A Guide for Returning to Age of Empires

As Age of Empires IV finally rises, my decade and a half absence from the series has come to a close. Age of Empires has always been a series that I’ve liked but one I’ve never properly been able to get into. Not because of the game itself, it’s incredible. No, because of my lack of gaming PC.

Like many others for most of my life, I was console based. I went through the classic trajectory of having a PS2, a 360, a PS4 and a smattering of Nintendo devices, before as an adult finally committing to a greater way of gaming and buying myself a PC.

Now, I’ve played the games a little bit, I played Age of Empires II at my cousin’s, and I played some Age of Empires III on my mum’s work laptop, which I literally played with on my lap using the trackpad.

Which means Age of Empires IV is the first time I’ll really be playing the series with a proper setup, making me the perfect person to help you get back into the game as well. So, welcome to my Age of Empires IV guide, taught by someone who hasn’t played the series in 15 years. A trusted expert who currently boasts almost 11 hours in the game. 

And while this article is part guide, it’s also part review and part me just talking about my experience. Also, if you are interested in the video version of the post, then you can check it out here.


The Absolute Basics

Let’s go over the basics, much as I did, just a few days ago. I kicked off the tutorial and got used to the core mechanics again. There are villagers who get resources, which are needed to build units and buildings. For example, one villager costs 50 food, while the lumber camp costs 50 wood.

Lumber camps, just like mines and mills, are places where the villagers can put the resources so they spend less time walking and more time gathering. 

Hot Tip 1: You want to place them right next to the resource they’re gathering to maximise efficiency. 

These buildings can be upgraded to make work more efficient for not just this specific building but all buildings of its kind. 

Hot Tip 2: It’s often good to upgrade these as soon as possible to give you the bonus for the longest possible time. For example, it’s good to upgrade the lumber camp immediately after building your first one.

There are also military buildings, which will create military units of their corresponding type. Barracks make melee units, archery ranges make ranged units, stables make calvary and siege workshops make siege units. 


Early Game Expectations

Halfway through the tutorial, my friends, who I’ll refer to as Max and Tom, were ready to play a game. So, I restarted my Age of Empires IV career with them by my side against three intermediate AI. At the start of the game, I posed the question, “Should I expect to be better than this level AI?”, and they said, “Yes”. Which was both wrong and right.

It was wrong in the sense that from pretty early on, the AI was persistently harassing me. I was going through the usual song and dance of making villagers and building up my empire, but I was making rookie mistakes, like I wasn’t upgrading my buildings, and I didn’t build a military fast enough. 

This meant I was constantly on the back foot the whole time as the AI kept sending in forces to attack me. Big shoutout to Tom as he did help me, but the AI were too much. After repelling the first couple of waves, they finally won, all but wiping me out of the match. 

Undeterred, however, I escaped with 11 villagers and built a new town centre behind my friends’ empires; starting anew. 

Hot Tip 3: This situation can be tempting to surrender and restart, but in team game modes, you can bring these games back, and they are all the more satisfying when you do so.

For me this early destruction led to phase two of my game, which was sort of nice as I had no pressure on me, and this meant I could really focus on the mechanics without needing to outpace the AI. 


Military Construction

During my re-ascension, I looked more actively at upgrades. Each unit has its own upgrade, which makes it stronger and can even unlock abilities. 

Hot Tip 4: Upgrades are expensive, so picking a few units, like one type of melee, ranged, cavalry and siege and building a bunch of those with lots of upgrades, is a more effective way to use your resources than having multiple different units of the same type and spreading low level upgrades across all of them. For the most part. 

When it comes to combat, Age of Empires has a rock, paper, scissors style of combat, where certain units are strong against one type and weak against another. Melee units are good against cavalry, which can rush down siege units, which outgun ranged units, which pick off melee units. There is more to it than this, but this is a good rule of thumb.

Hot Tip 5: This super effective v.s. not very effective combat style leads the military creation process to be focused around thinking about what the opposition has and trying to counter pick. 

Hot Tip 6: However, leaning too heavily on one unit type means you yourself can be countered. 

This doesn’t mean that a balanced army with all 4 unit types is best as you can wreck shop with just one or two unit types. It means that you have to think about which units you’re versing and try to either counter those or ensure you’re not being countered, or just outgun them so hard it doesn’t matter.


Research and Upgrades

While we talked a little about research on buildings and units, there are also dedicated buildings, such as the blacksmith and the university, that can provide bonuses through upgrades and are definitely worth creating and investing in. 

Hot Tip 7: Check which upgrades actually apply to the type of game you’re playing and choose those. 

Starting out it can be tempting to just upgrade generically because you have the resources, you know you should be upgrading but might not know what to invest in; which is what I did. Although taking a little bit of time to actually see if it’s worth it as only some will really be necessary, is hugely beneficial. For example, if you don’t have siege units, you don’t need the siege ability, or if you’re not being attacked and are on the offensive yourself, you don’t have to worry about extra building health.


Traders and Markets

During this extended down time, I also got a little bit of experience with traders and markets. Traders make gold, which is great as if you don’t have a gold mine, which is likely to happen mid to late game, markets and traders become your main and sometimes only way to make money.

Hot Tip 8: You earn more money the further your trader has to travel.

This means it can be worth placing your trader as far in the backline as possible and having your teammate do the same. This way, they are both safe from being plundered but are still maximising the distance travelled.

Hot Tip 9: If you are playing with multiple teammates, sending your traders to the further teammate is worth doing.

Markets can make money in more ways than just building traders, they can be used to buy and sell resources. I found that making a tonne of resources, specifically wood and food, and selling that was really effective at making gold as well. 

Hot Tip 10: If you do this though, don’t flood the market because the price will drop to 10 gold per 100 units, and it can be better to just wait a couple minutes for the market to recover, then you can sell again at 30, 40, or 50 gold per hundred units.


The Different Ages

In this cursed game where I chilled behind my friends for most of it, I managed to level up to the Castle Age, Age 3 and Age 4, the Imperial Age, also the last age. Levelling up ages unlocks new building units and upgrades. Progressing through the ages at a reasonable pace is critically important. If you get behind, it can be a death sentence. I often found myself getting behind because I just kept pumping out military units and villagers and was exhausting all of my resources in an attempt to stay on pace. 

Hot Tip 11: This tactic is a trap. Take a breather from making new buildings and units, let your food/gold rise, then take the new age. 

The new age will lead to better upgrades to allow for better resource acquisition to make up for the temporary slowdown while also letting you get new units and abilities, which can be crucial for growth. 


Different Civilisations Do Different Things

After a couple games, you might really start to look at the fact that there are different civilisations that do different things. For anyone who’s played Civilization, EU4, Heart of Iron or any game with classes, then you’re familiar with the concept. 

These different civilisations actually make a fairly big difference in how you play the game. When I played as the English, I had a lot of Longbowmen because they have an extra powerful and special version of the Longbowmen, which is unique to them only, while my Assabid game was basically all dudes on horses. I made a lot of cavalry and made sure even my archers had a horsey friend. 

While these differences can be overwhelming, they are important to recognise. If you try to play every game the same, then you will likely be massively be underutilising your chosen civilisations and your ability to succeed. 

Hot Tip 12: I would suggest either picking a civilization that complements your natural playstyle or trying to play the way you think you are meant to with that empire. 

Even doing a poor job of playing that civilisation style will likely end up with you having a better game than if you just did your default thing and played well generically.

For example, there are relics and religion in the game, and I basically didn’t engage with this at all as it was too much for me to handle early on. So, when I played as the Holy Roman Empire, an empire focused around religion and relics, I really didn’t get the most out of them because I wasn’t good at using the main mechanic that they are good at, and this was my worst game, even though outside of this I had a strong game.


There’s Also Religion

Now that religion has been mentioned, let’s discuss. There are a few things to be aware of. 

Firstly, religious buildings, which come online in the third age, produce religious units. 

Lukewarm Tip 1: These units can heal your units, so having a few in your army can help to keep your dudes fighting, although they will almost always die super fast as they beeline towards the frontline.

Religious units can also acquire these aforementioned relics, which are scattered across the map. I only captured one in my first seven games, and it’s only because we were playing islands and it was ridiculously close to me, and yet the AI still managed to get there before me. These relics give you bonuses and gold and are stored in your religious building. 

Hot Tip 13: Don’t just ignore relics like I did, try to at least capture the couple that will be very close to you as the bonuses are great.

The game also has holy sites, which are captured by religious units, and if you control all of them for 10 minutes, then you win. I managed to do this once, and it felt pretty good.

Religious units can only convert military units, but I’m not super sure how. I’ll be honest, religion is not my strong suit.


Dealing with the AI’s Attacks

Let’s quickly talk about what you can expect from the AI and how to deal with it. I should note I played a little bit against intermediate AI but mostly versus hard AI (the second most difficult), so I’m not sure how this advice applies to the easiest and hardest difficulties. The AI is actually pretty good at sending units towards you consistently and will put pressure on you for most of the game. They attack in well-constructed and organised armies. They also will lean into the civilisations bonuses and uniqueness to keep the upper hand. 

Hot Tip 14: It can be good to create a barracks and get 10 or so spearmen earlier on to be ready for an early attack. If you don’t, then they will roll into your land and kill you. This is a mistake I made on two separate occasions and led me to being wiped both times.

Hot Tip 15: Conversely, doing raids can be a great way to hurt them early on and can make them weaker for the entire game; this is especially effective if you team up with someone else to do it. 

Hot Tip 16: To defend against bigger attacks, make sure you build walls. Building walls to the boundary on the map and just encasing a decent size of land and resources can be really good for the mid and late game. 

If your walls are too tightly packed around your area, then your villagers will have to leave them to get resources later, leaving them very vulnerable. However, building the walls in too large an area can mean it’s really tough to defend your perimeter and makes it easy for you to be broken into and ‘forward settled’, which is when the opponent constructs a new base ‘forward’, or more specifically, close to you. 

This is a mistake I also made, and this led me to watching as an outpost was destroyed before I could bring my army over. While I talked about this in regard to the AI, this advice also applies to players, mostly. The issue is that players are way more unpredictable, and it’s harder to give general advice.


The AI’s Struggles with Water

As most people could have assumed, the water maps are where the AI struggles the most, which is unsurprising because I can imagine programming good island map tactics is really hard. 

This is seen in two main ways. For one, naval combat is a little bit janky, but overall isn’t too bad, though it’s definitely a little bit more wild and wacky than land combat. 

Hot Tip 17: Building up naval units and getting control of the water can be a great way to keep the opposition down as it lets you prevent them from moving forward or exploring and means you can get easy kills against their ships and any buildings close to the water.

The other much more noticeable area is the AI’s kind of shooty ability to coordinate attacks. When playing a 3v3 against hard AI on an island map, the AI basically just only attacked me constantly through the game and not my allies. Why? I don’t know. 

You might think this is a major issue, but it was kind of okay to deal with because they just kept sending small groups of units to attack me. Sometimes straight up one or two at a time, all of which I could easily repel. 

Their best attack was when they dropped two siege units and two melee units in my backline and took out a dock before I rolled over and wiped them out. Overall, I just wasn’t really sure why they were doing this, and they were a lot easier to deal with than when the AI was on land. 



So, is Age of Empires IV good? I mean, yeah, it’s amazing. The Age of Empires concept is a stone cold killer, and they’ve cleaned it up and produced another masterpiece of the real-time strategy genre. A masterpiece that you are now fully equipped to perfect after watching this inspirational guide, even if you, just like me, have been away from the game for well over 10 years.

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