May 2, 2023
Having played my fair share of RTS and 4X strategy games, I’ve decided I probably wouldn’t make a very good ruler. I only have two modes: I’m either so indecisive I can’t decide what to have for breakfast, or I’m blitzing the neighbouring country before my Coco Pops have even turned the milk brown. Age of Wonders 4 has done nothing to dull my clumsy bloodlust, either.
Conquest is always a victory path in the Age of… series, and it always seems like it’ll be the easiest one. Why bother building up diplomatic relations, questing for some magical Mcguffin, or attempting to reach the peak of civilisation when you can just mash the next country over into the ground and jog on? Unfortunately it never seems to work out that way. I’m always caught up following the tool tips and pissing money away on foot soldiers when the enemy nation next door comes through my green and verdant lands like a bus-load of Man City fans through a kebab shop.
And so I struggle. And struggle I should, probably, because these games aren’t really designed for the kind of mindless brute force that usually carries me through any game. Age of Wonders 4 is a return to the fantastical side of the series. After the last one, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, was an exceptional sci-fi romp that let us live out our fantasies of galactic conquest and being a dashing intergalactic general, AoW4 heads back to grass roots fantasy. No space ships, laser guns or macking on hot aliens now. Instead, we’re commanding armies of orcs and mages and monsters across a variety of otherworldly terrain.
I loved Planetfall, mostly because it allowed me to create my own leader and faction rather than having to command some real-world historical nation. Age of Wonders 4 does the same. While there’s around a dozen pre-made leaders and fantasy races, you can also make your own from scratch. You not only forge your unique leader, including their appearance, name, and backstory, but can generate the race that follows them, too. You determine what their army looks like, what they worship, and what kind of people they are, whether industrious, spiritual, or just busting for a fight all the time.
The gameplay itself doesn’t change greatly from ruler to ruler, even if you create your own, but there are enough differences that multiple playthroughs will occasionally throw out surprises. Of course, a custom ruler feels more personal, so when you overreach or make a tactical error that causes your budding empire to collapse faster than a house made of paper on a windy day it’s slightly heartbreaking. This happened to me more than once.
What Age of Wonders 4 is good at though, is making you understand its intricacies. There’s a lot to deal with here, from resource management to hero management, from governing your city to diplomacy, from expanding your empire to exploring the land for treasure and secrets. You will select a Tome of Magic to begin with from a surprisingly huge list, which determines which spells you can research. These spells could be to heal your armies or summon units to add to your armies; perhaps they can be cast to reveal the map, or strengthen your soldiers with elemental damage. Some are to be used by your heroes when you’re already engaged in combat.
As you progress you’ll be asked to choose new Tomes, each one offering vastly different spells. Some focus on elements like fire and ice, others poison and entropy, healing, evocation, fulmination, summoning… There are loads to unlock and they offer a ridiculous variety of spells and abilities. Add to this the Empire Development system which is essentially a skill tree for your entire kingdom and you can see just how deep it can all go – and that’s only the beginning.
Age of Wonders 4 is dense, yes, but it rarely feels oppressive like many games of its type. Because you can tweak the difficulty to an insane degree, you could simply play alone to build up your empire at your own leisure. Multiple victory conditions allow for a bunch of different ways to prioritise your progress, or if you really want to know suffering you can play against other people. The primary game remains the same in multiplayer; you’re just up against much meaner and more ruthless enemies.
The type of land you choose to colonise can also be decided by you. You can build your realm from a heap of archetypes and tweak everything from the weather to the wildlife, adding elements that further dictate the way the game goes such as adding dragons, roaming mystic spirits, living plant life, or megafauna. I’m not sure there has ever been a strategy game like this that offers such an incredible level of player control. Being able to modify and equip your heroes down to weapons, skills, gear, even what kind of mount they ride, adds to the sense of personal pride that runs through all of it.
Day to day, you’re running a nation. You need to keep your people happy and fed, you need to protect them with standing armies. But you also need to explore, complete quests out in the world, and practice diplomacy with a host of very different allies and enemies, all of whom have their own ups and downs. And these sods like nothing more than dragging you into their squabbles. You’ll be bombarded with requests for aid, trade, or protection, treaties and allegiances – sometimes they’ll declare war on you for no good reason beyond the cut of your jib and their opinion thereof.
Which, or course, leads to combat. Each army can contain 6 units, but they can be any combination imaginable. Ideally you’ll want a mix of melee and ranged units with a shock unit and a hero, including your own player character. Combat is real time strategy, as usual in this series, that will place you on a field of battle and task you with routing the enemy. Each army has a score, and multiple armies in adjacent map grids will combine these scores. Based on these, you can choose to auto-resolve battles. Though anything above “low risk” should be dealt with manually. Sometimes careful and canny play can turn the tide of an unwinnable encounter.
Sometimes I find the combat just naturally skewed against the player but not so much that it makes it unfair. Also regardless of the numbers on screen it’s usually over fairly quickly. That said, I still use auto-resolve where possible because combat just isn’t the most interesting part of Age of Wonders 4. It’s everything else that really makes it come alive.
I did encounter a game-breaking bug during my play through which may well be patched at launch but which I feel I should mention. In my first two attempts as a custom leader, I hit a bug at Day 20 where the enemy turn wouldn’t end. I tried reloading old saves, quitting to desktop, even went to war in my turn to try to make a difference and I just couldn’t progress. My subsequent runs never had the issue though, so hopefully it was just a glitch.
That aside, Age of Wonders 4 is great fun. Being able to modify the difficulty and parameters to suit your needs, and the added bonus of being able to create your own fantasy race, ruler, and realm from scratch make it a true stand out in the fantasy RTS market. It doesn’t have quite the razzle-dazzle of Age of Wonders: Planetfall, but that’s very much a personal preference. Fans of the genre and series won’t be disappointed with Triumph’s latest offering, and even newcomers will find an accessible, compelling city-building experience in Age of Wonders 4.
Dense but accessible
So much to explore each time
A few bugs and glitches
Not a huge leap forward
Fans and newcomers alike will find an accessible, compelling real-time strategy experience in Age of Wonders 4.