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THE AGE OF CONQUERORS

A REVIEW OF THE CONQUERORS EXPANSION SET FOR AGE OF EMPIRES II: THE AGE OF KINGS

Originally Published October 18, 2000

By Jim Werbaneth

It is no secret that Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (Microsoft) is one of my favorite computer games of all time.  Therefore as soon as I discovered the addictive appeal of the game, I wanted to play the new expansion kit, The Conquerors.  If the original was that good, it stood to reason that more of it would be even better.

In this case, logic was correct.  The Conquerors significantly improves what was already a superior game.

The most obvious area of expansion is in the civilizations available.  It adds five new ones, only one of which is truly European, the Spaniards.  There are also the Koreans, from Mesoamerica the Mayan and Aztecs, and finally the Huns.  The last are sort of a borderline choice, as their apex was more toward the end of Age of Empires' timeline.  But there are really no bad choices here, though some players will always look for a people who did not quite make the cut.  My choices for contenders include the Inca, and leading the pack, the Russians.  Considering that their old foes the Mongols and Teutons are in the original, as are later rivals in the Chinese and Turks, the Rus would have been my choice rather than the Huns.

Though this is an expansion, there is one way in which new powers are curtailed.  The New World peoples do not have the horse.  Eagle Warriors can fulfill some of the functions of cavalry, including exploration, but they do not have quite the mobility of men on horses.  Furthermore, whereas the Old World powers can put together really varied cavalry arms, both shock-oriented and archers, the Mayan and Aztec Empires will always be handicapped in combat.

As in the original, each new power has its unique units and technologies.  The most unusual unique weapon, and my personal favorite, belongs to the Koreans, who have the "turtle ships."  These are huge oar-powered ironclads that, historically, were instrumental in forcing the Japanese to abandon a sixteenth-century campaign to conquer the peninsula.  A few of these on the map make for an imposing site, though they remain surprisingly vulnerable, particularly to the trebuchet heavy catapult.  They and the Viking longship constitute the only examples of specific national character at sea.

Not surprisingly, the Spaniards' unique units are drawn from their experiences in the Americas.  One is the conquistador, a kind of cavalry armed with hand cannons, and the other is the missionary.  Missionaries are derived from monks, but with a greater militancy.

The Conquerors further adds new technologies to both new and previously-included powers.  The Britons can upgrade their longbowmen with "yeomanry," and China's missile units improve with the development of rocketry.

As with yeomanry, some are more societal than technological per se.  Hunnish ruthlessness increases with atheism, as their warriors become unconstrained by recognition of any belief or power greater themselves.  In addition, as a pathologically nomadic people, they are exempt from the need to house their population, being able to devote all the wood that would normally go into houses to other ends.  These can be buildings but, more than that, wood is required for bows and other weapons to serve Hunnish aggression.

On the Spanish side, villagers develop their own "superiority."  It is radically different than the Huns' world view, growing out of the idea that in an epoch of lives that were nasty, brutish and short, the lot of the Spanish peasant was especially awful.  Hardened by poverty and misery, they develop a hardness of character that just makes them better in combat.  A Spanish player will do well not treat his civilians as combat troops with farm implements, but should they be attacked, they will be more dangerous, and harder to kill, than their counterparts in other cultures.

As expected, the expansion comes with new scenarios and campaigns.  In addition, there are new maps added to the set already in place, including some for real-world environments, such as Britain and Italy.

The new maps make an immediate impact on random-map play, now termed the "Standard Game."  After dozens of games using those in the core Age of Kings, the lay of the land can be a little predictable.  It is not as though one can always and immediately head for the best resources; instead, one gets strong feelings about where to explore, intuitions that are more often right.

Throwing new maps into the mix addresses this, and preserves the already high replay value.  The Conquerors insures that The Age of Kings remains capable of surprising the gamer.

Sometimes a new map will frustrate the player with abundance.  For example, in one game I found that my starting point was rich in gold deposits and had an adequate number of trees, but that potential stone quarries were distant.  It just added a little more challenge.

The Conquerors' usefulness is greater than just additions to the existing game.  With it, the engine, already excellent, gets an upgrade.  The player can now communicate with computer-controlled allies, asking for tribute, and making requests about strategy.  One can further issue the occasional taunt, as in a multiplayer game with fellow carbon-based lifeforms.

There are two other improvements of mechanics that bear mentioning.  One is the provision for formations among ships, as with land armies.  Formation assignment for land was a major improvement in The Age of Kings over the first Age of Empires game, one of the most crucial in my opinion.  Naval formations continue the trend and, even though they do not have quite the effect on play, nonetheless add to it.

The second concerns farmers.  In both earlier incarnations of the series (including the Rise of Rome expansion to the first title), exhausted farms just quit producing.  One had to look for idle peasants who were standing around in the middle of empty fields, then give them the needed wood to start planting again.

In The Conquerors, mills take on the role of wood banks for farmers.  The player deposits wood in there, in the same increments that it takes to start a farm.  Then a farmer, who would otherwise be waiting for something to do, automatically dips into the reserve to reseed.  It does not matter in what mill the wood is deposited; there is one farm queue per side.  This frees the player to concentrate on my important matters, and the strategic big picture.

The Conquerors continues to impress, if anything more than the Age of Kings game that it augments.  Any player who has even a slight interest in real-time strategy games, or good strategic games in general, should give it and The Age of Kings a try.  Many, and maybe most, will find will their hours drifting away.