Age of Wonders 3
Playing Time: Not shown, but probably 70-100 hours
If you've been reading all of my posts, you'll have noticed that I went from mentioning that I was playing Star Ocean 4 to playing Hollow Knight to now playing Age of Wonders 3. I'm typically better about sticking with one game until I've gotten all the way through it (just getting through galaxy mode on SO4 doesn't count for this, since the real game doesn't start until I get to chaos), but I guess I've just been in a flaky sort of mood lately. In any case, the fact that I'm reviewing that last one now shouldn't be taken as a slight towards the other two, but it's been the one that's sucked me in the most, and it's the only one where there isn't some objective final boss or whatever, so I've got more latitude to review it when I feel like I've played it enough to speak with some authority on it. I'm no absolute expert, as this type of game requires hundreds of hours of play to reach that level of understanding, but I've got enough experience to not just be talking out of my ass.
Incidentally, since we're talking about a PC game that the developers have stopped patching and that comes with a modding tool, there are plenty of mods for it, so I will be talking briefly about the PBEM/single player balance mod by Hiliadan and Zaskow, too.
First things first, though. Age of Wonders 3 is a turn-based strategy game that combines 4X gameplay using stack armies (like Heroes of Might and Magic) with tactical map combat and unit/hero development that wouldn't be out of place in an SRPG (like, well, pretty much any turn-based SRPG, so let's say Disgaea just to pick one that goes beyond the bare bones mechanics). Both the strategic and tactical aspects are fleshed out very well, to the point where either one could pretty much stand alone as its own game (this is, in fact, what the typical live multiplayer match does to some degree, since it's generally accepted to use autocombat against AI armies).
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, it's worth mentioning that I'm pretty bad at playing strategy games, particularly ones with significant economic complexity, likely in part because I don't usually like them enough to stick with them. Whether we're talking about real time or turn-based, I tend to have a poor sense of balancing building armies, advancing tech, and expanding. On the other hand, I do tend to be fairly solid at tactical combat, especially in a turn-based setting where APM is a non-factor. I'm not a chess grandmaster or anything, but I can do a decent job of reading the battlefield and finding ways of exploiting synergies. Also, it's worth mentioning that I've been playing against the AI exclusively. As mentioned, the live multiplayer community expects people to use autocombat resolution for fights against AI armies (which takes a lot of the fun out of the game, in my opinion), and while play be email (PBEM) is an option to allow for getting the full game experience, that can also mean literally taking one or two months to play one match, depending on how many (real) days it takes you to advance each turn, which ruins its appeal for me.
So, that all having been said, there are three ways to play AOW3 as a single player game. There's the main campaign mode, which deviates from the way that's done in other strategy games I've played (like Starcraft or Command & Conquer) in that there are no tech limits based on how far you've gotten in the story. If you want to go all the way to using your ultimate units/spells on the very first campaign missions, there's no arbitrary restriction on it. It's rather pointless since nothing carries over between missions (even your heroes get their skills reset), and turtling up to do it will give the opponents the chance to do likewise, but at least the option is there. In any case, though, the big problem with the campaigns really that they're not updated to incorporate mechanics from DLC that came afterwards, so playing on the campaigns from the base game or the first DLC gave me plenty of jarring moments where I couldn't do something that I'd be able to do in a normal game. The story is passable, and it lets you learn some background lore about who those premade leaders are, but it's hardly anything critical.
The second way of playing AOW3 is the scenario mode. These are probably best described as one-stage campaigns, and there's not much more that I have to say about them than that. Similar to Hell & Hell mode in Devil May Cry 5 or the difficulty that comes between the normal one and the hardest one in Star Ocean games, it tries to be too much of a compromise between other options and ends up feeling like an extra feature that's ultimately unnecessary.
The main meat of the (single player) game is the random map mode. You set up a ton of options, from standard things like map size and number of players to finer details like how much any given terrain type is likely to be generated, whether to have water/underground areas, or how strong the AI defenders for resource sites will be. There are actually some pretty crazy options in here that can really change how any given game feels, like being able to turn off founding of new cities (i.e. the only cities will be whatever the players start with and all of the random independent cities), being able to change the number of heroes each player can hire to anything from zero to twenty, being able to have resurgence (if the unit is killed in tactical combat, it will revive at 35% HP if you win the fight) as a property on all heroes, or setting alternate victory conditions to allow for winning through map control instead of needing to hunt down and eradicate every opponent.
Once all of those rules are set up (the game does remember the last set of options that you used, by the way, so the process of setting up a new map is pretty easy once you've got a way of playing that you're happy with), it's time to pick leaders, assuming you didn't set it to be random for everyone. The game has plenty of premade leaders, with at least one for each race/class combination, but there's also a character generator for making your own. While there are plenty of options for making visual changes (not to the degree of the character generators in Elder Scrolls or Dark Souls, thankfully), the character generator is more than just superficial because the leader comes with three specializations that give more spells and/or passive effects, so you'll probably want to set your own instead of using the premade ones.
Speaking of which, much like with the Infinity Engine games or other CRPGs, there's a ton of depth that can again have a huge impact on how any given game feels. For the most part, it's not as different as playing between different factions in something like Starcraft where the basic game mechanics change, but there are plenty of subtle differences. For instance, each race has different terrains that they like/dislike/hate, which affects their morale (unless the units are undead), and that in turn affects their odds of getting critical hits or fumbles (critical failures). Dwarf and human units often have the armored trait, which reduces damage in general but makes them susceptible to taking extra damage from units with the armor piercing trait. Dwarf, elf, frostling, goblin, and tigran units all have traits that allow them to move on certain terrain types for less movement point cost. Then, while each race has the same basic military tech tree (one irregular, one infantry, one archer, one pikeman, one cavalry, one support, and a tier 3 unit requiring a very expensive building to unlock), there are quite some differences between them. For instance, among the racial archer units, goblin swarm darters ignore range and line of sight penalties but have abysmal health, draconian flamers are grenadiers who can really punish clumps of enemies, and tigran shredders can inflict bleeding wounds which will deal damage over time and improve the damage of other units with the bloodthirsty trait (which is fairly common on tigran units). Putting it all together, not only does it change how you'll approach things from the start of the game, but it also gives incentives to pick up other races in your empire. While there are no racial spells, there are passive differences in inherent resistance/weakness to certain elements, unit cost differences, a smattering of innate traits, and so forth.
Further to race, though, each class also has its own units (either fixed or varying by race, depending on which specific units you're talking about) , spells, and passive abilities, too. These can be used to either further compliment your racial strengths (e.g. dreadnoughts have upgrades specifically for units with the armored trait, which benefit pretty much every dwarf unit), compensate for weaknesses (e.g. theocrats have an upgrade to give healing to support units that wouldn't come with it normally, like orc priests), or just do funky things (e.g. necromancers who get halfling cities can make halfling reanimators, which are one of the few ways to boost morale for ghoul units). Similar to the racial units, this can again add incentives to not just raze every rival city to the ground, though this isn't as pronounced for some classes (e.g. sorcerers don't get a whole lot of synergy with elves, amusingly enough, since they have passive upgrades that make the storm sister upgrade of gaining inflict stun redundant and most of their class units are race-independent summoned creatures).
Note that, while you can get heroes of other classes to join you, you can only ever produce class units based on your main leader's class. You can get units that you can't produce, mind you, but these will be in limited quantities (either as random one-off purchases from inns or stolen via mind control abilities). Thus, while you can theoretically make cities of any race once you have at least one such city in your empire, your class unit availability is mostly locked in from the start of the map.
Then, as mentioned above, you get to stack three specializations on top of all of that to get more spells and/or passive effects. As with the interactions of race and class, this can be used to cover weaknesses (e.g. picking air magic adept on a warlord to have access to a cheap summoned unit with flight to improve scouting) or to double down on strengths (e.g. picking shadowborn adept on a goblin to be able to make cheaper butchers with doubled life stealing).
Now, all of this might sound like it has some serious potential to be broken when it's all put together, and that's true. Some classes are pretty clearly over/underpowered (e.g. dreadnoughts are at a huge disadvantage against anyone with access to units with inflict stun since their special machines are all weak against that). Halflings are clearly the worst race since they're balanced around having a morale-based chance to dodge (which can be rendered moot by doing stuff to lower their morale enough to give them 0% chance to dodge, and that's fairly easy for any necromancer, rogue, or warlord leader, among other ways). Creation magic master is just awful aside from one spell (which is itself only useful if you've had a unit die, and that's both undesirable in general and also possible to make somewhat redundant with high level heroes/leaders of certain classes). Playing just against the AI, it's possible to make up for these imbalances by just playing better, so it's not a huge problem for me, but I can see it having significant implications on the multiplayer scene, whether live or PBEM.
And thus, this is where the PBEM/single player balance mod (currently on version 1.22) comes into play. While I wouldn't say it's perfect by any means, and I don't agree with all of the changes, it does make a lot of sensible improvements to fix a lot of stupid things, like how some cheap debuffing tactical spells had infinite duration (stiffen limbs and slayer's doubt being the most obvious) or how it was far too easy to steal enemy units with necromancers. The vanilla game isn't broken by any means (it's more of a Baldur's Gate or Sacred 2 than a Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines or The Witcher 3), but toning down some of the worst parts and improving some of the glaring weaknesses does make it more interesting overall. If you're going to play AOW3, I'd suggest getting the mod.
As for AOW3 itself, I'd definitely recommend it. Given the good quality of both the strategic and tactical play, it's basically two games in one, and there's tons of depth both of them. I've only just scratched the surface of it all (I barely said anything about the whole system of being able to gain levels that goes far beyond the similar systems in other strategy games I've played), and yet I've written over 2000 words about it here. Aside from having some bad balance elements in the final official patch (which aren't outright broken but are pretty glaring nonetheless), the only major complaint I've got about it is that it can suffer from the usual strategy game problem of needing to wipe out every opponent even after you've clearly won and all that's left is the formality of it, and even that can be addressed in part by using the map control victory conditions. The bottom line is that I've loved it, even as someone who doesn't usually think so highly of strategy games.
Playing Time: Not shown, but probably 70-100 hours