INVASIONS IN REAL TIME
AMPHIBIOUS STRATEGIES IN AGE OF EMPIRES II: THE AGE OF KINGS
Microsoft’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is one of the best computer games that I have ever played. As a game it is enjoyable, indeed addictive, and though it is far from a real simulation of a real epoch, the strategy that it embodies strategy is complex and demanding. Therefore it has value beyond mere entertainment.
One of the most interesting considerations is amphibious warfare. In many games, in the Castle Age or Imperial Age normally, the player has to project his power across the water. The phenomenon is rather reminiscent of twentieth-century grand strategy than the pseudo-medieval world of The Age of Kings. Yet it does focus gamers on some essential problems of amphibious warfare in a clear and cogent manner.
Players have several reasons to leave familiar shores for hostile ones. On occasion it is for liebensraum; one can find there is simply not enough open land left for later buildings. But this is relatively rare.
More often, it is a quest for resources. In the last two ages of The Age of Kings, the deposits of stone and gold that looked inexhaustible in the early periods start to look decidedly finite. When one’s agenda includes castles, and hopefully a wonder, these resources take on greater importance than ever. Even wood can be at a premium, due to long-term exploitation.
Military objectives can also call for an offensive across the water. In these cases, raw materials are less of a lure than an opponent that one wishes to defeat, and hopefully knock out of the game. Thus there are two opposite lures to amphibious action; a positive one to gain important resources, and a negative one to defeat an enemy.
As in the real world, amphibious warfare mandates a coordination of naval and ground factors. It is not a matter of just gathering a bunch of troops, putting them on boats, and dumping them on a beach somewhere. Further reflecting real military strategy, a seaborne invasion is one of the trickier kinds of strategy in The Age of Kings.
THE NAVAL FACTOR
Ships are one half of the amphibious
equation, and count for more than just taxis for the ground troops. This is as true to The Age of Kings
as it was on the beaches of
Warships have roles independent of the armies. Before the amphibious forces are even assembled, the player should have a significant navy, one capable of massing force and ranging the waters at will. One of its primary tasks is to destroy the enemy ships wherever and whenever possible, gaining and maintaining sea control. This sort of strategy is drawn directly from Alfred Thayer Mahan and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, emulating the independent strategies of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century.
At the same time, the ships should operate in the littoral, engaging land targets. The prime targets should be those that have a direct or indirect capacity of impeding the coming invasion; docks where ships can be built, castles, and maybe the most dangerous of all, siege workshops. Barracks, archery ranges and stables should not be neglected either.
Sometimes the other side will have other buildings close enough to sea to be vulnerable to bombardment. Taking out universities and monasteries might not look like a good way to win a war, but the research at the first frequently has military ramifications, and the holy places produce monks who are combination medics and psychological warfare assets. Besides, should enough important buildings fall into rubble, there is a chance that a computer-controlled owner will resign in discouragement.
Warships have two roles in the invasion itself, what Mahan called the “ulterior motive.” One is to protect the transports from enemy flotillas. The other is to provide heavy fire support for the ground troops upon disembarking.
Generally, the numbers and quality of warships needed for an effective invasion dictate that the player wait for the better types of ships. Galleys and war galleys are not good enough for the most part. Fireships can be, and galleons definitely are. Cannon galleons are the absolute best, providing firepower that can eliminate most buildings in short order.
MUSTERING THE TROOPS
Just as the needs of the operation call for better ships, so they demand that the player have more than just militia to land on the far shore. It takes a mixture of melee-oriented infantry, missile troops, cavalry, and more.
Balance and mix are nearly as vital as numbers. Combined arms is as important in the world of The Age of Kings as they are in actual, historical combat, as the player has several distinct tasks.
One is to consolidate and defend the beachhead. The other side will counterattack, that is certain. The only questions are in what force, and with what kinds of troops. The player has to be ready for all of them.
Missile troops-----archers, crossbowmen and horse archers-----are excellent for meeting the counterattack at a distance. Combined with naval support, they can be devastating. But should some of the attackers get through, a reserve of shock cavalry and infantry is necessary.
A computer enemy will send siege engines whenever possible, and often they will fire from far enough inland to be beyond the reach of naval fire. Thus any invasion force should include some siege engines as well, particularly the mighty trebuchet, for counterbattery.
They have other purposes as well. Siege engines make excellent coast artillery, aiding the fleet in the defense of the beachhead against naval counterattack. Further, artillery has obvious offensive uses, against both troops and buildings.
Monks are imperative too. Without them, wounded troops will stay that way. They are the medical service of the armies in The Age of Kings.
It is easy to overlook the last element of an invading ground force-----the villagers. If monks are the doctors, then villagers are the combat engineers. They build fortifications around the landing area, anticipating the nearly certain counterstrike. Being able to put up a castle before the enemy arrives in force can make a huge difference in the outcome, and even a watch tower or two is a welcome addition.
In addition, ships and siege engines get damaged, and villagers can repair them.
The civilian presence also enhances the beachhead when it comes to reinforcements. Under normal circumstances, new units have to come from the original “heartland” of the player’s kingdom. But if villagers come along to build barracks, archery ranges, siege workshops, and any other facility where troops assemble, then the player becomes less dependent on his transport ships. Likewise, building a dock will enable him to construct ships at the point of contact.
Even should he have no call for any of these functions at first, unlikely in most cases, he can still find uses for the villagers. One can never have enough raw materials, and many invasions are for them anyway, and so civilians can go to work cutting trees, or mining gold or stone. Then when there is a need for villagers in their military engineering mode, they are present.
CHOOSING A BEACH
The best place to come ashore is the most obvious: Where one knows there is no nearby enemy presence. The ideal landing is the unopposed one. But that luxury is not as available as one would wish.
No matter how powerful a force might be, and how well supported, charging into a heavily defended shore is ill-advised at least, and Gallipoli at most. A powerful defending force, with fortifications and the facilities to replace its losses, has a major advantage over any foe coming from the sea.
Likewise, one should never land blindly. Ships must reconnoiter the site ahead of time. Warships are the easiest candidates for naval reconnaissance, but fishing ships can be just as good, as well as much cheaper to replace when lost. Besides, a fishing ship returns with a hold of food besides critical intelligence.
Concentrating too many ships around the same place can alert the other side where the blow will fall, and so a player should look elsewhere as well. Besides, exploring the map always yields information, and one never knows when a unit will find a new outcropping of stone or gold, or a relic destined for a friendly monastery.
A player with offensive aspirations, and not just of the amphibious variety, should consider researching map making. This gives him all the knowledge of his allies, and thus provides him with many more sets of eyes and ears.
There are two interests in picking a site to invade. The first is what it has to offer. Are there resources there? Does the enemy have relatively undefended assets there, that the player can destroy with little risk?
The other is opposition. Are there plentiful and strong fortifications there? Are there military units, and the buildings that produce them?
A gamer will seldom have perfect intelligence, even of what is just outside his own settlements. He cannot expect to have it on another landmass, but there is every reason to get as much information as possible before he goes there.
Strictly speaking, The Age of Kings is not an historical simulation. The worlds it constructs bear little resemblance to any that have existed on planet Earth. It is not just the terrain, but the neighborhood. The Goths and Japanese, for example, had no interaction in the eras represented, let alone the experience of living next door to each other.
In addition, the game has a definite Western bias, defining itself in terms of the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was crucial to Western history, but caused nary a ripple in China, Mongolia or Japan, all of which are in The Age of Kings. There were no Dark Ages east of the Levant, where the rise of Islam and the coming of the Mongols were of far more importance than the passing of the Caesars.
Yet the game is an admirable portrayal of real strategy. The conflicts, in fact the entire kingdom-building phenomena of The Age of Kings, have a strong ring of authenticity. What works in The Age of Kings works as well in real-world national competition, and vice versa.
Amphibious warfare is a clear case in point. A player who wishes to project his power across the water will face problems similar to those in real history. In process, he will find that combined warfare is just as demanding in The Age of Kings as it is in our own violent century.