This summary for Playoff Game Three was written by Eauxps I. Fourgott. Many thanks for volunteering to put this report together!
The final playoff game of the season featured our most diverse group of leaders this round. Starting on the west of the map were Darius and Gandhi, this game's two high-peaceweight leaders, but while both were disinclined to fight a lot, they'd take different paths in their attempts at victory: Darius would try to outpace the competition technologically, while Gandhi would go for an unstoppable cultural machine. By contrast, in the east were this game's two more aggressive leaders. Saladin was only moderately warlike and would mainly seek to punish those who practiced a different religion from his, while the hyperaggressive Alexander would attack anybody he thought he could make gains against. Finally, in the middle were Pacal and Qin Shi Huang, the two most similar leaders in this game; both shared a low peaceweight score with Saladin and Alex, but were also inclined to play more peaceful games like Gandhi and Darius. Hugely important variables to this game included whether those two would attack their western neighbors or play more passively, as well as whether their eastern neighbors would attack their closer targets or go across the map to beat up on the high peaceweights. Darius was the heavy favorite in the picking contest for this game, as he had a fairly isolated start with quality land and a likely meatshield in Gandhi.
An extremely important development for this game came at the very beginning. The map's three northern leaders all started with Mysticism, but only two could get a religion. Gandhi wisely chose to abstain from this initial race, picking up Agriculture instead and leaving Pacal and Saladin free to found the first two, Taoism and Islam. This kept Gandhi and Darius from having an early religious malus working against them, instead putting more of a target on the central Pacal's back. If nothing else the Mayans were virtually guaranteed to come to blows with Arabia at some point, as both leaders' second AND third cities were placed just 4 tiles apart.
As the landgrab phase went on, nobody fell hopelessly behind, most leaders expanding at a similar rate and nobody getting too far out in front yet, but Darius had a clear lead over the rest of the field. He'd been able to improve three tiles at his capital out of the gate with his starting techs, settled a nice spot with a gold resource with his starting settler, and thanks to this and his Financial trait was researching at a good clip from an early date. His early tech choices were also smart, and he was under the least pressure from foreign settlers of anybody on the map. After otherwise filling out his early tech tree, he researched Monotheism and founded his own Buddhism to compete with the eastern religions, successfully settled north in time to stop Gandhi from getting land in the map's western peninsula, and despite having all that space to expand into, he did not suffer from any inconvenient barb cities. It seemed clear that as long as Darius played smart and avoided early trouble, he would be in the driver's seat to win - and he further solidified his position by teching Monarchy, building the Oracle, and using it to grab a very early Feudalism for longbow defenders that would be a generation ahead of any attackers that could come any time soon. All the other leaders were already likely fighting for second place, and as of yet nobody had a clear edge in that race.
This game's first war came in rather early, at just Turn 76 - which makes its perpetrator all the more surprising: Gandhi! Once again the normally-peaceful Indian was causing trouble early, but unlike in his opening round game, here he'd chosen a smart target in Pacal, who not only wasn't a natural ally but was also in a weak position. Pacal had started slowly in this game, stuck in a starting area full of forest and jungle and with no tiles he could improve with his starting techs. With his bid for an early religion further delaying other techs, Pacal's workers had spent a long time unable to do much of anything, and even later on their options were still limited as, for over 75 turns, he lacked even Bronze Working to cut down his surrounding forest, to say nothing of the jungle! And once he finally teched Bronze Working, a rude surprise awaited him - he had no copper! Gandhi was already at his gates, and he was stuck without metal! He could at least build his resourceless Holkans, but Gandhi's axemen attackers were none too impressed when they encountered those and chariots on the defense. Gandhi's first attack stack was pretty small, but after taking out the defending Mayan archers with a couple of lucky dice rolls, it was still able to easily clean up the remaining defenders, and take Pacal's capital less than 10 turns into the war!
Just like that, Pacal was done. He still had the rest of his core, true, but those five cities could only hold out for so long. And everybody else soon smelled blood in the water and piled in, too: Qin, Alex, and Saladin ALL separately declared war on Pacal, sealing his fate. Against just Gandhi he might have had a chance to stabilize, but stuck in a 4v1 he had no chance at all. His foes quickly ripped through his territory, as all his defenses couldn't hold up against the sheer numbers he was facing. Pacal never even got metal connected, as too many armies were running amok through his territory by the time he teched Iron Working, and on Turn 124 it was all over. Each of the attacking leaders got at least one city, but as a chaotic mess of armies descended on his last holdout, it was the initiator of this conflict, Gandhi, who snuck in the killing blow.
It was a perfect storm of disaster for Pacal, who had started in a rough position, with poor terrain and lots of neighbors, and then gotten dogpiled very early on to leave him without a chance. But even in this brief game, he could have at least given himself better odds of surviving this. If he had worked on improving his land and not founded his own religion - one that made him a pariah early on - he might not have been thus dogpiled. If he'd prioritized metal techs early on, he might have had good defenders waiting for Gandhi and been able to hold out. But much like in his opening round game, he instead got off to a slow start, and this time didn't enjoy the peaceful early period to build out of it. Everything lined up against him this time, and made for a good reminder that, especially given his starting techs, Pacal is capable of spectacularly bad performances on occasion despite his strength.
Meanwhile, this all worked beautifully for Darius, the only leader who hadn't gotten involved in the fighting. He'd spent this period filling out all remaining land anywhere near his starting position and starting to capture distant barb cities, strengthening his empire while none of his rivals captured more than two cities from Pacal, and continuing to surge ahead economically the entire time. By the Mayan leader's death, Darius was already over 400 points ahead of the closest competitor, had converted his two neighbors to his Buddhism, was fielding macemen, and even just 125 turns into the game seemed a runaway. The other four leaders occupied roughly equal quadrants of the rest of the continent. All were still close together in score; Qin held the lead at the moment, but any of them could still come out on top in second place depending on how wars unfolded.
With this situation in place, the game started to quiet down and pass rather quickly. Nobody made a move on Darius, and so he continued to race out in front. His GNP was higher than that of the other four leaders combined, and that was BEFORE he popped a golden age that would last for a total of 24 turns, further extending his massive lead. Alexander wasn't sitting idly by, of course, as he soon went and attacked Gandhi, but he was still attacking with ancient era units, and those units couldn't accomplish much once Gandhi stuffed his cities full of longbows. Alex was able to take two low-value cities, but no real prizes before signing peace. This dropped Gandhi down to last place on the scoreboard without really benefitting Alex much at all; he had still fallen behind a peacefully-consolidating Saladin, who then took his well-rested army and attacked the softened-up Gandhi to pull further ahead.
Gandhi was clearly doomed in the wake of this new attack, but meanwhile things went from bad to worse for Alex: Darius was finally leveraging his advantage! Alex actually almost had military tech parity with him at the start of this war, but that was only because Darius had been researching everything else in the Renaissance before picking up Rifling; running out of other options, he then grabbed it early in the war, and suddenly Alex was facing down rifles and cavs with just medieval units. There was no question how this war would turn out, even though Darius didn't even have any siege units - he'd brought a single trebuchet at first, only to see it killed from flanking damage, and so instead his advanced units just brute-forced their way into the Greek cities. This did at least slow Darius down, though; Saladin had plenty of siege with his Indian attack force and was fighting a softer and closer foe anyway, and so despite not having the same tech edge, he was able to complete his conquest first, eliminating Gandhi exactly 100 turns after the latter had eliminated Pacal.
It was a rough draw for Gandhi, who did his best to make something of this game with a successful early attack on a metal-less Pacal. Even though this worked decently for him, that still left him facing multiple hostile leaders nearby, and fighting off one of them wasn't good enough when another was ready to take his place immediately afterwards. With Darius off doing his own thing, Gandhi had no safety net, and so he was done in yet again by a hostile playoff field. At least he did make the playoffs once more, though, and given his trolling performance in his opener, he's lucky to even have that. Alex exited the game less than ten turns later, having once again failed to accomplish anything of note in the playoffs. This was by no means an embarrassing performance from him, but he was stuck in a poor position that didn't leave him with a means to get a snowball rolling, and Alex isn't good enough economically to win any other way. He was sandwiched between two Protective leaders that would've bogged him down had he tried to attack them, so he went for the softest targets on the map instead - only everybody else was after Pacal as well, preventing Alex from getting much gain from him, and then Gandhi was far away enough and able to defend well enough that Alex couldn't get a strong foothold against him either. Alex's war targets really were solid choices given the strength of his neighbors and lack of a potential 2v1 situation, but it still wasn't enough to get him over the hump and into a leading position. Getting attacked by a Darius that he could have done nothing to stop was just plain bad luck and Alex wasn't any more deserving of this fate than his two low peaceweight compatriots. Them's the breaks sometimes, but Alex has still secured himself a Pool Two spot for next season, so I'd call this a successful outing for him.
The situation was very clear in the wake of Alex's demise. Darius and Saladin had roughly equal-sized empires, but Darius was a generation ahead in tech, the clear winner of the game, while Saladin's own conquests had put him clearly above the inactive Qin in second place. Seeing that he wouldn't be moving on as things stood, Qin apparently decided to finally make a move… by attacking the runaway Darius. Qin had converted to Saladin's Islam some time back, leaving Darius as his only possible target, but this was a grave mistake to say the least. Qin had at least unlocked rifles, but Darius by now had infantry to counter, and added tanks to his arsenal as well in the war's early turns. Qin's main stack was killed three turns into the war, and from that point on it was just a matter of Darius moving troops to each city. He meandered about, taking a city on most turns without any real pattern to his conquest, but soon enough it was all over, and China defeated. This was an unimpressive outing from Qin, who looked like he was simply lost in the pace of this game. His opening was decent enough and he did join the dogpile on Pacal early on, but afterwards he just sat there, not doing anything to improve his position while Darius teched ahead and Alex and Saladin beat up on Gandhi. He lost his chance to make gains and fight for his position, then threw away any chance he still had with a suicide attack on Darius. It clearly wasn't a game that had deserved to advance.
And with that, we were essentially at the end of the game. Darius and Saladin chose not to fight in the closing turns, and so things wrapped up fairly quickly. It had looked like Darius was en route to win a Space Race victory, as he had chosen not to pursue Cultural and was significantly below the Domination threshold at Qin's elimination - but even as his Chinese conquests came out of resistance and started growing, Saladin teched Assembly Line and Industrialism and plunged his cities into rampant unhealthiness, starving them down and allowing Darius to make up a more than 8% deficit in population percentage, while Persian culture started claiming more tiles and inching Darius closer and closer to the land area quota. At one point he was sitting at 63.98% out of a required 64%, needing just one more tile to win for several turns, and we wondered if he was going to miss out by the narrowest of margins. But then a solitary forest tile flipped, and that was that, with a Domination victory for Darius.
It was a second crushing victory in a row for Darius, who has been dealt two great starting positions this season and capitalized expertly on both of them. His start here was fertile, perfectly suited to his starting techs, and fairly isolated, so all he had to do to win the game was expand decently, conquer some more land at some point to not get lapped, and avoid messing up. He succeeded at this and his amazing economic traits carried the day from there, and he proved that he wasn't just a paper tiger by winning via Domination as well. Darius is thus going to his second career championship appearance, in a field where he will be the best economic leader, but also have a target on his back with the highest peaceweight in the field. Can he win despite this target once more, or will he fall this time? As for Saladin, he had a well-deserved second-place finish and played about as well as he could here. Sal was fortunate enough to have a well-positioned starting location, far away from the strong Darius while in great position to naturally expand through Pacal and Gandhi's territory. He profited as much as anybody from Pacal's demise, then expertly timed a war declaration against Gandhi right after Alex had finished softening him up, allowing him to easily conquer India and coast to second from there. Gandhi's land had been right there for the taking, and Saladin was the one of the three low peaceweights to capitalize, so it's only natural that he should finish in second. I don't think he had a path to victory here, not without somebody closer to Darius doing something to slow him down, so this was about as much as he could accomplish in this game, and it got him his first championship appearance! Saladin will be an important religious wildcard in the Championship game, and could well play a decisive role even if he doesn't actually win.
This game was something of a change of pace from the past two, as there was no dominant cultural machine and most of the field was wiped out this time, but it was yet another fairly straightforward game, with the winner clearly out in front from the early turns and cashing in by Turn 300. This has been an interesting playoff round in that regard, the games proving a lot more one-sided than most of the opening rounds. We also saw the last four seeded leaders eliminated, and the Championship will be filled mostly with new blood, all unseeded leaders with a combined total of three previous championship appearances between them. Will it be one more runaway victory to close things out, or will the inconsistent nature of these leaders' performances create a close finish instead? In either case, it will be interesting to find out. Thanks as always for watching and reading.