Age of Wonders

Another turn-based fantasy game.

2_1Triumph Studios doubtless looked over and pondered just what made the best high fantasy strategy games tick when they designed Age of Wonders. Initially called World of Wonders some five years before it was released, and it looked like a really pretty clone of the popular Heroes of Might and Magic, practically glittering in all of it’s 640 x 480 x 256-color glory. Triumph started with a shopping list of game innovations—well, mostly recycled innovations—that just about every strategy fan would clamor for.

The production history is almost more epic than the game itself, and Triumph certainly isn’t going to win any awards for timeliness. The game that might have originally competed with Heroes of Might and Magic II and Warlords II now instead had to contend with Heroes III and the upcoming Warlords IV.

Heroes of Warlords and Magic

As with Master of Magic, you create a leader character, assign them a number of spell “spheres” (you can choose from water, air, earth, fire, life and death), and then research new spells as the game plays out. You move tactical units around on a strategic map, explore new areas, capture resources and cities, engage in diplomacy with other leaders, and fight battles against other stacks of units in a tactical mini-map mode.

Magic is a key part of the appeal—it’s fun to play a wizard, and this game makes good use of that fact. You can adjust the speed at which you discover new spells by allocating more of your Mana production to research. It’s a pretty solid system that has the advantage of having been done (and tested) before, and it works very well here.

The game does not have as many spells as it’s role-model, but it does have quite a few. There are 16 for each of the six spheres of magic, eight spells in the generic “Cosmos” sphere, plus an additional small assortment of secret spells not listed in the manual… there’s hardly a shortage of mystical firepower. While there is some carry-over, for the most part the various spheres contain strongly differentiated offerings that can play a major role in your strategy. Air wizards excel at exploration, with spells such as Haste, Bird’s Eye, and Freeze Water (which can allow units to cross bodies of water without the aid of boats). Death wizards’ skills lie in other areas—generally those that involve hurting other creatures in nasty ways.

Most spells can be cast from the strategic map (outside of tactical combat), but some of them are tailored for such use, and a few of them are permanent. Water wizards can dramatically alter the landscape with their Flood spell, air wizards can harass other players with Lightning Storms, earth wizards can create new mountain ranges with Raise Terrain… casting spells is entertaining, but casting spells with drama is even more so.

The 2D world is quite pleasing to look at.

The 2D art is quite pleasing to look at.

As strong as the similarities are, Age of Wonders is not Master of Magic 2. It lacks the building elements (improving cities is a relatively simple process, and you can’t build new cities at all). It also has more role-playing elements—you gain heroes in addition to regular units, but your leader is physically embodied on the map as a hero as well, and you can lose the game (actually this is an option) if she is killed. Is the game still derivative? Of course… but at least it borrowed fun elements and copied them well. Players looking for a polished magic system and detailed tactical combat should find value here.

That’s going into some dark territory, isn’t it? But, truth be told, race does play its important part in Age of Wonders – even conquered cities retain their original population, so an orc city captured by elves is still an orc city, albeit under the elves’ banner. You can’t merely waltz a unit into an enemy city, conquer it, and then waltz out again. If the city’s race doesn’t like you (a quick look at either the city window or the race relations screen will tell you how they feel), they might revolt and revert to neutral status unless you keep some garrisoned troops handy. You also have the option to migrate a new race in, ideally a race more sympathetic to your cause. There aren’t a whole lot of games that actively encourage ethnic cleansing and forced migrations, but that’s about what you do here.

It’s nonetheless impressive how the game handles race within the greater scheme of the game. Just consider the diplomacy system – relations between races and leaders are tracked separately, so it is possible to be at war with a leader whose people actually like you (all the more reason to oust him from power and claim his cities as your own). It’s a simple but compelling system that adds another strategic facet to the game.

Home Improvements

aow2_1Cities are the foundation of the game’s economy, which is also a bit like the Warlords games in its expansionist bent. Cities can be set to produce units, upgrades (which allow you to build better units; the number of upgrades a city can receive depends on its size), fortifications, or merchandise. Merchandise increases that city’s base income per turn, and at times you will need it. At the start of many of the game’s scenarios (especially campaign scenarios) you will be losing money. Lose too much and your units (which have to be paid each turn) will start deserting.

There are a few other Warlords nods mixed in as well. Many scenarios feature neutral adventure sites—lairs, ruins, and the like—that you can explore to uncover new units and magic items. Entering such a site drops you into a tactical battle map comprised of a randomly generated dungeon maze with a variety of nasty denizens… it’s rarely necessary to visit such sites, but it is a lot of fun. There is also an optional automatic combat system that is the spitting image of the one from Warlords II Deluxe, a useful asset for getting one-sided battles over with quickly.

Bring in the Heroes

Ironically, the game that Age of Wonders superficially resembles the most is actually the game that it mechanically resembles the least. The tactical battles are more like Master of Magic, the city improvement is more like Warlords, the exploration is a bit closer to the mark, if a little more sparse in terms of goodies to discover.

aow_1Heroes have stats and skills and a paper-doll inventory, but you don’t hire them in towns—you have to find them on the road. They also tend to be fewer and farther between, though fortunately you do not need to have a hero leading each stack as you do in Heroes of Might and Magic. Furthermore, these heroes are a lot more detailed, with dozens of useful skills and spells to pick up along the way. They fight in battle like any other unit, and while they tend to be more powerful than most, they aren’t as unbalanced as the heroes in Master of Magic were.

All in all, comparisons with Heroes of Might and Magic turn up more differences than similarities, and just because you like one of these games doesn’t mean you will like the other. Age of Wonders lacks the “beer and pretzel” appeal that New World’s games have, and its complexity is a virtue only if that happens to be what you are looking for in a game. It may not be original, and it may not be flawless, but it’s certainly a lot of fun if you’re into this sort of stuff.

System Requirements: Pentium 133 Mhz, 32 MB, Windows 95/98

Tags: Free Age of Wonders Download Full PC Game Review