Aoe3 came out when I was a teen. Like many other aoe2 fans, I was excited to try the latest game in the series. More recently, I picked up the aoe3 DE and completed the 50 states challenge. This has caused me to reflect on a little-discussed game mechanic that turned me off of aoe3 all those years ago. No, its not the 3d, the time period, or even the home city cards. What got my aoe2 panties in a knot were building limits.
I was not good at rts games back then (I’m still not good). To beat higher difficulty AI I used to spam towers near my town center and bait the AI units into chasing me until I was able to raise my late-game army. As a player who relied on tower cheese, I was dismayed to find a build limit on towers in aoe3. There seemed to be build limits for most everything. Towers, army, villagers, hell, even some ships had build limits. It seemed clear to me that the game was designed to be played “the right way.”
In addition to build limits, it was also frustrating that certain units cost multiple population points. I’m looking at you saloon/tavern/pcName2.0 units. I mean, I get it, population is the “5th” resource, but this was something that never seemed…fair? No, it might have been fair, but it didn’t feel fun.
One of the great joys of rts games is mobilizing your macro and economy to produce certain units/military buildings. If someone wants to build 100 of the same building or unit, the game should let them, provided that they can pay the price in food/wood/gold. Even if a dumb kid can only win by spamming towers, if they can mine the stone and stay alive, let them build! In a competitive environment, spamming one building or hundreds of the same unit shouldn’t win, because that’s bad strategy. However, not letting a player do so simply limits the strategies of all players.
I understand that aoe4 will have fancy unique buildings needed to advance in age. Those makes sense to lomit to 1 (except for china of course). My concerns are focused on the other more common buildings and units. I have a fear that aoe4 will feel like bowling with guiderails. Can aoe2 players imagine a version of the game that doesn’t “let you” build 100 persian war elephants, simply because they cost 6 pop each or the game arbitrarily caps you to recruiting 10? To me, that’s just poor game balance. In a competitive multiplayer match, that many war elephants take too many resources to produce. They’re also too slow to control multiple key areas of the map and they can be out-micro’d. Sure. But, what about the kid playing against their dad who both…suck. They wall and boom for hours and build up mighty armies of expensive unique units before finally clashing. What a game!
I’m not exactly sure how to articulate my concern. When I was a kid without real strategies or build orders, aoe3 felt so restrictive compared to the previous games. It was almost as if the devs built in someone to hold my hand and show me the “proper plays.” I instinctively ripped my hand away. Instead, I returned to a game where 1 pop meant 1 pop, buildings were as plentiful as the lumber and stone they were derived from, and I was free to live or die by the strength of my own terrible strategies. Live free or die. I died a lot in aoe2, but the game let me try nearly anything. That’s what made it great. I hope that aoe4 will also feel like a world of possibilities. Let us build 30 towers. Allow me to build a fort or castle near my enemy’s starting town center. No, 100 war elephants probably won’t be the top ladder strategy. However, most age players starts off as a noob that would be thrilled to win against the AI by any means necessary, cheese or no cheese. I think letting aoe players color outside the lines of the meta is an integral part of the series. Strategies that win against AI but loses to human opponents help craft new players into better strategists and helps them feel growth and mastery as they improve. Bulding limits (or non-age up buildings) and varying population values for units hinders this progression. Let us spam against the AI and noob friends, and let us die on the ladder because spam is typically bad strategy. Good rts games allow for both experiences.
As a side note, aoe3 is a hidden gem in its own right and it’s fun to play these days. I’m not trying to start a comparison thread between 2 and 3. Instead, I’m expressing how strange it felt to feel restricted in a series that had always given players so much freedom. I encourage other aoe2 players that picked up 3 DE as well to give the game a try some afternoon.