Review: Age of Wonders 3: Golden Realms

Age of Wonders 3 became one of my favorite 4X turn-based strategy games of the year when it released earlier this March. Now, its first premium expansion is out. It doesn’t necessarily redefine the original experience, but for $11.99 its new content makes a great game even better.

Golden Realm‘s most notable addition is the Halfling race, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking them as Hobbits from Tolkien’s famous franchise. Several of their units are evocative as such, with a pinch of carefreeness in their arsenal. You can even summon eagles to aid you in battle. But what they may lack in originality they make up for in joviality and nervous fun.

They’re a rather unpredictable lot. Because of their inherent physical weakness – they can’t take too many direct, close hits – they rely on debilitating effects, a greater emphasis on positioning, and not a little luck to get by. For example, their jester units launch fireworks to dazzle enemies. Their farmers fling chickens to inflict movement speed penalties. And when the gap is closed, their Lucky racial trait provides a chance to completely negate incoming damage. Altogether it’s a somewhat like gambling, with the associated highs and lows, the result of which is a bit more excitement in each manual battle than I’ve traditionally felt in the series before. 

The two new specializations, Wild Magic and Partisan, help to further that theme even if they don’t completely cement it. Wild Magic is as its name suggests: chaotic. Its spells allow you to swap places with targeted foes, scramble abilities, warp terrain, and even summon random creations onto the field. It’s not quite as bombastic as I’d hoped, but seeing my small warriors unleash a beholder certainly made it amusing. 

The Partisan specialization includes skills for guerrilla warfare. In theory, the ability to coneal armies sounds like a game changer. In practice, it requires a fair degree of micro-management to be truly effective as that particular empire upgrade only applies to single units on the world map. That said, its Folk Hero and War Anthem spells are great for raising armies quickly or suppressing the Halfling’s Lucky trait. Actual guerrilla warfare is just sadly more time consuming than it is engaging. 

A third campaign is also introduced alongside the new race. Unfortunately, it’s still one of the weaker components of Age of Wonders 3. The story has you lead the Halfling armies to unite its fractured people to defend against threats within and without after war descends upon their tranquil borders. But the lack of backstory and character from its, well, characters don’t give you much reason to care. It’s also rather challenging, with attacks coming from multiple fronts early on, so you may want to get your feet wet with the other two campaigns first.

Personally, the real fun of 4X games has always come from making my own campaign through the stand-alone scenarios and random map generators. Golden Realms adds features there that, while not as whimsical as several of the aforementioned inclusions, create some welcome focus in those rather open game modes. 

The Valley of the Lost Seals and On Top of the World scenarios are crafted around the Seals of Power victory condition. It’s a king-of-the-hill style mode, requiring you to find and hold places of power in order to win. Furthermore, empire quests and defensive and majestic upgrades for cities add a sense of urgency to each playthrough. Completing the quests before your competitors and finding those structures grant powerful bonuses to help turn the tides in your favor, such as free units, upgrades or impressive fortifications. The base game could feel a little loose at times, so these new objectives offer some appreciable agency. You’ll need to send out scouts and expand faster if you wish to claim those rewards.

Last but not least, there are over 50 new hero items, more than 20 new units, and exotic locations to encounter. If you haven’t spent time with Age of Wonders 3 in some time, they’re not quite as obvious additions, but they fill in the game quite well. It’s hard to complain about extra stuff.

If you loved Age of Wonders 3, the Golden Realms expansion is a no-brainer, especially for its low asking price. Some of the what’s been added doesn’t completely come together, but the Halfing race, Wild Magic specialization and new objectives make it a more exciting and purposeful package. 

Final Verdict

8.5 out of 10 

A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.