It’s tough to break out of the wheel ruts laid down by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, and Warcraft when creating a new fantasy world: orcs, dwarves, elves, and humans tend to reprise their roles over and over again thanks to how large those established properties loom on the fantasy world’s horizon. Age of Wonders 4, the upcoming 4X game from Triumph Studios and Paradox, is taking a different approach by casting players themselves as the fantasy authors – so if you want to play as a race of animist mole people who live in a volcanic forge world inhabited by dinosaurs, you can do just that.
For my money, Age of Wonders has been the go-to alternative to Civilization when it comes to 4X strategy, particularly since Age of Wonders 3 – its combination of RPG character development, army management, and crunchy tactical battles felt like the grown-up version of Heroes of Might and Magic that I didn’t know I’d been pining for.
Age of Wonders 4 places its focus on faction and world customisation. I get to set the conditions for the world and create my very own race of beings to wage magical war upon it, and the decisions I make during setup have remarkable depth. Maps can be idyllic storybook fields covered in mystical forests, or blasted hellscapes of volcanic ash. I can head out with a standard-issue fantasy race of human nobles and mages, or – and here’s the fun part – a society of dwarf barbarians who practise ritual cannibalism and are fascinated by archeology.
The process of creating a faction begins by picking one of several overall ‘forms’. This is the physical base canvas for your people, their overall shape. They might look like humans, dwarves, or elves, but you can also select from forms like ratkin, toad people, and other more fantastical beings. Once I’ve picked my dwarves, I can further customise them with hand-picked body and mind traits, which each give them special abilities like fast healing or melee expertise.
The next decision is to select a kind of culture: are my toads a war-loving tribe of barbarians, or are they mystics who are attuned to special astral echoes that only they can see? Culture can then be tuned by selecting up to two society traits, which further shape the faction’s strategic options and limitations.
Another interesting choice in faction creation is the starting tome of magic. Initially, there are 12 to pick from, and they determine the first spells I have available. Once I’ve started the game, I can have my scholars research more spells – but I can also discover additional tomes as I play, and Triumph Studios tells me there are more than 50 to find. Many of these offer much more powerful magic than the tier one tomes I have at the beginning of my time in Age of Wonders 4.
Once I’ve shaped my people, I get to create a ruler to lead them. I can make them either a champion warrior who excels in physical combat or a powerful wizard king from another dimension who has access to more spells and can cast them more frequently. In either case, I can adjust an impressive array of sliders to fine-tune my leader’s appearance, stature, and raiment until I feel they’re ready to head out into the world I’ve set up but not yet seen.
Given the sheer number of options I have when setting up a game, I’m relieved to find that Age of Wonders 4 starts out feeling very manageable. My games typically began with a hero who can lead up to six units in an army, as well as a scout and a capital city. The early turns in Age of Wonders 4 will be familiar to anyone who’s played a 4X game before: pick out production and research, train a scout or two, and set to work exploring the surrounding area and clearing the fog of war off the map.
The turn-based tactical battles are as fun as ever, but if you find them tedious, you can always opt to auto-resolve them, a la Total War. Age of Wonders 4 adds a nice touch: if you don’t like the results of a battle the computer has handled, you can always opt to re-fight it manually, which takes some of the pressure off the decision to delegate.
Before I forget, the fog of war in Age of Wonders 4 merits a special mention. It’s gorgeous. Instead of simply covering the map like a blanket suspended over it, this is proper fog: it shrouds mountain ranges and forests, and in the distance beyond my borders I can see dark spires and volcanic peaks that poke out above it. It still works as intended – I don’t know what’s out there – but it adds a visual intrigue that makes exploring all the more exciting.
The whole game looks fantastic, in fact, and it’s extra pleasing to see that each decision I’ve made in shaping my faction is reflected in their in-game models and unit portraits. The evening light in the desert casts sharp shadows on ruin walls as armies of necromancer rats hurl glowing green balls of sickly energy at the defenders, and I’m content to gaze down on my creation as only an inept prankster god can.
The Age of Wonders 4 release date is set for May 2, and pre-orders are available now through Steam, the Epic Games Store, and the Microsoft Store. Players who pre-order get access to an additional ruler and lion-themed armour set. Paradox has also announced an expansion pass that will add an additional set of leader garments and four DLC expansions that add more ways to customise your game worlds and factions.
Check out our roundup of the best games like Civilization to find more terrific spins on the 4X format.