Make an underpowered civ: an insight into player psychology

Every new civ that the DE team has come out with has been pretty stupidly OP. USA was OP for the least amount of time, but on release it absolutely had some overtuned things like state militia, which got fixed. Inca was also fixed relatively quickly by nerfing the age 3 light cannons, and Swede probably stayed OP for the longest. Hausa and Ethiopia were disgustingly op on release, and still remain pretty OP.

This pattern seems to suggest that this is an intentional strategy by the devs to create hype by allowing new players to experience winning in multiplayer more, by getting to use extremely overtuned civs that just decimate everyone else.

In this post I want to suggest that this approach gets player psychology totally backward. If you want to create lasting investment in playing aoe3 multiplayer, create an underpowered civ. Here’s some reasons why:

  1. Underpowered civs require players to spend lots of time workshopping and fine tuning very specific build orders. This encourages players to thoroughly explore all aspects of the civ, unlike OP civs where you can do very simple and straightforward build orders that use only 20% of the civ’s units and cards to win. This will create more investment into the civ and identification with it, basically based on the psychology of sunken cost. It will also produce more interesting strategies.

  2. Players love to feel special by being “that guy” who plays the underpowered civ and still wins. It feels great to win with an underpowered civ by using its assets in clever ways. There are a handful of players at every ELO bracket who take great pride in being someone who plays weaker civs like Aztecs or Russia (before they were buffed). Back in the day when Ports and Dutch and China were considered weaker, it was the same story. It brings you a certain amount of notoriety to play a weaker or lesser-known civ and still dominate players who main the big civs like Brits or Germans. It’s telling that currently, the most played new DE civ is probably USA, because it’s the quirkiest, and its seen as sort of mid-tier and certainly not OP. I dont have data for that but its my sense.

  3. OP civs create a culture of scorn around them. Everyone flamed the guy back in the day who used to spam instant cuirassiers or who did the Iro BB rush. Everyone flamed the pre-nerf Svea Lifeguard Caroleans. Everyone flames the Port water boomers and the Hausa rushers. It’s no fun for anyone-- the people who lose to OP civs, and the people who lame them for a cheap thrill. It doesn’t encourage a supportive multiplayer community.

  4. People just get really attached to their underpowered civs. I swear the people with the biggest civ loyalty are weirdos who only play Aztec or Russia or things like that.

  5. In summary, people just see OP civs as tools for climbing the ladder. Whereas underpowered civs create greater player investment in, and identification with, the civ itself.

So maybe take this as a suggestion, if any devs are reading this who are working on the next civ. Give it a shot, make the civ underpowered! I think you won’t regret it.


they did make one, Aztec

edit: I also think its harder to make an underpowered civ and then OP one.

Op civ can be made by just adding stuff by adding stuff you think would just be fun and unique.

UP civs almost have to be by design


I completely agree with this assessment.
I’m a Spanish main for the same reason. I’m not saying Spain is UP by any means: it’s certainly strong when used correctly. However, there’s very little room for error using Spanish due to their weak eco and melee composition, so seeing Spain at low to mid level is a rare sight, because only really good players play know how to use Spain properly.
(P.S. I refused to use the Logistician because it was busted)…

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Except UP civs will never be played be enough players to get enough usage statistics for proper balance. An UP civ is a civ that does not exist in the game.

And let’s be honest here, the only civ that was completely busted was sweden. The other civs (especially US and Affricans) had weaknesses that you could spot just by looking at their techs.


Civs need to be OP on release. Most people stick to the few civs they are most used to. An OP civ forces them to learn the new mechanics and units to not get stomped by them.
Necessity is the mother of invention


it’s the opposite-- an OP civ just makes people not want to play the game. i stopped playing for about a month when African civs first came out because it was just not fun at all to meet them on quicksearch. on the other hand, an UP civ wont disrupt balance and gameplay, but it will encourage people who are interested in the civ aesthetically to spend time learning everything about it


I think a lot more people were playing the game when the new civs were released because they were enjoying playing them.

The idea that DLC’s with OP civs will be more successful than a DLC with an underpowered civ is a serious misevaluation of the appeal of aoe3 and RTS as a genre. As was mentioned in the original post,

Underpowered civs require players to spend lots of time workshopping and fine tuning very specific build orders

while overpowered civs’ strategies very quickly converge. There’s nothing interesting about grinding 5 minute rushes with Hausa on repeat, and there’s no incentive to figure out how to do anything else.

An underpowered civ is a puzzle to solve, and everybody wants to be the one to solve it. An overpowered civ is just the photo at the end. Take one look and then put it away.

Seems like people have this idea because of the success it yields in Mobas. RTS is not Moba. Mobas can release overpowered characters because there are 10 characters in every game, and both team will get to pick some with ban options available. The design is self-balancing, and players can feel powerful with powerful new characters without the games actually becoming unfair.

RTS games don’t behave this way. there are no bans, any number of players can play the same civ, and civ imbalances are not checked in any way. Unfair games aren’t fun for anybody.


I disagree, I don’t mind if a civ is slightly strong or weak, as long as they target the same baseline as other civs and feel fun and fair to play against. they should not actively try and target below baseline.

if the design is good and the balance is somewhat roughly in line I’m happy, fine tuning balance should only happen once its in the players hands anyways for more accurate judgement. things like entire civs are never released fully balanced, and that’s ok as long as follow up is quick and accurate.

meanwhile some civs would feel awful to fight even if they were unbalanced and weak, such as japan or even lakota, may that civ never be viable as long as it stays as it is.

what’s important to me is that it’s fun to play and fight against, and I don’t feel bitter losing to what I perceive as dumb unfair mechanics such as house factories built by 2 free escape monks, siege dance or more importantly bow riders, which should be nerfed to the ground or reworked imo.

the loyalty thing on #4 feels patronizing more than anything, and it doesn’t add to the argument.

on Aztecs specifically, I do not want them buffed till they are changed. I don’t think they are designed well or their units make sense(eagle runner knights, jaguars, puma and skulls?). the devs should not use them as an example, weak or strong. if you said something like design around france, spain, ports, china, or Britain and balance off there I would agree

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I think you confuse a high skill floor civ with an underpowered civ, these are not the same.

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I agree with your point.
With the aztecs though I really enjoy them, there’s nothing wrong with pumas/ERK/SK. The jaguar needs changing so it can be usable probably a 20% range resist would be a big help so it can actually get close. Potentially coyotes need to receive an extra 10% range resist with a card or something or a small hp buff.
The civ needs something to help it’s eco a bit more, maybe receiving a warrior priest upon age up would help.

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No, I’m not mixing the two concepts up at all. I think you’re confusing high complexity with high skill floor, and even then, no I’m not confusing concepts. Aoe3 civs naturally have high complexity, which is why people like the game. The problem is that strategies that are obviously broken make that high complexity irrelevant. Again, Hausa at release could just 5 min rush everybody and win every game. The rest of the civ didn’t really matter, and there was no incentive to learn how to play the rest of the civ. The complexity didn’t matter. A high skill floor would just push the problems to the top level of the game, it wouldn’t solve them.

“Underpowered” might be the wrong word, because theoretically, I want civs to be perfectly competitive and only underpowered on the surface. It should be underpowered at first. before people work out all the optimal builds. If a civ feels balanced the first time it’s played, it’s probably actually broken.

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Steamcharts shows that there was a large boost during the USA event, but a fairly small one when the Africa dlc was released.

I’m hopeful that when aoe4 is finally released people will return to all the aoe games and give them another try.


I’m still waiting on see the psychological part of the post…

What you listed are just your personal opinions, which are fine. But there isn’t anything of psychological there.

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Also stopped playing for a month when Africans released after hearing how op they are.

I find things like javelin riders being much better than durch karabiner, which used to be best 1 pop ranged cav just lame.

The vanilla aoe 3 govs give somewhat of a framework within new civs should live and majorly better unit stats break the game for me.

Sweden was just like that as well. Japan somewhat too.

I think many people have issues with this and percescecit as op

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call it what you want, i’m just arguing that underpowered civs create more long-term player investment in multiplayer and more self-identification with the civ itself, than OP civs, which players only see as tools to climb the ladder with.


I think the US on release was under powered but had an op unit in SM. It took a lot of time and a few iterations to get the right BO right.

However there are some elements in the US gameplay which was annoying to play against and should have not been incliluded in the design.

With African civs it literally took a week to find a broken BO. And before it was released, just from the unit stat’s and the opening crates and its core mechanic u knew it was going to be broken.

I don’t know why devs insist on making OP civs…not sure if it’s on purpose or unintentional (surprising since some of this is obvious).

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Hum, it’s interesting, I don’t think I am creative enough to do that, I just keep thinking on the campaign civs with are worst versions of existing civs… but I will try anyway.

I can only think on a civ that is a compilation of underwhelming units/cards/aspects of the game. I think it would go more or less like this:

→ Barracks Units:

  • Pikeman unit for melee anticav.
  • Cetan Bow-like unit for anti heavy infantry/Dragoons.
  • Halberdiers as age 3 unit.
  • Arrow Knights-like unit for anti-artillery duty. (I don’t think they are that bad, I just could not think of a worst unit)

→ Stable Units:

  • Sowars-like unit.
  • Cav. Archer-type of unit that is only available on age 3 (But one like the Russian/Ottoman one, not one that have a actual good attack like the bow riders)

→ Artillery foundry units:

  • Maltese Hoop Throwers as grenadiers.
  • Chinese gamethrowers.

Colonial age Politicians:

  • The Philosopher Prince
  • Naturalist
  • A Warrior-like (From the native-american civs) politician that delivers like 4 pikeman.
  • Vanilla Logistician (1 military wagon and arsenal wagon)
  • The Inventor

→ Fortress age Politicians:

  • Mohawk Statesman
  • Gentleman Pirate
  • The Sergeant at Arms: 8 pikeman-like unit
  • The Scout with 5 sowar-like unit
  • Mercenary Contractor: Arsonist and Jat Lancers

→ Industrial Age

  • Papal Guard for you piki
  • The Logistician - Fort wagon
  • The Engineer - coming with a whopping 5 gamethrowers
  • The War Minister - coming with a whipping 13 pikeman

→ Imperial Age

  • The Inventor.
  • The Knight.

Yeah, I don’t think I am creative enough to design a new civ, but at least I tried. :sweat_smile:

Still would be interesting on what armies people would came up with such a underwhelming pool of units.

Aztecs are that civ already, they are pretty hard to understand and play for new players.

Experienced players play them but just for fun because they know the lack of options, and for them represents a challenge.


I like play them on treaty cause its harder, I havent play more than 5 matches with France or Portugal, in legacy I neither play them.
Now I love to kill mass caçadors as revenge for 15 years og humilliation​:triumph::triumph: