Age of Wonders 4 review: Magical strategy

Age of Wonders 4 offers impressive depth of storytelling and lets you create your own deep fantasy narrative with extensive customization


Fairy tales tell a fixed story with a moral lesson at their heart, but in Age of Wonders 4, Triumph Studios and Paradox let you make your own fantasy tale of intrigue and war – often with no moral at all, depending on how you play. The grand strategy game gives you an almost overwhelming set of options to create a deep, fascinating story around a set of interesting heroes while gradually expanding your influence around the world. It’s a stronger experience than Age of Wonders 3 in almost every way and is easily one of the best in the genre.

Tell me a story

Three tall beings with dark grey headdresses stand imposed against a shining blue background

In the world of Age of Wonders 4, a gaggle of ancient, evil wizards breaks free from their prison in the sea and promises to wreak havoc on the world. It’s a standard fantasy setup, and the beginning is so rife with enough Proper Nouns and exotic-sounding names that it’ll either inject your brain with glee or feel completely overwhelming.

It quickly takes a backseat to the story you build, though, and that story is a major highlight in Age of Wonders 4. You pick from a large handful of factions with their own strong backstories and strengths on the field, and then further specialize with a couple of spells. I started with the Cursed Toadlings, entirely because the prospect of playing as a magic frog sounded, frankly, too cool to pass up. 

And it was cool, but what surprised me is how invested I became in the story of Raina, the frog queen. Hers is the story of an arrogant human brought low by a vengeful mage who turned their uncaring queen and her people into frogs. Now, equipped with a controversial magic tome from the former clan elder, Raina sets out to make her mark on the world. 

Some factions automatically think she’s a threat, given her cursed past. Others, including other Toadling groups, want nothing to do with the magic she wields and take a good deal of negotiating before coming back into the fold. They might be right to fear, too. Raina’s magic summons more creatures from the sea, who present a different set of conundrums.

These creatures are what make the overarching setup more interesting than the generic fantasy plot would suggest. In addition to interactions with rival factions, you’ll frequently run up against these monsters from the depths regardless of which ruler you choose, and the situations they put you in aren’t always easy to resolve – not without stepping on some toes.

The depth of storytelling for every faction is impressive, especially for a genre that often prioritizes shallow story in favor of deep planning. Imagine Civilization and Frostpunk having an elf baby with a complex personality and some unpredictable behaviors, and you’ll have a decent idea of what Age of Wonders 4 is like.

Good neighbor, bad neighbor

A map made up of hexagon tiles shows three frogs standing around a large blue structure. A scroll to the side calls it the Lovers Spring where fairies trick humans

Speaking of depth, in yet another layer of strategy, your choices during a campaign have far-reaching effects not just on how your own civilization develops, but how others see you as well. Ruthlessly slaughter some vulnerable NPCs or renege on a treaty? Sure, you’ll benefit handsomely in the short term, but your high-minded neighbors won’t forget. Irritate them too much, and you just might give them enough grievances to justify a war against you. The same goes for showing generosity to monsters and getting a little too friendly with the forces of darkness.

Age of Wonders 4 throws plenty of choices at you as well. The main goal, as with any grand strategy game, is to increase your settlement’s prestige and influence over the land, ideally while maintaining happiness at home and avoiding revolutions. You’ll explore maps of varying sizes, gather resources, and build and research improvements – but you’ll also encounter dozens of important juncture points along the way, where you have to exercise your authority and make a choice. 

Pantheon quests are one of the unique features, and how you approach them has a substantial effect on much of your game. These function almost like story quests or world quests for your ruler and play into Age of Wonders 4’s broader narrative beats. Others involve how you treat friends and foes and the kind of nation you want your leader to rule over, whether it’s a benevolent academic empire or a nasty, cruel cesspit of brutality.

I only had time to play a few campaigns as a few different factions – these aren’t fast affairs, especially on larger, more complex maps – so it’s tough to say how fresh these choices feel after, say, three campaigns as the Cursed Toadlings. With the amount of variation and choice here, though, including the option to create your own race and faction, I feel pretty confident saying it won’t bog the experience down even if some of the same choices pop up every time. 

What you do on the home front is all fairly standard for the most part. Build farms, mine resources, and keep people happy so your city gets bigger. You can build outposts on conquered provinces, discover wonders, and build massive armies, assuming you have the food and money to support them. Again, it’s pretty standard with a handful of small departures from the norm – factions aligned with the darkness don’t have to worry about citizen happiness, for example – but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it etc etc.

A frog wearing a deep purple dress, with a lotus hat and crown, stands in the middle of a dark green field

One thing I would’ve liked to see fixed is the UI, which is occasionally baffling. My early hours with the game saw me clicking randomly to try and make pins appear over the provinces so I could build improvements, and a few other features and toggles are slightly more opaque than they should be. These are mostly minor issues, though, as the things that count are always clear and easy to understand – no chance of accidentally starting a war without realizing what happened.

To war!

Diplomacy shares a foundation with other grand strategy games, but adds just enough extra depth to keep it fresh and interesting. Negotiations include several layers of friendship, treaties, and agreements, where you can tailor your relationships with nearby free cities and rivals. Most of the friendly options rely on a wizard’s bond to kick things off, which seemed strangely prohibitive in a game that prioritizes freedom and customization, but after that little hurdle, you’re free to do as you see fit.

I opted for an insidious approach, making friends with everyone and then gradually eroding their independence and stealing their lands before squashing whatever was left of them. It’s a twisted, devious method, but hey, it worked. It was also an attractive alternative to combat while I was still learning how things worked and didn’t feel confident enough for an all-out aggressive approach.

Combat is a high point and one that respects your time. You can approach an enemy unit and see a combat preview before taking any risks, and if it seems acceptable, you have the option to choose auto-battle. If it works, hooray! If it doesn’t, you can retry and choose to manually fight. Manual battles adopt a tactical RPG approach, with different unit skills, flanking tactics that prioritize surrounding enemies, and some excellent visuals as well. You can kit your lord out with weapons, armor, and accessories RPG-style.

These feel much better balanced and more like proper RPG battles compared to Age of Wonders 3, complete with complex arenas to beat your foes up in. Best of all, Age of Wonders 4 keeps multiple autosave files, so if a fight proves too much and you really wish you played nice instead, you can load an earlier save and make a better choice.

Finally, it’s absolutely worth touching on the customization options. You have extensive control over how your hero looks, with sliders for everything from height and head style to arm length and what kind of hat they wear. You can change their names and pronouns and see these changes reflected in everything from portraits and combat to how other rulers address you. It’s a welcome touch and one that more strategy games should adopt.

Age of Wonders 4 might be overwhelming at first, but it's brimming with potential and gives you the tools to tell unique stories with your chosen hero. The nearly decade-long gap between releases gave Triumph the chance to polish Age of Wonders 3's weak points and come up with substantial improvements to combat and presentation. The result is one of the best grand strategy games in ages.

This review is based on a Steam key provided by the publisher. Age of Wonders 4 is set to launch for PC via Steam on May 2, 2023.

Contributing Editor

Josh is a freelance writer and reporter who specializes in guides, reviews, and whatever else he can convince someone to commission. You may have seen him on NPR, IGN, Polygon, or VG 24/7 or on Twitter, shouting about Trails. When he isn’t working, you’ll likely find him outside with his Belgian Malinois and Australian Shepherd or curled up with an RPG of some description.

Review for
Age of Wonders 4
  • Impressive depth of creative storytelling
  • Extensive customization
  • Engaging combat
  • Excellent map design
  • A bit overwhelming for the first campaign, even with tutorials
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