- I was a closed beta tester for the base game as well as its two expansions. However I'm not an employee of Triumph Studios, only a community volunteer.
- This review was written post Eternal Lords and 1.5 patch releases.
Age of Wonders III is a turn based hex based fantasy 4x game that is a lot more combat focused compared to something like the Civilization series but also quite a bit more strategically and tactically involved than let's say Heroes of Might & Magic which can be both good or bad depending on your personal preferences. Gameplay
Compared to the previous games AoWIII retains most of the series' fundamentals but also iterates and adds to the formula.
The most notable change is the way yor faction is presented via the class system. Your research tree and unit roster are not only determined by spell school and starting race picks but by your leader class (warlords, sorcerer, archdruid, dreadnaught, etc.), starting race as well as specializations which are akin to the previous game's spell spheres and leader skills. Your base unit list is thus determined by the race of the towns you own as well as your chosen class.
Comparing it to AoWII the class system in a way separates the racial aspect of a faction from the gameplay theme
of it. For example, in AoW2 Elves were always Druids with nature themed units, Archons were always Theocrats with their religious and holy theme, Dwarves were Dreadnoughts due to their technological prowes, Orcs were Warlords with strong physical combatants and so on.
The AoWIII class system separates race and theme so Elves can be steampunk-ish technologists, Dwarves can wield druidic powers while Goblins can be religious crusaders. Thematically this allows you to create both stereotypical combinations (wizard elves) as well as some unusual ones (holy angelic goblins).
Gameplay wise the trio of race, class and specialization (additional mini tech trees) allows for a myriad of different play styles and strategies and a very diverse meta game which encourages experimentation and greately enhances replayability.
Each class comes with a unique tech tree which consists of special class units which can have their own racial variations as well as a large number of combat or strategic spells and passive upgrades that enhance your empire as well as units.Customization
AoWIII features a leader creation process which allows for detailed aesthetic and gameplay customization. Visual options are akin to rpg games like Dragon Age allowing for changes to race, gender, clothing, accessories, hair style and color, skin color, eyes, hats masks, postures, background scenery, portrait poses, coat of arms, etc.
Gameplay-wise the options include race, class and 3 slots for specializations that can be magic oriented or more mundane empire upgrades.
Game settings include numerous tweaks to the random map generator like map type (land, continents, islands), map size (s, m, l, xl), geographical settings (types of terrain and climate, existence of the underground layer), starting town/army, amount of resources, treasure sites, independent monsters, etc.
Furthermore various game parameters can be tweaked like the number of heroes, hero level cap, hero race, game pace, starting resources, turn progression (classic i-go-you-go or simultanious), empire quests, map events, victory conditions, type and number of opponents, preference for manual or auto-combat and so on.
Much effort was made to cater to different preferences and play styles.Combat
Like in Heroes of Might & Magic for example, combat in AoWIII happens on a separate tactical map that is derived from the participating units' position on the strategic map. If the units were standing on a snowy arctic hex the tactical map will also have snow on it for example. Same with forests, swamps, etc. Not only that but various sites like cities, farms, dungeons, mines, tombs, etc. are all represented on the tactical map and can have different effects like providing obstacles, choke points, magical effects and so on.
Compared to AoWII combat in AoWIII has less randomness and is more dependent on the player making the right moves. Attacks will always hit for example (except under special circumstances) but the damage can still vary and there is the possibility of criticals or fumbles.
There are many things to keep an eye on in combat like move points (usually the less you have the less attacks you get but not always), limited retaliations, defensive stances, attacks of opportunity, flanking attacks, distances, unit position and facing, range, the presence of obstacles or city walls, types of movement (walking, floating, flying) and so on.
And this is without taking into account unit stats (physical attack vs. defence, magical/elemental attack vs. resistance), traits, special abilities, morale (which influences critical chance), combat spells, unit and battlefield enchantments, unit types, etc.
The basics of combat are simple. Click on a unit, right click to attack an enemy unit. But is the enemy unit far enough to trigger the charge ability, can I flank it, what's the chance of my special effect triggering, what elemental protections does it have, how many retaliations does it have remaining, does it have first strike, is it a polearm unit and will my cavalry take extra damage, can I weaken it prior to attack and how, can I kill it, will my unit survive the next turn after it attacks...there are many questions you could end up asking yourself.
Learning about the units, what abilities they have and how they can be used and combined for maximum effectiveness is necessary for mastering the game but learning can be achieved in gradual steps.
AoWIII retains the adjacency rule of previous games so all armies that are adjacent to the hex being attacked will also participate in combat which can result in some pretty large battles. Thankfully animation speed in battle can be adjusted during combat.
Units and heroes that perform well and survive will accumulate experience points and become stronger acquiring new abilities as they level up and grow into valued veterans. Strategy
On the strategic level you build up your empire by settling or capturing new cities and expanding your borders in order to bring more and more resources under your control. There are resource sites to be captured, treasure sites to be explored, artifacts to be found, neutral creatures, cities and enemy playes to be subdued. All in all the world is a dangerous place and venturing forth requires combat worthy armies and leaders. Luckily there is a beautiful cloth map to be zoomed out to in order to get an overview of the situation.
Resource gathering and exploration primarily serve the goal of building up armies that can defeat the dangers that lie beyond your borders.
A new addition here compared to AoWII are the creature dwellings which function as minor races that offer unique units for hire as well as their own sets of buildings. These dwellings can expand your unit roster and provide unexpected tactical and strategic options.
Both creature dwellings and independent cities can be outright conqured or negotiated with towards peaceful annexation by vooing them with money or performing quests. How you treat various towns and races can determine their attitude towards you as well as your alignment and diplomatic relations.
Another addition is that clearing out and controlling certain treasure sites can unlock special unit or town upgrades in cities controlling those sites which can make some cities more valuable than others.
All in all after 618 hrs of playing I have not yet experienced everything this game has to offer, so many untried combinations and strategies, which is probably the biggest endorsement I can give.