If you thought that Age of Wonders 3’s last expansion pack Golden Realms was a big one, think again. Coming next week, Triumph’s latest addition to the excellent fantasy 4X, Eternal Lords, bungs in not only two new races, but a brand new class in the form of the Necromancer, an evil sorcerer who finds his loyal subjects much easier to deal with when they’re reduced to mindless, undead husks (who wouldn’t?). With lots of intriguing new content and a bunch of smaller, but equally welcome changes under the hood, Eternal Lords is shaping up to be a proper expansion in the traditional mould, a welcome sight in today’s world of micro-transactions and bite-sized DLC. I chatted to Triumph’s director Lennart Sas to get some idea of what players can expect.
GameWatcher: Eternal Lords is bringing a whole bunch of new content to the table for Age of Wonders 3 players. A lot of other studios opt for smaller packs of DLC, so why does Triumph go for these big expansions instead?
Lennart Sas: We’re all very old-school gamers, and we just really like those big expansion packs. I’m not sure it’s the best business sense, but we prefer giving players a whole bunch of new features packed together for a whole new experience. Some people cut them up into smaller pieces, we also see some people selling what are essentially expansions as full sequels, but as old-school gamers we prefer to do things the traditional way. We want to give good value for money, and rekindle interest in the game that may have faded over time.
GameWatcher: How do you plan what’s in each new expansion? Do you listen to what the fans are requesting, or is it more an opportunity to add what you wanted to add in the base game?
Lennart Sas: It’s a mix of both actually. When making a very complex game like Age of Wonders you need to give things time to mature. When you’re in the thick of development you often run out of fuel in terms of new ideas, but when you’re looking back a few months down the line you can see what all the fans are saying, analyse and play the game yourself, and then these new ideas start to emerge. For example, the new race relations system we’ve added, the ‘Unifier’ victory, this all came forth from iterative development. Once you have the game out there selling and generating revenue, then you can start tweaking it and making it better. Continued development like that is a great benefit of this digital age, of development as service, where the community is right there for you to gather ideas from, get feedback from. It’s been a huge change for us from the usual model of working directly with publishers.
GameWatcher: So the new Necromancer class, can you give us an idea of what role he plays in the game – what are some of his coolest tricks?
Lennart Sas: The necromancer plays unlike any other class in the game. He’s got lots of abilities and mechanics that allow him to develop his kingdom and expand his lands through other means than natural, organic population growth. Firstly, his cities don’t grow – they expand through conquest, so whenever you fight an enemy you create undead to join your city. The necromancer has several special structures that allow him to create a larger undead population, he can convert farms to haunted farms which increase his population, for example. His citizens are all dead. They’re called ghouls, and they are immune to any morale effects, such as those that other races get via command abilities or for being in a particular environment they like or dislike. That’s a big benefit, but also a drawback. You can’t make use of the effects that are associated with high morale, but at the same time you don’t have to worry about the penalties due to low morale.
The units the Necromancer produces are a mix of his core racial units and the class units, and the core race troops are ghouls. They have a set of abilities associated with undead units, such as certain immunities, but their one main drawback is that they never regenerate hitpoints, so you’ll have to compensate for that, maybe by having a Necromancer hero lead your armies. Later on you can build re-animators, which are your healing units, or an embalmers’ guild in your city. Their high-tier special units are very powerful, and can inflict despair in the living; that sets up a nice synergy where you can lower enemy morale, then attack with units that inflict extra damage against troops with poor morale. Some nice battlefield dynamics.
GameWatcher: You’ve also got the two new races, the tigrans and the frostlings. What are their main tricks?
Lennart Sas: The tigrans are cat-people, they hails from the desert and are more associated with fire and warmth. The frostlings are a hardened, winter-based race. The frostlings have evolved quite a lot since the previous Age of Wonders games, they’ve merged with ice spirits to from a kind of ‘frostling 2.0’, more resistant to ice, more magical abilities. They have a unit called the Frostguard, which can absorb damage from other units and inflict a status effect called ‘chilling’ which makes the enemy more vulnerable to cold damage. They’ve a cool Ice Queen unit, which you can sacrifice to create a huge circle of frost on the world map, letting you spread winter across the globe and making your citizens much happier.
Tigrans on the other hand are very speedy and agile, they have wall-climbing units, for example. They can avoid attacks of opportunity from moving, and their low-level units called Cheetahs can pounce on an enemy and avoid a retaliation strike. Their high-level unit is the Sphinx, which is a magical unit that can fly and has a special sun ray attack. They get a lot of other cool toys.
GameWatcher: Boring question, but with this seemingly endless combinations of race and class abilities, balance must be a real issue for your team, right?
Lennart Sas: It’s a huge task, and we wouldn’t be able to do it without the community. No amount of internal testing could help us as much as our beta testers. We’ve got hundreds of people in the open beta testing all these combinations, so anything overpowered gets fixed. It’s an ongoing process, but that mix of units is what makes the game fun.
GameWatcher: Is the early access model something you’ve considered for future products, seeing as how the open beta seems to be working out for you?
Lennart Sas: Well, not for Age of Wonders 3, but it’s something we might look at in the future. The main question with early access and the way we do the open betas is whether opening it up to everybody or having a smaller group of focused testers is the way to go. We have an open beta for the main patch, so people can test that out, but we don’t have all the expansion content available. We do like the model, so it’s something we might do in the future.
GameWatcher: Can you tell us about the new specialisations in the expansion? You’ve talked about wanting an option for a less aggressive style of play.
Lennart Sas: What we wanted to do was create some new play-styles, where you can achieve success without dominating everyone around you. You can choose to be a less aggressive player, expand through good relations with people around you. There’s a victory condition available for that. So when you start the game you can find a specialisation that’s good for that style of play. We’ve added three that are designed like that; one is the neutral Grey Guard, and there are good and evil versions too. Each path has around ten skills.
The good guys are the Keepers of the Peace, who are all about maintaining good relations with independent factions. They’ve got a cool spell which allows you to liberate an occupied town from the enemy; if there’s a town with low morale in an enemy empire, you can target them with this spell. They’ll send you a request to help them, and if you decide to liberate them they will open the doors for your troops when you attack and spawn militia to help you out. That’s a little example of some of the dynamics we’re adding. Each of these three specialisations rewards you for sticking to a particular stance; the Grey Guard is about remaining neutral, the Keepers of the Peace and the Shadowborn are for good and evil heroes respectively.
GameWatcher: So with those new specialisations and the new race governance system, playing a much less aggressive, expansionist game is more viable now than it was in the main game?
Lennart Sas: Yes, you can definitely conclude that. There’s also a new system called vassaling, so if you have an independent city that you don’t want to conquer by force, you can keep them as vassals who pay you tribute in the form of trade income every turn. They’ll defend their own borders, so you don’t have to worry about creating armies to defend them, and they will also send you gifts like units or gold periodically. If you need to you can also demand tribute from them, which will lower your reputation with them, but it can really help you out in a tight spot.
GameWatcher: As for the new campaign, it sounds like there’s some choice in how you approach things there, choosing between becoming an evil, cackling Necromancer or a more heroic approach.
Lennart Sas: The main campaign tells the story of Arvik, a frostling who is the heir to a broken kingdom. His forefathers have sacrificed their empire in order to defend the frostling homelands in the north, and there’s a new High Queen in charge, who laughs in Arvik’s face when he suggests a union. He returns to the halls of his ancestors where he meets a spirit that opens up these necromantic powers for him. During the campaign he needs to choose whether to rebuild his frostling kingdom or to create a new one filled with undead ghouls using his necromantic powers, and later on the story there are some very clear-cut choices as to whether he takes the path of all-out destruction or not. There’s a third way too, but I don’t want to spoil all the choices.
For this expansion we tried to make the campaign a good introduction to all the new, for example it’s designed to explain the new class to players. For new players it’s a great introduction to the whole game, if you’re only coming into Age of Wonders 3 now the first scenario in particular will ease you in to all the mechanics you need to master before heading into skirmish mode, which can be a lot more unforgiving.
GameWatcher: Could you give us a quick rundown on how the new race governance system works?
Lennart Sas: Okay, so previously you just had the one happiness system for your empire, tracking the type of leader that you were, how happy your subjects were. Now we’ve added this system so that happiness is tracked by race. So your people will remember if you’ve sacked another city full of their same race, whether it’s independent or from another faction. If you, say, decide you don’t have a use for elves, you throw them out of their cities and migrate them somewhere else, those people won’t be too happy with you. In the diplomacy interface you’ll be able to keep an eye on your standing with each race in the game. The race governance system is a little like race experience points, generated by the amount of cities in your realm multiplied by the happiness of each particular race. Keeping them happy will earn you points which will eventually unlock unique military or economic bonuses and upgrades for each race.
GameWatcher: We’re about a year on now from the launch of Age of Wonders 3, and we’ve already got two pretty weighty expansions. Are you planning more expansions for the game, or do you think after Eternal Lords you’ll move onto a new project?
Lennart Sas: Well this second expansion is huge. The first was a lot smaller. Whether we’ll do an expansion of this size again, with a new class and two new races, that remains to be seen. That would take us at least six months to make, and we’re not a huge team, so at some point we need to start thinking about what our next game will be, and start moving into production. So that’s probably unlikely, but we will definitely continue to develop this game, through smaller expansions or free patches. Maybe if this expansion does really well we’ll make another, but we can’t promise that.
Many thanks to Lennart for speaking to us. Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords is only a week away, set to launch in full on 14th April.