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What makes a fun civ in AoE3? A tale of two asymmetries

This article was written by Felipe Eduardo Gonzalez Argañaras, who asked if his article could be posted on this site.

There is no doubt that Age of Empires 3 is the black sheep of the franchise. It may be the time period or the departure of old formulas. However, this hasn’t stopped the game from carving its own niche audience, receiving a definitive edition, multiple dlc’s and regular updates, with one releasing in the following days..

To me, it’s a jewel. A time capsule of a particular period of time in the RTS genre history. It’s a clash of design choices, with the resulting power creep and overengineered factions. However, after 17 years, developers have finally produced a civilization that fully embraces the chaotic mix of faction design paradigms.

Faction design in Age of Empires III

First of all I have to explain the development history of AoE3. The original game was released in 2005, two years after Command and Conquer Generals and one year earlier to Company of Heroes. Two games that served to cement new features and design philosophies in the genre: great asymmetrical faction design and the introduction of customization options to allow player expression on each match (general abilities and doctrines)

At launch, Age of Empires 3 featured only european civilizations, still anchored in the design staple of the franchise: The meta-faction.

The meta-faction is a theoretical faction that has all the units, all the techs and no unique bonuses. By tweaking this “ideal” faction, you obtain real subfactions (factions in a practical sense). These tweaks can be bonuses, unique units and roster compositions and tech availability.

The game incorporated the new trends in the genre by adding the home city mechanic, where players obtain experience by gathering treasures, fighting and producing units and building and destroying structures, to unlock the use of civilization specific cards: single use shipments of resources, units, technologies or civilization bonuses.

The game departed from its original design philosophy with each expansion. The Warchiefs (2006) took the meta-faction idea in a new direction: it introduced a second meta-faction. Each native civilization had their own roster and cards, sharing only some general design choices, but enough to be recognized as a group, different from the European meta-faction, while still being different between them. The Asian Dynasties (2007), developed by Big Huge Games (of Rise of Nations fame), matured the concept of multiple meta-factions and increased the asymmetry of the new civilizations. Asian civilizations had a completely different way of aging up (the player can choose between 5 different wonders per civ, for a total of 15), a new resource (export) and the unit roster now widely varied between civs. This made difficult the adoption of the new civs as knowledge of one couldn’t be used in another civilization.

The definitive edition released in 2020 was developed by Tantalus and Forgotten Empires, 15 years after the last expansión. It featured two new civilizations: the swedes (european) and the Inca (native). While still contained within two existing meta-factions, they introduced units that broke the game conventions. The swedish Carolean could be upgraded to counter every unit in the game while boasting a charge mechanic used to rush down units with poor melee stats, while the Incan Chimu Runners disregarded the snare mechanic (units engaged in melee lose 50% of their speed) making them impossible to repel or finish off. Both units would eventually be nerfed or reworked.

Later DLCs would introduce civilizations with even more unique rosters, featuring more units that broke more game conventions, a new resource to gather and multiple new mechanics, some shared, some unique to each civ. This, paired with the overall outerworldyness of these civs (Where is Indiana and why does it let me age up for free? Who are the Akan or the Yoruba?) created an environment where adopting new civilizations was a daunting task.

By 2022, the game has a strange mix of wide and tall asymmetry design philosophies.

Let us define these terms.

Two takes on asymmetry

Both terms refer to different approaches to faction design. Tall asymmetry focuses on few, vastly different factions with enormous depth, wrapped together by game mechanics (ex, resource gathering, use of cover, upkeep, veterancy, etc) though they may approach them differently. These factions usually come in trios: GDI/NOD/Scrin (Tiberium Wars), Terran/Protoss/Zerg (Starcraft), Vinci/Alin/Cuotl (Rise of Legends) and the Hierarchy/Novus/Massari (Universe at War)

Wide asymmetry focuses on multiple factions that share the same mechanics and most of their unit rosters, creating a common experience across the game (meta-faction), while leaving the player with the choice of a faction that better suits their playstyle (sub-faction) Microsoft games usually followed this path: the first two iterations of the Age of Empires series are archetypical of this design doctrine, which also include games like Empire Earth and Rise of Nations.

Along the 30 years of RTS history, wide asymmetry has fallen out in favor of tall asymmetry. Age of Empires 3, being created in the mid 2000’s, was developed at the time of a paradigm shift and the subsequent consolidation of new trends. The result is a chimera of old and new design styles from which multiple developers pursued more and more complex civilizations. This is were Mexico comes into play

Why Mexico Works

Mexico It’s one of the most fun civs I’ve played since Russia, as both civs play heavily on their unique features and their cards interact with them in meaningful ways.

They have a unique structure, the Hacienda, an expensive hybrid of all the late game economic buildings (mills for food, plantations for coin, pastures for cattle). By aging up and using different cards, Mexico can add different functions to their haciendas. The player can customize them to grant lots of population, turn them into defensive buildings, allow them to produce outlaws or villagers for free. This is a fabulous use of the game mechanics as a means of expression for the player.

This civilization also has many unique units with clear roles and synergies. Insurgentes are civilians armed with farm tools that can be produced in large batches to raze buildings and fight cavalry at melee. Salteadores are skirmishers used to counter infantry and Soldados are a stronger versión of the musketeer: tougher, stronger and they use grenades to destroy buildings, but they are really expensive, train slowly and use multiple population spaces.

These units can be improved in meaningful ways with cards: Insurgentes can be equipped with muskets, Salteadores can be granted stealth movement or the ability to use natural resources as cover. There are many cards that turn units into others, allowing the player to play around with the vastly different unit profiles, training times, costs, population use and even batch sizes. These cards also find a way to keep unit scaling in check, as the new units keep some of their former stats as a bonus in replacement of straight percentage based attack or hp boost. For example: by using the card that turns Salteadores into Soldados grants the later extra range. This is a clever way to keep Soldados from turning into Caroleans.

Mexico also irons out the American-meta faction design issues. It ties most of their Hacienda upgrades and more unique alternatives for the rest of the civilization to age up options, so you can’t just collect them all and you have to take them into consideration for your overall strategy. The flag their generals (unique variant of explorer for american civilizations) use to buff the combat stats of units and the production speed of buildings have a visible use when units are either cannon fodder or have long training times.

A new way?

The recent reworks of China, Britain and Spain seem to have taken into account the lessons learned with Mexico. For example, China received cards to make the use of the embassy the central point of their civilization, the British now have cards that interact with their longbows and the Spanish got new cards focused on early game aggression with archaic units.

Contrast this with civs like France or Germany. One is a jack of all trades civ, with better villagers and the most complete vanilla unit rooster while the other it’s one of the most assymetrical european civs. Despite this, their decks have almost the same composition: villager cards, resource cards, unit shipments, attack, hp and combat upgrade cards, eco upgrades and their factories. These civs lack game changing cards or those are locked behind age 4 or are only viable in larger game modes.

With the release of the new Kingdoms of the Mediterranean dlc just around the corner, I’m eager to see if this new way of creating civilizations consolidates with the addition of the Italian and the Maltese and a multitude of revamps to old mechanics and the introduction of more experimental ones.

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