Age of Empires Header Image

The header image for this post was created by DeviantArt user JonasJansenArt, the original version is available here

One rainy afternoon in 1998, I was sitting in the school’s computer room and had finished my class work – It was probably something along the lines of “create a document with MS Word which…”

such was the state of education regarding computers in most UK schools in the 1990s and early 2000s

Because I’d finished my work, I was allowed to spend the remainder of the lesson browsing around the Internet

such as it was – this was a time before Google hit the big time

or exploring the software installed on the system.

Hidden away in one of the many sub-menus in the Windows Start Bar was an application called “AoE”.

Imagine my surprise when I fired it up and found that it was a game, and a fun one too.

The Game

Age of Empires was a Real Time Strategy game developed for Microsoft Windows by Ensemble Studios, and published by Microsoft in October 1997. An expansion pack, called “The Rise of Rome” was released in 1998. A “definitive edition” is slated for release in 2018.

Strategy Games

The thing about me is that I’ve never been any good at traditional, turn based, strategy games.

Civilisation, Alpha Centurai, Risk, Total War, etc.

I can take forever and a day to plan out and execute my turn, safe in the knowledge that it was going to be the best, most well planned out turn ever. Only to find out that my entire empire would crumble to dust before the end of the next turn because I’d forgotten about the fresh supply of eggs due in from the next town over – or something.

There’s a section of Night Watch which could help with that

I don’t know whether it’s the disconnect between what I’m doing and what the opponents are doing, whether it’s my lack of forward planning, or whether it’s some lack of managerial skills, but I’m just not very good at strategy games.

Not for the want of trying, anyway.

Real Time Strategy Games

All of this changed when I stumbled on real time strategy games. Not only do RTS’ feel a little simpler

I’ve never been any good at sports or city management games either

but they seem to be faster paced.

The Total War games have RTS-like battles, but you still have to go through the difficult bit first.

But with RTS’ you can quickly flit between managing the minutia of your fledgling civilisation and the movements of it’s armies, taking some time to check in on the naval expansion along the way. At the same time.

What immediately struck me about AoE was that there were no turns, and that you started your game with a handful of villagers and a town centre. Everything else was up to you.

Starting out as the Egyptians
Starting out as the Egyptians

You still have to micromanage, sort of. In that you need to tell your units (villagers, soldiers, cavalry, naval forces, etc) what to do, and you have full control over your civilisation’s technology tree.

But once you’ve set your units doing something, they’ll blindly follow along until they’ve completed their task or have died trying.


Age of Empires is a single player RTS, unless you were lucky enough to be online in the late 90s

I certainly wasn’t

as such, I would wile away the hours building up a civilisation and ransacking the next one over. There were campaign modes, but I tended not to play them too often, as I loved the fact that I could start with nothing and build up a mighty empire within the space of two hours.

I always picked the Greeks or the Romans (when playing the expansion pack)

Each civilisation has it’s own technology tree which, pretty closely matches the technologies that the real life counterparts had. So the Egyptians build pyramids and the Greeks build Parthenons

can you have multiple Parthenons?

Skirmishes for Days

The great thing about the skirmish mode was that you could have up to 8 players on one map – and the maps could be gigantic.

As I said earlier, one of my favourite things to in AoE was to start a massive skirmish map and build up a huge civilisation before even attempting to find the other civilisations on the map.

I’d often even set up battles which didn’t make any sense (from a geographical point of view, anyway). Such as a three way battle between the Greeks, Babylonians and the Yamato

that’s the Japanese, holmes.

The average time for building a civilisation from the Stone Age to the Iron age was around two hours, and it was two hours really well spent

in my opinion, anyway

Then I’d build up a massive army, as massive as my population limit would allow, then storm the enemy, see them driven before me, hear the lamentations of their women

Got a little carried away there.

Win Conditions

There are three ways to win at AoE:

  • defeat the other civilisations
  • become allies with the other civilisations
  • build a wonder and defend it for 2000 years

a counter appears on the screen showing how many years you have remaining

I always picked total domination, mainly because I could never get the hang of trading and building up alliances with the other civilisations. I also used to think of building a wonder as being the easy way out.

This meant that I would always end up building up an absolutely massive army and storming the enemy. I’d usually take minimal casualties, and the (AI) enemy civilisations would usually be a few ages behind me so it would be a case of “fish in a barrel

But my goodness it was fun.

Along Came An Expansion Pack

Long before the Age of DLC

I wonder whether we can make that a thing

became a big thing, expansion packs was where it was at. These would be separately sold packages (usually on CD-ROM) which would add stuff to the original game.

The Rise of Rome was released in October of 1998, and required the original AoE to play it. It added Romans, Palmyrans, Macedonians and Carthaginians along with their technology trees, units and a series of campaigns for those civilisations.

Because Rise of Rome installed side by side with the original AoE it was still possible to play the unaltered AoE or the Rise of Rome expansions pack (by starting a different exe).

not something you can do too easily in the Age of DLC

A Study Aid?

I used to use AoE and the expansion pack as a study aid, not for studying for history exams but as a sort of reward system for having studied.

Let me expand on that a little:

I used to get my civilisation to a point where it was self-sufficient

all of the villagers would be busy gathering resources and I would have defences in place at the borders of my towns

then I’d put the keyboard and mouse away and start studying, keeping an eye on my civilisation.

Around 30 minutes later, I’d put the books down and manage my civilisation then do it all again. I’d keep doing that until I’d either built up a massive civilisation or had finished studying, then I’d take over the world with my civilisation.

This was really useful for some of the more dry topics of my degree. Breaking up study sessions for those topics with a little AoE

or, more often, an episode of some TV or other


Plus it set up a bit of a gaming tradition for me. To this day, I find myself firing up AoE when I need to learn something new.

it’s been helping me to pick up the basics of Docker, recently

Did you ever play what is (essentially) Civilisation meets Warcraft? Which was your favourite civilisation to play as? Did you know about the HD remake coming out next year?

Are you more of a turn based strategy gamer than a real time strategy gamer? Are you neither?

Let me know in the comments. Maybe we can meet up in AoE some day?

Jamie is one of the Waffling Taylors. He spends a lot of time blogging about things sometimes related to programming and sometimes not.