A warning before we start off: this review is written from the point of view of someone who was playing the original Age of Wonders III game as well as the Golden Realms expansion for the first time; if you are already familiar with the original game, you can skip the next four paragraphs which is mainly a summary review of the original Age of Wonders III game.

Admittedly I had never played the original Age of Wonders III at the time the Golden Realms DLC came along for review, hence

there was a lot of ground to cover before moving on to the expansion. And indeed, just like the other prequels before it, Age of Wonders III unwittingly sucks you into its addictive embrace and before you know it, hours slip away like mere minutes just on a single map alone, as you go about voraciously exploring every nook and cranny, plundering every tomb in search of just one more epic weapon, animal mount (your heroes can now ride mounts, which are able to grant them new abilities), or armour piece before you move on to the next map.

While the graphics in Age of Wonders III has seen an overhaul with a noticeably new 3d engine, there is an undeniable familiarity and charm about Age of Wonders III that adds to a sense of nostalgia for those who have closely followed and played the series. It was a welcome change to now be able to rotate around the battlefield during enemy sieges and admire the cityscape in the background; or to zoom out of the landscape while in strategic mode to transition seamlessly to a hand-drawn map-like view of the world, showing the borders of your empire as well as your enemies’. Those who had played the Age of Wonders series since its inception would no doubt feel at home with the music as much of the music in Age of Wonders III appear to be remastered versions of the excellent music from the previous instalments, or at least thematically similar.

Age of Wonders III also introduced some new game play elements, such as the ability to play one of 6 different classes which influences the city structures, units and class skills you can acquire or build; the ability to capture or enlist the help of fantastical monster dwellings such as dragons, giants, feys, or archons ; the concept of City Happiness, which affects productivity yields to your mana pool, research points – which you can now use to also get new upgrades affecting your entire empire, or gold to your coffers. This added some new strategic flavour to the game, allowing devious opponents to cast spells affecting city happiness, such as by transforming the beautiful fertile plains surrounding your city into a blighted ugly landscape or by summoning a dread omen in the skies above your city to inspire dread into your populace, or even just by having their troops mill about within your city domain much to the irritation of your city’s inhabitants.

So how does Golden Realms fair as the first expansion to its well received addition to the AoW franchise?

Golden Realms doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of changes to its core game play mechanic, but nonetheless adds some nice new elements to an already expansive list of game features and options in the original. The expansion pack also marks the return of the Halflings as a playable race since Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, featuring an all new campaign story.

Clearly inspired by their Lord of the Rings counterpart, Halfling units are inherently lucky (albeit more vulnerable to physical attacks), causing all hostile melee attacks and spells against them to have a small chance of missing altogether. One of the new features you will notice is the introduction of some new resource structures such as the Lucky Cloverfield which bestows “luck” to visiting units until the end of their next battle; this is where Halflings really shine: Halfling units visiting a Lucky Cloverfield also receives the luck bonus as any other race, which also stacks with their inherent luck bonus, making them “Very Lucky” indeed. Not to be scoffed at, this reinforced luck bonus can really make a noticeable difference on the field of battle – you’ll be literally thanking your lucky stars (pun intended) when two flanking Guardian Nagas both miss your Halfling Acolyte one after another due to the luck boost.

For those of you who have missed your old feathered friends, Halfling Eagle Riders make a return to soar back into the skies in this expansion pack, although other regular units have been replaced, such as the Halfling Slinger with the Halfling Jester (a unit that shoots daze-inducing fireworks) for instance, while some interesting new units have also been added to the list, like the Halfling Brew Brother who can support your troops on the field of battle by tossing nourishing meals at them, or by flinging short-ranged meat cleavers at your enemies for ranged support.

Golden Realms also introduces the new Naga monster dwelling to add to its existing list of four (Dragons, Fey, Giants and Archons). Controlling a Naga dwelling with the appropriate upgrades allow you to create powerful units such as the fast-healing Naga Guardians who can instantly regain part of their health each combat turn or all of their health back the next turn if they are on the strategic map; or the fearsome, gigantic Glutton unit, which looks like it could be a distant relative of Jabba the Hutt and is capable of breathing noxious gas clouds at its enemies or swallowing units whole to heal itself.

Many of the “Treasure Site” structures also now allow your city to build new upgrade buildings, so-called “Mystical City Upgrades”, if they fall within your city’s domain, providing a nice permanent boost to certain unit types that you produce, or some other equally awesome benefit: such as the Springs of Life which allows you to build a “Stables of Vigor” in your city, causing all newly produced mounted units the ability to move unhindered on any terrain and the ability to heal quickly; while having a Tomb within your city’s domain allows you to construct a Shrine of Animation which automatically re-animates all fallen friendly units in your city as Archon Infantry units each round during a battle. Each race’s city now also comes with a defensive structure unique to them. For example, Halfling cities can build a rabbit burrow, which might randomly cause rabbits to appear and attack enemies during city sieges. I had a bit of a chuckle as I watched an approaching Naga Guardian suddenly falling to a flurry of rabbits leaping from the ground during a siege battle.

To add to the competitive aspect of multiplayer, there are also the Empire Quests, which are objectives you try to accomplish before anyone else does. Doing so provides you with a reward but also notifies other players of your achievement.

While there does seem to be a lot of features packed into the expansion pack, it’s not overly game changing in the grand scheme of things – more like icing on an otherwise already delicious cake. Overall, this is an expansion pack that adds more value to an enjoyable game for those that already love Age of Wonders III for the charming 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” ) game that it already is.