I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life exploring, exploiting, expanding, and exterminating my way through 4X games like Age of Wonders 4. But typically, even at the end of the most epic campaigns stretching across the ages, it all disappears when I’m done. Win or lose. Like tears in rain. In Triumph Studios’ latest fantasy civilization builder, though, the end is only the beginning. My beloved ruler can ascend to godhood and join a pantheon that persists from one world to the next, continuing to have an impact on the bigger picture and unlocking new empire options. And while I haven’t seen it play out over dozens of campaigns yet, it’s a very exciting prospect.
This was actually my first foray into Age of Wonders proper, as I was introduced to the series through the sci-fi spinoff, Planetfall. And it feels very similar, with a Civilization-like overworld where you build cities, exploit resources, train armies, and deal with rival powers. When two armies meet on the map, though, Age of Wonders 4 zooms way in to an XCOM-like, turn-based battle system where each of your units can move and act independently. Fortunately, these fights don’t tend to drag on so long that it bogs down the pacing of the overworld stuff, but they still give you enough time to pull off some clever tactics.
Building the fantasy civilization of your dreams starts before you even found a single city, though. You start each run by selecting a base template – from mainstays like elves and dwarves to somewhat weirder options like frog people – which sets the look of your leader and units and provides some suggested species traits. Elves are quick and keen-eyed by default, but you can always swap these out. There’s nothing stopping you from making venomous cat people who ride around on spiders.
This customization continues with deciding what I essentially think of as the “vibes” for your civilization, which also determines your unique buildings and starting unit roster. A “High” civilization makes me think of Lothlorien or Gondor, with shining armor and well-disciplined troops. Barbarians are clan-centric, warlike, and aggressive. Mixing and matching these to go against fantasy stereotypes was some of the most fun I had with Age of Wonders 4. I was able to make both savage, barbarian elves who struck from the depths of the forest and righteous, do-gooder orcs who observed knightly chivalry. Note that the footage you’re seeing was provided by the developers, so I can’t show you my special creations just yet.
Light the Way for the Ages
This customization doesn’t stop when you start your first turn, though. You’ll continue to unlock new, factionwide benefits, spells, and units by researching magical tomes, which come in several tiers. Some might allow you to summon powerful magical constructs or raise the dead. One even turned my aforementioned barbarian elves into green-skinned plant people, giving us bonus movement in forests and an even deeper affinity with the wild places of the realm. So you could begin with the exact same starting traits more than once and develop very differently based on your tome choices. There are several for each of the affinities – elemental forces like Order, Chaos, Nature, and Shadow – and I only got to play with a fraction of them.
Somewhat literally, as there is also an entire underground layer where some empires will prefer to settle.
Other than the classic method of destroying all of your AI opponents, Age of Wonders 4 has two additional victory options. Expansion involves building a very wide empire and lighting three Beacons of Unity, which must be defended for a certain number of turns. Magic is similar, but is more suited to tall empires, as you must complete a Tier 5 tome and then trigger a countdown that will transform the world according to the whims of your chosen affinity. Like Expansion, you will need to defend three key locations during this time.
What Lies Beneath
That really only scratches the surface of Age of Wonders 4. Somewhat literally, as there is also an entire underground layer where some empires will prefer to settle. There are monster and bandit nests that will grow over time if not dealt with that send waves of enemies to attack you. Almost like barbarians in Civ, except they might be like, demons or something. So you want to keep an eye on that. There’s also a series of Story Realms that will see you dealing with the return of dimension-hopping Wizard Kings and deciding the fate of multiple worlds.
Between the deep, freeform empire customization and persistent pantheon of my past heroes watching over my future deeds, I could see Age of Wonders 4 being the kind of 4X game I spend hundreds of hours on. And we’ll all be able to forge such a legacy on May 2.