Age of Wonders 4, the upcoming 4X game from Paradox Interactive, promises untold customisation. Create your starting race, from abilities to appearance; create your hero; create the realm that you’ll battle in; shape them continually throughout your game.
There is a campaign mode in Age of Wonders 4, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it. The best 4X games have sandbox modes that you can replay forever, and this one promised me the untold freedom to mess with it to my heart’s content – an offer I didn’t refuse.
There are prebuilt factions to choose from, but you’re free to create your own. You’ll first pick their race: fantasy staples like human, elf, dwarf are available, but they’re right beside much cooler choices like moleperson, ratperson, frogperson. Races have a couple of default traits that can be freely switched out. If you think that elves should live underground and be great at ambushing people, go for it.
That’s the race, but it’s not the same as your civilization, which gets another pair of choices – then you’ll define your army leader, who could be a mortal champion or an extra-dimensional wizard king.
If you want to put a creation system to the test, give it to a child. They don’t care about ‘synergy’ or ‘making sense’, and instead employ a purely ‘vibes’ driven decision system. So it was that my daughter crafted the Nightmare Bolt, a race of cat-people who ride fiery horses, have an affinity with nature and a devotion to order. Their leader is a buff Ajani cosplayer. They’re great.
Age of Wonders 4 offers a set of default ‘Realms’ to battle over, but they’re not fixed – rather they’re RNG recipes for procedural generation. You can of course create your own. Some customisation options are familiar, like the size of landmasses or the frequency of different terrain biomes, but others add substantial modifiers – making it impossible for units to heal without using magic, say – and some are practically challenge modes, adding an alternate win condition and an immensely powerful NPC faction or two to the map.
My daughter’s feline forces started a game in the Valley of Wonders, an extremely chill and violence-averse realm. With warfare taking a back seat, the game’s many opportunities to simply potter around and poke stuff came into focus.
Like the venerable Might and Magic franchise, your faction leader is a presence out exploring the world map. You’ll find loot, uncover adventure locations, meet NPC mobs, eventually discover free cities and rival empires. Heroes level up, tabletop RPG style, and the gear you find gives them bonus abilities in the game’s tactical turn-based battles.
Combat takes place on a separate hex grid away from the world map, a self contained turn-based game that ties together several simple systems in a neat little bow.
Positioning and order of activation is important. Melee units strike back after they’re attacked, while ranged and support units can’t activate when they’re engaged, and moving out of an enemy unit’s area of control exposes you to an attack of opportunity. The battlefield is densely packed with combats and units in the wrong place just die.
Then you have a rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock range of unit types: shock units are more powerful on the charge and rob your opponent of the ability to strike back; infantry units degrade in effectiveness as soldiers are killed; huge monsters attack at full power until they’re dead; spear units are strong against monsters and strike back first when charged.
That’s before we get to the spells you can cast into the battle, or the incredible variety of units the open-ended race creation and development system produces. Even the weird monsters that stalk the realm are a treat. I saw everything from stock fantasy trolls, to extra-dimensional mind-breaking horrors, to a crab made of skeletons that disgorged yet more skeletons when I killed it, bursting like a bone pinata.
If you don’t fancy turn-based combat there’s also the option to auto-resolve – and if you’re worried about an incompetent AI losing battles, you have the option to manually re-fight any battle you delegate to the computer. Total War, please take note, we need this.
Your city grows as it tends to in 4X games – you spend resources to build structures that generate resources and unlock new structures. Gather enough food to grow your population and you’ll claim an adjacent province, into which you can socket a farm or forester or quarry. Those improvements too generate resources and unlock other structures. You’ve been here before – it works.
More striking is Age of Wonders 4’s alternative to the tech tree. Throughout the game your mage will study from two tomes of magic – you’re offered a random selection from the topics it contains each time you set your research priorities. Once you’ve mastered half the topics in the book you get to pick a new one.
There’s lots to research. At the simple end are new units to recruit or structures to build, and battle spells that will heal, hurt, buff, or summon units during combat. World spells are used on the strategic map: they might summon a unit to an army, improve your diplomacy with a free city, or enchant all your Scout units with faster range or all your Archers with poisoned bows. Racial Transformations permanently alter the characteristics of an entire race.
My daughter doubled down on healing spells and nature creatures. In the process she enchanted her entire military to carry poison weapons, which goes against her “good guy” theme and probably the Geneva convention, but it’s right there in the nature spell tome alongside the ability to summon tree nymphs.
The tomes you study from, the heroes in your realm, and certain structures you can build, deepen your affinity with the elements of magic. As that affinity increases you can unlock new skills that affect your whole Empire.
Some are mundane, like the ability to lay roads or found more cities. A high-level Nature skill gave the Nightmare Bolt a free random beast unit every time they annexed a new province, an ever growing menagerie of birds, spiders, and hogs.
Little narrative events pop up all the time. They’re not as in depth as the quest lines from Endless Legend, restricted to one or two choice screens, but they’re wittily written. Flaming Dire Penguins stalk the lands – will I hunt them? A lesser hero fears for her family’s safety – should she stay home to defend the land, or will I help her find Archon Blood to craft Iron Golems to defend the realm?
Playing in a pacifist realm, my daughter decided to make lots of friends. Free cities you encounter can slowly be converted into your vassals, giving access to unique trade goods, revenue, and the ability to recruit their units into your realm.
Diplomacy with larger powers is slightly more involved. As well as a “relationship” with the ruler that you can improve with the usual mixture of bribery or behaving in ways they like, there’s an ongoing “grievance” metre that tracks how ready you are to go to war with them.
Going to war without a good justification is a great way to make every other faction hate you, and penalises the vital ‘Imperium’ resource you use to buy Empire skills, settle new cities, convert vassals into provinces of your realm, or accelerate the growth of your cities. It’s a strong incentive to turtle – but you can’t avoid war forever.
When the borders of rival cities are so close that they start to claim provinces from under one another’s noses, they’ll naturally begin to generate a grievance that will lead to war. I’ll note that in the Valley of Wonders my daughter never came close to a full-on Empire fight, but in multiplayer, a nastier realm, or against tougher AI, I suspect things will be different.
My daughter treated the game like a sandbox. I suspect for many players it’s going to feel like a romp, a cosy adventure with much experimentation and little threat. The open-ended customisation promises much, much replayability. But don’t think I let my daughter have all the fun – I have my own realm on the go.
Inspired by the Dark Sun DnD setting, I tinkered with the biome to create a desolate realm bereft of forests, a necromantic universe where units that die in combat grant their masters magical power, and turned off the ability to settle new cities, guaranteeing a war between great city states.
As for my race, I decided to make one of my favourite Age of Sigmar armies, the Skaven – scurrying, chaotic hordes of rat men who live in the subterranean underworld. Did I mention this game has an entire underworld beneath the main map?
I picked the Dark origin to clothe them in black cowls, then went full steam ahead on Chaos magic which in turn unlocked Empire skills for raiding and pillaging. My forces seethe beneath the earth, bursting forth to ruin the daylight cities of the vile surface dwellers.
I like it, is what I’m saying. There are some bugs in the build I’ve played – most notably a knight whose character model disappeared after I equipped a magic lance, which feels like a Kojima level meta-joke but definitely isn’t. I also haven’t felt pushed or taxed by the AI at any point, but then I’ve been playing on normal difficulty – one more option to toggle to my will.
Multiplayer wasn’t part of the preview. With customisation options as wide open as they are, my gut says that will fall somewhere between “clown car” and “industrial mincer”. I’m very keen to try it out.
To check if your PC can run the minimum requirements and recommended specs, take the Age of Wonders 4 system requirements benchmark test.