to see who would land the first two religions. Only two of the three leaders would be able to found an initial religion out of the gate so someone would be left unhappy. Wang Kon opened the game with Meditation research and turned out to be uncontested which allowed him to found Confucianism on Turn 10. This religion popped up in the central jungles and Wang Kon's holy city would exert a good deal of cultural pressure on Victoria during the early turns. As for the other two leaders in the religious race, they both went after the more expensive Polytheism tech and Justinian ended up being the winner by virtue of a same-turn tiebreak. (It was good to be a seeded leader!) Christianity appeared in Justinian's second city and Montezuma would have to keep searching for his own faith. Later on, the Aztecs would emphasize Monotheism tech and founded Islam for a third major religion in the game. Justinian and Montezuma would compete over who could better spread their religion on the eastern edge of the map.
The biggest story in the early game was a catastrophic failure taking place at Hannibal's second city. We've often noted that the AI leaders will immediately start a settler in the second city that they establish with their free Deity starting settler. These initial settlers will often take 15-20 turns to complete and the AI won't start another settler in their capital until it finishes. In this game Hannibal planted his second city in the jungle and did the usual immediate settler build inside. However, the Carthaginian city of Utica was buried in jungle and so unhealthy that it could only manage a single foodhammer. Even with the Deity cost discounts, this meant that it was going to take 90 turns (!!!) for Hannibal to train his settler, and he wouldn't start another one until Utica finished its build. Thus Hannibal found himself completely stuck, unable to do anything but train units out of the capital while his second city slooooooowly worked on that settler over dozens and dozens of turns. This left the western edge of the continent completely wide open to be settled by Darius, Wang Kon, and Victoria.
This failure to expand was already visible by Turn 50 with Hannibal limping along on two cities while everyone else had already established three or four settlements. Things weren't going to get better any time soon either with poor Utica still reading at 48 turns remaining on its settler. The biggest winner of this fiasco should have been Darius since Hannibal was his primary competitor for land and resources. Darius had an excellent starting location and there was nothing stopping him from expanding all over the western subcontinent. And yet Darius decided that he would build wonders instead of his own settlers, building Stonehenge and then the Great Wall and then the Pyramids, all of them without researching Mining tech in a fit of AI insanity. These wonders were nice and all that but simple expansion would have been a far better choice for the Persians. Darius was hardly the only one failing to expand either, as Wang Kon also paused on a limited number of cities to chase after his own wonders. The slow movement of Darius and Wang Kon combined with the tragedy of Hannibal's position meant that Victoria had more room than expected for her own Imperialistic settlers. This was good news for the English who quietly began creeping out across the map.
Further over to the east, Justinian and Montezuma and Zara were all doing a much better job of spreading out with new cities. They were all among the top competitors on the scoreboard although Monty was struggling a bit on worker techs because he'd invested so much research into religious techs by going for early Monotheism. The Aztecs had copper in the third ring of their capital but didn't connect it for some time thanks to lacking Bronze Working technology. A number of barbarian cities also began appearing in the center of the map and the region between Montezuma and Victoria remained a wilderness for long turns on end. Wang Kon wasn't expanding in that direction and Montezuma was more concerned with the rival nations to his south and east.
As the turns rolled along, we started to see the game's religions spreading out beyond their initial borders. Victoria picked up Confucianism, hardly a surprise given how close she was to Wang Kon's holy city, and she converted over to the incoming faith. With no competition on the western side of the map, Confucianism would spread in time to Darius and Hannibal as well. Over in the east, the big question was whether the unaligned Zara Yaqob would pick up Justinian's Christianity or Montezuma's Islam. This was essentially a big dice roll and Montezuma was the winner as Islam appeared in Zara's capital to prompt an Ethiopian conversion. Between rival faiths, border tensions, and major peace weight differences it seemed likely that the game's first war would break out somewhere in the east. Instead, we were thrown for a loop when the most unlikely leader kicked off the action:
It was Hannibal of all people, the lowest leader on the scoreboard and ruler of the weakest civ in the game, launching the initial conflict. Hannibal had exactly two cities to his name and really only his capital since Utica had been precisely useless for the entire game. Yet somehow this One City Challenge AI leader managed to capture the Persian city of Susa! Hannibal's stack wasn't much to write home about, something like four axes, two spears, and a couple of archers, but Darius was incompetent enough that this was enough to succeed. The many viewers who had Darius as their first or second place pick (based on the strength of his starting position) were groaning in the Livestream chat about how badly Darius was botching his start. Hannibal had finally finished that settler in Utica and now he was starting to expand out to four, then five cities. Was Darius seriously going to lose to an opponent who had been that crippled for the first 80 turns of the game?!
Elsewhere on the map, the two leaders who were starting to emerge from the pack were Justinian and Victoria. The Byzantines were expanding well (as usual) and Justinian managed to get far enough north that he claimed a horse resource that should have gone to the Aztecs. This resource could prove to be significant for future cataphracts down the road as well as unlocking chariots and horse archers immediately. The biggest danger for Justinian was in the realm of diplomacy due to the failure for his Christianity to spread to any of his neighbors. He would have benefited greatly if Zara had picked up Christianity instead of Islam to have a secure backline in the inevitable upcoming war against Montezuma. As for Victoria, she was on fantastic terms with Wang Kon thanks to shared Confucianism and the Darius/Hannibal pair were occupied with one another in the far west. This allowed Victoria to spread out all over the center of the map without facing any aggression from her neighbors. This was one game where the Financial/Imperialistic trait pairing was working perfectly as every other AI leader seemingly had a higher priority than acting to stop Victoria. She was out to 14 cities before Turn 100 in an opening that looked like a human player was piloting the English civ.
We knew that it was only a matter of time until Montezuma declared war on one of his neighbors. He had the worst relationship with Justinian and sure enough the Aztecs charged across the border on Turn 94, immediately capturing Justinian's reach city with the horse resource. The Aztecs and the Byzantines looked to be more or less evenly matched and the outcome of their conflict would likely be determined by which neutral AI leaders piled into the battle. Wang Kon was "Annoyed" with both Justinian and Montezuma, and when we saw him plotting war we knew that the Koreans were going after one of the two leaders. Soon it became clear that the target was...
The Aztecs! This was somewhat surprising became Wang Kon had some border tension with Justinian and it would have been more logical to invade the Byzantines. Wang Kon had the same poor relations with both of them and Justinian probably would have folded quickly when faced with a two front war. Instead it was Montezuma who was the unlucky leader facing the brunt of this new attack from Korea. Wang Kon's offensive was blunted by the long travel time through the steamy jungles in the middle of the map and there wasn't much movement in terms of cities changing hands at the outset of the war. Justinian was ramming large stacks of units into walled Aztec cities with little progress to show for his efforts. However, it was only a matter of time until the combatants researched up to Construction technology and the introduction of catapults began to swing the fortunes of war. Once siege units were added to the mix the Aztec holdings would begin to fall. Monty had one hope: that Zara would join the war against Justinian and turn the fighting into a pair of 1 vs 1 conflicts. Unfortunately for Montezuma this hope was dashed when Zara was bought into the war and launched his own attack against the Aztecs on Turn 108. Faced with an unwinnable 1 vs 3 situation, there was little that Monty could do besides turtle up in his cities and scream into the void about the unfairness of it all.
Off in the west, Hannibal and Darius had earlier signed a peace treaty that left the city of Susa in Carthaginian hands. There was a point in time where Hannibal actually held six cities as compared to five cities on the part of Darius, absolutely unbelievable. However, Darius had a bit more room to expand in the southern part of the subcontinent and the cities that he did have were much better developed than the brand-new settlements established by Hannibal. And for as badly as Darius had played in this game, he did have the Pyramids and the Financial/Organized trait combo to power up his economy. When Hannibal came back for a second round of warring on Turn 120, the Carthaginians found that the Persian resistance had stiffened considerably. Hannibal's attack against the Persian border city of Gordium failed badly against its walls and the Carthaginians were forced to fall back in retreat. It didn't take long for Darius to begin sieging down the orange cities of Carthage as Hannibal realized that he had made a terrible mistake.
The following turns became a slow race to see which low peace weight leader would be eliminated from the game first. Montezuma was stronger and had more cities but also had three different nations attacking him as compared with the 1 vs 1 duel in the west. Justinian benefited from some fortunate RNG whereby Wang Kon and Zara's catapults removed the defenses of Aztec cities and teed them up for Byzantine capture. He ended up getting the lion's share of the spoils from Montezuma's downfall. In the end though, it was Wang Kon who took the final Aztec city and claimed the elimination credit:
Hannibal only lasted a dozen turns longer before being eliminated by Darius to complete the other long-running conflict. For Montezuma, he had played a fairly strong opening and found himself the victim of an unfortunate diplomatic situation. Monty's biggest weakness had been overinvesting in religious techs but otherwise he had put himself in a strong position, even converting Zara over to his Islamic faith thanks to a fortunate religious spread. Wang Kon's cross-map invasion had been an unlucky break, especially coming only a few turns after Monty had launched his own attack against Justinian. Once Zara piled into the fighting as well there was simply nothing that the Aztecs could do. As for Hannibal, he had been screwed over by the bizarre opening antics at Utica. It had been a perfect sequence of everything lining up in the wrong way such that Hannibal's AI programming failed to train any settlers and left him with two cities on Turn 80. Despite that misfortune, Hannibal had somehow managed to win a war with Darius and nearly managed to get back into the game before the Persian economic advantages simply became too great to overcome. We had the impression that Hannibal had done as well as he could from that horrible opening and it simply hadn't been enough.
The main story in the wider game was the performance of Victoria, however. While everyone else had been beating up on those two poor schmuks, Victoria had never stopped expanding across the map. Thanks to the poor expansion of Hannibal and Darius and Wang Kon, along with that huge gulf of empty space off to her east, Victoria found herself with *NINETEEN* cities which had entirely been claimed through peaceful settling. We've run a lot of these AI Survivor games over the years and I can't recall anything like that happening before. With her Financial trait Victoria was simultaneously both the research leader as well as the food/production leader and her advantage was only growing with time as those cities developed their infrastructure. When Victoria also unlocked Rifling tech at an early date, it felt like we had a game over situation on our hands despite being well short of 200 turns into the match. How was anyone ever going to overcome Victoria given all those cities and her growing tech lead?
Since both of the low peace weight leaders had been eliminated, the game settled into a largely peaceful state over the following turns. Most of the leaders had positive relations with one another and a bunch of them (Justinian, Darius, Wang Kon) won't plot war at "Pleased" relations. Most of the drama in the gameplay seemed to be focused on which leader would take the second place spot which Justinian, Darius, and Zara all had realistic odds to claim. The leader in the worst diplomatic position was Justinian thanks to his isolated Christian religion, and Wang Kon eventually declared war against him on Turn 208. This appeared to be a grave mistake as Byzantine cataphracts began running over the cities in the Korean core. But then Wang Kon struck back with his trap card:
He bought the juggernaut that was Victoria into the war on his side! This was clearly a bribed war declaration since Victoria had no military along the Byzantine border and it took her a number of turns to assemble a strike force. Then, shortly after the English joined the war, Wang Kon signed a peace treaty and jumped out of a losing effort, relying on Victoria liberating back the captured Korean cities when she began her offensive. Was this all an elaborate plot on the part of Wang Kon to hamstring one of his biggest rivals? We don't call him the Troll King for nothing and this was Wang Kon operating at his finest.
As for the war itself Victoria was a full tech era ahead, pushing into the Modern era while Justinian was still operating with rifles and cavalry. It took the English some time to gather their forces but once they did the Byzantine cities started falling in rapid succession. Victoria had far more cities and a major tech lead and factory production to crank out her advanced units. She could even use Open Borders with all of the other civs in the game to make rapid advances against the Byzantine cities. Justinian's borders had a weird vertical layout which exposed him to attack on all sides, and while this didn't make a significant difference against an opponent as advanced as Victoria, it certainly didn't help matters either. First the captured Korean cities were liberated back to Wang Kon, then Victoria tore through Justinian's Aztec conquests, then she finally assaulted the original Byzantine core. No one else intervened in the fighting on either side and no one else started a competing war of their own. Everyone seemed content to watch Victoria shred Justinian to pieces. There was little drama in this lopsided war and Justinian was eliminated on Turn 267:
This was in many ways an undeserved fate for Justinian who had been one of the top two leaders for the entirety of the game right up until Victoria came crashing through his borders. He never declared war on anyone else and largely minded his own business until getting run over by the English freight train. The biggest issue for Justinian had been the failure of Christianity to spread to anyone else throughout the game. This was partly bad luck and partly the fault of Justinian for not emphasizing missionaries to a greater degree. He was also the victim of the poor expansion of Hannibal/Darius/Wang Kon which allowed Victoria to grow unchecked while the Byzantines were engaged in fighting the Aztecs. Justinian played a pretty good game but Victoria simply played a better one.
There wasn't much more to say about the game in the wake of Justinian's elimination. Victoria was already running around with mechanized infantry thanks to having Robotics tech on Turn 267 (!) and she could easily walk to any victory condition that she wanted. Victoria had her pick of winning via Spaceship or Diplomacy and she would have been the victor in the United Nations if she called a Diplo victory vote thanks to Wang Kon being "Friendly" from all those liberated cities. Ultimately she wasn't interested in the UN option though, holding votes on the usual Single Currency and Nuclear Non-Proliferation nonsense favored by the AI. It's not like Victoria needed to go the diplomatic route either, not with her economy roaring along at well over 3000 beakers/turn when not in a Golden Age. She launched a very early spaceship and it arrived in Alpha Centauri on Turn 292 for the win:
This was one of the most dominant economic performances that we've seen in an AI Survivor game, beaten in speed only by Mansa Musa's Turn 282 spaceship win from his opening round game in Season Three. I don't think we've ever seen anyone claim quite so much land in purely peaceful fashion in a previous game. I suspect that Victoria will be one of the strongest AI leaders in the alternate histories but probably won't have things line up quite so perfectly as they did here. It's hard to imagine an AI leader securing quite so much territory without ever being targeted for a war. As for the second place spot, Darius was able to secure the other playoff berth by a narrow but clear margin over Zara Yaqob. We had a question on Livestream asking if I thought that Darius deserved to finish in second place, and my response was that Darius' starting position deserved to finish in second place. The man himself had been about as underwhelming as it was possible to be but his traits and his land had carried him across the finish line. This game certainly did nothing to change the general opinion that Darius is a subpar AI leader who typically wastes the advantages that he's been given.
This was a strange game that definitely didn't play out the way that we expected. Victoria joins the club of first-time winners in Season Six, another leader who had never done much of anything before this season. We'll see how she fares in the playoff round against presumably tougher opposition. Until then, thanks as always for reading and following along with this season of Civ4 AI Survivor.