I’ve blown a fair portion of my rapidly dwindling free time in the past week playing Age of Wonders III. It’s a turn-based strategy game that is basically a fantasy version of Civilization V. You build cities, raise armies, research improvements (or spells, in this case), and ultimately aim to stomp every other player on the map into a fine, gooey paste. It has a smart AI and a number of unique gameplay mechanics that set it apart from the competition. So what’s the problem?
Answer: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Age of Wonders III is a good game, but it’s marred by a schizophrenic design. In lifting wholesale portions of the Civilization formula, developer Triumph forgot to include the portions that made those games so addictive. While they’ve rectified the problem somewhat with the Golden Realms expansion, Age of Wonders III ultimately misses the mark. It’s still worth buying, but it’s just far enough away from perfection to deter hardcore players.
The Good… The Really Good
As is obvious by the Roman numerals at the end, Age of Wonders III is a sequel; the last major releases in the series, Age of Wonders II and Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, were released in 2002 and 2003, respectively. The old Age of Wonders games adhered pretty closely to the fantasy 4X game formula set out by the Warlords and Heroes of Might and Magic series: there are a fixed number of cities on the map and your goal is to conquer all the ones held by your enemies.
For the third game in the series, it appears that Triumph looked at Civilization V and decided to lift some of its better features while ignoring the lamer ones. For example, Age of Wonders III’s wargame-style, hex-based movement grid and 2D strategic map are pretty clearly taken from Civilization V. The ability to found new cities with settler units—as opposed to being restricted to the ones on the map—is another smart addition.
Triumph was also able to avoid some of the dumber design decisions in Civilization V. For one, you can actually stack units. No more building huge armies, then laboriously shuffling them across the map one unit at a time. Additionally, the AI in Age of Wonders III is challenging to play against. You won’t have AI empires declaring war on you, then waving the white flag ten turns later without so much as getting one trebuchet into your territory. For example, in one game I played, I encountered an enemy elf empire who immediately declared war on me, sensing my weaker military, then seized one of my frontier cities three turns later.
Age of Wonders III also plays up its unique elements to great effect. The game has a small number of playable races, but each of them are radically different, and combining different races’ units is key to victory. Each race has unique units and a preferred terrain type—elves prefer forests, for example, while dwarves are at home in the mountains—and if you attempt to stick to just one race’s units and cities, you’ll get stomped. The game’s Total War-style combat system and role-playing elements, allowing you to customize your leader’s abilities and even an ethical alignment, are also great things.
…And The Really Bad
The central problem with Age of Wonders III is thus: a lack of non-combatant ways to win the game. Tom Chick already went over this in his review of the game, but it bears repeating: Civilization and other 4X strategy games are so addictive in part because they eliminate endgame tedium by giving you different ways to win. Researching a certain technology, culturally assimilating other empires, or sending a ship into outer space: it’s these kinds of victory goals that separate 4X games from tabletop wargames.
In Age of Wonders III, the only victory condition is to crush all the other empires. You can achieve an allied victory (destroying all the empires you aren’t allied with), and the Golden Realms expansion adds a new, King of the Hill-style victory condition, the Seals of Power, but there’s no getting around the fact that games inevitably devolve into a tedious slog of hunting down enemy units and mopping up empires that were gelded fifty turns back.
Dominions IV is another recent 4X fantasy strategy game that focuses on conquest to the exclusion of all else, but Dominions IV is also designed in such a fashion that your empire basically runs itself by the end of each game, letting you focus on butchering your enemies. Age of Wonders III bogs you down in the minutiae of managing individual cities like Civilization does, but without any kind of palpable reward.
Other features in Age of Wonders III seem half-finished. For example, you can use terraforming spells to alter the terrain around your cities, much in the same way you can use worker units to construct improvements in Civilization. Unlike Civilization, though, the only benefit you get from terraforming is increasing the happiness of your population: no economic boosts, nothing.
Put simply, Age of Wonders III is a new game rammed into an old shell. It’s fun to play and gets a lot right, but its single-minded focus on conquest combined with its Civilization-like micromanagement drag it down considerably. While it’s worth your money, I wouldn’t blow a huge chunk of change on it, at least not unless Triumph releases an expansion pack that allows for more types of noncombatant victories.