It’s been over a decade since the last Age of Wonders game so the franchise certainly hasn’t been milked to death. The newest version of the game is also already into its second major expansion after Golden Realms added a host of new features and the Halfling playable race. With all this in mind I don’t mind saying that it was somewhat intimidating jumping into the series as a relative newcomer.
Age of Wonders III is a big and imposing game and the sort of thing that requires several hundred hours of play to work out all the subtle nuances. I’m no stranger to the in-depth, life-consuming, strategy genre and have played far too much Civilisation, Football Manager and Sim City over the years. However, I can’t claim to have played Age of Wonders for a couple of hundred hours. I can say that what I have experienced so far may well certainly lead me to in the future.
The biggest problem new players will face is just how much of the game there is and the fact there is no tutorial or proper manual to help you out. The game is a hex based strategy title which can either be played in a traditional turn based sense or with simultaneous turns taking place. Your goal is to defeat the other leaders on the map much in the same way as games like Civilisation.
The lack of tutorial isn’t helped by the onscreen interface being incredibly awkward to navigate. Important icons and information are difficult to find (especially when you don’t know they exist), and onscreen text and descriptions are very small, despite the fact we played it on a 40 inch screen. There is also a lot of detail and terrain and the maps. This makes the world look alive but it’s not easy to find units you have set to camp and good luck if you’ve misplaced a fairy anywhere. If you’re colour blind you’ll just have to say a small prayer before going into battle.
There are other similarities to Civ as well as the basic premise. You build up cities in much the same way and add new types of buildings and units. Hexes containing resources are important to the growth and development of your cities and you can send out settlers to found new places. That said, Age of Wonders has a lot of other things going on as well.
For starters you can pick from a number of mythical races to play as such as Goblins, Orcs, Dragons and Elves. The Eternal Lords expansion also adds Frostlings and the catlike Tigran races. Each race has its own bonuses and penalties and also unique units with which to play with. Once you have picked your chosen race you then need to pick your hero which can take the form of just about any class rolling around the fantasy spectrum. Warriors, thieves and wizards are all here with their own sets of unique traits and skills to consider. The Eternal Lords expansion adds the Necromancer class which allows you to create all sorts of havoc with various undead creatures as well.
Once you have raised your armies, combat can either be very in-depth or a more simple affair. Armies can be formed by stacking a combination of six units together. There is little restriction in how you do this so you can create balanced stacks or ones consisting of just archers or cavalry if you wish. When you encounter another army combat can be handled in one of two ways. You can take the Civ approach and have the result auto-decided based on terrain, strength and modifiers or you can handle the combat manually.
If you choose the manual combat option you are moved to a contained map where the individual units from your army stack can be manoeuvred around. This gives far greater flexibility in combat as it allows for the use of tactical skills and magic and that may be enough for players to overcome larger odds. It’s a bit like having a world map from Civ where you enter a map battle from something like Disgaea of Final Fantasy Tactics and it’ll take you as much time and thought as that staggering combination suggests. The most important thing though is that either approach works.
On top of all this there are mysterious places to discover and Eternal Lords adds cosmic events which change the course of play as well. You can also find caves and tunnels and venture underground to find treasure. There’s roaming randoms to deal with like wild boars, bandits and dragon hatchlings and even the odd ruin to adventure into. There’s certainly not a lack of content and even without the expansion you’ll be busy for longer than is probably healthy.
There are three main ways to play the single player portion of the game. You can create a random map and battle against a set number of foes (the mode most closely resembling Civ), you can enter a scenario with set conditions or you can take on one of the massive campaigns. The first campaign you are given has an Elven princess betrayed and was where I was expecting the tutorial to be. It isn’t. There is also a more intermediate campaign and a downright difficult one added via the Eternal Lords expansion which unsurprisingly focuses in on the new class and races added. The fact we encountered a bug in the very first part of the Elven campaign which required a work around to finish the level didn’t help much, but by the end of it we felt we were beginning to get the hang of a few things.
Overall, Age of Wonders III provides something a bit different for strategy fans. The fantasy element sets it apart from other games like Civ and all the core mechanics work well. It’s the sort of game that once you get into it you’ll never really need much else. The biggest problem for newcomers is going to be breaking down than initial barrier so that you have enough of an idea about what is going on and what is at your disposal. It’s definitely worth digging into though and I love the variation of the different races and classes. It’s epic, magical and ambitious with tons of content. The Eternal Lords expansion adds even more quality and if you’ve been thinking about getting into something big then you should really give this a look.