Go and rule the world!”, they said. “Conquer all who stand against you!”. So you built your armies, and sent them forth on a holy mission – claim all you can find in the name of the king. But it was all for naught. Upon arrival at the enemy’s doorstep, you are barraged by cannon fire, your men falling by the dozens. Six layers of walls, covered with bombards, archers, and 1000 roaring siege weapons stand between you and the enemy. You watch as your forces are slaughtered, and must admit defeat…for now. In Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (AoE2), this scenario is an entirely possible one, with massive empire construction adding an additional level of depth to the already complex strategy of the game. Part Civilization and part StarCraft, AoE2 combines large scale battles with a meaningful resource management system to build a unique take on miniature war. However, one of the most unique elements of the game is it’s excellent base building support. Including various walls, towers, and even castles, AoE2’s structures extend beyond mere ranged towers or implied diplomatic boarders – they are literal fortresses, standing between victory and defeat.
Many real-time strategy (RTS) games give players some way to defend their turf, often in the form of towers or other autonomous damage-dealing structures. They allow the players to keep focus on their offensive abilities, as they can be sure that whatever they are protecting is at least relatively safe. These structures also provide a form of early warning if some sort of attack is coming, doing damage to the aggressor, and alerting the player that they are in danger. However, defensive towers are often only a minor inconvenience to a determined opponent, and can rarely prevent the destruction of valuable commodities, including workforces and other resources. To help protect these assets players may resort to stalling tactics like dummy bases and fake workforces to prevent harm from coming to their valuable resource chain – a useful strategy, but one that often leads to frustration, as a losing player can hold out with small groups of hidden troops for long periods of time, extending the game unnecessarily.
AoE2’s extensive base building options can help alleviate some of these issues, while simultaneously supporting additional types of strategies. In AoE2, players are given access to a variety of walls, gates, and castles to defend their territory, in addition to the expected defensive towers. This wealth of viable defensive options allows players to more easily defend their territory, with physical barriers stopping enemy units from moving inside. The immediate benefit is that players can worry less about their core base, as it is now defended from being overrun immediately. The time delay from breaking down the walls allows for the (admittedly limited) production of troops or other defensive measures, so sneak attacks become less powerful. Players can also be more sure that their resource production will be less likely to be interrupted, since their workers can continue to harvest even during an assault. Players who prefer to advance in power by building a large force safely before engaging other players are also more easily able to do so, as they can invest in basic defenses early, making them a harder target, and buying time before a major assault. Additionally, players who like to advance defensively, relying on their fortifications to weaken the enemy’s forces before pushing back straight through them can have fun creating fortresses with various tactical benefits.
The interesting tradeoff to many of the tactics mentioned, often categorized as“walling up”, is that a massive amount of resources must be expended to create a viable defense. A player going down this path will often find themselves with a lack of military units with which to wage war, as most of their income is being expended on defensive structures. Balancing between the construction of defenses and the creation of units is a challenging task all it’s own, and one that must be carefully considered by each player individually. However, the fact that players are given this additional depth of strategy adds greatly to the types of battles and players that will be challenged. It is important to note that an entire unit tree exists to counter defensive structures, focusing around wooden siege engines of varying degrees of power. These units are rather unique, doing massive damage to structures, but with various movement and defensive penalties. They add great immersion potential, allowing players to experience a medieval siege firsthand, and view the boons and banes of various strategies.
In the end, AoE2’s inclusion of a deep construction element fits well with the themes the game presents, namely large scale medieval warfare. Players who are interested in learning about historical strategy or role playing as medieval warlords will find these tactical choices to be very fitting. Players who are looking for a deep strategic experience will appreciate the additional variety of combat styles that can be implemented in the game, especially the deeper defensive options. New players too will feel many of the benefits of advanced base construction mechanics, as they now have a way to prevent being easily overrun by more experienced players. It is interesting to note that later versions of the game (namely Age of Empires 3) have much weaker base construction tools, instead choosing to focus on army creation, like many of their competitors. These games, while still enjoyable, are missing that defining factor that makes them great. AoE2 has recently been re-released with a graphical overhaul and some minor balancing changes. It speaks volumes of a game’s mechanics that it should get a makeover and update approximately 12 years from it’s release date, which could be in part related to the interesting strategy of base construction. Games that utilize these mechanics are few and far between, leaving AoE2 as one of the best examples of a fortress building strategy in RTS games, even today.