Age of Wonders: Planetfall & Triumph's quiet 4X revolution

By Joe Robinson 28 May 2018 0

There are two kinds of 4X games: those that try and replicate Civilization, and those that don’t. Triumph Studios started making Age of Wonders games nearly twenty years ago – back then, it’d be more accurate to describe them as a fantasy-themed wargame (with RPG elements) than the 4X experience they became with later iterations.

Have you played Age of Wonders 3? You should; it's is on our list of the best 4X strategy games.

The thing is, Age of Wonders has been quietly revolutionising the 4X genre in ways that nobody has seemed to notice, choosing to extol the virtues of something like Heroes of Might & Magic as opposed to Sid Meier’s behemoth. By the time we get to Age of Wonders 3, the game’s focus was very much on creating ‘living’ world – complex political dynamics, strange and wondrous environments… you could even go dungeon ‘raids’, and there was an entire subterranean layer with its own secrets to explore. Seeing Triumph Studios return to this design philosophy with Age of Wonders: Planetfall therefore represents a very exciting prospect.

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This new entry in the Age of Wonders series goes full-on science-fiction, with the player taking control of a customizable faction that’s emerged out of the other end of an interstellar Dark Age. The pan-galactic Star League collapsed causing a lot of turmoil - everything went to shit. But this isn’t the apocalypse, or even the post-apocalypse – it’s the step after that. Now that FTL travel has been ‘rediscovered’, the loose premise is that each game of Planetfall is you landing on a new planet, exploring its history (and the history of the universe at large) and rebuilding your society from the ruins of a long-dead empire.

These games have always been good at giving players a lot of freedom in terms of how they define their race, and their principle hero. There will be a lot of customization – various basic groups/races will combine with customised skill and technology load-out options, traits etc… so that few factions will ever play the same. The planets themselves are procedurally generated, and not your typical 4X hex or grid affairs. Planets are divided into sectors, which each sector having a limited number of nodes for ‘stuff’ to be on them. Typically, only one settlement, but you could also have other features like arrays, or raid areas and resources.

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A defining feature of Age of Wonders 3 – and one of the big differentials to other 4X games – is the fact that it lets you fight out battles on a tactical map. In many ways this makes Age of Wonders a wholly turn-based version of Total War, combing grand-strategy and tactics in a way that makes your struggles all the more personal. The system was a bit dry and clunky in Age of Wonders 3, but in the studio have doubled down on this area for Planetfall and the end result is looking very promising.

Terrain is more varied and interactable, with cover being a legitimate tactical consideration. Units that can hide behind cover will actually use XCOM-style animations to denote their state. Being a sci-fi setting, ranged combat is more important than ever, which is not something the AoW series has been really known for in the past. In this new era of ranged warfare, it was important for Triumph not to let melee units fall behind. New mechanics and balances for melee units allow them to compete provided they can get in close enough. Generally, combat in Planetfall seems to be about action-denial. By doing enough damage or applying de-buffs like ‘stagger’ etc… you can remove your opponent’s ability to do much with their turn.

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Past Age of Wonders games has allowed the player to unlock powerful spells which you can use either on the strategic map, or during tactical play. In battle, this could be everything from healing, to raining down fire and destruction on your enemies. In Planetfall there exist a mechanic called ‘Operations’ which seems to occupy the same niche. During the gameplay demonstration, one Operation allowed for an additional infantry squad to be deployed via drop-pod, as well as various WMD-style operations for large area-of-effect damage. We’re not sure if there any strategic-layer operations, but we’d be surprised if not.

Much of Age of Wonders: Planetfall seems to be about improving the seris’s overall quality-of-life than it is about trying out new innovations. Subtle things, like giving all cities their own defending armies so you don’t have to worry about garrisoning them yourself. The sector-layout of planets helps Triumph give some granularity and character to the world without resorting to hex-tiles. It will be interesting to see how much Paradox will influence the design – the company has experience with the Warlock 4X series, but not much else in the Civilization sphere. Regardless, Planetfall is already shaping up to be a great new entry in the genre, and it was easily best-in-show this year.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is scheduled for a release on PC and Console in 2019.

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