The Wildcard Game is our "last chance" match, the final opportunity for the surviving leaders from the opening round to advance into the playoffs. We had fewer leaders than ever before make it into the Wildcard Game in Season Four, with only six total leaders managing to limp their way out of a brutal series of opening contests. Four of these leaders had the Protective trait and I don't think that was a coincidence. The Protective trait can stall out a losing game and make elimination less likely, but it doesn't do much of anything to actually win a game. In any case, the Protective trait would be shared between Churchill, Mao, Saladin, and Wang Kon in this game. Saladin and Wang Kon seemed likely to split the religions, and that could contribute to diplomatic tension between north and south. Suryavarman brought the best traits for expanding to this game, while Ragnar would be on hand to bring the crazy over-aggression that we all know and love.
One other highly important feature unique to the Wildcard Game: this is the only AI match that we run that uses the Raging Barbarians setting. The leaders that could best handle the hordes of barbarians would be in the best position to win this game and move on to the playoff round. Unlike previous seasons of AI Survivor, we did not grant the leaders the standard free Deity starting techs (Agriculture, Wheel, Hunting, Archery) and this meant that none of the civs would be able to build archers out of the gate, only warriors. Given how badly the AI leaders had performed back in Season Three's Wildcard Game, when they did start with Archery tech, we knew that the six leaders in this match were going to struggle.
Wang Kon was the early mover in this game, sending his starting settler half a dozen tiles north into the center of the map and then founding Confucianism as a religion there. No one else went for an initial religion, not even Saladin who also began the game with Mysticism tech, perhaps because they were all flooded with barbarians. Every leader had serious problems with the barbs as they swarmed throughout the civilized lands. No one was able to keep a tile improvement established on the map, with the capital cities of every leader pillaged again and again. While conditions were bad everywhere, they seemed to be the worst in the north where there was more tundra backlines for the barbarians to spawn. Ragnar ended up getting an unlucky dice roll in his capital, and this was the result:
He lost his capital city to the barbarians!!! What the heck Ragnar. In his defense, the barbarian archer picked up 5 XP after winning this fight, which indicates an extremely unlikely victory at something like 5% odds or less. Still, when you run enough combats there are bound to be some improbable results and Ragnar had been unfortunate at the worst possible time. With only a single city remaining defended by one archer, there was a real chance that Ragnar could be eliminated by the barbarians and suffer the most humiliating exit in AI Survivor history. There was a turn where Uppsala had to defend with two archers against three incoming barbarian attackers, and a single bad dice roll could have ended the Scandinavian civ. This time the odds held true though and Ragnar would end up surviving by a hair. He was beyond crippled though, already out of this match as a competitor as early as Turn 25. There was one other weird result from Ragnar losing his capital: we did not see barbarian cities spawn in this game until much later. I believe that the barbarians won't start to found cities until every major civ has at least two cities, and Ragnar was severely delayed in that regard. This kept barbarian settlements from springing up as they had done in last season's Wildcard Game.
The two leaders that seemed to handle the barbarians the best were Suryavarman and Wang Kon. The Khmer leader in the north central part of the map benefited significantly from his Creative trait, as his borders popped out automatically in every city and pushed back the area in which barbarians could spawn. This also caused Suryavarman's capital to hit 100 culture as soon as Turn 25, and the third-ring borders granted a lot of extra sight range and protection from barb incursions. It also didn't hurt that Ragnar's weakness was drawing a lot of barbarian activity over to his east and creating more room in which the Khmer could settle. Down further to the south, Wang Kon was shielded from the brunt of the barbarians by his coastal start. He also had the Holy City culture performing a similar function, and then added Stonehenge for the mini-Creative trait boost. It probably wasn't a coincidence that the two civs in the center of the map were shielded from the worst of the barbarians by their neighbors on each side.
The early game was much slower than normal here as everyone struggled with the barbarian attacks. Even as late as Turn 50 in the screenshot above, most of the civs were having difficulty keeping tile improvements unpillaged at their capital. Suryavarman was benefitting here from a nearby copper resource and he was the first one to be able to construct units better than archers. Mao Zedong, the big pregame favorite in the picking contest, was having a particularly tough time. He lost his first handbuilt settler to the barbarians and was having a miserable time trying to keep his civilization afloat. There were still no tile improvements in China at the moment in time pictured above. While no one had it as bad as Ragnar, still clinging to life in a single city, China was also struggling mightily.
Eventually the AI leaders were able to right the ship and push back the barbarians enough to get their territory improved. Saladin was able to do this with chariots once he connected his horses, and he had founded Islam (via Polytheism) at the relatively late date of Turn 30. Suryavarman constructed the Great Wall in a game where it would be highly useful for once, while Mao later established Judaism for a third religion at the standard Monotheism tech. Even Ragnar managed to get a second city founded by Turn 66 although his former capital of Nidaros still remained in barbarian hands. We also saw the first religious conversion of the game as Churchill picked up the Islam of his northern Arab neighbors. After the bizarre early game, we were starting to settle into a more normal pattern.
As far as warring went, we expected to see someone attack Wang Kon for the first conflict of the game. The Korean leader was the "worst enemy" of Ragnar, Mao, and Suryavarman due to peace weight differences, and despite the strong early game Wang Kon looked like he was in serious diplomatic trouble. Instead, everyone was caught by surprise when Suryavarman decided to go after Saladin for his first war:
These guys were relatively close in peace weight and had no religious tensions with one another. In fact, Suryavarman actually converted to Islam on the next turn! This was one of those random decisions from the AI that didn't make a lot of sense, an unlikely dice roll that potentially threw the outcome of the game into doubt. The general consensus in the picking contest was that Mao and Suryavarman would work together to eliminate Wang Kon first and then roll over the rest of the field from there. Instead, Mao was struggling to overcome his weak start and Suryavarman was off invading Saladin. He had initial success too, capturing the border city of Baghdad pictured above as well as the Arabian city (Basra) further to the south before stalling out against the stiff cultural defenses in the Arabian core. This confirmed Suryavarman as the top leader for the moment and knocked Saladin down below Mao on the scoreboard into the non-Ragnar last place spot.
With Saladin at war with Suryavarman, Islam was not able to spread further into the Khmer lands. The religion also couldn't make progress with Wang Kon since he already had his own Confucian religion, thus it remained confined to the western civs of Arabia and England. This provided a crucial opportunity for Mao to spread his Judaism around, with Jewish missionaries soon converting Ragnar and Suryavarman over to his faith. The net result was the three low peace weight leaders all joining together under the Star of David and forming a clear religious bloc. This was a serious longterm danger to the three non-Jewish civs who would be on the outside looking in against this budding alliance.
Wang Kon was the strongest non-Jewish leader by a wide margin, running in second place behind Suryavarman. While the Khmer were tied up in a war that had stalemated with Arabia, both sides lacking catapults for the moment, Wang Kon had an opportunity to make gains against a weaker neighbor. He chose to invade Mao on Turn 112, an aggressive gambit that had the potential for big gains at the cost of big risks. If Wang Kon could roll over China and absorb all of Mao's lands, he would potentially be strong enough to face down Suryavarman and break up the growing power of the Jewish group. If his invasion stalled out though, he faced the possibility of a 2 vs 1 or even 3 vs 1 situation if Ragnar could ever get his situation together. The Scandinavians finally retook their original capital from the barbarians on Turn 127 but still remained very weak. Mao made excellent use of his Protective trait here and fought off two separate attacks on his capital despite being outnumbered and significantly behind on the Power bar graphs. However, Wang Kon had reached Construction tech and it was only a matter of time before his Korean Hwachas brought down the defenses of Beijing. The Chinese capital fell on Turn 136:
Mao actually traded back by taking a Korean city of his own on the same turn, but of course this didn't make up for the loss of his capital. The Korean forces moved on towards Shanghai next, and if that city could be broken it would spell the effective demise of China. There was real danger here for Wang Kon though, as Suryavarman and Saladin had finally signed a peace treaty and ended their destructive war. The pressure would be immense for the Khmer to attack their "worst enemy" to the south and come to the aid of a fellow Jewish leader. The Korean army gathered its forces, removing the defenses of Shanghai with siege units and launched the assault. However, Wang Kon had foolishly attacked across a river and into the hill defenses of Shanghai, where Protective longbows ripped the attack to pieces. The city held and the Korean army was decisively defeated. At the same time, the war trumpets blared to annouce the expected invasion: Suryavarman was crossing the border.
This was the biggest turning point in the game and it was nothing but bad news for Wang Kon. He had played an excellent game up to this point, but his high peace weight and religious isolation were about to backfire in a huge way. Mao took advantage of this opportunity to recapture his former capital of Beijing as well as take over a Korean city in the southern tundra. He was actually up two cities as a result of the war, even if he had suffered heavy damage in his core. Saladin used this interval of peace to construct the Apostolic Palace and attune it to Islam, which would allow him to engage in religious-based diplomatic shenanigans later. Wang Kon desperately needed one of the two Islamic civs to intervene on his behalf... only to see the opposite happen when Churchill invaded Korea from the west. What the heck, Churchill! Although he shared a similar high peace weight with Wang Kon, apparently their religious divide was large enough to launch the English into their own opportunistic conflict. That led to this screenshot:
Wang Kon: "I hate you all so, so much." Yes, the Troll King had finally been caught trolling a little bit too much, making enemies of everyone in the world. It was a true accomplishment to be "Annoyed" or "Furious" with every other leader in the game. Usually the AI will stumble into at least one friendship by accident. The demise of Wang Kon was essentially guaranteed at this point and the main drama involved which leader would land which spoils. Churchill ended up being totally incompetent in his attacks, eventually signing peace without taking so much as a single city. His floundering had weakened Wang Kon to no other purpose. Mao was still too weakened himself by the Korean invasion to have a large army, and he would only end up taking one more city in the far southern tundra. That left the bulk of the prizes to Suryavarman, who had by far the game's largest military at this point. He swept over the plains of Korea and took almost everything for himself, landing the elimination credit as well on Turn 185:
It was an undeserved early exit for Wang Kon who had genuinely played a strong game here. With a little bit more luck on the diplomatic front, he definitely could have emerged as the victor in this contest. Better luck next time buddy. As for the remaining leaders in this game, Suryavarman's takeover of the Korean lands had turned him into the unstoppable juggernaut of the Wildcard Game. Suryavarman was not ahead in tech at this point, running roughly even with Mao and Churchill and a bit ahead of Saladin, but the huge size of the Khmer territory made it only a matter of time until they began to pull away from the pack. The scoreboard already reflected a giant lead and it wouldn't be long before that was reflected economically as well.
The three Jewish civs continued to stick together diplomatically, with their relationship growing to the point that all of them were "Friendly" with one another due to shared religious bonuses and similar low peaceweight. This left Suryavarman with only the Arabs and the English as potential targets, and he renewed his crusade against Saladin on Turn 198. The Power bar graphs were lopsidedly in Suryavarman's favor by this point, and he had no trouble recapturing the city of Baghdad, which had been assigned back to Saladin by the Apostolic Palace. When Medina was captured as well, Saladin seemed headed for an early exit. However, he was saved by the intervention of the Apostolic Palace:
With the help of former Islamic partner Churchill (who was running Free Religion at the moment), Saladin was able to vote through a stop to the war that was in the process of killing him. Later on, he would use the Apostolic Palace to reassign the city of Medina back to him in a similarly lopsided vote. We've been having a real discussion on the Livestream about whether to include the Apostolic Palace at all in future seasons of AI Survivor. It seems a bit ridiculous that building a single wonder can stop wars and undo the results of city captures in battle while having only a small minority of world population. And then there was this vote a little bit later in the Apostolic Palace:
Ragnar had gone to war against Churchill and this induced the English leader to flip back into Theocracy civic, reestablishing Islam as the state religion in England. Mao had gone to war with Churchill as well, and after being stymied by the Apostolic Palace in his invasion of Arabia, Suryavarman also decided to attack Churchill. Now the English leader was on the losing end of a 3 vs 1 situation against the Jewish bloc of leaders, and he also seemed certain to meet a quick demise. His border cities were in the process of falling to the various Jewish attackers. However, Saladin and Churchill were the only leaders who had a lot of Islamic cities, and this allowed them to vote through a Crusade resolution against Ragnar. Suddenly Suryavarman and Mao, who were "Friendly" with Ragnar at the time, found themselves compelled to declare war against the Scandinavians. Meanwhile, Saladin used the next AP vote to reassign the lost city of Baghdad to himself once again, and then voted to stop the war against Churchill with his next resolution.
On the one hand, this was a savvy use of the one lever of power controlled by the two Islamic civs. Saladin and Churchill couldn't match the strength of the Jewish civs on the field of battle so they used the Apostolic Palace to stop the wars they didn't want to fight and reassign their cities lost in combat. On the other hand, was this really a lever of power that they should have had? It felt absurd that building a single wonder should have this much influence over the game. Two hundred turns of built up diplomatic relations could be ignored in an instant as the Apostolic Palace overrode "Friendly" relations and forced Suryavarman and Mao to attack Ragnar. It was an exciting and unexpected twist, sure, but it didn't feel deserved. Similarly, it feels to me that if a civ can't defend itself from attack, it shouldn't get a magical shield of protection from building a wonder. I dunno. This is a discussion that we're going to need to have after the current season finishes.
Ragnar somehow managed to get peace with Suryavarman after losing only a single city, perhaps because the Khmer leader didn't really want to attack him in the first place. Suryavarman was back to peace with everyone at the moment after the aforementioned AP resolution forced him to make peace with Churchill as well. (Then his captured English cities were reassigned back to Churchill one by one over the following turns. It was really getting ridiculous to watch.) However, Mao had not signed a treaty with Ragnar, and the much more powerful Chinese armies overran the Scandinavian heartland with rifles and cavs. Ragnar exited the game on Turn 274:
It was a sad ending for Ragnar, killed off by his own allies due to the Apostolic Palace. The crusade resolution that Saladin had voted through might as well have read "eliminate target civ from game". The whole wonder just is not well designed, one of Jon Shafer's cool ideas that doesn't work very well in practice. (And I'm not trying to bash Shafer here, who I've worked with and consider a friend. He's a fantastic "ideas" guy who struggles with the implementation side of game design - see the entire development story of "At The Gates".)
In any case, one of the Jewish civs was off the board now, and Suryavarman had even converted over to Confucianism since he controlled the Holy City of Wang Kon's old religion. Suryavarman and Mao were still "Pleased" with one another though and unlikely to attack their friendly neighbor. Eliminating Ragnar hadn't really helped Saladin either, as the weak Viking territory had been absorbed by the stronger Khmer and Chinese civs. He had bought some time but that was about it. Sure enough, Suryavarman invaded Saladin once again on Turn 281 and immediately rolled over the border cities. Saladin had no prayer of survival, except of course he voted through another "Stop The War" resolution half a dozen turns later. The Livestream viewers were hopping mad by this point, howling for Saladin's blood. It truly felt like he did not deserve to keep getting these stays of execution.
If there was one limitation to the Apostolic Palace, it was that only one resolution could be voted through every ten turns. For example, Saladin had stopped his own war but that meant that he couldn't stop Mao's subsequent invasion of Churchill:
Churchill had done the AI thing where he researched every single tech possible except Rifling, a truly bizzare move given that his unique unit Redcoats were waiting there. Mao was happy to overrun the mostly medieval forces of the English with his rifles and cavalry, immediately scoring several city captures along the eastern border. Suryavarman hopped into the war on Turn 301 using a vastly more powerful army packing tanks and even mechanized infantry. It only took half a dozen turns for Churchill to be wiped off the face of the earth:
Goodbye and good riddance. Churchill had only survived to reach the Wildcard Game by virtue of the same Apostolic Palace shenanigans taking place in his opening round match, and he was finally removed from the field fast enough that Saladin couldn't save him yet again. Once the English core was in Khmer and Chinese hands, there was no longer enough Islamic votes in the Apostolic Palace for Saladin to shut down the war. Churchill and Saladin were both extremely far behind Suryavarman in technology, almost two full eras in total, and they had been surviving only due to that wonder shutting down every invasion. With Churchill gone and the AP vote no longer a factor, it didn't seem that Saladin had much time remaining either. Suryavarman was sitting at 59% land area and needed only a tiny bit more territory to win by Domination. The anticipated attack came on Turn 321 and the victory arrived on the very next turn:
We selected the "One More Turn" option after the victory triggered to see how long Saladin would have lasted against this final invasion. The answer was six turns as the elimination took place on Turn 327. It was a bit shocking that Saladin managed to survive to the end of this game given how weak he had been and how much he was hated by Suryavarman. The fact that the Arabs barely managed to cling to life spoke to the power (the excessive power?) of the Apostolic Palace. It defined the gameplay in this match after the elimination of Wang Kon, with the final 150 turns of this game essentially being a story of Suryavarman trying to overcome the obstacles thrown up by that wonder. As I said, it's a mechanic that we'll have to discuss how we want to approach after this season comes to a conclusion.
Suryavarman and Mao therefore moved on to the playoff round as our final two contenders. They'll face a stiff test there as the competition heats up against the winner and runner-up leaders from the other opening round matches. Season Four of Civ4 AI Survivor continues to draw closer to crowning our newest champion.