I recently tried the demo for Age of Empires III: Asian Dynasties. I really enjoyed…most of it. The setting is far more interesting in my opinion than that of the Americas and holy cow it’s the prettiest Age game ever by a mile.

But in the end, it shares the design flaw that I think prevented Age of Empires III from replicating the success of its predecessors.

In the beginning, there was Age of Empires. Age of Empires had three basic units: archers, infantry, and cavalry. These are arranged in classic “rock-paper-scissors” format. Archers beat the slow infantrymen (as long as they get to attack at range). Cavalry beat archers because they can close quickly. And infantrymen beat cavalry…for some reason. Classic design, easy to understand.

Age of Empires II added a whole bunch new units but in the end didn’t mess with the basic formula too much. Most of the new units were simply better archers, infantry and cavalry and could be used in the same way.

With Age of Mythology, Ensemble decided it was time to start mixing up the design. They introduced three new classes of units – normal human units, heroes, and mythological units. These three classes are also arranged in the rock-paper-scissors wheel – humans beat heroes beat myth units beat humans. But each class also has archers, infantry and cavalry within them; thus human archers are really, really good at beating hero infantry because archers beat infantry and humans beat heroes. This wasn’t…too bad, but I did feel that the design was starting to get out of hand.

Age of Mythology also introduced the idea of counter-units. These are units that are only good against the same type of unit – that is, archers that are only good against other archers, infantry that are only good against other infantry, etc. Thus, you don’t have to remember what beats what if you’re using counter-units – you counter with the same unit you’re being attacked with. Not a terrible idea, but the only counter-units in the game were humans; it was still up to you to remember how the hero and myth wheels worked. So it probably just ended up confusing players even more.

And then in Age of Empires III they messed it up completely by expanding the wheel to five unit types – archers, infantry, hand cavalry, archer cavalry, and artillery. With three unit types there are exactly three interactions: archers beat infantry beat cavalry beat archers. With five there are now ten interactions: infantry beats hand cavalry beats artillery beats archers beats archer cavalry beats artillery beats infantry beats archer cavalry beats hand cavalry beats archers beats infantry.

Yeah, I think that last sentence sums up Age III’s design flaw perfectly. The interactions are now too big for most people to hold in their heads any more. Age III is a perfect example of designers on the latest iteration of a long-running series adding features just to make the current version different from its predecessors without thinking about how well those features work as a game. Why do they do this? Well, I think it’s mostly the fault of reviewers. I may have mentioned this before, but I was appalled at the reviews Dungeon Keeper 2 got; over and over I heard reviewers say, “It’s just Dungeon Keeper with a fully 3D engine, some minor design tweaks to fix problems, and some new units and room types.” Uh, yeah. That’s why it was one of the best games of 1999 in my opinion – it was an already great game made even better by improving the base design and not betraying it with lots of unnecessary changes. But if reviewers don’t see enough new stuff…

When designers write a sequel to a game, their goal should be to supersede the original. Once the sequel comes out, players should have no desire to go back to the previous version.