Unit upgrades: transformative vs incremental

Recently, I’ve started thinking about how the franchise has basically two styles of upgrades:

  • The transformative upgrade, used in AoE I and II, where the unit that upgrades into other units possibly gaining new effects or increasing their bonus damage or other stats. For example, AoEII crossbows train faster than archers, Persian war elephants gain trample damage with their elite upgrade and the spearman line gets increased bonus damage against cavalry.

  • The incremental upgrade, used by AoM and AoE, where the unit get increased base stats while maintaining its profile. The idea is to create matchlong archetypes where unit gets progressively more stats as the game progresses, where the balance of power gets shaken by the addition of new archetypes (huscarls being resilient to ranged damage or dragoons being ranged cavalry)

The second style works wonders in AoM because it works in a ahistorical lymbo (I wouldn’t call it straight out fantasy) and the fantastic visual upgrades.

To me, AoE3 period and unit variety lends itself really well with the first style over the second. The historical period is one of enormous changes, including warfare. Transformative upgrades would’ve made use of this to create a really dynamic combat. For example, you could turn crossbows (uhg, I would like them to be arquebusiers tbh) into skirmishers, make pikeman strong in colonial and cheaper in fortress. Musketeers could be upgraded to fusiliers and then line infantry (maybe gaining range or something in the process?)

Have devs ever came out on the reasoning of these changes? What do you think?

we already have that tbh, its french only, and russia have their own ver

and depending on the civ you get different flavours of this as well

Port goon and mortars get increased range

Jan get extra damage vs cav, otto light cav get bonus vs vils

russian infantry get massive siege damage increase

chinese skirms get extra bonus vs light cav and chinese cav get extra range armour

maltese & italian get extra range and siege on their xbow


these always exists, they are just cards.

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I agree. Just putting “Veteran”, “Elite”, “Guard”, “Champion” in front of a Unit name and just increase all stats by n% is boring.
AoE4 did the same again.
I preferred the original AoE1/2 system but even there it wasn’t that consistent. Some units in AoE1 shared sprites and a lot of units (including all Unique Units) just have an Elite infront of their name with the upgrade.

Especially something like Crossbow → Arquebusier → Musketeer could have been an interesting main infantry upgrade with the Musketeer gaining good melee and modifires against cavalry making Pikemen obsolete.

AoM did something else really awesome though. The Armoury upgrades actually changed how the weapons and shields look like.

Maybe we get that again in AoE5/6.

I think I’m fine as I am, as the game has been for 17 years

There are pros and cons for both designs. If you ever try to write fan fiction techtrees you will see that.
For the AOE1/2 upgrades (this is just talking about the designs and other aesthetic stuff):

  • You quickly run out of names. Even for AOE2 with a shared tech tree. The entire knight line makes no sense, the swordsman line is so stuffed with really bad names, and there are already quite a few “elite”s and “heavy”s.
  • More difficulty placing unique units, especially those that do not last long in reality. Should rodelero upgrade into a common unit? Or another unique unit for Spain with a similar role? I cannot think of a good candidate. The former would simply erase uniqueness.
  • I do not think evolution like “crossbows upgrade into arquebuses” is really viable. In fact in AOE1/2 there is no true evolution either. Spear/pike/halberd is essentially the same unit with fancier polearms (and no real pikes) and their roles are essentially the same, not reflecting the weapon/name change (e.g. halberds could get a much higher damage instead of a simple +2). Bows upgrade into crossbows but still with the same role (it does not really gain armour piercing damage). That would only happen with civilization games-like faction designs (eg rise of nations or empire earth) which again would erase uniqueness.
  • This is more of a case for the early modern period: many units did not become “stronger”through time. Cavalry got lighter with less armour but more professional and more cost effective. That cannot be well represented by the game mechanics. If a hussar is always a hussar than fine. If it evolves from a cavalry with armour, but still stronger overall, it would feel really weird.
  • And of course with a lot of diverse civs and unique units that is a lot more work than AOE1/2.

An ideal design would be a mixture of both. However what I think they can really do is:
(1) Weapon changes for some upgrades, especially those that are pivotal in the time period. Like the style of bayonets (the age 2 musketeer could switch to spear like ashigaru, with the same stats), muzzle loading to breech loading, etc. That happens for some civs added later but largely ignored for the older civs, especially the Europeans where the technology changes were drastic. Same with ship models. Caravels and galleons were no longer used after maybe 17th. They could have a more modern model (with a name change) and even a steam engine in age 5.
(2) Make the tier upgrades more interesting instead of the same 20/40/50 routine, especially with the royal guards. There are some upgrades that give some extra range or armour but it could be a little more diverse than that.


Empire earth is a very peculiar case. And it shows the difficulties of designing a historical game especially if you cover a large time span.
Empire earth 1 has a really complex tech tree which tries to mimic the actual progression of technology (though they still throw in quite a few weird units). Firearms are a distinct line out of nowhere. The result is that you got a very disconnected techtree where a lot of units just become obsolete.
Empire earth 2 went to the other extreme by fitting every single unit into a long upgrade path. The result is the opposite: there are units that got forced into that role or are purely fictional. Like in early modern period you have a super weird unit called “grenade pistoleer” which evolves from crossbowmen and into grenadiers and then mortars?
Same for rise of nations. Pikemen evolve into a really odd unit called “fusiliers” which do not look different from regular line infantry but kneel fire, have shorter range and counter cavalry, while the musketeers (another regular line infantry) do not.
(Empire earth 3 went for Warcraft design and I do not want to talk about it).

I guess with that kind of design you would not see the current “countering cavalry at melee” type of musketeer in AOE3 (what does it evolve from or into?) which is among my favorite unit designs.