It is a wonderful time for people who enjoy turn-based games. Be strategy or RPGs, titles have been tumbling into our lap as of late. And thank God. Genres that were criminally abandoned a decade ago have made a roaring comeback. Age of Wonders III was a quality title that came out this year and showed just how addictive the turn-based strategy genre can be. Age of Wonders III: Golden Realms is a high quality, challenging expansion pack that continues the trend. If you are a fan of this genre, then add Golden Realms to your growing backlog of time sinks.
Golden Realms, a short new campaign that requires the original Age of Wonders III to play, brings a new race to the mix – the Halflings. Along with this new race comes a host of unique units for the different races, new heroes for the story, new spells, and new enemies to fight. The unique level-5 unit for the Halflings is the Eagle Rider. The rest of the new Halfling units fall into the typical categories of “archer,” “swordsman,” “pikeman,” etc., but they show some humor and flavor that wasn’t in the core game. The archer is a firework shooting Jester and the pikeman is a chicken-throwing farmer. Even though these little quirks aren’t game-changers, the Halflings feel more unique than any other race from the original game.
Next to nothing has changed with the core gameplay and this is mostly a good thing. Age of Wonders III didn’t have a whole lot wrong with it. Its deep and complex turn-based combat was excellent. Its visuals, while not on the cutting edge technologically, were gorgeous. Its high level strategy was satisfying even though its endgame could get tedious as you spent time mopping up opponents that were no threat to you. But this is generally a problem for every 4X game. The story was forgettable and so were some of the missions. The biggest changes are the new enemies, such as elephants and turd-flinging monkeys. Units and spells have been rebalanced. This is exactly the content you would hope for out of an expansion pack.
With so many pros out weighing cons, Triumph can’t be blamed for keeping the formula intact, and the missions in Golden Realms are good ones. The first two are typical “conquer all of your foes” type affairs with huge maps and the third involves controlling some strategic points long enough to achieve victory instead of wiping out your opponents. The third mission is especially interesting and it would be nice to see more variations like this in the future. The Golden Realms campaign is a challenging affair that assumes that you already know what you are doing. Enemies outnumber you from the beginning, the aggressive AI will attack your weaknesses relentlessly and sometime spam you with some really annoying tactics. In order to survive, you will have to resort to every tactical trick that you can think of. You will have to rack up some ridiculous kill ratios to avoid attrition and achieve victory.
One small feature that has been added is that special hexes on the world map (e.g. Dungeons, Tombs) now provide access to special buildings for cities that are built near them. For example, building nearby Ancient Ruins allow you to build the Pillar of the Stylites, which provides bonuses for Pikemen. Some of these special structures, like the Rabbit Burrows, are defensive in nature, which gives you more options for building defenses than just city walls. These additions are welcome as the cities in the core game were too homogeneous and city management, in general, was one of the less interesting parts of the game. Now, cities have more variety and can become more specialized.
As I played through this expansion pack, it occurred to me that I wish that I had given the soundtrack more praise when I reviewed Age of Wonders III. It has returned intact here in all of its beauty, with a few new tracks. It is a lovely soundtrack that grows on you as you play and wonderfully captures the game’s sense of fantasy adventure.
One significant criticism that can be leveled at this expansion pack is that its campaign ends abruptly after only three missions. The ending is somewhat of a cliffhanger that sets up an evil-themed expansion. Given how long it takes to complete the first two missions, you may find this to be a good thing, since it might take 30 hours or more to complete those missions. You may still find the campaign to be too short, but the price tag ($12) is at least appropriate for the length.
If you played through the campaign in Age of Wonders III and you are looking to get a jolt of fresh energy out of the game, then the Golden Realms expansion should have what you are looking for. This little expansion is packed with all kinds of minor improvements that are fun to discover. The new campaign, combined with the new units, city improvements, and abilities, are just what a good expansion pack should provide. They don’t significantly alter the game, but Age of Wonders III didn’t need major changes. With all of these turn-based strategy and RPG titles on the market, I wish the releases were spread out more. How does one play through all of these time sinks without becoming a hermit? How does one hold down a job? I suppose that this complaint falls under the category of “First World Problems.”