Domina is a fascinating little rogue-like sim hybrid from developer slash publisher, Dolphin. It focuses around the operation of a Roman ludus, and the gladiatorial games it services. The game costs only ten US dollars, and it’s worth every penny.
This game is essentially that show Spartacus in game form, but you’re the wealthy upper class Roman citizen that owns the ludus. Ultra-violent, full of hilarious drama and backstabbing, and brutally satisfying. I’m also honestly a little scared by how easily the concept of trading the lives of slaves for gold and glory comes after a few rounds in Domina.
In regards to mechanics and detail orientation, this game is crunchy. There’s even a mechanic for overall equipment weight, which can dictate your gladiators’ speed and combat efficacy, especially when coupled with education, motivation, and confidence. When we win any match, everyone gets wine. Those involved in the match get a few coins. I regularly release slaves early if I have not invested in them yet, and my ludus’s moral is through the roof. My guys want to fight. They’re experienced and motivated to win because I keep my best fighters alive and let them lead the entire ludus to greater and greater heights. It’s incredibly immersive, while easy to learn and excellent for quick play sessions as well as long hauls.
There isn’t a ton of story, but what’s there is highly enjoyable and complements the gameplay well. You start out as the child of a dying ludus owner who must rebuild your family’s legacy and fortunes. This task is accomplished by buying, training, and upgrading gladiators, and then sending them into combat in the various arenas the game has to offer. There’s an option to control them directly once in combat, but I find it much more entertaining, satisfying, and immersive to let the AI do all the fighting. There’s plenty of different types of gladiators to choose from as well, but most of them are locked behind pretty reasonably cheap DLC packs.
The combat is highly stylized. You set up your guys against theirs and then watch the action unfold. If you’ve done a good job ascertaining your situation regarding the match, you’ll be more likely to come out on top and keep your gladiator. If not…well, that’s where the roguelike elements come in. It’s not at all uncommon to lose your primary combat team all in one fell swoop and then have to struggle to recover. I’ve begun countless new games and beaten it a handful of satisfying times.
The ludus itself is where I find the core of the gameplay. A deep strategy unfolds as you grow your ludus through a variety of different upgrades. First is the gladiators. You can upgrade their training through your doctore, their equipment through simple purchases or through a faber, and their training environment by hiring an architect. You can upgrade your ludus in a variety of ways as well. Different staff offer different methods of upgrades. From professional criminals to really impressive healers and even spiritual guides, there are plenty of options to make sure your ludus is unique and interesting any time you start a new one.
You’re always under a time limit, so the upgrade choices will make or break your ludus. As you progress through the gladiatorial seasons, a variety of FTL-esque text pop ups provide dangers or bonuses, as well as some stellar comedic writing. The game itself is deceptively simple, featuring adorable pixel graphics and an excellent soundtrack that you can purchase on the side if you so desire.
I love games like this. They invest so heavily in truly enjoyable mechanics and bring unique gameplay and immersive experiences to gamers while creating fascinating art. If you like Spartacus, ancient Rome, or management sims, check out Domina.
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