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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Space Sector score:
– 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
– 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.Subscribe RSS
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