In CE 2021, I’m surprised and happy to write that Forgotten Empires still makes updates to my favorite video game, Age of Empires II, which came out in 1999. Back when they sold video games at Staples, complete with cover art, nobody was rereleasing a twenty-plus-year-old game unless we’re talking Tetris. It turns out, AoE has a much bigger fanbase than I realized, and the developers have not only been building civilizations for specific gameplay, they’ve responded the history nerds, as well.
There are three main ways to play AoE. There’s a regular mode, where you play online in PVP matches. Then there’s single-player, where you comp stomp the campaigns. The campaigns are single-player levels based around historical themes (for example, the life of Genghis Khan or Joan of Arc) And then there’s super-nerd mode, where you try to line up the Byzantines, Franks, and Goths vs. the Saracens, Turks, and Persians, to recreate historical conflicts, except that now you can bring in the Huns, Slavs, or the Bulgarians because that’s the level of granularity we’ve landed on five expansions later.
Adding all those civilizations has a weird effect on gameplay. The Goths, which includes the Visigoths, can face off against their descendants, the Spanish and the Portuguese. The poor Saracens were rather undefined and were used to represent everything from North Africans to the Baghdad caliphate before the addition of the Berbers. As a result, there can be some pretty entertaining dustups where the Vikings and Persians fight over Texas. Mixing and matching strategies is a large part of the fun, but there’s also the urge to simulate real-world events. That’s why they have the Real World maps and the campaigns.
Even campaigns have to take some liberties with history since this is all representational. For example, what to make of the Hastings campaign scenario? Should William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, be classified as a Frank for merely living in the territory of modern France? Maybe we could classify him as a Viking since Normandy was founded by northern raiders from Scandinavia, hence Nor-Man-Dy. Or, perhaps, a Sicilian, since the heroes of the Sicilian campaigns are all fellow Normans, and the Normans set up a state in Sicily. What about a Briton, for his importance to the history of Great Britain? National identity as we know it is modern and inapplicable, but the Hastings campaign assigns us the Frankish option, and we get an English invasion where Throwing Axemen (a pre-Carolingian weapon) invade.
However, bridging those geographic gaps has been something of a priority for the expansion packs. The Spanish, Huns, Aztecs, Mayans, and Koreans were introduced in the 2000s to The Conquerors (I owned about four copies of The Conquerors disc for some reason). As a kid, I bought this edition with my allowance money, and so I’ve only played about one game where the Spanish were not an option.
When AoE was added to Steam and remastered into an HD edition, they started spawning more sequels. The Magyars, Incas, Indians, Slavs, and Italians appeared in the Forgotten Empires. The Portuguese and Berbers entered alongside the Malians and Ethiopians, a welcome acknowledgment of medieval sub-Saharan Africa in, what else, The African Kingdoms. Southeast Asian civilizations Khmer, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Malay, were added with Rise of the Rajas to further offset Eurocentrism. Then, the game was updated further into the Definitive Edition. The DE came with a new expansion pack tied in. The Last Khans gave us a few more cavalry-heavy civilizations in the Tatars, Cumans, Lithuanians, and Bulgarians because everybody loves cavalry. You’d think they were done, but no, last year an expansion, The Lords of the West, was released that gave us the fast-castling Sicilians and Burgundians. Finally, this month, they released Dawn of the Dukes, which spackles over the gaping hole in Central Europe with the new Poles and Bohemians civilizations.
The Poles and Bohemians both sat between the Holy Roman Empire to the west and the Golden Horde to the east, not to mention the Rus to the north. So, for AoE civilizations, they’ll square off against the heavy infantry and siege from the Teutons and Slavs and the cavalry archers from the Mongols and Tatars. What balances against all that? Gunpowder and heavy cavalry!
One of the Bohemians’ unique units, the Hussite Wagon, is a tank, an armor-plated cart with men inside firing pistols, and they also get the Houfnis, a long-range Bombard Cannon. Furthermore, the Bohemians get access to Chemistry and Hand Cannoneers in the Castle Age, giving them a head start that can offset incoming Knight rushes.
Meanwhile, the Poles have not only the Obuch, a guy with a hammer that permanently tears apart the enemy unit’s armor stats, but also a beefed-up Winged Hussar that they share with the Lithuanians who get trample damage when the Poles’ unique tech is researched. Another Polish tech makes their Knights dirt cheap, perfect for rushes, and their unique building, the Folwark, replaces the Mill and gives them food in large amounts as soon as a farm is planted. Best of all, their stone miners also generate gold, which makes building loads of castles as much of a possibility as with the Bulgarians or Sicilians.
So, now that we have these two civilizations, we can all finally relegate our homemade Battle of Grunwald and Defenestration of Prague scenarios to the dustbin, especially since Jadwiga, Jagiello, and the Hussite Wars appear in the Pole and Bohemian campaigns. Even more satisfying, the Lithuanians, formerly the only civilization never to be playable in a campaign, finally get their own campaign. The Lithuanian campaign follows co-rulers Algirdas and Kestutis as they hold together pagans and Christians within Lithuania and resist the Teutonic Knights.
Each new expansion pack adds a strategic aspect to the gameplay and calls to focus interesting historical innovation from steppe horse archers to the lesser-known crusades against the pagans of northern Europe to the trading empires of southern Asia. How far will it expand in the future? There’s definitely a dedicated following, though as an American game, it suffers from the greater tendency of American medieval scholars to focus on England and France. It remains the same strategic fun after all these years, though, and you will find welcome space on the hard drive of your local history buff.