Age of Wonders III was released in March 2014 after nearly a decade without a new entry in the series. Developed by Triumph Studios, the game presents an interesting mix of 4X elements and a strong tactical combat system. The game takes place in a lush fantasy world where the player is tasked with controlling an empire of Men, Elves, Orcs, or other creatures in an attempt to achieve victory. Although the single-player campaign is not particularly innovative, it’s familiar feeling makes for good fantasy strategy gaming comfort food. The human empire has invaded the Elven lands and an epic battle ensues with all the other races caught in the crossfire. Victory is often achieved through conquest since this is a war-focused 4X game with tactical combat. Besides the different races to choose from, the main differences come in the form of distinct classes, and to a lesser extent, the magic specializations. There are six classes that each play very differently both in terms of their spell-books and passive abilities, but also in the higher tier units.
Age of Wonders III shines in sandbox and multiplayer modes. Each game starts with a customizable hero which immediately helps the player feel more invested and drawn into the world that Triumph Studios has created. This hero will lead your forces with the option to recruit other heroes to aid you as the game progresses. In order to succeed, you will build armies to conquer lands so that you can settle and bring your brand of justice to the world. Triumph Studios ties all of this together with a gorgeous world, spanning land, water, and even underground areas. Age of Wonders III is an adventure that draws the player into an immersive and rich fantasy wargame.
eXplore: The journey begins with your hero leading a small force from your capital city. Early on you will encounter various independent cities which are typically inhabited by one of the default races. Occasionally a settlement will be owned by Fairies or, if you are lucky, Dragons! You can gain control over these independent cities by conquest, buying them off, or fulfilling a quest on their behalf. Some cities, such as the aforementioned Dragon settlements, give you access to units that are otherwise impossible to train in any other way.
During game setup, the player may choose whether to enable settler units which allows the founding of new cities, or to disable new city settlement and rely on conquest instead. More times than not, I find myself playing with the ability to found cities. However, regardless of how you choose to play, you will spend the beginning turns of the game searching for cities to annex, or locations in which to establish cities yourself.
Probably the most intriguing aspect of eXploration in Age of Wonders III is finding and attempting to loot treasure sites of various difficulty. Treasure sites provide opportunities for your heroes to prove their mettle. Each treasure site is given a difficulty level and the harder the site, the more epic the loot possible. A seasoned commander should be able to overcome a treasure cave or a dungeon with a “strong” rating relatively early in the game; it will be impossible to defeat the creatures in a legendary or epic wizard tower or perhaps a crypt site for quite some time. These sites provide production bonuses if within a city’s domain but, more importantly, you can find incredible loot to customize and improve your heroes. Finding a dragon mount or a legendary flaming sword forges a narrative for your hero as well as increasing your attachment to them. Having a veteran unit with XP-based upgrades is one thing, but these treasure sites create the opportunity to make each hero unit truly unique and adds a lot of immersion to the game.
The tech tree in Age of Wonders III is rather diverse with a large pool of available skills for research that depend on your choice of class as well as magic specialization. So a Theocrat with water mastery would have very different skills to research than a rogue devoted to destruction. Besides simply researching new spells, this is also how you unlock higher tier units and various other bonuses for your empire. The sequence of skills available to research are somewhat random so each game plays out a little differently. This randomized research path does not necessarily put the player at a disadvantage but it can be frustrating. More often than not, I find myself researching a number of skills that I do not really care about in the hopes of finding those key class spells and abilities that I want.
Unit movement, similar to other strategy games, is hindered by the terrain. Moving across mountains or marshes will slow most unit types. Some races or classes have a distinct advantage in certain terrain features. Goblins, for example, prefer the underground level (more on that in a moment), while Elves prefer the trees. Aside from terrain hindering movement, morale may rise or fall depending on whether units are on terrain they prefer or hate. Even the best unit suffering from low morale has a significant chance to fumble an attack, resulting in a weaker hit. Terrain modifiers are an interesting mechanic within the game that can give one side a distinct advantage. The underground layer does not add much beyond (for the new player) a separate level to explore and conquer. The concept is intriguing but ultimately there isn’t really anything special about the underground layer that sets it apart.
eXpand: I have already mentioned the option to play with city founding turned on or off but it obviously plays a big role when expanding. Resource production comes from small “sites”, or resource nodes, scattered around the map. There is some variation between the amount of a resource produced depending on the resource node, with the standard value being 10. These nodes can produce gold, mana, knowledge, growth, happiness, and production. Gold is used to purchase units or buildings, while mana is utilized to cast spells, and knowledge determines how fast new tech is learned. Initially, growth and happiness both provide a small bonus for cities. A few buildings can be constructed to provide small boosts to the total of particular resources, such as observatories which provide a boost to the overall knowledge generated by an empire. However, the majority of the resources generated come from controlling the resource nodes, which in turn are affected by city happiness. This happiness quotient can start from -800 to +800 and these figures affect your city with a -50% penalty to a +50% bonus across the board. Everything from terrain, climate, enemy presence, and global spells affect the overall happiness of a city. If the happiness drops too much, your city can revolt, so good management is essential.
It is important to note that these buildings are not worked by the inhabitants of the city, but automatically provide their resource if within the city’s domain. Overall, the system leaves little room for strategy, as a city could survive on grass plains just as easily as next to a volcano or on the frozen tundra (with the right spells). Once a city is built, all that is left to do is expand its borders as far as possible in an attempt to have more mines, or more mana nodes in the empire to add to the total being generated every turn. The system works, but it does create a very simple and somewhat unsatisfying base process in regards to empire management.
The game does allow for other types of buildings and infrastructure that can be useful. Builder units can construct roads to allow for quicker movement, especially through swamps or other more troublesome terrain. Builders can also construct watchtowers which provide a fairly large area of vision, as well as forts, which are upgradeable, walled structures with a small area of affect mainly used to establish choke points and domain (or used to grab resources when city founding is turned off). While useful for the player, I don’t feel that the AI ever uses these structures effectively.
The biggest reason for playing without the city founding option is to prevent a land grab that may result in whomever has the biggest empire having access to the most resources. I also quite often feel that my empire is suffocating from a lack of gold or mana early game, but by the end, I have so much gold being produced every turn that I can endlessly crank out the best and most expensive units with little thought to upkeep. Overall, whether building cities or not, expansion often feels more like a chore needed to remain successful later in the game than anything else.
eXploit: The eXploit aspect of Age of Wonders III is perhaps the weakest overall. The game does allow you to have some say in how your cities will specialize, yet ultimately fails to deliver in a meaningful way. As addressed earlier, your overall income, whether that be gold, mana, research, or growth, is largely dependent on the small mines, mana nodes, or other buildings scattered around the map. If a city only has two gold mines within its area of control, that is the extent of the bonus you will ever get (excluding the happiness bonus). Only a few city improvements offer additional growth, happiness, or production. It isn’t uncommon to specialize a city to produce archer units with higher veterancy levels and another for mounted units, leaving the construction of buildings feeling more tedious than anything else. Capture a city, add a few buildings to increase its area of control and train soldiers. To be fair, however, I think the way resources work within the game has a greater crippling effect than the building options.
The routine task that is city management is made worse by the fact that Age of Wonders III misses so many opportunities to make existing systems matter. When you conquer an independent city or that of an opponent, you are presented with an option to migrate your race to the new location, replacing the previous occupants with your own, or leaving them be. The decision to migrate or not affects your alignment rating, and a city’s race determines the race of all troops produced. Migrating your population is an act of evil, moving you along the alignment spectrum towards evil. If you want to avoid an evil alignment rating, you are left only with the option of leaving the local population in peace. I understand that slaughtering the city’s population can only be classified as an act of evil, and if you want to remain neutral or even strive for a good alignment, you will ultimately have a racially diverse empire. While the ability to have your alignment affected by decisions is a great idea, a “good” diverse empire ruins the atmosphere of the game for me when my Elven hero is caught leading an army of Orcs and Goblins.
To further complicate matters, diplomacy is very superficial. Certain independent cities may be more or less inclined to cooperate with you based on race, as well as where you fall along the good to evil alignment, but there is no nuance or subtlety to it. There aren’t really a wide range of treaties or diplomatic options available like those found in many other 4X games. Another missed opportunity would have been initial disposition bonuses or penalties based on race. It isn’t uncommon to find my Dwarven empire at war with a neighboring Human faction, but at the same time the Orcs and I are getting along swell. Often I find myself simply cleansing the map of any and all opponents rather than trying to navigate the muddled diplomacy. Keep in mind, I love rolling across my foes with massive armies no matter the game, but when other options are limited, it sometimes deters me from jumping back into a game.
eXterminate: While I have criticized the game for sometimes forcing me to resort to combat (especially on higher difficulties), the combat within the game is one of its main strengths. As you move troops around the world map, you can stack a combination of 6 units/heroes in an army. Multiple armies can engage in a single battle, enabling you to bring twenty or more units to battle. The limit of 6 units to a stack feels balanced, and walks a fine line between having huge death stacks and the 1 unit per tile continuum. Limiting the size of the stacks adds a level of strategy required in deciding which units to group together, but the real fun comes when combat begins.
All manual combat consists of turn-based combat with the defenders moving first. While other aspects of the game may lack depth, combat literally brings dozens of variables to the table. For example, one possible move is charging spear or pikemen with mounted units (that happen to be weak against them). There are different damage type weaknesses, defense values against physical and magical attacks, movements, flanking bonuses, moral penalties, and more. I consider myself a competent gamer, but even five, six, and seven games in, I found myself closely studying at my enemy’s unit abilities to evaluate if an attack actually would be a good idea. Will that unit regenerate half of its health this turn? How big of an area will that dragon’s breath cover if it attacks next turn? Can I get my archers in a better position, so they aren’t suffering from shooting through cover?
The combat system is complex and enjoyable. Moving a unit too far forward means they might be vulnerable to flanking attacks, thus receiving more damage and not being able to strike back at the first hit. If a unit is already adjacent to an enemy and tries to move away, the enemy unit gets a free attack as you reposition through their zone of control. Some ranged units inflict less damage if they lack a line of sight to the target while some get more attacks per round than others. Combat is not just a rock, paper, scissors situation; it is outright deadly. Weaker units flanking from multiple sides could potentially take a much larger unit down while receiving minimal damage. The only complaint I have about combat is the fact that a unit will always inflict its maximum damage whether it has one hit point left, or the full 150. As units take damage you will see individuals dying off, but that last pesky Goblin is just a graphical representation of hit points and the unit will hit just as hard as it did at the beginning of combat.
The different classes begin to shine when you train and utilize the highest tier units. Not only are these units some of the toughest and hardest hitting, but they can bring unique abilities to the table. The Sorcerer summons an Eldritch Horror, a monstrous unit with the ability to shoot lightning at multiple foes. On the flip side, the Dreadnaught can build a huge Juggernaut (essentially a land ship) that can fire broadsides on both sides. The warbreed unit (trainable only by the Warlord class) is not only an excellent close combat brawler but has the advantage of rapid health regeneration. As a result of such incredible power, these units carry a high maintenance cost. High maintenance costs combined with limited map resources mean that the lower tier units are still valuable in both the mid and late game (thanks to post-launch patches). Although the classes are varied, the race differences are somewhat disappointing. This ultimately results in class strengths and weaknesses that are critical in determining your overall success, rather than the actual race that you choose to play.
Heroes play a key role in battles as they can become quite powerful over time. A level 10 hero who has found epic gear could potentially solo a tier IV unit such as a dragon or a giant! But with their great combat potential comes a couple of risks. If you lose your main hero, research and other benefits halt for a few turns until they respawn. Recruited heroes, on the other hand, are no less powerful or important, but are gone for good once they are killed. It is important to be cautious with such powerful units as they can inflict massive damage on an opponent, but can also become a prime target and be eliminated relatively quickly if focused on by too many enemy units. Heroes really only have combat applications within Age of Wonders as they cannot fulfill the role of governor of a settlement to provide economic bonuses. Even though this might make heroes seem one-dimensional, they fulfill their role as the military commander of your armies very well.
The combat A.I. is no slouch. It flanks your undefended heroes when it sees an opportunity. It protects itself from your cavalry with spear and pike. It will focus fire on your hidden units. Yet, it will still make mistakes on the lower difficulties. The AI doesn’t use city defenses to their full effect like it should, and it will occasionally leave itself unprotected. Overall, I must say that, at the higher difficulties, the AI puts up a good fight and is far more than a doormat for the player to walk all over.
eXperience: Up to this point I have discussed several key mechanics, both good and bad, within Age of Wonders III. While there are some issues, the game does create a wonderful world in which to explore and conquer. The map is beautifully rendered and features many different terrain types, from snowcapped mountains to marshes and volcanic landscapes. While graphics do not make a game by themselves, they do add a level of polish and can help bring you into the game a little more. When zooming out, the unexplored parts of the map actually resemble an old blank parchment with drawings around the sides that disappear as you explore the map. During combat, you are placed on similar terrain to where the combat takes place on the strategic map. It is little details such as these that show how far Triumph has gone to ensure finesse in this title.
The music is also paramount to the overall enjoyment of the experience. I actually bought the soundtrack after launch because the music was simply that good. I may have even simply left the game running a few times before buying the soundtrack just to have the music going in the background. Both these points highlight the level of detail and polish of the overall presentation. In battles and on the world map, the game does a good job presenting you with a beautiful and engrossing world.
For better or for worse, Age of Wonders III is a beautiful game with many enjoyable features, yet below the surface some of its shortcomings begin to show. While it is undoubtedly a turn-based game at its core, some of the more shallow 4X elements take away from what could be a truly great game. The game presents an enjoyable combat system, unit classes, and a well-crafted fantasy world. On the flipside, the empire management aspect is not enjoyable, diplomacy is superficial at best, and Triumph seemed to miss a chance to make the races feel very different beyond their appearance.
It is important to mention that the game has improved since its launch with a number of free patches that have fixed issues such as balance and the overall flow of the game. It is encouraging to see developers who care enough about a product to continue fine tuning it after launch, even if perhaps some issues should have been foreseen prior to its release. But Age of Wonders III has only gotten better and leaves me hopeful that as the series continues to evolve we will have a better game as an end result. Overall, Age of Wonders III is not a great 4X game, but it is certainly a good one. If you can look past some of its pitfalls, it will undoubtedly provide you with countless hours of enjoyment as your armies beautifully crush any and all opposition.
Warmacblu’s Additional Perspective:
Age of Wonders III (AoW III) is like an aged fine wine. It’s not necessarily better or worse the more you play it, but it is a different game as you spend more time with it. My largest issue with AoW III is that the game does not explain a majority of the advanced techniques and strategies that enhance gameplay. Kearon mentions in his review that the concept of the underground layer is intriguing but not all that different from the surface layer. For the longest time I would have agreed with him until I watched some veteran players utilize the underground layer to their advantage. These players used specialized Goblin units with the “Tunneling” skill to create hidden pathways in order to maneuver armies unseen and ambush unsuspecting opponents. Units with night vision and cave crawling are able to detect enemies from a greater distance and have increased mobility in the underground layer. Not only is the underground layer interesting and different, but it caters to Goblin players which is an intriguing way to introduce asymmetric gameplay. Many people complained about the lack of racial diversity when the game was first released, but as I invest more time into the game I’ve come to realize that the racial diversity is present, it just takes time to figure out how to use it properly.
Overall, I would still offer a word of caution for those unable to dedicate many hours of gameplay to learn the ins and outs of AoW III. Those people who are willing to take the time to tease out all of the minor, and sometimes major, details will be rewarded with a depth seldom found in other 4X games.
Marlowe’s Additional Perspective:
Age of Wonders 3 is a great addition to a long standing fantasy strategy series. Aside from the semi-obligatory campaign mode, the game features one of the best random map generators to date. Combine that with the ability to choose race, class, and magic/skill specializations at the beginning of each session and no two games will be just alike. Tactical combat is the real meat on the bone in the Age of Wonders series and this installment is no different in that regard. There are enough terrain modifiers, flanking bonuses, line of sight penalties, and elemental weaknesses to keep all but the most fervent war game veterans busy.
Of course, empire builders will likely find the game lacking in some key areas. Empire management is certainly not emphasized in Age of Wonders 3. Building choices are very simple and straightforward with little variety. Diplomacy is virtually non-existent compared to other recent 4X titles. All of this is, however, in keeping with the traditional elements of the Age of Wonders series, which has always been very combat-focused.
Overall, fans of detailed, turn-based tactical combat will find a lot to love about Age of Wonders 3. Empire builders and diplomats should approach this title with caution.
TL;DR: Age of Wonders III’s combat is easily the most engrossing part of the game with dozens of unique units and at least as many abilities that are well balanced against one another. In spite of a great combat system, the empire management and diplomacy portions of the game are lacking to such a degree that it feels more like a chore than anything else. The individual classes each play and feel unique though, while the lack of real diversity among races feels like a missed opportunity. Still, it’s probably worth your time.
You might like this game if:
- You’re a fan of tactical turn-based combat that requires an understanding of a diverse range of units and abilities.
- You enjoy 4X strategy games with light empire management.
- You enjoy a set of distinct class/race options to diversify the experience.
You might NOT like this game if:
- Uninspired empire management ruins your day. Or just your game. That, too.
- You enjoy or find diplomacy within 4X games crucial.
- Combat is not an important feature to you for an enjoyable 4X game.
Kearon has played over 100 hours of Age of Wonders III on a PC with an AMD Quad Core 3.8 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM, and Radeon R9 270, running Windows 7.