Thursday, January 03, 2008

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.

Physical Design

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 people who can design games people who can sell a game to a publisher think they are fit to design or approve the design of a game board? They certainly make great apologists.

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.

Game Design

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


At 3:11 AM, Anonymous andrew said...

What gives you the idea that this game is popular with Ameritrash fans? The fact that it has plastic? If you'd bothered checking, you'd have found that this game has been rather bashed by the AT loving public, and instead it rode the Euro hype train to a high rating at BGG until Agricola came along and all the short attention span drones found something else to crow about.

At 6:12 AM, Blogger ekted said...

Hmm. You are right. My bad. Association withdrawn.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Ryan Walberg said...

I've always maintained that Glenn Drover is the Uwe Boll of boardgames.

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Fellonmyhead said...

Not a bad synopsis; I can vouch for FATties actually hating it, but it was clearly aimed at their market (or it was at least an attempt to find common ground between genres) especially with all that plastic.

My biggest gripe is the game has the illusion of being well-balanced when it clearly isn't. The last age buildings have far too much influence on final scoring (so much so that failing to get one you might as well count yourself out of the game) and as you say the discoveries can produce far too great a swing. Finally it seems to me if somebody dominates colonisation early on it can be very difficult to close in on them.

I'm still giving the game the benefit of the doubt; all groups I play with seem to really enjoy it so I do wonder if it's just me...

At 3:50 AM, Blogger Jonas said...

Yes, but tell us what you really think of the game.. :)
One thing to note is that the max indians on the discovery tiles is 5, it's not 6 till you start using the cards.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Dreaded Gazebo said...

I'd love to see your victory point track rant sometime :) It's one of my pet peeves as well.

For Age of Empires III I'd put it solidly in the "good" category. It does a decent job of mashing together some mechanics but I don't feel it's as strong of a game as the ones it borrows from. Cuba, on the other hand, is another mash-up that I think improves upon the games it borrows from.

Regarding discoveries, you can make it work if you focus on it. I made that my strategy when I played and there was a building that let you add free colonists to discovery at the start of the round or something to that effect. As jonas pointed out the tiles go up to 5 and I generally found it wasn't too hard to get there, of course at the cost of neglecting other aspects of the game.

Not bad by any means but it does suffer from some pretty common Eagle Games flaws.


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