With each new edition, the tactical strategy fusion series Age of Wonders has really changed how it works – and Age of Wonders 4 had me building a clan of wolf-riding dwarves living in the mystical, arctic as soon as I was done. allowed, showed their preferences.
After choosing a campaign, the first choice you make is whether to use a pre-made faction or customize your own. Where in Age of Wonders 3 you could change the look of your leader, your empire was functionally a combination of race and class – orcish theocrats, or dwarven dreadnoughts. Here, I find myself picking my way through a menu that feels a lot like RPG character creation: a body type (with swappable perks), culture, society through that first Tome of Magic. And choosing a starting specialization – and, of course, appearance customization.
Culture, and your first Tome of Magic, determine the pool of units you get. A dwarf knight in a feudal society is the same as a human knight in a feudal society – but I can upgrade them very differently. But enchantment through Tomes of Magic – whether its unit enchantments that only apply to support roles, or racial enchantments that apply to all dwarves in my kingdom – can lead base armies down a very different path. There are different relationships, especially with the ability to mix graves. Mixing Order and Nature Tomes within a Feudal culture feels differently to mixing Chaos and Nature Tomes within a barbaric culture. Even with a nature tree, it’s Druidic Paladins vs Primal Hordes.
As you play on the strategic map, the units you can recruit and how they play out become even more varied, as cities you discover and ancient wonders will also free unique units. It’s the kind of depth that allows for incredible min-max, but Age of Wonders 4 advises you not to worry about the numbers, and explore the themes and aesthetics that you find interesting. Hence: mysterious, wolf-riding dwarves living in the arctic.
Despite this complexity, I find Age of Wonders 4 incredibly accessible. This removed a lot of easy shortcuts – that an orc fighter plays like x, and an elven archer is countered with y – and so tactical fights can be incredibly dense to parse if you only Relying on tooltips and recognizing models. Instead, entity types have large, readable symbols above their heads that make it easy to read the fields at a glance.
A nymph’s ability to convert enemy units is an entirely different kind of support unit to the Wildspeaker’s ability to summon and empower beasts, and I’d probably put them in entirely separate armies, but at a glance they should Being able to identify – and which unit enchantments may apply, and how I treat them in changed order and position – is what makes tactical play so neat. It’s not a substitute for thoughtful strategy, but Age of Wonders 4’s breadth would be a slog without it.
In general, Age of Wonders 4 tries to avoid being a slog – to the point that you might ask the game to play itself out. Your cities can be automated, your exploration can be automated, and your tactical battles can be automated. It’s a bit hit and miss – the cities I let automate my expansion tended to contribute poorly to my economies, and auto-explore often sent my scouts to the corners and edges of the map – but the auto-combat was mostly very Nice one, just struggling with the multi-hero stack.
Where I’m used to automatically solving based on comparison calculations, Age of Wonders 4 seems to replicate the behind-the-scenes combat. If it calls a win with an archer lost, and I replay, I get to see a fight where a specific archer goes down, rather than it being a low-level sacrifice. It’s good to count on him to weed out the fights that were in my favor – and get my hands dirty for the interesting ones.
Battles against opposing heroes (a limited number of units with unique equipment and special abilities), twenty-four versus twenty-four battles, ancient wonders, and sieges are some of the most involved tactical battles that Age of Wonders 4 offers. Siege deserves special mention for its solution to the slightly boring, static problem of Age of Wonders 4’s city defense: instead of keeping a garrison all around, highly fortified city centers take several turns to break down an invading army. .
As the attacker, you can spend resources on siege projects to reduce that time, but the idea is to give the defender enough notice to withdraw to their center before it becomes vulnerable. Once completely surrounded, battles are played out around narrow chokepoints in the shattered city walls, and it’s a real test of whether you’ve assembled the right forces, and know how best to use them. Are.
For me, some of the most interesting strategic decisions in Age of Wonders 4 are diplomatic, not military. On one map—because Realm maps are also deeply customizable—I played with close-knit factions, on a land divided by a sea, with endlessly recurring infestations of wild creatures.
I end up in a boxed position by my neighbors to my north and south, with the coast on one side and the massive mountains on the other. My northern neighbor – a fan of aggressive expansion – initially takes a liking to me as I expand to the south. However, when I try to placate my southern neighbor by paying for his complaints, he gets upset.
My attempts at diplomacy go awry, as my southern neighbors refuse to be pacified and declare me their rival – so much so that their grievances with me are far more forceful than mine. As they begin to act aggressively against me – setting up outposts directly on my borders – I still cannot declare war on them, as this is considered unfair, and therefore evil, because in the balance of things, I have caused them more pain. My northern neighbor, meanwhile, is constantly unhappy with my lack of aggression.
Strategically, I made a series of poor choices – I should have declared my southern neighbor my rival, and my aggressive northern neighbor an ally – but my desire not to be the ‘bad guy’ in the scenario cost me a lot. Gave more interesting corners. I fought two battles, won, made sure both of my battles were ‘fair’ and came out with room for expansion and no hits on my alignment. I was too busy taking care of the situation that I failed to manage the mountain’s infection, and now the bloodthirsty wolves are on the loose.
Age of Wonders 4 makes excellent sandboxes, and so the sudden restrictions on campaign scenarios made me like those less. On larger maps, with pre-determined landscape baddies, and sometimes fixed relationships with nearby independent cities, there’s less room for this push-and-pull of animosity and alliances. The tension between ‘this map is trying to figure out a story’ and ‘this map wants to snowball me towards a specific victory’ leaves me frustrated and ironically lacking in direction.
While I’ve mostly praised it for its design choices, my time with Age of Wonders 4 was also burdened by a number of bugs and performance issues. I experienced regular crashes, and more often than not had to save and reload to fix the issue with soft-locking or a broken UI. Less disruptive, but still troubling were the moments when I noticed my economy counters weren’t moving at moments when accuracy was critical.
Age of Wonders 4 makes room for curiosity-driven play, giving new meaning to the “exploration” part of 4X. It’s striking how it balances depth and adaptability without being dense or overwhelming with a “what if?” “what next?” I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a smooth resolution to the performance issues I experienced before diving back in, but I’m still waiting for another twist.
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