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Strategy Session: Age of Wonders 4 Preview

Kevin Chick Posted:
Previews Strategy Session 0

It is hard to believe that it has been nine years since the release of Age of Wonders III. I have a lot of fond memories of the first two entries in the series but unfortunately didn’t have much of a chance to play the 3rd game. With publisher Paradox Interactive and developer Triumph Studios releasing Age of Wonders IV this year, I was already looking forward to diving back into another fantasy 4x strategy game. After playing the media build over the past two weeks, I was left with two strong feelings, it sucks being an adult with other responsibilities sometimes and it will be tough waiting until the May 2nd release date without being able to play another scenario or two.   

The story of Age of Wonders IV is a simple one. The Wizard-Kings, or Godir, have escaped their prison and are invading different worlds. The players create their race’s leader as a Wizard-King or a mortal Champion who has risen up from the common folk. In Age of Wonders IV, players will, for the first time, be able to customize the main character and race for each scenario.

Age of Wonders 4

The game starts in Magehaven, a neutral territory containing a portal to other realms. This menu acts as the game’s lobby. Players can select from official realms ranging from tier I to IV, play a story realm or create a custom scenario. Once a scenario is selected, Age of Wonders IV gets you right to character/race creation. Players can pick from a library of existing factions or create a custom race and ruler. Initially, I felt apprehensive about not going with a pre-existing faction. As in most games, you need a decent understanding of the mechanics before using custom options. I was happy to find that in Age of Wonders IV, the custom option is easy to understand and quite enjoyable to use so long as players are willing to mouse over traits for the tooltip.

Age of Wonders 4

For my first scenario, I selected elfin for my race’s form with the traits Spider Mounts and Arcane Focused. The two racial traits provide benefits to the race and sometimes the ruler. The next step is to choose the race's culture; I went with Dark to help negate city stability penalties, I was also planning to focus heavily on necromancy. Every race also gets two society traits… well I was already going Dark, so Scions of Evil and Powerful Evokers sounded like logical choices. 

Next was to determine what spells to research during the early game. The Tome of Souls sounded perfect to me, and it meant I could hopefully summon Bone Golems early in the scenario with a bit of luck. There are two tomes of tier one to pick from for each affinity at character/race creation: nature, order, astral, shadow, chaos, and materium. Players should be able to find at least one that fits the leader/race. I had a hard time choosing which one to try first, but luckily you are not locked into that initial choice. Finally, was I a Champion or Wizard-King? Wizard-King it was.

I was surprised that I was still not done with my custom race/character. I was next able to customize the appearance of my main character and of my race. There are quite a few options for the main character to make something unique. It is not the most robust character customization I have seen, but it does the job and gets you into play quickly. I think with time the Pantheon system could add a lot more to customization, but more on that later. The appearance customization for my race was more limited, but just being able to tailor them more to my liking was a nice option. One minor thing I didn’t like during appearance customization was that the color swatches didn’t match the actual colors on the models.

Once a scenario is underway Age of Wonders IV looks and sounds great. The graphics are stylized, so they may not appeal to everyone, but I have really enjoyed them so far. Sound effects from the flapping of mount wings to the spells in combat have been excellent, and the in-game music was relaxing as I clicked away the turns. I want to make a special note of the voiceover for the tome descriptions and other story elements, it fits the game well.

For those playing the Tutorial Scenario, Triumph Studios have made it easy for new players to understand the basics. Between the narration, tooltips, and in-game encyclopedia. Everything a player might want or need to know is accessible via mouseover or only a couple of clicks. It took me no time to get up to speed with the game, even though there are quite a few resources to manage.

During a scenario, players need to generate and balance several resources. This includes Knowledge, Imperium, Gold, Mana, Souls (for shadow spells/units), World Map Casting Points, City Cap, Whisper Stones, and Magical Materials. While it sounds like a lot, the game’s UI clearly displays each amount at the top of your screen, and if you mouse over a resource, it provides a clear breakdown of what a player needs to know for each one.

Traveling across the map in Age of Wonders IV is also an enjoyable experience. The vibrant terrain is appealing to look at without obscuring important nodes/sites. Also, being able to zoom out with the mouse wheel to the entire scenario map that looks like it is hand drawn is a nice touch. While other 4x strategy games have had similar UI elements, it's very done well here. As the game progresses players can build roads for faster travel and eventually teleport pads between different provinces. I really liked that if your faction has a teleportation treaty with another Godir, you can also use their teleportation pads.

My current opinion of combat is mixed. Players can have up to 6 units in an army, which includes a hero. It feels limited at first until you realize that any adjacent armies participate in the battles. This adds to your overall army strength and even applies when other non-faction/faction armies are close by, so long as they have a high enough vassalage rating or in the case of another Godir a treaty with your faction. 

The manual combat in Age of Wonders IV is an area that I think could use some improvement. The UI again does display information clearly. With a glance, players can see what stance units are currently in and mouse over them for more information. But each time I entered manual combat, it felt like a chore. My units typically formed a simple line, and it took a couple of rounds to get them into a better position.

By then, the enemy AI was already picking them off. Most of the time, I found myself needing to flee the field. Though I will admit, this could easily be due to my inexperience in building effective synergies between my heroes and racial units with available spells/abilities. The UI also was a bit more of a problem during manual combat when targeting enemy units with attacks/spells. Hopefully, as this was an earlier press build, it will improve by release. 

I had no complaints about using Auto Combat to resolve battles. The indicated risk to my army seemed reasonably accurate, and if I didn’t like the generated outcome, I could try replaying it manually. In the future, I plan to watch the AI replay more often and see what I am missing in the tactics used.

Spells in Age of Wonders IV are the equivalent to technologies in other 4x games and are the core of the Empire Development system. There are seven affinities that include the six I mentioned during character creation and one called General. As players progress through a scenario, they gain affinity with one or more areas according to events, the decisions made, and spell research. Spending Imperium unlocks various bonuses and rewards from each affinity rank. For spells, the more you research the more tomes are unlocked, allowing access to more powerful spells. To unlock the higher-tier spells of an affinity the two tomes from the previous tier must be unlocked first.

Age of Wonders 4

For me, customizing a character’s spell list felt quite natural as you progressed, and I had no problem dipping into at least one other affinity during my time in a scenario. By the end of my first scenario, I had unlocked all the General and Shadow affinities with most of the Nature affinity. The three types of spells I have found the most useful so far are ones that summon units, those that terraform the land, and racial transformation spells.

The latter comes in two types, lesser and greater transformation spells. Nothing quite like transforming your entire race into undead or giving them demonic wings. The only minor complaint I have with this system is that it randomly selects 3 spells for you to choose from the tomes that are already unlocked after a previous spell has been researched. But at least players can spend resources to randomly select a pool of 3 new spells if the first set is not to a player’s liking, and there is an Astral affinity unlock that reduces the cost to do this as well.

Winning a scenario in Age of Wonders IV typically has 4 methods. The first is to be the empire that scores the most points by the end of X number of turns. Second, expansion to occupy enough provinces to build three beacons of unity and then lit/defend them. Third, advance far enough into one affinity of magic to build three seed/root/heart affinity province improvements. Then a magic victory spell and defend the improvements for 15 turns. Fourth, is a military victory where you defeat all other ruling factions. There are two exceptions to the above victory methods. Story scenarios can have their own custom victory conditions, and playing a custom scenario allows you to disable different conditions.

The game can be a great sandbox experience for players who want to try winning in different methods. It was a fun experience during my first scenario since I initially focused on the magic victory conditions. But after checking my victory conditions for each option, I noticed that my military victory was easier to complete after an unexpected war. So, I pivoted my goals to a war victory and raised any defeated heroes as undead to help take them all out.

As a player successfully completes scenarios, the main characters from each can join the Pantheon in Magehaven, and the Pantheon gains experience. Characters can then be enabled on the Pantheon members list for recruitment as heroes in future scenarios. The Patheon experience unlocks realm types, main character cosmetics, origin traits, and culture traits. These are great intrinsic rewards for continued play, and I am interested to see if the developers expand on it further after release. So far, I have unlocked a few cosmetics and the Mana Addicts trait for custom race creation.

Unfortunately, this build of the game didn’t have multiplayer active. The developers let us know that at release multiplayer will have up to a max of 8 human players and 4 AI opponents for a total of 12 rulers. Expect more details from the developers in the near future.

While I have a few minor concerns, they mainly concern the game's performance and AI. Both are known issues the developers are continuing to iterate on before launch. As was said earlier in this article, this was a media preview build, so it didn’t include all the latest updates. I am also curious to see how long the story campaign will be.

I have had a lot of fun playing Age of Wonders IV and am looking forward to the official release. With the pre-order details released today on Steam, a price point of $49.99 for the standard edition is also in my opinion a good value. For me, the game harkens back to the feel and joy of playing the 4x classic strategy games during the early 2000s while including interesting systems that could keep me playing as the game matures. In Age of Wonders IV, I can take on the fantasy of a villainous Wizard-King or Champion of the people while customizing my chosen race and building a Pantheon of Godir.


Kevin Chick

Kevin "Xevrin" is an avid gamer having started playing video games on an Apple III with the Wizardry Series and Questron before the age of 10. In junior high, he branched out into tabletop gaming with the release of D&D 2nd Edition. During his first year of university, Everquest was released combining both of his favorite activities.