The re-released Age of Empires III also received a new name and a considerable component upgrade, but since I never reviewed the original I thought I would do so using this new edition.
Designer: Glenn Drover
When Age of Empires III was first released in 2007 it was presumed that it would be a game that attempted to mimic the PC game as its namesake would suggest. Contrary to that, Age of Empires III, now Empires: Age of Discovery is actually a far closer match to the classic Sid Meiers PC game, Colonization.
In Empires players take on the roles of nations from the age of exploration on a mission to explore the new world. This is of course done in a competitive and sometimes combative manner but Empires is not a war game, but rather a worker placement game with area control. A combination that today is a lot more common than it was back in 2007 when Age of Empires III was a lot more unique.
Pros: High Quality Components, Fantastic Art, Over-sized for easy handling.
Cons: Very expensive for mostly unnecessary upgrades.
While the components of the previous version Age of Empires III where very good, in this deluxe version of the game the components get a significant upgrade.
The gameboard is quite large, with fantastic art and plenty of room for the components which is good as the game becomes quite busy during play so the large size is really appreciated. The plastic worker units are larger and weightier than you would expect for game pieces and there is a brick ton of them, far more then you need in your average game. The molds are good quality and easy to identify and the rest of the components like cards and tokens are all of great quality with appealing and thematically correct art to get you in the mood for exploration of the Americas.
This is a visually impressive edition of the game, with great quality components, there is no doubt about it but the question is whether or not this new deluxe edition is worth the 100 dollar price tag.
While I’m always happy to shell out extra dough for a deluxe edition of a game, my assumption is that deluxe means, above and beyond what you would expect from your normal version of a board game and while certainly there are visible upgrades from the original edition they hardly qualify for the term deluxe . The qualify of the game board, pieces and tokens are really not a whole lot better than what you get in say Tide of Irons, Twilight Imperium or Cry Havoc. I get that there probably is justification to raise this game to the upper levels of heavy miniature game release cost, after all Twilight Imperium also costs 100 bucks but I just felt a bit meh on the whole calling it a deluxe edition and passing it off as something more than normal quality level components. This is a more expensive edition with better components than the previous edition but it does not meet the requirements to be called a deluxe version nor does it exceed the norm.
I’m not sure that should affect the games score any, but if you ask me if you already own Age of Empires III there is no reason to upgrade, even if you are a fan. If you want to get into this game and find an opportunity to buy the original version, you should definitely do that instead. There is nothing in the old edition that was poorly done, the quality of Age of Empires III was excellent and while this is an upgrade its well over double the price of the original, which personally I don’t think was worth it. Especially since this upgraded version takes up the box space on your shelf of two other normal sized board games.
I’m not disappointed with this edition and I’m certainly going to get over the cost I shelled out but given the opportunity to do it again, I would seek out Age of Empires III on the secondary market and save myself some money and shelf space.
Pros: Very good connection between mechanics and theme, great art goes a long way to bring atmosphere.
Cons: Age of Discovery theme is not for everyone.
I’m a bit biased and simultaneously prejudice when it comes to certain themes like Age of Discovery, I think it’s largely because I have an image in my head about what a game with this theme should be. Very much the same with X4 space games and Civilization based games. There is a PC game image I have in my head that I believe board game with these themes should try to capture. For example with X4 it should be Master of Orion, with Civilization games it should be the obvious Sid Meiers Civilization and when it comes to games about the age of discovery, to me it means the game should emulate another Sid Meier game, Colonization.
Is it fair? Perhaps not and I will say that I’m willing to overlook a failure to meet that thematic essence if the alternative is equally good but thankfully with Empires: Age of Discovery that was actually not necessary. Thematically, it encapsulates the theme of Colonization with near perfection, in fact it does so not just thematically but also mechanically in a lot of ways creating an even deeper connection to that premise.
The Theme here is exploration, control of the new world and the butting opposition and competition of Europe’s other nations. While a worker placement game, the mechanic is considerably more interactive thanks to direct conflict mechanics which fit the theme perfectly. For example as you explore the new world and send colonist to control it, fights can break out, hence sending soldiers and building up a military present becomes part of the age of discovery here which sits just right into the game. It’s of course not a war game and it shouldn’t be, exploration, resource management and development are are at the forefront of the theme but worker placement games without some conflict have a tendency to get quite boring even when thematically correct. It isn’t a problem here.
I’m not sure Age of Discovery is a great theme in its own right that everyone will appreciate, but I personally love it as it reminds me of some classic PC games from the past like Colonization. Like it or not however, Empires has captured that theme splendidly and to a degree respectfully unlike other Age of Discovery games I have played (looking at you Archipelago).
Now if you are a big fan of Age of Discovery games you might note that one element of Age of Discovery as a theme is naval combat and ship based elements which are included but only very abstractly here. That part of the theme wouldn’t really fit into the global layout of Empires, but for those of you looking for something more down on the ground “sale ship” type stuff this is not the game for it. This fits the bill of a more “Civilization Building” & “Worker Placement” genre game in an Age of Discovery theme and in that regard Empires: Age of Discovery nailed it.
Pros: Very tight and balanced worker placement, varied worker powers is a great concept that works well.
Cons: Its a pretty long game, some repetitive patterns can emerge.
Empires: Age of Discovery is first and foremost a deeply nested Euro game based on one of the most recognizable Euro mechanics there is, worker placement. More than that though it is a Worker Placement game in the absolute most classic sense and stripped down sense. If Glenn Drover is nothing else he is what I like to call a clean designer, a guy who knows how to trim down a games mechanics to the absolute minimal possible and use reliable, well tested mechanics to base his games on, without hurting the concept or goal of the game.
While Empires: Age of Discovery is not revolutionary from a game design perspective what it does is does amazingly well.
For starters the worker placement mechanic that drives the entire game is done in a fashion that ensures no matter how you approach the game its always super tight, exactly what you want out of a worker placement game. Every decision you make, every worker you place can trigger analysis paralysis because while there are not a terrible amount of choices, every choice feels like a vital decision and there is very little wiggle room. I especially like the fact that while placing workers during the main phase of one turn, your thinking about the placement of workers for the next turn. This is because workers in Age of Empires are not all created equal and its in this core element of the game where all the deep strategy really happens.
There are normal workers known as Colonist but you also have specialty workers, experts in different fields that grant users advantageous when leveraged on a certain worker placement spot (or job). For example you have missionaries who when sent to the new world expand the colony by two rather than by one (presumably by converting the locals). You also have captains who are experts at exploring or builders like the name suggests are experts at building. To get these workers you must convert colonist on one turn to make them available on the next and as such during the worker placement phase of the game you are put to the decision of doing something that will grant an advantage this round or invest in the next.
This is not the only tough decision that must be made, but because of this duality of worker placement and the fact only one expert of each kind is available each round to convert, it raises the competition for them dramatically.
There are other kind of races in the game that include taking trade goods to raise money which are absolutely vital to winning the game and of a very limited supply. Gold is a key ingredient to expanding your developments which of course is another competitive space. In each age, development tiles are available and you must not only get to them first to get the best advantageous (or advantageous that fit your strategy) but must have the gold to pay for them. Suffice to say there is a lot to think about within that simple decision of placing a worker which creates both a very tight environment and very cerebral experience.
I think the real icing on the cake for Age of Exploration however is the commitment of the game to the theme of Imperialism. These are European nations competing for control over new lands and in that conflict is inevitable. One type of specialty worker is the solider and when he is sent to the new world he can be activated to make direct attacks against opposing colonist or even trigger wars across the entire new world. This direct interaction takes this classic style of a worker placement game and gives players a way to actually assault each other. Not everyone will be a fan of this mechanic but thematically its an absolute must have and without it the game would feel considerably less in line with the concept and theme of the game. An important and well executed addition that does not devolve the game into a war game but it does create that additional tactical element that everyone must think about throughout the game as they send people to the new world.
There are two maps on which the game can be played, the classic North American map and the world map. While the maps change, the rules don’t and with the exception of a couple of minor differences these two maps just offer some variety in playing fields.
This is a very tight, well thought out worker placement mechanic with more interaction than you normally get from games like this. Its incredibly well balanced, creates lots of tough mini decisions and an enormous amount of tension from the very first round to the very last. The included expansion called “builders” adds another worker type (the builder) but having played with it for the first couple of games I can’t imagine why you would not always auto include it, its a really great expansion that should almost be treated at this point as a standard part of the game.
The Gameplay in Empires is smooth, with a simple flow that is easy to remember and works in a logic way that becomes second nature to everyone at the table after the first round. There are no gotcha mechanics and while there is definitely something to be learned from game to game, this is one of those easy to learn impossible to master games. I wouldn’t call it a good introductory game, there is sufficient complexity here to disqualify it, plus I think its a bit too long to work as such. Still for a gaming group who enjoys Euro mechanics this is an incredibly clean game that gets right to the point and bury’s you in tough decisions. For a worker placement game is has an incredible amount of tension that goes well beyond the typical “you took my spot” arrangement.
If the game has any drawbacks mechanically its that its not 100% clear where you actually stand point wise at any point in the game. Points are only scored three times during the game, at the end of each age and its really difficult to predict where anyone will end up. Scoring kind of feels like trying to guess who will come out on top after the apocalypse. Everyone is doing everything they can to stop, block and damage everyone else and its not that hard to be successful, so its really just a question of how much you can hang on to during these scoring periods. This is in particularly true at the end of the game when battles and wars can really decimated opponents chances of winning. This actually creates a good amount of tension but it is very unpredictable and results during the scoring rounds can swing quite widely.
I personally think this is ok for the game, it really doesn’t hurt it but if your the type of player that wants to be able to calculate and control how many points you will earn you might find it frustrating to see other players always throw their two cents into blocking your efforts and screwing up your scoring. In fact I found that blocking other people is a much better strategy then trying to score yourself in many cases, so this is a tactic you can expect to develop in every game.
Replay-ability and Longevity
Pros: Dynamic gameplay allows for a wide range of strategies to explore.
Cons: Its best with 4+ players, anything less and a lot of the tightness evaporates.
When it comes to Longevity and Re-playability of a game, there are certain types of mechanics that are almost always successful and worker placement is definitely one of them. Its just by design made to create dynamic situation. Every placement of every worker in every round will completely alter how that round and ultimately that game will result and the effect is very dramatic in terms of results. This I believe attributes to the fact that so many of the top games are in fact worker placement games.
In the case of Empires this is equally true, thanks to the worker placement mechanic this game is truly dynamic and will play differently pretty much every time you play. Now that said there is a kind of sequence to certain events and certain spots will always be sought after first which kind of creates some default opening moves but this is typically attributed to a type of strategy a person is going for. For example if you are going to go for a builder strategy your first move will always be to grab the builder as this is of course a key to your strategy. This can make the game feel a little bit predictable at times but I think you would need to play it a lot to really start to see that pattern emerge.
I do believe this games longevity while a direct result of the worker placement mechanic is not all that it hinges on. This is a very beautiful game that looks amazing on the table, its easy to teach and offers a wealth of strategic gameplay. This is going to draw people in and you are going to get requests to “play it again”, in particular from Euro game fans despite its Ameri-Trash appearance.
Empires: Age of Discovery is a smash hit in my humble opinion, a game that has earned a place in my personal collection which is become tougher and tougher to qualify for. Considering its a reprint of an older game I’m actually surprised. In fact it has kicked out Kingsburg and Dominion to make room on the shelf which was a pretty tough culling for me as far as my collection goes. But I do believe this game is that good.
I highly recommend this game though I would caution that I’m not sure that the Deluxe edition was really worth the rather high price tag, I would say if you have an opportunity to buy the Age of Empires III version of the game you should probably do that. There was nothing in this Deluxe version that really stood out as an absolute must have over he regular version of this game. That said, I have no regrets, its an amazing game that belongs in the collection of any serious gamer.