Age of Wonders has always sat in a peculiar niche in the 4X genre. It does away with the promise of rewriting history which Civilization offers, and instead gives players the chance to shape their very own fantasy world. The fourth entry is no different. It puts you in the leading role, and your choices will see kingdoms turn to riches or rubble.
Though I always had trouble with the series. I liked the premise, but they didn’t have the depth that other 4X games offered. So, I skipped the newest game when it launched, figuring I’d give it a try once it’s had some time to cook - which it has. Just 6 months after release, it received its first expansion - Empires & Ashes. It’s all about war and industrial brute force - so right up my alley - and I was only too eager to give it a try.
Before diving into the expansion content, I had to get myself to grips with - well - everything else. The game offers a robust tutorial, and all of the systems and mechanics of the game are very digestible. City management is a streamlined process, and running an empire was made intuitive thanks to the game's stellar UI.
The game differentiates itself from others in the genre with its world map. There’s a whole lot more going on. Rampaging monsters spawn from infestations, and the land is littered with mythical buildings - Wonders. It initially felt a bit busy, bordering on overwhelming, but as I digested the game it started to feel more and more alive.
Getting to grips with the game didn’t take long. Once I felt comfortable with the systems, I set up a new match to try out the expansion's new features. The first of which is the game's new playable race - the birdlike Kazura. Empires & Ashes also introduces a new playable culture - Reavers. Basically, warlike industrialists who’ll play out like an empire sized thug, terrorising players and free cities alike.
The expansion also comes with a new victory condition: Seals. Basically - these are points on the map swarming with powerful monsters. If you can control them, you’ll earn points. Earn points, and you win the game. It sounded pretty simple, so I took them, made a band of bird bully Reavers, and threw them all into a game.
The Reaver culture is a solid addition to the game’s lineup. Military-focused, but where the base game’s Barbarians might achieve superiority through raw numbers, the Reavers can get there by building up their cities and becoming an industrial powerhouse. Their penchant for muskets as well as fire and steel war machines is also an interesting direction for the game to go in. It steps away from the high fantasy tropes of previous Age of Wonders titles and brings in something just a bit more compelling.
I’d initially dismissed the Seals victory condition as being simplistic, but it played out with much more strategy than I’d expected it to. Each Seal around the map turned into a hotbed of fighting, and it became my main focus - rather than an objective I could pursue on the side. It’s a clever way to introduce a win condition that focuses on military power, without having to go around the map razing cities.
There are also more tools to play with. Tomes that will play into the Reavers gameplan of over-the-top firepower. Tomes are Age of Wonders' answer to a tech tree - and it’s a fantastic system. The customisation you can put into your faction is unlike any I’ve seen in the genre. You can augment your faction as a match plays out, and it can take you to some bizarre places. You could make a pact with a demon, and give your Orcish warband wings to soar across the battlefield. It’s a bit bonkers, but then again, aren’t all good fantasy stories a bit unhinged?
This customisation is the game's strongest feature. The faction creator tool is excellent, and the choices you make there and in-game will lead you to make some outlandish creations. Or you could always just stick with your standard lawful good human knights if that’s more your cup of tea.
The game as a whole exceeded my expectations - and has elevated itself from dark horse in the genre, to a heavy hitter. The new Empires & Ashes content doesn’t especially overhaul anything about the base game, nor make any sweeping changes - but it doesn’t need to. The base game is so solid, that an expansion just adds more tools and replayability to what is already a solid purchase.
Granted there are areas where I think the game could still use work. Naval combat felt goofy, and the whole diplomacy and trade aspect of the game requires further fleshing out. But given the rate of updates already and the developer's roadmap for the future, I do not doubt that Triumph will keep refining and improving this already excellent title.