Noobie Guide – Going to War

By HG_Democritus

“Balance refers to a concept that all things being equal, two similar armies when they meet in battle should cancel each other out and fight to a draw. This is also referred to as the ‘rock/paper/scissor’ RTS equation of play balance.”

Article 2 – Going to War

In first article in this series, we focused on the ‘vanilla’ Empires start: the basic ‘first 3 minutes’ of the game. Remember that relative to the Franks and the Koreans, these first 3 minutes are played very close to the same by all players, with only slight variations. If you remember, we looked at how to get villagers on enough food to have constant villie flow from your TC, we looked at the importance of settlements near resources, and that all important first move when we talk about going to war, building your first military building (usually a barracks). When reading this next article, keep in mind that we are still going to focus on the medieval age.

Basic Military Balance
Balance is probably the most discussed (and controversial) topic about Empires on the fan sites. So what is balance? Balance refers to a concept that all things being equal, two similar armies when they meet in battle should cancel each other out and fight to a draw. This is also referred to as the ‘rock/paper/scissor’ RTS equation of play balance.

It is important for you as a new player to understand that RTS developers have spent a lot of time trying to come up with games that are well balanced (but not boring). Expert level players are constantly in search of a civ specific advantage that can be used to turn the tide of a battle in their favor. It’s a constant dynamic between new and emerging ‘unstoppable’strats; followed closely by the developers ‘patching’the code to remove the newly perceived imbalance. This process is a pretty interesting tug of war, and has made for some incredibly ingenious ways of balancing different units and civs in the modern RTS genre.

It didn’t always used to be this way. In the early days of the RTS it was pretty simple. You had your basic spear unit (some kind of infantry carrying a spear), or the ‘rock’ ; you had your basic archer unit that easily killed the spearman, or ‘paper’ , and you had your basic sword carrying unit that easily killed archers but lost to spears, or ‘scissors’ . This concept is based loosely on early organized warfare in military history.

Here is some basic background on where this concept comes from: The Greeks, namely the Spartans, viewed close quarter combat using shields and spears as a way to prove worthiness and to attain glory. They felt that if you didn’t meet them on the battlefield in basic hand to spear combat, you were a coward. The Spartans were so effective at this method of warfare; they were universally feared in the ancient world. Sparta’s rival city state, Athens, actually was forced to wall herself in, and at one point her citizen based army fled into the walled city from the Spartan army, who proceeded to plunder the countryside and then march home from sheer boredom. This experience did in fact teach the military minds of the time that a direct assault on the Spartan army was not always the wise choice, and living to fight another day was maybe not so cowardly after all, just smarter. Coincidently, siege warfare had not yet been invented and the Spartans saw the Athenian long walls as basically impenetrable, so they went home in disgust. Both of these conditions created a need for different military strategies to be invented.

From the necessity to stop these frequent cases of large spear toting Spartan armies plundering everything in sight, sword bearing infantry and archers were born. The archers could pick off the lines of spearman from a safe distance and the swordsman could wear heavier armor because of their lighter weapons and dodge the spears and get in close for the kill. This was the birth of modern military tactics (in western cultures), these tactics were first used in battles by using ‘counter’ units designed to overwhelm a particular type of infantry unit (primarily the mighty Greek Hoplite). Similar types of tactics evolved in every culture along basically the same lines; two types of infantry units (spears and swords), archers and various types of cavalry (horses, camels, and elephants). This is yet another level of the rock/paper/scissors concept.

At some point, (there is usually an argument here as to when and by whom), cavalry became a very, very important edition to the battlefield. The cavalry unit could raid the ranks of archers with ease, and hack at the sword carrying anti-spear units from above. There is another somewhat gruesome advantage of cavalry units, they could effectively and efficiently raid unarmed villagers. Alexander the Great used the combination of spear units in a ‘Phalanx’ formation supported by heavy cavalry during his impressive conquest of Persia. During this time, siege warfare became more and more common, and different siege weapons were invented and used. We will get to that later.

Medieval Unit Balance in Empires
Getting back to Empires, for the first age, you are basically given the option of creating some type of spear bearing infantry, sword bearing infantry, archers, and cavalry units. Cavalry units can carry a sword, a spear, or even an archer. Coming to grips with the early age of Empires basically comes down to effectively fielding these type of units in battle.

Basic Units
Swordsman (English Long swords, Korean twin swordsman, Chinese Song Guardsman, Frank Man-at-Arms)

Produced from: Barracks
Good against archers, lose to spears

Archers (Frank archer, English longbows, Chinese Mongol Horseman (archer), Korean Horse Archer

Produced from Barracks and Stable
Good against all spear units, lose to swordsman, sword bearing cavalry

Spearman (Korea and China)

Produced from Barracks
Good against swordsman, lose to archers

Spear Cavalry (England and Franks)

Produced from Stable
Good against all swordsman, lose to archers

Sword Cavalry (Frank Crusader, Korea Mounted Flail)

Produced from Stable
Good against archers and swordsman, lose to spears

Elephant (Chinese)

Produced from Barracks
Good versus swords AND spears, lose badly to archers

The Armory and Special Units
The Armory is another building that you will need to build. When you build this depends on how you plan to use it. The armory does two things.

  • Once its built, it ‘unlocks’specialized units that can only be created when an armory is built
  • It allows you to ‘research’technology to improve your army

Empires ‘requirement’ buildings
It is important to point out before we go much further; Empires is a game of ‘requirements’ when it comes to most things. For example, to produce specialized units an armory must be built. There are more then a few of these requirements. For example, in WWI you can’t simply build a tank factory, you have to first build a barracks, then an armory. Don’t be intimidated by the various requirements, in a few games they will become obvious and after a while you won’t give it much thought. For now, realize that an armory is something you are going to want to build eventually. It is not however as important as the barracks or stable.

Unit Special Abilities
A new twist in this genre is this concept that some units have ‘special abilities’ . This is a hot key (you can use the mouse too don’t worry) that lets you use a temporary power based on what that unit can do. There are too many special abilities to list here. You will want to learn them though, especially once you see your opponent using them against you and you lose a battle because of it. One of the most powerful special abilities in medieval is specific to some of the basic Korean units, martial arts. This gives Korean units a temporary speed and attack boost and the wise player will avoid direct combat when a Korean unit is using this ability. At some point you will need to learn them all, most units have them, and they different for every civ.

One thing that we have not covered, but is extremely important, is the concept scouting. Because of the FOW (fog of war) in Empires, you can’t see what your opponent is doing. There are various different ways to scout, and each civ has a unique way to do this. You will figure that out soon enough. Scouting is not a do or die activity. But for me, I can’t imagine what it would be like to play this game without scouting and knowing where my opponent is and what his army is made up of. There is a Latin saying roughly translated to “know thyself”, in this case, the saying would go “know thy enemy”. The most important thing to know is what kind of army is being produced (so you can make the proper counter units).

Producing Your Army
So, you can see there is a lot of background information provided here just to get you up to speed enough to start making an army. If you haven’t guessed it by now, Empires is a complex game. Good players are well equipped with the specifics of military balance; and armed with this information along with effective scouting and just plain experience, effective armies are constructed. This is the primary reason why new players are so completely overwhelmed by an experienced player. They simply do not understand the foundation of RTS balance. Your army should serve a purpose. You should have a specific reason for creating a specific type of unit, even if the reason is; it’s the only unit you can afford. ANY type of army is better then none at all.

Let’s go back to our build order from the first article in this series:

  • We have 4 to 6 villagers collecting apples next to Settlement 1
  • We have 2 to 4 villagers chopping wood then building a Barracks next to Settlement 2
  • We have 1 to 3 villagers collecting gold next to Settlement 2

So now what?

OK, as soon as your barracks is built, produce a unit. For Franks it is either an archer or a ‘man at arms’ . For Korea it is a spearman or a twin swordsman.

Which one first? Archer or melee unit? Depends on what you are going to try to do.

Let’s back up a step and think this through.

From this point forward, everything costs wood, gold, or food. This is where the fun starts, and this is where you start getting left behind by the experts; because you need to manage your economy AND your military. This is not an easy task; you won’t learn it in a day, or even a week.

Now, if you have been paying attention you know what I am about to preach:

You need CONSTANT MILITARY production from your barracks. Everything that you do from this point should be dedicating to raising an army. Build several types of military buildings, grow your economy so that you can crank out hundreds of units if necessary in short amount of time. The bigger the size of your army, the better off you are. Even better still, a slightly smaller army of units that counter your opponents units based on the rock/paper/scissor combat theory gives you battlefield supremacy, and can win you the game.

I can tell you right now, I doubt I have ever done this perfectly. Think about this, you have to manage your villagers in such a way that there is enough food for constant villie flow from your TC and enough additional food, wood, and gold for constant army production from your barracks; scout your enemy; and create the proper units that counter your opponents. It’s not easy to do. But in the early stages of the game, how well you can or cannot do this is what separates the men from the boys.

Experts can run constant villie flow from a single TC up to 50 villagers, run 5 or 6 military buildings constantly producing, hunt, fish, and farm, scout, expand, engage in three simultaneous battles, and chat to everyone in the game, all at the same time. It is crazy to think about the micro this must take. Rick Goodman, the creator of this game often remarks that watching a true expert play (in the same room) is a truly amazing experience. Expert RTS players are not normal human beings…they are some kind of newly evolved computer species.

The Rush
‘Rushing’ is a mostly misunderstood concept. It’s gotten a bad name over the years, and I think that is unfortunate. Rushing, simply put, is attacking as soon as humanly possible. It means your very first unit attacks and every unit produced attacks immediately, until your enemy is overwhelmed. An effective rush can win the game in 6 minutes or less! Being on the receiving end of a rush as a new player is not a pleasant experience.

However, you can’t ignore the rush. It’s a common tactic. You will get rushed many times over. Far too many players stop trying when they are being rushed, and resign. There is no doubt that one possible result of a rush is that you will lose. But you must realize how risky a rush is for the player attempting it. The rusher is leaving his town unprotected, and focusing his early attention on attacking you. His economy is suffering a bit, it simply is not getting the attention it deserves.

Try to realize that there is often time to relocate and mount a counter attack on the rusher’s undefended base. You can use deception to feign weakness while you are being rushed, and do everything in your power to mount a counter attack on his undefended base. It does take a bit if patience and maturity to do this. Also, at the very least remember to fight back with your villagers. This is war, don’t give up too easily, and fight to the last man, woman, and child.

Even better advice: learn how to rush yourself. If you work on your own rush, you will quickly learn its weaknesses and you will be able to turn the tide on a rusher who risks too much. Just realize, an all out rush is a risk, it’s not unstoppable. It never has and it never will be. The rush is mostly viewed as ultra effective, because far too many people resign to it rather then gut it out and marshal everything for a counter offensive.

Massing an Army
The alternative to rushing is to wait a bit before you attack, and put together a sizable force. This gives you time to build additional buildings and to get your economy rolling. Make sure you are massing the right mix of soldiers. If your scouting reveals that the enemy has 20 archers, 20 spearman will do you no good. When you mass an army, deploy them in a defensive position near your villagers.

You may think that raiding un-armed villagers is cowardly, but you will quickly learn that raiding villagers and denting the economy of an opponent is just as effective as winning a military battle. While you may not be destroying military units, you are ensuring that the resources needed to make an even larger army are denied from your enemy. This can actually be a turning point in game. Learn to raid and more importantly; understand that you will also be raided.

Being Defensive
One resource that we haven’t mentioned thus far is stone. You can collect stone to build walls and towers, and in fact you start the game with enough stone to build a few walls. A strategically placed wall or tower can help with baseline defenses and act as an early warning system, but it simply cannot replace an army. If you choose to play defensively at times, understand that the same basic RTS rules from the first article in this series still apply. If you sit back and wait, you will be attacked by a large force, and if you are not doing anything while you wait, the large force will be a lot larger then yours and you will lose. Playing defensively is not an excuse to relax and lose focus on what you are doing. Always stay busy scouting and making sure your economy is running smoothly. Never, ever, try to exist on the map without an army.

Escalating the Conflict
You may be surprised to hear that a lot of games that you will play will take place in a single age, with neither side advancing. This happens when you find yourself evenly matched and the battles and skirmishes rage on. Advancing to the next age simply costs too many resources and you find yourself needed every last bit of wood, gold, and food to keep reinforcing your army. This is the equivalent of being ‘in the zone’so learn to enjoy the experience and go ahead and try to win the game in this situation. Other factors will give you a cue as to when to attempt an age advance. We will cover when to advance to the next age in another article.

Next Article: Advanced Battlefield Tactics