OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published December 24, 2000

By Jim Werbaneth

Mark H. Walker’s work should be familiar to computer gamers, especially those whose hard drives contain real time strategy games.  He is a prolific free-lance writer and author of numerous articles and books, including the official Microsoft Press strategy guide to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

He followed that up this year with the release of a new book on The Conquerors expansion kit to the game.  For anyone with an enthusiasm for the game, it is recommended reading.  That even, or especially, goes too for the wargamer who might differ with some of his strategies.

Walker’s book begins by introducing each of the new cultures-----Aztec, Mayan, Hunnish, Korean, and Spanish-----one by one.  He gives a good, clear and comprehensive overview of the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of each.

From the beginning, even an experienced player can find something to learn.  Walker’s analysis of matching technologies and units to situations is excellent.  For example, I am on record as saying that the Aztec and Mayan lack of cavalry is a serious handicap.  Walker finds advantages in the Eagle and Jaguar Warriors that constitute their mobile and reconnaissance arm, including a mobility that actually surpasses that of men on horses.  As he shows, one cannot play the Mesoamerican civilizations as though they are clones of the cavalry-rich peoples of the steppe, but these New World peoples’ more fleet units can do things that are beyond the means of the Mongols and Huns, for example.

Not that there is any discrimination against the Huns, who come across as one of the most fearsome peoples anywhere in the game.  Their lack of need for houses, Walker points out, frees up their people and resources for militant pursuits.  In addition, their unique unit, the tarkan cavalry, is extremely strong against buildings, with the author going so far as to call a formation of them “a wrecking machine equal in might to the most formidable siege engines but with the added advantage of speed.”

As he does throughout the strategy guide, Walker prescribes unique tactics to exploit a unique capability.  In this case, it is to form columns of tarkan to charge into an enemy settlement, break things and smash buildings, and use their mobility to escape before the victims can react.

Another Walker’s other favorite peoples appear to be the Spaniards.  They too have a latent military strength, with strengths in a variety of land-based and naval units.  In addition, their monks are a strength, and they stand alone in having a mounted monk the missionary, as a unique unit.

He consistently emphasizes using monks as offensive assets, and not just as camp-following healers for the armies.  The book stresses developing clerical capabilities when possible in order to convert both enemy units and buildings.  For the Spaniards, that can mean using missionaries to get into the opposition’s rear areas, mounting raids of conversion similar in outlook to the Huns’ raids of destruction.

I have to say that I find clerical assets much more difficult to use than military ones.  They are too frail to use alone in many cases, requiring some of sort of protection.  Even the missionaries, in my opinion, are best used in concert with armies.  Ultimately, when given the choice of building up a big army or amassing equally numerous monks and missionaries, I generally choose the sword and the bow over the Book.

Yet as with the Mesoamerican Jaguar and Eagle Warriors, Walker shows that there is more than one approach, and his more positive view of temporal power has undeniable merits.

He and I share a very healthy regard for the Koreans.  Similar to the Vikings, they have two unique units, war wagon cavalry on land and the inimitable turtle ships at sea.  The former are just what the name says; heavy archers riding wagons instead of marching or riding astride horses.  The latter constitute one of my personal favorite weapons systems.  Lacking in mobility, they are early ironclads that can stand up to a lot of punishment in battle.

The Mesoamericans come out in a lesser light.  The Aztecs lack both naval potential and staying power for a long game from Dark Age to Imperial Age.  Therefore they must come out strong, and not hope to build momentum with time, which is not really on their side.  The Mayans lack the military might of their northern neighbors, though they are better on the water, and require finesse to be played effectively.

Walker amplifies his findings in a second section that analyzes the campaigns and scenarios in The Conquerors.  Here, he goes into detail about how to exploit the strengths, and minimize the weaknesses, of the cultures, in specific   game situations.

If there is a place where the book drags a little bit, it is here.  It is not a real fault of Walker’s writing skill or style, which is clear and concise, yet lively.  It is more due to the structure of the book and the section, and the need to draw specific lessons from the more general principles of the first part.

On the other hand, it does have its value.  Even if a gamer never plays any of the prepackaged campaigns, the author’s lessons can be applied in standard, multi-sided conflicts, as similar situations are likely to arise sometime and somewhere in there.

There is one chapter as well that stands out as more valuable than the others, and not coincidently it is on strategies for multi-player games.  Here, Walker makes the connection between the new peoples of The Conquerors and those of The Age of Kings.  This is vital, both because most of the empires in the game will be of the older set, and because the expansion introduces new technologies and abilities to the existing cultures.

The third part of the book is the shortest, but has the longest name: “Inside Moves: Information You Won’t Find Anywhere Else.”  It starts with an introduction to the “Battlebits,” scenarios downloadable from Microsoft that tie in with the lessons imparted earlier in the book.  

Additionally, Walker offers opinions from three other games, including their views of what new culture is the strongest in the game.  Ironically, two choose the Mayans, which require the most skill, and the third likes the Huns and Spaniards, much more obvious choices.

With or without The Conquerors, The Age of Kings is a game that demands cunning to play well.  Acquiring that level of strategic skill demands experience with all the civilizations on the disks.  Even if one especially dislikes playing a people, taking their side occasionally teaches their strengths and weaknesses, and those of the ones currently opposing them, from a fresh angle.  There is always something to be learned.

That is the main strength of the strategy guide to The Conquerors.  In it, Walker brings his own experience and perceptions to the table.  Through them, the novice gains a clear view of the game and how to play it.  For the experienced player, the book presents another set of views, sometimes opposing views, of how to play the game.  Considering that The Age of Kings and The Conquerors do not reveal all their nuances even after playing dozens of games, another pair of eyes and experienced brain are welcome.

With all that considered, The Conquerors’ strategy guide is a worthy addition to the library of players of all experience levels.