Age of Wonders III

After a healthy experience of the Eternal Lords expansion to Triumph Studio’s latest title in its Age of Wonders series it seemed like a good time to mention recent 4x contender Age of Wonders III.  The Age of Wonders series has brought up 4x fans since 1999 and features many traditional elements of 4x play such as turn based strategic and tactical modes, city building and management, and multiple resource requirements such as gold, production, and research.
Faction design in Age of Wonders III takes two intertwined forms.  Players must choose a class from six choices (seven with the latest expansion, Eternal Lords) and a race, of which there are a total of nine with all the expansions included.  Each race comes with a set of generic units as well as strengths and weaknesses in their economics and unit abilities.  Player classes determine what the player’s faction leader class is as well as what spells, technological upgrades, and specialist units are available.  Any combination of race and class is allowed and part of a successful strategy is determining which class and race best combine to fit a player’s style.
Leaders are chosen at the beginning of a random game or scenario (and preselected in the campaigns).  Players can also create custom leaders, allowing them to customize the leader’s appearance, starting preference, and adept and mastery spell skills.  All adept skills are available at the beginning and mastery skills can be chosen once the corresponding adept skill is selected.  A leader can have a maximum of three skill selections and does not need to choose a mastery.  Skills contain a set of spells that correspond to their type (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water originally with several more added in the expansions) and are useful in supplementing racial and class strategies.
Notably among most 4x games Age of Wonders III focuses heavily on combat.  Players will quickly learn that two moderately prosperous cities are superior to one large, wealthy city.  Thus the ability to conquer new cities and protect existing ones is paramount to success.  Triumph Studios put a lot of effort into the detail of class and unit designs and perhaps the most strategically critical and unpredictable part of the game is the tactical combat mode.  Racial and class units all have their own strengths and weaknesses and most classes are not necessarily all encompassing.  The Rogue class for example has a wide range of stealth and support units and is very flexible in most combat environments.  However the Rogue class is the only class which lacks a Tier IV unit (the highest unit tier) and can be swiftly overwhelmed by more martially focuses classes.
Combat is certainly the prominent feature in the single player story mode.  Players can choose between two campaigns, with each campaign following a faction on one side of a global war for racial and ideological supremacy.  Each mission in the campaign begins with a pre-chosen leader and a small army.  A settler is usually included, although in roughly one third of the missions the player must conquer a nearby neutral city to begin building their economy.  Several types of objectives like recovery or conquest appear throughout the campaign but the usual formula for victory involves keeping your leader and hero units alive while eliminating the AI factions.
While this is a fairly common approach to campaign development in 4x games it tends to lend a fairly abstract difficulty curve to the campaign.  Oftentimes the player is simply dropped into fog of war with no ability to sustain an army no indication on the best route of exploration to take; all while the AI opponents are building up their forces and claiming treasure sites.  Additionally the requirement to keep certain heroes alive, while certainly flavorful and effective at giving the leaders importance, discourages the player from using that leader unit in all but the safest and most secure combat encounters.  It can be a frustrating feature in a game where just one wrong move or a lucky shot can turn a battle.
The Random Map and Scenario part of the single player experience has much more potential and opens up the full race, class, and leader customization options.  Scenarios are single, pre-build maps with pre-selected leaders and races for the player to choose from.  Each scenario has a storyline governing its setup but once the game begins it functions more like a Random Map with the players free to develop their chosen factions as they please.
Random Maps are blank slate single and multi-player maps for 2-8 players.  At setup the player or host can adjust such features as the percentage of different terrain types, the number of monster lairs and treasure sites, if there is an underground level to the map, and other options.  Players can start with anything from their leader with a small army and settler to a large army and a metropolis level city.
The standard AI, while certainly an able opponent, tends to be more frustrating than dangerous.  Players can usually spot an AI’s advancing army through effective use of watchtowers and/or flying scouts; yet its complete awareness of the map means it can always find any vulnerable or unguarded cities.  The AI will target wounded and valuable units in combat even if it puts its own forces in danger.  It also behooves new players in Random Map games to leave the hero resurgence option checked when generating the map as the AI is fond of attacking leader and hero units.
Most 4x fans will enjoy the familiar genre elements in Age of Wonders III.  However those players accustomed to styles emphasizing economic or diplomacy victories may find Age of Wonders III underdeveloped in those areas.  However strategic and tactical combat elements are among the most detailed for a 4x game in the diverse number of units, abilities, and options available to the player.  Players seeking familiar 4x play with a strong fantasy setting will not be disappointed in the latest of the Age of Wonders series.