Cracking a nut with a sledgehammer in Age of Empires IV

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(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

This diary first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 367 in March 2022. We do one every month, taking on new challenges and approaching our favourite games from entirely new angles – and letting you know how we got on.

Who bought PC Gamer issue 13? Hands up. The longer-lived among readers might remember the Warcraft: Orcs and Humans demo contained on one of its cover floppies. After two scenarios of jolly orc-bashing lifted from the game, the third and final (if I remember correctly, which it's possible I don't) level of the demo was a custom scenario (I hope) that gave you a human village surrounded by a ring of orcs, who would merrily chop their way through your tiny population and all its huts. 

It was an unwinnable scenario, a Kobayashi Maru that, instead of teaching important lessons about not violating treaties and allowing examiners to observe how a commander reacts, merely demonstrates that any village or population is vulnerable to overwhelming force.

Which brings us to Age of Empires. I played a lot of this while pretending to study at university in the late 1990s, right in the middle of the RTS boom kicked off by Warcraft vs Command & Conquer. I've still got the books on Michel Foucault if anyone wants an essay, but I've also retained a weird preference for a custom skirmish game on Age of Empires II's Narrows map. The beauty of Narrows is that enemy scouts won't cross the deeper bits of water, so instead of building a wall around yourself you only need to place gates in strategically chosen places to seal off a surprisingly large area. Once your army is complete – a mailed fist composed of longbowmen, men at arms, and lots and lots of trebuchets – you open a gate and march out to destroy the AI's city. 

It doesn't work so well against human opponents, admittedly, but it's a tactic that finds itself played out again and again in tank rushes across multiple RTSes. The one series it's not particularly valid for is Warcraft, in which the management of small forces takes precedence over the application of overwhelming numbers. So we take to the battlefields of Age of Empires IV to discover whether tactics more suited to Starcraft can work on a medieval battlefield. 

Wall aboard

Full of bravado, or full of something, anyway, I fire up the new game. I haven't played it much at this point but that doesn't matter, surely? I play through the tutorial with William (it will never get old to hear him cry "Incontinent!" – I am 42 years old) and feel myself getting back into the old swing of things. So I fire up a skirmish game like in the old days. The Narrows map seems to have vanished, but there is one, Confluence, that has a similar feel. With one other AI player on a small map, with standard starting resources beginning in Age I, what could possibly go wrong?

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(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Well, for one thing, my age-old tactic of walling off my area with gates won't work any more because the terrain is much more complex. I have to build a longer palisade wall, hoping to upgrade it later. I pop a watchtower behind it, do the same thing on the other river crossing, and get back to building up my forces. I'm the English, in blue, hoping to unleash longbowmen and trebuchets on my enemy, the Holy Roman Empire in red. The English have a really straightforward playstyle, and get men at arms early on in the game, so hopefully they'll be a good choice for both an early military strike and for the defences I intend to erect.

Problem is, while erecting those defences I've inadvertently trapped a red scout in my area. He was busy rounding up sheep but is now unable to escape, and as I've only built a wall instead of a gate, I can't let him out. Want to know how to drive an Age of Empires AI opponent into a rage? This is how. The blocked river crossing to the west of my settlement suddenly becomes the front line in all-out war – two horsemen, at least four men at arms, and some prelates come charging out of the woods, take down the fence, destroy the watchtower, and begin sacking my gold-mining operation. I drive them off with scouts and longbowmen, but they're soon back, and in greater numbers.

To cut an embarrassing story short, the Holy Roman Empire leaves me with a single longbowman before running back through the gap in the wall, and I don't have enough food reserves to create more villagers because the Ottonians stole all the sheep. Quit game.

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(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

It has become clear that this is not going to be an easy challenge, and may require actual hard work, thought and planning, three things I'm not used to applying.

My first mistake was in choosing the pope-botherers as my opponents. They're a highly militaristic bunch when not rounding up sheep, and are good at both attack and defence. Their prelate support units are available right from the start, and can both heal units and inspire them, which ups their damage by 15% and gives them more armour. They actually sound like a great choice for my overwhelming force doctrine.

My second was in the choice of map – it was too small, forcing us to clash too early before the overwhelming force could be built up. Back to the title screen. What I need is a civilisation suited to early aggression, and that means fast production. The Mongols look like a good choice, with their unpredictable mobility, oovoos for automatic mining, and generally being a perfect fit for a hit-and-run strategy, but a bit of an acquired taste. Then there's the French, another straightforward faction that has strong military units and the ability to produce cavalry and archers faster if I lay my town out properly. The French look good.

Siege mentality

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(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Skirmish maps can have any of three victory conditions: either you destroy all enemy landmarks, build yourself a Wonder and successfully defend it, or take control of all the map's sacred sites. This last one involves plonking a religious unit on an eerie ruin and leaving it there for ten minutes, hoping an enemy military unit doesn't come along to ruin the bread and fish. Unfortunately this doesn't work within the rules I've set for myself. The defensive option doesn't chime with the doctrine of force either, though a forceful defence of a wonder against all comers might be interesting, especially if it comes down to a valiant last stand by a few knights and archers.

But really, what I need to do is to sally forth and burn my opponent's civilisation to the ground. This time the map is Mongolian Heights, it is tiny, and I am the French. The sacred site win condition is turned off, my opponents are the Chinese, and we're starting in Age IV with high resources. This is totally going to be my game.

It starts well, I send my scout rounding up sheep, immediately have a villager building walls to keep out the enemy scouts while rounding up sheep myself. I build an archery range, barracks and stables before running out of resources and having to concentrate on early game stuff like houses and lumber camps for a while. This means I'm completely unprepared when a bunch of Chinese horsemen pitch up and begin slaughtering all my sheep before rampaging unopposed through my town because I'd forgotten to create any troops. Restart.

This time, I'm ready for them. I don't worry about the walls, as I know Chinese scouts will be after my sheep anyway and I don't want to accidentally trap one. I get straight on with building a keep which will speed up military production. My opponent tries exactly the same tactic as last time, sending an early expeditionary force into my village to cause damage. Thankfully, a mixed defence of mounted knights and hand-cannoneers slaughters the lot of them, though the game quickly gets obsessed with telling me to build a lumber camp even though the trees are in easy walking distance of the town centre. I build one just to shut it up.

Production has slowed as all my villagers have been assigned to tree-cutting, so I spread them out between the four resources, and as the numbers begin to rise I fend off a few more exploratory attacks by Chinese archers. They're coming over in dribs and drabs, suggesting my opponent doesn't have an overwhelming force doctrine in play. Then, something wonderful happens.

Hit and miss

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(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

I have enough gold to build a trebuchet. I set it up on the outskirts of the village just to see how magnificent it is – and just at that moment an enemy scout comes along. I send all my forces after it, and the trebuchet takes a shot. It misses – the item description is quite clear about it being inaccurate against moving targets – but it's a wonderful moment, and fills me with confidence about taking out the enemy HQ.

So I send my troops across the river. An enemy scout harries us, but he's very easily swatted away. I locate an enemy building and open fire with the magnificent trebuchet. I catch a glimpse of what might be a cannon retreating, and take down the barracks before sending my troops in. The enemy keep and watchtower slaughter them all, and my trebuchet is left alone, flinging stones at buildings on the edge of its range. It can't survive for long like this, and I don't have enough resources at home to produce more than a few spearmen.

If this was Age of Empires I I'd be summoning nuke troopers right now, or possibly a baby on a tricycle with a shotgun. They really knew how to reward cheat codes in the 90s. Age IV doesn't have cheats, yet, and that glimpse of a cannon is really worrying me. Chinese engineering eventually does for my trebuchet, taken down in seconds by fire arrows and a sort of firework launcher called the Nest of Bees, one of the Chinese unique units.

Then they come for my village. More of the firework launchers, three cannon, and many, many fire-arrow archers. I'd been upgrading my keep with defensive weapons, just in case, but they count for nothing if the enemy can stand-off and bombard you. The mangonels I was stockpiling for another attack go down easy, my villagers get set on fire despite valiantly fighting back with their bows, and before I know it my blacksmith is on fire and they're closing in on the town centre.

Their attack on me is exactly how I envisaged the iron fist of ultimate force would be. Forlornly, I build a ribauldequin – a type of five-barrelled gun – before my siege workshop succumbs, and go down fighting.