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December 7, 2021

Age of Empires IV

Age of Empires IV
Age of Empires IV

Age of Empires IV (AoE4) was released recently and I had fun both playing it and watching tournaments. In this post, I'll share my thoughts so far. Though I'm sure things will change as I play more, and the developers keep improving the game. Hopefully, we can learn something from both AoE4's successes and problems.

I'll start with a few topics each with a list of points to highlight what's great about the game and what could be improved, and then move to higher-level topics like game's focus, game-to-game variety, or victory conditions. The former focuses on features and pitfalls, while the latter should be more interesting from the game-design point of view. Skimming and skipping certain sections should work just fine as most sections are independent.


So far I finished the English and the French campaigns. There are upsides (+) and downsides (-). The fact there are downsides doesn't mean developers did something wrong, it might be an inherent downside of doing a historic campaign. The actual importance of each point varies and is subjective. It's simply a list of various things I took note of – some are important, others less so. This also means that the ratio of upsides to downsides isn't important.

  • Great production quality
  • Educational videos further support the historic focus
  • Interesting mission design in some missions
  • Without following a set of characters, it's hard to care about the current characters or the outcomes of battles. In one mission you are fighting to put a king on the throne. In the next mission, he is dead and his children have broken the kingdom apart.
  • A different narrator for different civilizations would help to differentiate them.
  • Sometimes videos are overdoing it on close-ups, slow-motion, and cuts.
  • No co-op
  • No progression system affecting gameplay
  • No other choices between missions


I will discuss gameplay in more detail later in the post, particularly on what the game focuses and its implications.

  • The gameplay is similar to that of AoE2. There are differences, of course, it's faster and civilizations are more asymmetrical – both I see as improvements. The gameplay is less about micro, and more about macro and strategy.
  • Progressing through ages with landmarks is a great way to provide additional choices to players, and differentiate civilizations. Landmarks are also very thematic.
  • Hard counters can lead to interesting tactical and strategic gameplay. On the tactical level, a player might micro cavalry to hit archers while the opposing player will try to use spearmen to protect them. On the strategic level, this encourages scouting and tech switches.
  • Four resources and plenty of economic upgrades and mechanics add a lot of depth to the economy. Together they lead to plenty of meaningful decisions for players.
  • The naval combat isn't mechanically or tactically exciting, but it fits into the strategic dominance over the map and questions about where to gain and invest resources. So while this implementation wouldn't belong to a combat-focused game like StarCraft II (SC2), it does fit into AoE4.
  • Mongols are unique with how they can move their buildings (credit to Empires Apart).
  • Issuing the a-move command will make units not attack for a while. This reduces responsiveness.
  • After issuing the move command units will try to form a formation first before moving. This leads to some awkward pathing, units taking free hits, and the reduction of the game's responsiveness.
  • A side-effect of formations is that for example monks might not heal your knights because one unit wants to be in the back while the other in the front.
  • No patrol or follow command.
  • Cannot link wooden and stone walls. Cannot link walls with allies.
  • Random map generation needs additional checks.
Well, this is awkward...

Audio & Visual

This section is about how things look in-game, the next section will look at UI/UX separately.

  • The game has a strong fantasy with an idealized historic look supported by pleasant art style.
  • Its setting is familiar and easy to understand. Every historic building and movie works as free promotion for the game.
  • Great sound design. Units change language when you progress through ages. The sound of cavalry.
  • Gardens, fields, and roads are dynamically added when a structure is built. This supports the fantasy of building a medieval city.
Dynamically added gardens, fields and roads to buildings
  • Visual clarity issues. Some units are hard to tell apart (e.g., fishing ship from a demolition ship).
  • Units changing weapons to torches when targeting buildings is a nice touch. However, when they do, it becomes very hard to tell them apart. They should do it only when attacking buildings – not targeting one at any distance.
  • Cannot disable unit and structure response sounds.
  • Some graphical issues with LOD pop-ins and temporal stability of vegetation.
Can you tell which one is a fishing ship and which one is a demolition ship?
Units are hard to tell apart when they switch their weapons for torches.
Targeting a building at any distance will cause a unit to switch weapons.
Over the top visual rally effect
I wouldn't expect that a warship can completely hide here


Now for user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

  • Fairly clean UI with minimal dead space (though it's lacking some identity).
  • Color-coded buttons for upgrades, units and structures improve clarity.
  • The supply count becomes orange when it gets near the limit. This helps to prevent supply blocks.
  • The number of workers assigned to gather each resource is shown next to the resource. You can click it to cycle through workers gathering that resource.
  • You can hotkey buildings that haven't started construction.
  • When placing a building you can click on any point and it will find the closest valid position for the building.
  • There exist key bindings that aren't in StarCraft (e.g. select all military production structures).
  • There are pings (though SC2 has an easier and more natural way of pinging).
  • You can hide UI when spectating (though not player scores, and you cannot do it when playing).
  • The in-game score is hidden by default unlike in AoE2.
Color-coded buttons – green upgrades, brown combat units, blue other
A villager build menu with color-coded buttons
Supply indicator – Idle villagers
Resources – Villagers gathering the resource
  • When focusing on a control group, the camera will move to the group's center. Unfortunately, that will often be somewhere in the middle of the map where none of your units are. It doesn't smartly choose the largest subgroup as in other RTS games.
  • The behavior of pre-configured hotkeys for "select all..." and "cycle through..." isn't good when it comes to centering camera. It either does it every time with a single hotkey press, or never no matter how you press it.
  • No control group stealing (in StarCraft 2 Alt+number)
  • No unit wireframes to click on. These two together remove a lot of flexibility in working with control groups.
  • No global production queue (present in AoE2).
  • What upgrades are done for a unit is not well indicated, if at all. In SC2 it's nicely shown with numbers and color-coded images, and the command card shows all other researched or available upgrades.
  • There are no waypoint markers (though shift-click works).
  • Shift-queuing buildings with villagers is a bit awkward, especially when building farms.
  • You can queue building gates only after a wall is finished.
  • You need to use ESC when changing what to build, but it can also deselect villagers.
  • The sacred sites victory condition UI element is a bit too much in your face, showing you the status of all sites all the time. While during spectating it doesn't show you the most important information – the timer to the victory.
  • Map not shown on the loading screen
  • Chat on the side can be easily overlooked.
  • The chat's profanity filter is extremely aggressive blocking normal words and unit names. To disable it you have to edit config files manually.
  • An excessive chat delay after posting a message to chat.
  • Forced Grid hotkey profile & no camera hotkeys.
  • Menus don't support the 16:10 aspect ratio.
  • Menus are a bit awkward, don't respond to the ESC key, and tax your GPU unnecessary.
  • Search parameters (1v1/2v2/3v3/4v4) often reset and you need to change them back.
  • No sound indicator when the game starts. Having one would prevent you from missing it when alt-tabbed. For some reason there is a noticeable sound effect during loading but it's somewhere in the middle.
  • Spectating UI is very bare-bones and closer to being a placeholder. Both SC2 and AoE2 had way better spectating interfaces for years.
Still not the best minimap clarity.
You cannot increase the minimap size or choose which icons to hide.
Redundant messages in chat with random delays between each of them
The mouse cursor not quite pointing where it should
Player card positions don't show teams well


  • Multi-queuing for several modes at the same time (1v1/2v2/3v3/4v4) reduces queue times while giving players control.
  • You can change your civilization before the match in a lobby. This reduces issues where a civilization might be bad on certain maps. You cannot see the opponent's civilization to prevent excessive counter-picking. However, currently you can avoid certain players.
  • In-game spectating of live or old games from ladder is possible with a built-in delay. Players can hide their games if they want to. There is no way to filter by rank, league, or matchup. I think there is still a potential to improve spectating, I wrote about it here more.
A list of games to watch
Filtering what games to watch
  • No map vetoes
  • No ladder or leagues
  • No modding
  • The lack of co-op other than skirmish is disappointing. I didn't expect StarCraft II-like co-op, I don't think it would even fit well into AoE4 due to its different design. However, even a mode like Defend the Wonder from Age of Empires Online would be welcomed (it's a 2vAI survival mode). I imagine we might see something of that sort after modding is added. But a good part of the potential playerbase might have left by then (similarly how SC2 Co-op was released 5 years after the Wings of Liberty).

Economy focus

AoE4 focuses on the economic side to a much greater extent than games like StarCraft II or Company of Heroes where most of the depth comes from combat. For AoE4, this reflects in the increased number of resources, ways to harvest those resources, or upgrades improving gathering.

I don’t think AoE IV is as micro-intensive as StarCraft 2 or Age of Empires II. It focuses more on the macro aspect – strategy and decision making. It’s about positioning your army and making the right moves and developing your base correctly.

– TheViper (source)

A part of how civilizations and strategies are differentiated comes from which resources to get, but also how to get them. There are several options for how to get food (berries, sheep, deer, boar, farms, fish), and each civilization has preferred ways. Later in the game civilizations are differentiated by the use of various infinite sources of gold (Rus' Hunting cabins, Holy Roman Empire's bonus relic income, English farms, China's taxes, etc.). The optimal way how to get resources is also map-dependent resulting in many different game states.

Plenty of interesting decisions are available for players on the economic side – which resources to harvest, how to harvest them, when to get gathering upgrades, and when to start transitioning into infinite sources of food and gold. Food sources work as opt-in complexity – instead of using more efficient and finite resources (such as deer and boar), a player might decide to transition into farms earlier at the cost of a higher initial investment.

SC2 typically lacks these kinds of economic decisions. That's not to say the macro is easy, but there are fewer decisions to it. The closest thing is Zerg's creep which has multiple ways of spreading it – Queens, Nydus worms, Overlords, active tumors, and canceling Hatcheries – and they can be combined. In ZvT this feeds back into the Terran's economy when balancing MULEs against scans to clear creep. That's the best SC2 example of a macro mechanic with multiple options and such that interacts with the opponent's economy.

Spectating or switching civilizations is also made easier in AoE4 by the economic focus. Familiarity with basic units is enough for a viewer to understand fights. There are only a few unique civilization units, and often a civilization is differentiated by getting access to a basic unit earlier instead. The economic depth and complexity are hidden unless a spectator decides to look for them. And when it comes to learning a new civilization, it's gradual as the basic methods of gathering resources are shared between civilizations.

Various sources of food

Game-to-game variety

The focus on the economy can be problematic when it comes to gameplay variety. A combat-focused game gains plenty of game-to-game variety directly from combat interactions between players. With an economy-focused game this is less straightforward. In AoE4 the economic game-to-game variety comes from:

  1. Diverse and randomized maps
  2. Varied resource access depending on map control
  3. Hard counters and strategies feeding back into the economy by requiring a different resource balance and expansion rate.

This is the most important for multiplayer where players might play a single civilization over and over on just a few maps. Keeping the game-to-game variety up becomes the most difficult there, but it's also crucial for the game's longevity. And I would say it's working quite well so far after watching tournaments and streams.

The last two points have issues when it comes to team games. Player interaction is often limited there, games typically go for longer, and resource access is less of an issue. The game-to-game variety suffers because of that. And since lategame armies are more similar to each other compared to a game like StarCraft II, the game cannot compensate with it for the reduced economic variety. If I'm playing "build big armies and see them clash together" then I care less about economic complexity, and having more diverse armies to build is better.


The hard counter system leads to an interesting dance when it comes to the triangle of archers-spearmen-cavalry. There are other places where micro can shine, and hopefully these places will be preserved and cultivated – unlike the Scout micro against wildlife which made the early game more interesting but was removed in the last patch.

I was a bit disappointed with how siege and ship's firing arcs were handled. Relic did a great job with Company of Heroes games where limited firing arcs are widely used, but in AoE4 they seem mostly non-consequential. Limited firing arcs on ships are mostly just a visual flavor given ships can turn almost instantly. Doing a bit more with firing arcs could add additional depth and skill to the game.

It's also a shame there isn't a static unit similar to Lurkers or Siege Tanks. Such units again make the combat deeper, increase skill ceiling, and discourage a-move while being very clear visually and easy to understand. Out of all units, Mangonels resemble Siege Tanks the most, but they don't provide the same area-of-control, can be a-moved, and there exists upgrades that make their setup and teardown instant, which removes this type of gameplay altogether. It's less about their position and more about targeting the center of the enemy units. And then there are Springalds which are more akin to light tanks in terms of their mobility.

Overall, combat is good for an economy-focused RTS, but it could be better as well.

Sacred sites and wonders

Sacred sites are a nice addition. As a victory condition, they can break certain stalemates if you manage to control all of them long enough. And they incentive player interaction and map presence as they provide a steady gold income. However, unlike Company of Heroes games, the resource income from having map presence isn't so high that it limits viable strategies, and a player has to option to yield map control temporarily.

Sacred sites – sometimes with not so fair spawns

The wonder victory condition is there primarily to break stalemates that sacred sites wouldn't be able to. In 1v1 this typically isn't needed, but in team games having a victory condition like this is useful, mainly because there are many sources of infinite gold and a relatively strong defender's advantage.

That being said, I don't think this victory condition makes for better games right now. Especially on defensive maps it's too easy for one player to get one relatively early. And given it can be placed anywhere, it effectively places a limit on the game's length. A too short time limit undermines the fantasy players expect from team games – big battles and slow territory pushes. Since a wonder can be placed anywhere, it's likely that when destroyed, the defending team lost their armies and most of their bases and defenses protecting it. So a wonder limits the game length whether it's destroyed or not.

I see two ways how to address this: (1) increase wonders' time limit or cost further. (2) Or an interesting change would be to restrict the wonder placement to sacred sites. Its cost and time limit can be tweaked as well. This way it can prevent stalemates just as easily, but the wonder wouldn't put such a hard time limit on the game. The game could easily continue if a team failed to protect it. Either way, the current implementation always felt like it led to worse games no matter whether I have won or lost and whether it was my or the enemy team building a wonder.

Monument of The Great Khan (Mongol wonder)

Team games

  • Compared to SC2 games are less about rushes.
  • Games focus on macro which fits into the fantasy of building big cities and armies.
  • No shared passive team bonuses from civilizations (as in AoE2) and limited synergies between civilizations lead to a lower game-to-game variety.
  • Unit composition diversity across all civilizations is lower than in SC2. This further lowers game-to-game variety. A few factors in the lategame incentivize players to make all-around armies and thus more similar.
  • The wonder victory condition can have a detrimental effect on team games (as described in the previous section).
  • The need to transition to trading for gold is reduced compared to AoE2. It's shame since it's a good collaborative project.
  • Harder to carry a team due to slow armies and a few other factors.
  • Harder to join forces with big maps, slow armies, and a weaker defender's advantage compared to AoE2.
  • How the player elimination is handled...

To the last point, if a player leaves, drops, or is eliminated, all of their units and structures become neutral. Compare that to StarCraft II where if a player drops or leaves early, the control over units and structures is shared between the remaining players on the team. The player's income is equally divided between them as well. This means losing a player is bad for the team, but it's not unrecoverable. In SC2, it's common to see a team winning despite having fewer players controlling their economy and army. But in AoE4, a player leaving or dropping is much more punishing for the team. This leads to worse games and time wasted given long queues, game-setup times, and generally longer games.

When a player is eliminated their units become neutral. They still mine resources, some units like Trebuchets still fire, but overall they do not provide any assistance to the former allies.

Another place where player elimination could be improved is with the landmark victory condition. While in 1v1 the landmark victory condition is a nice streamlining of classical "destroy all buildings", in team games given large maps and the difficulty of keeping track of all players, it's much easier for one player to unexpectedly destroy another player's landmarks. The player might have had a fully functioning economy and maxed army, but they are completely eliminated without any chance to help allies or even chat. That's not a good way to handle player elimination in team games.

There are a few different options for how to handle this better.

  1. A player is eliminated only when all team landmarks are destroyed.
  2. Eliminated players can still chat and spectate. Playing team members can share control with eliminated players so they can help.
  3. Losing all landmarks leads to a different punishment – e.g., not being able to rebuild landmarks.

I do think that team games in AoE4 have a potential, however, right now I cannot say that they are actually that much better than team games in SC2. There is a lot of work to be done. Tweaking the wonder victory condition, as well as changing how a player elimination works would go a long way.


AoE4 is a very good iteration on AoE2 that is leaning more into faction asymmetry and took some notes from other games. It has a great campaign which is the most important thing to a large part of the playerbase. And the balance for the competitive scene is quite good for a newly released game. Where the game is lacking is polish and features. There are some game-breaking exploits, the game has many UI/UX issues, and is missing features that were common in both AoE2 and StarCraft II.

It's a rather safe iteration on AoE2. It doesn't push its boundaries in any way – no co-op campaign, dedicated co-op mode, or something else. Instead, the goal seems to be reaching some kind of feature parity with other games in its first year. This includes things like adding the patrol command, fully customizable hotkeys, or support for modding.

Overall, it's one of the best RTS in the market, the core gameplay is very good, and it's great to see more people playing an RTS because of it. But at the same time, I can understand that some people will be disappointed with an AAA game that neither pushes boundaries nor is a polished version of the old. Though AoE4 could become the latter with further development. And with AoE2 they have shown that they can keep on improving a game for a long time.

From the game-design point of view, for me, the most interesting things are the game's economy, victory conditions, the gameplay effects of hard counters, and the use of landmarks for progression and providing choices. Plus there are noteworthy things in UI/UX, visual and audio design as well. AoE4 is without a doubt an interesting game to look at.

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