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Age of Wonders 3: Golden Realms Review

By on December 8th, 2014 9:39 am

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | Defending a Seal

The 2014 release of Triumph Studios’ fantasy strategy game Age of Wonders 3 was only the beginning. Since then they have patched the game numerous times, and in the process have addressed not only bugs, but also several of the issues pointed out in my original review. On top of that, they have also released their first expansion. Another expansion is also in the pipeline and will increase class and race selection even further. Due to the continued development, a re-evaluation of the entire game will almost certainly be in order next year. For now though, I’m going to provide my thoughts on their first expansion release, Golden Realms. Golden Realms has left me optimistic and excited about where Age of Wonders 3 is headed.

This review is going to attempt to cover only the expansion so you can evaluate whether it is worth adding to the Age of Wonders 3 experience. I have made my best effort to separate out the Golden Realms specific content from content that was patched for free into the base game.

Seek and Find No More. A New Endgame is here.

Given my issues with the solitary victory condition in the base game, it may come as no surprise that I find the most notable addition brought by Golden Realms to be the optional victory condition known as the Seals of Power. At its core, this new victory condition is essentially just king of the hill, or perhaps more often, king of the hills. When starting a new game, you have the option to enable the Seals. Once enabled, you can also set the number of these locations that will appear on the map as well as the number of points you need to achieve in order to claim victory. At the end of each turn, you will receive 1 point for each seal you have an army on.

To be clear, this new victory condition isn’t a revolutionary idea. It is however a game changer that dramatically changes the feel and flow of the game. In the base game it is quite possible to cautiously build up your own empire while slowly exterminating your neighbors. This can be a slow and arduous process given the necessity to defeat both the opposing leader and take their throne city within a few turns. The seals change things entirely. From the moment the first faction eliminates a seal’s elemental guardians and starts accumulating points, the race is on. It’s a high stakes race that every faction, AI and human alike, simply can’t ignore. I learned this lesson the hard way in my first Golden Realms game.

Taking a seal is a huge risk, because every faction is quick to sever all prior peace agreements and declare outright war. Now you’re in a multi front war as you try to protect 1 (or more) seals, your general cities, your throne city, and your leader from every other faction. On maps with multiple seals, this race can get very interesting as large battles insue and cause shifts in seal ownership. Suddenly, owning one seal just isn’t enough when a rival is holding two and is poised to win in half the time as you. Leaving to take another seal is no easy decision either, as moving a powerful army out of the way can open the door for another faction to invade your borders behind you. The more forces you commit to taking and defending seals, the less forces you have to defend your empire’s core holdings.

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | Taking 2 seals to compete leaves your empire vulnerable.

Anytime a new victory condition is added, it is worth evaluating how the AI reacts to it. In this case, I found that the AI had a pretty strong desire to take and protect seals. It doesn’t seem possible to take a seal without ruining your friendships, which is great because you can’t just steal a victory without them reacting. In addition, the AI isn’t afraid to fight dirty and will take you out at the knees while you focus on the seals. I speak from experience when I say they will sneak in by land, sea, and air to invade cities behind your front lines. The AI will also fight amongst themselves for seal supremacy, but in this area I did find the AI a bit too slow to react to another AI’s pending seal victory. One AI was able to hold 2 of the 4 seals for a long time before another AI stepped in to take one of them. I would have done it myself, but I had already lost many forces and my throne city trying to defend the 2 seals I had held. Ultimately, I lost to the AI in that game (and several others) on Emperor difficulty.

A City Worth Planning

Another weakness I cited with the original game were the generic buildings and lack of interesting decisions when it came to city building. While this is still largely the case, Triumph Studios has been making some progress in this area. A few of these changes were made with patches, but this expansion also includes several changes that increase this variation. Here I’m referring to the special locations that bring mystical city upgrades and the race specific defensive buildings.

The introduction of special locations on the map has brought to life the concept of cities having special advantages that may be unavailable to other cities. A city that has certain special locations within its domain will be presented with a new building option once that location is captured. These buildings vary dependent on the special location, but in general they provide boosts to specific unit types that are recruited at that location. For instance, all pikemen recruited from that city may receive +1 damage and +2 defense. This can cause certain cities to become specialists in producing better versions of certain unit archetypes like archers, cavalry, or pikemen. If multiple special locations are present, it is even possible to combo these for instance by having your mounted archers benefit from both cavalry based bonuses as well as archer based ones. Not every special location offers a basic unit improvement though. Some specialize in reanimating fallen troops or provide additional defensive bonuses to the owning city by for example repairing walls automatically every round. The Wizard Tower Ruins grant all units summoned in the nearby city an additional rank and a supercharge ability that makes them spawn lesser elementals if they should die in combat.

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | Now I just need to get a city built next to this tower.

Speaking of new defensive bonuses, there is another new type of building available to every faction that can be built regardless of the presence of special locations. These buildings are used during sieges and provide the defender a little more of an advantage. Every faction has their own, including for example the Human bell tower that fires arrows upon the enemy each round, the Draconian pillar that shoots down a column of fire, and of course the Halfling rabbits that gnaw at their opponent’s heels. I’ve said that they provide a little advantage, and this is my only real gripe with these defensive buildings. I found their effects to be somewhat toned down overall, especially given that they can be dispelled. Their presence is unlikely to change the outcome of a siege unless the difference between victory or defeat lies on a razor’s edge. Perhaps they will add in the ability to upgrade these further in the future for those that want to invest in a nigh impenetrable fortress.

Empire Quests/Goals

There’s no denying that the new empire quests are simply in-game achievements. If you manage to be the first to achieve one of the stated goals, which are the same in every game, you will receive a reward. It’s a simple system and can be turned on or off as desired during setup. There are quite a few of these goals, and while they don’t dramatically affect the game, they are still interesting and may guide your next move if you are close to achieving one of them. The AI frequently grabs up the bonuses that involve rapid expansion, as I tend to be a bit more methodical, and I usually end up with those dealing with the arcane item forge, achieving a certain alignment, and obtaining the first metropolis size city. The bonuses on offer aren’t gamebreaking by any means, but a free item, free set of mid tier units, or granting a paragon unique boost to your freshly minted tier IV unit is nothing to scoff at either. The game does a great job at informing you when the AI has achieved any of these goals, and the list can be checked anytime to see which are still available to make a run for.

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | It's a race to achieve certain goals now more than ever

Make Some New Pint Sized Friends

The new race this time around is the Halflings. As I mentioned previously, I’m no great fan of Halflings as a general rule. In Age of Wonders 3 they have the unique honor of being the most luck driven race, both literally and figuratively. Their racial trait is “Lucky”, and this essentially means that a certain percentage of the time, depending on their morale, blows against them will completely miss. This can be very frustrating at times as you curse the RNG (Random Number Generator) when your units miss them repeatedly, and at other times you’ll be amazed when your own Halflings are dodging blows left and right. In a game where damage values are far from deterministic, I can accept the randomness for what it is and appreciate that the Halflings have something unique to call their own. They also all suffer from a 20% physical damage weakness, and this makes them one of the weakest races when luck is not on their side. They seem well balanced based on my play with and against them.

The Halfling unit selection is interesting. Their cavalry unit rides on ponies, their support unit carries around a meal at all times and tosses cleavers at your enemies, and their highest tier warriors ride on the back of an eagle that can flap its wings to damage multiple nearby units without retaliation. One of my favorite units is actually their tier 1 Jesters. These guys can shoot fireworks that can prevent the enemy, and nearby enemies, from performing retaliation attacks by dazzling them with lights. This is a great tactical tool from such a low level unit as it allows your high tier units to engage enemies without fear of counter attack. This seems to be indicative of a general trend by Triumph Studios to make unit variety more interesting across the board. This is something I’ll address when the base game is re-evaluated, but I felt it worth noting that units of all races have some new abilities and tricks that improve their usefulness. Overall, I liked the Halflings a fair bit more than I thought I would.

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | The Jester is a tier 1 unit that can make a difference

Additional Perks

Two new specializations are available for your leader during leader creation, one magic based, and one non-magic. Like all specializations, these selections only offer a few additional skills/spells each, but more variety is always welcome. The Wild Magic specialization in particular is interesting in that a couple of its spells can be risky to use. Giving all of your units a unique random buff in battle can be quite powerful, but the downside is you have no control over what is selected and units may also suffer some debuffs, as well. Other spells like having one unit randomly trade places with another offer a little more control, but you still lack complete knowledge regarding which enemy unit will appear beside you. The other specialization, Partisan, deals primarily with concealing your armies on the map. I did try it, but compared to wild magic or one of the base game specializations, I didn’t find it all that useful.

Just as any good expansion should, Golden Realms also increases variety in a plethora of other ways. There are new items to collect. There are more than a handful of new units including new varieties of elementals, nagas, and monkeys. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet seen the Glutton, but I hope when I do he is working for me. I have however seen the powerful Naga Queen when the AI used it against me to quite good effect.

There are also scenarios revolving around the seals feature and a new campaign. The scenarios I tried were interesting, but I found I preferred random maps with the seals enabled. The new campaign I’ve not ventured into, as my experience with the original campaigns has still left me a bit cold on their restrictions.

Age of Wonders 3 Golden Realms Review | He's not just hideously ugly.  He's also particularly deadly.

Better Than it Was Before. Better, Stronger, Faster.

If you enjoyed Age of Wonders 3 at all, I highly recommend you add the Golden Realms to your game. In my eyes, it is a solid must have addition to a base game that has already been steadily improved by the developer. Golden Realms attempts, for the most part successfully, to resolve several of the issues I had in regards to victory conditions and building layouts. While the expansion adds a lot to the variety on offer, it is the new victory conditions and special locations that truly make it worth the asking price for me. The endgame isn’t as drawn out, the choices are more interesting, and the game is more fun to play. The expansion removes some of my biggest frustrations with the base game and was able to reinvigorate my interest in the game series as a whole. Not too shabby an accomplishment for a relatively inexpensive expansion.

For those still on the fence about the series as a whole, it is best to still proceed with caution. I can say that fully patched and expanded, it is a much better game than it was on launch. Unit differentiation has been worked on, unit advancement is more interesting, and numerous other tweaks have been made. I’d like to see a little more in the way of leader class options and race differentiation, and recent dev logs indicate this is coming. Not all of my AI related concerns are completely solved, but it has come a long way.

Age of Wonders 3, now with its expansion Golden Realms, is at its core still a tactics oriented game that offers a lighter experience than a 4X game, and you have to be looking for something like that to really enjoy this game. If you are, you can’t do much better than this game. If you’re still unsure either way, keep an eye out in 2015 for my updated thoughts. By then, I fully expect the game to have added at least one more Golden Realms size expansion as well as numerous patches. The Frostling race and Necromancy are also both on their way, and I’m excited to see how they turn out.

Age of Wonders 3: Golden Realms expansion

Age of Wonders 3: Golden Realms (PC)

Buy at GOG, or on Steam.

Space Sector score:
The Good:
– The seals victory condition fixes issues with the endgame and creates tough decisions
– Mystical city upgrades obtained from special map locations create less homogeneous cities
– Empire quests create a tense race for beneficial advantages
– Adds more diversity to nearly every aspect except leader class options
The Bad:
– AI still needs improvement and responds too slowly to impending seal victories
– Not everyone will appreciate the “Luck” factor introduced by the Halflings
– Unique city defensive buildings are nice, but underpowered.

Keith Turner, also known as aReclusiveMind here on SpaceSector, has been an avid gamer ever since he first laid his hands on a Commodore 128 in the mid 1980s. He enjoys multiple computer game genres, but his primary interests are in deep strategy games, 4x games, rpgs, and action rpgs. He enjoys writing and hopes to contribute with additional reviews, previews, and informative AARs to the community. See all Keith’s posts here.

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  1. DevildogFF says:

    I’ve only recently given this game a fair shake and can’t get enough of it. Its tactical battles are truly fantastic and the promise of more and more DLC really leaves me feeling more interested in the game – and the series – in general.

    I’m very excited to see where it all ends up. Nice write up, Keith. Can always count on you for quality writing.

  2. Mezmorki says:

    Glad you all are coming around :)

    I know I beat this like a dead horse, but AoW3 has been the best PC game (for me!) I’ve played in the past decade – and it just keeps getting better.

    I’ve said previously in the comments on other AoW3 posts that the beauty of this game is in recognizing that “less is more.” The game mechanics at the city management scale are far less complex then something like Endless Legends, but in a tight race match every decision really matters in what you build in your cities.

    Also – I know you (Keith) aren’t much of a multiplayer 4X-gamer, but this game is excellent as a 1v1 or team-based MP game. I’ve been playing a number of 1v1’s with a friend and IT IS BRUTALLY fun.

    In my last game, my opponent by all accounts had me cornered and down to just two cities. He pulled his leader stack out to grab a weakly defended city of mine, and though I knew I would lose the city, used every tactical trick I could pull to kill his leader (which I did). What he didn’t know is that I had a lone Druid Hunter sneaking around the map to try and claim is throne. Unfortunately for me, my hunter arrived at his undefended throne city at the exact same moment his leader respawned – and I lost the hunter in a bitter fight. So close to victory!

    Anyway, it’s just a brilliant game, well executed, diverse and interesting strategies to try out, tons of replayability with the different race + class combos. Love it!

    Thanks for the coverage!

  3. MizzouRah says:

    The DLC is fantastic, another excellent write up as usual Keith.

  4. Smoking Robot says:

    It’s not good for the publishers, I know, but I’ve started waiting for the Platinum version on sale at Steam for many games.

    Release versions just aren’t that polished anymore. And I do like a polished game.

  5. Manfromstars says:

    I am sorry, but main game was unstastisfied for me and not liked it. Old game I and II was many times better enjoy. In AoW III i look for something more, bud sadly not found. :/

    I rather see some new Warlords Battlecry with more choices. WB 2 was very good and has good computer AI. I remember when play with my brother against computer and in half play game we thinked that rule game and win and we finally teryble loose. ;P ;D

  6. Gary says:

    I agree. I’m waiting for the GotY edition with all the expansions and DLC, on sale next Christmas on Steam :)

    I’ve got so many games, I’m not in any hurry to add more.

  7. Keith Turner says:

    To quote myself from my Age of Wonders 3 Review: “I don’t often talk about multiplayer, as I don’t personally pursue this aspect, but I have a strong hunch that this same engine is able to reach its pinnacle when each side is controlled by a complex human brain.”

    Glad to see my hunch was correct and that you are enjoying the multiplayer experience.

    I’m certainly looking forward to the additional content they’re working on.

  8. Keith Turner says:

    Thanks, I’m looking forward to the future content as well. It sounds like it will pack just as much content in as this one did. The increase in diversity should help, especially when it comes to class options. Right now I often end up with 2 or even 3 of my opponents sharing the same class if I let it randomly select one. I’d like to see this happen a bit less often.

  9. JohnR says:

    I’s sorry to say that I completely agree with you. The first two games were very good bordering on great, but AoW3 just didn’t do it for me. I just found the whole thing very tedious and frustrating. Especially annoying is the way the AI spams you with a never-ending stream of massive armies, and as another game critic so aptly noted, events on the strategy map tend to make events on the tactical map irrelevant. Although I applaud Triumph sticking with the game and improving it as evidenced by this expansion, I saw no evidence in Keith’s review that the serious core issues were addressed. That said, it’s my hope that maybe I will want to give it one more try in 2015 after the next expansion, assuming that I will be ready to give SWTOR a rest by then. ;)

  10. t1it says:

    I’m actually playing Eador right now in between DA Inquisition runs. AoW 3 needs 1 more expansion to be truly great just as expected before release.

  11. Smoking Robot says:

    AI spam? Thanks, you just saved me some cash.

  12. 4xLove says:

    1st i want to say that i dont think AoW is a 4x, IMHO is just a tactical orinented fantasy game, not Civilization series and variety is good, with that said…

    I loved wizards throne and shadow magic and i wanted AoW3 to be an expanded AoW, better graphics, bigger maps, more units,etc i hoped it to be a expanded version of a good formula but AoW3 is just a simplified AoW with 3d graphics. Perhaps some ppl like that but not me and the expansion dint solve it

    The video games developers are doing that a lot, AoW3 isnt the 1st sequel that feels watered down I really wonder what title of the saga is going to sell more in the end

    All this just a opinion and pls excuse my poor English

  13. 4xLove says:

    I forget a better AI in the list of things i wanted from AoW3, a good AI is important

  14. FireStorm says:

    Honestly i seen some comments liek this in the past but i dont understand it. I played AOW1 and 2 and imho AOW3 is very similar , but better balanced .The AI spam was same in previous versions, i just dont see what mechanics of 1 and 2 were so better that it made the difference.

    I liked AOW1,2 and i like AOW3, tough waiting for undeads to play more, as they are my fav race.

  15. t1it says:

    Could you explain how AoW3 is simplifed from the previous versions?

    Only thing I can can remember is the tactical combat having a “stamina-like” system thats missing from AoW3 and that racial relations & morale in general was prevalent and very important.

  16. JohnR says:

    To be fair, I was probably accusing AoW3 of issues that maybe were also present in the earlier games (albeit to a lesser extent). Also, I will concede that it must be in better shape now than it was at launch. That said, all I know is that I came in to AoW3 wanting to love it, and it just didn’t happen.

    BTW, another thing that comes to mind: The hero upgrades in Aow2 were very important and immediately noticeable in game play. In AoW3 though, there are a ton of them and they felt mostly useless.

  17. JohnR says:

    I completely agree with you on AoW3 needing one more expansion to be the game it should have been at launch. This seems to be the vibe I’ve been sensing from SS and others’ comments.

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