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Why Age of Wonders: Planetfall is moving further toward sandbox campaigns

Here's what Triumph's sci-fi grand strategy has taught the studio

As we established in an earlier story, Age of Wonders is a 4X series now. It’s official. But it wasn’t always so – the Paradox-published strategy series “started off as a war game with empire building,” according to game director Lennart Sas.

But Age of Wonders is one of the rare series that’s been going strong since the ’90s, and inevitably its scope has grown since then, folding in more 4X-like features. So now that the series has joined the ranks of Civilization, what has developer Triumph Studios learned about 4X?

“I think we’ve learned there’s a lot of value in people telling their own story in a 4X or grand strategy game, so it’s very important that we provide them the tools,” Sas says. “The Paradox motto is we provide the games and you tell the story, whereas the traditional war game – like Heroes of Might and Magic and classic Age of Wonders – was more about preset campaigns. Those are great for a lot of people, but they only tell one story.

“We’ve also seen, all the way back from when we first started introducing random maps in Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, and did a better job in Age of Wonders 3, and are doing an even better job now because now even the campaigns are procedurally generated – or the maps are, the story events are still scripted, of course – we’ve also seen a journey towards a more sandbox approach, as opposed to a highly scripted approach. I think that’s [another] key takeaway.”

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I wonder about this. I used to love the Heroes 2 and 3 campaigns so much (who didn’t?) that I would download custom ones (here’s a spectacularly ambitious example that I remember).

“We still love that too, but it’s about giving the player agency and the fact that they have their own story. So with the way you structure events, for example – some of the worst maps in this type of game are the ones where you have to follow the level designer’s exact path, and if you take one step back you get annihilated. A lot of these maps were loaded with event triggers, where if you cross one, an AI becomes active. But if the player scouts ahead and walks on a trigger [earlier than intended], then the AI becomes active and just steamrolls you.”

Awkwardly, I now realise that’s exactly what would often happen on those custom maps. So what ideas does Triumph have for ploughing new furrows in player-directed storytelling?

Sandbox you say? Here are the best sandbox games on PC

“More dynamic quest lines – the new survey system [in Revelations, Planetfall’s first expansion] is one of them, where the quest comes from the environment. You could attach quests to other entities in the world – maybe heroes, for example, so a personal quest, that sort of stuff. Not saying we’re going to do that, but there’s all sorts of procedural storytelling you could attach to dynamic parts [of the game].”

Age of Wonders: Planetfall’s first major expansion, Revelations, is on Steam here and due for release on November 19. For more like Planetfall – apparently – here’s our list of the best 4X games on PC right now.