Sybex Strategy Guide Review

By Rohag

Rise of Nations: Sybex Official Strategies & Secrets
Author: Michael Rymaszewski et al.
Publisher: Sybex, 2003; 256 pages
List Price: $19.99 US

Rise of Nations: Sybex Official Strategies & Secrets by Michael Rymaszewski is the product of extensive collaboration with the game's designers and playtesters, including Big Huge Games' Producer and Senior Game Designer. The result is a comprehensive, analytical strategy guide for competitive gamers and less-competitive but no-less-serious hobbyists wanting to swim in the depths of Rise of Nations.

Few people who have played Rise of Nations (RoN) label it "revolutionary" in the sense of creating a new gaming genre, but almost all recognize it as a departure from the real-time strategy (RTS) norm. A number of experienced gamers posting in the various fan forums dedicated to RoN have commented on how they started to enjoy the game much more after freeing themselves from reflexes developed in thousands of hours of playing other apparently similar games. RoN employs elegant conventions drawn from both the turn-based strategy (TBS) and RTS worlds that have never before come together in quite this fashion. The game ships with a 38-page pamphlet covering the basics, but such a short guide cannot serve to mentor you to higher levels of play.

Chapters One and Two of the Sybex manual serve as an abbreviated introduction for newcomers, which explain basic RTS concepts and introduce RoN's excellent in-game tutorials and the game's Quick Battle (skirmish) mode. Additionally, these chapters offer a few basic tips on effective gameplay, including short strategic commentary for each of the eighteen nations.

*Helpful tips like this appear throughout the book

If you confine your examination of the Sybex manual to its first two chapters, however, you miss the mark. The following 209 pages of small-font discussion and analysis - enlivened with illustrations and sidebar tips - are the real substance of the book.

Chapters Three through Seven drill down to the bedrock of core game elements - economics, research, wonders, and military forces. Here's where the guide translates the actual rules of the game into plain, non-binary language, all with an emphasis on their gameplay implications. RoN's discontinuity from previous RTS designs is significant enough that even players experienced in the genre may not find any number of game concepts immediately intuitive, such as the "commerce cap." Mr. Rymaszewski shortens the path to gaming enlightenment - a few examples:

  • "There's a research-induced food crisis in every game that starts in Ancient Age..." (pg. 34)
  • "...on the average, one merchant or fisherman is worth three working citizens..." (pg. 47)
  • "For entertainment as well as practical purposes, each nation is assigned its 'birthstone' rare resource..." (pg. 48)
  • "Players who want to play a peaceful game at a high difficulty level are practically doomed to lose because of the A.I.'s research efficiency." (pg. 55)
  • "...this is the [research] setting the computer opponents like least..." (pg. 55)
  • "This is a milestone advance that results in the entire map being revealed. Achieving this prior to Industrial Age can be key to winning the game!" (pg. 65)
  • "Early wonders cost less than half a dozen military units..." (pg. 76)
  • "This rather spectacular benefit [of the Terra Cotta Army] obscures some drawbacks..." (pg. 79)
  • "This particular Wonder earns its investment back in a minute of game time." (pg. 84)
  • "...note that when it [the Flamethrower unit] appears, it has better anti-tank capability than the anti-tank rifle..." (pg. 89)

Rymaszewski does not unthinkingly echo the suggestions and approaches of RoN's developers. For instance, his approach to using nuclear weapons and Armageddon in the late game (pg. 98) is quite different from BHG Producer Paul Stephanouk's (the author of Chapter 11, "Advanced Tactics"); one counsels aggression and the other caution - aggression to prevent the weaker party from playing spoiler by eliminating their capacity to attain or use nuclear weapons; caution seeking the same effect by placing control of the Armageddon Clock in the hands of the stronger.

Chapters Eight - "Building the Perfect Empire" - and Nine - "The Art of War" - are particularly impressive. The author's goal is arming the single player to defeat the computer on the tough-toughest difficulty levels, but he seems always to keep an eye on multiplayer, to which all of Chapter Twelve is devoted. Personally, I appreciate 1) his list of safest-bet nations for the beginner and those nations particularly lethal in the hands of certain types of more experienced players, and 2) this little gem: "You'll put yourself at maximum advantage against the computer opponents if you start the game with Nomad, Low resources, Technology cost/research speed Very Expensive/Slow. The A.I. has been optimized at standard settings, and naturally you'll deal with the extra difficulty more skillfully than it can" (pg. 116).

The usefulness of build orders is a matter of fierce debate, particularly in RoN with its many game set-up options and play modes. To oblige the overwhelmed, you can find a sample build order and commentary on pages 128-129 - but only after the bulk of the chapter carefully walks you through considerations for each step of the game without rigid reference to build or action sequences.

*Make sure your cities are far enough apart to generate good trade routes. The longer the route, the more wealth you generate.

Chapter Eight is also notable for Michael Rymaszewski's development of a somewhat unique classification of the basic strategies and the "Age Jump." To "Boom" and "Rush" he adds "Needle and Hammer" and "Border Push" (this last strategy exclusive to Rise of Nations) while not mentioning "Turtling" at all (he doesn't believe in defense: "Don't play defensively, even when playing at the Toughest difficulty level. Remember that acting first gives you the initiative" p. 140). The intriguing idea of the "Age Jump," an idea initially introduced in Chapter Four, is expanded here. Two chronological points exist in most standard games where a player may most easily age-up twice in quick succession. Prepared and accomplished properly, Age Jumping can give a player a significant advantage.

"The Art of War" chapter also nicely expands earlier discussions. "A Short History of the Army" (pgs. 94-98) suggested armed forces' priorities for each stage of the game along with discussion of the idiosyncrasies of the various nations' armed forces. Chapter Nine moves upward into battle-management and grand-strategic considerations. Like other key chapters, the advice here is founded not only on gameplay but also apparently on thorough acquaintance with the game files - unit factors, algorithms, etc.

*Placing a Fort or tower on a hill like this will provide a tremendous advantage. Especially when coupled with a river to slow the enemy down.

By the way, terrain matters. RoN is a 3D game - despite the impressions of too many observers, and units move up slopes more slowly, have a longer line of sight at the top of hills, and enjoy defensive advantages not only when higher than enemy troops but also when in the rocky patches on the map where oil shows up in the Industrial age (pg. 140).

Michael Rymaszewski's other contributions include chapters on the Risk-like grand single-player "Conquer the World" campaign and another on "Mastering Multiplayer." "Conquer the World's" rules are not extensive; in the game itself the rules consist of a single page and in the standard guide they take up but three pages of light text. The Sybex guide offers full discussion of the rules and strategy of the metagame and how it affects entering into RTS battles.

Multiplayer has never been a personal strength, and the guide's suggested entry-level threshold for online multiplayer is rather intimidating: "...winning tough solo games (land-only or single land-mass map, seven opponents, Survival of the Fittest) on the Tough difficulty level" (pg. 182). In any event, for the daring Rymaszewski emphasizes the distinctive character of online play and where strategies against AIs diverge from those against people.

So, is the book worth the price?

Some true RoN fans might consider purchasing this guide simply for its Chapter 11, "Advanced Tactics," by RoN's Producer Paul Stephanouk. Mr. Stephanouk is an avid gamer of many genres and one of the founders of BHG. He offers a subtly different strategic approach to the game from that of the rest of the manual, and you certainly have to take the game's Producer's opinion seriously! I found the Stephanouk unit-counters diagram (p. 174) particularly interesting; it reveals RoN's unit counter relationships (what is often called "rock-paper-scissors" or RPS) are actually of two severities - "light" and "heavy." In an information-dense manual, this chapter is perhaps the densest.

Rounding out the book are three appendices nearly 50 pages in length. These are far more than endless charts; all structured presentation of information is accompanied by analytic commentary: Building statistics, Standard Units and Unique National Units.

Positives

  • Official in the best sense - significant designer/developer input.
  • Foreword by Brian Reynolds and "Advanced Tactics" by Paul Stephanouk.
  • Well-written and extensive.
  • Built on knowledge of the inner workings of the game.
  • Much nation- and age-specific information
  • Sensitive to the fluidity and depth of the game; doesn't push templated build orders.
  • Usefulness of charts greatly enhanced by commentary
  • Many interesting tips and suggestions (one favorite: "Keep in mind that breaking the rules [regarding map size] can be entertaining and instructive...a quick game involving eight players starting with Nomad on a Small land map provides a lot of laughs in addition to frenzied gameplay..." p. 23)

Negatives

  • No index.
  • No default hotkey or drag-filter chart
  • Doesn't address scenario editing
  • Could use even more charts
  • Approaches the game from a higher-level competitive RTS perspective and thus may intimidate beginners and TBS gamers just trying out RTS

The Key Question: Who Should Buy It?

Anyone who enjoys Rise of Nations could profit from information in the Sybex guide, even the most expert of players. More specifically, the following might seriously consider purchasing the official Sybex guide:

  • Competitive multiplayer types who wish to leave no stone unturned in their search for an edge over the competition.
  • TBS gamers who wish to make a serious effort to enjoy an RTS and gain an appreciation for the real strategy that can be found in an RTS.
  • Gamers who either are uncomfortable digging through game files and sifting and analyzing the raw information for themselves or who just prefer having someone else do that for them.
  • Those who are seeking insight into RoN's design and people like me for whom thinking about games is a hobby in itself.

Should anyone definitely skip the purchase?

The Sybex guide is a serious, lengthy work and may demand too much time and thought for too little return in recreational enjoyment for some. If RoN is "just another title" in your gaming library you can easily pass. At the opposite end of the hobby spectrum, a very technically-oriented gamer who enjoys digging through the guts of games for him or herself to draw their own conclusions may find this manual reveals too much and robs something of the thrill of discovery.

My thanks to Sybex for providing a review copy of the guide, and I wish Michael Rymaszewski further success in making gaming more fun!