Age of Empires III: First Play Thoughts
I finally had the opportunity to try a copy of Age of Empires III tonight. It's a game I once had on my radar but removed. It wasn't that I found something not to like, but that I just couldn't find anything specifically to like. Four of the five of us were first-time players.
I focused on colonization almost exclusively, taking Missionaries and Soldiers when I could, as well as a building that gave me an extra soldier every round. Others focused on goods to generate cash, or on other specialists. I was mostly broke the entire game with others buying multiple buildings per round, but ended up winning by a small margin.
You really have to be a fanatical Ameritrasher or have a small amount of brain damage to think this game has a good physical design. It's not even so-so; it's just plain bad.
The coins are very cool individually, but do not stack well. The notion that the gold ones should be used as 10's is silly. They should be 5's.
The board supports the playing pieces well on the right, but only because the playing pieces are over-sized and out-of-place for the game. The left size of the board--with the map of the New World--is undersized for the huge piles of pieces that end up on them by the end of the game.
The score track is also a huge mistake. Why do so many board games have ridiculously bad score tracks? I'll have to do a post on it, but I digress... You can't see some of the spaces. The spacing of the scoring spaces is not consistent at the corners. The "men" barely fit onto the score track when the score is close.
Overall, the board has the same kinds of flaws as Railroad Tycoon: bigger than it needs to be because of poorly thought out use of space, and a poor score track intended for use with pieces too big to fit. Why do
The playing pieces are the biggest blunder. If you line up the 5 different kinds (Colonist, Soldier, Missionary, Merchant, Captain), they are pretty obvious. But when there are 60+ pieces on the board, it beats even War of the Ring in dysfunction. I'm certain the game would not have sold as well, or be as popular, without this dysfunctional decision. What does that say about the game and its fans? The designer himself says, "Wooden cubes or meeples can always be substituted by the players who prefer them, but miniatures actually work best in this design!" Rubbish.
I approve of, and even enjoyed, everything about the play of the game, except for Discovery. Basically, you pile up your pieces until you are either willing to risk 3-5 points of them or are willing to use 6 points of them (guaranteeing a success). You flip up a Discovery Tile or Card. If you committed enough to match the number on the tile/card, you are successful and receive gold and VP's. If not, you lose everything.
This is a mechanism typically seen in party games or fillers taking 20 minutes to play, and not in serious and more lengthy games. There's no way to even gauge how much risk to take. Every Discovery is an unknown value from 3-6. You could attempt 2 Discoveries with 5 each, fail both, and lose 10 points worth of pieces for nothing. An opponent could attempt 2 Discoveries with 3 each, succeed on both, and gain lots of gold and VP's.
It would be excusable if players were doing dozens of them over the course of the game; the probabilities would smooth out the randomness. But when you are only doing, say, 2-5 of them, and since the endgame spread is so tight, any single extreme success or failure could be the entire game. Dumb.
All the above being said, I did enjoy the game, although I'd prefer to find a better-designed Discovery mechanism. I'm sure there are many suggestions from others. This is such an egregious flaw that I cannot possibly be the first to complain.
I like the intentional turn order bias, the initiative/gold mechanism, the limited action selection system, the small amount of conflict, the goods collection, and even the buildings. It certainly has some of the same play feelings as Puerto Rico, Caylus, and even a little taste of Struggle of Empires. However, for a game so popular with the AT-ers, I cannot say that I notice any sense of theme. It's just a Euro with a broken mechanic and stupid plastic.
Age of Empires III image by Capitaine Grappin