In the 30+ hours I have spent with Age of Wonders 4 over the last week, I’ve completed 4 different campaigns with a variety of factions, champions, and wizard kings of my own making, with each of these playthroughs offering me something completely different throughout the 5-10 hours they have taken to complete.
My most recent character, a human industrialist whose people favour aesthetic grandeur and ancient buildings, took an interesting turn through the course of her campaign. I began by working toward an expansion victory, which required me to annex 150 provinces across the map in order to win the game, as I wanted to play into my faction’s origins as city builders. But as my champion discovered more and more ancient wonders throughout the land (more on those later), her taste for developing her society and its people through magical means became insatiable.
As I began to enter the late-game for this campaign, my champion used skills unlocked through high-tier tomes of knowledge to physically transform her people into stone-like humanoids who could turn their enemies into gold upon their death. The result of this was a complete 180 on my original plans, as I disregarded my expansionist goals in favour of working toward a magical victory – which was eventually achieved by building a number of improvements to some of my annexed territories, triggering a world-altering spell, and defending my kingdom for 15 turns whilst swarms of monsters and enemy armies spawned on the edges of my provinces to try and prevent my victory.
This kind of dynamic playthrough is what makes Age of Wonders 4 such an addictive experience, and the game really comes into its own when you let the circumstances of the world events influence your role-playing plans.
At the start of each game, whether you are making your way through the story levels or creating your own campaign maps, you are tasked with creating your very own faction with a huge variety of choices that will influence your entire game from start to finish. The game first asks you to create the form of your people, which can range from standard fantasy fare like humans; orcs, and elves, to high-fantasy races like rats, tigren, and frogs, and from here the options you are given to develop your society are truly incredible. You create your people from the ground up, including their appearance; their historical background, and societal tendencies, to create unique factions that can even be carried through to subsequent playthroughs. The human character I mentioned above was one of my more generic creations at the start, but you can create almost anything from ancient sea-faring cats who can raise undead armies, to frog people who developed from a barbarian society to become holier-than-thou beacons of faith – and each of these choices will have a tangible effect on your factions development throughout each campaign.
Books are Fun
Once you are into a game you will begin unlocking various tomes of knowledge – skill books that offer players the ability to develop and define their faction and its champion by giving them new magical abilities, weapons, army units, or even spells that will completely alter the physical appearance and stats of your people. Through this system of development players are granted a dynamic approach to role playing, where the initial stats and origin traits they chose can either be highly developed, or completely disregarded, in order to redefine their people through the course of the game. From a role-playing standpoint, this method of character development allows the player to create truly interesting stories for their people.
The example above is one such way a society can develop in Age of Wonders 4. Choosing an industrialist origin trait with societal definitions that favour building and expansion over magic and knowledge, and slowly developing their goals and physical traits to become more magically aligned, creates a huge level of depth for a game of this type.
Tomes of Knowledge also provide players with a range of skills that can be utilised in combat or on the world map to help or hinder other factions. For example, one such tome of knowledge gave my faction the ability to destroy mountainous terrain across the map, meaning I had additional space to annex new provinces, it even allowed my army to pass through previously inaccessible areas of the map.
It’s for these reasons that Age of Wonders 4 provide players with a role-playing experience unlike the bigger games of the genre like Total War. Even in the more fantasy-heavy entries into the Total War series, like Total War: Warhammer, the focus is mainly on role-playing factions whose goals and history are pre-defined by the Warhammer universe. In AoW4, you are free to completely influence the history and future of your people, and continue to do so with as many factions as you please over and over again.
Exploration is Key
The maps in Age of Wonders 4 are also one of the most exciting elements of the game. Players are given the option of a number of premade maps with various active modifiers and event features, including a number of story maps that provide unique quests to advance the overall campaign of the game.
Exploring these maps is key to developing your empire, and dotted throughout the overworld and underground layers are a new feature called ‘ancient wonders’. These sites each have their own flavour text, and are usually occupied by unique armies with their own active modifiers. You are free to take control of these sites whenever you like, and are often given a number of options to occupy each ancient wonder, whether that be through a direct fight, diplomatic means, or even through trade if another faction already controls them. Each ancient wonder features a unique battle ground for players to fight on, and will offer unique rewards in the form of weapons, army units, mounts, or equipable items, if they are successfully occupied.
There’s also an entire underground layer on most maps – a fact which escaped me on my first playthrough, resulting in an army of halflings that I had yet to encounter suddenly rising from below, declaring war on myself and the remaining ruler on the overworld, and absolutely steam rolling through both of our empires to achieve military victory and win the game. This additional layer to the maps adds even more dynamics for players to create new and interesting kingdoms, giving you the option of entirely developing your kingdom below ground and popping back up through the various cave entrances across the map, skirmishing and whittling away your foes from the relative safety of the maze-like underground.
I also had the option of giving my maps specific rules to either help or hinder my campaign. In my most recent campaign, I added a modifier that caused monster dens to spawn frequently throughout the map, which meant that myself and the opposing factions were forced to periodically deal with new monster infestations every 10 turns. This modification added a whole new stress-factor to my campaign, albeit a fun one, as I needed to send my army patrolling across my borders to clear out newly spawned monster dens. If I hadn’t done this, then the creatures that emerged from the dens would frequently attack my annexed provinces – destroying the structures I had built and halting their ability to produce resources for my empire unless the threat was cleared and the buildings repaired.
AoW4 Wants You to Finish Campaigns
One of the biggest problems with 4X games in general, is the lack of motivation to actually finish a campaign, rather than just starting anew. This is usually due to factors such as campaign length, lack of in-game rewards for finishing a campaign, or simply things not going the way the player intended and it being easier to just start again. Age of Wonders 4 hugely alleviates this problem with the introduction of the pantheon system, a system that provides two types of rewards for completing campaigns.
Firstly, there’s the pantheon itself, which is essentially a roster of heroes made up of the players ‘ascended’ characters. Whenever you achieve victory in a campaign with a newly created champion or wizard king, you have the option of ascending them into your pantheon of gods, allowing them to appear with their armies in subsequent playthroughs – either as recruitable heroes for your army, or as other rulers who can either become allies or enemies.
The second reward system is based on ‘pantheon points’, which are earned throughout the course of your campaigns by completing various in-game feats such as earning XP, developing new magic, or discovering ancient wonders. The points are then transferred to a reward screen where you are given the option to trade them for various new weapons, abilities, armour, skills, maps, and more.
The in-game rewards are a nice touch, particularly as they go beyond simple cosmetic rewards, but giving players the ability to ascend their previous characters and create their own pantheon of gods is an extremely nice touch, and even something I think other games should introduce in the future – imagine if your latest Elden Ring character could meet one of your previous characters as an NPC! The possibilities for other games to integrate this type of system are endless.
Catering to 4X Gamers and New Players
One of the most exciting parts of AoW4 is how friendly this game is to new players, without sacrificing or ‘dumbing-down’ the defining features that series veterans are coming back for.
If you check the AoW4 reddit page, you will see hundreds of posts by experienced players and newbies alike – many of whom are playing a 4X game for the first time. For many of these players, Age of Wonders 4 offers something that the biggest games of this genre do not – accessibility.
Unlike the genre titans of Age of Empires or Total War, Age of Wonders 4 provides players with an extremely approachable tutorial setup that talks players through all of the mechanics they will need to learn in order to be successful – it also helps that the tutorial is fully voiced by a wonderful narrator. I’m not saying that Age of Empires and Total War don’t have good tutorial features, but there’s something clearly very user friendly about AoW4s tutorial offerings, and it has allowed more players than ever before to access the series.
The clear depth of customisation and roleplaying on offer is also a key factor in this. Before starting Age of Wonders 4, after getting myself hyped about all the customisation options that were advertised, I was a little concerned that I might have to start my first game using a pre-generated faction, but this wasn’t the case. You are given the freedom to completely develop your own faction from the get-go, even if you selected the tutorial first, and it is this instant access to one of the game’s most interesting features that draws you in straight away.
There are a number of games in this genre that will suggest trying out a particular faction first, before committing yourself to the more interesting features of other armies – even Age of Wonders: Planetfall did this, putting you in charge of arguably the game’s most boring faction – asking you to commit several hours to them before running off to play with the faction you actually want to. Clearly the game’s developer, Triumph, recognised the replayability this game offered, and were more than happy to let players experiment however they want from the word ‘Go’.
Attacking Will End Your Turn
Now for the sake of balancing out this review, there are a couple of minor negative points to mention.
Firstly, the combat itself is rather basic. In fact, if you are used to playing turn-based games that use action points for movement and combat (think XCOM, Divinity) then Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. It all works perfectly fine – you move your units across a hexagonal grid; select an attack, spell, or defensive move which will end your turn once used, rinse and repeat, occasionally you will conjure a spell from your tomes of knowledge that may have an area of effect, or balster your army, but overall there isn’t much new that hasn’t been done in other turn-based games before.
Another point to consider is that the actual story of the campaign missions is a little bland. I won’t post spoilers here, but again, there isn’t much new going on here. You’re given 5 campaign missions that are unlocked one after another, and each one basically centres around the same final objective.
It is worth pointing out, however, that neither of these points hindered my enjoyment of the game whatsoever, and it was only when writing this article that I even put any thought into them. Whilst the campaign story can be chalked down to being a little boring when you critically analyse it, the fact is that Age of Wonders 4 is not a game that is trying to sell you on its story in any way, because the game wants you to create your own stories – and it gives you the opportunity to do that at every turn.
Simply put, Age of Wonders 4 is one of the finest role playing experiences in recent memory.
The depth of customisation on offer means that no two campaigns will ever be the same, and the game thrives on providing players with unique and interesting opportunities to carve out their own epic fantasy tale at every turn. Whether you have specific plans for your faction, or you are willing to let the game’s dynamic events influence the path that your army takes, you are sure to find countless hours of enjoyment from this charming strategy game.
Age of Wonders 4 is available now on PC, PS5, and Xbox.
Reviewed on PC.
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