A long gap between posts, mostly because I didn't want to write another two posts that were variations of "I don't like this game, it's not fair that I have to play it, wah!" But once I came to the realization that I only wanted to do one more Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic post, I came up with a plan to retroactively justify it to myself - I would play my remaining 15 hours in one giant marathon session!
It didn't quite work out that way. I actually wound up playing it in two sessions, one of 11 hours and one of 4 hours, but I feel like I kept to the spirit of my initial plan. Certainly, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic has dominated nearly every waking hour of my weekend (less the time I spent reading, going to the store, and cooking, which I'll admit were activities I pursued a bit more leisurely than usual).
And I'm sad to report that I did not get the gaming equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I was kind of hoping that by intensely focusing on a single thing, my viewpoint would narrow and I would start to judge the thing in the context of itself. But that didn't happen. I was mostly just counting the hours until it was over.
There were some things I liked about this game, though. I liked the different layers of the map. Building an underground empire as the dwarfs or an otherworldly empire as the shadow demons felt kind of cool. A game with a similar multi-world setup, but more robustly asymmetrical factions would have the potential to be amazing.
I also really liked the magic. Raising and lowering mountains, summoning dragons and angels, seizing distant power nodes to scry through. You definitely feel like a potent wizard when you start slinging around the high-level spells, even if the low-level ones are underwhelming and unreliable.
I think the problem I've had with all these Age of Wonders games is twofold. Firstly, I never really bought into their central premise - eternal war of all against all is not something I particularly want out of a fantasy game. Secondly, even within the confines of the wargame genre, the balance between map size, unit movement speed, and the size of your economy was such that it forced me into a form of strategy that I found deeply annoying. I never had enough units to play defense and except on small-sized maps, the enemy headquarters were always so far away that I had to plan my attacks way too far in advance.
If I'm being totally honest, I would like this game a lot more if I were better at it. If I could effectively control territory by deploying my forces in such a way as to screen out enemy scouts and the occasional neutral interlopers, advance my front gradually so I could make my strategic decisions while in sight range of enemy targets, and grow my economy so much that I had a superabundance of troops and magical resources, that would likely have solved most of my problems with the game. But I never got to that level. I was always struggling.
That's the tricky thing, though. If I were better at the game, I'd enjoy it more, but if I enjoyed it more, I'd put in the work to be better at it. I never found a way to get on the inside of that loop, so I wound up just gritting my teeth and being miserable most of the time (though, to be fair, I was only actually miserable when I was interacting with AI enemies - I enjoyed improving my cities and expanding my empire just fine).
I've still got one more game in the series. It's my hope that with an improved, more modern UI, and presumably a decade's worth of hindsight about what makes a strategy game enjoyable, Age of Wonders III will fulfill the promise of the first game and be a fantasy wargame that captures my imagination. I can, however, say that buying the older Age of Wonders games in a bundle was a big mistake.
I guess there had to be a balance, though. They can't all be the Fallout, Elder Scrolls, or Star Wars bundles.