Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery – Game of the Month Review


Age of Empires III:
The Age of Discovery
  


Designer: Glenn Drover (2007)
Publisher: Tropical Games
# of Players:
 2-6
Play Time: 120 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #31/7.65
Weight: Medium

In Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, players take on the roles of  the great colonial powers beginning at the end of the 15th century.  It is a worker-placement game where players choose 5 or more actions each turn from things such as discovering new colonies, sending colonists over to the new world, developing trade networks, and waging war.  Overall, it is an interesting and complex game with multiple viable strategies and paths to victory.  It was the Game of the Month! in April for the Hypermind BoardGamers, and these observations are based on both my experiences with the game as well as the overall opinions of the entire game group.    


Components and Setup 

Well, when you open the inordinately large box, the first thing you see is a huge plastic bag filled with tons of plastic game pieces.  There are 300 little dudes, split up between 5 different sculpts in 5 different colors, 10 miniature Merchant Ships, and 90 coins.  On top of that, there are a few punchboards of tiles (Capital Buildings, Discovery tiles, and Trade Good tokens), a small deck of Discovery cards, and a large game board.  For the most part, all the components are nice quality and attractive, although some have complained that a few of the different sculpts for the different specialist miniatures are a bit too similar for easy recognition (but I’d tend to call those people “whiners”).  The board is nicely illustrated with a stylized map of the New World on one side and a column of action spaces on the other.  And if it weren’t for the too-large and somewhat flimsy box (and the fact that there’s no insert at all to lend it strength), I’d be totally thrilled with all the “stuff” in the game.

To set up, each player takes all the workers of one color and pulls out 5 Colonists for use each round.  The Capital Buildings for the first Age (which all have a big “I” on them) are shuffled and the first five are turned face up next to their action box.  Each region in the new world has the appropriate Trade Good placed on it (based on the illustration on the board), and all but the Caribbean have a facedown Discovery tile placed on it as well.  The rest of the Trade Good tokens are shuffled and four are revealed and placed in the Trade Goods action box.  Based on the number of players, some of the spots on the Colonist Dock will be blocked using one of the Merchant Ships, and another Ship is placed on the Merchant Ship space as well.  Finally, initial turn order is randomly determined, and players are given $10 plus one extra dollar for each position after first they are in (so the player going third will get $12).
    


Basic Gameplay  (click here for complete game rules)
 

Age of Empires III is played over 8 turns, which are grouped together into three “Ages” (turns 1-3 are Age I, 4-6 are Age II, and 7-8 are Age III).  The only real difference between Ages is the selection and price of available Capital Buildings, but at the end of each Age there is an area-majority scoring in each colony containing at least 3 colonists (which is one of the main ways to score.

In each turn, there are 10 or 11 phases (depending on if it’s a scoring round).  But it’s really not as complicated as that might indicate, because all the important action happens in the first two phases, and the rest are all just housekeeping stuff.  To start, in the Colonist/Specialist Placement phase, players take turns (in turn order, of course) placing one of their workers into available action spaces.  The second phase is then the Resolution of these actions.  So to understand the game, you really need to have a good handle on the different actions that can be chosen.  Here they are, presented in the order that they will be resolved:


  • Initiative – This determines the turn order for the next turn.  Obviously, going first gives you first choice of actions to take, but it also breaks ties in the Merchant Shipping space below.  During resolution, players get extra money equal to the value of the space they claim ($1 for the 1st space, $2 for 2nd, etc.).  Each player can only put one worker in this area, and must choose the lowest unclaimed space (so you couldn’t put a worker on the #3 spot just to get the extra $3 is #1 and #2 were empty).  The turn order is not changed until the New Turn Order phase
  • Colonist Dock – Colonists and Specialists placed here will be sent over to New World Colonies.  There are a number of spaces available equal to one less than double the number of players (2xPlayers-1), which are numbered to indicate the order that the workers will be moved into discovered colonies during resolution.  This order can be important because the first player to get three colonists into a region claims the Trade Good token placed there.  Merchant and Missionary specialists also have some extra effects when they are placed here (which I’ll get to when I talk about Specialists).
  • Trade Goods – There are four spots in this box, and during resolution, players will get to choose one of the four revealed Trade Good tokens in the order that their workers were placed here.  Trade Goods are one way to make money and score points at the end of the game.  During the Income phase, players get $1 for a set of any three Trade Goods, $3 for a set of three Trade Goods of the same kind, and $6 for each set of four Trade Goods of the same kind.  Up to one Merchant Ship (see below) may be used to form any one set.   
  • Merchant Shipping – There is no limit to the number of workers that may be placed in this box, because it is essentially an auction for the Merchant Ship available each turn.  Whoever places the most Colonists here each turn will get the ship, which can be used as a wild card in assembling sets of Trade Goods (and also have some interaction with a few Capital Buildings).  Ties are broken based on turn order, and both Captain and Merchant specialists placed here count double.   
  • Capital Buildings – There are five spots which allow players to buy one of the four revealed Capital Buildings during resolution.  These buildings give special powers to the player, such as having extra colonists or specialists to place each turn, getting extra income, scoring extra Victory Points, and other cool stuff.  In Age I, the cost is $10, which rises to $14 in Age II and $20 in Age III.  Since Capital Buildings can have a huge effect on strategy, being the first to place here each turn (and therefore getting first choice of buildings) is a huge deal.
  • Discovery – This is a unique action, and there is no limit to the number of workers that can be placed in this box.  During resolution, players choose (in turn order) whether or not they want to attempt to discover a new colony.  Of the workers they have placed in this box, they choose how many to risk.  Then, they choose an undiscovered colony and flip over its Discovery Tile, which will show how many natives are in that area.  If the number of workers are equal to or greater than the number of natives, then the player puts one colonist in that colony, gets the income indicated on the tile (plus extra money for Soldiers used, which I talk about in the Specialist section), and keeps the tile for scoring at the end of the game (because each tile also have a VP value as well).  If there are more natives, then all the workers risked are lost (and returned to the player’s supply).  If all the colonies on the map have been discovered, discoveries are then randomly chosen from the deck of Discovery Cards, which give all the same benefits except for getting to place a Colonist on the board.  Any workers not used to attempt a Discovery are left in the Discovery box for use in future turns.       
  • Specialists – In this box, there are five spaces available for worker placement.  The first four correspond to the four different types of Specialists (Captain, Merchant, Missionary, and Soldier) and the fifth is a “wild” space.  In resolution, players get the specialist indicated on the space they’ve taken, which will be available for them to place during the next turn.  To use the “wild” space, that player must pay $5, but gets to take any type of specialist they want.  Now, I’ve talked a lot about workers, Colonists, and different specialists so far, but not done a good job in defining what I’m talking about, so let’s do that now:

    Worker is a term that isn’t really used in the rules, but which I’m using to mean “any little plastic dude that you’re putting somewhere on the board”.
    Colonists are the “generic” workers.  Players get five of them each turn to place on the different action spaces.  They are also the bulk of the workers that are sent to the New World and are used to determine area majority at the end of each phase.  
    – Specialists are extra workers that a player gets either from the Specialist actions or from Capital Buildings each turn, which are placed exactly like Colonists, but that give some extra benefit. 
    – Captains are specialists that count as two Colonists in the Merchant Shipping box and when attempting a Discovery.
    – Merchants are specialists that count as two Colonists in the Merchant Shipping box, and which give the player an extra $5 when sent to the New World from the Colonist Dock.  Note that once sent to a colony, the Merchant has no other function, so it is usually replaced by a regular Colonist there.
    – Missionaries are specialists that count as two Colonists when sent to the New World via the Colonist Dock.  Again, these are usually just replaced by two regular Colonists when sent to a colony.
    – Soldiers do a couple of special things.  First, when used as part of a successful Discovery expedition, they generate extra money.  As indicated on each Discovery Tile/Card, a certain number of dollars are paid per Soldier in the group.  Second, Soldiers sent to the New World can be used to attack other Colonists using the Warfare action described below.



  • Warfare – Again, there are four action spaces available in this box each turn.  During resolution, players may either start a Battle of wage War.  In a Battle, the active player chooses one colony where he has at least one Soldier, and a target player that has at least one worker there as well.  Simultaneously, both players choose one of each others’ workers to eliminate for each Soldier they have in the colony.  If the defender has no Soldiers, then the attacker will lose no workers.  To wage War, the player must pay $10, but then chooses one opponent and carries out a Battle in every colony where they both have workers and at least one of either of their Soldiers.  

After these first two phases, the rest of the turn ends with a number of cleanup phases:

3) Income – Money is collected for sets of Trade Goods (see above)
4) Capital Building Benefits – The special powers of Capital Buildings are used
5) Refresh Capital Buildings – New Capital Buildings are drawn to replace any bought in the turn.  At the end of an Age, however, all the buildings are removed and five buildings from the next Age are revealed.
6) Refresh Trade Goods – Any Trade Goods not chosen in this turn are reshuffled into the pile and four new ones are revealed.
7) Refresh Merchant Ship – If the Merchant Ship was taken by a player in this turn, a new one is placed in the box.
8) Take Starting Colonists – Each player takes a new set of 5 Colonists from their supply for use in the next turn.  They may also have extra Colonists or Specialists from Capital Buildings of from using the Specialist actions.
9) New Turn Order – The turn order is adjusted based on how workers were placed in the Initiative box.  Players who did not place a worker there have their markers pushed back in their current order to make room for those who did.
10) Advance Turn Marker – The turn marker is then moved forward and a new turn begins.

Scoring

Scoring happens at the end of each of the three Ages.  For each colony containing at least three workers from one single player, points are given based on majority.  The player with the most workers in a colony gets 6 VP and the second place player gets 2 VP.  Ties are pretty unfriendly, but you can read the full rules for that.

At the end of the game, in addition to colony scoring, VP are also awarded for a few other things:
1) Discoveries – the number of VP on each Discovery Tile and Card completed by the player
2) Capital Buildings – any VP given by Capital Buildings (either in red on the tile or calculated based on the requirements of the building)
3) Economy – VP are given equal to the income the player received on the last turn from sets of Trade Goods and Merchant Ships only (not including additional income from capital buildings) 

Whoever has the most VP wins! 


Here’s what I accumulated in one game that I managed to win.
  

Strategy and Tactics


First of all, I do not claim to be an expert at Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery.  I won a couple of games, but not against our best players (which would be Alton and Britt).  That being said, I do have a good, basic understanding of strategy, and I’ll pass on at least some introductory ideas to get you started with the game.

Starting in the vein of “solid random tactics”, here are a few things you can try:



  1. Sending Merchants to the New World is arguably the best way to make money in the early game, so pick them up either in the Specialist box or from Capital Buildings whenever you can.
  2. Remember that scoring happens after turns 3, 6, and 8, so focus on getting colonists into position during those turns.
  3. New Capital Buildings come out at the start of a new Age, so consider how important getting the one you want might be, and potentially grab the first player spot in turns 3 or 6 to set yourself up.
  4. Look at the other players and figure out which actions you will be competing for.  Always place workers in those places first and leave areas with no limits (Discovery or Merchant Shipping) or that only you would care about until later.
  5. Be flexible!  Especially in the early turns, be aware of what the other players are doing and try to do something different.  Don’t lock yourself into a strategy too early, especially if you can’t get ahold of the tools (mainly Capital Buildings) to get it done.

So then it comes to actual strategy, and one of the coolest things about Age of Empires III is how many viable options you have.  The main ways to score points come from Colonizing, Discovery, Trading, and Capital Buildings/Money.  I’ve seen all of these win people games, but the biggest thing to remember is that no one strategy can stand alone.  You must do at least two of these pretty well in order to have a real shot at winning.  I’ve even seen a “jack of all trades” strategy where a player did very well dabbling in all four.  So look for opportunities where they present themselves, and drive towards building points in these areas.  And Capital Buildings are incredibly important to every strategy, so they must always be considered in addition to the other actions that I mention below.  Getting even one building related to your strategy can make the difference between winning and losing, so always keep track of which ones are available now and what might be coming up in the next round.   

Colonizing

Points are scored by having colonists in the New World during the three scoring opportunities.  While you certainly want to have the majority in at least a few, positioning yourself to come in second in most of the others is important as well. 

Actions to focus on include filling up the Colonist Dock as much as possible and getting Missionaries (and to a lesser extent, Merchants) from the Specialist box.  Important Capital Buildings include the Monastery (Age I, extra Missionary each turn), Trade Routes (Age I, extra Merchant each turn), Indentured Servitude (Age I) /Colonization Laws (Age II, extra colonist in the Colonist Dock each turn), Cathedral (Age II, Missionaries are worth 3 Colonists), Population (Age III, VP for colonists in New World), and Glory (Age III, VP for each colonized region).  In addition, a more militant form of colonization can be very effective by sending lots of Soldiers to the New World and using the Warfare actions just before scoring.

Discovery

Points come directly from the value of Discovery Tiles and Cards.  It’s possible to get up to 9 discoveries, but 7 is a more reasonable expectation.  The biggest flaw with this strategy is that there is randomness in which tiles or cards you will get.  To ensure success, you need to send 5 colonists for tiles and 6 for cards, but then you can never be certain of the payout, either in VP or money.

Actions to focus on include getting Soldiers and Captains from the Specialist box and, obviously, sending lots of workers to the Discovery box.  Important Capital Buildings include the Training Grounds (Age I), Conquistador (Age I), Fortress (Age II) and Military Academy (Age II), all of which get you extra Soldiers each turn, as well as the Navigator (Age I)/Ship Yards (Age II, extra Captain each turn), New World Cartography (Age I, get a free discovery), and Glory (Age III, VP for each colonized region).

Trading

Points come from sets of Trade Goods as well as related Capital Buildings.

Actions to focus on include getting Trade Goods, Merchant Shipping, and getting Merchants or Captains from the Specialist box.  Important Capital Buildings include the West Indies Co. (Age II, get a random Trade Good each turn), Rum Distillery (Age II, +$3 income per Sugar Trade Good you have), Privateers (Age II, other players give you $1 per Merchant Ship you have), Mercantilism (Age III, VP for Trade Goods), and Navy (VP for Merchant Ships).

Capital Buildings/Money

Points come from gathering as much money as you can and using it to pick up lots of Capital Buildings to do cool stuff and score.

Actions to focus on include getting Merchants from the Specialist box, Capital Buildings, Initiative, and Trade Goods.  Important Capital Buildings include Conquest of the Inca Empire (Age I, +$20 immediately), Trading Post (Age I, +$5 income each turn), Trade Routes (Age I, extra Merchant each turn), Rum Distillery (Age II, +$3 income per Sugar Trade Good you have), Prosperity (Age III, VP for Capital Buildings), and Wealth (Age III, VP for money).     
 
 

What I think…
 

Age of Empires III is a good game.  But for a few little things, it could actually be great.  First of all, I’m pretty fond of worker placement in general, because I like the granularity of choosing single actions in turn with the other players.  That mechanic creates lots of tough choices and forces you to prioritize both what’s most important to you and predict how others at the table will prioritize their selections.  And while many other worker-placement games force only indirect conflict through efficiency and optimization, AoEIII also introduces some real direct conflict in its area majority and warfare elements.  

And I also like the breadth of choice avaiable in how you play the game.  Like I mentioned above, there are lots of different core and secondary strategies that are, as far as I can tell, all relatively viable.  Even after playing a half a dozen times, I can still think of several different plans that I’d like to try out.  More than anything else, this “multiple paths to victory” quality in a game will captivate me and have me thinking about it both at and away from the table.

But as I mentioned, there are still a few things that keep it from being perfect for me.  The first one I’ll cover is simply the random nature of the Capital Buildings.  In the strategy section, I mentioned that getting one Capital Building can often make the difference between winning and losing.  And if I don’t get the building I need because I ignored the initiative action and someone stole it out from under me, I’m okay with that.  But on the other hand, if I can’t get it because it just doesn’t come out in a game, then I’m going to feel cheated.  Because at the beginning of the game, when you’re choosing which strategy to pursue, there’s absolutely no way to know if the big VP-scoring building you will need is at the top or bottom of the Age III stack, so it’s ultimately a crap shoot in what you pursue.  While there may be some house rule that could mitigate this, the game as written can be
quite annoying.

Second of all, I’m going to say that Age of Empires III has some significant issues with scalability.  With the exception of the Colonist Dock, none of the other action boxes varies in number of spaces between 2 to 5 players.  To do the math, there is a huge difference between having 10 Colonists competing for 25 spots and 25 colonists competing for 29 spots.  And while I’ll concede that more competition can increase the tension and excitement in the game, it also breeds a crapload of frustration when you’re not able to effectively put your plans into effect. 


Britt, Chip, Alton, and Chris fight for control of the New World!

And the other scalability factor fighting the excitement and flow of the game is the fact that it gets considerably longer with more players.  While a 60-minute game with 3 players is an absolute blast, a 150-minute game with 5 is near purgatory.  All those minute but difficult decisions made multiple times by each player each turn all have the opportunity for thought and potentially some level of analysis paralysis, and when you multiply that by 5 players, the game can get out of hand.

But again, please don’t think that this is a bad game.  On the contrary, its depth, theme, and play time still make it very appealing even at our weeknight gaming sessions.  Unlike some other games, I’m no where near feeling that I’m done with or have seen all that Age of Empires III has to offer, and I hope that it continues to see some regular play far into the future.               


The Verdict!

Fourteen different people in the Hypermind BoardGamers have played Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, with their lowest rating being 6 and the highest being 9, averaging out to an 7.79 out of 10.    

Rules: The flow of play is relatively simple, but the specialist abilities, Capital Building powers, and multiple strategies take some time to figure out.
Downtime: Heavily dependent on the number of players.  In general, though, making single worker placements in turn keeps this low.
Length: We’ve played 10 games that averaged just over 116 minutes and with an average of 4.2 players per game.  For 3 players and maybe four, the time is appropriate.  With five, however, it can drag on and wear out its welcome. 
Player Interaction: Bunches!  Both indirectly through competing for actions and resources and directly through battles and area majority. 
Weight:  Medium
GamerChris’ Rating: Age of Empires III is solid game with a lot of depth but a few nagging problems.  For three players, I’d give it upwards of an 8, but overall I have to rate it a 7.5
   

My favorite play of the Age of Empires III so far was this three-player session.


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