PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
May 2, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 is a 4X turn-based strategy game developed by Triumph Studios and published by Paradox Interactive. It’s the latest instalment in the Age of Wonders series, following the 2019 release of Age of Wonders: Planetfall.
Age of Wonders 4 is set in the realm of Magehaven, a magical plain in between worlds where godlike beings known as Godir roam. When passing through Magehaven’s World Gate, Godir can access different worlds on the Astral Plane and play a role in the mortal empires down below. Whether it’s ruling an empire, fighting alongside allies, or exploring different lands, Godir are always in search of new knowledge and experiences. Once they’ve played their role on earth, Godir ascend back to the Pantheon, where they keep an eye on everything happening down on the Astral Plane.
An Age of Wonders 4 playthrough starts before your first unit even moves across the world map. The game allows you to design your very own faction from scratch, picking unique traits that define your people, their looks, their origin story, and their magical affinity. There are six affinities in Age of Wonder 4: Order, Chaos, Nature, Materium, Astral, and Shadow.
As well as designing your faction, you can design your realm, meaning the map you’ll be playing on once you start your game. A realm can be customised from the size of landmass to the climate, fauna, and flora that inhabit the land. You can take your pick from realms including frozen plains, bone-dry deserts, and even a volcanic landscape that changes shape over the course of your playthrough. Inhabitants range from your run-of-the-mill wild animals to demonic forces and undead fiends. Environmental effects allow you to make changes to any other free cities appearing on the map. These are neutral cities that can be negotiated with, much like city-states in Civilization. You can also alter the map’s natural environment further, whether it’s including more volcanoes or increasing the occurrence of arctic blizzards.
The most important things you’ll choose before starting a game, however, are your ruler and a starting magic tome. Your ruler is the hero unit that will head up your entire empire. You can choose from two categories of ruler when you start a game: a chosen champion, who has been elected by your people, or a wizard king. Both come with different bonuses in-game: while a champion has a bonus of relationships with free cities, for example, a wizard king will come with a bonus of mana production – the resource that you need to cast different kinds of spells.
Tomes of Magic, in turn, function in a similar way to research in Civilization or Technology in Humankind, and allow you to unlock new spells, abilities, and summoned units over time. The pace at which you can research new spells depends on your level of knowledge, a resource generated by your cities that can be increased by building city structures like libraries and research posts. The spells you unlock can include ones that can summon magical units to pad out your military, slow down enemy units or help break through their defences, and ones that can be used by a hero on the battlefield. Once all of that is done, you’re ready to start your game.
While this level of customisation may be a lot for some players, the sheer level of variety when it comes to options for determining your realm, your people’s backstory, and picking your ruler, is impressive. Not only does it allow players to mix and match gameplay modifiers, it also gives diverse players a range of ways to express themselves. If endless customisation is not your cup of tea, though, don’t fret: the game also comes with many pre-made factions to choose from, from cursed Toadlings to Shadowborn Elves. No matter your experience level, you’re bound to find a faction to suit your preferences in Age of Wonders 4.
Once you start your game, the core mechanics of Age of Wonders 4 are much like other titles in the turn-based 4X genre. Set on a tile-based map, you explore your surroundings, found cities, manage resources, and focus on building a vast and legendary empire to outshine all others. Similar to titles like Civilization or Humankind, there are different ways to achieve victory: you can either go the military route and ensure you control the biggest surface area on the map, outlast all others by having the highest score at the end of the game, or obtain the magic victory by building a seed, root, and heart magical province improvement in your cities and becoming the most powerful magic ruler in the realm. One of the most interesting aspects about finishing a game in Age Wonders 4, is that your hero will ‘ascend to the pantheon’. This means that you’ll unlock pantheon points depending on how well they did. Then, they’ll become available as a recruitable hero unit in later games, too.
“…dynamic and accessible without ever tipping over into being overly didactic.”
In terms of resources, there are several things to keep track of. First off, there’s Imperium and gold. While Imperium can be used to unlock empire skills – bonuses that improve your empire’s economy and key abilities like seafaring – gold is used to buy units and buildings in your cities and can be used in trade deals with other players and free cities, too. The kind of empire skills you can unlock depends on your faction’s affinity and tomes of magic. Then there’s mana – a magical resource used to summon and maintain magical fighter units and cast spells – and knowledge, which is the key currency used to unlock tomes of magic and research new spells and abilities. And lastly, there are the core resources for your cities: production, which you need to build city improvements, food, which is used to feed your population, and draft, the core currency that allows you to recruit units for your army. Added to that, you’ll also have to keep an eye on the population of your cities and their stability and happiness. A higher population means expanding your city borders at a faster rate, but it also means a higher consumption of food and, sometimes, gold.
Unit-wise, Age of Wonders 4 comes with two different types of military units: generic military units, which include shield, support, and melee units, which are able to defend, attack, or support other troops, and hero units. Hero units function in a similar way to generals in the Total War franchise; they have the ability to head up armies, govern cities, and use spells and abilities in battle. As you progress through the game, you’ll have the opportunity to hire new heroes or add enemy heroes to your ranks, but only after you’ve defeated them in battle and had them do time in your capital’s prison.
“One of the aspects that makes exploration in Age of Wonders 4 especially enjoyable is its underground system.”
Gameplay-wise, Age of Wonders 4 comes with a lot of exploration, combat, city management, diplomacy, and, if you’re keen, combat. Exploration is especially key in the early stages of a game, as the map will be covered in a fog of war, and learning more about the environment and its natural resources is crucial to the expansion of your empire. A core aspect of Age of Wonders is the discovery of Ancient Wonders; these tiles are scattered across the map and can only be explored by a hero unit. Once a hero does so, an event will trigger. Usually, the event consists of a short description of what the hero finds in the ancient ruins – this can vary from uncovering terrifying enemies to rescuing lost citizens from nearby free cities – along with three choices to choose from. Sometimes you’ll be able to access an option where you can avoid combat in exchange for gold or resources, and other times you’ll have no choice but to fight or retreat.
One of the aspects that makes exploration in Age of Wonders 4 especially enjoyable is its underground system. Where other titles like Civilisation and Total War come with one central overworld map where all the action takes place, Age of Wonders 4 has a network of caverns and tunnels sitting just underneath the surface, waiting to be explored. Practically, the underground tunnels function as a second map that you can access once your units discover underground passages in the overworld, and, once you unlock the tunnelling ability for your units, you’re able to switch between both maps. The underground world has many free cities, resource tiles, and ancient wonders, which add a tonne of variety to the overall gameplay experience.
When it comes to combat in Age of Wonders 4, you either have the option to fight it out in a turn-based battle yourself or auto-resolve the conflict, similar to Age of Wonders: Planetfall and the Total War games. This is where spells, hero abilities, and magically summoned units come in particularly useful, since your army’s skills will depend on the tomes you’ve researched throughout your game. Aside from enemy troops, the game features sea monsters, wild animals, demons, and other fearsome beasts. To make sure you don’t suffer too many casualties, building a powerful army with a good distribution of skills is essential. In addition to this, the difficulty of a battle will also be influenced by the terrain you’re on: fight an enemy underground and you might have to manoeuvre your troops around different cave structures, but fighting a sea monster in a naval battle may mean your troops are at a disadvantage since they’re soaked to the bone. All of this helps make the combat experience in Age of Wonders 4 layered and varied. Even if you choose to auto-resolve every conflict, having diverse units in your army will still impact the outcome.
In between gameplay, you’ll receive trade offers from other rulers and requests from any vassal cities under your control. Sometimes, the head of a vassal city might approach you with a question about their empire – in one of our playthroughs, a ruler asked what to do with their unruly child – or other times they may simply ask you to attend a feast in their realm. Your available choices will depend on your affinity and your individual hero’s skills. If you’re unable to make a positive choice, your relationship with a city-state will be negatively affected. On top of this, you’ll also need to keep an eye on your relationship with other rulers. While the diplomacy system in the game is relatively standard – you can form alliances, denounce leaders, or trade resources – other rulers may have their own agenda. If so, they can choose to fabricate a grievance against you before taking you to war. Whether you want to fight it out through diplomacy or in battle is up to you.
In this sense, the most impressive aspect of Age of Wonders 4 is perhaps also its weakness in a way: there’s so much to explore, consider, and keep track of in the game that the sheer number of menus that track your magic tomes research, empire skills, diplomacy, victory progress, and city resources can feel a tad unwieldy at times. Especially for newcomers to the series, this level of content may be intimidating, particularly at first glance. Added to this, selecting units and forming armies can sometimes be clunky, too: removing units from merged armies, for example, isn’t possible. Instead, you’ll have to disband the units you want to remove from your army before adding different ones.
That said though, the game comes with extensive tooltips and accessible tutorials to get players up to speed, and the number of concepts in Age of Wonders 4 speaks to its ambition as a game. Age of Wonders 4 weaves together intricate systems that, at their best, feel responsive and fresh. Several elements in the game are directly informed by the choices you make early on, which injects a nice dose of roleplay into the game’s core gameplay experience. The result feels dynamic and accessible without ever tipping over into being overly didactic, which undoubtedly speaks to Age of Wonders 4’s clever design.
- Endless hero and realm customisation options
- Large variety of pre-made factions, hero units, and spells
- Interesting underground exploration system
- High replayability value
- Steep learning curve
- Selecting units can feel clunky
While there is a lot to keep track of in Age of Wonders 4, persistence pays off when it comes to the main gameplay experience. While it may take time to get used to the different gameplay concepts and menu screens, the level of variety when it comes to customisation, hero units, underground passages, and ancient wonders makes Age of Wonders 4 a paradise sandbox for strategy fans at all levels. No matter whether you’re a turn-based combat buff or more of a city management fan, you’ll be sure to find something to like in this whopper of a game.