‘Just one more turn’ - it’s a phrase I’ve said to myself many times during extended sessions of Civilization, and one that I said equally often during my time with Age of Wonders III. It’s no surprise since this empire-building title appears to have learned quite a few lessons from Sid Meier’s series, but the game also offers up a few twists of its own that make it a unique and worthwhile experience.
Created by Dutch developers Triumph Studios, the Age of Wonders series gained popularity when it began in the late '90s/early '00s, and fans having been waiting ever since for its revival. While I haven't played the original games, the latest title is a great entry to the series for newcomers like myself, and has plenty of depth that should satisfy die-hard fans.
Upon launching the game for the first time you are recommended to try out the Elven campaign (the game has two campaigns, the second sees you playing as the oppressive Commonwealth). After some pretty heavy reading on the game's high fantasy setting and mechanics, you're cast in the role of the Sundren, a High Elf and one of the many heroes you'll encounter in the game. A hero is a powerful character who has their own set of magic spells and stats that can be improved as they level up. Every empire has at least one hero who acts as its leader and keeps their throne in the capital, and additional heroes can be recruited along the way.
During the campaign you'll attempt to kill the enemy leader and take their throne. This is generally the goal of every game, although you'll also be able to take on optional quests that will strengthen your empire if completed (say, earning you a new hero and city) or weaken it (by losing units in battle). If that sounds a bit like an RPG, that's because it is. The quests and levelling up mechanics combined with the turn-based strategy can sometimes cause the game to feel like a bit of a Jack of all trades, but don't mistake it for a master of none; each of Age of Wonders III's systems has been smartly thought-through and lovingly crafted. The campaigns might be a bit too structured for some player’s tastes, but they work as a nice introduction to the mechanics.
Age of Wonders uses a hex-based grid similar to Civilization V, albeit with a bit more depth. Up to six units can be stacked onto a single tile, making an army. This encourages the player to think ahead and stack units that will work together effectively. The strategy is furthered by the fact that battles can involve up to seven armies at once (the army being attacked plus the surrounding six tiles which automatically join the fight).
In the strategic view you'll explore the game's varied environments and expand your empire by building or capturing cities. The game also includes a morality system which is affected by whether you plunder or absorb a city, and if you let surrendering enemies flee or show no mercy. Your good/evil alignment will affect your relationship with other races and empires, but with no scientific, cultural or diplomatic victories, the focus here is very much on the combat. It is possible, however, to have an allied victory in which you and another empire form an alliance to take down the enemy, so there is the incentive to be friendly sometimes.
Once you enter combat, the game switches from the zoomed-out strategic view, to the 3D tactical view. Like the strategic view, combat is turn-based and rather than the automated battles of similar titles, you have control of individual units within the battle. It's here that you'll see the fruits of your unit-building loins; commanding your own personal battalion of Elves, Humans, Orcs, Draconians, Goblins, Fairies and Unicorns is great fun (even if sending the latter two into battle does feel a bit ridiculous).
The best battles are those that involve all seven tiles, usually taking part in a siege of some sort. In these encounters you’ll need a wide range of units such as infantry that can climb fortress walls, battering rams to break through gates and trebuchets to take out enemy machines such as cannons, as well as bringing along your usual selection of archers, priests, berserkers, cavalry, rogues and more. If you’re not into the tactical side of things, battles can be automated with the computer deciding the victor based on both sides’ statistics, but I found that I could generally get better results by controlling it myself, and earning the victory that way is a lot more satisfying.
Aside from the two campaigns, Age of Wonders III also includes nine pre-made scenarios, as well as a whole host of customisation options for creating your own games. When doing so, you'll be prompted to create your leader who can be any of the six main races (Humans, Draconians, High Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Goblins) and any of the six classes (Sorcerer, Theocrat, Rogue, Archdruid, Dreadnaught, Warlord). Each of the different races and classes offer their own unique specialisations and units, allowing you to create a leader that suits your playstyle. On top of this, the character creation options let you make a truly unique leader for your empire. In general, the heroes have a great sense of personality that is perhaps missing from other games in the genre.
The game also includes online and local multiplayer, but due to most of the matches being password protected, and the fact that no one would join the ones I hosted, I was unable to try out these modes. If you’re looking for some multiplayer action in Age of Wonders III, your best bet is getting a group of friends together and setting up a private match.
Visually, Age of Wonders III is brilliant. The environments are bright and varied, taking you to lush forests, icy tundras, dank swamps, barren deserts, mountain ranges and even volcanoes, all within one map. The tactical view is even better, showing the battlefields of the various locales in much greater detail. It makes the world feel much more real when you can see not only the overall geography of the land, but also the details of the individual tiles. The game’s music, while not genre-best, is fittingly epic. Background tracks alternate between soothing lute and pan flute riffs in quiet moments and upbeat drums and chanting during intense battles.
Every hour I spent playing Age of Wonders III revealed hidden layers to the combat and empire-building. It’s hard to see anyone being disappointed with the game, as despite its vast complexity and many mechanics, it remains remarkably accessible for a newcomer to the series such as myself. The variety of gameplay, environments, units and leaders means you’ll rarely be bored and allows you to play in whichever way you want. If Triumph Studios are also able to provide quality post-release content, Mr. Meier might just have to watch his back.