Being the head of an entire nation isn’t all fun and games, you know. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough coinage for the gryphon roost, and at least enough mana coming in to rain poison blades down upon your enemies. And that dungeon over there ain't going to raid itself. Age of Wonders III isn’t your regular empire building strategy game, nor is it just that game with a gleaming coat of fantasy paint. It’s a marriage between overworld strategy and surprisingly deep RPG-like battle tactics, blending into something that might actually resemble what warfare would be like in a mystical realm of dragons and magic. Those without much time to dedicate to ruling a fantasy kingdom may want to turn back, but if you’re willing to put in the effort to understand the systems, you’ll definitely appreciate the depth of Age of Wonders III.
Unfortunately for us co-op enthusiasts, the campaign is entirely single player. The scenarios and random maps, however, can feature up to eight players, any number of which can be humans or AI. You and a friend can face off against six angry computer wizards, or if you’re feeling really mean, you and six other friends can band together and trash one poor, lonely AI.
In case you’ve never played any of the AoW games, let me break it down for you. Age of Wonders III is one of those fancy 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate), and you’ll be running your empire from a top-down perspective. You’re entirely in charge of your cities' production, exploration, unit management, and what spells you want to research.
You could take a quick glance at a screenshot for Age of Wonders III and think it’s just a Civilization clone wearing a fantasy mask. But, oh, how wrong you would be.
Sure, you have the overworld stuff, unit grouping, and city management to take care of, but what happens when two or more forces clash on the battlefield? Well, you have the option to simply “autoresolve,” where the computer crunches numbers and the victor emerges, while the loser’s army feeds the crows. The other option, however, are the “manual battles.” This is where the magic really happens, and where AoW proves it’s by no means a Civ clone.
Depending on the terrain you are standing on, be it wilderness, road, a gold mine, etc, you and the other humans in game are taken to a visually appropriate battlefield. It is here where the curtain is pulled back to reveal the second game hidden away inside AoW. What you thought was once a simple 4X strategy game harbors a fully fleshed out, and terribly engaging, tactical RPG battle system.
This is by far my favorite part of the entire game. Triumph Studios has given every unit in the game a unique set of stats, skills, and abilities. Everyone, from the lowly irregular units for each race to the powerful tier V units have their own strengths and weaknesses which you will want to exploit whenever given the opportunity. Some units are weak to poison, others to fire, cold, etc. Even the type of terrain you are currently fighting on grants advantages/disadvantages to different units.
Special Hero units, which can level up in combat to gain different abilities and increased stats, can lead your armies into battle. They can also find weapons, armor, and special items in dungeons or the like, which they can utilize in combat. You can find yourself getting attached to unique heroes, and nothing is more devastating when you’ve invested the time to level them into war machines, only for a golden dragon to crush them in a single attack.