Age of Wonders III

for Windows

Release Date:  March 31, 2014

Game Type:

Developer:  

  • Triumph Studios

Publisher:  

  • Triumph Studios

Device Used:  

  • PC

OS version:  Windows 7

Caveat: I’ve only played a handful of scenarios/maps, around 40 hours of game time. As this game requires much more commitment to explore its boundless depths, I can’t really call this a comprehensive review. More like an initial impression. Therefore, take my “impressions” with a grain of salt, I usually do;)

Well, it’s fun and will suck up a lot of your time…if you can put up with its few limitations.

I love turn-based strategy for two reasons, the pacing is at my speed and the infinite variety allows for endless replays. Way back in 1989, I started my love affair with turn-based strategy on a little PC game called ‘Bandit Kings of Ancient China’. Having played hundreds of hours with friends throughout high-school and early college in over-night sessions of competitive conquest.

The city-builder ‘Sid Meier’s Civilization’ opened up single-player strategy to new levels. With fantasy-themed variations like ‘Disciples’ and ‘Heroes of Might and Magic’ expanding my options and my fun. Fast-forward to 2014, ‘Age of Wonders III’ has landed. It offers lots of upgrades to previous installments and provides plenty of depth and enjoyment. But stay for the combat and conquest, as the city-building and the “adventuring” feel incomplete.

Epic Carnage
Epic carnage on the battlefield

You can pick a preformed leader out of the races and classes available, or you can create one from scratch. Like an arch druid human, a sorcerer high-elf or a warlord orc, etc… The class and race determine you’re upgrade path. I almost always play a mage. I’ve learned that mages can often become unstoppable juggernauts in both these fantasy strategy games and in RPGs. Fighters have to be micro-managed more and take more replenishing as they must get in the fray. However, mages and ranged fighters can stand back and “safely” deliver their doom.

Yeah, that’s right I love to dominate–I’m a “power gamer”. Become as big and as powerful as possible and then unleash yourself upon the rest of the world. So ‘AoW III’ initially fit-in to my style of play.

When I campaigned in ‘Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes’ or ‘Disciple II’ I would often get my ass handed to me, even after leveling up to what I thought was god-like. Those games provided built-in limiters to one’s powers–a series of checks and balances to prevent any one character from getting TOO strong, TOO fast. You had to work at it, and this added to the challenge and to the fun. Hell, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how to win in “Disciples II’ until I finally gave in and played a few matches on easy.

You will definitely want to start ‘Age of Wonders III’ on at least normal difficulty. Playing on easy provided absolutely no challenges at all.

AoW III Game Map
Lots to do, lots to do

One strength in ‘Age of Wonders III’ is its depth. There is simple way more to do than you could need want. With campaigns (which I barely even glanced at), multiplayer (which I completely ignored), pre-established scenarios, and a sandbox mode called “Random Map” providing limitless possibilities. The random maps allow for basically every single aspect of the game to be customized. You can custom build your leader, custom form you map (size and terrain), choose your opponents (how many, the heroes, their difficulty), the speed of the game (battle heavy, normal, etc…), the number of available resources both on the map and at the start, and the conditions of victory. With each play through and each new configuration you’ll get a different game.

Just remember to keep the scenario’s scale short and sweet. If you let a campaign/scenario go on too long, your leader will grow to become an unstoppable force and the game will bore you long before you defeat the very last enemy.

You start out in a small open area on a randomly generated map, just your main leader, a very small army, and a town or two. You explore, find resource nodes to liberate, tombs to raid, and battles to win. As you build watchtowers, roads, fortresses and more towns your resources gathered per turn grow. There are sometimes two worlds to explore and conquer, the above ground and the underground. Each world offers unique challenges and distinct visuals.

Along the way you get access to knowledge which you spend on research/knowledge upgrades, gold you spend on city/empire upgrades and the purchase of army units, and mana you can use to cast spells both in combat and on the strategy map for global effects. Each you discovery and battle puts you closer to your goals of total map domination.

You’ll get hero allies that act as sub-leaders for you armies with spell casting and special abilities that can be levelled up along with your leader. As you play and win, your leader and the heroes level-up, adding more skills and abilities. But as the leaders are able to cast spells within ANY battle, these heroes end as not much more than really powerful fighters. And if they die, a quick replacement will show-up and offer his/her services.

You can have as many adversaries on the map as you choose. The goal is map/world domination through war or diplomacy. However, the diplomacy feels weak. You can ally yourself, sign peace treaties, declare wars, and open borders. That’s basically it. In the end, you simply declare war on everyone and move on. Victory through diplomacy feels like cheating;)

AoW City Builder
Big cities make big targets

The adventuring is decent enough early on. You’ll discover tombs and temples filled with creepy crawlies–often quite difficult to defeat. If you can win these battles you’ll get some juicy items and resources. These items can be used to upgrade you hero’s skills.

For me the defining turn-based fantasy strategy game of the last few years has been ‘Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes’. Its sandbox mode was the most fun I’ve had in strategy for nearly a decade. A perfect balance of exploration, city/empire building, resource management, and conquest.

‘AoW III’ comes close, and even eclipses ‘FE: LH’ in some areas. But ‘FE: LH’ offered a balanced approach to empire upgrading, every decision had a benefit and a consequence. You had to choose your eventual path and where to put your resources. ‘AoW III’ lets you basically build your cities anywhere/everywhere. As long as the ever-growing city borders enclose a captured resource you’ll get that resource each and every turn. As you build your cities and make further upgrades, your boundaries expand.

The difference between these upgrades come from a few specialty buildings unique to the Race that founded that city. Otherwise, everything upgrades from city to city EXACTLY the same way. Once you spend the gold, and take the necessary turns, the upgrades continue on.

Same with the knowledge/tech research. Other than hero race/class specific knowledge trees, the research upgrades continue on in a linear fashion. If the game lasts long enough you WILL research every upgradable spell and tech. After that, the turn-gained knowledge becomes a useless commodity. And many of the high level spells make the combat and city conquering exceedingly easy.

Where other strategy games put balance into its upgrades, ‘AoW III’ allows leaders to grow into unstoppable forces able to completely dominate the scenarios. As long as you play it fast this is OK. The early battles with limited resources and close match-ups are fun and often very difficult. Eventually, you will get strong enough to destroy most enemies within a few turns on the battle map.

There are a few special dwellings scattered throughout the map that allow the creation of specialty units. These are nice to have inside your domain. But, as many of the other upgradable city units and many of the spell-created units are extremely powerful, having access to dragons and giants is unnecessary (but very fun) for victory.

After each city conquest you’ll have options to raze, plunder or absorb the city into your empire. Plundering is an option for gaining fast resources and razing destroys a city to prevent an enemy from acquiring a complete city. Never found much reason to plunder nor raze, as an absorbed city becomes completely yours, with resource gains and all the built upgrades. Conquering is a very quick way to expand your empire–let the other players build up the cities and then take them over.

AoW III Battle Map
Intricate and fun battles

The best part of a new game is early into each scenario, as everything is new and seemingly limitless in its potential. Once you dig in and the turns get longer and more complex with lots of moving pieces and parts, some grind kicks in. As long as you remember to keep the pace moving fast with lots of risk-taking, you’ll have more fun. It’s simply not much fun being a “power gamer” in ‘Age of Wonders III’. The exploration doesn’t offer enough and the city building/resource management becomes static and tedious.

And as you upgrade your cities the unit upgrades that become available completely replace the lower classes. It’s either a caster, a mêlée fighter, a range fighter, or a combination. Every army unit has a per-turn cost in gold or mana, but I found the added strength outweighed the resource costs. So build the biggest and the best, ignore the rest.

Combat, Combat, Combat!

The variety of terrain, units, weapons, special skills, combat-map sizes, obstacles, city walls, combat spells, and move points ensure that most battles can be won even if the odds are stacked against you. Playing smart really helps. Once you get the higher powered skills from the research tree combat becomes easier. I was eventually able to defeat most with only a few leader-cast spells–I didn’t even need the fighters on the field to win the day. This area of gameplay needs to be better balanced.

Technical merits:

  • The scalable graphics are full of colorful detail. Isometric 3D views for the exploring and combat with the ability to zoom in for more detail. There’s a lot of clutter on the map but the game guide is readily available in-game and very thorough. During combat the characters, animations, and maps are detailed and polished with great lighting effects.
  • The limited fantasy themed music is fine. The sound effects are rather good, especially during combat with lots of ambiance and the crack of destruction..
  • The main menus and interface are pleasing and easy to sift through. A pretty and simple way to build your scenarios just the way you want them. The actual in-game chaos is less simplified, but after a couple of hours it becomes manageable. Much of the in-game buttons and menus are redundant, as are many of the “features”–you simply don’t need all of this stuff to have fun and win a game. At least, for the micro-managers in the world, the options are available;)

If you keep the game moving fast enough you’ll enjoy ‘Age of Wonders III’. If you like a more contemplative approach to strategy, and like to build big and powerful armies/heroes this game may quickly frustrate/bore you. The adventuring and city building is limited. But with many varied armies and battle scenarios the combat can be challenging and loads of fun. In that aspect, ‘AoW III’ is a solid fantasy turn-based strategy game. And there is ever so much to do–easily hundreds of hours of gaming on hand if you choose to jump in.

Software Report Card

B

Software Version:  1.0.0

Price Paid:  $39.99

Requirements:

Install Size is about 4GB