May 19, 2014

The Wondrous Ages I Have Known

It’s been a while since the last post, and I feel an update is in order so you all don’t think I’ve succumbed to a game avalanche tumbling down out of my closest or that I've been dragged into Real-Life by some demon spawn. No – it’s been far more ordinary than that: family, work, deck (re)construction, traveling, and general chin scratching. All this, plus Age of Wonders 3 and some trepid steps towards a possible expansion for Hegemonic (more on that in the next blog post). As for this post - it's all about my reflections of Age of Wonders 3, a PC 4X game I am enjoying more and more by leaps and bounds.

Orc Sorcerer owns you!

Setting the Table

I somehow missed Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders boat back when AoW 1, 2, and Shadow Magic were released (’99, ’02, and ’03 respectively). I picked up Shadow Magic (the standalone sequel to AoW2) about a year ago because I kept hearing good things about it, and I quite enjoyed the game. Age of Wonders 3 (technically 4?) was released March 2014, and I’ve been playing it as much as I can since.

Overall, the Age of Wonders series is one of war-focused 4X turn-based strategy (TBS) games. Think Lord of the Rings and the Battle for Middle Earth. It mirrors that narrative quite compellingly.

The game features the usual suspects of fantasy races (Elves, Orcs’es, Goblins, Dwarves, etc.) plus a few novelties (i.e. Draconians). You’ll start out with a throne/capital city and a tiny army, and then your off expanding your empire outwards, building up your armies, establishing new cities, engaging in (light) diplomacy, and of course trying to win through conquest. It’s fairly standard stuff on paper – but there are enough twists and turns to make it something quite unique.

The empire building aspects of the series IS pretty streamlined, as it really just provides an engine and context for the war-mongering. So don’t expect Civ-level empire management here. Instead, the game’s mechanics are all directed towards servicing the excellent turn-based tactical combat. Now normally, I don’t like detailed tactical combat, as I feel it detracts from the grander strategic aspects of 4X games at the empire level. However, AoW is “all about” the tactical combat, with the strategic gameplay providing a tense context for tactical fights in a way that I’ve really come to enjoy. It’s a testament to how good the tactical combat is that it’s forced a paradigm shift on me.

Peaceful ships ahoy, I swear!

Tactical Shenanigans

Tactical battles start when opposing armies (each army contains up to 6 units) attempt to move into each other. And when a battle occurs, all other armies/stacks within a one-hex radius of the defending army are also pulled into the fight. The result is that up to 7 armies/stacks (and 42 units total) can be dragged into the conflict. At the strategic level, maneuvering your forces across the hex-based landscape so you can bring 4 stacks to bear against 3 stacks (assuming a full engagement) is critical for tipping the odds in your favor and makes strategic positioning quite important.

Once the battles start, each players’ stacks are positioned in an initial deployment pattern in relation to their position on the strategic map. Defender moves first, then the attacker, with each being able to move all of their units on their turn. The greatest amount of content and detail in the game is wrapped up in the stats and abilities of units at the tactical level. Knowing what units best counter others and how to synergize unit attacks and abilities to overcome your opponents is critical - and there is a lot of room for skillful play and pulling out wins despite the odds.

Age of Wonders 3 builds the combat around some excellent gameplay concepts, such flanking attacks and attacks of opportunity and retaliation, that makes movement and planning ahead during combat critical. Range modifiers, line of sight constraints, various movement types, special abilities, and more all play into making a dynamic a weaving combat experience.

And thankfully, the interface and tool-tips provide all the information you need with a simple click or mouse hover, such that negotiating the detail is effortless. It’s the choosing of the bold deeds and terrible sacrifices that’s the hard part! Order of attack, as with many tactical games, plays a huge role in squeezing the most out of your forces. While sometimes the order is obvious, in big large battles, (particularly sieges) working it out can be a wonderful challenge.

Forces lining up for a siege

A Dose of Role-Playing in your Empire Building

Another key aspect of the series worth highlighting is the importance of heroes, particularly your leader. The Age of Wonders game are loosely role-playing games in the sense that your units (most importantly your leader and other heroes) level up as they engage in battles and unlock stronger abilities. Your heroes can even be outfitted with all sorts of gear and equipment to further focus their role in supporting the war effort. Plus you get to craft the look and feel of your leader, all the way down to the trim color on their trousers and whether they are wearing an eye patch or a nose ring.

In Age of Wonders 3, the hero system is increased to a new level (no pun intended!) by giving heroes “classes” (Rogue, Warlord, Druid, Sorcerer, Theocrat, and Dreadnaught). The class of your main leader matters more than your initial race in terms of playstyle in most cases and determines the kinds of spells and abilities that you can research (think class specific tech trees) and the resulting options at your disposal. Ultimately, the intersection of race, class, and magic school specializations during character creation created a lot of opportunity to shape a play-style you enjoy and see how it fares against the opposition.

Speaking of which, the magic system in the game is, in my estimation, what really makes the game series shine and compensate for the relatively basic empire management. All the leader classes have access to magical spells and abilities, which range from tactical damage spells and unit enchantments all the way up to persistent city- and empire-wide global spells that transform the entire strategic space of the game.

What’s most interesting is that the magic system relies on a “casting point” mechanic that limits how much magic you can perform each turn. The decision balance between using magic tactically to tip a fight in your favor versus using it summon fantastic creatures or curse an opponent’s city (among other nifty tricks) is often a challenge. As a operational and strategic resource, the magic system adds a level of complexity and depth to the game that helps it transcend well beyond what might otherwise be construed as a fairly standard 4X fantasy experience.

The character creation spectacular

The Strategic Experience and AI Competency

In terms of the overall gameplay experience and depth I’ve found that the more I’ve played the game the more interesting, deep, and nuanced it has become. However, this realization also hinges considerably on whether the game’s AI is deciding to have a good day or a bad day, which in turn hinges largely on how the a given game is setup. In short, the AI ranges from being ruthlessly brutal and surprisingly cunning to a completely flaccid peon depending on the situation.

What do I mean by this flip-flopping AI? If the AI, in its estimation, determines that it has a force advantage strategically it goes into “aggressive mode” and will hit you on multiple fronts, move forces around with a sense of purpose and fantasy-inspired authority, and generally make for a tense experience with lots of back-and-forth fighting over cities and territory. However – if it decides that it’s weaker than you, it literally runs away from you every chance it gets, abandoning cities in its wake in a pitched effort to stack all its eggs around defending its throne city. This behavior makes no sense, and once the AI goes into that mode, its defeat is a foregone conclusion as you can grab control of most of the map and cities without resistance.

This can be somewhat ameliorated depending on the (extensive!) game setup options you chose. I’ve found that playing against multiple AI’s that are forced onto a team provides the best level of challenge, regardless of the underlying difficulty level (which gives the AI bonuses to production, research, etc.). While I’m beating up on the first AI empire, the other 2+ AI’s are getting their ducks in a row and amassing enough force to go into "aggressive mode". If playing 1v1 against an AI or where diplomacy is enabled with the AI’s then it is just too easy to exploit the AI’s weaknesses and coast to an easy win since it never gets that critical mass of force.

Fortunately for the AI, the developers have acknowledged the issue and are actively working on it – so that’s good news. And overall, the developers have been very active in the community forums listening to feedback and discussing potential changes to the gameplay and balance. Developer support like this is great to see and will likely result in a game that gets better and better as it ages. I have a laundry list of smaller gameplay issues and opportunities I’d love to see addressed, and I’m happy to say that 90% of them appear to be on the dev’s radar. There are even rumors of a new race being added to the game soon – so more content is also planned, which exciting as well.

Who will make the first move?

Closing Sentiments

The overall fit and finish of Age of Wonders 3 deserves special mention. In an era of early-access alpha/beta games dominating much of the PC gaming scene, Age of Wonders 3 followed the traditional publishing route and was released when ready as a complete game – and it shows in spades. The graphics and audio of the game are beautiful and lush from the strategic map all the way down to the unit details in the tactical battles. The interface, menus, in-game information, and all that sort of stuff is also really well done. The game is just a great aesthetic experience – and I’m usually not one to get all hot and bothered by glitzy game graphics. There were a few launch bugs, but those have already been patched. So kudos to Triumph Studios for making such a nicely polished game.

I haven’t yet dived into the campaigns (preferring random maps in general) or online multiplayer (which I suspect is quite a fun prospect) – but for now I’m having a good time trying out different class/race combos and getting the settings right for challenging single-player matches.

The bottom line, for me, is that the Age of Wonders design and “system” as it applies to a war-focused 4X game is overall excellent and leads to a great experience, especially when the AI is playing aggressively. When the heat is on, all the seemingly simple empire-level decisions (what to research next, what buildings to construct, what units to make, etc.) become far more acute and agonizing choices as you try to squeeze every ounce of production capacity out of your empire. The strategic landscape always poses interesting positional choices for moving your armies, and map control is a critical element of winning a game. And when the inevitable tactical combats happen those reveal their own layered depths and challenges.

Shadow Magic, the previous Age of Wonders game has been a fan-favorite for 10+ years and carried the series into the modern era. Triumph Studios built Age of Wonders 3 to endure the next 10+ years, and I think they are on-track to do so. If interested in the 4X fantasy genre, particularly with a war-centric gameplay focus, Age of Wonders 3 is worth a long, deep look.

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