Ever seen an army of Draconians lead by a Sorcerer-King assaulting the empire of Elvish Archdruids? This is just one of the many grand scenarios you would come across in normal game of Age of Wonders 3. This is a game that I think flew under a lot of people’s radars. The game had zero publicity, but is a fantastic 4X game combining elements of turned based strategy with a high fantasy setting. Think Sid Meier’s Civilization, but with Orcs and Dwarves. If you are familiar with the Overlord series, this game comes from the same folks. As the player you take the role of the customizable political-military leader and lead your forces to expand your empire through colonization, diplomacy, and of course siege warfare. It’s an impressive looking, well-paced game combining turn-based tactics, RPG elements, and exploration.
Assuming you skip past the noteworthy campaign and want to get straight into the action, the first step you will take into the world of the Commonwealth will be creating your avatar. There are a total of six classes to choose from and each is fully customizable in terms of appearance and abilities. Choose from an Arch Druid, Dreadnought (Steampunk), Sorcerer, Rogue, Theocrat (Holy Zealot), or Warlord. As you would imagine Dreadnoughts and Warlords have more martial-focused aptitudes while Arch Druids and Sorcerers are masters of exotic summons and spells. Your leader’s skills will amplify the army of the race you choose and can be complemented by recruiting other wandering heroes of various classes to your cause. In game your leader and other heroes are the vanguard of any troop movement and are the most valuable units on the field. By conquering your enemies your heroes will level up and allow new spells and skills to be assigned. A major change in this sequel is the encouragement to take your leader and heroes to the field of battle as often as possible to level their abilities and attributes whereas in previous games your leader was strongest while garrisoned in your throne city. It is a great risk-reward system that makes the player strongly consider supply lines and tactical defense. The only penalty to an empire leader falling in combat is that the leader will be suspended in the void for three rounds temporarily leaving your empire without its most powerful unit.
The two major components to this game, empire building and tactical combat, have been streamlined, but still allow for major play style differences. As you climb up the tech tree for your cities you unlock class-specific faction units in various tiers of production. The Dreadnought boasts a Juggernaught which is a huge ironclad steam ship on land while the Rogue employs Assassins and Shadow Stalkers able to sneak undetected through the wilderness and flank enemy troops. These class specific units will even match the faction you play as meaning Goblin Musketeers look aesthetically different to their Human Musketeer counterparts. Reaching the top of the tech tree even allows for an item forge to design equipment allowing you augment your leader and heroes with weapons, armor, and mounts of immense power. Production can even be automated to infinitely produce a particular unit or to maintain resource production. Your throne city is where your leader and forces start their campaign, but as you explore you will encounter neutral and enemy settlements. Nearby friendly and neutral cities will often offer you a quest to undertake and join your empire subsequently as a reward if you are successful. Some settlements will be hostile to you depending on your empire’s alignment towards good or evil. Don’t feel bad for sacking hostile cities and migrating the race’s population to your own.
Upon venturing out of your domain your troops navigate a field comprised of hexagons allowing for strategic troop placement which can swing the tide of battle to your favor if used properly. When engaging hostiles you have the option to auto-resolve combat (based on relative strength of the warring parties) or micro-manage each unit on the tactical field. If you choose the latter, the view drops from an isometric world map to the 3D micro battlefield with the aggressor opposite the defender and any adjacent units to the side relative to their position on the world map. Flanking plays a huge combat role in tactical play as it allows for greater damage and often a sneak attack without reprisal. As you would expect units have somewhat of a rock-paper-scissors counter system where spearman are effective against cavalry and siege units effective against walls and groups vulnerable to area-of-effect damage. A deeper element of the tactical play is the unit morale system which will grant combat bonuses or deficiencies depending on terrain, recent battles, empire alignment, and leadership of your heroes.
The diplomacy in this game is the only major gameplay element that leaves a lot to be desired. You can parlay and form alliances with any faction and even convince rival leaders to wage war against your deadliest enemies. Often times, proposals to other leaders need to be accompanied by an incentive such as gold, mana, items, or cities to ensure they do your bidding. Basically the hardest part about fostering a relationship with a rival is the resources needed to bribe them. This is about as deep as the diplomacy gets. While you can trade commodities like gold or mana you cannot trade technologies with allied empires and the leaders’ intentions are exactly what you see on the surface. The good news is there are no cliques as the relationships you form are in secret and hidden from other leaders meaning you can pay off that High Elf Rogue to attack an ally you think is fortifying a little too close to your borders. Minor neutral settlements are always absorbed or destroyed by major factions and there are no territorial disputes as your domain’s borders can only be pushed back by conquering the host city. Diplomatic victories can be achieved, but my only experience with one was ending a game where I ruled the over-world map and a Dwarven Dreadnought commanded the subterranean world.
I prefer the game as a deliberately paced single player experience but going online will pit you against up to 5 other humans and even allows for simultaneous turns. The most valuable part of this game is its infinite replayability. There is a robust random map generator allowing you to designate just about every variable starting condition all the way down to the amount of mountains, roads, bodies of water, enemy proximity, and reliquaries guaranteeing a new saga for each play-through. Completing a game will take hours depending on the map size and how aggressive you play, but since it’s turn-based even jumping in for a turn or two in small intervals can be satisfying. Just keep an eye on the in-game clock because before you know it, 3 a.m. has rolled around and you’ve only conquered half the continent.