There's always been much to like about Age of Wonders, a fantastical fusion of strategy and tactics last seen back in 2002's Shadow Magic. But really, it doesn't get better than the penguins. Dire penguins, to be exact. Dedicated to evil, and summonable to join the armies of goblins and dragons and elves and magic. "These were no men," declares the in-game tome. "They were far more deadly. They were killer penguins." If this game had brought us nothing more than that quote, the wait would have been well worth it. Lucky for us, it did. A lot more.
To get the gist of Age of Wonders, imagine Civilisation stripped down to its conquest breeches, its armies as devoted to making the tactical game interesting as the cities make the strategy, and a big dollop of RPG elements like heroes and magic gluing it all together and offering bursts of power and game-changing abilities. It's a game of battles, and a game of war—the building of armies and leveling-up of heroes in a fantasy world liberally sprinkled with quests and treasure and potential allies, played out over two campaigns, several scenarios, and a random map generator.
To take victory is no small feat, but it's done with a pacey rhythm that cuts out the usual sitting and waiting in favour of choices and expanding: founding cities, seizing resources, or recruiting independents to the cause. This is especially the case when playing in simultaneous turn-based mode, aside from occasional waits for everyone to finish moving, though classic turn-based is also available.
The streamlining makes for an immediately interesting game, though far from an easy one—Age of Wonders III takes no prisoners in either its strategic or tactical game, though it's possible to let the AI take care of the latter either off-screen, or in pausable battles that you can jump in and out of at will and fast-forward on a whim. The action takes place both above and underground, caves linking the maps, with each round throwing in constant discoveries and upgrades to keep things interesting. Independents, for instance, can be conquered, but also recruited by taking care of their problems. Encounters drop loot for your heroes and spells can be deployed in the strategic view to prepare for battles as well as used in more traditional "Fireball! Fireball!" ways when it's time to zoom in and skirmish.
This works really well for the most part, though Age of Wonders III looks so much like Civ 5 that the economics of war and scope of empire building can come across as a little slight. Cities just pour into and draw from big pots, specialised by their owner's race more than commander's needs, in a way that can make some of the bigger decisions seem oddly inconsequential.
The short build/research times can also impact some of the minute-by-minute decisions simply by making them less of a project. Taking to the sea, for instance, needs just one turn's research into Seafaring, at which point any armies just magically turn into a ship on water. If you want a new unit, chances are it's going arrive about as quickly as if it were ordered from Amazon, or quicker, with Prime. Buildings and upgrades come just as fast, making Rome feel lazy for not being built in a day. While Age of Wonders III isn't remotely trying to be Civ 5 and its pace and your ability to roll with the punches is to its credit, this can leave a couple of its four Xs feeling overly clipped.
The iron pricelist
All of this is in the service of the tactical battles though, and those are far more interesting—at least, after the first few and up to the end of the mid-game. Armies (stacks) only hold a miserly six units each, including heroes, making initial fights somewhat disappointing scraps. Any units in adjacent hexes also get to take part in the battle though, meaning that things quickly scale up from these skirmishes to full on town sieges and magic-slinging grudge-matches when leaders cross paths.
Total War: Shogun 2 has nothing to worry about in terms of production values, but epic battles can be very impressive. There's a real premium on specialisation and effective combinations rather than simply fielding a lot of expendable units, as well as game-changing additions courtesy of spells and heroic leadership. At least, for most of a campaign there is; the top tier units are both too powerful and too easily spammed once available. Leaders in particular offer wonderful scope for customisation, with plenty of presets, but also the ability to fully design your faction head's look as well as skills with an MMO style character editor.
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic in particular has long been a cult classic, and Age of Wonders III certainly doesn't let it down. It could use a couple patches to adjust balance and minor things such as occasional lag on the strategy view, but the core game is an immediately engaging mix of strategy and tactics.