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Why I Don't Like Age of Empires III

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
When done right, worker placement games are among my favorite games. Two of my Top 10 are worker placement games, and until recently Agricola was my favorite game period, with Race For the Galaxy only recently exceeding its position in my affections. Unfortunately, I have found most worker games to not be “done right.” Most are either innocuous without a lot of interesting decisions, simply have one good idea in them with everything else involved in the game, or are so fatally flawed that whatever interesting decisions that are in the game are overwhelmed, resulting in a game that is not really worth owning or playing. Age of Empires III falls in that last category for me, and is a game it is unlikely I will play again.

From gallery of doubtofbuddha

My Worker Placement Game Ratings

I first played Age of Empires III in January of 2010. At the time I had a pretty strong negative reaction to it, but even at the time I admitted that this could partially be due to a combination of a strong visceral reaction to the components. I found it to be difficult to tell the large swarms of monochromatic figures apart, and the game’s color palette was hard on my red-green colorblindness. The fact that some of the rules were explained incorrectly only added to this, and it ended up being a rather unpleasant gaming experience overall. Since then I have wanted to play it again, to confirm or refute my initial reaction, but not so much that I have gone out of my way to play it. I even left early at a game night a few weeks ago rather than play Age of Empires III with five players.

So last night I met with an out of town visitor for gaming, and he suggested we play Age of Empires III, with the yet to be released Builder Expansion. I didn’t remember my previous play of the game that well, but it quickly came back to me as he explained the rules so we were able to jump into the game pretty easily. During the first round I remembered my difficulty with red vs. green, and we were able to change out one of the colors for orange, and a greater degree of familiarity with the game allowed me to distinguish the figures from each other more effectively. This is not to say that I like the components any better; in fact I still think that they actively detract from the play experience, I just found them less annoying then the first time. This let me focus instead on the things that I dislike about Age of Empires III’s gameplay.

For the most part, Age of Empire’s design focuses on no-luck incremental action. Each player takes the action they like, with no randomness between their action and the resolution of said action. There are three main areas where this particular tendency is broken, and I find two of the three to be highly problematic both from their digression from the overall nature of the game as well as the impact they have on the overall flow of the game.

The first of these is the Age III capital buildings. While I don’t mind high victory point, late game bonuses as a general rule, the fact that not all of the Age III buildings will show up in the game makes there mere existence problematic. As the game goes on, players become increasingly specialized, thus making it so the bonus victory points provided by the Age III bonuses can be rather substantial. Unfortunately there is no way to determine either when a tile is going to come out or if a tile will come out. You can fight for first place in the final two rounds in order to ensure you have first shot at a tile, but this is going to only help you marginally if the tile you want never actually emerges. If a game is even remotely close, then the arrival of a particular Age III tile at the right time will be sufficient to give the game to a particular player. It is possible to buy a tile that only provides you with a marginal benefit in order to hurt someone else, but that is likely to only hurt the two effected players to the benefit of the other players, and is most likely not optimal.

The second item is the discovery tiles and cards. While it is possible to mitigate the luck of these items based on knowledge of their distribution, the mere fact that you can potentially turn a small investment of three workers into 4+ victory points, or, just as easily, lose three actions is problematic in a design that otherwise has very minimal action execution luck. This is not to say that I have any problem with luck, I just think that this luck is out of place in this game. I would like this better if there was more luck in general in the game, as then you would have to calculate the odds of success across multiple avenues of action resolution. Instead it is simply in Discovery where it is either costly or potentially devastating.

The expansion does not make either of these problems better. The builder just makes it so that discoveries are even less valuable relatively, and with more Age III buildings, there is an even greater chance that the particular high value Age III building that suits your strategy just won’t show up. There are a number of new tiles with powerful take that elements, allowing players to steal money or resource tiles, and one of the Age III tiles, Rewrite History, allows you to steal a Discovery tile from two different players, making attempts at Discoveries an even worse investment.

Even if I did not find these elements as problematic as I do, the mere fact that Dominant Species exists would probably relegate Age of Empires III to the “do not bother to play” list. The aspects of Age of Empires III that I like are implemented even more effectively in Dominant Species, and the added flourishes that Dominant Species adds to the genre are so enjoyable that I doubt I will ever play Age of Empires III again. This is too bad, because I do like the period presented in this game, and would like to own a good Age of Discovery with some real mechanical innovations and a tightly integrated theme. Luckily it looks like Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas will allow me to achieve my desires, and will be my go-to game for gaming in the Age of Discovery in the future.
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