Game Eight gathered together the last remaining leaders in the opening round of competition. We ended up with a little bit of everything in this game, starting with the Season Three champion Josef Stalin. The Russian leader absolutely torched the prior season of competition by winning all three of his games en route to the overall crown, while scoring a full seven kills along the way. Stalin didn't show anything like that level of dominance in prior seasons, and it was an open question if he'd be able to keep it up this year. Joining him as the other seeded leader was Pericles, one of the game's best cultural leaders and always a threat to win if left untouched. As for the unseeded leaders, we had a pair of fairly aggressive AI personalities that also brought the Financial trait in Hannibal and Ragnar. Both of them won games in past seasons, and they're among the few leaders who can pair unalloyed warmongering with a decent economic setup. The high peace weight leaders in this game were a group who loved building wonders, with Ramesses and Hammurabi both likely to chase after these unique prizes in repeated fashion. Finally, this game also brought a "Gandhi-lite" personality in the form of Lincoln, one of the most pacifistic leaders in the whole game. I had no idea how this mixture was going to play out - this could be another game with no clear favorites.
The biggest question in the early stages of this game was where the first two religions would land. None of the leaders in this game started with Mysticism tech, and theoretically the initial religions were in play for everyone. As it turned out only two of the leaders would make any attempt to chase after them, with Stalin heading for Meditation tech and establishing Hinduism, and then Ramesses going after Polytheism tech and founding Islam. Both of these religions were claimed by Turn 15 and that would be it for religion in the early stages of the game. Later on, Stalin turned out to be first to Monotheism tech and also established Judaism, then surprised everyone by swapping over to Judaism after it spread to his capital city. Thus the main religious divide in this game would end up between a Russian Judaism and an Egyptian Islam, with Hinduism also floating around as a poison pill unpopular faith for unwary leaders to trip over.
We had a bit of a weird pattern with the location of the initial starting Deity settlers. Stalin, Ramesses, Lincoln, and Pericles all planted their first settlers to the east of their capitals, leaving a large vacuum of open space in the western part of the continent. The west would retain unclaimed land long after it had all filled up in the east. This was also compounded by the bizarre behavior of Ragnar, who sent his starting Deity settler far to the southwest, and then backfilled behind that location with his later settlers. Ramesses and Pericles also seemed determined to settle the tundra to the north of their starting positions for no clear reason:
Corinth was the third city location chosen by Pericles, an egregiously bad spot that claimed nothing in terms of land and grabbed a bunch of resources that couldn't be connected until much later in the game. Pericles then decided that he was OK with having a mere three cities and spent the next two dozen turns building the Pyramids in his capital. While he did land them eventually on Turn 60, it was a weak showing from a leader with a fantastic capital city. Pericles, Ragnar, and especially Hammurabi all struggled to expand and found themselves getting stuck on a limited number of cities. This was to the benefit of the other leaders in their part of the world, with Stalin and Lincoln and Ramesses emerging as major powers as their borders swelled across the landscape.
Stalin in particular had done a fine job of developing his initial core of three cities. He paused to construct both Stonehenge and the Great Wall, but with the Industrious + stone combo this didn't slow him down much at all, and Stonehenge was probably worth the cost for its free border expansions. Ramesses was also doing quite well for himself, claiming all of the land to the west of Athens that likely should have gone to Pericles, and then using his Egyptian war chariots to capture a barbarian city in the southwest. Here was where the continent stood as the landgrab portion of the gameplay began to come to a close:
The dark horse in the competition at this point was Hannibal over in the west. While his score was no more than middling, Hannibal still had some room to expand and a powerful economic basis for later research. His Charismatic trait and a series of local luxury resources gave the Carthaginian cities a high happiness cap, and that Oracle build would eventually translate into a Metal Casting grab and a later Colossus. This set up the Financial + Colossus combo that supercharged all of Hannibal's coastal tiles, and he had plenty of them as almost all of his cities were located along the ocean. If he could capture those barbarian cities to his north, he had the potential to become a major power.
We were starting to see the religious alliances form up at this point as we awaited the outbreak of the first war. Stalin's Judaism spread to his eastern neighbor of Lincoln, and then to his western neighbor of Hannibal, creating a Jewish bloc in the southern half of the map. Meanwhile the northern civs had picked up the Egyptian religion of Islam, which spread from Ramesses first to Pericles and then over to Ragnar as well. The true loser in this regard appeared to be Hammurabi, who had adopted the minority religion of Hinduism, although he would later swap over to Islam as well. The presences of a shared religion was already affecting the diplomacy, making Stalin and Hannibal less likely to declare war on Lincoln. It couldn't stop all interfaith squabbles though, as Ragnar invaded Pericles to kick off the first war on Turn 80. These two proved to be evenly matched, and it didn't look like any territory would change hands unless another leader intervened in the conflict.
A larger and more important war broke out on Turn 91 when Ramesses invaded Stalin. These were two of the strongest AI civs in the game and a victory by either side would set up that leader to dominate the rest of the match. Note that Stalin had already established some distance from the rest of the field on the scoreboard before this war began. Somehow he had managed to found double Holy Cities and build several world wonders while also matching or exceeding the rest of the leaders in expansion. It had been an impressive performance thus far from the Russians. We wondered if Lincoln might be tempted to join this war on the side of fellow high peace weight leader Ramesses, but instead Lincoln decided to attack Ragnar a few turns later. This made it a virtual certainty that the Scandinavians would be the first to die, with Ragnar in last place on the scoreboard and facing off against both Pericles and Lincoln. However, Ragnar somehow managed to get a white peace treaty with Pericles, capture a barbarian city on their respective border, and then fight the much larger Lincoln to a draw over the subsequent turns. Ragnar was clinging to life though, and it seemed like only a matter of time before Pericles or Hammurabi would join Lincoln in his ongoing war and wipe out the Vikings.
This meant that the main action took place in the war between Stalin and Ramesses. Both sides picked up Construction tech within a short time after the conflict began, with the presence of catapults meaning that city wall defenses were no longer suficient for safety. Stalin struck first and captured the border city of Elephantine on Turn 102, followed by Ramesses taking both Yaroslavl and the barbarian city of Ligurian simultaneously a few turns later. Was this the turning point for the Egyptians? But no, on the very next turn Stalin took both of those cities away, and that seemed to be the decisive moment in their war. When the Egyptian city of Kushans fell on Turn 110, it was clear which side had emerged as the winning power. All of the border cities had fallen to Stalin and Ramesses was clearly on his way out if he couldn't secure some kind of assistance.
Who then was in a position to aid the Egyptians? Keep in mind that the Civ4 AI will not start a new war if it's already engaged in a war. Lincoln and Ragnar remained locked in their preexisting conflict, and Hammurabi was too weak and took far away to assist his Islamic friend. That left Pericles as the one person who could save Ramesses, and it was a truly decisive moment in the game when he chose to take a different course of action:
Pericles attacked LINCOLN on Turn 120. This was one of those moves that would have been hard to fathom before the game started, two high peace weight pacifistic leaders going to war with one another. Pericles was the second-most popular choice to win in our picking contest, largely because many of the viewers thought that he would make common cause with Lincoln and Ramesses and Hammurabi against the likes of Stalin and Ragnar. Perhaps that did take place in some alternate histories of this map, but not in this one. The Greek attack against the Americans spelled the doom of Ramesses, left to face the growing power of Stalin all by himself. And indeed the situation became even worse on the very next turn, as Hannibal piled into the war on the side of the Russians. At a time when the high peace weight leaders needed to be acting in concert, they were stuck in the midst of an intercine squabble.
From this point the wars unfolded in predictable fashion. Lincoln and Pericles fought to a bloody stalemate, each of them wasting their production throwing units at one another in pointless fashion, weakening each other in the process. Hammurabi invaded Ragnar and then the two of them fought to another stalemate, the two weakest leaders on the map tussling with one another to no real purpose. But over in the west, Stalin and Hannibal methodically dismantled Ramesses in textbook fashion. Both of them had large stacks marching from city to city, with the Russians having the somewhat bigger armies, and it mostly came down to chance as far as who took which Egyptian prize. Stalin ended up having most of the luck in this regard, as Hannibal only managed to capture a single city when he probably should have taken two or three of them. The net result was that Ramesses was the First to Die and Stalin claimed nearly all of the spoils:
It wasn't all bad luck for Hannibal, as the single city that he captured did contain the Mausoleum, the Parthenon, and Shwedagon Paya. Ramesses had been furiously building wonders even as Stalin was tearing out his throat, the excessive prefence for wonder-building leading to the destruction of yet another AI leader. Hannibal also claimed the barbarian city of Avar after the war ended, therefore getting a second city for his troubles. Everything else went to Stalin though, and this confirmed that Russia would be the juggernaut of this particular map, with Hannibal as a likely sidekick. Ramesses had arguably played the best game out of the high peace weight civs, and he had largely been done in through the stupidity of Pericles. With Stalin and Hannibal topping the scoreboard, Lincoln and Pericles locked in an endless duel, and Hammurabi a weak leader with only half a dozen cities, it seemed clear that the low peace weight civs were on their way to another game of dominance.
The following turns were relatively quiet. Stalin constructed the Apostolic Palace (attuned to Judaism), and mostly used it to repeatedly cancel all trade deals with the non-Jewish leaders of Pericles, Hammurabi, and Ragnar. (Poor Ragnar asked the human observer civ for Open Borders four different times because they kept getting canceled by the Apostolic Palace.) Ragnar and Hammurabi made peace, started a new war, and then signed peace again. We were collectively holding our breath until the big dogs were ready to move again, and it was only a matter of time until they did. Stalin declared war on his religious compatriot Lincoln on Turn 168, followed by Hannibal attacking Pericles a short time later:
The low peace weight civs in the west were marching on the high peace weight civs to the east, and it was obvious how these conflicts were going to end. Both Lincoln and Pericles were exhausted from long centuries of warring against each other, still fielding Medieval units while both Stalin and Hannibal were in the process of upgrading to gunpowder-based militaries. It didn't take long before both of these leaders were fielding cuirassiers against longbows, and soon after that Stalin was romping about with cossacks. Lincoln and Pericles both had no chance at all, and it was a race to see which of the low peace weight leaders would finish their conquest first. Even Ragnar joined in on the fun, invading Pericles and managing to capture a pair of cities before the fighting was done. Why not, I guess that Team Evil needed a furry mascot.
Here's the mandatory picture of "Moai City in a Golden Age" that we joke about in the Realms Beyond Multiplayer game threads. Hannibal had nearly stacked up the best possible yields from coastal tiles, with 2 food / 2 production / 5 commerce on each one. (The only way to get a better yield would be playing as Willem with Golden Age + Moai + the Dike unique building in play for an extra production point.) Hannibal's economic output was truly impressive while he was running one of his Mausoleum-enhanced Golden Ages, and he would win the Liberalism prize on the next turn. However, Stalin simply had so much more territory overall that the Russians were continuing to hold onto the tech lead. Even with the cities taken from Pericles, Hannibal still wasn't able to close the gap because Stalin was taking even more cities away from Lincoln.
The net result was a double elimination. First Hannibal finished off Pericles on Turn 202, followed by Stalin sending Lincoln to the gulags on Turn 204:
The answer to the question of who won the war between Lincoln and Pericles was therefore "no one". It was a conflict of mutual destruction that only resulted in external powers sweeping in and finishing off both sides, a bit like Athens and Sparta both losing in the long run to Philip of Macedon. It's difficult to put into words how badly Pericles had miscalculated the diplomatic landscape in this match. His decision to attack Lincoln had completely thrown the game to Stalin and Hannibal, setting in motion a slow-moving car crash that inevitably resulted in his own destruction. We've rarely seen such incompetence at the grand strategic level.
Now there was one more domino left to fall, and it was obvious which leader was next on the chopping block. Everyone remaining in the game hated Hammurabi, a high peace weight leader in a game that suddenly had nothing but low peace weight leaders still standing. Hammurabi had also attacked Ragnar on multiple different occasions, racking up a bunch of "you declared war on our friend!" maluses with Stalin and Hannibal. We knew it was only a matter of time before he was attacked, and sure enough, Hannibal invaded Babylon on Turn 224 followed by Stalin invading on Turn 225. Ragnar once again piled in a few turns later to make this a 3 vs 1 conflict. Here's an overview picture that adequately summed up this war:
Longbows and maces and catapults on defense against massive numbers of invading cavalry and cossacks. You get the idea, it was all over aside from a whole lot of screaming on the part of the Babylonians. Stalin once again captured nearly every city, with Ragnar getting one city (which he was lucky to pick up) and Hannibal taking two of them. The Carthaginians did get the final city for the killing blow down in the icy tundra, tying up the scoring at two kills apiece for Stalin and Hannibal. RIP Hammurabi, a weak AI leader who never achieved much of anything in this game. He simply didn't expand well enough and wasted too much time on wonder building.
At this point we were left with three low peace weight civs who were all on good terms with one another. Hannibal was "Pleased" with both Stalin and Ragnar, and since he won't declare war at "Pleased" relations he was unable to start any trouble. Stalin was "Friendly" with Hannibal and therefore wouldn't attack him, although eventually relations did slip down to "Pleased" thanks to some idiotic spy sabotaging. Ragnar was the only one to be "Cautious" with Stalin, although even Ragnar wasn't dumb enough to pick that fight. As for the Domination victory condition, Stalin actually ended up meeting the 60% land threshhold but came up short on the population requirement, rare for one of our AI games.
Therefore we ended up with a peaceful endgame after a long period of heavy warring. Stalin likely could have gone to space fairly easily, but instead opted to chase after a Cultural victory for unknown reasons:
He turned on the cultural slider shortly after Turn 250 and kept it there. This dropped the cultural ETA down to roughly 30 turns in each of Stalin's core cities, and we spent the remainder of the game clicking "Next Turn" and waiting to see if anything would break the equilibrium. Nothing ever did and Stalin won his Cultural victory in anticlimactic fashion on Turn 296:
The decisive moment in this game had been much earlier, when Stalin and Hannibal had taken down Ramesses while Lincoln and Pericles were off fighting one another. Stalin's performance in this game had been impressive overall, and he backed up his performance in Season Three by dominating another opening round game. He's won enough games at this point that it's hard to argue that he's just getting lucky. Hannibal did a fine job of riding the Russian coattails to a deserved second place finish, and with a little bit better luck in terms of capturing cities, he might have been able to challenge Stalin for the victory. (Hannibal easily could have taken four or five additional cities when he was racing Stalin for city captures against hapless opponents.) Ragnar was the truly lucky one, going from near-certain First to Die status into the Wildcard Game. He had been thoroughly unimpressive here, his overaggression shedding much blood while achieving virtually nothing. He'd have to do a lot better in his next match to make it into the playoffs.
This wrapped up the opening round set of games for Season Eight. We had just the Wildcard Game remaining at this point before moving onto our playoff round. Who would manage to take advantage of their one final chance to survive and advance?