Age of Empires 2 Script

Dec 24, 2023

"Age of Empires is like ayahuasca. To get to the point where it takes full effect, you have to have been into it for a long time, fasting and preparing your trip, but once you're hooked, you don't want anything else." [1]

From a dream: "Sometimes, I wish my heart got Blast Furnace." [2]

I Can't Stop Playing AoE2

This video contains spoilers for Genghis Khan's conquest of Asia.

And the recent Age of Empires 2 Tournaments:
Warlords 2 (major)
Nili's Apartment Cup 4 (major)
Nations Cup 2023 (minor)
Various NAC 5 qualifiers (minor)

Introduction: History and General Observations

There are lots of games that people like to revisit; there are probably hundreds of people playing through the big NES games at any given time. Fewer games have any kind of enduring community, and those that do are usually carried by larger cultures like speedrunning. A tiny sliver of the classics are able to thrive decades after release. Diablo 2 is one such game. Consistently popular since it released in 2000, the game was still a best seller in 2008 [3].

Remarkably, Age of Empires 2 is another. And it's a real-time strategy game, not an easy to learn, pick-up-and-play type of thing you might expect. AoE2 initially released in 1999, got a cash-grab re-release in 2013, and a much better Definitive Edition in 2019. Since then the game has received regular updates and a bunch of DLC.

I got the 2013 version on a whim when it came out, and although I liked the art and overall feel of the game I wasn't really able to make heads or tails of it as a kid. I had heard the phrase "fast castle" somewhere and was enamored with it, so I mostly tried and failed to pull that off against the easy AI.

In the last year or so I started watching pros play, and I've been putting a few hours into AoE2 every week. Age of Empires 2 is more than just a stand-out in its genre; it gives you a few simple tools and intuitive gameplay, and spins these into a game with an unfathomable skill ceiling. This video is a review and introduction all in one. A game like this might seem like a break from the stuff I usually talk about, but I think anybody who likes games in general should give AoE2 a shot. I do not consider myself a fan of the strategy genre, and I think AoE2 is better described as an action game where you have to earn it.

I'm mainly going to talk about the game's 1v1 random map mode, because it's popular and it's what I play, but that is a tiny sliver of what AoE2 has to offer: there are a number of built-in game-types and a scenario editor that lets players make their own game-modes. The golden age of RTS was also the birth of tower defense and MOBA games, and those were only possible because games used to come packaged with level editors. RTS's were both finished games and a foundation to build from.

I should say right up front that if your impression of RTS is playing Starcraft at 300 actions per minute, Age of Empires is not like that. Unlike Blizzard Studios' Hand Dexterity Trainer, AoE2 gives players the tools to actually play the game, and if you can reach 50 APM, which is easy with the hotkeys I'll talk about later, you can technically be a pro. If you want an approachable RTS, AoE2 is the gold standard on pretty much every level.

{== I hate Blizzard so much. I refuse to call Diablo 1 and 2 Blizzard games, they're different from Blizzard games in that they're good and fun to play. They were made by the artists formerly known as Condor. Btw I saw a comment on Glitchwave about Path of Exile 2 resolving the contradictions inherent in ARPGs and it totally changed the way I think about games. Pay to Win 3. ==}

I was surprised to find that most people who play these games stick to single-player, but another thing AoE2 has over the competition is its vast collection of campaigns, that have been built up over the last two decades. The original Age of Kings had campaigns, the Conquerors expansion added some, the HD edition added some, and now with the Definitive Edition there are 37 {== the Mountain Royals DLC made me waste an entire day redoing voiceover hahahaha ==} campaigns to play through.

Their quality varies--they were assembled by many different teams over the course of 20 years--but they're full of interesting twists on the base game, ornately designed cities, and decent voice acting. The campaigns are a great place to start, because they give you a definite problem to solve with the game's mechanics instead of the total, paralyzing, freedom you might get with regular 1v1s.

{-- For some reason they rerecorded a bunch of voice lines for DE; the performances aren't really any better or worse. People say the old ones had more "heart" or whatever but I think it's just the lower audio quality triggering their nostalgia. From the comparisons I've seen the old performances go for a more dramatic voice-over style while the new ones come off like somebody reading their journal. I prefer the old, but it's not a huge deal. --}

This late into its life, the game definitely has a patchwork quality to it, since so many different groups have been in the driver's seat. The recent addition of the Roman civilization is an obvious example, it makes no sense in the context of the game's other civs. The tagline on the back of the original box was literally "Rome has fallen" {== show it ==}, and although there are plenty of inaccuracies in AoE2 this one really sticks out. The Romans were a pretty big deal.

But the presentation is rough around the edges in general. None of the menu styles go together; some have this parchment look which is fine, but there's no consistency between layouts. Others are more modern but the layout looks like a first draft. The co-op campaigns and quick play use the same menu style but quick play just has this weird black screen transition for no reason. The campaign menu, pretty much copied from the original game, has a cool atlas theme, but the skeumorphism doesn't show up anywhere else. Obviously none of this is game-breaking, but you can tell that features have been added without a ton of polish. That development time is being put into frequent balance patches instead, so if a little bit of menu jank is the price of a great game, then jank it is.

There are some more annoying things too; every time the game updates it disables all your mods and unit pathing has gotten much worse in the last year.

But it's crazy that this game is getting support at all, let alone consistent patches and new expansions, and although there are small issues the developers actually do take the community into account while preserving the game's identity. Often, if you only cater to hardcore players, the kinds that really engage with the community, everything fun about a game gets dissolved by the meta. Games are good because of their anachronisms, not in spite of them, and there is always a short-term incentive to smooth over any polarizing features and try to please everyone. Thankfully, AoE2 has mostly been spared.

This observation might be too personal to be useful, but with the historical theming and the corny campaigns and the isometric artstyle, AoE2 has what I'd call a "public library" aesthetic that I find extremely comfy. Despite gameplay that is very stressful at times, AoE2 reminds me of ancient hardwood furniture, buzz-cut maroon carpets, and excessively plush reading chairs. It's honest, reliable, and not too complicated. Aged, but not old.

{== Photos: [4] [5]==}

Genghis Khan 3 ("Vertical Slice")

Anyway, I think it'll be fun to just hit the ground running, and I'm partial to the third Genghis Khan mission, Into China.

The first thing we're struck with is AoE2's theming.

Worldbuilding is not a trivial thing with RTS games. In a first-person shooter it's relatively easy to immerse players because the perspective gives us a lot to work with: we know what our character is going through because we're also going through it, and the world feels at least a little bit real just because we get to run around in it. A game like Disgaea, a middle-ground between RPG and strategy, is a little more abstract, but your units are also characters in the world, so you can at least latch onto that. In pure strategy games you just play as a commanding presence; there's no immediate reason for us to care about what's happening, and most of your units are interchangeable. Time is also stretched and compressed in weird ways: AoE2 compacts a thousand years into a 45-minute match.

For people that only play strategy games maybe this isn't a problem, but without something realistic to ground these games I have a really hard time getting into them. Watching George Washington and Gandhi hang out in Civilization has always come off to me as some weird League of Nations fanfiction, far too abstract to really care about.

AoE2 definitely has a Deadliest Warrior quality to it, but that's a lot better than Civilization's mock UN, and the game's first impression is convincingly realistic. The campaigns see you participating in major historical events; you're not just some commander, you're directing the Mongol horde on the war path. It's a thin veneer--AoE2 is not a story game--but the campaigns work well enough as historical fiction that the player both learns a little bit and gets the sense that each mission has high stakes. Additionaly, the game has regional styles of architecture, and your units speak the native language of your chosen civ.

Age of Empires was published by Microsoft at a time when they were pretty invested in educational software. While the gameplay might not have much fidelity to real history {== elephant archers shot by mangonel ==}, the campaigns are accurate-enough, and the game includes pages and pages of context about each civilization. Before the internet Microsoft made tons of educational CDs, which were more or less just digital encyclopedia entries, and AoE2 has a bit of that educational DNA.

There must be some intuitive appeal to this idea of playing through history; there is a glut of mobile games that mimic AoE2's name and systems. The entire fantasy genre also attests to how much people like medieval imagery.

In the game proper, the controls feel incredibly responsive. Any time you interact with a unit, there is always immediate audio and visual feedback. The unit will make one of a few noises, and if you gave it a command it will start performing it immediately. I didn't pick up on this until playing other RTS games, but AoE2 is head and shoulders above other games of its era. The cursors are a great example. When you command a unit to move somewhere, you get four red arrows converging on a point. When you queue a bunch of movement, little numbered flags with your colour show up. When you give a unit a task, like kill a sheep, the sheep will get a flashing green indicator for a second.

Starcraft and Command and Conquer Tiberian Sun came out pretty close to AoE2, and they're both much more difficult to read. Starcraft's awkward, micro-intensive unit formations, and more ambiguous cursors never give me the immediate sense of certainty I feel with AoE2. Controls that feel decisive make the game more satisfying moment-to-moment; if you have perfect control, or the illusion of perfect control, then you own your success, it doesn't feel random or automated by the game.

Even in isolation, watching a bunch of little soldiers follow your commands is very satisfying. Groups of them flow like water, and they automatically assemble into formations. AoE2's pathfinding is fantastic, again no other RTS of the era comes close. Beyond being nice to look at, these controls make the units in AoE2 behave very predictably, so you can task them to do things without any babysitting. Managing your cognitive load is a core skill in games like this, and in Age of Empires 2 I never have to worry that my knights got stuck on a woodline somewhere and gave up moving. It frees up brain power to focus on actual strategy.

The scouting report at the beginning of the mission informed us of a weak faction in the East, so I'm heading that way. Moving units is fun, but we will actually need to fight at some point. They've got some weak infantry that my cavalry arches can deal with easily, and a handful of crossbowmen.

While the ultimate goal is to hit the enemy, AoE2's responsiveness makes micromanagement a big part of the game. The infantry here should never even scrape my cav archers if I'm microing properly; get out of melee range, shoot them, and repeat.

But whether I micro or not, these guys are pushovers and we can easily make their village our own. They have powerful friends, though, so I'm going to wall them out with buildings as I get the economy up and running. Most of the campaigns don't stress this, but villagers are the most important units in AoE2; they collect resources for the war effort, and are the only units that can make buildings {== sarjeants ==}. They cost 50 food at a town center, but will quickly net you hundreds of resources worth of profit.

I'll explain the game's UI quickly for the unaware. These numbers at the top are the game's four resources, and the small counters underneath tell us how many villagers are collecting each of them. This is population, how many units we have, and population space, the total number of units we can make. The absolute maximum pop is 200. Here's the minimap. It's a really good tool for navigating the map, and it shows where on the map alerts are happening. The left panel is for controlling units, and this middle area displays some details on whatever you have selected.

Those are the basics, and after a casual start the mission heats up quickly. We have no way to deal with the other factions; my walls will be good for a while, but I want to rush up to the castle age so I can fortify the base and start taking more resources around the map. Getting to castle age unlocks the siege workshop, which will help us push down the massive wall protecting the Chinese.

Building a castle gives us access to Mangudai, mounted archers unique to the Mongol civilization. They are pretty good by themselves but they might be the best unit in the game if you build up a mass of them and upgrade them. Defensive siege, walls, and Mangudai should buy us the time to build up a formidable push. Small raiding parties from the enemy make things messy, but in a short time I'm able to get up to the imperial age, unlocking capped rams to take down that wall and the last piece of my army.

{-- s1 ended here --}

The expensive and powerful Mangudai can hold off the army while cheap hussars run in en masse to snipe siege weapons and villagers. You can whittle down crossbowmen all day but the only way to win a game is to take your opponent's economy, and the imperial age is all about knocking down buildings with powerful siege weapons like the almighty trebuchet.

Good timing, because yellow just surprised us with a wonder. It's really tough to deal with this if you don't know it's coming; yellow is alone on an island and the coastline is defended by paladins, super-upgraded knights. Once a wonder is built, a 300 year timer starts counting down. If it reaches zero, the builder wins a cultural victory.

I managed to sneak over there and get a castle down before imperial age, so two trebuchets and a ball of Mangudai start the push into yellow's base while rams start hitting the great wall on the mainland. Once the defenses are cracked, the rest is a formality. The AI really likes to trickle units instead of building up a mass of them. It can out-micro a human easily, but I simply have too many hussars and Mangudai. I did throw a lot of hussars into tower fire, but it worked out in the end.

The campaigns are good at making it feel like you've won against impossible odds. They seem unfair on a first attempt, full of twists and endless waves of army that are more powerful than yours. But once you think about what you're doing, and execute a good strategy, those losses make the victory even more satisfying.

Each campaign mission is a nicely crafted chunk of fun, but there's a lot more to AoE2, and the game's character really comes out in random map skirmishes, which start you and an opponent in the dark age and task you with building up an army from nothing.

Dark Age

The first hurdle to actually playing AoE2 is this ridiculous list of civilizations; different civs get access to different technologies and bonuses that slightly change how they're played. Economic bonuses tend to be the best ones, because they just get stronger and stronger as the game goes on, but really the best civ is the one you know how to play. I recommend trying some out and then sticking with one you like for awhile and learning it. I'm going to pick the Magyars. They get melee attack upgrades for free and that'll help me do some damage early in the game.

We start with a town center, three villagers, and a scout sitting in an otherwise dark world. Clicking a villager reveals a long list of stuff you can build. AoE2's menus are very flat, and again this helps the game feel snappy and responsive. Worst case scenario, an action takes two button presses.

{++ NEW STUFF 11/19/2023 ++}
Like every action, button presses also make a sound. These control panels can be overwhelming for new players, but once you learn how they work their lack of structure and submenus makes them very quick to navigate. They're awkward at first but they become intuitive after a few hours; it's like learning to use a new limb.
{++ NEW STUFF 11/19/2023 ++}

Here's a trick that makes the game 100 times easier: the Definitive Edition has a hotkey setting that maps all of these buttons to a grid that matches your keyboard. You will still want to mouse over the buttons at first, to learn what they do, but these hotkeys are really intuitive and they save a ton of mouse movement. It's easy to see modern games as a new skin over the same old gameplay every year, but control schemes have genuinely improved a lot in the last twenty years, and it's great that Age of Empires has kept up.

{++ NEW STUFF 11/19/2023 ++}
When you compare it to the HD Edition, DE shows how these small control tweaks can totally change the feel of a game: I think the original is the least janky RTS of its time but it had UI and control problems that introduced a lot of friction. Some of them were probably technical constraints, some are just bad.
{++ NEW STUFF 11/19/2023 ++}

{== On screen:
shift-queueing only applied to movement and you had to finish the waypoints with an un-shifted left click for some reason
you could only queue one type of thing from a building, so if you wanted to get a bunch of techs you had to constantly babysit
awful hotkeys that couldn't be fixed
lack of a visible global production queue

Unlike the campaigns, random map doesn't tell us what to do. DE comes with the original, basic tutorial, and some more advanced ones to ease you into the competitive meta. Even without those, if you just think about it for a second, we should try to keep everybody busy; every second of idle time is an advantage the opponent can take. The town center can make more villagers, so that seems like a good idea. The existing villagers can increase our population space by building houses, so they're good to go, and the scout can explore to get some more vision.

Our starting food will quickly run out, but we have some water buffalo that villagers can collect more from. Resources can only be dropped off in certain places; it's best to have the buffalo right under the TC so villagers don't waste time walking around. This setup can produce villagers for a while, but the buffalo will also run out quickly. The scout should find some more, but there are also rhinos and goats near the TC. {++ modify animal names as necessary ++}

The dark age is unique because it's really the only time you're going to struggle against nature. There's enough food but you have to invest a lot of time and micro to get it. Food is always important, but it's your singular focus in the dark age.

Goats will run away from you, so you can use the scout to push them to the TC. If you attack a rhino with a villager, it'll give chase and you can lure it to a convenient spot before swarming it with vills. This makes for a surprisingly technical first few minutes, and even pros lose a villager to a rhino or boar sometimes. In the dark age you have to straddle four different food sources that all take slightly different skills. Another nice artistic detail is that the various biomes have different wildlife; boars, rhinos, and elephants are mechanically equivalent but they make every map generation feel a little more realistic.

It's pretty safe to scout your opponent at this point, since they're dealing with the same challenges you are. Villagers garrisoned in a town center can shoot arrows though, so it's important to avoid the opponent's TC.

{-- The dark age is a built-in warmup, and it's also an implicit tutorial; learning to play the dark age also teaches you skills for the rest of the game. --} The dark age is the only one where you don't have to make many decisions; you really just want to get a few villagers and move on to the feudal age. Getting there costs 500 food and requires two dark age buildings. We need a lumber camp to get more wood, and a mill to collect the nearby berries, so the buildings are covered.

Just by messing around, the player learns that resources can be dropped off at these special buildings, villagers can make those buildings, and balancing how many vills you have on a given resource is important. Underlying all of this is the fact that villagers are your most important unit.

Sorting out the food situation is a micro workout, and it gives players the first hints of how to manage AoE2's chaos: move your camera as little as possible and use the tools the game gives you. Control groups, shift queuing, military commands like follow, and garrisoning in buildings are all super useful. These might seem intimidating, dark age micro is hard to understand if you're just watching it, but these tricks are all ways to make the game easier for yourself. You can pick the skills up quickly because they're immediately rewarding, they reduce the APM and attention investment for these tasks.

Like the flat menus, this is all very overwhelming at first. In writing it all out, I can definitely see why people prefer the campaigns. But you don't have to start out perfect. Little efficiency losses are fine and inevitable; the fun part of AoE2 is achieving your goals in spite of how complicated these systems are. {-- Over time, seemingly impossible micro becomes second nature, and the AI that crushed you three games ago is barely a threat. The most important thing is to know why you're doing what you're doing. Most people use build orders--a list of what resources to send your first few villagers to--but understanding why a build is the way it is gives you room to improve. --}

{-- The dark age is a huge difficulty spike right off the bat. I started playing by working through all of the game's AI settings, and a bad dark age will really hurt you at higher difficulties. If you pick this game up and you have to play against the easy AI on slow speed, don't feel bad about it; the point is to have fun. I'll talk more about ranked multiplayer later on, but it's designed to give you opponents that are at your skill level. There's no shame in knowing your limits, and playing against somebody 100x better than you won't teach you anything except drywall repair. --}

One of the coolest things about AoE2 is that pretty much every decision you make can have an impact way down the line. If you lose a vill early you might wall your base in because you know you're at a disadvantage, and that will help determine your opponent's strategy ten minutes from now. Or, if you want to destroy the opponent's advantage you could come forward and build towers to make the game messy.

It's hard to describe, but once you start to parse the game, AoE2 has a kind of "unfolding" quality to it. Where the previous encounter in an FPS might have little to no bearing on the next one, in Age of Empires everything you're doing right now is a direct consequence of what happened earlier in the game. There's a built-in narrative; winning is not a matter of simply killing the final boss in isolation, but the outcome of a long series of decisions and battles. You don't get to save and heal and reset, you work with what you've got.

{++ START HERE ++}

Take a shot: AoE2 reminds me of the journey from the Undead Burg to Izalith; it's one big chunk, you can't teleport home to take a break. You just get this supremely immersive, increasingly high-stakes journey through the sewers into Blighttown as your consumables run out and durability runs low. Obviously Age of Empires has a different tone than Dark Souls, but the game is more immersive and the action more impactful because the game-world is never interrupted.

With AoE2 this is true in several ways: we're obviously playing on a single fixed map without pauses or loading times, but more importantly you get to see your base and economy growing in real time. Since you have to bring resources in yourself, when you spend them there's a strong sense for the value of whatever you're spending them on. Big battles are intense because they're expensive, and the high-stakes gameplay makes AoE2 very immersive: you don't want to lose all that gold. Even more than narrative-driven games, the stories you come away with are definitively yours; AoE2 does everything possible to make players feel like they own their clever decisions, lucky moments, and big plays. The story is your story of playing the game.

Feudal Age Transition

And every good story is dynamic, with points of high and low tension. Age of Empires creates these dynamics with its ages; advancing to the next age unlocks new units, buildings, and technologies. Each comes with an increase in power and a new feel, reinforced by fresh art for all your buildings. In feudal age you'll be microing your heart out with a small group of units, trying to claw away one or two vill kills or some other marginal advantage. In the late game, you can see truly crazy meatgrinder battles where thousands of units, the same ones you were making in feudal age, fight over dwindling resources.

{== This game is the example that comes to mind. Or Jordan/Andy BF in Warlords II ==}

Clicking up is balanced in such a way that it's always a big investment; if the game is close, you will have to sacrifice production to click up. It slightly shifts the balance of the game in the opponent's favour, forcing you to slow things down for a couple minutes while your eco recovers. Aging up is not just an objective, it has to be integrated with your strategy, and there are bad times to do it. Ages are researched at the town center, so in the early game you can't produce any villagers during the transition. A very common mistake is to click up to imperial age when you're already at a huge disadvantage. The idea being that the imperial age power spike will save you. It's considered an "imp into gg" play because you're so behind by the time you reach imp that you have to just resign anyway.

Ages are a frankly genius way to handle technologies. To play RTS games you have to learn timings. By experience or through guides you need to figure out whether, for example, your marines should have the first armor upgrade as soon as possible or if it's a waste of resources. Usually the entire tech tree is available from the start of the game, and you simply have to know how to take advantage of it. Time isn't structured.

Timings are a huge part of AoE2 strategy as well, but gating techs behind clearly defined stages of the game makes it so much easier to pick up. Starcraft is a big, undifferentiated mass of time and buildings and units and techs. You can get OK at it by playing missions but they will not help you hit good timings. Because nobody's perfect, timings are also relative to your opponent, and in Age of Empires you always know what age your opponent is in, so you know, in broad strokes, if you're at a timing advantage or disadvantage. If my opponent hits feudal and I'm nowhere near clicking up, I have a serious problem on my hands because I can't make army.

A lot needs to happen in the transition time between the dark age and feudal age. Wood is about to be very important: we need buildings and walls to protect the base, and enough wood for our main military building, in my case the stable. I always take some villagers off of sheep or berries and send them to wood at this point.

If you're doing some kind of tower play, you might want to take stone now. If you're going to make archers, you'll also want villagers on gold, because archers cost gold and wood.

Like a bad dark age, a bad feudal transition will put you way behind, but this doesn't happen instantly. You'll find yourself waiting on wood income to make buildings, and you'll have to very carefully consider where to spend wood. Over time you can find yourself with no wood and no food, since the berries run out and you can't afford farms.

Again, the structure of the game teaches us how to play: a big eco is useless if it's poorly balanced, so move vills around wherever you need them. Your economy is an instrument of your strategy, and the bigger lesson here is that the best way to win is to understand why you're doing what you're doing. Taking food quickly doesn't help us in the feudal age transition, taking wood does.

{-- VO s2 ended here --}

Feudal Age

With that said, it's finally time for military. Like I said earlier the Magyars get free attack upgrades, so my scout just got way stronger for free. A group of villagers can still kill a lone scout, so I'll build a stable and make more of them. Cavalry can give you a lot of control over the map; the opponent will have to focus entirely on defense, or split their attention between their own base and mine. If I manage to get there before the enemy walls up, my scouts are very dangerous. If they're walled, I can follow up with archers to shoot over the walls, or just keep an eye on the enemy and harass them while I build up toward the castle age.

The biggest culture shock when I started playing against people is that the AI almost never makes walls. In my first ever game my scout play was totally useless, the enemy got into my base, which was totally open, and I died before castle age. If you check out AoE2 and you enjoy playing against the AI, I highly recommend trying out the ranked mode. Age of Empires doesn't have any treadmill progression systems, there's no diamond league, it's just Elo.

One of the reasons I came back to the game in the first place is that it's the only competitive multiplayer game I've ever seen that has a generally nice community. One of the biggest tournaments is run out of a guy's apartment, and all the players just hang out; there is none of the pomp of competitive Counter-Strike or DOTA.

And this more laid-back attitude is due in part to the game itself. It's one on one, so you can't screech at your teammates when you lose. Victory tends to be decisive and the loser usually knows what they did wrong, which is inherently humbling. Ditto with the practice of resigning instead of letting the opponent defeat you. Both players also make thousands of mistakes in every match, so even victories are intense if you're against an opponent of equal skill.

Another hard-to-pin-down phenomenon with this game is the entertainment factor. More than any game I've seen, it feels like producing a fun and interesting match is a major goal for most players. When I see an opponent making infantry or mass scorpions or anything weird, I start to get excited. AoE2 gives you loads of opportunities to go off-meta, for reasons I'll discuss later, and when it happens you get to put your game knowledge into action and express yourself. It's exhilarating, the build orders and meta plays fall to the wayside and it feels like you're actually clashing with the other player. The game encourages this, because it's pretty forgiving if you screw up and surprising the opponent can give you a huge advantage. {== tournament drafts are starting to add random civilization bans for the express purpose of creating off-meta situations. ==}

I can't overstate how rare this is; TF2 at its absolute best can hit these levels of fun, but competitive shooters, other RTS's, and MOBAs tend to be so unforgiving, and have such strict metas, that play like this is heavily disincentivized and it takes on the order of tens or hundreds of games to see a wacky one. When a game's meta is "solved", it's not good enough to just play in a way that you enjoy. Age of Empires has best practices, but every match allows you to express yourself and it's common, especially for average players, to get into some pretty funny situations.

It's not just the game that makes the community good, of course. Since AoE2 is so old the playerbase skews older as well. A teenager or early college student can invest a lot of their time and stake a lot of their identity on a game, which naturally makes them emotional about it. When you're cool headed it's easy to say that the point of playing games is to enjoy yourself, but it takes experience to maintain that when an opponent kicks your ass.

{++ awkward transition? ++}

One way or another, the enemy and I are going to fight. Another improvement over other games, in my opinion, is AoE2's system of unit counters. Every strategy game naturally has some units that counter others, but there are two very useful concepts that make AoE2 counters obvious: I'll call them types and value. It's less complicated than it sounds.

{== On screen: Not all units fit one type, this is just a rule of thumb! ==}

The unit types are infantry, cavalry, and ranged. They have inherent advantages and disadvantages. Archers can micro down melee units and shoot past structures, cavalry are very fast so they can hit and run while taking minimal damage, and infantry is pretty niche but does more damage to buildings. In theory the types have a rock-paper-scissors sort of relationship, but in practice I don't think this is a good way to think about them. Value completes the picture.

When I talk about the value of a unit I mean whether or not it costs gold to produce. Gold is the most precious and limited resource in the game, and gold units are the kind that can do serious damage to an economy. {-- Knights are speedy and have great damage output, archers can harass your miners or lumberjacks, and the man-at-arms can punch through defensive structures, although their use really drops off after feudal age. --}

On the other hand, there are trash units, which cost no gold and act as counters. They can't really kill vills, but they can swing the game if they take out a big group of expensive units. Spearmen do tons of damage to cavalry, but they're slow and can barely scratch villagers. This makes them terrific in defense, but not great for offense unless you can force a fight. Skirmishers counter archers. Scouts don't fit neatly into this system; they do good damage but walling and the spearman counter is so effective that they only have a tiny window to do damage in feudal. More powerful units tend to be more brittle; they get countered hard, or have less health, or take a lot of skill and attention to use.

A fantastic piece of balancing here is that counter units arguably cost more than gold units in feudal; you are just starting to set up your economy and you really want to hold onto the food and wood that trash units take. Offensive play is strongly incentivized, either with scouts that just cost food, or with wood-and-gold archers which are expensive but also capable of crippling the enemy.

It's perfect system of counters, there are too many unit types for that, but in general a guy with a long pointy thing will kill cavalry, and a unit that throws javelins will kill archers. Even without diving into the ludicrous number of units in the game, you can usually tell at a glance what kills what, and that is quite an achievement. The counters don't trivialize the game, though, because ten knights will still beat one pikeman. Counters need to be paired with good economy, micro, and enough game sense to research the appropriate technologies and train units. Archers especially benefit from a good castle age timing so you can research crossbow and bodkin arrow for a huge power spike.

The fact that you can immediately read the situation in Age of Empires is what drew me to the game in the first place; it's far more anthropomorphic than the competition and almost everything about it makes intuitive sense. It goes without saying that wood and gold have a much clearer use than Tiberium ore, but does a Tick Tank beat a Wolverine? Does a Disc Thrower beat a Cyborg? You can check--these questions have answers--but there are no clear markers in the character designs that communicate the unit's role in an army.

AoE2's setting makes everything more readable, it's pretty obvious why a spear can take down a horse, or why an archer beats a swordsman. In Command & Conquer, it does make sense that tanks can run over infantry, but when it comes to different types of guys with guns it's not at all clear who should win an engagement. There are numbers underneath AoE2's units, numbers that you will want to learn eventually, but you can get pretty far with the basic patterns. Make a gold unit, counter where appropriate, and get your upgrades. This makes it possible for normies like us to adapt to opponents and come to grips with the 50,000 different civilizations and unique units. It's an incredible and kind of unfathomable achievement of balancing and art direction. The system doesn't always work how you'd expect, but in the vast majority of situations it does. By the time you meet some of the weirder units, you'll probably understand how to read the tech tree as well, so again AoE2 turns the seemingly mammoth challenge of learning all these units into something very manageable.

{== About numbers: a pretty big brained skill pros use is to check the armor and attack values of their opponent's units. If you have all the stats memorized, these tell you how much the opponent has invested into upgrades. ==}

The sprites go a long way to make Age of Empires readable and satisfying. Buildings are all aligned to a grid, so even if your base is messy there's a pleasant regularity to it.

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For some reason Starcraft tilts all of its buildings at weird angles, so bases always look haphazard. I like Tiberian Sun a little better, but AoE2 buildings lean into being pleasantly blocky. They really fill the grid space and other than looking nice it helps you find holes while walling off your base.
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Unit animations are snappy and they move smoothly across the map, again in Starcraft and Tiberian Sun units can be slow to respond to commands. Ranged units like archers have all their projectiles simulated, and it's an immensely satisfying form of visual feedback, especially as upgrades come in and they get more range and accuracy. As a bonus, you can micro around archers if you get the rhythm right. {== Hera Tatoh Warlords II final Arabia ==}

There's a "miniature village" {== show a video maybe ==} quality to the whole thing that reminds me of SimCity, but the graphics are a means to an end: buildings and units are very easy to read, and even the samey-er buildings incorporate some kind of iconography that sets them apart: the siege workshop has a mangonel out front, the archery range has a target, the stable has some horses, and the blacksmith has a smoke trail. By its nature AoE is very chaotic, but the visuals, especially that consistent isometric camera, do a lot to help you read and respond to that chaos.

The Definitive Edition even added different foundations for each building, so it's easier to scout what an opponent is making before the building is even finished.

Maybe this is a personal thing, but every time I try to play other RTS's the information just hits my brain and slides off. {== show this ==} AoE2's surprising success twenty years on is definitely part nostalgia--and the game's high quality--but it's also just so much easier to understand than Starcraft or C&C. Even hardcore meta play still looks like people building up little villages and going to war. Starcraft and Command & Conquer have a high barrier to entry, they're difficult to appreciate even as a viewer. Everything about this makes sense {== Mangonel smashing archers ==}.

That's without mentioning the fantastic music by Stephen Rippy and Todd Masten [6], which sets a mood without ever getting in the way. The sound swells at the beginning and end of the game, starting with a little intro specific to your civ, and ending with a sting indicating if you won or lost. I already talked about sound as an important piece of feedback, but there's a nice mixture of sounds unique to each civ along with universal ones like the attack horn, button presses, or that iconic monk noise. {== vululu vululu ==} Each sound is brief, easy to understand, and doesn't interfere with the others. The monk notification is arguably too long and loud, but a conversion is a bigger power swing than a kill so maybe it's warranted.

Castle Age (more counters)

I said earlier that I think of AoE2 as an action game where you have to earn it. I've tried to show a little bit of that, I love making scouts and being annoying with them, but this has all been suspiciously strategic so far.

Well, the bulk of the game happens in the castle age. If you remembered to make villagers your eco will be pretty large, and the main decision in early castle is whether you want to invest more into economy, or start spending serious money on an army. In the castle age you can make extra town centers, which means vill production can double or triple. But gold is plentiful right now and castle age also gives us access to units that can end the game.

Generally, the best way to win is to commit hard into whatever you want to make. If you're going to boom, make 3TCs and defensive army. If you want to kill, then go all in. Being an average player I never take my own advice, and usually go 2TCs while I harass and distract with what's left of my feudal age army.

Military unit counters are one thing to think about, but castle age also introduces more new stuff. Siege weapons can start knocking down your opponent's walls, and the mangonel can flatten groups of archers. Siege units are brittle, though, and if it's undefended a knight can easily swoop in and kill a mangonel. Rams might seem slow and useless, but if you play against the AI a lot you'll know that mass rams can wreck your base if you're not prepared.

Monks are the last new unit type, and their main use is conversions. If you right click an enemy unit with a monk, it will be converted to your side after a random amount of time, capped at around ten in-game seconds [7]. Knights are very susceptible to conversions, so monks are a strong counter, and with the redemption technology, monks can even convert buildings and siege. Bad internet connections made monk play very rare before HD edition, but some people consider them overpowered now that you can micro them and potentially convert a whole army.

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Criticism of DLC Civs

I think they're OK, but monks are one of the only units that can act invisibly on the opponent. If you try to convert a unit, they can't see which unit is getting converted and it can take a good while to identify a monk in a crowd. Conversions have a unique alert sound, and I think their original role was more of a terror unit. They're not supposed to get too much value themselves, and are more so a way to scare enemies and deny a knight play every now and then. In that context it's fine that the conversion mechanic is highly random and hard to spot. In Definitive Edition their role has changed, and although they rarely swing games outside of high-level play monks might need to be rebalanced as the average skill level goes up. {== The devs have actually started rebalancing them at time of writing, the current patch preview has some tweaks. ==}

Definitive Edition has been subject to the live-service style churn of constant updates and frequent DLC for a few years now. I suspect this is Microsoft's strategy for the game; the people working on AoE2 definitely care about it, but regardless of intentions having to update a game constantly does introduce some problems. There's the lack of polish that I already mentioned, and unfortunately that extends to pathfinding, which bugs out pretty often now. It seems like there isn't time to fix the game's 20-year-old spaghetti code.

The need for frequent new DLC and updates has disrupted some of the simplicity that I really like in AoE2. Some units have passive area of effect buffs now [8], and the Ratha can switch between melee and ranged modes. These aren't the worst ideas, but they're certainly different and I don't think AoE2 is necessarily a good platform for them. There is no indicator for areas of effect, and some glittering circle would just be silly. The Ratha mode switch is hard to read, and although I might know what mode they're in based on context, newer players will not.

One notable thing the community pushed back against was a tech that most players just call the Button. Flemish Revolution is the Burgundian's imperial age unique technology, and it converts all of your villagers into army. In real games, this means players sacrifice 130 eco units for 130 army units and try to overwhelm opponents in one huge push. People though it was silly and overpowered, and then it swung the ninth game in the best of 9 grand final of a $50,000 tournament, and it was promptly nerfed into the dirt with a huge cost increase.

None of the new mechanics are integrated very well: they're often too subtle for normal players to even know about, and they usually apply uniquely to one civ so they come off as gimmicks. Many are tied to the DLC civilizations as well, which is very thinking emoji.

The civ bonuses and civ mechanics that work best twist the game's core in some interesting way. The Huns can't build houses and Mesoamerican civs do not get access to the stable. Despite the lack of magic auras these changes give them a unique playstyle. The new Mountain Royals DLC is actually pretty great for the most part. Instead of the various camps, the Georgians and Armenians can make carts where vills drop off resources. Their monastery is replaced with the fortified church, which can garrison units who shoot arrows. These change the game without making it more complex, and they're very easy to understand just by looking.

The other issue with constant patching is that AoE2 is mutating very quickly. People played the base game for over a decade, and even if it was busted in some ways its core was compelling. I don't know if there is adequate time between updates to see how the game is changing; I can't speak for everyone but I've said over and over that I like AoE2 because it's simple and readable and the game is slowly shifting away from that. The Centurion's area of effect buff to infantry can't swing games, but the next DLC civ might include something that can.

{== Visibility of information:
There is usually no direct way to observe e.g. whether an opponent has researched conscription or not (eight stables on staggered production times looks close enough to conscription), but you always have to understand the enemy eco by inference. It's part of the fog of war.
Army is always observable; monk actions might be hard to pinpoint but you can figure it out and respond. Techs like Warwolf cause a visible change. In contradistinction you have to know the Roman tech tree before the match starts to deal with a centurion-legionary comp effectively. It's understandable if you think that's the price of playing AoE2, because other RTS' make you do that kind of thing, but you can hit the ground running in AoC while it's getting harder to do that in DE. ==}

Games in active development can just "feel different" one day and start hemorrhaging players, not necessarily from one big change but a thousand tiny ones. AoE2's foundation and balance is so strong that I don't think that will happen, but if there has to be new DLC every few months there's a good chance we'll see some goofy stuff. If the game gets to a point where the original civs need signficant buffs, there's a power creep problem. But this is just speculation.

I'm not trying to be all doom and gloom. The game is in a really good place right now, way better than it was during that Flemish Revolution period.

Back to counters

In any case, monks make for one of the weirdest pushes you can do in AoE2, the monk-siege play, where you get redemption early in castle age and convert your way into the opponent's base. Knights can't snipe the siege because they'll get converted, and everything else--including the TC--dies to mangonels. Light cavalry, upgraded scouts, are specifically a counter for monks. They take much longer to convert, and an eco that is set up to make knights can also make light cav pretty easily. So get some spearmen in the mix if you want to try monk-siege.

AoE2's systems are very broad, they give you lots of options in every situation, and the counters encourage you to make mixed armies and control them carefully. With equal eco, simply producing a bunch of knights is rarely enough to kill the opponent. Spearmen, monks, or camel riders--a mounted anti-cavalry unit--will do great against groups of knights. Even if you're at a disadvantage, since units are so well-behaved and the control options are so deep, you can pull off some miraculous victories if you micro well enough. Counters are not the be-all end-all of AoE2.

You can look at Starcraft's high APM requirements and argue that AoE2 automates away a lot of complexity, but that's not really true. Wrangling Starcraft units is extremely unintuitive. The game has awful pathfinding and limited control options, so instead of using built-in tools you have to spend a lot of APM manually pathing and tasking your units. AoE2 does not remove control, it just gives you the tools to actually do it, stressing your ability to make the right decisions rather than raw dexterity. Split micro is a fantastic example. A group of archers can kill a mangonel pretty quickly, but it's a risky situation: archers are slow and very weak to being hit in the head with boulders. But if you switch a group of them to split formation right as a mangonel fires, the archers can dodge the shot.

Without formations, this would take ridiculous speed and dexterity to pull off. Select half the group, path it to the left, select the other half, path it to the right, then select both and attack the mangonel. Repeat in two seconds when it fires again. That's six actions per shot {== a little faster with control groups but it would still take six actions.==}, it would not be possible to do that consistently.

Mangonel shots can be game-changing, and instead of reducing them to rock-paper-scissors, Age of Empires lets you play it like an action game and use your micro skills to win the engagement. Counters are worth using, but good micro has a huge effect too. Dive with enough knights and you can take out a monk before it converts. Micro well enough with your villagers and you can quickly wall out the enemy. These provide visual spectacle, so they are fun to watch and feel incredibly good to pull off, but I think it's significant that micro like this doesn't happen in spite of the game. We get good micro because AoE2's systems encourage it. Instead of developing an intuition for janky pathfinding, we can learn the possibilities and do what feels right. It's a machine built for speed; formations, stances, and extra movement options extend your abilities instead of compensating for subpar unit behaviour. The game places a perfect amount of focus on the "real time" part of realtime strategy, and I think that's why it's so compelling to me.

Game Speed

On the macro scale, games develop much more slowly than in other RTS's, but AoE2's game speed is an important detail. I've seen people argue that the game's pacing is a sign of its age, but that reads like the perspective of someone who watched three or four games on their second monitor. You could make an argument that the dark age is unnecessary, because there is little decision making involved but beyond those first five minutes or so every second matters. And really, the dark age has a huge role in determining the game and AoE would be less interesting if it were gone.

Making buildings, getting techs, and training individual units doesn't take very long, AoE2 is on par with other games in the genre there. It doesn't feel sluggish by any means, matches just naturally take more time. A lot of different factors go into the pacing of a game, but the age system is a major one. It's hard to kill an opponent in feudal age because your army just isn't that strong yet. Good micro from either side can swing a battle and kill all your archers, and vills can easily wall, rush down a defensive tower, or hide in the TC. This stops them from working, which is good from the attacker's perspective, but small advantages like that only pay off later in the game.

Only in the castle age do you start to get really decisive battles. And they often revolve around, you guessed it, castles. They cost 650 stone and are fantastic for controlling resources or key positions around the map. Dropping a castle on your opponent's face can be game-ending, but they're also great for defense or locking down patches of gold as safe ones run out. Building close to the enemy is practically never a good idea in other games, but forward castles and towers are a major part of AoE2. Sometimes players will even sneak a villager behind enemy lines and erect a military building in a quiet corner. Villagers are super dangerous, and a sneak stable can cause a massive headache as you raid the enemy from inside the house.

One rare meme strategy is deleting your TC in the dark age, rebuilding it within range of the opponent's, and trying to shoot their TC down. It's an all-in strategy, so very easy to punish if it fails, but no other RTS is open-ended enough to allow stuff like this, let alone making it viable. It's called douching, presumably because only douches do it.

Crawling forward with defensive structures is smart if you have the army to do it, and these pushes are naturally very slow. Using a castle to defend important areas, and then backing it up with military buildings means that reinforcements reach the front more quickly. But pushes like this take time, and they happen at a point in the game when the opponent can make a lot of army to hold you off.

The slower speed also gives you forgiveness. Individual engagements are decisive--they can end in seconds--but since you have time to build up an eco behind your army, it's usually possible to recreate that army when you lose it, or switch into a different composition altogether. Starcraft often revolves around single pushes that win or lose games {== I am mixed on whether I should include any significant Starcraft talk, I really don't know much about the game other than not enjoying watching/playing it. But I think I'm right about this. ==}; a strong defender's advantage is the main thing that prolongs matches, and in Starcraft 2 the average match is twelve minutes or so [9] [10]. In Age of Empires, on the other hand, it's common practice to retreat for a few minutes while aging up, so that you can get your new techs before taking a fight. Not only are timings easier to recognize, they are also much looser.

You can expect an AoE2 match to take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour and a half, but the slow moments make all the difference. The fact is that no matter how good you are at a game like this, coming up with an interesting strategy takes time. Especially when you're playing a game with 45 different civilizations. Most players defer to the meta, but a lot of people don't. A disadvantage doesn't mean you're doomed in AoE2, and this tends to produce a lot more weird, interesting situations than other games.

Because you can really build up a strong economy, AoE2 games that go late will see players producing army constantly out of ten or more buildings {--, which practically never happens in other RTS games.--} It's also common to see maps running out of gold and stone, which gives rise to more non-meta situations and makes powerful late-game gold units like bombard cannons and trebuchets even more precious. Every once in a while, access to wood even becomes a major factor.

Games are also longer because defensive play is viable. Defense doesn't have to be your only focus, but other RTS's place a lot less emphasis on walling--full walls are not possible in Starcraft--and their economies are concentrated on only two or three patches of resources. Everybody knows where the minerals are on Starcraft maps, but AoE2 bases are free-form, spread around many different lumber camps, mining camps, mills, and TCs. It's harder to get raided, and it's easier to recover if you do since vills can hide inside town centers and castles.

Finally, there are alternative gold sources. Every map has relics scattered around, and monks can stick these in a monastery to produce a little bit of gold over time. If one player gets two relics and the other gets three, it's not a huge deal, but if somebody gets all the relics in castle age then they can produce more siege late in the game. The market allows you to buy and sell resources for a fee; using it inherently loses you resources but you can get out of a pinch by selling what you have and buying what you need. Again, this makes the game more forgiving. The market is extremely abusable, and the ability to hit a timing or defend your base is often worth the tax.

I can't stress enough how difficult it must be balancing this collection of systems, but it all works without any obvious issues.

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Vision, Map Knowledge, the Genius of RM

So far, I've kind of ignored one of the most important elements of the game: vision. Fog of war is a staple in every kind of strategy game, from Kriegsspiel onward. {== Photo: [11]==} You need to scout the map, and continually scout your opponent to figure out what they're doing. {-- At the same time the fog of war is never annoying; you get vision on everything attacking you even if it would not normally be in line of sight. --}

Often, RTS games will have buildings like the Terran comsat station that give you on-demand vision anywhere on the map. If you're playing well the opponent can never pull off a sneak or hide what they're making. In Tiberian Sun, you get permanent vision once you scout an area, so you only have to do it once.

In Age of Empires 2, walls or a strong army can deny your opponent vision. Since counters are so strong, quietly switching into a new unit and surprising the enemy with ten or twenty of them can be devastating. Sending in two paladins gives the opponent plenty of time to make halberdiers, but sending in 25 of them probably ends the game.

You want to know what the enemy is making as soon as possible. In early feudal age it's best to run the scout around right as the opponent is putting up their main military building and adjust your strategy accordingly. As the game goes on, everything gets harder to manage and it's not as simple as circling around the enemy's TC. Outposts are buildings that only provide vision, but they give you a few extra seconds to see the red dots on your mini map, or to spot a monk going for a relic.

The mini-map is a tool I avoided for a long time, but it shows you where attack notifications are coming from, and it can help you spot enemy movement if they enter your line of sight. Clicking on the mini-map also snaps the camera to that spot, which is much faster than shifting your hand to the arrow keys and navigating that way.

One of the big sticking points for people getting into AoE2 is the paralyzing freedom of it: there are many ways to play, and the game doesn't push you toward any of them. Once you know the basics, scouting helps to deal with that, it gives you an idea of what's coming and how you need to respond.

Scouting is also important because AoE2 maps are slightly randomized. On Arabia, the AoE2 equivalent to Final Destination, bases will spawn near the edges of the map, and you'll have woodlines, gold, stone, sheep, and boar nearby, but their position is unknown. Woodlines are natural walls, and you have to scout them to figure out the extent of your actual walls.

Offensively, you need to find the opponent's base and identify weak points. If a gold patch or the berries happened to spawn in front of their TC, close to you, then that's a natural target to go for. Other, neutral resource patches are random enough that you can't predict exactly where the opponent will expand. Maps can also generate with natural chokepoints or a nice hill for a castle that will change your approach. All of this variation makes each match feel fresh, and it's only possible because of the slower speed of play. Starcraft is not played on random maps: builds are too tight, and the game is too fast. A ramp in a bad spot or an unscouted mineral patch could be a death sentence.

Arabia is just the beginning though. Maps have a huge impact on how AoE2 is played, and different civs are strong on different maps. On Arena, you start surrounded by stone walls that give you plenty of time to boom and make a strong army, so a civilization with a good mid-to-late game will do well. Black Forest and Amazon Tunnel are about controlling choke-points between your base and the enemy's. On Nomad you don't even get a TC, your villagers spawn in random spots and you have to quickly find a suitable location to build one. There are so many variations, and I haven't even mentioned water.

I'm not going to go into too much detail, but the dock is not a great building. All of the tech icons look the same, it's not clear that the War Galley upgrade makes your fire ships better, and it has a second page bound to a "next page" key that's a little bit out of the way. Villagers have two pages as well, but your hand should already be resting on Q, for non-military buildings, and W, for military buildings. The dock uses a different, worse setup for no particular reason.


My only map-specific complaint is that MegaRandom is not very random, it switches through a decent-sized pool of maps but they aren't particularly chaotic. There's a fantastic custom map called HyperRandom that is my go-to for matches against the AI. AoE2 is at its best when it's forcing you to adapt, and I would really like a more random MegaRandom.

Ranked matchmaking has a pool of different maps that get switched out every month or so. A few maps are chosen by the developers, and a few are voted on by players. Arabia and Arena are always included. They are the quintessential open and closed maps, and like Dust 2 many people just play them over and over. There's been a lot of discussion about the map pool lately, because the Arabia people only want Arabia and others are sick of playing the same two maps over and over. No solution would make everybody happy--letting people ban as many maps as they want would just force everyone to play Arabia--but I would kill for a genuine random map option. There are so many maps in AoE2 and we never see most of them. I'm sure lots of these are bad and not suited for competitive play, but Elo is just a number.


In professional play, there are instances of "civ wins," where one player's civilization has an almost insurmountable advantage over the other's. Even these can be overcome with an out of the box strategy that forces a mistake from the stronger civ. That's doubly true for an average player; some luck with map generation, a nice play, or an opponent who is bad at scouting can help you come back from a bad matchup or a bad fight.

Different civs have so many interesting twists on the core gameplay that it's difficult to pick favourites. Each civ gets, at minimum, some inherent bonuses, two unique technologies, and a unique unit. The unique techs tend to buff a civ's core unit composition, but there's a lot of variety.

Sicilian towers are replaced with the Donjon, which can produce spearmen and their unique unit the Serjeant. They build castles and TCs faster and start with extra stone. The Chinese start with three extra villagers but less food and wood, and their technologies get cheaper as the game progresses. They are one of the best civs at higher Elos, but their start is particularly tough and normal players don't handle them very well. The Magyars get their free attack upgrades but they also have super powerful cavalry archers that train quickly; cav archers only become useful in mid-castle age, when you have a lot of them, and the Magyars' free attack upgrades and cheaper light cavalry are there to help you reach that endgame composition.

Each one of these civilizations has a few small tweaks that can give you a better eco or swing a battle. The bonuses seem small at first, but games routinely reach the population limit of 200 so villager buffs, for example, might end up stacking 130 times. The mass of different civs and maps make the meta kind of unsolvable and offer practically infinite gameplay variation. Paired with the frequent patches, there's always something new to try.

The Appeal of Games (Imperial Age)

When I first started playing the game again, I was obsessed with it. For several months it was the only thing I played, and I was watching videos and streams the rest of the time. I want to know why Age of Empires 2 is so intensely appealing to those of us who like it. It's not just me, either, pros skew very old compared to other games. Part of that is the low APM requirement but it's hard to deny that AoE2 creates lifetime fans. I was surprised to find that the Definitive Edition has over 100,000 reviews on Steam, when only a few years ago the HD edition was a struggling relic of the 90s {== show Steam player numbers ==}.

One theory that comes up a lot is that games are a form of escapism or a power fantasy. That might be true for some people, but we shouldn't ignore how abstract strategy games are. You're not escaping into a character; AoE2 gives me an intense desire to become a cavalry archer but that's different. Games are escapism in that you can ignore your real life while you play them, but then games might as well be movies or books.

Power fantasy holds a little more water: we are orchestrating a war after all. It feels good to win, even against the AI. It feels good to command an army. But I have a broader theory of fun. It might only apply to me but, since the response to my past videos has been positive, I suspect that other people share it, even if you're less dogmatic about it than I am.

First and foremost, a game is a work of fiction. So it needs to do something to make us care about it. The best games do this in a way which forces you to engage with the mechanics. Super Mario Brothers has the Goombah walking toward you, Age of Empires pits you against somebody who will burn your village to the ground if you just sit there. We are given a place in the world, and a problem to solve. Opening cutscenes are inherently a lesser way of creating stakes, because they're a tell-don't-show way of introducing us to the game world. Even a heavily tutorialized game can benefit from just throwing the player into it: AoE2's tutorial is fictionalized as the William Wallace campaign, making you build up an army from nothing to beat back the English.

A compelling premise can get somebody to start playing the game, but the mechanics keep them there. Learning a game is the process of learning to navigate a new, virtual world {== "possibility space" if you want to be pretentious about it ==}: you try things out and become acquainted with the game's logic. Internal consistency is very important if you want to make a game immersive, the game should respond to your actions in a way that makes sense. This extends to everything that you interact with as well--the way NPCs are written, or how units behave and counter one another.

The controls should be responsive: the action I'm performing when I press a button should be obvious and satisfying. Here's the "theory" part: I think an action is satisfying because it happens within this larger, internally consistent piece of fiction. I'm not turning games into books, think about it like this: if you played a game where you hit enter and the text "your strength went up" appeared on screen, it would have responsive controls, but it probably wouldn't be fun. If you attach a number to it and start counting button presses, you get the time-devouring monster called Cookie Clicker. It becomes satisfying because your strength is increasing relative to your past strength; you're getting stronger in a definite context. Add a grunting sound every time you press enter and there's suddenly a whole story about bodybuilding.

It is not my place to be professing the "rules" of game design, because I'm not a game designer and there are no rules. But the vast majority of games can benefit from being responsive and consistent.

Dwarf Fortress is an extreme example: the satisfying gameplay is multiplied across a whole bunch of systems. The main effect that Dwarf Fortress's deep map generation has is psychological: the game feels realistic and consistent just because it tells you that all this stuff is being simulated. You only experience a tiny slice of it. But that slice is situated within hundreds of years of history and geology, and that gives your fortress management stakes.

{++ VO s5 ended here, sore throat ++}

{++ NEXT TIME: Maps can also generate with natural chokepoints, or a nice hill for a castle, and these might influence your strategy. ++}


Dwarf Fortress also does a great job on internal consistency. It simulates things like combat, different minerals, and the production of goods in incredible detail. These systems that we really experience give the game a sense of realism that rubs off on the fictional fantasy world. At this point gameplay and story are in a positive feedback loop. Making your dwarves happy makes them more productive, which expands the fort faster. You start to care about individual dwarves as characters because their wellbeing has a gameplay impact, and their lives are effected by your choices. The art that your dwarves create about far-off times and places begins to make those places feel real: you have a direct experience of the dwarf writing this book, and you produced the paper and bound the quire. That history is real--the player was a part of it--so all of these other historical events may as well be real too.

RimWorld correctly described games like this as story generators [12]. I think it's significant that some of the most complicated games you can play are renowned for the stories they create.

To put it in a nice sentence, games are satisfying when your actions impact history. Because the game is satisfying, players want to succeed, and that in turn makes us care about the characters we're controlling, makes us pay attention to the world, and so on.

I'm talking about games that are otherwise well-designed, which is not a trivial thing to achieve. Rain World is always my chief example of great game design, and the story only works because the game is so difficult. You have to think like you're really in this world, and master the movement; you think like the slugcat, so you empathize with the slugcat and become deeply invested in its journey. The William Wallace campaign does a similar thing to Rain World, in a corny, RTS-tutorial kind of way. The gameplay feels important because of the fiction, and the fiction feels important because of the gameplay.

A historical backdrop is important, but it's a jumping off point. Strategy games are unique because they make you create a lot of the context for the gameplay. Every resource you spend has to be collected, you have to put in the work to build up your economy. Even without numbers, this gives players a feel for the value of everything they make. Each unit of army costs some amount of villager time, so protecting them is important. This is all backed up by the easy-to-read anthropomorphism of all our units and resources, which at the same time scratches that primal itch to command a medieval army.

In battles, you have minute control over units and groups, each tiny action during a fight has fantastic audiovisual feedback and all the weight of the last half hour building up your eco. I am not even that good, but when I fight in AoE2 it's beyond a flow state.

Compared to most games, Age of Empires is more action with more context. Playing the campaigns can be deeply satisfying, but that feeling never goes away in multiplayer. Most games wear out their welcome eventually, but I only appreciate AoE2 more as I keep playing it. I'm not even aspiring for a high rank, getting better just feels good. It's so much fun to chase those little improvements in my builds, and adapt to different opponents. It is incredibly rare for a game to offer that kind of depth to someone at my skill level; I spent 200 hours of my life being bad at Counter-Strike and never found the fun.

Because I'm in the driver's seat, creating the context for every battle with the enemy, not only do I get to be deeply invested in the wellbeing of my army and eco, every mistake I make or advantage I take changes my position in the game and the narrative of the match. And that narrative is generated entirely by game mechanics and our decisions as players. It's a lot like the storylines you get with physical sports, except in Age of Empires anybody who wants to invest some time can feel it for themselves.

If you have a free Sunday afternoon, check out the recent Warlords 2 Grand Final, it was fantastic. This video's too long to give a play by play, but the series was a great demonstration of AoE2 and its possibilities, and the sequence of events leading up to game 6 was almost like a movie, culminating in a technically perfect performance from both players.

{-- I know this video's already quite long, but I saw a set recently that really encapsulates this idea. The tournament was Warlords 2, a grand final best of 9 between Hera and Tatoh. Hera is the best player in the world right now and the pride of Canada, but Tatoh is no slouch either; while Hera tends toward the meta Tatoh often pulls out very creative strategies. Both players have near-perfect execution. The winner will walk away with prestige and $12,000, the loser gets $7500. That's around 1350 more bottles of beer the winner can buy at Canadian prices.
Game 1, Arena. Hera, the blue player, has the Burgundians, who get their economy upgrades an age early. They can get their eco rolling quickly, so Tatoh will want to crack open those stone walls ASAP. Tatoh rushes up to the castle age and drops monasteries and a siege workshop in the middle. Games often go late on Arena, so relic gold is important. Hera is a master of light cav micro and wants to snipe monks, but Tatoh's not giving him any chances as he works away on Hera's walls.
He presses his advantage, converting Hera's buildings and dropping a castle on his face. Hera is patiently booming as Tatoh presses in, but it looks like a decisive loss. And then, somehow, Hera sneaks out of his base and splits Tatoh's attention. Buying himself time, Hera gets Imperial Age, skirmishers, bombard cannons, and hand cannons. He snipes the monks, kills Tatoh's castle and siege, and pushes him back. Tatoh was all in, so he doesn't have the economy to replace his units or lock down his position. GG.
Tatoh is able to take game 2 on land nomad, and Hera responds on land madness, killing Tatoh with a flood of cheap Incan units.
Game 4 is on Migration, a complicated map where players have to balance water play and an eco split between a small home island and a neutral center island. They trade light cav early in the castle age and have a couple fights on water. Hera manages to sneak a castle on the neutral island, securing lots of gold and again splitting Tatoh's attention. Hera's playing as Byzantines, whose castles have extra HP, and he begins a push with cataphracts--the Byzantine unique unit--skirmishers, and heavy siege. Tatoh's losing ground quickly but he spends his dwindling gold supply on elephant archers, which are super tanky. With his own skirms and bombard cannons he flattens Hera's skirms over and over and slowly pushes him back.
Hera manages a crazy hold of his own while Tatoh runs out of gold, and after a prolonged meatgrinder of a game Hera pulls out the win. Game 5 is a decisive loss for Tatoh; everything that can go wrong does and the game takes less than 20 minutes.
There are incredible moments in Tatoh's play but Hera brings a level of strategy and execution that seems unbeatable. Another win will seal the deal for Hera, and game 6 is on Arabia, AoE2's most iconic map. Ethiopians for Tatoh, a rarely seen civ and his last pick on the draft. Hera is the Mayans, a very strong archer civ. What ensues is a no-nonsense, technically perfect archer war.
Ethiopian archers fire faster, but archer play is all about hitting those upgrade timings.--}

{--At the same time, the game has a perfect level of friction where I can understand everything that's happening in isolation, but the inevitable chaos challenges my attention and decision making. AoE2 removes arbitrary restrictions and gives you a feeling of total control.--}

{--Compared to other games, Age of Empires is more actions with more context. It would be like Rain World making you play all of Spore to evolve your slugcat, then Factorio to build the iterators, and Princess Maker for their personalities. Obviously that would be an unwieldy nightmare, and the fact that AoE2 manages to contain so much while being so accessible is a testament to its fantastic design.--}

Winning in AoE2 is tremendously satisfying. You have driven the game to this point, defended yourself and exploited advantages, micromanaged your units properly, read the opponent's strategy and countered it and now, finally, there are a bunch of trebuchets firing on their starting TC and they can't produce enough to hold your army off.

Losing is also fun, at least for me. It can hurt against the AI, but against a person who doesn't talk shit afterward, the loser still gets the excitement of playing the game, and a new replay to learn from.

The game does so much to help strategy become intuition, all of those economic decisions and counter plays fe el more and more natural the more you practice. It might seem counterintuitive, but I find AoE2 relaxing. Even as your style becomes more refined and ornate, the thinking gets simpler, and you gain a sense for the boundaries of your current situation and the possibilities for the future. Every game has some variation on this process, I'm just describing what learning feels like, but RTS's are so complicated, and AoE2 has so much variety that learning how to play is like the first phase of a much richer game. Learning a game tends to flatten it out, removing the surprises and the excitement. AoE2, even more than other competitive games, just gets better with time.

It's a timeless game, the quintessential RTS, and you can play it forever. We're living through a renaissance right now, but even when the community quiets down again, AoE2 will be back.

Sources and Notes