As I defended my city from an army of skeletal warrior dragons with my battalion of unicorns and faeries, I realised hex-based conquest games don’t get any better than this. I’ve broken my fantasy-bone, because Age of Wonders III excels in areas it didn’t need to, and surpasses most of the AAA competition within its genre in sheer content before it’s even released. This fantasy romp has more depth than Gandalf’s cooking pot. Sit with me as I explain why.

I’m a newcomer to the Age of Wonders series, and I didn’t know what to expect other than Elves, Dragon people, and the occasional high-fantasy reference thrown around for legitimacy. Hex-based fantasy games are two a penny, and at first glance it can be really pretty difficult to differentiate one from the next. We’re not about first glances here, however, and I’m thankful for that because behind what is essentially fantasy Civilization V, lays a wealth of original content taking that idea and stretching it into an imaginative, hands-on, personal strategy experience.

You have my attention, Triumph Studios.

Since this is the third installment in the Age of Wonders series, and the aforementioned crowded concept is looming on your conscience, I’m going to go ahead and show you the coolest, most impressive thing about Age of Wonders III right off the bat: the ability to create your own character for massive, fantasy themed, Civilization style multiplayer skirmishes.

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Players can either pick from one of the games story-mode heroes from the many different races in game, or create an entirely new hero editing everything from their hair-style, posture, and skin to their clothing, base-scenery, coat of arms and last-name/house, with the ability to save it as a template for next time. We’re talking MMO quality visuals and character creation for a top-down hex-based Civilization style experience. You have my attention, Triumph Studios.

Not only do you have the enormity of of Civilization style strategy exploration and conquest, but you also have an almost identical diplomacy mechanic, and that’s a good thing, because fantasy IPs can be hugely alienating to the uninitiated. This isn’t a simple clone of CiV, however, but drawing comparisons between the two games made it far easier for me to wade through the pages of lore attached to the franchise, which is a much more appealing feat once you know what you’re actually playing mechanically.

One cannot defeat Sheniqua of the House of Harlem.

One cannot defeat Sheniqua of the House of Harlem.

A large and impressive part of Age of Wonders 3 is the combat. Instead of traditional animated combat on the hex-board as you’d expect from the aforementioned, Age of Wonders 3 seamlessly switches to a contextual battle screen, similar to Total War, wherein you get to dabble in turn-based strategy (dissimilar to Total War) using the units in your squad, which can be either created in cities, or won in battle, or even volunteered to you by explorers on the map.

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Here, you’re expected to really rather quickly learn what each fantasy unit does, and how to best use it. Units range prosaically from siege, ranged, melee, and magical (either melee or ranged), to the less prosaic unicorns, dragons, ethereal beings, faeries, humans, elves, and everything in between. After around 8 hours of playing I can’t say I’ve gotten a firm grasp on the total amount of units, they just seemed to keep coming. It’s not as though humans are one unit, and elves are another unit – no, they are factions with their own units, some similar, and others dissimilar.

Many units sort of do the same job, but with different vulnerabilities and specialties

Many units sort of do the same job, but with different vulnerabilities and specialties pertaining to their race or faction. It’s important to note that potentially any race can be commanded by any other race, so long as you meet the required criteria for an alliance, such as stumbling across them in the map and scaring them into fighting for you, or earning the hero unit in a diplomatic trade.

Units are generally clustered in numbers of anything from a single unit to around 6 or so, but this is largely visual and each unit has a single health-bar. However, as a unit diminishes, visually, it does the same damage regardless.

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It’s difficult to get a sense of how balanced everything is, and that’s in part due to the fact that I have no idea how powerful a frigate ship would be in relation to a trio of squidlet bastards, and also in part to magical buffs, debuffs, and passive resistences and weaknesses. Each unit, race and faction is vulnerable to different things, and hero units have a wide variety of ways to change the battle.

They also offer an interesting new level of depth in diplomacy

That’s when another layer of depth comes in, because in both the scenario style missions and campaign, hero units can equip a full array of magical items just as you’d see in World of Warcraft – this even includes mounts, which can change the way the hero unit moves (flying, running, etc). There are also weapons, changing their attacks, shields, and armour pieces. These are all varied by loot type, epic, legendary etc, just as you’d expect from a fantasy game. They also offer an interesting new level of depth in diplomacy, since these items can be traded to meet you, or their, demands.

That's right, I have unicorns i

That’s right, I have unicorns in my army.

Selecting a unit on the battle map will show three different coloured hexes. If an enemy is in range of the green hex, you’re able to hit the enemy with three strikes. If the enemy is in range of the yellow, two strikes. Red: 1 strike. That means if you choose to move into the red, and the enemy is in range, you get one hit. If it’s melee, they’ll hit you back for one hit. If you run into the yellow, you get two hits. You get the idea, right? This isn’t something I’ve seen in a hex game before, although it’s similar of course to Action Points in RPGs.

In battle, damage spells make up the bulk of your magic prowess

I didn’t appreciate how in some of the bigger battles your units are all lined up considering the circular field of vision for the whole affair, since I spent quite a few turns shuffling the left and right flanks into the center to be effective, but that wasn’t a massive issue. It can however be a problem when magic is being thrown about, yet another pesky layer of depth.

Each turn, as well as city and character upgrades (more on that in a moment), you can select a new spell for research. There are abilities for the general purposes of the map, such as magically boosting city growth, as well as abilities to conjure an allied unit. However, in battle, damage spells make up the bulk of your magic prowess, either destructively spamming the toughest enemy units with your best pixie dust, or buffing your allied units. Careful character progression is important, and in yet another level of depth, you can boost their attributes with a wide variety of upgrades throughout the campaign and scenarios. There’s a lot to get your head around.

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Cities grow in both area and mass, and that’s represented similarly, again, to Civilization V, as things expand and the city starts looking more vibrant. You can even see harbors, if you build them, and other buildings required to meet the criteria to build various units. I won’t go into detail about that here, but it’s very similar to other games in the genre, only with fluffier names. It’s certainly up to snuff, and managing cities is a matter of managing happiness, food, growth, defense, and money, which is standard within the genre, done well in Age of Wonders III.

Think Warhammer: Dawn of War, but with fairies and unicorns, rather than death bastards

As well as all this, Age of Wonders III features a few story campaigns for the various factions in the game, with a wealth of lore fed to you through competent voice acting. The campaigns are on maps designed for them, and take you through an actual story, not a ham-fisted attempt to gel skirmish and story together. Think Warhammer: Dawn of War, but with fairies and unicorns, rather than death bastards. The campaign does require structure management and building, so plays similarly to Total War in that regard, but with objectives and contextual voice acting fed throughout the experience, it’s essential if you want to get into the lore of the game.

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I can see Age of Wonders III alienating a lot of people at a glance. It has a rather generic name, and the curse of the third in the series doesn’t bode well for gamer confidence, but believe me when I say that if you like Civilization, and you love fantasy, you’ll absolutely adore Age of Wonders III. With an astoundingly impressive character creation system and insanely deep mechanics for conquest and battle, Age of Wonders III is addictive, endearing, and an absolute gem even in its beta state.

Don’t be concerned if you’re not familiar with the franchise, between you and I, let’s just call this Civilization: Unicorns and Pixie Dust, no one else has to know.