The Age of Wonders series has always occupied a strange gray area in the world of turn-based fantasy games, falling somewhere between Heroes of Might & Magic and Civilization when it comes to “4X-iness.” As one of the many pretenders to the Master of Magic throne, the Age of Wonders series is a fantasy based 4X game with a heavy emphasis on the turn-based, tactical battles that fans of the series love.
The latest entry in the series, Age of Wonders 3, was released in March of 2014 by Triumph Studios. The game was a strong entry to, and revival of, the series and Triumph has continued to support the game with free patches to improve game balance and the AI. Recently, the development studio updated the game again with its new Golden Realms DLC along with a free patch full of more balance tweaks and updates to the AI. The Golden Realms DLC brought players the return of a familiar race from previous games in the series, a short campaign focused on that new race, a new victory condition, empire quests, a new school of magic and skill specialization, and some new independent settlements and units for the player to fight against or recruit as they see fit.
New Race: Perhaps the biggest single addition in Golden Realms is the return of the Halfling race. The Halflings were a staple race in the older games in the series all the way back to the original Age of Wonders but were not included in the inital release of Age of Wonders 3. Now back in their rightful place, the new Halflings bring some interesting game mechanics to the table not seen in previous series entries or in the vanilla Age of Wonders 3 racial roster.
The defining characteristic of the Halflings in Golden Realms is a new Luck mechanic that is based on the game’s already-existing Morale system. As always, your empire’s morale and the morale of your armies can be affected by a variety of things from your recent win-loss record in the tactical battles to the very terrain on which they stand. When a Halfling’s army morale is high, the units in the army gain the Lucky trait which gives attacks against that unit a straight percentage chance to completely miss the Halfling unit, giving no damage. The higher the morale, the higher the chance that Luck will trigger and make the bad guys whiff. The chances start out at 15% and can go as high as 25%. This mechanic helps to offset the biggest natural weakness of the Halfling race – a 20% weakness to physical damage. Halfling units also receive a bonus to ranged damage.
The Halfling units are all a bit whimsical in keeping with the tendency of the Age of Wonders series to be somewhat tongue in cheek. A Jester unit that uses fireworks as a ranged weapon with a debuff and a farmer pikeman that can throw chickens at their opponents once per battle round out the racial unit roster that includes such classics as a slinger unit and Halfling Pony Rider. The Halfling support unit, the Brew Brother, can provide a Nourishing Meal to a friendly unit once per battle that both raises that unit’s morale for the remainder of the battle and acts as a heal. The Eagle Rider is the Halfling flyer and has a small area of effect attack that can be quite strong when taking advantage of the ability to flank enemy units in the tactical battle system. While the somewhat non-serious nature of the Halfling units may be off putting for some, they are largely in keeping with the lore of Halflings in the Age of Wonders universe and are in keeping with the idea of a mostly peaceful citizenry pressed into military service in times of emergency.
Overall, the Halfling armies have a unique feel and style of play that is definitely distinct from the other playable races. The interaction of the Morale system with the new Luck mechanic, to say nothing of the Halflings’ physical weakness, create some interesting tactical battle scenarios that a player simply will not encounter as say, the defense oriented Dwarven race.
New Victory Condition: Golden Realms also brought a new victory condition as an option for players who might be bored with wiping the map of their opposition. When enabled during the set up process, the Seals of Power victory condition combines the necessity of controlling certain key portions of the map along with a king-of-the-hill style countdown. The Seals are essentially portals to another dimension or plane of existence guarded by small stacks of semi-random monsters similar to many of the points of interest on the strategic map. When captured by a player, whether human or AI, a countdown timer begins and is broadcast to all other players. Once the required number of turns pass, the player holding the Seal will win the game – but it’s not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, there are five Seals on a given map and holding more than one of the Seals will mean few turns have to pass for the game to end in victory for that player. Because this information is broadcast to all players on the map, the incentive to attack the Seals and kick the player holding them off is definitely high. Another wrinkle is the fact that captured Seals will still act as portals and will randomly spawn units to attempt to take the seal back from the player.
The Seals of Power victory condition provides an interesting alternative to the standard, cleanse-the-map-of-opposition game mode. It does break the fourth wall a bit and can be a little disjointed for players concerned about the lore of the Age of Wonders series but the Seals of Power will definitely cause players to look at the strategic map differently.
The Grab Bag: Golden Realms also includes several small additions to the game that can have a big impact. Empire quests function as achievements that give in-game rewards on a particular map. For example, being the first player to reach a certain level of “good” alignment points will net the player a stack of “good” aligned units for free. Being the first player to research a Tier VI spell or skill will grant the player two, random, secret spells that cannot ordinarily be researched by any playable class in the game. Wild Magic, a new spell school, is effectively a school of chaos magic that can do everything from debuffing the enemy to transforming a near-death friendly unit into a random, full-health animal or monster unit. The Partisan skill has abilities ranging from diplomatic bonuses to morale-penalty free guerrilla warfare. Also new with Golden Realms are the Naga, a race of aquatic monster-people who focus on blight damage.
The Naga will appear on randomly generated maps as an independent settlement that can be conquered by force or won over via quests, allowing the player to recruit Naga units. Among the highlights of the Naga roster is the Tier IV Glutton which has a chance to swallow enemy units whole with every physical attack or retaliation.
Final Thoughts: Overall, the Golden Realms DLC for Age of Wonders 3 is well crafted and includes significant additions to the base game in the form of a tactically distinct, well-constructed Halfling race and new gameplay mechanics like Wild Magic and the Seals of Power victory condition. For fans of the game and the Age of Wonders series, the Golden Realms DLC is a welcome addition that brings some new ideas to both the tactical and strategic levels of the game in a way that is unprecedented in the Age of Wonders series to date. For others, those who think Age of Wonders 3 is not “4X enough,” the Golden Realms DLC is unlikely to change any minds since it does not do anything to move the game further towards the end of the 4X spectrum occupied by the Civilization series. But for fans of the focused gameplay and deep tactical combat of Age of Wonders 3, the Golden Realms DLC is easily worth the $11.99 USD at your digital game retailer of choice.