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Age Of Wonders 4 is 4X fantasy with the scope and breadth of a D&D RPG

The hexciting return of Triumph's 4X tactics fantasy

Somehow, it's been almost a decade since the last numbered Age Of Wonders game. Despite dipping their toes into the sci-fi realm with Age Of Wonders: Planetfall three-odd years ago, developers Triumph are now returning to their fantastical 4X strategy roots with Age Of Wonders 4, due out on PC in just a couple of months on May 2nd - and what a homecoming it's shaping up to be. I've spent the better part of a week and half playing an early build of AOW 4, getting to grips with its enormous array of customizable factions and hero types in its generous crop of single-player realm maps.

There's a heck of a lot to get through, but rest assured: this is Age Of Wonders through and through - and thanks to the addition of those new, customizable factions, it's also the most RPG-like entry yet, which is good news for budding D&D-ers looking for a grand, 4X strategy game to sink their teeth into. Heck, I'd even go as far as saying it could be one of this year's biggest and most exciting fantasy games outside of Baldur's Gate 3.

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Built from the same enchanted bone pile as previous Age Of Wonders games, AOW 4 is a game of two halves. First there's the 4X-style overworld map where you're pushing into the surrounding fog of war to lay claim to the world around you, and then there's the turn-based tactical battles where you're ordering individual troop units around hexagonal battlefields. At the end of that battle, the resource or titular Wonder that the enemy was sitting on becomes yours to claim - or at least frees it up to be annexed once the tendrils of your empire become large enough to circle your borders around it.

The three victory conditions in Age Of Wonders 4 will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's played Civilization, or indeed any Paradox game from the last ten years. There's the classic military victory, which involves biffing all your rival leaders. You can also dominate the world map to get an expansion victory. Finally, you can also achieve the ultimate arcane power for a magic victory. Fortunately, you needn't achieve any of these alone, and enlisting fellow leaders - either in single-player or multiplayer - into joining your quest for world domination will be a key part of Age Of Wonders 4's end-game tactics.

A lush green world with forests and lakes surrounding a city in Age Of Wonders 4
A city sits in a misty forest and mountains in Age Of Wonders 4
A city sits in a stark landscape in Age Of Wonders 4
Each realm is procedurally generated, leading to all sorts of different combinations of terrain types, inhabitants and other quirks. You can also create your own using its extensive customisation options.

At the centre of it all is your ruler, the leader of your chosen faction and the figurehead of your campaign. They're more powerful than your regular units, making them a key part of any major battle plan. But they're also the one who'll be governing your central 'Throne' city, and making assorted trade agreements, alliances and maybe the odd blood feud with neighbouring leaders as you work to help your burgeoning empire thrive and flourish. Other heroes can also be recruited (or co-opted from other nations) to help govern additional outpost cities and lead other army units around the map, but it's your ruler that forms the backbone of your entire civilisation. Literally.

"Age Of Wonders 3 is now nine years old already, and I can't quite believe it," game director Lennart Sas tells me. "[Before] we had this D&D class and race combination, which not only affected yourself, but how you build an empire, […] and in this game we really wanted to take that to the next level."

Creation is the big theme of AOW 4, says Sas, partly because they didn't want the game to feel static "like a lot of fantasy games are", and that giving players enough agency and sense of progress is a dilemma they've been grappling with ever since the release of Planetfall. "That angle informed a lot of the decisions we have in this game, like how we approached mission design, how we approached procedural worlds, how we approached the lore in the game - our narrative engine now has more story events that wrap around you as the player - and also the start of the game."

An overhead view of city provinces in Age Of Wonders 4
In classic 4X fashion, you'll grow your city by adding new provinces as your population rises, and you can add new landmarks to give you extra resource boosts depending on the type of terrain.

Indeed, from the moment you boot up Age Of Wonders 4, you're thrust into the Magehaven - a kind of sanctuary 'world between worlds' that acts as a neat wrapper for the imminent set of menu screens you're about to encounter. Here, you can pick the realm you're going to visit - either as an evil Wizard King looking to invade it or a Mortal Champion defending it - but if the list of "official" worlds designed by the developers don't take your fancy, you can simply create one yourself, defining everything from its shape, climate and inhabitants to any additional modifiers you want to chuck in there, such as its races favouring nice or evil folks. You can also set the player count, difficulty and type of turn system it has and, of course, give it a name.

Then it's down to the business of creating your leader with its dizzying array of traits and sliders. Like the realm menu, there's a whole library of default faction leaders to pick from, each of whom has their own set of characteristics and starting Tome of Magic, the latter of which lays the foundations for the kind of skills and spells you're able to acquire and research. These leaders range from your classic fantasy tropes of orcs, dwarves and goblins to some of the more exotic corners of the high fantasy landscape - your toadmen, rodents, molemen and frostlings and the like. Although when you can play as a 'wholesome halfling' called Ham Binger, why would you honestly want to choose anything else?

The faction customisation screen in Age Of Wonders 4
The leader unit menu screen in Age Of Wonders 4
The appearance customisation screen for ruler characters in Age Of Wonders 4
The ruler customisation options are vast, and can be overwhelming at first.

Still, if none of these default factions are to your liking, you can also create your own race and ruler, starting with their basic form before picking single body and mind traits as their basic abilities - for instance, they could be 'ferocious' in mind, and start with a unicorn mount or be fleet-footed in their body. Then it's on to their 'origin culture', which determines where their strengths lie when building up your empire. A feudal culture, for example, will favour structures that produce food income, and benefit from close battle formations with their Stand Together ability. Dark cultures, meanwhile, have unique city structures that grant you more knowledge, specialise in inflicting negative status effects and start further into the 'evil' side of the game's morality alignment. If all that wasn't enough, you then get to pick a further pair of societal traits, which grant you extra buffs and affinities to help define your race, before finally choosing your first Tome of Magic. Then, when all that is done, it's time to decide what you (and your wider race) actually look like.

It is, admittedly, quite overwhelming. While I'm sure AOW diehards will, in time, work out some incredible synergies to be found here, the initial wealth of information you're presented with can make it hard to tell if you're setting yourself up for a swift victory or a crash and burn failure. Even Triumph themselves acknowledge "there's a lot to take in", but Sas' advice is to approach it "purely from a role-playing perspective". He reassures me that "a lot of combinations work" and that it's "very hard" to deliberately stab yourself in the foot at this point. Rather, players should "just make something that works with your imagination."

The tome of magic selection screen in Age Of Wonders 4
Every few turns, you get to research a new spell from your Tomes of Magic.

I've since played as a couple of factions, and yes, my elves do feel distinctly different from my trad humans, who also feel different to my spider-mounted toadkin. This alone will give avid role-players plenty to dig into, but I found the way your campaign develops isn't so much down to the traits and affinity buffs whirring away in the background, but rather your growing library of Tomes Of Magic - which Triumph say is a key part of their own strategy to help make Age Of Wonders 4 feel like it's constantly moving and evolving.

"We have 54 tomes in the entire game, spread over a number of tiers," says Sas, with each one containing a number of spells and buffs. Every couple of turns, you can pick a new spell to research from a randomly selected group of three, and gradually you'll be able to choose whole new tomes to add to your growing cauldron of magical soup. These can drastically affect what you're able to cast both on the wider 4X map and the abilities you can call upon in battle, but it's that relatively quick turnover of shiny new things you're able to guzzle down your research queue that makes it much easier to spot good combinations and potential whizbang opportunities than its initial creation menus. Watching these spells grow over time was easily the most enjoyable and exciting part of my time with Age Of Wonders 4, and it definitely helped take the edge off my initial bamboozlement in setting everything up.

The construction queue menu in Age Of Wonders 4
Each city has two construction queues: one for army units, and another for building structures for your growing city. Each has their own turn and gold cost, but you can queue up other things to research in advance.

"There's so many different combinations," says principal gameplay developer Tom Bird, and he admits there's still some fine-tuning to be done as they head toward release. "I think the ranged one was the most broken one. What you would do is go to Tome of Enchantment, choose Seek Arrows, which makes all of your ranged attacks get +1 range, and then loads of others have bonuses to archery. Tome of Amplification has amplified arrows, which lets ranged attacks do extra damage and bounce from one person to another and do lightning damage. Tome of Pyromancy will, I believe, set your arrows on fire, and then you get the Tome of Winds where you get Zephyr Archers. They're tier three archers and the most powerful archers in the game. So you put all those enchantments on these super archers, and then they have this thing called Zephyr Shot, which is an extra long-range shot that never misses and does a ton of damage…"

Sas jumps in with a nervous laugh at this point. "So this is a great example," he says. "I think the key takeaway is that we do not balance the game to death so choices no longer matter, that synergies do matter, but we tweak the very severe imbalances. So in previous games it was possible at one point to make invincible airships. That's just not fun, especially for our multiplayer community. […] But at the same time, most players play single-player and they like to be able to experiment and find these unique combinations. It's an ongoing process."

A desert combat scene in Age Of Wonders 4
A forest combat scene in Age Of Wonders 4
A forest combat scene in Age Of Wonders 4
Combat takes place on dedicated battlefields split up into hexagons, which are lovely reproductions of the contested tile up on the 4X map. Each unit has three action points per turn, but attacking will always end your turn. You can also cast spells independently of your units.

Fundamentally "creativity is key" for Triumph, and nowhere is that more prevalent than the way you can evolve your entire race after key story moments. In one of my playthroughs, for example, I opted to turn my relatively boring humans into a race of treefolk called Gaia's Chosen after conquering my first Wonder - magical landmarks that regularly house big monsters you'll need to do battle with. As well as giving them and my leader big glowing eyes and leaves sprouting out all over the place, this transformation also gave them new abilities, strengths and weaknesses. It was quite the upgrade, but it also changed what kind of tomes I went after next, and the spells I ended up researching afterward. I could have easily opted for a different reward, such as a more powerful special weapon or a big wodge of gold or arcane knowledge, but come on. Human Ents! What's not to love?

Special mention must also go to Triumph's UI team at this point. Before starting my preview build, I did make a brief pitstop back to 2014's Athla, and crikey, AOW 4 is so much easier on the eyes and brain. Lovely, legible fonts all round, and its menus and unit iconography is so much easier to parse at a glance. The tech trees and production queues of your cities are also much better organised, making it much easier to know what and where you're clicking to make stuff happen. There's still a heck of a lot of text and underlined fantasy terms to absorb (many of which have their own nested dictionary definitions to mouse over like Crusader Kings 3), but the difference is night and day. Whereas AOW 3 now feels as old and fusty as a wizarding broadsheet, AOW 4 is like one of those slick, modern paperbacks with fancy French flyleaves and top quality paper stock.

Warriors explore a Wonder in Age Of Wonders 4
The titular Wonders are landmarks that have certain story events attached to them, and capturing them will result in big rewards for your ruler and faction.

It's so much friendlier, and initial creation paralysis aside, very much the kind of game you can easily lose several dozen hours to without even realising it. The longer I spent in these realms, the more I got to know their quirks and tricks, and even if I played with the same race, the same ruler and the same magic tomes each time, there's still an element of surprise at every step, from the order in which spells appear to the nature of the realms themselves. To me, that's quite the thrilling prospect, and I'm eager to see if Age Of Wonders 4 will be able to sustain that kind of momentum over its half-dozen campaign missions and wider single-player offering (and of course, its multiplayer, which was sadly off-limits during our preview build).

There's so much more I could talk about here - like how your decisions affect your allegiance to certain affinities in the world, which in turn affects what empire development skills you can unlock on its enormous tech tree. Or how you can declare war on other leaders if they instantly hate your guts because you're in a world where leaders hate goody-two-shoes, for example. Or even if they don't instantly hate your guts, you can just declare war anyway, without any kind of justification - although others will deem you a smidge bit evil if you do that, which then has even more cascading effects elsewhere on the map, like how your other alliances and vassals perceive you, whether the people in your cities are happy or sad or on the verge of instigating civil unrest, and the morale of your armies.

In short, there are still a hundred tiny details to consider at every turn, but this cacophony of new and exciting possibilities only makes me want to see what's round the next hexagon even more. With so much bubbling away in its cauldron, Age Of Wonders 4 doesn't just feel like it's going to be a great thinky strategy RPG, but also one that feels personal and unique to you. I can't wait to see what kind of stories come out of this game, and that alone is definitely worth that upfront panic of setting everything up in its Magehaven menus. There's a lot to be excited about, and I can't wait to dive back in come May 2nd.

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