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In world generation, civilizations may form alliances to stave off necromancer and evil invasions. When civilizations are feeling set upon by the more evil threats (any group that requires the killing of neutrals, like goblins and the undead), they can join up, for as long as feels necessary, and beyond, if they get along. This has the effect of keeping the necromancers in line. A typical scenario is that the necromancer will bide their time, raise many zombies, and attack a small market in an attempt to get a 'snowball' going. This causes an alliance to be formed, and the necromancer is subsequently defeated.
Alliances only seem to play a role in the wider world. In fortress mode, allied and non-allied peaceful civilizations are identical in behavior when interacting with the player.