Rise of Nations 101: Refreshing the Genre

By Hemlock

Birth of a Fan-Boy

I have a confession. I have not been anxiously awaiting the release of Rise of Nations. Nor have I been following the development. At the last two Microsoft future product events I attended, I breezed past the RoN display dismissing it as an Empire Earth knock off while spending as much time as I could at the Age of Mythology booth. In fact, until a friend gave me a beta 2 copy in February 2003, I had spent exactly 14 seconds total doing anything related to RoN. No web site surfing. No forum lurking. I hadn't even heard of Big Huge Games.

Things changed quickly after playing RoN for the first time. It flipped a switch inside me. Age of Mythology was instantly forgotten and Rise of Nations took its place. I'm now a full-fledged, 100%, through-and-through fan-boy. What changed my mind so quickly? New game play ideas brought from the turn-based realm add elements to this game rarely seen in other real-time strategy games.

There are many articles and reviews available that cover the game in detail. In particular, Gamespy has several excellent reviews, including a nine-part series that covers each of the eighteen civilizations. Our very own One Dead Angel also has done some excellent civilization write-ups. In this review, my goal is to cover the game from a gamer's perspective; how is this game different from other real time strategy games and how does it affect game play?

Everybody has a different gaming background that influences and reflects their likes and dislikes. I am no different. My RTS history dates back to many single-player games of Dune and Warcraft 2, but it wasn't until Rise of Rome was released that I ventured into online gaming and really learned the ins and outs of real-time strategy games. To the chagrin of my ever-patient wife, I played RoR heavily for the better part of a year until the release of Age of Kings, which I played for six months or so before becoming bored by the inherently defensive nature of it. At this point, I picked up Starcraft and enjoyed an on-again off-again relationship for some time before Age of Mythology was released, which I enjoyed playing until I scored the Rise of Nations beta.

This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land...

Borders GraphicThe most notable difference between RoN and other popular real-time strategy games is the concept of national borders and “influence.” Over the course of history major population centers have exerted social, political, and economic influence on the land around them. In the game, your national boundary is the mechanism that shows how much land is under your influence. At the beginning of the game, each player controls a small amount of territory around their first city. As your empire grows, the civilization will influence more and more of the surrounding land.

Why are national borders important? For starters, you cannot build any buildings on land that is outside your national boundary. The most obvious strategic impact of this is that there is no way to set up a forward military base on your opponent. Rushing isn't dead, but your rush isn't going to originate from a hidden corner of the map. Another major consequence of this design decision is that you need to plan your territorial expansion in such a way as to be able to claim important resources. After all, if you don't have resources somewhere in your territory, you can't build the buildings necessary to collect them.

Another benefit of having defined national borders is that you can, by researching the proper technologies, apply slow, continuous “attrition” damage to nearly all enemy troops that enter your territory. Attrition can be countered by bringing supply wagons along with attacking troops, but it's a sure bet they will be prime targets for defensive forces. Be sure to defend your wagons well or your unsupplied army will be making a one-way trip to its virtual maker.

Three Rules of Real Estate: Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, LocationThe concept of cities is an area where Rise of Nations shows strong roots in turn-based strategy games. In most RTS games “cities” are merely a collection of buildings placed somewhere on the map and may or may not include a Town Center. In RoN cities are individual entities that require strategic positioning and are needed for economic development.

Remember those major population centers that influence the surrounding land? Cities fulfill that role in RoN. When you build a new city, your influence in that part of the map increases, which brings more territory under your control. Placement of cities plays a critical role in the game. If you want to rush, you're better off building your second city towards the center of the map to get your military buildings as close to the enemy as possible; however, on some maps it is more economically sound to place your city off to one side or the other near prime resource locations. What do you do? Therein lies a critical strategic decision that will have a large impact on the first 20 minutes of the game and most likely influence the final outcome. And this decision is made within the first 3 minutes!

Cities are also important for economic development. RoN requires that nearly all economic buildings be built within the city limits. In most cases, you are allowed to build only one of each economic building in each city. If you do not build new cities quickly, you will be limiting your early economic development and crippling your opportunities to win.

One particular city in your empire is important above all others; your capital. Your first city is your capital and you must defend it with everything you have if it comes under attack. If you lose your capital, you lose the game. It doesn't matter how many other cities you have, how much territory you control, or how big your army is. Simply put, you live and die by your capital. There have been several games in which I have pulled out a capital victory against an opponent who was better developed than I.

Forget the Guns, Let's Talk About Butter

Real-time strategy games are characterized by two key necessities: economic development and military battles. Economic development is all about collecting resources. Whoever can get “the most the fastest” has a decided advantage in the game. Rise of Nations is no different. What is different about RoN is the concept of resource flow and a commerce cap.

Resource CappedThe commerce cap restricts how quickly you can gather resources. The idea behind the commerce cap is that a civilization's infrastructure is only advanced enough to process resources at a fixed rate. Anything more than that is wasted and cannot be used. As your civilization progresses and becomes more advanced, it will become more efficient and your commerce cap increases.

Going along with the new importance of resource flow, Rise of Nations also changes the way resources are collected. Other RTS games have villagers who will continue to gather the resource until they can't carry any more, after which they will drop them off at a resource collection point. You don't actually get to use the resource until it has been deposited at the collection point. This leads to economic micromanagement chores such as guessing when your gatherers have collected just enough food to trigger that needed upgrade and manually dropping it off at the collection point.

Forget about doing that in RoN. Each working villager provides a steady income of the resource they are working on. There is no concept of villagers carrying resources. If you pull a villager off of a Lumber Camp, your timber flow immediately drops by 10. Likewise, when you assign a villager to a Lumber Camp, your timber flow will increase by 10 as soon as he arrives there.

Here are a couple more important points about resources. First, resources are non-depleting. When you set up a Mine at the beginning of the game, that camp will provide you with metal for the entire game. Second, you are limited to how many villagers you can assign to a Lumber Camp or Mine by the amount of resources around it. For example, if you build a Lumber Camp on a large forest, you can easily have 8 or 9 villagers collecting wood from that one location. Conversely, setting up a camp on a small forest will only accommodate 2 or 3 workers. As a matter of fact, the position of the lumber camp on a single forest will affect how many villagers you can assign to it. The prudent gamer will take a couple of moments and find the best location for their camps.

In addition to typical resources such as Food, Wood, and Metal, RoN also throws in Wealth, Knowledge, and in the later ages, Oil. Wealth, the equivalent of gold in other games, is not mined in RoN; it must be collected by caravans running trade routes between your cities or through fishing. Knowledge is perhaps the most unique of the resources. You gain Knowledge by building Universities and filling them with Scholars. (Fortunately, BHG decided not to include student protests as part of the realism model.) It alone among the six resources is exempt from the commerce cap. In the latter half of the game, Knowledge often is the resource that limits your advancement. Oil doesn't even show up on the map until it becomes an important resource in the Industrial (6th) age.

How Do I Advance My Empire? Let Me Count the Ways...

AgingResearch and technology has a new face for those who are used to the Age games. There are 5 main technology paths that are researched in the Library. They are Age advances, Military, Commerce, Civics, and Science. Each of the five technologies has 8 levels of research associated with it.

With 8 ages to progress through over the course of a 30-60 minute game, the impact of advancing ages is not as dramatic as it is in many other games. Instead, the bonuses and requirements have been spread out across all five tech paths. For example, if you want to build a stable, you not only need to be in the Classical (2nd) age, but you also need to have researched Military level two. These intertwined requirements are common throughout the game.

The primary benefit of the Military path is that it increases your population limit. That's right, houses are history in RoN. At Military level 1, your population cap is 25. Each successive level of Military research increases your pop cap by 25 topping out at 200. Military research also speeds up transport ships and decreases unit and unit upgrade costs.

Researching Commerce is the way to increase your commerce cap. (Big surprise, huh?) It also increases the number of caravans you're allowed to have. If you want to grow your economy, Commerce and Civics, which increases the number of cities you can build, are the main technologies you need. It's not uncommon for my Commerce and Civics technologies to be 2 or 3 levels ahead of my age.

Science research gives you about a 10% discount on all of the other 4 technologies. While this doesn't sound like much help, over the course of a game a player who keeps up with his Science research will have many more resources to spend than a player who lets his Science lag. Science research is also critical for getting University upgrades that improve your Scholars and increase your Knowledge inflow. Most economic upgrades also require Science research.

It's important to note that these are only the technologies that are available at the Library. There are numerous other technologies to research at Granaries, Lumber Mills, Smelters, military buildings, etc. In a brilliant departure from Age games, there is nothing to research at the Town Center.

Diplomacy: The Fine Art of Buying a Friend

Diplomacy ScreenRise of Nations is the first game I've played where diplomacy can have a real impact on the game. There are three relationships that one empire can have with another: Peace, War, or Allied.

In standard games, everyone starts at Peace with one another. What does it mean to be at Peace with another nation? Not only can you not target their units or buildings, but if your units venture into their territory, they will take significant peaceful attrition. Peaceful attrition is normal attrition on steroids. It inflicts damage at a much higher rate than normal attrition and cannot be countered with supply wagons. Additionally, it is automatic; no research is required for peaceful attrition to take effect. This type of attrition prevents a peaceful neighbor from ringing your capital with his army and surprising you with a declaration of war.

Big Huge Games has also added another element to make Diplomacy relevant. Declaring war on anyone will cost wealth. How much it costs depends on how advanced you are. The further into the game you are, the more it costs. The wealth cost is not prohibitive, but it's not inconsequential either. I have, on occasion, been unable to start a war I had prepared for simply because I did not have the required wealth.

The last type of relationship is “allies.” This relationship grants the standard benefits that you would expect: Shared line of sight, ability to trade between allies' cities, attrition-free military passage, shared victory, and things like that. One potential downside to having an ally is that you expose yourself to the black art of backstabbing. What's to stop an ally from marching his army to your capital and suddenly declaring war on you? The good folks at BHG have the answer. Before you can declare war on an ally, you go through a mandatory phase where you are at peace with them. While at peace, the invading troops will take peaceful attrition.

Regardless of your political views on the Iraqi war, if there's one thing we have learned it is that diplomacy has nothing to do with convincing other nations of the “righteousness” of your cause and everything to do with how much money you can give them. The diplomacy interface in RoN makes it very easy to negotiate with other players. You can propose a peace agreement while at the same time offering any combination of food, wood, metal, wealth, and oil. If you are a more ruthless player, you can demand resources from a neighbor in exchange for peace. Don't like an offer someone made to you? It's very easy to make a counter offer. Any resources that are included in the offer are contingent on the offer being accepted.

Final Word

When Age of Empires was released in 1997 it created quite a stir in the gaming community. Not only were people attracted to its historical basis, but the concept of ages and an expanded economic model brought new ideas and a new way of playing to the genre.

I expect that Rise of Nations will have a similar effect. In addition to the significant changes to game play, RoN has eliminated much of the tedious micromanagement and allows the player to focus on larger and more strategic decisions. Instead of spending time reassigning villagers to new resource locations or having them build another storage pit closer to the receding tree line, you focus more on what is the best way to spend your limited resources. By bringing in many concepts native to turn-based strategy games, BHG has brought a refreshingly new flavor to a genre that now seems tired and stale.