Let's Talk about Water

I’ll start with a statement which may be controversial to some and obvious to others: Matches involving water are not good - or not as good as they should be. I think most people identify with this statement, we see water maps often banned in ranked, we see stream numbers drop off when streamers spectate water matches, and we read a lot of complaints about them online. I want this post to be a driver of positive change, on both sides of the argument. For people who currently enjoy water maps, I want you to see that it is possible you can enjoy them even more and for people who currently hate them, I want you to see that good naval gameplay is possible.

Before we even begin throwing around solutions to problems, I think it is important we identify them. You see, there are many different problems discussed by the community, with regard to naval gameplay. I think some of these can be too specific and ultimately stem from one larger hidden problem:

Water gameplay lacks the necessary level of complexity to cross a threshold where interesting emergent properties evolve. In video games, often the most enjoyable pieces of content, particularly in strategy games, come from emergent properties. Emergent properties in the context of video games, are interesting mechanics that arise from more base level rules that have been defined by the developers. They are often unexpected, but pleasant properties of a game, that come from the interaction between low level design decisions and the player. It is these emergent properties that drive the meta of a strategy game. The continual discovery of these emergent properties by the playerbase is what can lend a video game an incredible longevity with little developer input.

Let me lay out a basic example of this in AoE terms. Consider 3 basic properties defined by the devs:

  1. The best units cost gold.
  2. Gold is scarce and finite.
  3. Gold is placed in interesting locations on the map.

These three basic properties drive some very interesting gameplay.

  1. Players must think about how they take their own gold.
  2. Players must think about how they deny their enemy of gold.
  3. Players must think of how they use their expensive units.
  4. Players must weigh the risks of taking neutral gold.
  5. Players must consider when they attack in the context of how much gold is left on the map.

Etc, etc. In AoE2 there are countless examples of these higher level strategies arising from lower level development decisions. The slight complexity difference between Age1 and Age2 I think explains a lot as to why 2 was so much more popular, even though 2 was only slightly more complicated, the mechanics meshed so well together they still continue to this day to interact in undiscovered ways, driving new emergent properties.

Finally, allow me to tie this into water gameplay. On water:

  • You can gather 1 resource: food (gold also through trade in multiplayer).
  • Units cost either wood or gold or both
  • No building on water.
  • No terrain features driving gameplay decisions, eg. hill bonus
  • Terrain features such as wood lines, gold and stone, etc drive the interesting placement of buildings and units.
  • No at sea naval conversions
  • Simple unit counters

And the list goes on. I am not suggesting we address these specific points, but am simply pointing out just how bland water gameplay is in comparison to land. This is reflected in the water meta, which is very slow to change and is also very one dimensional.

I believe that with the addition of a few well thought out simple mechanics and changes, water gameplay can cross the complexity threshold required, where these mechanics interact with existing ones, producing new, interesting, emergent properties.

Final thoughts: People often find water maps troublesome, not because water is actually complicated, but because they don’t play on it often. Then, when they do find themselves on a water map, they are not rewarded with interesting gameplay that sparks their curiosity and drives them to want to improve and try out new strategies. It leaves them with a bad taste in their mouth, wanting to return to the more interesting and better fleshed out part of AoE2. Please do not focus too much on the examples I have given, they are just examples of a wider problem I am trying to portray. Please discuss some small changes you think could be made that could interact with existing mechanics to produce more interesting and varied gameplay.

TLDR: Water gameplay is not complex enough in terms of the sum amount of interesting base mechanics. The small amount of current base mechanics can only interact in a limited number of ways, failing to produce any interesting emergent properties within the gameplay. This results in a 1 dimensional meta, simplistic strategies and no ‘uh huh!’ lightbulb moments for the player. There are a very limited number of decisions the player must make with regard to their water gameplay compared to land.

On a side note, it is also these emergent properties that make strategy games like AoE2 so hard to balance, a small change can have a very large consequence, as it could add or remove an emergent property of the game.

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One way of making gold a thing is a “pirate graveyard” with tiles of ship leftovers and treasure chests floating in water. These tiles could be harvested like goldpiles in land by fishing ships or tradecogs.

This neutral water gold place is somehoe in the game in the “king of the hill” mode if you play it in a water map. In that mode there is a wonder in the center of the map that provides resources (and the victory) to the player that controls it. In water maps you have to use ships for that.

Also, similarly to wolves in land, gaia could have access to little pirates units that annoys the player that crosses the map first.

Finally, to make more players taste water maps, I would design an “arena-like water map”. All water maps are “open” because you cannot build walls. It would be great one water maps with walls for players to fishboom for a while.

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This feels like it could work really well on a couple of specific maps as a feature. I think to truly improve water we need even lower level changes to the mechanics, to fuel the rise of new emergent properties. I do think you are on the right track though. I feel like the devs would get a lot of backlash if they changed any of the fundamental mechanics of land battles. However, water gameplay is almost universally considered to be lacking, thus, I think could be altered by the devs with little risk of backlash from the community.

As things stand, when players venture out onto the ocean, there just isn’t a whole lot of decision making or room for strategy. The unit counters seem far too basic, the economic driver (fish) is too 1 dimensional, there is no terrain strategy to water battles (unless fighting on a river) the method to get onto the ocean simply involves placing 1 building. Everything about it is currently just too simple, to ever add up to truly interesting game play. Even fish are just static like berry bushes, rather than moving about the map, even something as simple as changing the fish to move, could result in more interesting game play. Also possibly adding a neutral dock to send trade cogs to could make things interesting, giving the players another resource to fight over. A canoe could be added that spawns with your first dock, it’s transport capacity could be 3, allowing drushes to happen on island maps. When ships are destroyed, they could leave behind salvage which could be collected for gold by a new boat unit; now the player has to consider where they fight, as they wouldn’t want to leave salvage to close to the enemy. There are so many small things that could be added, that when all combined, produce really varied game play.

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Some opinions on improving water I’ve seen in recent years:

From a Discord discussion:
"the problem is that the only viable water meta is deathball.
"I think the solution is fleshing out the water unit lines and make a trash ship (only wood) and a ship killer that is mostly gold (some wood still) so that you can build 5 expensive units to counter 10 cheaper ones or 15 trash ones.
"lets say you had a cannon galleon that fired broadsides, and could shred the trash ship and really do a number on normal galleons, but was also really expensive (in gold, to break up the reliance on wood).
“AoE has always been a rock-paper-scissors balancing style, but people forget it also balances strong vs cheap at the same time. the water meta doesn’t have that strong vs cheap balancing loop, really.”

A thread where the OP made some long-winded posts which they later deleted, though they boil down to this:

water triangle is dumb
return aoc feudal galley wars
add heavy ships in castle like knights
add buffed fire+demo+cannons+unique ship/tech in imperial

(Most importantly, they want separate “light ship” and “heavy ship” lines. An Imperial tech removes the gold cost from the light ship line, making it the water trash unit.)

Another poster notes that for a number of reasons, at least on a casual level, the one-unit water game in AoE1 doesn’t feel as bad as AoE2. Unfortunately the analysis didn’t go much further.

(One reason is that AoE1 has no formation, which makes micros more flexible. Naval units in AoE2 have been affected by formation starting from The Conquerors.)

A thread where the OP offers this analysis:

  • I think one big problem–and the reason it is so difficult to add new ships–is that all naval units are trained from the same building. You want water economy? Dock. You want want melee ships? Dock. You want water siege ship? Dock. This is a problem because (a) unlike other units, you can’t tell what’s coming based on the production buildings, and (b) since one building trains everything, all naval units compete with each other for production time. Docks therefore have to balanced around the fact that you can’t know which naval unit will pop out and around the fact that good ships too easily crowd out the production of worse ships.
  • The Dock isn’t the only problem. The other weakness is that water control doesn’t have much intrinsic value after the fish are gone. After that, (depending on the map), you control the water to control transports and maybe bombard shorelines. Compare this to the rich zone-control of land warfare, where taking down a castle means gaining access to new resources, or opening up a raid on your opponent’s economy. Water post-fish is really just about keeping your opponent’s military off, not damaging them directly or seizing new resources. And that’s why naval warfare so often feels like a chore; you’re not winning something valuable for its own sake.
  • Together, these problems make it hard to improve naval gameplay just by adding new ships. If all ships come out of the same building, and ships exist (post-fish) to advance your goals on land, then it comes down to just which ships are better at beating other ships.

Their solution is a second water building that produces powerful ships and itself has a powerful anti-ship attack (in their proposal, it has limitations like costing stone, can only be built near deep water).

A discussion on adding water fortifications.

A discussion on adding more varied ships inspired by the dynamics of land units.

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Good analysis overall, here are my two cents on some of the difficulties with water maps:

-The difference in power between a strong and a weak water civ is huge. Some civs are just bad on water maps in a way that no civ is (or should be) on land. If a civ is bad on land (like Dravidians), it’s considered a bad civ overall. Which is fine, but this should be recognized as a constraint, because water players have to choose from a smaller pool (pun intended) of civs that are even viable, much less good, and people whose favorite civs happen to be bad on water are less likely to play water, even if it were to become more interesting. For the 5 civs that don’t even get cannon galleons, it would be similar to a land civ having no trebuchets or rams in Imp; they have no unit that can push a turtle. Even some civs that get CGs, like Malians, have terrible water tech, lacking Bracer and Galleon, such that it becomes an auto-lose in Imp vs any half-decent water civ.

Would be kind of cool. Also it would be nice to have whales in AoE2, even if only as eyecandy, but they could also be a water resource that provides both gold and food.

Don’t like this at all. Sure it adds complexity, but not in a good way. It’s just going to make fishing a lot less efficient with no upside beyond a cool visual.

Could be good for 1 specific map, but overall limited resources are one aspect of water design that I don’t think needs changing.

Cool idea, but kind of overwrought for standard play. There’s no land analog for this, and there is such a thing as over-engineering. IMO it would be just annoying to worry about being punished for your units dying in an inconvenient area.

Anyway, here are some of my suggestions:

-Bring back the AoE1 raft - a tiny ship that can hold 1 or 2 units.
-Add some kind of melee or ramming ship, either as civ UUs, or as a standard unit.
-Add monk analogs, i.e. the old “boarding ship” idea from the Beta that can convert other ships, and/or a ship that can repair other ships. Again, as UUs or common units.
-Sea walls/gates/towers (but either their weakness or their cost should make them fairly weak and situational - turning standard water maps into camp/turtle fests would be a net negative IMO)
-At least some military ships that can garrison units, especially Longboats. Perhaps having all ships garrison units could be a civ bonus (I made it part of a UT for a Polynesian civ).
-More water-related eye candy- moving waves, sunken ships/debris, seagulls, etc

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What if whales were like the water equivalent of wolves. Im thinking they move around peacefully but capsize boats that get too close. (Might jeed to ignore fishing ships to not kill fishbooms)

Edit: typo

Rather than wolfs, they could be the equivalent of boars.

But fishing ships should have a different animation to fight them.

And this wouldnt solve much

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yes like shake or giant octopus that will attack the ship. But it seems that AOE could become a completely different game

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@SirWiedreich You’re right, the moving fish thing is silly. I’ve put some more thought into it and here’s how I would improve fishing. I would scrap fish traps and replace them with trawling. You set the start and end point of a trawling root and the boat collects fish by travelling a long it. Similar to trade carts, the routes efficency can be related to the length. This is an improvement over traps because it means players have to guard a much larger area. Rather than safe fishing near a dock. This makes late game fishing more interesting when the fish plots run out.

Trawling could be more effective on a new type of water terrain, eg. very deep water. Then depending on where this terrain is, the map could play differently. For instance you could give each player a safe patch of water behind their island, or just have one highly contested patch in the middle, for the players to fight over.

A second type of late game fishing could be introduced. You could have a small amount (less than 3 say) of replenishing fish plots on the map. These could then be contested between teams, as they are a never ending food source, however you could introduce the concept of over fishing, where if you take to much, the fish decline, and then when it reaches zero, they no longer replenish. Just these two new mechanics, replacing fish traps, would add a lot. They would also add lot of new potential bonuses for civs.

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I do really like the idea of bringing back galley only feudal age. Right now, the same water triangle persists through Feudal age to Imperial age. On land, strategies change significantly age to age, this is not so on water. Going back to just a galley in Feudal Age, I think, would be nice.

Also, really for the first time ever we are seeing the emergence of regional units, or at least a lot more of them. Ie indian civs, losing rams and gaining the siege elephant. To save on dev time, rather than every civ gaining a UU on water, a regional water unit could be added for each region.

Edit: Also, with more military boats receiving the ability to garrison, it could work similar to rams, in that, they gain more speed when units are garrisoned inside them, as the units could act as rowers.

Very interesting threads and points here, thanks for sharing.

In my opinion a water overhaul is out of the question. Certain civs excel in different areas, and it’s how the ball rolls. More unique water units would certainly be welcomned for their respective civs I would think, but even the worst naval civ should be able to make landfall against the strongest naval civ since so much gameplay is tied to land as it the game has been since its inception. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to balance some of those changes.

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I think multi-pop units could be a way to add complexity to naval combat. Among other things because it would become possible to design a ship with a very long creation time (eg 180 seconds).

Besides that, yes more different ships could be cool.
Ideally as replacements, so that all ships can still fit in one dock. (Having galleys and fishing ships in the same building is already complexity which leads to strategic depth).

I respect your point of view, however, must disagree. You are right, in that, drastic changes to water gameplay would be initially hard to balance, but this would have little effect on the player base. If you look at the play rates of water heavy maps, ie islands, they are incredibly low. Also, the civ balance is already terrible on these maps. Beyond, balance, though, I am not saying the devs should improve water from a balance perspective, but from an enjoyment perspective. Make it interesting for us.

Saying “so much gameplay is tied to land as it the game has been since its inception” only furthers my point. From the beginning naval gameplay has been lackluster. Of course land matches have been more exciting, but that isn’t a good reason to not work to improve water. On the contrary, it’s actually a great reason to improve water. Any big changes you make to water, will have zero impact on Arabia and Arena, the two most played ranked maps. Due to the current state of water gameplay in both it’s quality and uptake, I think it’s the perfect area for the devs to make a big change to. In my opinion any possible improvements to that area of the game are both high reward and low risk.

The devs could draw inspiration from highly successful games that launched as pre-release games such as subnautica. They could set up an option “use new water settings” for lobby games, then let people beta test the new water options until it’s at a point where it can be released. They could add a “submit feedback” form that appears post match. The initial dev time might be high, but such a system could be implemented for all future large changes. This let’s them make riskier improvements without messing with the meta.

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Spurred by the SotL video on the AoE4 naval rework, another round of discussion begins!

https://www.reddit.com/r/aoe2/comments/xfuz4u/spirit_of_the_law_should_aoe2_copy_aoe4s_new/

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Yes, it was certainly an interesting video, I hope the change is received well, encouraging the devs to look at water/naval changes for AoE2

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If naval gameplay is to be changed, I hope the fire ship should be the Byzantines’ UU or a kind of regional unit rather than a kind of common unit that every civ has.

A new common ship unit can be introduced to take over the fire ship’s role of close fighting ships. Perhaps its sprite could be an archer ship that fires quickly at a short range, or sticking out a board and displaying a soldier on the board attacking the enemy ship it touches, symbolizing boarding the enemy ship for combat.

There should also be more sources of resources on the water. I’m not sure whether whaling as a source of gold makes sense in AoE2, but at least that’s what AoE3 does.

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I don’t think that this kind of shallow redesign can save water gameplay.

I like the attempt of this thread to collect things why water is currently kinda “boring” and offer some possible solutions for it.

I think sotl doesn’t overview the whole issue and I think he fools himself if he thinks his concept could make water more interesting.

If there’s any aspects of AOE4 naval combat I’d like to see AOE2 take over it’s not the extreme bonus damage.

Rather it’s having region/civ specific units in certain roles that could spice things up for me. (I would describe the three roles as pierce-damage, ship-damage and explosion-damage.)

(Also I’d love to see multi-pop ships)

What I want to see in water is:
A) Strategical aspects like some kind of ressource control
B) Positional aspects , control of certain areas or narrow paths…
C) Some kind of combat-deciding attack effect similar to hill bonus (one example could be wind direction which would allow this kind of advantage without directly influencing the fight but determining who can force fights or run away depending on the positioning
D) Land Tansition

If we had these 4 things water would be way more interesting to fight about and only after we have these it would make sense to build up a more sophisticated battle dynamic with the different classes of ships.

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so basically do what aoe3 did with slight adjustment
A) water gold source
B) narrow paths and what not with trade sites
C) in this case ship abilities
D) also done argueably better in 3
2 is still a great game ofc, but water can feel plain