Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 03, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 - Valley of Wonders

I have now played just under 8 hours of Age of Wonders 4, and basically completed the first Rise of the Godir story quest, Valley of Wonders, twice. I have to retract an earlier statement that this would be good to play in hard mode: While this is still relatively easy to win at the hardest difficulty, the end becomes a bit tedious. Like in all strategy games, the AI just cheats at highest difficulty, producing and maintaining far more units than they should be able to.

So in my first game, at hard difficulty, by turn 28 I had built up 3 powerful stacks, which in Age of Wonders 4 is the maximum number of units you can have in a battle. But the enemy had 6 stacks of units. That shouldn't be a problem, because you can fight 3 stacks, and then another 3 stacks, if you don't have too many losses in the first fight. On automatic, your losses tend to be higher, so I tried on manual. By the way, that is one of the really great features of Age of Wonders, the ability to first try automatic combat, and then based on the result decide whether you would like to do the battle manually instead.

So I start the big manual battle, 18 of my units against 18 units of the AI. Big fireworks and spell effects everywhere. And it turned out that the release version of AoW4 couldn't handle that. Oh, the joys of playing a game on release! Game crashed, reproducibly every time I tried to do that battle, with a "graphics card driver crash". I found the solution to that problem on the Steam forums, I had to install a beta version called hotfix from Steam. I also updated my graphics card drivers, and set shadows to off.

Then I decided to just start Valley of Wonders again, at normal difficulty. I still used the same hero, Jacko Alltrades, an orc berserker, with his capital city New Orc City. Knowing better what to expect allowed me to optimize my strategy a bit, and I easily won the game on turn 42. Interestingly the Valley of Wonders scenario is not a totally fixed map; instead the two maps I played were similar in terms of where the major plot locations were located, but differed a bit in geography and placement of everything.

The faction worked better than expected, in spite of using lots of different affinities. I had more or less randomly taken the Chosen Uniter trait, which among other things lets you start with 2 Whispering Stones. You need Whispering Stones to persuade free cities to join your cause as a vassal. With the Valley of Wonders only *having* 2 free cities, on the second game I was able to get them both, which made me extremely powerful.

The thing that worked less good was the Tome of Souls I chose to start with. It is the basic necromancy tome, allowing you to recruit skeletons and bone golems. However, it uses a new resource for that, souls, which you get from killing units. I ended up having far more gold and mana to recruit regular units than I had souls to recruit undead, so at least in the shorter Valley of Wonders scenario this wasn't a great choice of tome.

By finishing Valley of Wonders, I unlocked the second story scenario in the Rise of the Godir campaign, called Enchanted Archipelago. So today I will create a new faction, a bit more seriously this time, and play that second scenario. Except for the crash, I had a lot of fun up to now.

"Like in all strategy games, the AI just cheats at highest difficulty, producing and maintaining far more units than they should be able to"

It can't really cheat, though, can it? What it's doing is folowing the rules it's been set, which, by definition in a computer game, *are* the rules. It's more that the rules of the game change on that difficulty setting to give the AI certain advantages. They arem however, still the rules of the game, so there can be no cheating involved.

Not, of course, that a non-sentient AI could meaningfully be said to "cheat", even if it somehow were able to act outside of the rules of the game. It would be bugged or malfunctioning but it wouldn't be "cheating".

This is how we all anthropomorphize pretty much everything, from pets to toys to AIs - annd it's why the current AI revolution is going to be so much more weird and chaotic than the AI designers will be expecting.
It's pretty common parlance to call advantages the AI get in 4X strategy games that the player doesn't get as cheats. It's often a gripe of mine and why I don't bother playing games like Total War at higher difficulties because the only difference is the player gets stat penalties and the AI gets stat boosts or "cheats".
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