Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery

Tropical Games recently released Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery.  This is a board-game version of the popular PC game “Age of Empires III” by Microsoft and Ensemble Studios.  The board-game is designed by Glenn Drover.  Glenn has designed other wonderful games including Railroad Tycoon, which was co-designed with Martin Wallace.

The premise of the game is that each player takes the role of a leading European Colonial Power as they make claims in the New World of the late 15th century.  I love this excerpt from the games introduction in the rule book:

The triumphant revel in riches and glory, while the vanquished become a footnote in the history books.

This board-game was anticipated for quite some time.  Originally it was announced by Eagle Games in 2006 but then Eagle Games went bankrupt last year and it seemed the game might not have been released.  Happily for us all, Tropical Games was formed by some of the key players at Eagle Games and they produced this game.

“Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery” is a game for 2 to 5 players and takes about 2 to 3 hours to play.  There is an expansion for a 6th player available.  I would rate this a medium-weight strategy game.  The game is a lot of fun and provides interesting, often agonizing, decisions for the players with every turn.  It is not a war game and is very much in the style of a Euro-Game.

The game retails for $60 and can be found on-line for around $42.

What’s in the box?

Actually, I want to mention the box itself.  It’s the same size as the Railroad Tycoon box.

Railroad Tycoon is about an 1/8″ taller.  The Age of Empires box is not as sturdy.  The cardboard seems to be a lot thinner and not as strong.  However with some general care that shouldn’t be a problem.  Also, there is no insert in the box for the game components.  Everything just lays in the box.  I am using 2 hobby plastic sorters for all the components and it works great.  There are a lot of components in the box.

The game-board is a good size, and thankfully not as large as it’s cousin Railroad Tycoon.  It is very well drawn with artwork by Paul E. Niemeyer.  I’ve heard comments about how attractive the game looks when it’s on the table and that’s always a good thing.

Essentially the board is divided into two sections.  One the left side there are 9 regions.  Each region is a place where colonies will be established.  The right side of the board is where the Event Boxes are located.  I’ll explain how those work later.  There’s a turn indicator track along the bottom of the board.  It serves to count off game turns as well as communicate the game Age (I, II or III).

There are lots of colored plastic pieces.

The Colonist is the principal piece and is placed on the board both in the Event Boxes and on the New World Regions. Each player has 30 of these.

The Missionary is one of the specialist pieces. When a Missionary arrives in the New World you gain the benefit of having placed 2 colonists there. I guess thematically, the Missionary represents conversion of the locals. Each player has 10 of these.
The Captain is another specialist piece. Captains represent the leaders of expeditions of exploration and trade. The provide benefit when discovering new colonies and for Merchant Shipping. Each player has 5 pieces.
The Merchant is a specialist piece. He provides extra income when arriving in the New World. The Merchant also provides some benefit for Merchant Shipping. Each player has 5 pieces.
The Soldier is the last of the specialists. The Soldier provides two optional benefits. In one case the Soldier is helpful when discovering new colonies. Another possibility is to use Soldiers in established colonies as defenders and to project power an influence. There is an aspect of war-gaming that can happen with Soldiers, but it’s only one overall component in how the game can be played. Each player has 10 Soldiers.
The game also comes with these brown ships. One is used as a turn marker, and another is used as a marker limiting how many colonists can leave for the New World in any one game round. The remaining ships are used as Wild Cards when players score Trade Goods. They are not used to transport colonists to the new lands.
There are several cardboard chits representing Trade Goods. These are collected by the players to generate income each turn. The number on each Trade Good is not it’s value. It indicates the count of how many are available in the game.
There are Discovery Tiles which are placed face-down in the New World on any region that has not been colonized. When the players colonize, these are revealed.
Discovery Cards are also included to represent regions for additional discovery once all of the areas on the board are colonized.  These represent establishing trade with China, India, and other lands.
A set of large cardboard chits are provided which represent the Capital Buildings that the players may purchased throughout the game.  Each building gives some special advantage.  There are Capital Buildings that provide extra Colonists, and extra income through Taxes; some enhance the capabilities of a Specialist.  Some provide a one-time immediate benefit while others provide benefit for the owner for the rest of the game.  The Capital Buildings are available in a staged manner.  The game is played in only 8 turns, divided into 3 Ages.  The initial set of Capital Buildings are the only ones that may be purchased in the first Age.  As the game progresses, better more powerful Capital Buildings are available.
Lastly, there’s a collection of plastic coins.  The silver coins are valued at 1 doubloon and the gold are valued at 10.

Game Play

So how does all this work together?  It plays like a blending of an area-control game like “El Grande” and production of goods like “Puerto Rico”.  And it does a good job of providing a discovery theme.

The game is played in 8 rounds.  Each player begins with a small handful of 5 colonists.  Then, in turn order, each player places one of those colonists in any one of the Event Boxes.  It does not matter which Event Box they choose, provided it has open slots in it for another Colonist.

After all the colonists are placed in the Event Boxes each Event Box is executed from the top – down.  When events are concluded, and income and status/refresh action is performed and the players begin a next round.

At the end of the rounds where the turn marker indicates a New Age will begin, the players score themselves.  Scoring opportunities arrive 3 times in the game with some special scoring bonus activities at the last round of the game.

When a round completes, each Event Box will be empty of player pieces except for the Discovery Event Box.

A good way to understand this is for me to describe each Event Box.

The top-most Event Box is the Turn Order.  This controls the order by which players place colonists on the Event Boxes.  Player Order is established randomly at the start of the game but can be changed as the game plays.

The next Event Box is Initiative.  If a player wants to modify the play order for the next round they place a colonist in this row.  There’s also an income benefit from placing a colonist in this row.  The first position gets 1 doubloon, the next 2, then 3 and so-on.  This is another of those interesting choices a player may have to make.  You only have 5 colonists to place and so “spending” 1 here to change Turn Order next round needs to be valuable to you.  However, you may realize that the in next round would you benefit your overall strategy by getting first choice at another Event Box.   I’ve played games where this choice is never made, and then some where it ends up being essential for a player that they control who goes first next round.

The next Event Box is the Colonist Dock.  This one is limited in colonist capacity by the number of players in the game.  There are exactly (2 * n) – 1 open colonists slots available, where “n” is the number of players.  At the start of the game this limit is calculated and one of the extra brown Merchant Ships is placed on the first unavailable number to mark the rest as off-limits.  In a 2-person game this means there are 3 colonists slots available.  When playing with 4 players, there are 7 open positions.  When a player places a colonist in this box, they place them left-to-right in order.  Later, when the Event Box execution phase of the round happens, each colonist in placement order is sent to one of the currently established New World colonies.  It is possible for a player to place more than one Colonists in this box, but there is a limited number of open slots, and each colonists must be placed one at a time in turn order.  Colonies are scored three times in the game where the player having the most “influence” in a colony gets the most points.  Also, the first person to get 3 pieces in any colony gets one Trade Good of the special type produced by the colony.

Next in line is the Trade Goods Event Box.  Here, 4 randomly chosen face-up Trade Goods are available for selection by each player.  We just place the Trade Goods to the left, adjacent to the box.  The first player with a colonist in the Trade Goods Event Box gets first choice, the second gets second choice, and so-on.  It is possible for a player to place more than one of their colonists in this row, but there are only 4 open slots.  The players collect Trade Goods for potential income later in each round.  Matched Trade Goods of 3 of a kind or 4 of a kind are best.

The Merchant Shipping Event Box is next. Each player has the option of placing colonists in here, again one at a time each turn. In this case the “prize” is one of those brown plastic ships. There’s only one ship available each round and only one player can have it. At the start of the game a brown Merchant Ship is placed in this Event Box to show it’s availability. The player with the majority influence in this Event Box gets the ship when the Event Box execution phase of the round happens. If there is a tie, the first person in player-order gets the ship. The Captain and Merchant specialist pieces count for 2 when counted in this box. The value of the Merchant Ships are that they are considered as wild-card Trade Goods.

The next Event Box row is for purchasing Capital Buildings.  There are always 5 face-up Capital Buildings available for purchase each round.  We set the Capital Building tiles adjacent this box.  A player may purchase more than one if they have sufficient money.  Purchase of Capital Buildings is in placement order, so if a Capital Building becomes available this round that everyone may want, you will want to place your Colonist here as soon as possible.  The costs of Capital Buildings go up as the game progresses.  While in Age I, the costs are $10 for each Capital Building.  With later Ages the costs goes up to $14 and then $20 doubloons each in the final third Age.

The Discovery Event Box is how players establish colonies in the New World.  At the beginning of the game there’s only one known colony in the Caribbean Region.  When player Colonists (or Specialists) in the Colonist Dock depart for the New World they can only be sent to established colonies.  To establish a new colony the player accumulates Colonists, Captains and Soldiers in this box and when they are ready they send them on an expedition to a New World region of their choice.  But there’s risk.  Once the New World region is selected, the Discovery Tile in that region is revealed.

It has on it a count of representative Native Americans.  The player must have a count of pieces that is greater than or equal to the count on that Discovery Tile.  If the player succeeds they have established a new colony and gain monetary reward.  The Captain specialist is helpful here because it counts for 2 Colonists.  The Soldier, while counting as only 1 Colonist, provides additional income – presumably from plundering the native land.  if an expedition fails, all pieces are lost and returned to the player.  When successful, only 1 Colonist is placed in the new land, regardless of the size of the expedition.

The next Event Box is for Specialists.  This is how a player adds specialists for the next round.  There are exactly 5 available slots.  Only one colonist from any player may occupy one of these slots.  However, a player can choose to take several of these open slots, one placement per turn in a round.  There’s a single slot for a new Captain, Merchant, Missionary or Soldier.  When the Event Box execution phase of the round happens any Colonist in one of these boxes is “trained” and changes into one of the specialist pieces which is added to the 5 available colonists that player has at the start of the next round.  There is a fifth slot that permits the player to choose between either the Missionary, Captain, Merchant or Soldier but at a cost of $5.

The last Event Box is Warfare.  This one doesn’t get used as often, but can make a difference in the game.  Colonists are placed here as tokens in order.  The first player who placed a Colonist in Warfare may choose to either attack a single colony with his placed soldiers or attack all colonies of a given enemy wherever there are placed soldiers.  Here’s how that works.  If you have chosen Warfare, you look at the board at colonies where you have at least one soldier.  Remember, the only way soldiers can get to the New World colonies is by way of the Colonist Dock placement.  Choose one of those colonies and announce your opponent.  That opponent must then remove one piece within that colony for every soldier you have placed there.  They may have soldiers there too and can defend themselves.  Battles are considered simultaneous.  And each player gets to decide which of their enemy pieces are destroyed from that colony.  Essentially, one piece is destroyed for every soldier present.  There is a second option the player who selected Warfare can execute.  Instead of attacking at a single colony, they can declare War against an opponent in all colonies.  This works exactly the same way however the attacking player must pay $10 cost before beginning a War action.  A Warfare action can be a powerful way to shift the majority count (“Influence”) in any one colony.  I’ve also seen that just the presence of soldiers from another player in a region can make placing your colonists there seem risky.  In this way just the projection of power by the other player can influence what you might do.

When all the Event Boxes are executed, an income calculation is made in player order.  Now, the players get the benefits from Trade Goods and Merchant Ships they may have accumulated.  Each player is trying to make “sets”.

A set is a collection of 3 Trade Goods.

If they are all of the same type in a set, the player gets $3.

 

If there are not all 3 alike, the player gets $1.

 

If the player is able to get 4 of a kind in a set, they get $6.  No more than either 4 of a kind or 3 of any combination can be in a set.  A set with less than 3 Trade Goods score no income.

The Merchant Ships may be used as wild-card Trade Goods, however only 1 ship can be used in any one set.  With the Merchant Ship included in the above “set”, the player counts 3 Indigo for $3.

After the income is calculated, the players evaluate benefits from any Capital Buildings they may have purchased.  Some Capital Buildings pay-out a benefit only once and immediately when purchased.  Other Capital Buildings pay-out only one at the end of the game in final scoring.  Others pay-out throughout the game.

The turn marker is advanced, Trade Goods and Capital Building tiles available are updated as required.  And then each player gets 5 new colonists for placement in another game round.

Play continues like this for 8 rounds, scoring at the end of each of the 3 Ages.  When scoring, each established colony is evaluated.  If any one player has at least 3 pieces standing in a colony, then that colony scores – for all players present.  The majority control player gets 6 points and second place gets 2.  If there is a tie for first place, both players gets 2 points and no other points are rewarded for that colony.  If there is a tie for 2nd place, no points are rewarded.

The player with the highest number of Victory Points at the end of the game wins.  At the end Victory Points are added for some of the Capital Buildings, Discoveries made, and income generated from Trade Goods.  One of the interesting experiences in the game is that very last turn before everyone scores.  You spend time making a lot of trade-offs in your head before placing those last few Colonists and purchasing Capital Buildings.  The last turn in the game reminds me of the mental math you do while playing a game like Power Grid too.

Issues

I really enjoy playing this game.  However, there are a few things I would have like to have seen be a bit better.

The first is that, even though the board is beautiful, the score track is awful.  Here’s the starting corner.

The players are supposed to set aside one Colonist for marking their score along the score track.  The score track runs along the edge of the game-board – a common idea.  However, it’s very thin, and can get crowded early in the game when many of the players are on the same Victory Point location.  The other issue with the score track is sometimes you cannot see it.  There are a few places on the game-board where the artwork around the borders occludes the score track – covering sometimes more than one score location.  It can make counting off Victory Points a little tricky.

I also wish there were more Colonists for each player.  In some cases, and it’s happened in 2 of my games so far, the player runs out of Colonists.  Now the problem is easy to resolve by just placing any Specialist figure (except for Soldiers) instead, but it does distract from game-play and can be a little confusing.

Some people have complained about how flimsy the cardboard box is.  And it is.  But honestly, I don’t think that’s a problem.  You just need to handle the box with a little more care.

Another opinion I’ve read is that the randomness from the values of the hidden Discovery Tiles makes it hard to plan really well.  I can see that point, however it fits perfectly with the theme of the game.  Yes, the unknown Discovery values do add randomness, but that seems like a perfectly proper feature for this game.

Another slight problem is that the pieces are difficult to tell apart quickly.  It’s better with some of the colors, I think, but I understand when people say that.  Each figure does have a tell-tale distinctive feature, that once you get used to spotting it, make them easier to tell apart.  But if you have all your figures in one pile in front of you it can be difficult to find a Merchant piece apart from the Colonists.

For my own copy, we changed 2 things.  First we added little wooden cubes in the player colors to use for the scoring track.  This has the benefit of being easier to manage, and it frees up one more Colonist for each player to potentially use.

The 2nd change we made was to make markings on the score track so you can better see each position.  It’s not elegant, but it’s functional.

Oh yes.  One other change is that we added 3 brown 6-sided dice.  These are only used once at the beginning of the game where we roll-off to decide initial player order.  Obviously some other option can be made but dice are classic and they look nice.

Here’s a picture that shows our modifications.

Conclusion

I’ve left out some details about game play in this description.  However, the game rules are available for download from Board Game Geek here.

What makes the game so interesting for me is that there are so many choices each round.  You only have 5 Colonists to use, unless you’ve acquired additional ones through Capital Buildings or Specialists Training.  And there are 8 Event Boxes.  And for many of those you will want to place more than one Colonist.  And you really need to pay attention to what the other players in the game are doing.  Every turn it’s a constant trade-off between choices.

It seems like there are multiple strategies that work for this game.  A heavy Colonist population-centric approach or a strong economic Trade Goods collecting strategy is possible.  Intimidation by threat of war, without actually fighting is also fun.  A combination of any of these at just the right moments may be the best choice.  The real secret to playing this game well is to remain very flexible in reaction to what the other players are doing.  And sometimes the right choice is not the one that will give you Victory Points, but rather the choice that denies Victory Points to the leader.

The rules are not difficult to absorb, but there are some common mistakes people make.  Watch out to ensure you only place 1 Colonist on each newly discovered region when it’s won.  And don’t forget that the Colonist Dock is limited based on the number of players.  When a Merchant lands on a colony the player gets $5.  And Missionaries get to add a free Colonist when they arrive at a colony.

The game takes about 2 to 3 hours and it goes by quickly.  So far, every game seems like it ended too soon.  It actually scales down to 2-players just fine and plays in 2 hours.  My wife and I have played several games and both of us enjoy it this way too.  I’m not sure what the game would be like with more than 4 players, but it was quite a bit of fun with 4.  I can say that the game seems to be unforgiving if you don’t pay attention to what the other players are doing.

“Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery” is one of our current hot games at home and seeing a lot of table time.  I love introducing this game to folks.

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