On paper, Age of Wonders III sounds intimidating. It's an independently developed turn-based strategy game for the PC with a legacy that stretches back over a decade. As someone jumping into the Age of Wonders series for the first time, I was picturing menus piled on top of menus full of confounding research trees and political stratagems I was 10 years too late to comprehend. Thankfully, Age of Wonders III is not like this at all. It's a much more approachable game than I had expected, and after spending a few days with it, I discovered it also invoked some of my fondest memories of PC gaming.
At the risk of sounding too grandiose, playing Age of Wonders III felt like playing through a highlight reel of Sid Meier's Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Within. I settled cities and expanded my empire much in the same way as in Civilization, but when it came time for war, I dove into a separate, more-intimate screen where the turn-based battles played out. However, Age of Wonders III didn't just feel like a copy of these two games slapped together. I could see where the game took some of its creative inspiration, but it also built upon those ideas in interesting ways and wrapped it all up in a high-fantasy wrapper that was easy to enjoy.
I could see where the game took some of its creative inspiration, but it also built upon those ideas in interesting ways and wrapped it all up in a high-fantasy wrapper that was easy to enjoy.
Each game--whether it was a story-driven campaign or a randomly generated map--started with leader selection. Choosing a leader in Age of Wonders III impacted every aspect of how my empire was managed since it determined the race of my people, such as elves or orks or humans, and what types of magic or technology they had access to. Playing as a dwarven dreadnought, with all their flame tanks and other heavy war machines, felt different from playing as an elvan theocrat, who relied more on healing magic and powerful summons.
My various empires all started the same way: a simple homestead in some forgotten corner of the world. I had a handful of units to command, and sent them out to explore the countryside. My chosen leader was the star of the show at this early stage. He fought alongside my troops, gaining levels, unlocking new abilities, and collecting equipment to use in battle along the way. Gradually, as I settled new cities and my empire grew, I had to shift my focus from being an action role-playing game adventurer to more of an empire manager. There was a lot to keep up with between commanding multiple armies, assigning research, and making sure I had the proper infrastructure to pay for everything--but it never felt overwhelming.
When it came time to fight, each battle took place in a smaller arena separate from the larger world map. Fights were turn-based, and played out across a hexagonal grid. Most battlefields provided some cover, which could be used in much the same way as in XCOM. Troops standing behind a large boulder or tree would take less damage when an enemy wizard started slinging lightning bolts or some archers let fly their arrows. Unlike in XCOM, however, I could see the enemy player's entire army at all times, and vice versa. There was also considerably more magic if one of my hero units was present, though I had to be careful since all heroes draw upon a common magical source. If I spent too many spells in one battle and drained all my magic, it would leave my other heroes hamstrung in future fights.
Of course, the true test of a good strategy game is if it can make the hours evaporate after you told yourself just one more turn. And, at least for me, Age of Wonders III definitely has the time-gobbling quality. Now I have only a few more weeks left before my entire social life is consumed in a battle hymn of fire and ice. Recently, developer Triumph Studios announced that Age of Wonders III will be released on March 31 through Steam and Good Old Games. If you're looking to hone your skills before that release date, well, I can think of a couple of PC gaming favorites to help you brush up on your skills.