Turn-based games used to be a bigger franchise, but then, the internet never used to be the primary consideration when developing video games. Still, despite the sands of time leaving the glacial-like pace of turn-based strategy behind, a strong, passionate community thirsting for that style of warfare remains.
Civilization V is probably exhibit A in proving the existence of such a gamer, but there are a wide range of lesser known but equally-well loved titles in supporting roles. Take Fallen Enchantress; the Russian made Eador, Masters of the Broken World, the upcoming reboot of the Jagged Alliance series and even Warlords 2.
Adding to that list is Age of Wonders III, a sequel to the series which rivalled Heroes of Might and Magic in excellence and popularity back in the late 90s and early 2000s. There hasn’t been an official update to the franchise since 2003, when the aborted expansion pack Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic was released as a standalone offering.
11 years on, the formula is largely the same. The turn-based, 4X-style gameplay, where heroes and creatures level up via an RPG-light system and spells and research tie in with base management to form the overarching strategy for the game, hasn’t changed.
Hexes in 2014 – it seems odd. Yet, with AOW3, Warlords 2 just around the corner and the recently released alpha of Galactic Civilizations 3, turn-based strategy is back. And if Warlords 2 can follow up on the quality AOW3 has delivered, it might be another purple patch for turn-based fans.
The biggest compliment I can levy on Triumph Studios’ expansion of the franchise is just how much I lost track of time while reviewing it. I barely got more than five hours sleep a night, simply because I’d fire up the game, play what felt like ten or twenty turns only to discover that four hours had passed. My boss had serious concerns that I would overdose on No-Doz and Red Bull over the course of the week; another colleague, when introducing me to a new co-worker, simply said, “He’s always buzzed,” after pointing out yet another gargantuan-sized can of sugar and guarana.
It really wasn’t intentional. Twice, I ran the washing machine before starting my session, thinking that my brain would at least remember to function as a normal human being. It didn’t and I ended up frustrated at my lack of adult competency. It’s honestly hard to explain just how organic the process is, going from one turn to the next, focusing on the next battle, what path my research would take.
It’s best explained by examining what makes up the “one more turn” reflex. It helps that, at no stage of the game, the majority of spells, global enchantments, units, buildings or moving from one firefight to the next takes more than a couple of moves. It makes everything feel tantalisingly within your reach. Hit that button and you can summon that Horned God next turn. Maybe you’ll be able to set up an awesome surround on the AI stronghold, or you’ll be able to reinforce your flank from the marauding independent armies.
The scale that the battles, armies and the size of your empire quickly becomes doesn’t, however, make things overly difficult to manage. Armies can consist of six stacks, with or without a hero, and the adjacent hex rule allows up to seven hexes to take part in any one battle.
This allows for some Helm’s Deep style battles and ridiculous surrounds; you’ll spend most of your planning in the positioning. Once combat begins, the mentality carries over, with the AI a particularly relentless exponent of the flanking mechanic.
Whenever a unit is attacked, it turns to face its attacker. If that unit is then attacked from behind, it opens up an opportunity to do around twice as much damage as normal – and you don’t have to be directly 180 degrees behind to get the extra damage. It creates a lot of opportunities and requires a good deal of planning. Melee units can become vulnerable very quickly, as does any unit trying to breach a city walls.
Magic is an important part of battle too, although even towards the end of a game when massive AOE spells like Armageddon, Path of Blessing and Mass Battlefield Panic are available, it doesn’t break combat. The amount of magic you can cast in a battle is actually quite limited, even if you expand the amount of mana available for your hero. I found the system scaled so that you’d generally get one or two powerful spells out per battle, and one or two weaker spells. You can cast spells even if your hero isn’t in the combat themselves, although the long-range support will cost you twice as much mana.
There isn’t as much complexity and variety once you step off the battlefield, but everything ties together well enough that it doesn’t become a bore. Base building is a relatively simple exercise. Each city has a certain population which grows over time. The larger and happier the population, the more money and mana they produce for your coffers. Their morale can be affected by a range of factors – city improvements, spells, random events, being sieged by the enemy – but generally the only major threat you’ll face is defending the city and working out how to boost your income.
The third resource, knowledge, is what unlocks all of your passive bonuses, major upgrades, combat spells and hero-specific units. Strangely, though, there’s no tech tree available for the research beyond what each individual item of research unlocks.
It’s quite bizarre considering there are some unusual combinations. Two levels of seafaring unlocks Advanced Logistics, which boosts your movement speed on roads on the adventure map. You’d never research seafaring unless it was absolutely necessary – not every map has water, or bodies of water large enough to be concerned about – or you knew where the research would lead.
Fortunately, it’s patently obvious what paths you can take when building and expanding your empire. It’s just a shame that there’s not a great deal of variety between the races themselves. While the hero-specific units are a completely different kettle of fish, many of
the units for the individual races – orcs, goblins, humans and so on – are named the same and share very similar characteristics.
Dwarves, humans and draconians – a demon-like race – for instance, all have an exalted unit. From the human perspective, it looks like an angel. The dwarven exalted, oddly, just looks like a hideously disfigured angel, like a gray version of Princess Fiona with wings. There’s some slight differences in the stats, but it’s largely inconsequential: it’s a tier three flyer, has good movement speed that hits reasonably hard.
Because your cities lack any character or charisma – the only view possible is a slightly zoomed-in version of the bird’s eye provided by the adventure map – all of your identity is wrapped up in your units. So when some races share units, it leaves a sour taste, like part of the game is unfinished.
That argument carries over to the multiplayer as well. While I can’t imagine there would be anything but a small, dedicated scene for any turn-based 4X game, forcing some to resort to port forwarding won’t help things. Port forwarding should have been abolished as a necessity already. Most applications take care of that technical wizardry automatically now; you’d think a game funded by Notch could have sorted this out by release.
But it’s not a dealbreaker, really. If you’re a fan of turn-based anything, then you already have deep reserves of patience. And even then, the campaigns, scenarios and random map generator are enough to keep single-player fans more than amused.
God knows it’s kept me up enough nights. Perhaps the perfect description is this: if you’ve been looking for a way to get into 4X turn based games, but have been put off by the difficulty, scale and unfriendliness of it all, Age of Wonders III has you covered. Really. It’s that good. Not perfect, mind you, just very bloody good.