Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself? It started with mere curiosity, a beguiling black and white screenshot. I could not know I was charting a collision course for obsession.
Death Crown (CO5MONAUT, 2019) absorbed me in the way “ambient strategy game” Eufloria (Omni Systems, 2009) did a decade ago. Death Crown is a pick-up-and-just-fucking-play blend of RTS and tower defence. As each battle is mere minutes in length, Death Crown nailed a personal sweet spot that offered a real sense of achievement while respecting human time limits. And the monochromatic hex aesthetic proferred a whiff of intoxicating nostalgia, triggering memories of Ogre (Origin Systems, 1986) that were burned into my visual cortex, a turn-based war game I adored but never bested.
I completed Death Crown’s main campaign two months ago, as well as the “Era of Human” DLC. That should have been the end of it: bugger off back to your digital shelf, mate. I made the mistake of pulling back another curtain, to peek at the “Domination mode”. I reeled: Domination mode was a sequence of thirty hard-as-nails levels that you had to survive with just three lives. Nice try, you bastards. Ha ha, but no.
But, sigh, I was having too much fun with Death Crown. I wasn’t quite ready to let go. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, having a crack at Domination.
Today, Steam casually declares that I’ve played Death Crown for over 60 hours. Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself? That it’s going to fuck you up?
Newsletter subscribers will already have read the Death Crown essentials but bear with me as I’ll need to go into a tad more detail for this tale of pain.
The main campaign sets you up as Death who is obliterating a human kingdom because its king refuses to bow to his mortality. This involves waging war across single-screen hex battlefields. Gold slowly accumulates, and gold is used to pay for structures: mines that increase gold yield; graves which spawn skeletons to attack your opponent’s structures; towers that eliminate oncoming attackers.
It’s bite-sized real-time strategy that smells a little like tower defence as your control of the battlefield is more arm’s length than typical RTS micromanagement. But the towers don’t carve out routes for your enemies to travel – they’ll just march straight at them and give them a sharp kick. All structures have a health rating and, under normal circumstances, will absorb multiple attacks before they collapse. To win, you must destroy your opponent’s citadel, the strongest structure on the board.
Critically, you can only build on hexes under your influence. Influence emanates from the graves, towers and the citadel itself… but not from mines. So if you were to surround your citadel with mines, you would be unable to expand your territory.
Ignore the black crystals at your peril, however. Every crystal caught by your influence upgrades the forces deployed from your graves. If you manage to capture three crystals, victory is normally assured, as beefed-up skeletons can tear down structures with a single hit.
The compelling combination of short rounds and deceptively simple rules has proven to be Electron Dance catnip. At times, I was lulled into thinking of it as a clicker as certain victories seemed all too easy.
Now Domination is a score attack mode: it makes a big deal of the leaderboard and you have only three lives to see how far you can get. But I’d argue it’s closer to a series of thirty puzzles. I ran into problems early as my lazy technique of cautious base building was more likely to fail than not. By the time I was ready to attack, the AI was already throwing hordes at me. If you let the AI dominate in this way, you might as well quit the match. It is possible, sometimes, to turn back the tide, but the average human is simply not quick enough to repair the punctures the AI is putting in your defences.
Hubris crumbled. I thought I was good at this game but one look at the Domination leaderboard convinced me I had a lot to learn. At the top of the board, there were incredible scores upward of 500,000; I was struggling for anything upward of 10,000. I convinced myself to walk away from Domination more than once, but it was never long before Death Crown seduced me back into its taloned embrace.
So, yeah, the early days were a fucking shitstorm. The AI’s habit is to build a bunch of mines then spawn barracks ad infinitum. Once the AI had engineered a crack in your front line, it was ready to exploit it; before you could buttress the damage, its minions were pouring through the crack, happy to convert your citadel into a kebab. Although it was useful to study the AI’s moves, mirroring the AI strategy wasn’t a winner. Sun Tzu would have called my performance shameful.
I figured out the seemingly minor opening moves were critical, as if a butterfly flapping its wings in Hawaii caused apocalyptic destruction on my hexes. I had to figure out how many mines I should build before progressing to defence or attack. Too many mines and the AI will be trampling your shit before you even got started. Too many graves and you just won’t have the gold to react if the AI begins to dictate the battle. And it was not usually clear whether you’d played the right pieces or not until the match was in full swing.
I should take a moment to highlight that the AI was not entirely predictable, either. It’s difficult to avoid the impression it is toying with you as its computerized hand sweeps back and forth at the start of the game, contemplating different options as it waits for gold. And Death Crown often gives the AI a little helping hand because the AI isn’t that smart and can be fooled into handing you the keys to the victory car.
Gradually, lessons were learned. On level VIII, the AI pushed back against me and I was trapped inside my starting area, with no chance for expansion. The AI, meanwhile, kept spawning barracks until the numbers coming at me were overwhelming. I realised that if I could turn this around and put the AI under siege, then victory would be easy.
This led me to discover a powerful tactic that I dubbed tower-rushing. I cannot overstate this: it changed everything. Give me a moment to explain.
As I’ve touched on before, you can’t place structures around the AI immediately because your influence is initially restricted to the neighbourhood of your citadel. Towers and graves will expand the borders of your land, but this is the slowest way of spreading influence. There is a sneaky shortcut which involves destroying your structures.
In Death Crown, you can tear down one of your own structures and retrieve half of its value. Now imagine two towers next to each other, one is closer to my citadel, one is closer to the AI’s citadel. If I destroy the one near me, I get back some gold and with it I will soon be able to create another tower closer to the AI. This nudges my influence forward more quickly than if I’d just been waiting for enough gold to create new towers from scratch. If I keep doing this, I could walk this pair of towers right up to the AI’s doorstep!
Nothing was the same after this. Although I devised tower-rushing to besiege the AI, it was also useful to capture crystals quickly or simply impede AI expansion. But… it didn’t solve all problems.
On level X, you face the Great Cube.
The Great Cube has an additional power – it can vaporise any structure I build near it. So much for tower-rushing. The Great Cube is one of the bosses from the main Death Crown campaign and there I didn’t find it particularly fearsome but somehow the Domination edition was always a dicey endeavour. I would often lose a life or two… or three. The AI was always able to ship out an invasion while I was still playing with marbles. I tried doing the same back to the AI, focusing on attack, but somehow it always seized the upper hand.
Oh Christ, I’d forgotten how much grief The Great Cube gave me. After plenty of delicate experimentation, I eventually distilled a strategy which was guaranteed to crush the Cube into little itty bits. There’s no profound theory in it: it was just a case of carefully balancing resources vs expansion, securing crystals and harassing the AI just enough to slow it down. Perhaps the solution is beautiful, but as I barely need to think about what I’m doing anymore it’s become a little dull to play.
The challenge of the next ten levels is recognising what the fuck you’re fighting against. Instead of humans, you’re now battling against “The Swarm” – an enemy that doesn’t feature in any campaign (at the time of writing). The trouble is, all that visual parsing software your brain has developed for human farms and barracks is about as useful here as a post-it note in a gunfight. It was like starting over. The Swarm’s mines were squelching sponges, its barracks were pulsating pods and its towers were whipping tentacles.
The Swarm has no new powers or upgrades to accompany this, it’s simply visual fluff that made the game harder to understand. Some of The Swarm’s structures are bulky so when directing my armies to attack, I’d often miss the target hex and drag my armies to the one behind it… and the graves would remain asleep, still faithfully waiting for real orders. Imagine losing a war because your armies were sleeping. That happened. Many times. But repeated exposure eventually led to familiarity.
There are several cheeky Swarm levels. Levels XII and XIV are never guaranteed wins although the odds are clearly more in my favour than they used to be. Both levels have an open structure with multiple corridors of attack and the crystals spread out. I’d dominate one corridor only to find the AI pouring shit down the other. Tower-rushing was helpful but focusing on rushing sometimes made me vulnerable elsewhere. Just like The Great Cube, I figured out a basic strategy that boosted the probability of success. But it’s still not guaranteed; until I have the upper hand, both levels remain on the knife edge.
Sorry for moaning, but I need to get level XV off my chest. Divided into quarters, it’s completely symmetric with both you and the AI having two bases each. It has one unique feature, shared with no other level: zero crystals. This means towers are exceptionally robust and victory is difficult to nail down even if you think you’re on top.
XV can become a long slog and if you let the AI dominate one half of the level, you should expect to lose a life. While you can survive the loss of one of your citadels, you will not survive losing a quarter of the level. I probably still need to refine my approach to XV because it remains a bit touch-and-go, having to think on multiple fronts simultaneously. Nowadays, I always get through XV but passage may cost one life.
XVIII is my favourite of the Swarm levels which looks terribly unfair at first glance. You start out completely naked with two enemy citadels either side of you. It took a fair few goes, but with the right opening moves, this level is yours. I am never, ever defeated on this level and it always delivers an emotional victory – a feeling like I won against terrible odds, even though I am following the same strategy masterplan each time.
And we’re here, now. I can’t put it off any longer. Level XX. Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself?
Level XX delivers a reprisal of the Watchtower boss. This is a boss I struggled to defeat in the main campaign because of its special power: stealing your graves and towers. A stolen hex acts like a barrier and perforates your influence. It’s just really bad. The only way I defeated the Watchtower was to grow fast before it had a chance to do too much thieving. The Domination version of the Watchtower confrontation is far more insidious. Crystals are placed at distant locations, walled off by spikes, making it impossible to control all three crystals at the same time.
Failure was assured.
In no time at all, the Watchtower would have an unstoppable army while stealing the occasional grave or tower in a key location. There seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. Trying to capture crystals was an exercise in self-flagellation and once the Watchtower had just one crystal, its forces would corrode my defences like that acidic blood dripping through two decks of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
One particularly galling defeat happened incredibly fast; the Watchtower grabbed a grave I’d built adjacent to my citadel and that was it, I was done. If an enemy hex lies beside your citadel, it is an open line of attack that you cannot disrupt and almost certain doom. The AI marched its troops straight in.
Every time I reached XX, having fought through 19 levels to get there, I would lose. Disappointed, I took a look at the few strategy pages on Death Crown and identified the “solution” to the thieving conundrum. Is the Watchtower about to steal one of your structures? Just destroy it. It can’t steal what doesn’t exist. Christ! Why didn’t I think of that? What an arse. This still wasn’t enough to disrupt the constant numbing rhythm of defeat.
But I remember my first XX victory.
I had more than a few graves and my skeleton troops eventually managed to get through to the citadel. This was unusual because the AI was constantly dropping towers to fix any damage you inflicted on its little empire and, without crystals, taking out towers was a slow process. Yet through some quirk of fate I broke through that one time.
I continued to win – but win infrequently. My strategy was to accept the pounding and hope I stayed alive long enough to get lucky. I fought a losing war that I sometimes won through luck.
I was distraught. It was taking an hour to get to XX and, once there, I’d experience bitter defeat. I didn’t have enough practice at the levels beyond XX so whenever I did get through to the final ten, I would fail miserably. I was losing heart. This Death Crown drug in my veins was turning toxic.
XX was impossible. It had broken me.
KNIFE THE WOUND
I sought out others who had also fallen before XX.
I was overjoyed to discover a full Domination run on YouTube but the euphoria was extremely short-lived. It was for an old version of Domination and the levels were entirely different! I suspected the universe had put into motion a very special plan to torture me. Perhaps as proof of this secret conspiracy, I learnt the Death Crown fanbase were complaining that XIX was impossible on the rejigged Domination. Yes, the level before the Watchtower. The developer had even put up a YouTube video showing how you could beat XIX. Are you kidding me?
I was hemorrhaging self-confidence. What if all those high scores on the Domination leaderboard had been won on the old version of Domination? Was there any point going on?
I abandoned Domination temporarily and bought the Death Crown Demon campaign DLC for a change of pace. To my surprise, I was too good for the campaign. I blasted through it, losing only twice. Tower-rushing turned out to be devastating to the campaign AI. And so there was only one thing to do… head back to the bitterness of Domination. To XX.
Domination had morphed from this slow, evolving puzzle into Confidence Destroying Defeat Simulator 2021. When I’d lose a life on an earlier “solvable” level, I’d hurl the mouse across my desk in disgust. Fucking game. What was the point in playing for 45 minutes to lose my shit before I got to the real fucking deal? Defeats were making me angry. It didn’t help that I found an occasional bug on XX, when the destroy action would sometimes fail to work and after I thumped E repeatedly on the keyboard in vain, the Watchtower would calmly step in and take the hex I had been trying to protect.
God damn it. When would this punishment end?
As I’ve spoken about in a previous newsletter, I’ve been here before, becoming obsessed with a game to the point where it’s unhealthy. But was this unhealthy? It wasn’t making me sick but it was definitely gorging on my time. I couldn’t quit. I had to keep playing and playing until I beat it… but every attempt just hurt. It was like sticking a knife in an old wound every day, a ritual that was the opposite of cathartic and served only to highlight your own fallibility. Do something else. Why are you still doing this? Because the developers obviously think the level is solvable, maybe? I can’t give up now. I can’t give up I can’t I can’t I can’t
A MESSAGE SENT
What is the real problem here? It’s the crystals. If the AI gets hold of a crystal, it’s pretty much the end. Perhaps the solution was to tower rush the crystals? But they were so far away and located in opposite directions behind spikes…
New experiments revealed that while I could tower-rush the left crystal and block off the AI, it would then jump on the right crystal and I was toast. But it was so close. Maybe it was just a case of tuning the opening moves like so many other levels?
Yes. Yes, it had to be. I began to earn control of the map; provided the AI didn’t get all the way around the right crystal to block me off, I was in with a chance. And, God, the fight was always one long, exhausting howl at the moon. I had to service an enormous front-line scanning for the Watchtower trying to steal a hex while sweeping the mouse back and forth looking for towers about to buckle, back and forth, back and forth, waiting for enough gold to spawn another grave. Maddening. All it took was one mistake and the Watchtower had me.
Yet from this emerged a strategy. My strategy isn’t perfect and it seems inefficient, dragging on for over five minutes. But you betcha if it takes an hour to get to XX and is victorious against the AI most of the time, I’m not going to keep experimenting. Thus, even now when I see XX appear, I still feel a subtle tightness of the chest, a pang of apprehension.
On March 13 2021, I earned the achievement that only 0.8% of Death Crown players on Steam have earned: completing Domination. I am currently fourth place on the Domination leaderboard.
Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself?
“You’re fucking amazing.”