Age of Wonders 4 won’t be out until May 2, but Triumph Studios’ 4X strategy game with a fantasy flair looks very promising already. As someone who has rigorously played Age of Wonders: Planetfall, including handling PC Invasion’s massive guides hub, I was eager to give it a try.
We were given a preview opportunity, with a short Q&A session with the developers. This particular build already has most of the game unlocked (barring multiplayer options), which allowed me to put in the hours to understand fresh and familiar concepts.
Age of Wonders 4 preview — I need a hero
One of the key reasons that makes the Age of Wonder franchise stand out among its contemporaries in the genre is its focus on heroes. If Civilization is all about maximizing the potential of your civ/faction, and Humankind has you create a combination of cultures, Age of Wonders looks at both the micro and macro aspects: your chosen hero, race bonuses/traits, and how you’d improve your faction from there.
This is evident in the next iteration of the series, which goes back to its fantasy roots after Planetfall delved a bit into sci-fi territory. From the get-go, you’d customize your chosen leader and their race. You’ve got everything from the usual tropes, such as humans, orcs, dwarves, elves, and halflings, as well as some surprises, including man-sized rats reminiscent of Skaven, large toads, and cat people (hurray for cats!). You’ll then pick bonuses like increased HP, critical hits when flanking, movement reduction depending on the terrain, improved resistances, and more.
Diving into cultures
From there, you decide on the different cultures, which also happen to have an affinity for each resource. For example, the Feudal option lets some heroes become Feudal Lords, and you’d have structures with extra food gains. The Industrious culture, meanwhile, grants additional production, and units are affected by Bolstering, making them tougher as they tank more hits in battle. There are also beings of the Dark, which provide extra knowledge/research, giving you buildings with bonuses to this resource, as well as a nudge toward the Evil alignment. And, further onward, you select more traits, along with cosmetic designs for your leader and their peoples.
Yes, right off the bat, you’re already going to think of numerous combinations. Some are there if you want more lore-friendly fluff for role playing, while others can unlock ridiculous setups. I had asked the developers what their thoughts were on balancing as it relates to min-maxing synergies compared to those who just want to role play, and I received an interesting reply. In Age of Wonders 4, there are a wealth of options where variety exists, as compared to min-maxing, which is primarily seen in multiplayer. At the same time, the team feels that it’s “exciting if you find a good synergy once, but [they] don’t want a situation where players are always obliged to take specific picks.”
The pillars of the 4X genre
After customizing your own faction or choosing from any of the presets, you’ll finally play on Age of Wonders 4‘s maps. This is where the pillars of the 4X strategy genre come in: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. From your capital city (which has two separate production queues for buildings and units), your starting army will roam the map, plopping down outposts that can eventually be upgraded into new cities. As each city grows, you can capture adjacent territories, bringing them into the fold and adding improvements like farms, mines, and landmarks.
As far as battles go, each army you field can have up to six units. Assuming you have multiple forces adjacent to each other, the maximum you can have are three armies or 18 units. Upon engaging a hostile force, the overworld map transitions to that of a smaller battlefield. Units take turns moving on hexes, relying on melee prowess at close range, or ranged DPS from further away. You’ve also got an assortment of magic spells at your disposal.
The magic of Age of Wonders 4
Age of Wonders 4 uses the Tomes system. At the start, each faction can have only one of these, ranging from the animal summons of the Tome of Beasts and divine inspiration from the Tome of Zeal, to the defensive-oriented Tome of Warding and immolating flames of the Tome of Pyromancy. As you progress, you’ll unlock new spells that can boost your units or add new forces on the battlefield. And, much later, you can pick up other Tomes, too. I’ve been told during the Q&A session that one particularly creative setup maximizes the capabilities of ranged units. This is done through a combination of buffs and spells like Seeker Arrows and Amplified Arrows, as well as Zephyr Archers.
Apart from that, your faction’s affinity also comes into play via the Empire Tree. Unlike a tech tree that’s primarily reliant on research points/knowledge, the Empire Tree is an amalgamation of your nation’s growth. Starting with your initial focus (i.e., food, production, and the like), you’d earn more boons and passive perks.
Panting to unlock Pantheons
In spite of all these options, I did have a few misgivings while trying out the Age of Wonders 4 preview. Firstly, starting a game led to a bombardment of notifications and tooltips, equally messy and confusing. To be fair, I’m used to strategy games already, but even I had to shake my head at all the information showing up onscreen. Even with my experience, I’d surmise that this could easily turn off newcomers owing to numerous mechanics they’d have to manage. At the very least, I did notice the nestled tooltips, which are akin to Crusader Kings 3‘s system, where mousing over a key term would open up another box with additional information.
Apart from that, I also questioned the disposition of some free cities/free peoples (i.e., minor AI factions). There were instances when they hated X (i.e., Good or Evil alignments), with a few other factors thrown in. I found it hard to somehow flip them to side with me, as that would’ve been costly and time-consuming, which meant that outright destruction was my only recourse.
Climbing the ranks
Last but not least, there’s the Pantheon system, essentially serving as your overall progression rank, providing cosmetic designs, perks, and traits as rewards. To advance further in the Pantheon and unlock more goodies, you have to earn XP. Unfortunately, XP is only earned when you finish games. Mind you, this is not a turn-based tactical game or a real-time strategy (RTS) title, but a 4X offering.
As most 4X players know, that “one more turn” mantra can lead to countless hours spent just to complete a single match. There are numerous actions undertaken throughout the course of your run that will add Pantheon XP (i.e., improving free city allegiances, unlocking a new Tome of Magic, and more). However, it can feel like a slog since the match needs to be finished.
In the end, after a couple of longer play sessions, I just opted to pick small maps with a single AI opponent, taking them out in less than a dozen turns. I earned a bit of XP, but multiple matches meant more realistic completions as opposed to longer sessions that take hours. Will all of these be improved as we get closer to Age of Wonders 4‘s May 2 launch date, that remains to be seen. I do think this is something strategy fans will pour a lot of hours into, whether they’re chasing the next unlock or they’re just interested in the setting.