games come from an original idea. These
games usually seem new, different, and can often be unrefined or
unfinished. On the other
hand, some games are created in the vision of a past game.
These can be sequels or clones, but are always very similar to a
previous game. But once in a
while a game comes along that is a synthesis, borrowing bits and pieces
from other games. This kind
of game provides a fun new experience while using elements that have been
tried and tested in other games. Age
of Wonders (or AOW) is this kind of game.
It borrows from such successful titles as Warlords, Civilization,
Master of Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic to become a title that
appears very similar to all of these, and yet is on the whole quite
What is AOW? Well,
AOW is a mostly a turn based fantasy game. Why do I say mostly? Because AOW also provides a feature for
all players to take their turns simultaneously.
This means that at the start of a new turn, all players can move,
attack, build, and research. While some might like this new time saving feature, I found
its frantic nature to be more trouble than it's worth.
With the simultaneous mode I found myself rushing to get to that
troop of mine that was inches from obliterating that puny force that had
been harassing my mines and farms, only to discover that my opponent had
already moved his forces out of range. Thankfully AOW comes with the option to play in the classic
the premise of AOW isnt all that different from any other recent turn
based fantasy game. Your
object is to win by being the last faction standing, or for a more
diplomatic type, being allied with all remaining factions.
The only twist is that in some scenarios your objective is to
defeat a factions leader and keep yours alive, rather than taking all
opposing cities or crushing their armies.
In fact, the hero hunting is somewhat reminiscent of Sierra's Lords
of Magic where you had to baby your own hero to keep from losing the game
prematurely, while seeking out your opponents hero in hopes of winning
the game quickly. When starting multi-player games or single scenarios, you can
choose to play with or without leaders; in the campaign game this use of
leaders is mandatory. This
means that to win campaign levels, you can simply hunt down opposing
leaders with your best group, although this takes most of the strategy out
of the game and Id really recommend against it.
AOW is primarily a tactical game. When compared to the Warlords series or Heroes of Might and
Magic series, the combat system plays a much more important role.
While you can choose to have the combats fought for you, as in
Warlords, if you do this youre missing the most enjoyable part of the
game, and youre throwing away your troops. Youre a much better
general than the computer, so you ought to be telling your troops what to
do. The interactive combat
system does seem similar to the Heroes of Might and Magic games, but on a
whole different scale. Since
in battle you can control upwards of forty individual units, the
battlefield is huge, and in comparison your units seem small.
Battles are really more similar to those seen in Master of Magic,
for those who remember that old title.
All the different types of units also make combat a tactician's
dream (or nightmare). Some
units use bows, some need to get within the length of a sword, and others
have more insidious powers like lightning strike.
All in all, the combat system is well done; with gobs of different
units and unit abilities, there are enough possibilities to keep combat
interesting. Combats only
real drawback is the interface. In large battles moving 40+ different
units one at a time can get tedious. Thankfully Epic added an option in the latest patch (V1.1) to
allow the selection and movement of many units at a time.
While this option still seems to have some problems, moving a unit
or two that seem to get lost isnt a big deal.
There is also an option to allow the AI to move your units, another
handy little feature.
one of the biggest reasons AOW seems to have such an emphasis on combat is
the simplicity of the rest of the game.
Im not saying that there isnt a lot of strategy in Age of
Wonders, but I am saying that aside from spell casting, most of your
actions are pretty basic. Unit
production, which is normally one of the most important and difficult
aspects of many turn based fantasy games, is very streamlined in AOW.
Similar to the Warlords series, your city options consist of
training a unit, upgrading a city, or destroying a city.
Thats really all there is to it.
Now I did say that the game is simple, but Im not saying
theres nothing to do in the game.
There are enough options to keep even the most avid player busy.
Where AOW really excels is in the area of variety.
AOW lets you play as any of twelve different races with everything
from the Tolkienesque Halflings and Humans all the way to the exotic
Azracs and Frostlings. Each
of these twelve races produces their own types of units, has their own
different heroes, and has their own style of play.
This is all topped off by the Hero system where your hero can be
customized in six basic statistics (attack, defense, etc) and can also
learn any of over 45 other skills ranging from the mundane archery or
leadership to, say, doom gaze or life stealing.
Heroes, as well as other units, gain experience as time progresses,
and with enough experience can lean new skills and abilities.
Factor in that leaders can cast and research spells, and the fact
that artifacts are scattered throughout all sorts of ruins and temples,
and obviously the strong point for AOW is its diversity.
noted earlier that AOW was like many games, even like Civilization.
AOW does, unlike most other turn based games, allow the terrain to
be changed during the game. While
cities cannot be founded as in some games, changing the terrain plays a
large factor. As in Civilization, roads can be constructed and other
buildings can be made. Shipyards
can be built for travel across water, and towers can be placed to view the
surrounding area. In
addition, forces can make the land more or less usable.
The undead, for example, can leave a swath of devastation through
an opponents land, making it unsuitable for the crops that a city
needs. To further the
strategic element of terrain, some areas can be turned into Holy or Unholy
woods that cause damage troops of opposing alignments.
One of the parts of the game that seems erratic is the AI.
At times, the game shows intelligence unmatched in turn-based
fantasy. The computer seems
to know when their armies are outmatched and fall back until they have
sufficient reinforcements. The computer players seem to be able to assemble godlike
armies in the place where I can least combat them.
The biggest problem with the AI is that I wonder sometimes if
its turned off for a turn or two.
Often armies sit uselessly in their cities while my single halfling
destroys their main sources of income.
While the AI is often brilliant, these kind of relapses are
definitely noticeable from time to time.
Last but not least, the Campaign in AOW is wonderful.
It provides levels that (with a few exceptions) seem to have the
right difficulty. Each
scenario in the campaign is challenging, the story line is intriguing, and
the levels even seem to fit together. As if that werent enough, the campaign actually gives you
choices. Not just the kind of
choices in some games that take you to the same place either way, but
choices that affect how the story line plays out.
Depending on choices in the campaign, you could have different
allies. For example, at one
moment early in the Keepers campaign, you can choose to rescue the
dwarves from their collapsing caverns or you can try to recruit the lizard
men as your allies. In
subsequent missions you then either have the dwarves or the lizard men as
your allies. What a nice
change to have your choices matter!
Overall AOW is really more than the sum of its parts. It liberally borrows the most important aspects from many other great turn-based fantasy games. This kind of synthesis makes Age of Wonders a standout game. While it lacks the polished feel of a Heroes of Might and Magic game, its engrossing strategy and simple to learn, hard to master gameplay really make it fun. While it wont get many votes for game of the year, its definitely going to be the game Ill be playing into the new millenium.