An Unsolved Game, ‘Age of Empires II’ Still Breeds Obsession 18 Years Later

Mastering Ensemble's real-time strategy classic is becoming the work of a lifetime.

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Oct 16 2017, 5:12pm

Screenshots of Age of Empires II HD courtesy of Microsoft

In no small part thanks to the series' enduring community, Microsoft is reviving the Age of Empires franchise with both a new sequel from developer Relic— Age of Empires IV—and a series of "remastered" Definitive Editions for Age of Empires I through III. The first of these, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, was planned to come out this week but has been delayed by Microsoft Studios.

HD remasters are typically offered with a heavy dose of nostalgia for days gone by, but for Age of Empires II those days never fully ended. It's still a living game, with an active competitive scene and tournaments. In September, two elite players who arguably are the best in the game right now—DauT and TheViper—played a best-of-21 exhibition match for a $2000 prize pool, complete with casters for every game. That entire pool was a donation from a single fan who wanted to see the two top players duke it out. How many games can boast an active tournament scene 17 years after the release of their final expansion?

Age of Empires II was, in its day, more thematically accessible than games like StarCraft or Command & Conquer. It was a historical, Civilization-inspired take on the base-builder RTS that used gorgeous, historically vivid artwork to mask an incredibly complicated RTS. Its signature mechanic is that the tech tree is split into different eras, notionally corresponding to late antiquity through to the first half of the 16th century. Despite its huge, complex economy and random maps, it far outlived games like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, and the also-rans of the RTS boom (ask me about Dark Colony sometime).

Those complications set it apart from the many other games that share the same basic formula. Ørjan Larsen, who goes by the handle TheViper, might be the best player active in the scene right now. "There are four resources to take care of, four resources to balance depending on your choice of strategy," he says. "Combine that with what is now a total of 31 civilizations, each with their unique bonuses and tech tree, and that leaves you with so many different paths to take."

The interplay between the military and economic sides is the beating heart of AoE2. Different army compositions require a different balance between the four core resources, and pivoting between them is like turning an aircraft carrier around. Conversely, your military situation will dictate what resources you have access to and thus what kind of army you can field. The game is designed to never fall into an easy equilibrium or into repetition; it bounces back and forth on a rollercoaster of power spikes provided by tech advances and special units associated with them.

Units like the mangonel, a catapult that fires a spread of projectiles. Troy Hetzler, one of the first people to regularly make video content about this game (on the YouTube channel Resonance22), puts it this way: "A single mangonel, if controlled perfectly, can take out an entire army of crossbowmen, allowing for players to skillfully claw their way back into the game if they execute properly."

High-level play in this game is often gorgeously showy: a line of archers splits into two flanks just as a rain of stones falls upon them, dodging the mangonel shot entirely. A scout body-blocks a fleeing villager, letting an infantry unit land a killing blow. Villagers start putting up walls around themselves just in time to keep marauding infantry out.

Age of Empires 2 currently comes in two flavors: the original 1999 game and its 2000 expansion Age of Conquerors, and the 2013 re-release published by Microsoft, known as the HD Edition. As the name implies, AoE2HD has better-looking graphics; it's also received gameplay updates and three expansions produced by Forgotten Empires, a company formed from a team of AoE2 fans and modders. This version of the game, however, has had a troubled launch; while it looks and plays beautifully in single player, it has been plagued with netcode and performance issues. Much of the tournament scene still plays the original version, which has not been patched for balance in the last decade.

Hetzler tells me the metagame has continued to shift 17 years after the game's original release: "Much to everyone's surprise though, in the last couple years, Feudal Age warfare has changed yet again with a greater emphasis on the previously completely unused man-at-arms unit." This is striking: Most competitive metagames are solved and stale in a matter of months; AoE2 still had surprises for years.

Hetzler began making videos about the game in 2009; he's hosted tournaments, consulted with the developers of Age of Empires II HD Edition's expansions, and casted dozens of games. His Break the Meta series of videos is a great introduction to what exactly makes competitive AoE2 fascinating.

YouTube has acted as a great popularizer for this game; the most popular channel dedicated to AoE2, SpiritOfTheLaw, has recently broken 100,000 subscribers. Video content like Hetzler's in turn helped revive interest in the game and forms the backdrop for renewed investment in the franchise, culminating with this year's announcement of Age of Empires IV, along with the Definitive Editions for the rest of the series . From all of this, a small modern esports scene has emerged, with sponsored tournaments, cash prizes, a decent roster of caster, and even a dedicated tournament organizer in the form of Escape Gaming.

Part of the secret here is just that, in spite of being designed long before Twitch streaming or Youtube were on anyone's horizon, Age of Empires 2 just kind of looks great. It's the last great sprite-based strategy game, before everyone moved on to 3D graphics. Visually, the game aged much better than titles like Warcraft 3 or Age of Mythology.

Its accessibility, which may have caused hardcore RTS fans to overlook it back in the early aughts, also helps it appeal on YouTube: history gives everything happening on screen a resonant pattern that helps it make intuitive sense before game mechanics are well-known; you understand what knights charging into a line of pikemen is supposed to mean even if you haven't played this specific game.

The endless diversity of having dozens of factions and so many variant strategies also makes this game a joy to watch; you just don't see as many of the same strategy play out over and over again. Each civilization has strategies that it wants to go for—the Britons have their archers, the Franks their knights, the Goths their massed waves of infantry. But all of those strategies have potential weaknesses, counterplay; AoE2 is often a game of trying to push your opponent off their preferred strategy, of improvising around a specific situation. Games become less about pure mechanical execution of established strategies and more about creativity.

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It appeals more easily to casual viewers who aren't necessarily obsessed with the nuance of the game; but once you're hooked in by that, it reveals its vast depths. SpiritOfTheLaw, the aforementioned channel that just broke 100,000 subscribers, consists largely of breakdowns of the game's mechanics done in excruciating mathematical detail.

And what fascinates about this game, ultimately, is the detail, the subtlety of interaction. In one of Hetzler's videos, a Frankish player builds castles right next to a gold pile held by their Byzantine opponent, to try and preempt dangerous, expensive units from the Byzantines. Castles let them start massing their unique unit, the throwing axeman. The great thing is that the Byzantine player reacts not by directly countering the axemen, but by throwing pikemen at them; the pikemen, which don't cost gold and aren't much use against anything but cavalry, are easily cut down by the axes.

But their presence prevents Frankish knights from taking the field, stopping the Franks from truly seizing their advantage. As the game stalls, the Byzantines eventually push back with gunpowder, using their pikemen as effective meat shields for formations of hand cannoneers. It becomes apparent that throwing pikemen into the meat grinder was the correct choice, even though they were seemingly weak against the opponent's army.

What's beautiful about this exchange is that at no point were the Franks making knights; the pikemen never had anything to counter. Their work as a counter unit was done entirely in the players' minds. The Frankish player saw pikemen and never felt confident bringing out their superstars.

Modern design might balk at how little of a ramp there is between casual AoE 2 and competitive play. There's no "ladder" button, nor does the campaign much resemble what you'll be doing in skirmish play. But the game's many complications, its instability, works to turn casual interest into obsession.

"I started playing Age of Empires 2 when I was 7 years old and it was one of the first games I ever played," says Hetzler. "My dad was a huge fan of the franchise so I grew up watching him play it. Age of Empires 2 is by far my most played game. I'd estimate that I have played at least 8000 hours of Age of Empires 2, including the 3000 hours I have on Steam." Larsen: "I have tried some other RTS games, but AoE 2 is always the game I've come back to quite fast."

A lot of re-releases of "nostalgic" old games feel like exhuming something best left buried. But whenever the recently-announced Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition comes out, it'll be a new coat of paint on a thing that's stood the test of time, an RTS heirloom passed from one age of PC games into the next.