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Age of Wonders 4 Review

Age of Wonders 4 Review


Age of Wonders has a long history of great 4X strategy games. One of its defining features is the sheer variety of playstyles available from its various factions. That variety is why the previous game in the franchise, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, became one of my favorite games.

You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel!

Age of Wonders 4 attempts to take that variety one step further by taking apart the various pieces that make up a faction’s jigsaw puzzle, and handing them to you. You can create your own factions and rulers in Age of Wonders 4, both to play as and against. You can even customize the very realms you play on.

Various units in a desert
A faction of spider-riding dark cultists is just one of the many faction ideas you can bring to life.

However, Age of Wonders 4 isn’t a simple or linear evolution of the series, it’s in many ways, a vast departure from those that came before it. While many of its changes are undeniably great, others could prove divisive among fans of the series.

Gideon’s BiasAge of Wonders 4 Information
Review Copy Used: YesPublisher: Paradox Interactive
Hours Played: 60+Type: Full Release
Reviewed on: Xbox Series XPlatforms: PC, Xbox Series X/S & PlayStation 5
Fan of Genre: YesGenre: 4X, Turn-Based Strategy
Mode Played: Normal, Hard, and BrutalPrice: $49.99

Build a Baron Work Shop

The faction creator stands at the forefront of everything that Age of Wonders 4 aims to be. While there are some pre-generated rulers. You are really meant to dig in and make the game your own by making several factions yourself and then using them to set up scenarios to your own liking.

The system is pretty extensive, both mechanically and when it comes to customizing the way your ruler looks. Factions I’ve made include a bunch of original ideas as well as ones inspired by media. I’ve made factions based on ancient mythologies. I’ve also made a faction of wholesome Halflings led by Gandalf the Grey and Dark Goblins led by Sauron. The system really rewards coming up with thematic concepts, not just min-maxing abilities, and it’s far more fun if you play it that way.

Racial Traits menu
You build a faction from scratch, how they look, their culture, and more.

It was a blast to come up with and play factions like my Norse Vikings who have Arctic Adaptation, and Seafaring. They are led by Thrud the Valkyrie. Or Fizzle Bunkus who leads an inventive group of Goblins that I named, in my infinite genius, Bomblins.

One of the neat things is that your factions of people can take any physical form. They have default traits but you are free to change them. You can have brutish beefy Halfings, elusive and wise Orcs, or water-adapted Molekin.

You choose one of six cultures such as a Feudal, Barbaric, or a Mystic society, and then apply some principles. Are they cannibals, raiders, magical evokers, or virtuous unifiers? Every choice impacts how they play to some degree. Then finally, you select a starting tome of magic.

Hercules recreated in Age of Wonders 4
The faction creator is flexible enough to recreate satisfying versions of characters and factions from media, fiction, and mythology.

You can also create and customize realms to play on that range from evergreen fields of the peaceful Fey to desolate volcanic worlds, all of which affect the gameplay. Since you can choose what factions take part, you can set up all sorts of scenarios, limited only by your creativity.

If you win a game, the ruler you used can be elevated to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is an ongoing recording of your rulers that can appear in future games as heroes. Win or lose, you also earn points to unlock new faction features and realm types to use. It’s a satisfying system that encourages you to finish games, even when you’re losing and it’s a ton of fun.

The Emperor’s New Tome

Creating your faction is only half their development. The other half is determined by the decisions you make while you play. The ancient wonders you capture, whether your choices align with good or evil, but especially your choice of magic tomes.

You pick a starting tier one Tome during the creation of a faction. As you research new spells, you will get to select more and higher-tier Tomes. I really can’t overstate how much Tomes affect your gameplay. They don’t just contain combat spells or creatures you can summon. They also contain structures you can build and units you can train.

A plant based tome of magic
Each tome is unique and allows you to research new spells, structures, and units.

In fact, the units that are granted by your culture never go above tier three. Anything higher comes from Tomes or ancient wonders, which ideally work together to form your playstyle. Your cultured units are kept relevant into the mid and late game by spells known as enchantments and transformations.

Enchantments will affect all units of a given type, such as archers, or spearmen. While Transformations affect your entire race, such as giving them stone skin or making them into giants.

Tomes also affect your empire’s affinity between Astral, Nature, Chaos, Shadow, and Materium. Each of which has its own empire development tree with perks that can be unlocked. There are a ton of different Tomes, and each one is unique. Age of Wonders 4 does a great job of capturing the power of magic. Using it can have sweeping changes, from terraforming a land into a forest to giving your entire race demon wings and horns.

A race being transformed by the earth kin spell
Many transformations change how your units look.

It’s a clever system and one that can give the same faction extra replay value, as you can also take them in another direction through the use of Tomes. Creating the makeup of your armies is satisfying as you have a lot of unit and transformation options at your disposal.

Cross Cultured

On the other hand. Age of Wonders 4 sits in the paradoxical position of feeling like it has plenty of variety and very little variety at the same time, and it feels incredibly weird. Let me put it this way, all of the options you select when creating your faction, absolutely have an impact on how they play. However, it doesn’t FEEL that way all the time.

For example, every culture has six units, including a scout, so they functionally have five. Most of them fall into a category. Shields, Spears, Support, etc.

Infantry units in the desert
There is a lot of crossover within each culture’s basic units.

All units within a category share some features. All shield units have high defense and the ability to form a shield wall that protects adjacent units. While Spear units have the ability to block charging shock units and deal extra damage to calvary and large units.

The difference between a shield unit of two different cultures certainly exists. But it can feel subtle. Does the fact that one unit deals extra blight damage on its first melee hit, change the way you use it compared to one that has a chance to weaken the enemy instead? Not often enough.

The fact of the matter is, in the early game there are key principles that apply no matter what. You block shock troops with spear units and lock down ranged units with your shields. You place units adjacent to your shields and supports to benefit from their defensive bonuses. Meanwhile, you flank with your own shock units and rain down arrows and magic with archers and battle mages.

A battle within a field of wheat
Many early tactics are equally applicable to any culture.

There are differences sure, but the stark contrast between Age of Wonders 4 and Planetfall is distressing. Every faction in Planetfall had a completely different style of play between them. In Age of Wonders 4, the differences are there, and they do matter. But there is an unshakeable degree of homogeneity across the cultures that rubs me the wrong way.

The Art of War

Combat is a large part of any Age of Wonders game, and Age of Wonders 4 does it the best. Despite my previous complaints, there are advantages to categorizing units the way the game does.

It gives you a semi-predictable idea of what they are all good at it. For that reason, even in a world of magic and dragons, there’s a logic that makes immediate sense in Age of Wonders 4. In Planetfall, I didn’t always understand why I lost a battle, or why some units fared poorly in some situations. In Age of Wonders 4, I get it.

A large battle in the snow involving massive treants and tons of infantry
The recognizable icons give you some idea of what any given unit is good at.

I understand what went wrong when I let a giant spider get to my archers, or when Calvary broke the defense modes of my shields, for example. When I imbued my entire race with fire weapons and got whooped by demons and fire elementals, I knew what I did wrong and how to adapt.

All of the little mechanisms that do make culture units similar in a lot of ways, do help elevate the strategy. Melee units have a zone of control they can use to stop ranged units from attacking. If a ranged unit steps away, however, the melee unit gets to attack for free. A charging shock unit cancels out a melee unit’s retaliation and opportune attack, allowing the archer to escape.

The Spear unit, on the other hand, negates a shock unit’s charge and can protect the flanks of the other melee unit. It’s a deep chess game of counter-moves that somewhat mirrors the historical context of battle.

Where those subtle differences between units matter, is upsetting the chessboard. If two armies with the exact same army composition clash, you win by utilizing the unique features of your army.

A battle in the snow involving infantry and Eldritch Horrors from the astral sea
The combat is a satisfying tactical challenge.

Once you start unlocking summons and special units, the combat expands greatly. Even though all units fall into some type of category, there are substantial differences between A Skald and Chaplain, even if they are both support units.

The combat in Age of Wonders 4 is a definite step up. I particularly enjoyed that the AI was able to utilize plenty of the expected tactics. They know how to prioritize, how to flank, and generally offer a solid experience to play against, and that’s great.

My sole complaint with the combat is going to be nautical combat. It feels incredibly tacked on. Mechanically it works fine because it functions the exact same as the land combat, and I do mean the exact same. All of your units use aspects such as shield walls, but they are represented by ships.

It looks super janky and awkward. The ships use a goofy ramming animation during attacks and end up in a hodgepodge of generic clusters. It just feels entirely underbaked to the point that I questioned why they included water combat at all.

The Other Three Xs

Some of the biggest evolutions to the Age of Wonders formula is within the game’s strategy layer, and it ties into the game’s combat layer even better. Firstly, cities can produce units and structures at the same time. This is such a quality of life improvement that it will make playing other 4X games that don’t do it difficult. You end up with more units, more armies, and more battles, and a single lost battle doesn’t cripple your entire game. The fact that are two separate queues that use two separate city resources is fantastic.

A strategy view of the overworld in Age of Wonders 4
Age of Wonders 4 cuts away a lot of tedious baggage that 4X games usually carry.

Different cultures and tomes offer unique structures to be built, and I found managing cities in Age of Wonders 4 to be pretty satisfying. Every option you choose matters and managing the upkeep of all your units and enchantments can be challenging, but the good kind. You have a lot of incentive to take over locations with strong resource nodes and find effective ways to use them and I like that a lot.

There is no designated unit for making cities, all of your heroes can make outposts that can be turned into cities as they explore. Once you unlock the ability to make roads, you can do so with any unit.

There’s no such thing as a siege unit either. During sieges, you build siege projects with your hero that have various effects on the city’s fortifications. Meanwhile, other armies can scout around and come back in time for the battle.

The siege menu
Siege projects are built during a siege, not ahead of time.

Age of Wonders 4 really remade a lot of aspects that are needed, but not always fun. You need to be able to settle new cities, but you no longer need to dedicate time and resources to a specific unit to do so. Sieges are fun, hauling siege units across the map is not. So now you don’t have to, you make them on the spot. It’s all pretty great.

I also really enjoy the Rally of Lieges system. Free Cities are littered around the map and you can befriend them into becoming vassals. Every now and then you are granted a Rally of Lieges where you can purchase units offered by them. Free cities often have cultures and races that are different from yours, so it’s one way to help diversify your forces. Alternatively, you can conquer or integrate them into your faction and become the keeper of that race, allowing you to use your transformation spells on them.

Where Rally of Lieges really shines, however, is the Ancient Wonders. Taking over an Ancient Wonder has resource benefits, but also enables you to buy unique troops during The Rally of Lieges. Giant snakes, magical faeries, fire giants, and even dragons can be earned this way. It makes Ancient Wonders an incredibly valuable resource to compete over.

The diplomacy menu
Diplomacy is transparent and full of clarity, while the Rulers have interesting personalities to contend with.

The Diplomacy system is also a massive step up from most 4x games. Rulers are assigned very specific personalities that dictate how they interact with you, and how they play. It gives you a bit of insight into the AI rulers, rather than simple guesswork. An Expansionist expands, a Diplomat tries to maintain peace, and a Warlord conquers.

More than that though is how transparent your interactions with the rulers are. All of your diplomatic options clearly define what they do and you can check and see what aspects of your empire another ruler likes or dislikes. When trading with them, the game makes it clear which options they won’t even consider and shows you what they might want in return. There’s no more guesswork of having trades repeatedly denied.

The whole thing makes interacting with the AI much more fun and makes setting up your own scenarios with the realm creator that much more satisfying.

Age of Technical Issues

Update: Performance seems to have improved considerably and I haven’t experienced any more crashing since the game’s launch.

I reviewed Age of Wonders 4 on an Xbox Series X. Now, a little disclaimer here. I actually contacted Paradox about the issues I was encountering. I was told that these issues had been identified and would be fixed with a release day patch. With that in mind, I still need to bring these issues up.

The game’s performance was pretty choppy, especially in big battles. On more than one occasion, it caused me to crash into the Xbox Dashboard. While highly annoying I mostly just had to reload a save. On one occasion, however, it crashed while I was creating a faction. It erased all of my Pantheon progress, every ruler I had ascended, everything I had unlocked, and even story realms I completed. That was at least 30 hours of progress and was definitely deflating.

The Empire development menu
You can unlock empire development perks based on your affinity.

The combat camera was also wonky during the AI’s turn. While attempting to follow the action, it jittered, jumped around, and had a habit of focusing on the wrong unit. At times, this made it difficult to understand what was actually happening, which is kind of important in a tactical battle.

I hope these issues are ironed out on release day as promised because the game controls really well on Xbox. I want strategy games like Age of Wonders to do well on consoles by putting their best foot forward, and not by being buggy messes.


In a lot of ways, Age of Wonders 4 is one of the best 4X games I’ve ever played. I’m underselling just how great some of the seemingly small changes are. Seriously, just being able to produce structures and units at the same time is a game-changing feature that I don’t think you can truly grasp without experiencing it.

The selling point of creating your own faction really delivers on that promise. You can run with so many ideas, and I encourage you to come up with and roleplay those factions because the game definitely leans into that. When I play a faction, I make decisions based on the background I created for that faction. My Vampiric Orcs react to a situation differently than my Viking Raiders, or my Ancient Greek faction with Hercules at the head.

An underground city in Age of Wonders 4
Most realms even have a sprawling underground layer to explore and exploit.

I have misgivings about the similarity between the culture troops. But it’s at a granular level that you notice the similarities. They have enough in common that it bothers me, but are just different enough that it doesn’t ruin the game’s variety. 

It’s a weird situation. I can’t deny that my faction of Shire Hobbits led by Gandalf plays very differently than Fizzle Bunkus and his Bomblins. I also can’t deny that putting both of their shield units in a side-by-side comparison makes playing them FEEL more similar than it should.

There’s a reason I keep emphasizing the word feel. Stick one hand in a bucket of water and one in a bucket of milk, and you have your hands in two very different things, but it’s going to feel wet either way. Close your eyes, and you might have trouble guessing which is which.

An ocean battler with ships
The water combat is weird and wonky, some of those ships are just swarms of spiders, that still fight like swarms of spiders.

The technical issues on Xbox will be a serious problem if they aren’t actually fixed on release. But until proven otherwise I’ll take Paradox’s assurance that they will. Beyond that, the terrible way nautical combat looks is off-putting because of just how unpolished it seems.

However, for me, the good outweighs the bad by a pretty large margin. Age of Wonders 4 is a ton of fun to play, and I can’t get enough of creating my own factions and rulers. 

It’s also a vessel for future potential, and look, I’ll acknowledge that this isn’t a healthy way to approach a game purchase. But Paradox Interactive’s games have a notoriously long tail. There are four planned expansions for Age of Wonders 4. I can’t wait to see how they expand on the game, because the potential is pretty limitless with the way Age of Wonders 4 is designed.

An underground battle with a massive boar in the center
The gameplay is simply great and worthy of the Age of Wonders name.

Age of Wonders 4 has its pitfalls, and some aspects may end up stinging fans of the franchise. However, it’s a wonderful step up in a lot of ways for 4X games and offers an unparalleled degree of customization for the genre. There’s so much joy to be had in spending hours playing through a game as a faction and ruler you created. The best stories in games are the ones you make while playing, and Age of Wonders 4 offers you a solid foundation to do so while wrapped in the form of an excellent strategy game.

I’m giving Age of Wonders 4 my golden shield award!

Golden Shield Awards
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  • A very extensive faction creator
  • Customizable realms to play on
  • Fantastic strategic gameplay with quality improvements that make Age of Wonders 4 a cut above most 4x games
  • Excellent combat
  • Great diplomacy system
  • Tons of variety and playstyles through a massive amount of unique magic tomes


  • Cultural units can feel too similar
  • Nautical Combat is mechanically sound but looks goofy and unpolished
  • Technical issues on the Xbox were awful but are supposed to be fixed upon release. (The majority of issues I experienced pre-launch seem to have been patched out)