Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Age of Empires III Boardgame Review

I've played this one several times -- I even showed it to Todd on my trip to Indy (Todd is terrible at games, board games in particular). Anyway, here's some thoughts.

Being a veteran PC gamer and working in the gaming industry as an editor and freelancer for going on 12 years, I was eager to get my hands on Age of Empires III. Being a huge fan of the entire AoE series, going back to the original Bruce Shelley design, the idea of pitting nation against nation in a struggle to colonize the New World in boardgame form was one that I simply couldn’t pass up.

What I found was something completely different than what was expected – not necessarily in a bad way, but it took me a few games to wrap my head around what the game was trying to do. This was not in any way a translation of the PC game into plastic form. It’s really Age of Empires by name only. I’ve read where Mr. Drover was influenced by games like Puerto Rico as well as classic computer games like Gold of the Americas (a personal favorite of mine back in the early 90s); this is a much better comparison than to anything related to Age of Empires.

The first thing that struck me was that while the rulebook mentions the various nations, there is no difference at all between them other than the color of the plastic figures. This is very un-AoE like, and while looking at it from a design perspective, I can understand the reasoning behind it, it does take away some of the AoE luster. Again, this is only a flaw if you look at it from the perspective of what the PC game is all about. There’s no special units, no special nation-based techs, nothing like that. In game terms: England is red and Spain is yellow. Or maybe they’re green? It doesn’t really matter.

Once I was able to get past the fact that this has nothing at all to do with the PC game I started to enjoy myself a lot more; yes, as many other reviews have stated, this is in a lot of ways a blending of various European designs sprinkled with some surprising luck factors that may turn off some gamers who like their games to avoid wild swings based on chance – I’m not one of them and I appreciated the combination of rigid planning while at the same time being forced to adopt a new tactic if the winds of change blow my way—if an opponent starts to build up troops while another opponent starts to load up the Discovery box; these things can change your plans and I like being forced to alter my strategy based on what others are doing. I think it’s one of the game’s strengths.

There are a lot of plastic figures in the game along with several very nice hard plastic merchant ships, but they seem out of place. Part of the way in which you earn money is by collecting “sets” of trade goods be they rice, sugar, fish, gold, whatever, and the ships are used as “wild cards” for making these trade good sets (as well as a turn marker?); it just seems like a waste of good plastic when a smaller (cheaper) merchant counter would have sufficed. The plastic figures are also hit and miss. Some look fine but our entire group gets the merchant and the colonist figures confused at least once per game – they look a bit too alike.

The board is of high quality with nice artwork but I wish there was a bit more room inside each area to place the figures; for some areas this isn’t a problem but around the Florida area things can get a shade cramped if there’s a lot of players vying for control. There is a lot of wasted space on the board which could have been used to make the various areas bigger.

Another small board gripe is the scoring track which like many games circles the entire board – why isn’t every scoring block numbered? Why have artwork actually blocking some of the spaces? In a game like this every point counts so why not make the score track as clear and as unobstructed as possible?

Finally there’s the money – the game uses gold and silver coins for currency and they are fantastic. They clink. I love the sound they make when dropped together on the table. Again, a small complaint – gold coins are considered “10” while silver are standard “1” but why can’t we get a “5” coin? It seems like there should be some bronze coins here somewhere…

AoE III isn’t a rules heavy game. It can be explained in full in about 15 minutes. Learning how best to play the game is another matter entirely, but knowing what to do and how to do it is fairly simple.

This is basically a placement game. You start with a small set of five colonists and choose which “action”: you’d like them each to perform each game round. This can range from things like changing the turn initiative (going first can be crucial at times), gathering available trade goods, buying a Capital Building (more on these later), creating advanced units like soldiers or priests, just to name a few.

Play starts with one player placing one colonist where he/she wants it. This is the meat of the entire game. You need to decide what you want to do – the placing of your colonists in many ways *is* the game. If you decide to go for trade goods, someone else is likely to get first crack at buying a Capital Building. If that happens, player 3 will likely get first crack at getting the advanced unit he wants – a priest, soldier, merchant, or captain, each possessing special abilities. (Priests help population growth; soldiers help loot expeditions and kill other player’s colonists, etc.) Player 4 might then start to fill up the colony ship, which has a limited number of slots available in order to start colonizing available areas of the board.
The best part of this game, in my mind, is that it forces players to decide what is the most important action for them to take. You have several choices to make, and much can depend on the actions of various players. What if player 2 is hell-bent on attacking you? Do you stick with your current plan of discovering new territory or do you start to send additional colonists to your colonized region in order to maintain control of it?

There are various ways in which to win the game; the end game goal being to obtain the most victory points. I have seen players win via many different methods: discovering new lands (which earns you points as well as cash), colonizing like crazy, winning due to being the money man (you need certain buildings in play to make this work), or even playing the role of war chief and massacring colonized regions and cherry picking at the end. (Combat in the game is extremely simple.)

The Capital Buildings, well, you’ll either love them or hate them. They cost gold to purchase and some are monstrously powerful. They are randomly chosen at the start of each game turn and as the game progresses through various ages (one of the very few real links to an AoE game) the buildings become more and more powerful. So powerful that they can swing a game in one fell swoop. The Third Age buildings are extremely potent, and I can only assume that this is the reason that the Third Age only lasts two game turns while the other ages last three. Three full turns with the benefits from an Age Three building would simply be unfair. Some are that good.

You can look at this in one of two ways. It’s either something that throws the balance of the game out the window, or it means no one is ever truly out of the running even after a bad start. Personally, I tend to not like games that practically eliminate one player after a third of the game is over and this allows people to get back in the mix to a certain extent. On the other hand I can see the point about bad play being rewarded by the luck of a great Capital Building (of course you still need the cash and the opportunity to actually buy it...good players won’t allow these great buildings to sit idle)
We usually play with 4-players and now that everyone is very familiar with the rules (which aren’t that complicated at all) games last about two hours. Downtime is fairly minimal unless you are playing with one of those players who simply take a long time to make a basic decision. With our group, turns are taken quickly and the game moves at a good pace because of it.

It took me a couple of games to warm to Age of Empires III mainly because it wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t follow much of the design history of the game even though I am familiar with Glenn’s previous games. The Age of Empires name is still somewhat misleading, but once you get past that, there’s a pretty darn good game here. Yes, I wish England had a few differences compared to Portugal but it is what it is.

Our gaming group will play pretty much anything. Games like Railroad Tycoon, RA, Arkham Horror, Citadels, Catan and Fury of Dracula are games that hit the table with regularity.

Age of Empires III is another. I don’t think it’s the best game of 2007, but I’m certainly glad in it’s my collection.