After playing Master of Magic recently, I was feeling up for a bit more fantasy-themed strategy gaming. Didn't have to look any further than my Steam backlog, where Age of Wonders 3 has been sitting since I picked it up in one sale or another.
The basics of Age of Wonders 3 are familiar to anyone used to playing 4X games: explore the map, build cities, crank out armies, relish the tears of your enemies as their cities fall before your might. You can play a half-dozen different races (and expansions add more, but I just have the base game for now). The player is represented by a hero unit, and other heroes can be recruited as well. Each of those has certain class abilities: powerful fighters, high mages, sneaky rogues, etc.
Magic is a major part of the gameplay, with spells available to cast both on the strategic and combat level. There are several different "spheres" of magic, each with its own specialization: fire, air, destruction, etc. I haven't played with every different possible combination, but thus far it seems that the magic abilities are fairly well balanced. Nothing has jumped out at me as being incredibly powerful (unlike Master of Magic, which had some very overpowered combinations).
I've been playing the campaign (as opposed to open-ended skirmish battles). You play as an Elven princess battling against the treacherous Commonwealth. The story isn't particularly original or exciting, but that's all right since it's just a framework to give you a bunch of maps to conquer. As with most campaign missions in this kind of game, you start out in a pretty weak position on most of the maps, and have to build your way to victory. I thought it was decent, though parts got very tedious. In some maps, any kind of slight over-extension of your forces caused the AI to hammer you; in others, going too slowly meant the AI would build up to unbeatable levels. Takes a few attempts to figure out which map is which.
Age of Wonders 3 seems like a good choice when you feel the need to conquer the world with magic and dragons instead of tanks and guns. There are a lot of 4X games to choose from, so I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it, but I'm glad I gave it a try.