Age of Wonders 3 review: power fantasy

Age of Wonders 3 is a challenging power fantasy.

Game Info
Platform Win
Publisher Triumph Studios
Developer Triumph Studios
Release Date Mar 31, 2014

Age of Wonders 3 is a rush of absolute mastery over an entire world.

You're given charge of everything in this fantasy world, from political, economic and social oversight to down-in-the-mud military judgements. But it's up to you to bring all of these elements together and create a functioning kingdom.

The result is a complex, engrossing game that is unforgiving in its exploration of the purity of power. The pieces may be familiar — you create cities that provide military units that are used to conquer more cities — but the challenge is deep and endless in its variety.

Each individual type of power fantasy at play in Age of Wonders 3 adds to the game's essential feeling of control and agency. You're invited to build a society, creating a culture and infrastructure ideally suited to fit your needs. You have access to magical power that paints the game's world in splashing multiplicities — terraformed farmland, fire-breathing griffins and a huge variety of other spells. And finally, you also create a singular main character, a ruler who grows in power as you capture trinkets and territory.

I played as various rulers in campaign mode (pre-selected) and in random maps (personal choices), each growing into discernible individuals as they attained new skills. One character gained the ability to walk through walls; another called on dark necromantic powers.


It's not just character skills; Age of Wonders 3 is bursting with leaders, generals, unit types, loot, resources and ancillaries of every stripe. Monsters range from the familiar (poisonous spiders) to the odd (rampaging penguins), and each playable race offers its own comparable but tactically different units. It is a familiar world of fantasy standards, rendered competently through art, animation and sound effects.

Twin campaigns from the viewpoint of different alliances walked me through the various races, and invited me to try as many strategies and units as possible. It is arresting stuff, even if the story feels like a slightly overcooked slab of standard fantasy loin, sizzling with intrigue and treachery. But as a tutorial to the random maps where the game really comes to life, it's faultless, presenting a series of strategic problems that I was rarely able to resolve on my first attempt. Age of Wonders 3 dangles seemingly easy solutions in front of the unwary, and I soon learned to be careful in how I resolved military, supply or diplomatic problems.

The story feels slightly overcooked

The overmap of the world is where the story is writ large in Age of Wonders 3, but it's in the turn-based battle scenes where power is won or lost. This is where the game moves from the grand strategic concerns of city placement and economic balancing to tactical problem like 'oh hell, my dragon is surrounded by three electricity-spitting incubi.'

Sundren_2clashes are tense and exhausting, but also engrossing

Battles are served up in a variety of environments with all the pomp of a Napoleonic symphony. At the start of each fight, the camera sweeps across the amassed lines of troops — the fidgeting elven archers, the stomping dragons, the impatient orcs. No two battles are the same, and you need to carefully study the positions and powers of each unit to succeed. These clashes are the most tense and exhausting part of Age of Wonders 3, but also the most engrossing.

The game's terrain is marked out by hexes, and the core challenge is learning how to marry those hexes with each character's abilities. Every unit has strengths and weaknesses that shift depending on position, the make-up of the enemy troops and the supporting units. It's easy to make a mistake with the game's many stats and abilities, which leads to misplays, which leads very quickly to defeat.

Because of the complexity of its systems, Age of Wonders 3 makes for a stern teacher. If you err, you pay. Many times I accidentally sent a ranged unit into a melee situation, or failed to understand the value of attacking a unit from behind, or left a city undefended for one solitary turn, all with disastrous, game-ending consequences.

I was astounded at how quickly and unceremoniously some of my games came to an end. It felt unfair at times, but only because I've become accustomed to more forgiving systems in other games. Exercising power in Age of Wonders 3 is all about controlling details to the smallest and most precise, and I was immensely satisfied whenever I was able to put it all together and defeat an enemy force.

In fact, Age of Wonders 3 shines the brightest in its toughest moments — in the moments where dozens of my units are scattered across a hillside, contending with an enemy with no hesitation to flank or exploit my weaknesses. The turn-based battles go beyond the basics of placing archers behind infantry and flanking with cavalry. It is a strategic dream-weaver in which I constantly sought new shapes. When I felt frustration, it was born of my own limitations. The game is balanced, coherent, plainly spoken.

Magic adds even more complications to the battle system. You're allowed to use one spell per turn until your points run out, but that's often enough to shift momentum. Any plan based on, say, the astounding brutality of a central tank-type unit, is bound to come to grief as lightning bolts rain from the sky or razorsharp tree roots surge through the ground, eating up precious health.

I initially tried brute forcing my way through Age of Wonders 3 by stacking units and bringing overwhelming force, but the enemy understood this tactic and would not be bullied. This is truly a grand strategy game; brains are a non-optional component to victory. If easy routes to victory exist, they have eluded me even after dozens of hours.

That lack of an easy path is important, but it can also be frustrating. The power that Age of Wonders 3 places so delightfully into yours hands disappears fast when things start to go wrong. Sometimes I invested three or four hours into a campaign before hitting a snag and going from all-powerful to helpless. Getting out of those jams proved extremely difficult, too. The game has a few diplomatic options thrown in, but they're generally fruitless; everything is geared toward combat. When my economy went to hell, I ceased churning out armies; when my armies dried up, I couldn't keep up with the wizards next door and was essentially finished.

To combat these sudden failures, I became a constant progress-saver, working my way back to the moment before it all went to hell. You could view this as a failure of design, but I actually wanted to attain power through the brambles of discovery, not through nicely trimmed paths to comfortable victories.

Wrap Up:

Age of Wonders 3 is a challenging power fantasy

After many hours of struggling to be a stronger player, my number of total game-saves lessened, even as the game's complexity continued to grow. Victories in real life may be opaque and rare, but I forgot all about that while conquering this colorful world of tough choices and zero-sum options. It's tough to wield so much power, but control is hard-earned. As it should be.

Age of Wonders 3 was reviewed using final retail code provided by the publisher. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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8 Win