This was the Wildcard game for Season Five, the last chance for the remaining leaders who avoided elimination in their opening round matches but didn't manage to qualify for the playoffs. The Wildcard game traditionally has a field of weaker leaders and that seemed to be mostly the case again this year. Mao Zedong was the only one of the seeded leaders to find his way into this match and the other two highest scoring leaders by our power rankings were Gilgamesh and Tokugawa. A lot of Protective leaders seemed to find their way into this game, and that made a lot of sense since the Protective trait doesn't seem to help win games but does drag out a losing game to the point where survival becomes more likely. The biggest variable in this game would be the barbarians, as the Wildcard game is the only time that we turn on the Raging Barbarians option in the competition. Who would do the best job of surviving the enemies at the gates and secure the last two spots into the playoff field?
The Wildcard game is always a unique event due to the presence of those Raging Barbarians. While there was no heavy favorite for this game in the picking contest, Gilgamesh had the most community support due to the presence of a copper resource one tile away from his capital along with his possession of Creative/Protective traits that seemed ideal for this setup. Brennus opened the game by founding an expected religion (Taoism as it turned out) and it wasn't much of a surprise when the culturally-inclined Hammurabi started out with Mysticism into Meditation research to found his own competing faith (Hinduism). These would be the only two religions of any consequence throughout the game, with most of the western leaders practicing Taoism and the eastern leaders following Hinduism. The Taoist holy city culture definitely helped Brennus in claiming some more land to his east, as his starting position was rather cramped along the western edge of the map. The free culture also likely helped to keep down barbarian spawns as the Celts seemed to avoid getting hit as badly as the other southern civs.
Up in the north, Genghis Khan narrowly won a race with Mao to a contested spot halfway between their starting positions. Mao ended up walking his settler three tiles north and founding on a hill tile, and this may have been a blessing in disguise for the Chinese. The city of Shanghai absorbed a great deal of barbarian attacks over the following centuries and helped to shield Mao's capital from being ravaged by the invading hordes. Genghis Khan and Hammurabi both settled their cities in a diagonal line to the southwest, with the result that the northern civs ended up claiming most of the contested central jungle region. The southern leaders were struggling with the barbarians to a noticeably greater degree thanks to the much larger tundra region below their starting position. The barbarians were out in force from an early date and they made it impossible for most of the civs to keep any tile improvements down. Tokugawa and Bismarck in particular were suffering from the endless waves of barbarians:
Germany's second city was established on flat ground at the edge of the tundra and it eventually fell to the invaders bearing the black skull banner. Bismarck would soon recapture the city only to lose it to the barbarians a second time. Making matters worse for Bismarck, his only source of metals was an iron resource to the north which was claimed by Hammurabi thanks to the stunted expansion of the Germans. Bismarck looked to be a dead man walking, stuck on a handful of cities and with no realistic access to any strategic resources. He would fold instantly if he were to come under any attack from the other leaders. His neighbor to the west Tokugawa had things nearly as bad, with a single jungle-choked city in the middle of the map and a capital that was endlessly overrun by barbarians. Tokugawa simply could not keep any tile improvements established for any length of time in his territory. This was exacerbated by the AI's tendency to attack the barbarian units rather than fortify on defensive terrain and allow the barbs to suicide against them, something that all of the leaders engaged in repeatedly throughout the early game. The net result was a Japan which was nearly as weak as Germany and a total non-factor in terms of competing for the wider victory.
Gilgamesh was hit very heavily by barbarians as well and he was similarly unable to keep any tile improvements established at his capital for the first 50 turns of the game. He did not manage to connect his copper as many of us expected and likely was saved from irrelevancy by his Creative/Protective traits. They really were about the best possible traits to have when it came to fighting off babarians. The only leaders who managed to stay relatively safe were Mao (thanks to Shanghai absorbing the northern barbarians) and Hammurabi. The Babylonians had the most sheltered starting position on the map and Hammurabi was able to build away in relative peace while most of the other leaders were still getting slammed with relentless attacks. Hammurabi built an early Stonehenge and was culturally dominant wherever he placed his cities.
The barbarian era lasted for roughly the first 75 turns of the game. The AI leaders began to connect either copper or iron resources to their trade network starting around Turn 60 and then could finally begin the process of clearing their territories of barbarians on a permanent basis. Axes and swords backed by the Deity combat bonus were enough to defeat barbarian archers even on strong defensive terrain. (The barbarians didn't spawn axes because the observer civ didn't have Bronze Working, an intended carryover from previous years of AI Survivor to ensure that the whole map wasn't a total wipeout.) The settling patterns from the AI civs were not at all what we had expected prior to the game's start, with Genghis Khan and Hammurabi both pushing much further to the south than expected. Gilgamesh narrowly beat out Mao in another settling race a few turns later and added a fourth city in between China and the Celts. This gave the Sumerian borders a completely bizarre shape which would be a nightmare to defend if fighting ever broke out. Meanwhile, the weakness of Tokugawa and Bismarck had left the southeastern portion of the map wide open for other leaders to exploit.
Bismarck did manage to score the strategic coup of constructing the Great Wall a bit later on Turn 72. This created a magical shield around his territory preventing barbarians from entering German space and that was enough to initiate a slow recovery. Hamburg was retaken from the barbarians and Bismarck began a gradual process of expansion towards the south. Germany was exceedingly weak but so long as Bismarck could avoid attracting attention from the other leaders he'd have at least a chance of being relevant in the game. Meanwhile, the northern leaders were evidently feeling frisky as Genghis Khan initiated the first war of the game against Hammurabi:
This was a predictable conflict due to the gaping peace weight difference between the two leaders and the intruding borders of the Babylonian cities against the Mongol capital. Temujin's attack against Dur-Kurigalza had equally predictable results as the Mongol swords and axes were shredded by defending Babylonian bowmen. This was the rare moment where the Babylonian unique unit came in handy with its +50% combat bonus against melee units. Even though there was a Babylonian city up to the north at Sippar that didn't control its own first ring of tiles, Genghis Khan insisted on attacking at this spot and wasted dozens of units to no effect over the following turns. Tokugawa piled into the same war shortly thereafter and was even less effective, if that was possible. Tokugawa badly needed to focus on developing his own battered civ at this point and could ill afford to waste time throwing units away in a pointless war. Eventually everyone signed peace without any cities changing hands.
The winners from this initial round of conflict were therefore the leaders who had stayed out of the fighting entirely. Mao Zedong used this time to build the Great Lighthouse and was the surprising economic leader as the game shifted out of the landgrab phase. He had been squeezed on territory but was making the most of what little land he did have by covering it with mass cottages. Gilgamesh was similarly rounding into form after getting hit with all of those early barbarian attacks, wisely waiting until after he had access to catapults before getting involved in any wars. The Sumerian and Celtic civs had both expanded far to the south and their borders were wrapped around one another like some kind of intricate dancing arrangement. It seemed like a natural avenue for conflict but both Gilgamesh and Brennus were Taoist religious compatriots and had established a strong friendship with one another. And even Bismarck was starting to become marginally relevant in the game once again, constructing the Pyramids and settling a city in the southern tundra that gave him access to iron. Now he was no longer a sitting duck even if Germany remained a weak civ overall.
Hammurabi's sheltered position away from the barbarians had caused him to emerge from the early game as the score leader. However, his high peace weight and his culturally dominant borders caused all of his neighbors to dislike the Babylonians intensely. Even the presence of a widely spread Hinduism wasn't enough to offset this pressure, causing Hammurabi to be the "worst enemy" of four different leaders. He was on good terms with Bismarck and everyone else hated his guts. The Mongols were the first to kick off a new round of warring with an attack on Turn 119, followed by Tokugawa and Mao piling into the conflict shortly thereafter. The entrance of the Chinese was highly significant as Mao had already researched to Construction tech and could use his catapults to siege down the strong cultural defenses of the Babylonians. Temujin and Tokugawa largely spent their time throwing away units against walled defenders to little effect. Even Brennus joined the war against Hammurabi a bit later on Turn 144 to continue the dogpile against an unpopular target. Although Hammurabi had played a much stronger early game than Bismarck, it was the northern of the two high peace weight leaders which was pulling all of the aggression from the other leaders.
All of the aggression with one exception: Gilgamesh opted to go after the Mongols instead of the Babylonians:
This was a supremely well-timed war declaration, with the armies of Genghis Khan off fighting in Hammurabi's territory instead of defending the cities along the Sumerian border. It looked as though Samarqand and Old Sarai would be quickly swept away by the invading purple forces followed by a general collapse of the Mongol territory. This did not take place, however, as Temujin signed a peace treaty with Hammurabi in short order and then began training units frantically out of every city. Gilgamesh was still balancing new city intrastructure against new units instead of pumping military 100% of the time, with the net result that this war ended up prolonging and dragging out for a long period of time. The Sumerians were slowly winning and gradually taking one city at a time but it wasn't the rapid conquest that many of the viewers envisioned when the initial attack broke out.
The anti-Hammurabi coalition was having more success in the north. While the Mongols dropped out of the war to defend against the Sumerian invasion, Brennus and the Celtic armies soon took their place as mentioned above. Hammurabi was stuck in a 3 vs 1 situation and lacked the production capacity to fight back even though the Babylonians were more technologically advanced. Tokugawa captured one city along the eastern seaboard which was then the target of a German attack from Bismarck. This caused Tokugawa to drop out of the war as he turned to deal with the incoming German forces to his east. Hammurabi was left with attacks from the Chinese and the Celts, and with Brennus having his core located on the extreme other end of the map, it was Mao who ended up becoming the real winner in this war. Chinese forces took the capital city of Babylon on Turn 151 along with its treasure trove of wonders and the rest of the war was a mop-up exercise from there. Brennus snagged the valuable Hindu holy city with its shrine while Mao took everything else along with the elimination credit:
This whole scenario had played out about as well as it possibly could have gone for Mao. While most of the other leaders had wasted their time with ineffective fighting that went nowhere, Mao fought a single war that delivered him the whole Babylonian core full of large developed cities. Even better, the Mongols were in the process of slowly dying to the Sumerians and the powerful Chinese culture would eventually deliver over many of the prizes in that war without needing to lift a finger. It looked like we were proceeding towards unified Chinese control over the top portion of the map. This stood in clear contrast to the ridiculously convoluted Sumerian borders that looked like something out of the real-world Holy Roman Empire. Mao was the tech leader and with the resumption of peace he could return to pushing his economy further ahead of the rest of the field.
The warring continued elsewhere on the map as Brennus jumped into the simmering Japanese/German conflict with an attack against Bismarck. This cross-continent offensive unsurprisingly went nowhere and eventually died out with great loss of life but no effective territory changing hands. The main story of the game was the ongoing slow collapse of the remaining Mongol cities as Gilgamesh continued to siege them down one at a time. After long periods of stalemate between the two sides, Gilgamesh eventually reached Guilds tech to unlock knights, and that seemed to finally tip the scales decisively in Sumeria's favor. Most of the Mongol core was gone by the time that Mao hopped into the war to start vulturing away some of the spoils. He managed to land the "last hit" on Temujin's capital and take it for China:
This was one of those 50/50 scenarios where the pure chance of which leader moved in what order dictated who picked up the prize. Mao's decision to gobble up some easy territory from a dying civ had nothing lucky about it though, and this was a savvy move from the leader who had clearly been playing the best game thus far. Gilgamesh would end up capturing New Sarai to the north (leaving him with a tiny enclave completely surrounded by Chinese culture) as well as scoring the final killing blow against Genghis Khan at a barbarian city in the extreme southeast on Turn 219. The Mongols were therefore unable to replicate their success in this game as compared to the opening round when Genghis Khan overran two different Persian civs. While Temujin expanded well throughout the early portions of the game, he wasted too much time in pointless attacks against Hammurabi and was caught off guard by Gilgamesh's invasion. It wasn't enough to survive despite a solid opening sequence.
The successful conclusion of Gilgamesh's war was enough to pull him up into the clear #2 spot while still being a good ways short of catching Mao. Although the scores of China and Sumeria were reasonably close, Mao was far ahead in tech and had scored the Liberalism prize to further extend his lead. Mao was busy building the Statue of Liberty and the Kremlin while also ignoring Rifling tech to a dangerous degree. He actually went all the way to Assembly Line tech without researching Rifling in one of the most Willem-esque moves we'd seen in a while. This created a window of opportunity for Gilgamesh to strike while he had access to rifles and cavs and Mao did not, likely the only way that Gilgamesh would have a chance to compete for the top spot in the game. In the end, Gilgamesh ended up sitting on his hands and let this potential chance slip away. With Mao roughly a full era ahead in research, it seemed unlikely that anyone would able to threaten him again.
The viewers were entertained during these turns by a spectacularly ill-advised war declaration from Tokugawa. The Japanese leader had never really recovered from the initial barbarian setbacks in the early game and had remained a weak leader ever since. Tokugawa wanted to get revenge for Bismarck's earlier attack but lacked the technology or the production base to make it possible. The Germans quickly swatted aside this motley invasion of knights and samurai, then counterinvaded using the grenadiers that Bismarck had just unlocked. Toguawa's defending Protective longbows had no answer for those grenadiers and the Japanese empire collapsed in a matter of turns. The capital of Kyoto fell on Turn 239 and it took fewer than 20 more turns for the death blow to arrive:
This certainly ranked up there with the dumbest attacks in AI Survivor although we've actually seen far worse in the past. At least Tokugawa was a mostly irrelevant leader and wasn't tossing away a chance to advance to the playoffs with his stupidity. The rapid collapse of Japan ended up being hugely consequential for the rest of this game, however, as Gilgamesh and Brennus were already plotting war with "We have enough on our hands already." It was obvious that Bismarck would be their target, and while the Taoist duo weren't fast enough to save Tokugawa from destruction, they opened up a serious beatdown against poor Bismarck once the fighting was underway. The Germans still lacked access to rifles and cavs while their foes had finished researching both units, and furthermore the Sumerians and the Celts weren't exhausted from prior decades of grueling warfare. Their units rolled to the east in a tidal wave of destruction capturing one German city after another. Gilgamesh even had cannons by this point to make sieges enormously faster against walled defenses. It took about three dozen turns for Bismarck to be wiped off the map with another elimination:
As ugly as it may have looked, this was by far the most successful season of AI Survivor for Bismarck. He scored two kills and managed not to die in his opening round game. (The fact that this was by far the "best" year for Bismarck should tell readers something about how bad he's been in past seasons.) The spoils from the German war were split roughly 2:1 in favor of the Sumerians with no logical rhyme or reason as to who captured what. The border between Gilgamesh and Brennus continued to be a crazy patchwork quilt of overlapping cultures that was impossible to sort out. Normally this would drive conflict between the two leaders due to all of their border tensions. However, there were two factors that continued to prop up relations between Gilgamesh and Brennus. The first was their shared religious faith, with both of them having been loyal Taoists since the earliest stages of the game. The other factor was a sizable "mutual military struggle" bonus thanks to the two of them combining together to devour Bismarck. Both of the leaders were "Friendly" with one another and Brennus was all the way up to +17 relations with Gilgamesh. They were therefore able to form a tight bond with one another despite these completely bizarre borders.
Of course it was unclear how much all of this mattered in the larger scheme of things. Mao stayed out of the Japanese and German wars by using that time to race further and further ahead on the tech tree. He was well into the Modern era by this point while Gilgamesh and Brennus were still in the early Industrial period. Any thoughts of Sumeria and the Celts allying together against China were laughable from a military perspective, with Mao having mechanized infantry defending his cities and the Taoist duo having nothing better than rifles and cavs. There was essentially nothing that Mao could do to lose the game at this point since he was so far ahead economically, militarily, and culturally. The only possible threat was...
Diplomacy, the forgotten victory condition of AI Survivor. Mao was ridiculously far ahead in every respect other than population, where Gilgamesh was running roughly even with the Chinese leader. And thanks to their shared religious faith and shared warring, this was the rare game where Brennus would be willing to cast a vote for Gilgamesh in the Diplomatic victory race. Did the combined Gilgamesh/Brennus pairing have enough votes to win though? We looked at the population stats and could see that this was going to very close one way or the other. It looked like it could be the difference of a single city flipping the outcome one way or another. Now the elimination of Bismarck was suddenly looking highly significant after all, as Gilgamesh and Brennus wouldn't have anywhere near enough population to achieve a Diplomatic victory without absorbing all of those German cities. Tokugawa had even contributed to this potential outcome by kindly dying and handing over his cities to Bismarck; the Japanese leader wouldn't have been willing to vote for someone else while Brennus would.
Thus it all came down to how the votes shook out in the United Nations. Mao was silly enough to build the wonder (which the other two leaders were too far behind technologically to research before the Chinese could have landed in Alpha Centauri) and that prompted the first vote for the Secretary General. The Gilgamesh/Brennus pairing had enough votes to secure the leadership position but now we hit the real crux of the issue: would they call for a Diplomatic victory vote? Gilgamesh didn't have too much time to spare because Mao was researching the final few spaceship techs at the end of the tree. There was also the possibility of Gilgamesh calling for a vote on something like Free Religion civic, which if voted through would drop him out of Taoism and remove the big shared faith bonus with Brennus. The clock was ticking here.
Gilgamesh didn't waste any time and immediately called a vote for the Diplomatic victory at the first opportunity. Did he have enough votes to win?
Yes he did by a whisker! Gilgamesh became the winner through an exceedingly narrow margin of 9 total votes. That was indeed the difference of a single city; for example, if Mao had captured New Sarai instead of Gilgamesh, he would have been able to grow it up to size 10 instead of the spot being stuck at size 1 in Sumerian hands and that would have made the difference. The game had been won on that fine of a margin. For Gilgamesh it was a triumph against all odds, pulling a victory out of a magician's top hat that he had no business winning. I'm sure that Brennus was equally delighted to put his longtime friend over the top even though this would be the end of his Season Five competition. For Mao and his supporters it was a bitter pill to swallow, the only possible way that he avoided winning a game which had long since been sealed up. I don't know if this was quite as bad as Charlemagne tossing away a win against Wang Kon back in Season Three or Kublai Khan forfeiting the Season Four Championship to chase after a cultural win but it had to be in the conversation. What a strange finish to this game.
Well, I suppose that we call this the "Wildcard" game for a reason! Gilgamesh and Mao will join the other top finishing leaders in the playoffs to see who can continue onwards to the championship. Thanks as always for watching and reading.