It’s been over a decade since we last saw an entry in the Age of Wonders series. Since then, Triumph Studios have perhaps become more well known for the Overlord series they developed for Codemasters. Now they have returned to their roots with the latest entry in their fantasy strategy series which is self-published on Steam and GOG.com. Age of Wonders III is a warfare-focused blending of turn-based 4X strategy with turn-based tactical combat.
So, what we have here is a game that sees you expanding your empire across the map, primarily by building cities or capturing other’s cities. From these cities you can build military units to explore the map, defend your territory and capture enemy territory. Cities also allow you to construct a variety of buildings - primarily focused around improving your military might by allowing you to build better units or improving existing ones. These units can be grouped together into armies and when two hostile armies meet, the game switches to a tactical combat view. At this point, each side takes it in turns to move and attack with all of their units until one side has been wiped out and play returns to the strategic map.
As well as your military might, magic plays a big part in the game. Learning new spells takes the place of the research tree you would find in other 4X games. There are a variety of spells, both offensive, defensive and summoning that can be cast either on the strategic map or in tactical combat. There are also a variety of passive spells and spells which allow new units to be built, so these are more like the traditional technology tree upgrades from games of this genre.
The game also features basic diplomacy. You can declare war, suggest peace treaties or form alliances. So, we have all the main ingredients of any 4X strategy game. But make no mistake, this isn’t Civilization and there are no cultural, science or diplomatic victories here. This game is for players who play for domination victories, and are preferably fans of turn-based tactical combat because that is a large part of the experience.
One of the main things to know about this game is that it is big. There is a lot of content here and a variety of different ways to play it. To start with, there are two scripted campaigns - the first of which serves as a tutorial in its early levels and so is recommended for new players. Each of these campaigns has several levels that can each take several hours to complete depending upon your personal play style. There are also two endings for each of the campaigns and so it’s likely that there’s a hundred hours of content there alone.
On top of the campaigns, there are eight standalone scenarios and the obligatory random map generator. These latter two game types, scenarios and random maps, can be played either single player or via a variety of multiplayer modes including online, local area network and even hot-seat. Any combination of AI and human players can be allied in teams or against each other. There are also a large variety of options to customise these random maps from the expected map size and type to options that will influence the pace of the game such as starting cities, research and armies. You can also pick from dozens of pre-made leaders of different races and classes or create your own. Once you’re done with all that, there’s a level editor included and Steam Workshop support on the way so there’ll be user created content to expand the games life even further. The sheer size of the game meant that we could only cover part of each campaign, a standalone map and the multiplayer for this review, but at 30 hours of play, it will still give you a generous feel for the different modes.
The campaigns revolve around a conflict between two opposing alliances - the human-led Commonwealth and the Elven Court. Each campaign focuses on the point of view of one of the two alliances, and they take place at the same time, as war breaks out between the two groups. The High Elves see themselves as a nature and freedom loving race fighting against the destructive, technology-obsessed, Commonwealth. The Commonwealth seeks to unite the lands in one huge industrial empire of different peoples and sees the Elves as rebels clinging to old values and trying to take power themselves. It’s a traditional empire versus rebels story!
During a typical game you will have a variety of hero units which level up with experience and can be equipped with gear found around the map, RPG-style. On any given campaign level you will be effectively playing as one of these heroes and accompanied by others important to the story. These other heroes are a mixed blessing because whilst they are powerful, it’s game over (or at least time to reload the last auto-save) if they die. This is less of an issue with your leader who will respawn in your nominated throne city a few turns after he is killed. And this is how you eliminate an opposing player - kill his leader and take his throne city before he respawns.
On the strategic map, your main ambition is to gain as many resource-generating tiles as possible within your domain. This is primarily done by building cities close to them, or by your existing cities’ domain increasing in size from population growth. You can also build forts which will cause a small surrounding area to be within your domain whilst not providing any construction options. The global resources you gain from these cities include mana for spellcasting, knowledge for research and gold which pays for new units, buildings and unit upkeep. Cities also have a local resource, production, which dictates how long it takes the city to build things but doesn’t affect it’s cost - that’s all down to your gold. This has the interesting effect that you often have to leave cities idle as you cannot afford for all of them to be productive all the time.
Most maps comprise of two levels, a traditional surface map and a separate underground level accessed via caves to the surface. The underground maps are functionally equivalent to the surface and you can find resources there and even construct underground cities. Certain units can even dig through underground walls to link previously separate underground areas. This adds an extra dimension to your military planning as the caves scattered throughout the world can provide an unexpected direction from which armies can attack.
The main thing you’re going to be producing in the strategic view is military units. There are a large variety of units which each have different attributes for movement, health points, physical defense, magical resistance, melee attack and ranged attack. There are also a huge number of different skills which apply to certain units and can be learned by heroes as they level up. There are six main races in the game which each have different, though broadly equivalent to each other, basic units. Through conquest or scripted events in the campaign, you can end up with a variety of cities of different races under your control. There are also six different classes your leader can be which affects what special units you can create.
Up to six units, including a hero, can be grouped together into an army which moves around the map as one. This makes territorial defense difficult as your forces are going to be concentrated in a few small groups rather than spread over your territory. Even more so when you consider that you’ll generally be keeping multiple armies together in groups due to the games party piece of involving all armies in the battle from the six hexes surrounding the hex which is being defended. This means that up to seven armies, of six units each, can engage in a single fight. The units in the tactical map start positioned relative to each based on their armies position on the strategic map so what units are in what army and where those armies are positioned can affect the outcome of a closely balanced conflict.
When a fight starts, the odds of victory are shown and you have the choice of manually controlling your side or automatically resolving the battle instantly. If you elect to fight yourself, it zooms into a tactical map that represents the type of terrain the defending unit occupied on the strategic map, including any defensive structures. There are a lot of tactical considerations to take into account when ordering your units about. At the most basic level, all units can move and melee attack, whilst most can also do some kind of ranged attack and a few have other special abilities. For ranged units, line of sight matters and also different units have different effective ranges and the damage they do is reduced beyond that. Units move and fight using an action point-based system where every few squares you move reduces the number of attacks you can make from a typical starting level of three. In the case of ranged attacks in particular, this can lead to some interesting balancing between using up action points for a more damaging shot versus more, but weaker, shots.
Beyond those basics of combat, you have to consider cover, both man-made and natural. Any unit can carry out a range attack over the square next to it unimpeded but any obstacle or unit further away acts as cover for the defender and reduces damage. This allows ranged units to stand behind melee or castle walls and attack, whilst they themselves are partially protected. You also need to worry about extra damage done by flank attacks and the fact that melee attacks are counter-attacked. Zones of control mean you cannot move past an opposing unit without them getting a free melee hit on you. There are even a variety of different damage types from different schools of magic as well as physical damage and different units have different resistances meaning some units are more effective against certain others. To help you handle all of these possibilities, when you hover over a target to attack you see it’s health, the number of attacks you will make and the range of damage you can expect to do with each attack. It will also highlight any line of sight and range penalties and any resistances having an effect. If a unit will counter-attack, it will show similar information for your own unit so you can always predict the outcome of any particular skirmish.
In the tactical game, the AI is talented and doesn’t hold back from attacking your heroes, weaker units and flanking you, if you let it. Strategically, in the campaign, the AI holds back a little on the early levels which introduces a difficulty curve and lets you get to grips with the game. In the first few levels it goes from being completely passive, through defensively strong to aggressively attacking you if left unchecked. There are three difficulty levels for the campaign and five for the AI in the scenarios and random maps so there should be a setting for most. Having said that, the tutorial is a bit lacking in detail and, as it mostly refers you to an in-game book, lacking in interactivity so this may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the genre.
The nature of the scripted campaign is that the designers expect you to play a certain way. This is most notable at the beginning where you’re clearly expected to establish cities in certain areas and recruit certain neutral settlements to your cause. It’s not always clear however, how far to take your initial land grab before building up your infrastructure for the end game and an overly defensive player may find themselves in an unwinnable situation as the AI controls territory the level designer intended the player to control. You can easily start the level again armed with your new knowledge of the level but obviously these aren’t short levels so you’ll need the patience to put up with that. This is only a minor complaint that the quest objectives could be a little clearer and this isn’t an issue in scenarios and random maps where everyone will be starting on an equal footing.
There’s a huge amount of pre-made content here, and the random map generator and level editor will ensure there’s even more to play. Presentation is great and the AI plays a good game. The strategic layer is competently done but the highlight of the game, by far, is the fantastic tactical combat. Age of Wonders III is a must for anyone that will enjoy spending a lot of their time controlling the fights rather than just clicking auto-resolve.