Age of Wonders 4 reignited my love of 4Xs by letting me become Frankenstein

After nearly three decades and a genuinely unhealthy number of hours spent raising armies and devouring maps, I confess that my passion for 4X games has started to dwindle. As grand strategy games like Crusader Kings have grown ever more complex and flavourful, Civilization and its children just don’t pack the punch that they once used to. But Age of Wonders 4 has reignited something.

Personal Pick

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2023, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

Truthfully, my enthusiasm for Triumph Studio’s latest offering has little to do with the pillars of the genre. Expanding my borders and developing my settlements doesn’t feel like a chore, exactly, but after so much repetition it doesn’t bring me a whole lot of joy either. Developing my society, however, and nurturing the weird fantasy critters that reside within it, that’s what has cast a spell on me.

Right off the bat, you’re able to express your weird desire to make Frankenstein-esque creations, with AoW4 giving you a liberal degree of freedom in regards to how you design your baby empire. When you’re picking the physical form of your empire’s denizens, for instance, it automatically selects some default options—so the ratkin are naturally better at fighting in groups, have quick reflexes and are adaptable—but you can actually mould your race however you want. Want to swallow up the world as a bunch of very stinky, cannibal rats? You can live out that very specific dream.

(Image credit: Paradox)

With your form picked, more important decisions are thrust upon you. What kind of culture do you want to nurture? A mystical faction of scholars? A horde of aggressive barbarians? This helps define your broad playstyle with a variety of bonuses and abilities, changing how specific buildings work, giving units unique powers and nudging you down certain affinity paths, which will affect how you develop your empire.

The next is your society’s traits. I like making cohesive societies, so I tend to pick traits with affinities that match my culture choice, but again there are no limitations here. You can make an empire that seemingly contradicts itself—to be honest, that’s pretty true to life, so more power to you. If you want to make some imperialistic barbarian do-gooders, go right ahead.


Magic drives Age of Wonders 4, so the last step to creating the foundations of your empire is the selection of your first tome of magic, giving you some extra tools right away, while promising more spells as you progress through the tome. More tomes, and more advanced tomes, can be unlocked over your playthrough. From these, you can gain new enchantments, the ability to summon powerful units, buffs, attacks and spells that can transform your entire race further down the line, turning them into undead monstrosities or creatures encased in ice.

The way all the systems and events interact also transforms the random nature of Age of Wonders 4 into a coherent narrative.

So before you’ve made a single move, you’ve already been given plenty of opportunities to tinker away and create a weird chimaera—the first of many experiments. Age of Wonders 4 maintains this generous cavalcade of choices throughout the game, too. Exploring the map doesn’t just reveal opportunities for conquest, but also quests and random events that let you further define your empire. Maybe you’ll be the sort of ruler who’s willing to work with the monsters dotting the map, scaring them into submission and then making them your minions. Instead of slaying those giants making a nuisance out of themselves in a region you want to conquer, put them to work in your quarries instead.

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

The way all the systems and events interact also transforms the random nature of Age of Wonders 4 into a coherent narrative. In one of my first playthroughs, I befriended a minor faction and eventually got the chance to recruit one of their heroes, adding them to my roster. I chose the king’s least favourite daughter, a warrior who never felt at home at court. Working for me, she travelled the world, got in plenty of scrapes and went through an ordeal to uncover a powerful, magical weapon. Eventually her former kingdom was swallowed up by my empire, and after her years of dutiful service, I made her its ruler. So the prodigal daughter returned home.

Roleplaying and strategy have grown ever closer over the years, in great part thanks to Age of Wonders 4 publisher Paradox, and Triumph’s latest endeavour perfectly encapsulates how the former can elevate the latter. Every decision I make is given greater weight through the context of the RPG-like story that I started forming in the empire creation screen. And while it’s perfectly possible to min-max your empire and only make decisions that will make your build ultra efficient, it’s so much more rewarding to make calls that best reflect the personality of your empire, that make sense in the dynamic story that you fill in with every turn.

Also, you can make an undead rat wizard ride a bear.

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