Age of Empires: the RTS that proved strategy could sit alongside simplicity

My villager hacks away at a tree trunk with his axe. Again and again he strikes it, piling up as many logs as his wheelbarrow can carry before carting it off to the lumber camp a short distance away, which I’ve placed on the edge of a dense forest. Then it’s back to his chopping. It’s a hypnotising loop. And an important one, too: that wood is the lifeblood of my Aztec civilisation. It means I can build houses for more villagers, who can then farm crops to feed my army, mine stone and gold to kit out my cavalry, or – in full circle – chop up more wood.

It’s working like clockwork. I’ve churned out a few military units for protection and I’ve nearly got enough stone for a Castle, which will allow me to create an Aztec Jaguar warrior that can cut down conventional infantry. My plan is to cobble together a small army and head for the monument in the centre of the map that, in King of the Hill mode, you have to hold for 550 years to win. I’ll crush any resistance and then fortify the area with walls and towers while constantly building up my army to repel any future attacks. Or so I hope.

“How are you getting on?” I ask my friend down my microphone. “Yep, good,” he says, and then stays silent. Ominously so. And soon I know why.

Just as construction of my castle completes, I hear a boom. I’ve been entranced by the lumberjack cutting down a tree and taken my eye off the ball. As I scroll to the west of my settlement, my worst fear is realised. War wagons. At least 20 of them, all lined up, all heading directly for my Town Centre. They’re the Korean’s special unit, and their ranged bolts hurt like hell. Behind them are three trebuchets, which can level any of my buildings in no time. And, quickly pouring into the space in front, are cavalry, outnumbering mine two to one. 

The battle is short, my horseman cut down quicker than any tree. I ring my Town Centre bell to call all units back for a last stand, but it’s too late. A few trebuchet volleys turn it into rubble, and my opponent’s cavalry mops up the stragglers. GG.

A game of simple systems

So marks my return to Age of Empires, 10 years since I played it last. Specifically, my return to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and its expansions – the peak of the series. Despite not finding much success (most of my games have been against the same friend, who’s leagues ahead of me), being back in its world has reminded me why I spent so many hours with this game growing up.

It hooked me in a way no other RTS has before or since. There are countless reasons that fans poured thousands of hours into its various game modes, slicing through its campaign, competing online or simply battling the excellent AI. But for me, it’s about the simplicity of its systems.

There are only four basic resources: food, wood, gold and stone, and the historical setting makes the RTS gathering grind tangible. Where mining minerals in Starcraft 2’s fantasy world feels abstract, whacking a pile of stones with a pickaxe until it crumbles into dust is something everybody can understand. Each resource is unmistakable on the map – just look for the trees or the sheep – and in two clicks you’ll be watching your villagers at work in delightful detail.

That transparency means it’s perhaps kinder to new players than anything else in the genre. Even if you’ve never played before you’ll be able to give it a good shot: just point your villagers towards resources and watch your numbers tick up. The game’s UI is simple, uncluttered and tells you everything you need to know, outlining your possible choices clearly at any given point. There’s a constant sense of progression that means you’re always achieving something: as your resources rise, interesting units and buildings become available. Soon, you’ll advance through the Ages – Dark, Feudal, Castle and Imperial – which again grants you better units and more powerful buildings.

A window into a simpler time

And then there’s the atmosphere of the game. When I played it growing up I’d dial down the AI difficulty and just enjoy pottering around my village – something you can’t say about many other RTSs. There’s something comforting about watching villagers scatter grain on a field, or seeing your houses slowly become more ornate as you advance through the Ages. 

It’s rooted in real history, which makes it relatable in a way, and each of the long list of civilisations has their unique architecture, units, and language that the villagers will mutter to one another as they go about their business. There’s a simple thrill in building a idyllic medieval town, houses all in a row, a slowly turning windmill set in the centre of wheat fields and an army of pikemen lining up on the crest of a hill, spears at the ready. It’s almost – dare I say it – relaxing.

But that doesn’t make it an easy game, or one devoid of any strategy – far from it. While the young me would plump for the town layout that looked prettiest, on return I’m starting to value efficiency. I want my villagers to have the shortest possible route from a pile of stone to their mining camp. I’m at pains to ensure my scouts are always moving through the fog of war, searching for my opponent or for precious resources.

If you actually want to compete in Age of Empires you’ll have to micromanage. In battles, unit placement, stance and army composition require constant attention – and all the while you’re ensuring none of your villagers are standing around scratching their heads. If you fall behind in resources it’s hard to make up the ground, so you can never really relax.

It means that every time you play a game you learn something new. If you want to get better, there’s reams and reams of material online about the best strategies, right down to how many villagers you should allocate to each resource at the start of the game, and the best progression of unit upgrades, of which there are hundreds. And the variety of civilisations, with their own specialised tech trees, means there’s always new systems to get to grips with.

The lengthiest of legacies

As I said, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings remains the series’ high point. It polished the good ideas from the first game while being more coherent than its younger brother, Age of Empires III (father of the series Bruce Shelley told Kotaku in 2011 that the third game was a “huge mistake” and that the team realised far too late that they were deviating away from what had made the series so popular).

Its 1999 release feels like a lifetime ago, but its influence remains to this day, and as a result it’s still remarkably playable. When the eight-year-old me tried it I had no idea of the depths of its strategy. I just liked building villages, and enjoyed the occasional thrill of setting a group of cavalry on another civilisation’s helpless villagers. But jumping back in makes me want to spend the time mastering its systems, and – ultimately – beat my friend. 

That’s the joy of Age of Empires: its simple systems will grip you but you’ll stay for the ever-deeper dive down the strategy rabbit hole. It was, and remains, one of the best RTS series of all time, even as Microsoft prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a 4K remaster

Long shall it reign over the genre.

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