Age of Wonders (not related in any way to Age of Empires or Age of Kings) is a terrific turn-based strategy game by Triumph Studios and Epic Megagames, and publishedy by Gathering of Developers. The gameplay is very similar to games like Heroes of Might & Magic and Warlords III, although I prefer AoW.
The game is played on a very large hex map, with mountains and forests and oceans and all that good stuff. There are a number of cities of varying sizes (1-4 tiles big). There are up to three levels to the map: surface, caverns, and depths; cavern entrances connect the levels. There are a number of other special locations on the map as well: gold mines, altars that can blast magic over great distances, power nodes, builder's guilds, abandoned castles with rare items inside, etc.
The gameplay is turn-based, although there is a simultaneous mode, where all sides take their turns at the same time. Each unit has a certain number of movement points that are spent on moving it along the terrain; different units can travel with different amounts of ease over different terrain. Elves, for example, move through forests with ease, but are slower underground.
One of the game's more interesting features is the race relations model. Every empire has a default race, but they can own cities and units of any other race. Certain races are natural enemies - Dwarves and Goblins, for example - while others are naturally neutral, like humans and azracs. Your actions in the game can change these relations, however. Burn down a bunch of dwarven cities, or declare war on a dwarven empire, and the dwarves will start to hate you. However, if you upgrade and fortify the dwarven cities, or make an alliance with a dwarven empire, or migrate a conquered city to dwarves, then they'll start to like you better. Cities of a race that is friendly to you will be peaceful and productive, while cities of a race that hates you will require troops stationed in it to prevent it from rebelling. Units from an enemy race, or units with otherwise poor morale, will likely desert you.
This all makes a big difference when you're marching through enemy territory. You can't just take over a city and leave - the city will rebel, and you'll have a bunch of angry townspeople behind your army. Also, if a lot of your armies are composed of human troops, it's not a good idea to go breaking an alliance with a human empire.
Age of Wonders has the following race
- Elves: pretty much your standard Tolkeinian elf. Forest dwellers, life magic.
- Dwarves: yup. Dwarves. Live in caves, build things, good fighters, earth magic.
- Halflings: Hobbits. They throw little rocks at you.
- Highmen: holy humans, very fast and strong with lots of powerful units.
- Dark Elves: Evil elves that live underground. They use death magic.
- Goblins: Little orc-things with lots of big powerful friends.
- Orcs: green-skinned monsters. Like to thump things.
- Undead: skeletons and wraiths and demons, oh, my!
Every empire has one main hero, who can cast magic and level up and collect items and do all sorts of role-playey stuff. Empires may also have other heroes in addition, who are generally powerful than your average fighting unit (and possibly MUCH more powerful) When an empire's main hero dies, the empire loses.
The magic system is only usable to heroes. There are 7 spheres of magic: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Death, Life, and Cosmos. As heroes gain more spell-casting ability, they can research new and more powerful spells to cast. Every sphere except Cosmos has a 4th-level spell that gives you mastery over that element; your units will become resistant to that kind of damage, you'll get a powerful creature at any power node of that element, and spells of the opposite sphere will be harder to cast.
There is a sequel scheduled to be released very soon - Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne. I hope it's as good as the original.