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Age of Wonders 4 Dev Diary #7 – Exploration and Meeting the Neighbours

Hello there and welcome to a new Development Journal!  My name is Lennart, Game Director for Age of Wonders 4. Today we’ll be looking at the early game exploration and “player versus environment”  phase, where you'll get your bearings using your scouts, identify allies and threats, while looking for opportunities in the mythic lands around you. Scouting is more important than ever due to the large variety of Realms you venture to (see previous Dev Diary) and the decisions you make in the early game will have a big effect on the development of your empire. 

Vision on the World Map 

Unexplored Terrain is covered in animated mists that swirl around mountain tops. We rendered silhouettes of terrain features into the mist so you have some rough awareness of the lay of the land. The units you send out explore this terrain, revealing terrain features and the presence of settlements and armies. If explored hexagons exit the vision range of your units or structures, then they become part of the fog of war; meaning you can’t track enemy armies. 

Some Units have Camouflage abilities allowing them to hide in particular terrain features. Sensor Range from Planetfall makes a return, as Remote Sensing. This allows you to sense enemy presence into the fog, and acts as an early warning system. A number of upgrades improve the range of this ability. At default this Remote Sensing is zero.

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Scouting around a starting location.  You can rotate the camera to appreciate the surroundings.


Every race has a Scout Unit coming from its culture. Scouts combine high mobility with far vision and have perks pending cultures. Their primary use is on the world map, in combat they can work as skirmishers pelting enemies with their ranged attacks. Examples: 

  • The Dark Outrider has extra vision in the enemy domain and has camouflage abilities. 

  • The Floating Mystic Projection has the ability to find Astral Echo pickups which grant knowledge and mana. 

Scouts are best sent out into multiple directions from your starting town to explore for opportunities, threats and grab up undefended pickups here and there. Here are some noteworthy enhancements that help with scouting and exploration. Especially when playing on bigger maps it makes a lot of sense to invest in these early:

  • Wayfinder Enchantment and Enchanted Crows: These Enchantments (spells sustained by mana) enhance scout movement rate and scout vision ranges respectively.    

  • Seafaring: This early skill can be bought from the Empire Skill Tree.  A significant investment (Imperium is also used for expanding your realm), but worth it as the first players to embark can retrieve floating treasures scattered across the seas and can use knowledge of the coast lines to their advantage. 

  • Excavation:  Another skill that can be acquired from the empire tree (though underground races start the game with it) that allows units to dig through earth. Excavated provinces reveal treasures but also threats. So be careful! 

  • Advanced Sensing:  An Empire Skill in the General Branch. Allows you to detect enemies in unexplored terrain. 

  • Force March: This comes in towards the later stages of the early game and allows players to spend mana to double a stack’s movement in a turn; helping them cross large distances. The cost varies on stack size and the marches cause units to take damage so rush tactics are less effective.

Of course there are other skills in the Empire Tree and Tomes that can help your scouts, but that will need to wait for a later diary!

Map Locations  

You’ll discover points of interest that will help you in your empire building endeavors.  While scouting you can snap up some unguarded pickups here and there (which can be highly lucrative in itself) the main point is to identify expansion targets, as well as threats looming in the mists. Here are the main location categories you can encounter on the map: 

  • Pickups:  These stashes of resources boost the early game economy. Lower tier ones are unguarded and can be picked up by lone scouts. In addition to base resources we have things such as Creature Cages which give you a free unit as well as Battle Standards which increase rank/level of all units in an army. 

  • Resource Nodes.  All provinces provide income but Resource Nodes such as Pastures, Deposits and Mana springs provide a good bonus and unlock special province improvement types for your cities (more in a future dev journal about Cities and Economy).   

  • Magic Materials: These provide a unique benefit when located in your domain; and if you gather all three of a type another bonus kicks in. Given their rarity you may have to trade with other players or free cities to complete your sets. Heavily guarded unless positioned in enemy domains. 

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This UI gives an overview of your Magic Materials. Trade to complete your sets. 

  • Ancient Wonders: These landmarks are of exceptional value and require an army led by a hero to explore. Quite a few improvements have been made to these sites, warranting a separate upcoming development journal.

These locations listed above may be found in the uncharted wilderness, but some are unfortunately located inside the territories of NPC factions:  The Free Cities and the always hostile Infestations

Clearing Nodes and Leveling Up

With the area around you scouted, it’s time for your army to clear the baddies off of the nodes so your settlement can annex and start to draw income from them. Node clearing in itself is also lucrative; giving significant rewards after the battle. The battle experience levels up Heroes and units, and you can kit your heroes out with the retrieved loot. 

In AoW3 losing a unit during these early PvE battles could be very painful as the development of your starting city would stall building replacements. With AoW4’s separate production queues for units and buildings, that's much less of an issue. So don’t sit idly with your army at the start of the game; clear those nodes and get a head start! 


If you’ve found and cleared a cluster of resource nodes some distance away from your capital you can claim them by building outposts with a hero-lead army. Outposts can later be turned into a full city at the cost of Imperium. Outposts project province claims around them too and are a source of early tension with other players and free cities. 

In Age of Wonders 4 outposts can be upgraded in multiple ways: there’s walls, watcher towers and they can even annex a nearby province such as an Ancient Wonder. 


Infestations replace the monster spawners found in earlier games. These are the territories of various baddies; from brigands to crazed cultists as well as various monsters.  

In AoW4 Infestations have a domain as indicated by an ominous red border, with a spawner at its heart. Infestations come in three power levels, but all increase in size and strength as the game progresses.    

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Encountering an Astral Rift while scouting the mountains.

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High level Spawners like the Astral Rift have battlefield enchantments.

  • At the very start of the game infestations are asleep; meaning they don’t have patrols and do not send out raids.   

  • When their sleep timer runs out they wake up. The player gets a warning when nearby Infestations send out raids.They will pillage your provinces and may even besiege towns.    

  • Players should prioritize destroying nearby Infestations before they become a problem; but this may come at the expense of taking over another significant location in the early game (like an Ancient Wonder or City) 

  • Infestation domain gradually grows province by province. When it overlaps with your own cities raids on your province improvements will be frequent.   

  • Taking out the Spawner will destroy the domain and provide some treasure, generally a significant resource reward and Hero Items.

  • Infestations Territories often contain clusters of resources, making them great settling spots once they are cleared. 

  • Note that new Infestations can appear later in the game, depending on world threat level. 

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The Karagh is one of terrifying Infestation Monsters with its ability to eat your units.

Free Cities 

Free cities are the minor factions of Age of Wonders 4; they consist of single cities controlling a cluster of provinces on the map that are pre-placed. Some are nearby; while others are more distant or hidden away in the underground. In the conflict between the Godir, they will join the larger empires through diplomacy or force, where they can turn into loyal vassals or be absorbed into your empire. A lot has changed since Age of Wonders 3.     

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Meeting a friendly neighbor. 

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Free Cities often have rare resources in their domains. 

  • Free Cities are led by a hero;  who is the Free City’s face during negotiations and narrative events. When a Free City joins peacefully the lord or lady joins you as one of your heroes. (or if you attack, you face them on the battlefield!)  

  • Free Cities are inhabited by one one of the main races in the Realm. Generally one of towns near to your starting location is of the same race as your starting race.   

  • Free Cities vary in power, affecting the territory they control, the units at their disposal and their city defenses. Some High Tier Houses are Attuned to a particular Affinity, giving them access to magical powers and transformations. These can work against you in battle but also for you if you are able to befriend them. 

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High Tier Toadkin: Masters of Shadow modifying their units, spells and domain.

  • You start negotiations with Free Cities by handing them one of your Whispering Stones, which opens up direct communications with them.   Most factions start with a single Whispering Stone, but you can increase the amount through Empire Skills and starting Traits. 

  • Note that some Free cities start off hostile towards you or may turn hostile if your relations diminish. As with Infestations; they may send raids towards your lands. Leave them be at your own peril!   (You can try and befriend them though; especially a valid strategy for Good / Order Players)

  • Free Cities will also have defenders outside of their domain, guarding valuable resource nodes and magic materials. This creates interesting trade offs. If you want them removed from their location you can fight them but there is also a more diplomatic approach through narrative map encounter events:

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Some Node Guards belong to free cities;  attacking them will have consequences. 

  • With a Whispering Stone assigned, the town will build up Allegiance towards you. The organic rate is determined by your Relation with the town; the higher your relation the faster the town can be integrated. The UI Contains an Allegiance progress bar with Pacts marked on it. If a rival ruler is in negotiations with them their shield is rendered on the gauge too. From neutral up, the Diplomatic Pacts are:

    • Pact of Cooperation: Opens the Borders and enables basic trading. 

    • Pact of Loyalty: Shared Vision. You can now build in claimed provinces. Will join in fights against nearby marauders using the reinforcement system and will join in the Rally of the Lieges. 

    • Pact of Vassalage: Shares Income and Magic Materials; joins you in wars. Negotiations can further be improved to lead to more benefits and eventually Full Integration

  • However, you might not be the only one chasing after the loyalty of the Free Cities as other rulers intend on gaining vassals as well. In this fierce competition you may upset other rulers when you achieve vassalage with a Free City.

  • Your Relation gets initialized at the start of the game depending on affinity and alignment compatibility. Rulers with a Mortal Champion Origin get a +100 relation bonus to all Free Cities. 

  • During gameplay your relationship can be modified positively or negatively. Some common modifiers include:   

    • Narrative events: them asking your aid,  inviting you to banquets or requesting that you defeat a rival lord in another free city. Your response will generally affect your relation and/or allegiance. 

    • Trespassing through their domain or claiming territory near them will negatively impact your relation if you don’t have the appropriate treaties in place. 

    • Heroes hailing from Free Cities may join your services. Hiring them will increase your relationship. Don’t get them killed. (al though if you keep their body it may have interesting options down the line…)

    • Other events involve captured heroes you see here:  

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Defeating heroes in battle sends them to your crypt or prison, leading to interesting possibilities.

  • You can boost the Allegiance once per turn by spending Imperium. This can help you get the town quicker, and surpass other competitors. Spend Imperium wisely as burning through it in negotiations will mean you have to delay acquiring empire skills and it will take you longer to turn a vassal into a fully integrated town or build new towns of your own. 

  • When you reach high enough Allegiance the town becomes a Vassal; meaning that you have won the race of and other players can not get them except through force.   

  • From here on you can decide to keep them as vassals, especially if your empire can not administer more towns due to its city cap being reached. You can even turn your own cities into vassals to prevent penalties coming from the city cap. As vassals, the cities provide income and points for the Rally of the Lieges, which is a good way to levy troops from outside your domain and own unit roster.

  • These bonuses from vassals can still increase further (or diminish!) as the allegiance and vassalage state of the City changes, ranging from “Denying Tributary” to “Flourising Vassalage”, eventually allowing you to fully take over the city and integrate them.

  • The lower end of this scale is for Vassals with low allegiance; particularly Vassals that have been forced into submission after taking the town from an enemy ruler and choosing to vassalize them instead of going for full integration. 

Rally of the Lieges 

The Rally of the Lieges is an event that spawns after a number of turns; allowing you to recruit units from Free Cities and the Ancient Wonders that you have cleared. You can recruit units to your Capital or use them to bolster the Free City itself.

  • Gathering Vassals helps secure extra resources and units through the Rally of the Lieges. Choosing the right Empire Skills can also lead to several tactical advantages against other players if you time these unlocks well. For example:

    • Playing Order grants access to powerful unlocks that help you gain allegiance faster and to gain an extra whispering stone but it also makes it possible to, only once, start a Rally of the Lieges instantly where all the units are free and you have added points for recruiting them!

    • Shadow Affinity allows you to profit from Free Cities in different ways by having whispering stones give extra vision and also by allowing you to assign your whispering stones to someone else’s vassal and gaining tribute from that city equal to their own!

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Wrapping Up

I hope this journal gives you an idea of what the early game of Age of Wonders 4 is like. By themselves the systems have seen a strong evolution since AoW3, but where I think the biggest differences lie is the extent that these systems are interwoven with each other, leading to interesting trade offs, surprises and varied gameplay. Following Dev Journals will go in depth on Ancient Wonders,  Combat, Cities, and PVP Diplomacy.