It's been a while since I've posted anything, and while a lot of that is due to the fact that I've been very busy working at Relic and volunteering recently, it's also been because I've actually been playing some games here and there. So I figured it would be fairly easy, and fun, to think a bit about one of the games I've been playing, and talk about my experiences with it.
Age of Wonders III is a sequel to a fairly beloved series of games from the turn of the millenium, and was released approximately ten years after the previous entry in the series. That's quite a long time. We have Notch to thank for this return, in part, since he put down some of his own money to help the game towards completion - and indeed, there's quite a lot to be thankful for. Age of Wonders III is one of the most satisfying turn-based strategy games I've played in a long time. A fair word of warning, though - I never played the originals, so this is my entry point into the franchise. Here are my thoughts.
Age of Wonders III has a nice, clean look overall. The interface is similar to what you'd find in Civilization - the color scheme and shapes are similar, as is the quantity of things on the interface at any given moment. Honestly, I'm over 25 hours into the game and I still don't use all the various interface functions; many of them seem to be anchors for tooltips, though, and are not critical in moment-to-moment gameplay. It could use some trimming, but even in its current state it doesn't feel overwhelming.
The game world itself is quite lovely. There are a diverse set of terrains that are organized by their fertility (barrens, fertile, wetlands, dense vegetation, etc.) and their temperature (tropical, temperate, underground, etc.), which is a system that has long appealed to me. They all look pleasant and sufficiently distinct, communicating effectively what's going on and feeling like a real world. Buildings pop up around cities organically, and many of the spells feel properly ethereal.
Units and characters are all somewhat cartoonish in appearance, but it's well-done and feels communicative and nice, rather than cheap. There is a bit of humor at play, too - goblins in particular are kind of ridiculous-looking, in what I can only assume is an intentional way. Character design generally follows standard fantasy tropes, with all that implies, though there are the occasional steampunk bits thrown in for some of the factions and leader types.
There are some interesting customization options for your hero - lots of poses, backgrounds, etc. - in a way that reminds me a lot of Fallen Enchantress, though in Age of Wonders III you aren't expected to customize your units as well. It's nice to be able to personalize the person who will be the face of your empire, and while I can appreciate the motivation to customize all your units, this feels more than sufficient for making the faction feel like it's yours.
The music is actually quite good; the battle music is suitably exciting, and the strategic map music generally fits the mood. It's nothing to write home about, perhaps, but it's well-made and fitting, and does do a better job than the music in many other strategy games. Much the same could be said for the sound design - not spectacular, but easily as good as it needs to be.
Overall, I'd describe the aesthetics of Age of Wonders III as simple, straightforward and pleasant. As in most strategy games, a high-level impression is most important here. The player will be spending most of their time zoomed out from the world, and as such, the way the elements work together to create an appropriately-themed landscape is more important than any individual asset's quality. In that regard, Age of Wonders III does a great job at creating an appealing fantasy backdrop for your story of exploration, expansion, and/or extermination.
The basic gameplay is similar to what other games in the genre, such as Civilization, might offer, though honestly I feel like there were a lot more parallels to Warlock: Master of the Arcane and Fallen Enchantress, given the presence and treatment of magic and heroes in the game. You start with a single city and a few units, and you must expand outwards into a world devoid of empires by acquiring new cities, which can be done by founding settlements yourself, or through peaceful negotiations, purchase, or war with neutral cities that exist at the start of the game - more on that later.
Expansion of your empire requires you to harvest resources to purchase spells, buildings, and units, though the game is simpler in this regard than some of its contemporaries. The only resources you actually actively use to produce things are gold and mana; a few other "resources" like production and research blend into the background fairly well, though they're there for the hardcore to optimize if they so choose.
Your main locus of control, besides cities, are armies that can contain up to six units, either heroes, military units, or a few civilian units like settlers and builders. Unit variety is also fairly straightforward, though with a twist. A city's race determines most of the units it can train, but your faction leader's class also provides a special building tree for training unique troops. This allows you to mix and match racial units with class units, which adds an extra layer of depth to the class choice beyond what your hero herself can do.
In terms of pacing, Age of Wonders III actually does a wonderful (haha) job at avoiding a lot of the pitfalls of other strategy games. Units and buildings all build fairly quickly; I don't think I ever saw a unit that takes longer than 4 turns to build, even when building top-level units with less-than-top-level cities, and very few buildings take more than 4 turns either. It's also fairly quick to reach high-level buildings and units, which is a relief, and "low-level" units often continue to be useful later into the game (like my Tier I Elven archers).
This contrasts with other games like Civilization or Fallen Enchantress where things can take forever to be built and you're constantly fighting against unit obsolescence. While this doesn't necessarily effect balance, it feels a whole lot better to have core units pop out within a turn or two once you're in the mid-game, rather than the half-dozen or more you sometimes have to wait in other games.
Low build times mean you can quickly reach the "end-game" with some of your core cities, and start to play around with the various possible combinations for your forces. There's also no need for tedious (in my eyes) specialization of cities; while the concept of city specialization is appealing, most 4X games execute on the idea by imposing things like long build times or gold upkeep to drain your resources if you over-generalize, rather than having some kind of simple and easy-to-read system for specialization.
Combat in AoW3 involves a separate game mode, which adds more complexity than you'd get by fighting on the strategic map. When an army gets attacked, that army and all the other armies within a 1-tile radius are all pulled into a tactical battle on a map representing the terrain where the attacked army was standing. Armies maintain their relative positions from the strategic map (except in sieges, unfortunately), so a bit of strategic positioning can help or hinder the tactical combat experience; if you approach from two opposing sides, you might divide the enemy's forces in half as they try to deal with both at once... or you might waste precious turns moving one half of your army across the map to assist the other half.
The final major piece of the game is magic, which is essentially a combination of mana - a resource generated by certain buildings and terrain pieces at a steady rate - and spells, which are special abilities of various sorts that require mana to cast and, sometimes, to maintain over several turns. And while it's fun to toss spells around, it feels like there are a lot of spells - especially the weaker unit buffs - that simply aren't worth the mana or turn time to cast when compared to spells like summons, attacks, heals, or city buffs. The system works, but it doesn't feel especially unique or, well, magical.
There's also an alignment system that tracks how good or evil you are, and... it doesn't really seem to do much. I believe certain spells are locked unless you are Good or Evil, but I never really noticed the effects while playing (and I'm currently playing my fifth game).
If the game has one glaring weakness, I'd say, in my limited experience, that it's diplomacy. Long story short, I won my first random map game with an alliance of two other races, both of whom I basically bought into my alliance with two magical items and a few hundred gold apiece. It wasn't very dramatic; and I never noticed the AI leaders do anything proactively other than, once, declaring war on me. Interacting with other imperial leaders should be a much more interesting and dynamic experience than simply throwing wealth at them.
As a grand strategy game, a lot of the narrative in Age of Wonders III is in its theme, atmosphere, and gameplay. The systems in these games are a lot more complex and sociopolitically relevant than what you'd find in most avatar-driven games, and AoW3 is no exception. But there is a plot-driven campaign, though, so I'll start with that.
The plot exists mostly as an excuse for the players to get in a few games with a variety of heroes and races. There are overtones of anti-imperialism and environmentalism as grafted into a fantasy setting, and it's fairly engaging, though not ground-breaking by any means. I found it refreshing to see that humans are presented as the bad guys in the initial stages (although I feel like this might be becoming a bit more common nowadays). Also, despite having played through three fairly long campaign missions, I don't think I'm anywhere near the end, so I can't really comment on the overall direction it goes in.
Random map games are also thematically interesting, of course, because theme and tone don't require a pre-written, linear story. While on the surface it may seem to be a fairly standard expand-and-crush strategy game, that's not quite the case. Unlike many strategy games, the world you begin to forge an empire in is already pretty densely populated, with lots of outposts and cities already scattered around the world. The way players interact with these cities can vary, but the door is open for some less-brutal empire-forging. In my first random map game, I acquired almost all of my cities by performing quests for independent cities and outposts and convincing them to join me, rather than conquering their cities, settling new areas, or buying them outright (although I did a little bit of those other three as well).
While these independent settlements have much less complex behavior than city states in Civilization V, I liked the feeling that I was uniting disparate townships and cities under my banner, as opposed to treating them like pawns in an elaborate game. There was still the option to purchase them into your empire, though, which felt weirdly out of place given the diplomatic options, like a cop-out option for people who didn't want to start wars out of principle but couldn't be bothered to actually listen to these people's concerns.
Still, the overall approach lends an interesting feel to the game - politically, that particular session was less about expansionism and more about unification and consolidation of the disparate inhabitants of a realm. Presumably I could also have obliterated them all if I chose to, but the game gives you the option of joining forces with independents via mutual aid, and indeed makes doing so the easiest option, especially in the early game (wars cost time and blood, and buying them costs, well, a lot of money). Arguably, the system tells us that if we just suck it up and respond to each others' concerns and needs, we'll get more accomplished with less sweat and blood than we would by out-competing or destroying one another.
Another interesting thing to note is the option for allied victories. Now perhaps I've just not paid attention before in other strategy games, but Age of Wonders III is the first 4X game I've played that makes it not only obvious, but the default option, for alliances of major players in the game to win together. So when I finished my first random map, I didn't triumph over all other races - my elves jointly achieved victory with two empires of goblins and orcs, respectively. There was no need for the utter dominance of one faction.
Combined with the simple and peaceful ways to ally yourself with independents, I see in Age of Wonders III a systems-based approach to international/multiethnic cooperation that seems to be missing, or at least downplayed, in a lot of other 4X games. I would argue that this makes the game, at least in regards to the questions of nationalism and such, more progressive than most other games in the genre.
Another presumably important narrative element in the game is the presence of heroes, who will frequently pop up and offer their services. In reality, though, they don't seem to play much of a role in the overarching feel of the game. They essentially become special units able to unleash spells in battle and providing a few bonuses to other units, but there's really not that much heroic about them, and they certainly can't take on dozens of enemies at once. This makes them feel less like heroes and more like officers, which seems to downplay the importance of mythical heroic individuals, and is a constant reminder that even great people do their best work within a broader support system.
While it may not have the vast breadth of the Civilization series, Age of Wonders III has all the good, core nuts and bolts I want from a turn-based strategy game. The aesthetics are solid, it is bold and streamlined where these games ought to be so, and the core actions - empire management and warfare - feel satisfying and engaging. On top of that, it has a surprisingly progressive approach to imperial politics that feels less predatory than what other 4X games offer.
Where the game lacks is in the more complex, long-arc systems that should overlap the moment-to-moment gameplay. Diplomacy and the AI seem quite simplistic, and the magic and alignment systems feel grafted-on rather than integral parts of the experience. These systems could do with quite a bit of fleshing out, but the low-level gameplay is there.
The game has an expansion slated to arrive soon, Golden Realms, which promises a lot of things, such as new major and minor races, a new campaign, and more, but there's no word on changes to the diplomatic side of things. I'm sure I'll get it anyway, though, since I'm enjoying the game quite a bit. If you're into 4X strategy games at all, I heartily recommend you give Age of Wonders III a shot, and if you're looking to try a 4X game for the first time, this might be a gentler entry point than the colossus that is Civilization.