Posted by: gschloesser | July 13, 2011

Age of Empires III

Design by:  Glenn Drover
Published by:  Tropical Games
3 – 5 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter magazine.

 I was disappointed when I learned of the demise of Eagle Games.  While I was a critic of his earlier efforts, designer Glenn Drover’s later creations were much more developed and polished.  Further, I had heard that his latest project Age of Empires III was under development, and promised to be his best effort yet.  I was hoping it would eventually be published.  

Fortunately, Drover has bounced back with a new company — Tropical Games — and the much anticipated release of Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery.  Based on the popular computer game, Age of Empires III concentrates on the discovery of the New World, and the accompanying settlement and plundering of its resources.  It is decidedly “European” in terms of its mechanisms and play, which reflects the influences that genre has had on the evolution of Drover’s designs. 

Carrying on the tradition established with Eagle Games, this new release contains visually stunning components.  An abundance of plastic miniatures depict colonists, captains, merchants, soldiers, missionaries and merchant ships in five different colors.  Additional pieces are available to expand the game in order to accommodate six players, but I honestly feel the six player version takes too long to complete.  The board is large, but not nearly as humongous as many of the old Eagle boards, which is a good thing.  It depicts a section of the New World, including a swath of North, Central and South America.  Nine boxes will house the units placed by the players and keep track of the turn order, while a victory point track rings the board’s edge.  Completing the components are a healthy assortment of attractive plastic coins, a deck of “Discover” cards, and a stack of cardboard “Capital Building” and “Discovery” tiles.  What is missing is a storage tray to house all of these components and player aid cards to help facilitate play. 

Players receive a supply of five colonists each turn, plus any additional colonists and specialists they may receive due to event boxes and/or capital buildings.  Each turn in player order, players will alternate placing these colonists and specialists into the eight event boxes.  The event boxes are then resolved in order, with players executing the actions or reaping the rewards granted.  Eight turns are conducted in this fashion, after which final points are tallied and a winner determined. 

The event boxes are the heart of the game, and the players’ strategies will be pursued by choosing the ones in which to place one’s units on each turn.  As such, let us examine these boxes. 

Initiative.  Placing early into this box garners greater income, and allows the player to move earlier on the following turn.  

Colonist Dock.  Up to eleven colonists may be placed here — two more with the aid of the appropriate capital buildings — and they will be moved in placement order to the New World.  Colonists may be moved to any of the nine regions in the New World that have been previously discovered.  Settling the New World is important as it yields a resource to the first player to accumulate three colonists in the region, as well as victory points at various points during the game for majority and secondary control.  

Trade Goods.  Each turn, four trade goods are revealed.  The four players who place colonists in this box are able to select one of those trade goods.  It is possible for one player to obtain multiple trade goods if he placed more than one unit in this box.  Collecting trade goods in sets of three or four will earn $1 – $6 of income each turn, as well as victory points at game’s end. 

Merchant Shipping.  The player who placed the most units in this box receives a merchant ship, which can be assigned to a trade goods set in order to complete that set and increase one’s income.  It serves as a wild card in terms of trade goods. 

Capital Buildings.  Each turn, five capital buildings are revealed.  Players who place units in this box may purchase one of these buildings for each unit placed.  The cost of the buildings ranges from $10 – $20, depending upon the age of the building.  

Capital buildings can be quite powerful, and can grant extra units, specialists, income, victory points, and many other benefits.  The cost, however, is significant, so players must conserve money in order to acquire them.  Ignore their acquisition at your own peril!

 Discovery.  In order for a region to be settled, it must first be discovered.  Each region has a face down tile that lists the strength of the native population, the money received from plundering, victory points received, and extra plunder received if conquistadors (soldiers) are involved in the conquest.  The strength of the natives range from 1 – 5, with the more difficult to conquer regions yielding greater rewards. 

Players place units in the Discovery box over the course of several turns.  This is the only box wherein placed units remain from turn-to-turn.  In order to attempt a discovery, a player must specify the number and type of units he is sending on the voyage, as well as its destination.  The tile is then revealed, and if the player committed an amount of units equal to or greater than the native population level, the voyage is successful.  The player receives the indicated amount of money, plus the bonus amount for EACH soldier he committed to the expedition.  As a reward, he places one of the units into the territory, but the remainder is returned to his general supply. 

If the expedition fails, all involved units are returned to the player’s general supply.  This can be disastrous, as it often takes several turns to accumulate a strong enough force to successfully pacify a region.  So, players must decide the level of risk they wish to take.  Do they send out an expedition that has a chance of failure, or wait until they can send forth a force that is assured of victory? 

Once all regions have been discovered, “off-board” regions — represented by a deck of discovery cards — can be discovered.  This works in the same manner as on-board locations, but the native value ranges from 3 – 6, and no units are placed. 

Specialists.  Players may acquire a missionary, merchant, soldier or captain by placing a unit in the appropriate location.  Only one of each is available each turn, but there is one additional space wherein one player can pay five coins to acquire a specialist of his choice.  These specialists are quite powerful, and grant unique powers.  For example, when a missionary arrives in the New World, the owning player gets to place an additional colonist from his supply into that region.  Soldiers help in warfare, and give an additional plundering bonus when discovering a region.  Captains count as two colonists in the Merchant and Discovery boxes, while merchants count as two colonists in the Merchant box and give an immediate bonus of five coins when arriving in the New World.  

Obtaining and properly using the appropriate specialists should be a vital cog in a player’s strategy.  For example, pursuing a wealth strategy is enhanced by acquiring merchants and promptly shipping them to the New World.  A player seeking to gain control of numerous regions is well advised to acquire numerous soldiers and missionaries.  There are numerous possible to strategies to pursue, which certainly adds to the game’s appeal. 

Warfare.  If a player places a unit in this box, he may either launch a single attack in one region against an opponent, or pay 10 coins and declare war against a specific opponent, attacking that player in every region where both players have units.  Battles are quite simple, with each soldier present eliminating an opponent’s unit.  The purpose, of course, is to sway control of a region in one’s favor.   

After all units are placed and event boxes resolved, players receive income based on the trade good sets and capital buildings they possess.  The board is refreshed, and players receive five new colonists and any specialists they have gained, plus additional units granted by capital buildings they possess.  New rounds are conducted, with “New World” scorings conducted after the third and sixth rounds.  Players possessing the majority of units in a region score six points, while the player in the secondary position scores two points.  At the conclusion of the eighth and final round, in addition to the New World scoring, points are earned for Discovery tiles possessed, certain capital buildings, and trade good sets.  The player with the greatest cumulative total of victory points is victorious. 

While not a difficult game to learn, Age of Empires III is filled with important decisions and offers numerous strategic options.  It doesn’t appear that one strategy is omnipotent, and astute players should be able to counteract efforts to dominate play with a linear strategy.  Like the theme of the game, there appears to be quite a bit to explore and discover here. 

What impresses me equally is that the game is finished.  There doesn’t appear to be many — “ if any — rules ambiguities or gaffes, and there is an absence of design flaws or mechanisms that just do not work properly.  The game plays smoothly, is filled with tough choices and tension, and is polished.  This is a fine design, one that can be played over and over again and still offer a fresh feel and new options to explore.  Age of Empires III is clearly Drover’s best design, which hopefully bodes well for his new company.

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Responses

  1. Re-named Glenn Drovers Empires: Age of Discovery. Lots of strategy paths. Good mix of actions. The special characters have a good mix of abilities. Very good game. (8/10) There is an expansion out with a new special character and some additional stuff.


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