This summary for Game Three was written by Eauxps I. Fourgott. Many thanks for volunteering to put this report together!
Game 3 promised to be an unpredictable match with a lot of action, thanks to the presence of two of the game's most aggressive leaders, Alexander and Ragnar, both with central starting positions that would give them several directions to attack in. Alex in particular was a dark horse candidate in the picking contest after having two powerful opening round performances in the past two seasons. Starting in the corners of this roughly triangular continent were more moderate leaders De Gaulle, Justinian, and Zara Yacob, who hoped to see the warmongers implode and then grab a share of the spoils. Pool One leader Justinian was a heavy favorite in the picking contest thanks to his reputation and a very nice starting location, while Pool Two leader Zara was roughly tied with Alexander in first-place picks, despite having suffered the earliest elimination in AI Survivor history at Alexander's hand two seasons prior. Finally, the clear odd-one-out on this map was Victoria, who had the only high peace weight rating in this game, a central starting position to attract lots of attention, and lands that largely had high potential but would start the game buried in jungle. She would need a lot of time to herself in order to become a powerful player in this game, and she didn't appear likely to get it.
One major question in the early game was which leader would found the second religion; Justinian was almost certain to found Christianity to start with (and did indeed do so), but none of the other leaders started with Mysticism or had a strong religious bent, leaving this as both a big toss-up and an important one due to Justinian's strongly religion-based diplomacy. Ultimately it was Ragnar who went for it first to found Taoism, which virtually guaranteed that he would come into conflict with Justinian at some point given that they were also neighbors. Later, as the game went on, almost everybody on the map would convert to Christianity and become natural allies for Justinian; other than Ragnar, the only leader who did not do so was Victoria, who instead randomly converted to a minority religion of Islam to further diplomatically isolate herself.
Under the power of this early religion and his quality land, Justinian got off to a great start. Aided in part by a well-placed Holy City, he peacefully grabbed almost all of a desirable river valley that lay between him and Alex, ensuring a good core. His position was also relatively sheltered from barbarians, sparing him from a costly distraction and allowing him to grow faster and better than his rivals. On the flip side, Ragnar was doing quite poorly due to a terrible starting location with lots of nearby desert. While his religion at least had ensured that his fledgling cities would have some culture in them, he was otherwise very weak and expanding slowly. De Gaulle started out strong as the first leader to four cities, but then largely stalled out to set himself a bit behind. A barbarian city had popped up right next to his capital, and that seemed to be throwing him off quite a bit; he also refused to tech Mysticism for a long time, further stifling the growth of the cities he did have.
Over towards the southeast, Victoria was leveraging her Imperialistic trait to grab a good number of city sites, but they were all fairly weak. She needed time to cut down all the forests and jungles that surrounded them, and like De Gaulle was neglecting to put any kind of culture in them. By contrast, Zara to her south was slow to build many cities, but the ones he did have were high quality. Zara had started in a fertile floodplains region and teched an early Pottery, leading to lots of floodplains cottages at an early date, and his Creative trait ensured that he didn't have the cultural woes of the others.
As for Alex, his very early game looked extremely weak. He was grabbing a few city sites to his north and south, but surrendered almost all of the region to his west to Justinian, then had a barb city pop up on his eastern border, leaving him quite squeezed; he ALSO left Mysticism alone until after Turn 50 to further restrict the territory he could grab. At around Turn 50, his situation looked dire. However, he seemed to turn a corner when he was able to punch through the barbarian garrison to take that city not long afterward. He quickly followed that up by settling several more cities in gaps that remained, and so by the outbreak of the first wars had successfully recovered and was right in the middle of the pack. The clear leader at this point, though, was Justinian, who already held a lead of over 100 points and would be in the driver's seat if he could avoid getting attacked early.
Interestingly enough, the first war was not declared by either of the game's two big warmongers, but instead by De Gaulle taking a swing at Vicky. His first target, a recently founded border city guarded by a mere two warriors, was razed easily, but the conflict quickly stalled out after that as he did not bring overwhelming force and Vicky was able to defend competently. Even the fact that most of her cities lacked cultural defenses or walls didn't matter, as she simply stuffed the needed defenders in her cities to stall out the French assault. A much more impactful war was soon brewing in the south, as Alex made his first move: an attack on Zara! This was excellent news for Justinian, who now would be able to spend this pre-Construction age peacefully building instead of spending resources on unprofitable wars. As for Zara, he had the tech and resources to build any Ancient era unit, and a reasonable base of cities. Surely he could stall out a catapult-less Alex and bring this to a stalemate, right? Right?
Not so much, as it turned out. In shockingly similar fashion to Lincoln in the previous game, Zara simply failed to put enough defenders in his border cities. Alex's first target of Addis Ababa had a mere two defenders in it, and they could not hold the line against the Greek stack. At its capture, the next target of Yeha only had four defenders, and Zara again could not get enough reinforcements to it to stop the stream of attackers. Zara was in grave danger of immediately crumpling as a pitched battle at Lalibela followed; this fight should have been an easy win for Zara, but he still had only a handful of defenders in the city, and so it turned into another nail-biting affair instead as they huddled behind the 90% city defenses, hoping to hold out against a larger Greek army that still lacked catapults. This time, though, it worked. Lalibela's garrison won by the narrowest of margins, just a couple of redlined units remaining, and Zara was able to stabilize from there. Still, he'd given up two cities all too easily, and was now permanently stuck on the defensive against Alex. Just like Lincoln in the last game, he'd shifted this game decisively in Alex's favor by allowing him to gain the upper hand with minimal effort.
At this point the map settled into a period of stalemate. Alex wasn't able to make any more headway without siege weapons, and while De Gaulle did manage to punch through and capture one English city despite lacking catapults, the others were holding out for now. Meanwhile, Ragnar and Justinian remained at peace. Ragnar's peaceful building was especially surprising given his aggressive personality, but he seemed to realize that warfare wasn't wise for his weak civ at this point. Instead, he was taking advantage of De Gaulle's ongoing war by peacefully settling a lot of land that really should have gone to France, and while far from the top, he was emerging from the bottom of the pack to actually have a legitimate empire. But Justinian was still the clear game leader, using the continued peace he enjoyed to build up his economic base and claim almost every wonder available. He had already teched Construction for catapults, and was now very dangerous indeed. Where would he eventually choose to attack?
On Turn 124, Justinian finally revealed his target: Victoria! This was one of the game's most important decisions: Justinian had been annoyed with both Vicky and Ragnar, thanks to both having a different religion and peaceweights equally far from his. But rather than following the logic of border tension and conquering his neighbor to more naturally expand his empire, Justinian was choosing to spend his effort attacking a foe on the other side of the map, who was already down to just four cities remaining. At least this war wouldn't last long, as Vicky was already slowly dying to De Gaulle and immediately crumpled upon the arrival of Byzantine forces. Justinian tore through the defenses of London like they were nothing, and quickly mopped up the rest of England with De Gaulle's help. Each leader took two cities, with Justinian scoring the kill. The expectations for Victoria had been low in this game, and her performance had matched them. At no point did she have a significant lead, and she was practically doomed to be the target of multiple attacks. Her territory required a significant period of peaceful development to become really useful, and she never got that period. She was dealt a bad hand for this game - but her decision to convert to a religion that nobody else practiced, as well as her refusal to add any kind of defensive bonus to her cities for ages on end, ensure that this result is also not undeserved.
In the aftermath of this war, Justinian's position was not significantly better than it had been before. His war had gained him a mere two cities, and while he had a far more powerful economy than anybody else on the map, he still hadn't translated it to any sort of decisive edge yet. Comparatively speaking, De Gaulle had done rather better for himself, taking both more cities and ones that fit organically with his core, and he was clearly the top leader after Justinian and Alex while just as clearly a step below them. But Alex was the leader who was truly on the upswing: the same turn that Justinian captured London, he finally broke through the defenses at Lalibela with the addition of catapult support. This truly broke Zara's back and set the ball rolling for Alex again, and now it was just a matter of cleaning up. Alex's economy was horrendous, but he was set to get the most territorial gains by far unless something changed soon. And Justinian was Pleased with him and thus wouldn't declare war - adopting his religion had been a huge boon to Alex, ensuring his most dangerous competitor would stay off his back.
Perhaps the game's biggest surprise to this point was the fact that Ragnar had spent over 150 turns without fighting a single war. He had started plotting against Victoria, only to see her killed before he could actually attack, and otherwise had remained peaceful. Still, he could see the writing on the wall, as the lone Taoist in a world where everybody else was Christian, he was determined to strike first, and thus he declared war on Turn 158 - against Justinian! This was a borderline suicidal move, but in reality Ragnar couldn't have timed the war better. Justinian had a large score and tech lead, but he was dead even with Ragnar in military tech, and they actually ranked almost the exact same in Power at the war's outset. In the war's opening turns, their big stacks met and fought along the border... and Justinian's was completely destroyed. Ragnar won this exchange, and moved on to capture a Byzantine border city to draw first blood. Whether he could sustain this attack was a different question, but he was certainly taking advantage of Justinian's mistakes to deal him a grevious blow.
Meanwhile, Alex took his sweet time on mopup duty, spending a good 40 turns after the capture of Lalibela before finally completing his conquest of Ethopia. Zara had once again suffered a solo conquest at his hand. After a minor resurgence last season to reclaim a Pool 2 spot, Zara put out a poor performance here. He did have some form of excuse, as while great for growth and economy, his floodplains-filled core cities had atrocious production, leading to slow rates of expansion and military growth. Still, his early defense of his border cities was quite simply inadequate. He should have been able to hold out against Alex's siege-less attack force, but instead he gave up two cities easily to be set permanently behind, and with nobody coming to his aid his fate was sealed. It's quite reasonable to believe that he could have had a much different game with a proper defense, given how long it took Alex to wipe him out as is. But he didn't, and his weakness had now translated directly into Alex's strength.
And Alex was now the leader to watch on this map. His economy continued to be horrendous, but in the wake of the conquest of Ethiopia, he was now the game leader in every other category by a good margin. Ragnar's attack of Justinian had also helped him out quite a bit by stalling out his closest rival. Justinian was slowly gaining an edge in that war after unlocking Cataphracts, fighting off the later Viking attacks and eventually recapturing his border city, but the attack had bogged him down quite a bit and prevented him from becoming a runaway. Alex was Friendly towards De Gaulle, and Pleased with both Justinian and Ragnar, but we knew that he wouldn't stay at peace for too long. Would he come to his Christian ally's aid and fight off the Vikings, or would be backstab Justinian to cement his victory?
On Turn 200, we received the answer: Alex backstabbed Justinian! There was no doubt that this was the game's final turning point. Justinian still had a tech lead, finishing research on Rifling right after the war declaration, but Alex's army was more than triple the size of his - 270 total units to 80! Maybe Justinian could have prevailed if he had been resting up before this war, but he'd already been fighting tooth and nail with Ragnar for 40 turns, and he just didn't have the numbers he needed. It took some time for Alex to move his army up and siege down the city of Thessalonica, but once the attack came in, he won decisively, and Justinian was clearly doomed. He was taking heavy losses in the fighting, while Alex was able to quickly replace all the casualties on his end. The proud Byzantine cities, bustling economic powerhouses packed with world wonders, fell one by one at the hands of the backwards invaders, unable to prevail against the weight of numbers. Justinian had been the score leader not 75 turns ago, but now was the one getting torn apart by his neighbors. Ragnar was able to poach a few cities in the fighting, but Alex got the lion's share as well as the kill on Turn 253.
It was a shocking result for Justinian after he'd seemed to be so far ahead at first. He had a very interesting position on this map, with the best land but stuck next to both of the game's big warmongers, and we saw both of those factors play out in this game. Justinian leveraged his starting position well, playing an excellent early game to secure a big lead, but he never actually converted that lead, that promising position, into an actual edge in territory or military tech until it was too late. His big mistake was attacking Victoria instead of Ragnar; that gained him little and left him open to a Viking attack, and his tardiness in researching military tech turned a fight that he should have won easily into a stalemate. Then the dangerous side of his starting position came back to bite him in the worst way as his neighbors trapped him in a 2v1, and with Alex conquering his way into a dominant position while Justinian had failed to do so, it was too much for him to survive. Justinian thus suffers another opening round elimination after a promising start, now a long way from his glory days in the first four seasons.
Alexander was now the clear runaway winner, and it remained only to see who would join him in second place. De Gaulle was the clear second-place leader after prudently sitting out the last round of conflicts, but was unlikely to survive if Alex chose to attack him. On the other hand, he did have a significant tech and GNP lead over the other two leaders at this point, and thus could conceivably sneak in a Space Race victory in the unlikely event that the peace held for long enough. Ragnar had fought well considering his start, but was still stuck in a definite third place. His best hope was to sit back and hope Alex decided to kill De Gaulle for him... but this is Ragnar we're talking about, and after being reminded how much he enjoyed fighting, he wasn't going to stay at peace now. On Turn 278, he attacked De Gaulle in a move that could most charitably be described as "ill-advised". He was fighting with rifles and grenadiers while France had infantry and tanks, and very quickly found himself on the losing side of this conflict. Still, this war didn't truly matter, not when Alex's intervention would be fatal for either leader. Whom would he choose to attack this time?
It only took us five turns to learn the answer: Ragnar was the unfortunate victim. He was already losing his war against De Gaulle, and stood no chance against the Greek onslaught. The war was quick and effective, only lasting for twelve turns. De Gaulle was able to grab two Viking cities, but Alex took all the rest and his third kill of the game. That decided our two playoff leaders for this game, and Alex wasn't going to force us to sit around for a long time waiting for it to end. He was just barely under the Domination threshold at the conclusion of the war, and had flipped on the culture slider a few turns before. Of course this was really just silly AI logic, Alex choosing to go for a distant Cultural win thanks to having captured a ton of Holy Cities, but he was lucky enough for it to at least look like a slick play to finish off the game quickly, as the extra culture quickly allowed Alex to grab the last few tiles needed to cash in on a Domination victory, achieved on Turn 302.
For the third season in a row, Alex put forth a dominant opening round performance, and at this point it's clearly not a mere fluke. While his poor economic skills will give him a hard time coming back from behind and leave him a clear step behind the game's top leaders, Alex is clearly a good leader at snowballing and overrunning all opposition, provided he can get a favorable setup to start that snowball rolling. He got that setup in this game, in the form of two lightly defended Ethiopian border cities that allowed him to gain the edge over Zara, coupled with a friendly western neighbor that would never attack him and himself failed to snowball. It was a bit of a lucky setup for Alex and his early conquest wasn't the most efficient, but it was good enough, overrunning Zara in time and then using the resulting edge in production to crush the rest of the field. Alex thus advances to the playoffs for the third straight season; maybe this will be his year to finally find success in that round as well.
Meanwhile, De Gaulle played a solid second place game. He clearly didn't particularly deserve to win, stalling himself out by attacking Victoria too early and thus never having the chance to get into a leading position, but his long war against England ultimately did pay off and gain him a few more cities, and then he successfully schmoozed up to Alex, keeping himself safe while Justinian got overrun to solidify a second-place position that he deservedly got to keep over Ragnar. It wasn't exactly an impressive game, but he didn't do anything to embarrass himself either, and in this match it was plenty enough to deserve the finish it got. De Gaulle is thus rewarded with his second playoff appearance, although expectations for him there will be low. As for Ragnar, he'd done about as well as possible given the terrible starting position that he was cursed with; any top two finish from that position would have been quite a feat, and he came remarkably close. He stayed at peace during a time when war would have stalled him out, took advantage of De Gaulle's distraction to strengthen himself, and attacked Justinian at the one point in the game where he could do so without getting overrun, thus stalling Justin out, paving the way for his ouster, and putting Ragnar one step away from second place. Unfortunately, his luck ran out there as Alex simply decided that it was time for him to die, and that was that. I don't think Ragnar had any real path to victory in this game; he gave it his best shot, but ultimately it was not enough even for survival.
This game kept up the trend of the seeded leaders not faring so well this season, and Justinian's ouster was a shocking result for many. While a minority had correctly picked Alex to come out on top in this game, this overall was considered another unusual contest as AI Survivor continues to hit us with its twists and turns. The broad patterns of the games may be fairly predictable at this point, but the specific events of individual games still keep viewers on their toes. We'll see if the rest of the opening round returns to more predictable results, or if we'll continue to be surprised.