Age of Wonders III

11 years.  Has it really been that long since Triumph Studios last released an Age of Wonders game?  Since then, the studio has made some forays into console gaming, but they have now returned to their roots with another iteration of the wonderful Age of Wonders series.  The recently released Age of Wonders III, like its predecessors, is a complex strategy game delivered with an abundance of colorful visuals and tranquil music.  It is a faithful entry for the series, but with a few noticeable changes.  These changes have made city management more interesting, but at the expense of some features that made the series unique.  It is a complicated game with a limited tutorial.  Newcomers will experience a difficult learning curve, and even experienced Age of Wonders players may need a while to digest the changes.  For the most part though, this fantasy strategy game is one that can keep you entertained for a long time.

Age of Wonders is a series in the 4X strategy genre – you start off weak, explore, build or expand cities, build armies, conquer foes, and then use spoils to build more armies.  You repeat this process until you have conquered all of your foes, at which time, you move onto the next map (if you are playing in story mode).  The game has some basic management of resources like gold and mana, and some other typical elements like researching upgrades and managing cities.  What makes this series truly shine though is its outstanding tactical combat.  Age of Wonders is more involved than most 4X games when it comes to combat.  It is actually closer to a UFO type experience than a Civilization type experience.  When combat begins, the action shifts to a tactical map, where units move across hexes one at a time.  Units have various strengths and weaknesses and all kinds of different attacks.  There are projectile attacks, melee attacks, elemental attacks, area of effect attacks – you name it, the game has it.  Likewise, there are all kinds of different spells and innate abilities.  There are spells that affect the world map, spells that buff one unit, spells that buff all of your units, spells that deal damage to one unit, spells that deal damage to multiple units, debuffs for enemies, summoning spells, and just about everything else that you would expect out of this type of game.  Structures on the map, especially castle walls, have a huge effect on the battle.  Surviving these battles requires a strong knowledge of the game’s systems.

Age of Wonders III, like its predecessors, is wonderfully addictive when it comes to its turn-based combat.  The right decisions can mean the difference between defeating an army twice your size and getting slaughtered.  With every somewhat evenly matched battle, you will find yourself making all kinds of difficult tactical decisions every turn.  Do you use your damage-dealing spells to soften up the enemy's archers, or do you use them on a tough boss character?  Or, do you spend your spell points on buffs for your own units?  Do you put your strong hero units into the fray to help fight, and risk a devastating loss?  Or, do you keep them back in support?  What is the best way to attack a castle?  Should you pile all of your siege weapons into one area to pierce one hole in the wall fast, or should you spread them out to create multiple holes?  Who do you send in first to take the arrows?  These questions and many more are ones that you will find yourself answering constantly as you fight all kinds of challenging battles.  There isn’t always a right or wrong answer, and the game rewards multiple approaches for most situations.

How you play your battles integrates effectively into your overall strategy plan.  Knowing what units to build requires understanding how they work on the battlefield and how you are going to use them.  Age of Wonders III forces you to contemplate how you will fight battles before you get to them.   It is one of the reasons why it is such a good strategy game.  The game’s high level strategy is ample, albeit not very robust.  You can found and grow cities.  You can have workers create roads and structures to enhance your empire.  You make decisions about which units and structures to build in cities while managing gold and mana, and you capture resources to increase those incomes.  You are always busy planning your next big move.  Age of Wonders III has that “just one more turn” addictiveness that you expect out of a good turn-based strategy game.

On the surface, Age of Wonders III features a dizzying variety of units to build.  There are elves, orcs, humans, and dwarves, and each of them has about seven or eight unique units.  This variety is not as great as it appears on the surface, however, because the low to middle tier units for each race behave essentially the same.  Every race has a weak, basic peon, a basic archery unit, a weak infantry unit, some sort of cavalry, and some sort of pikeman.  There is a lot of overlap between the races, and for the most part, every race plays with the same basic strategy.  They at least sport a lot of creativity and visual variety, but it is disappointing that the races aren’t more specialized.  This problem was present for the previous entries into the series as well.

Thanks to all of its complexity, Age of Wonders III comes with a stiff learning curve.  There is a tutorial, but it doesn’t do a lot of tutorializing.  There is also an excellent in-game wikipedia  that defines every concept and entity in the game, but there isn’t much of an explanation for how everything works together.  The game assumes that you already have extensive experience with 4X games, and maybe nowadays that isn’t a bad assumption.

One of the defining features of previous Age of Wonders games was the Wizard’s Tower/Magical Domain feature.  In the previous games, you could only cast spells in your magical domain.  Your domain extended from Wizard’s Towers, magical relays, or hero units, and your main hero had to be inside a wizard’s tower at all times for it to work.  This interesting mechanic forced you to be very careful in how you moved your armies, lest you leave them naked and unsupported by magic.  In that regard, the magic domain was a clever feature that functioned like air cover in a World War II game.   In Age of Wonders III, this feature has been disappointingly removed, and I think that the game suffers for it.  Now you can cast magic anywhere.  The only thing noteable is that it is twice as costly if your main hero isn’t present, regardless of where you are.  This means that you can send units anywhere that you want without having to worry about whether you can provide magic support.  It also means that the “home field” advantage that you got from being attacked in your domain has been lost.  The “air cover” mechanic is gone, and that is disappointing.

Age of Wonders III still has a “domain” mechanic, but it more closely resembles that of the Civilization series than the previous Age of Wonders games.  Your domain emanates from your cities and increases as your cities grow.  Only resources that are in your domain contribute to your incomes.  Parties that you are not at war with cannot enter your domain without your permission.  These are all good ideas, but why couldn’t Triumph take it one step further and also say that you can’t cast magic outside your domain unless you have a hero present?  This would have preserved the “air cover’ strategy of the previous games, while also allowing for the new Civ-like elements.

The Civ-like elements do add some value.  They make city management more interesting, now that population is more significant.  They also incentivize you to create new cities near unclaimed resources to strengthen your empire.  Before you get too excited though, realize that this part of the game is still very simple.  Cities don’t cost anything and there is virtually no penalty for overexpanding.  If there is a way to screw up city location and building, I did not experience it.  This aspect of the game is unsatisfying.

The setting for this series is somewhat ordinary Tolkien-esque fantasy.  As such, it includes all of the usual staples of this genre – orcs, elves, goblins, dwarves, undead, lots of magical spells, and people with British accents.  The story material isn’t particularly inspired, but this series has always made up for it with its absolutely gorgeous artwork.  Age of Wonders III is no exception, for it is an absolutely beautiful game.  It has been so long since the last game that this is the first game of the series in 3D.  It has made the transition nicely.  The artwork is still beautiful and colorful, and the world map is still bursting with all kinds of details and little animations.  The game has a nice strategic zoom feature that lets you zoom out all the way to get the entire world map on the screen.  Spell effects range from decent to really nice.  There are some other neat effects in combat, like the way that enemies go flying when you hit a group of them with a stone from a Trebuchet.

In the move to 3D, Triumph also made a mistake – depicting armies on the battlefield as groups of small creatures.   In the previous games, and in other series like King’s Bounty, armies were represented by one creature.  In those games, you could see immediately what they were.  You could also usually get a sense for how dangerous each creature was and what its capabilities might be without knowing much about it.  In this game, most units’ creatures are so small that you can’t tell what they are or what weapons they carry.  You can’t tell most ranged units from most melee units and you can’t tell pike men from swordsmen.   In a crowded battle you can quickly lose track of who’s who, and some battles have 40 or more units on the screen.  Of course, since it is a turn-based game, you are never pressed for time, so this problem doesn’t break the game.  From a gameplay perspective, it is similar to the effect of an inefficient interface.  It makes large battles less satisfying and more tedious, because you can’t make decisions on where to place your units without clicking on each of your enemies’ units one at a time to see what it can do.  You can also solve this problem by zooming in the camera, but then you lose your high level view of the battlefield.

The single player campaign for Age of Wonders III makes a decent attempt at putting together a story.  Unfortunately, in order to facilitate the story, you insta-fail the game if one of your heroes ever dies in battle.  Heroes are not very tough and can be killed in one round by a strong enemy unit.  This is easily the most frustrating part of the game, since you can be winning a long battle, only to see it thrown away in an instant if one of your heroes gets picked off.  The enemy AI, seemingly aware of this, will prioritize killing your heroes as if it has been prioritized to irritate you as much as possible.  Whenever I saw a fail screen in this game, 95% of the time, it was because one of my heroes died.  Hopefully, this annoying feature will be removed if the game gets an expansion.

The game alternates between brief storytelling interludes and the core game, where you conquer maps.  This setup makes for a really long game, since one map can take 15-20 hours to finish.  By the time that you reach the end, of the campaign, you will likely have spent over 100 hours playing the game.  Age of Wonders III easily justifies its $40 Steam price tag, although the routine does start to get repetitive after the first few maps.  Like a lot of games in this genre, Age of Wonders III suffers from a somewhat boring endgame phase – you establish dominance, but you have to finish mopping everyone up before you can declare victory.  This process can take a long time.

It seems as if about one good turn-based, epic fantasy strategy game comes out every year.  If that trend continues to hold, then Age of Wonders III should be your choice for 2014.  The complex tactical combat that has given the series its identity is as strong as it has ever been.  The few problems that the game has are relatively minor next to its addictive turn-based gameplay.  If you enjoyed the previous Age of Wonders games and you had any reservations about this game, then rest easy – it is a very good one.