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


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’s 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’s 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 don’t 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 will for his new company.
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♫ Eric Herman ♫
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Nice review, Greg (as usual). One correction, though... This can be played with 2 players. It was this couples review that made me want to get this for me and my wife to play.

Here's hoping Glenn is working next on the much-rumored Unpublished Prototype.
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Michael Debije
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As an opposing viewpoint... rather than 'stunning', I found the components annoying. The figures looked very similar to each other, and I felt the game deserved to be in a box about the size of a Warfrog game with a corresponding map: cardboard would have worked just fine, probably better. The gameplay itself just had no 'zing'. There was virtually no sense of exploration, and the folks I played with would just make teams of 6 conquorers, so there was no tension in meeting the natives. It was yet another 'role selection' game with little to make it stick out once you sifted through the plastic bits and thin plastic coins.
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Glenn Drover
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Hi Eric,

I do have a Pirates Game design that I like quite a bit (this after four or five that hit the dustbin). I am currently working on a sequel to AoE III, but will start back with the Pirates game when I'm done. ...seemed like too many Pirate games out there lately anyway.

Glenn
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♫ Eric Herman ♫
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Yeah, no doubt. Age of Piracy and Blackbeard are probably enough to chew on for the time being... In any case, I know there are many who will look forward to yours, whenever it might come out.

Best wishes on The Return of the Son of the Bride of AoEIII.
 
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Matt Smith
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mi_de wrote:
As an opposing viewpoint... rather than 'stunning', I found the components annoying. The figures looked very similar to each other, and I felt the game deserved to be in a box about the size of a Warfrog game with a corresponding map: cardboard would have worked just fine, probably better. The gameplay itself just had no 'zing'. There was virtually no sense of exploration, and the folks I played with would just make teams of 6 conquorers, so there was no tension in meeting the natives. It was yet another 'role selection' game with little to make it stick out once you sifted through the plastic bits and thin plastic coins.

If you want get a "sense of exploration", stop taking the safe route and send less than five figures on an exploration. The tension and anticipation for all players when you flip over that tile is a nice moment in this game. Also, the fact that you rarely have enough figures to do all you want on a turn and also prevent others from getting their needed items makes for many angst-filled decisions. I'm surprised your group didn't have this type of experience, but to each his own.
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Glenn Drover
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The discovery role in the game was intentionally left as a 'supporting cast' role. It WAS the 'Age of Discovery', but discovery was merely the first part of the exploration-colonization-development-trade (and ultimately competition) story.

In order to win the game, the player must create a multi-faceted strategy that includes several aspects. Just plunking 5 guys into the discovery box would not only be dull, but would leave you with very little else accomplished.

The fun in the game (at least to me) is the tension of competing for the various assets, and the agonizing decisions when you have to try to figure out where to place your colonists and specialists to get what you need before the other players grab it.
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Anders Olin
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Hi Glenn!
Just wanted to let you know after playing it since early june (pre-order) I must say it is one of my most popular games withing my playing group and even though I seldom win, I have blast every time I play. And it works well all from 2 to 6 players!
Great job!
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roger miller
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mvettemagred wrote:
mi_de wrote:
As an opposing viewpoint... rather than 'stunning', I found the components annoying. The figures looked very similar to each other, and I felt the game deserved to be in a box about the size of a Warfrog game with a corresponding map: cardboard would have worked just fine, probably better. The gameplay itself just had no 'zing'. There was virtually no sense of exploration, and the folks I played with would just make teams of 6 conquorers, so there was no tension in meeting the natives. It was yet another 'role selection' game with little to make it stick out once you sifted through the plastic bits and thin plastic coins.

If you want get a "sense of exploration", stop taking the safe route and send less than five figures on an exploration. The tension and anticipation for all players when you flip over that tile is a nice moment in this game. Also, the fact that you rarely have enough figures to do all you want on a turn and also prevent others from getting their needed items makes for many angst-filled decisions. I'm surprised your group didn't have this type of experience, but to each his own.


The problem with taking more risks with exploration, as you propose, is that the risk far exceeds the benefit. Sending out a 4 figure party boosts the risk far too much for a 1 figure gain used elsewhere. It's a poor move strategically. The cost of a failed expedition is devastating, the potential gain is minimal. Even moreso with 3 figures.

So, I'd say he has a point. I don't find expedition size a real flaw, but it's one of the least interesting decisions in the game because your information is so limited. Ironically, the info only improves when someone scotches an expedition.

I wish there was some sort of small bonus even for a failed expedition. This would make a better decision point.

I also concur with his issue with the figures -- with less than perfect eyesight, 4 of the figures seem like 2 sets of twins. Only the cleric is unique. I don't long for chits, but the figures could have been much more distinctive.

My lesser criticism is that the "merchant strategy" is a non-starter. Without a significant area in the new world, all the razzle dazzle you can manage with the economy and VP giving building construction is quite likely to fail. I wish it were a viable strategy instead of a sideshow to area control.

All this said, buy this game. It's excellent.
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Miguel de la Casa
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The only annoying thing about AoE I can think of comes, not from the game, but from the hype that surrounded it early on.

It's an awesome game, one of my favorites. The only problem is that is was presented as something that it simply isn't: a game of exploration with multiple paths to victory and so on... Such a description makes you think you can win just by dominating in the economical game, or by exploring a lot. The truth is that AoE is an area control game, and you're only gonna win if you play as such, and put MAJOR atention at controlling several areas of the map (btw, the strategy tips in the rulebook give a good hint at this).

The economical game, the exploration, the set collection, warfare... are just (VERY INTERESTING) side shows. Once you realize and accept that, and forget about trying to "fix" things that aren't broken, AoE SHINES. That's because there are many interesting ways to support your area domination game.
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Matthew Watson
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aristarco wrote:
The truth is that AoE is an area control game, and you're only gonna win if you play as such, and put MAJOR atention at controlling several areas of the map (btw, the strategy tips in the rulebook give a good hint at this).


I've played this game more than 15 times now, and on several occasions someone won who had far less majorities in the provinces than anyone else. They won because of exploration and more significantly because they had loads of money and bought several of the Age III buildings, giving them lots of victory points.

So in my experience, it is definitely possible to win without dominating the area control part of the game.
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