Dispatches from the Front

Two weekends ago, while going through some boxes from my move two years ago, I found my Age of Empires III collector’s edition. When I moved, I neatly repacked that collector’s edition box, and therein were my game discs. Since I didn’t have them, I couldn’t play the game (which meant that, when I felt the need to crush enemy civilizations under my boot these past twenty-four months, I turned to Rise of Nations, as I could find the game disc for that).

I played a few games the weekend I found the discs, and then every few nights I’d play a game. I’d try different maps. Sometimes I’d let the game randomly pick my opponents. Other times I’d hand pick my opponents and ally. (No, I don’t play it online. Sorry.)

Saturday evening, I fired up a game. I chose the Winter Wonderland map. This map came with a game patch back in 2005, and it’s fun. There’s a frozen lake surrounded by four town centers. In the center of the frozen lake is a Christmas tree with presents, and there are presents, decorated trees, and red-nosed reindeer scattered across the map. The computer players don’t know what to do with this map — they leave the presents (which are resources) alone — so I bulk up on resources in the early going on this map by sending a villager to the dead center of the map and let her collect all the presents.

My opponents in this game were Frederick the Great and Isabella of Spain. My ally was Suleiman the Magnificent. Isabella and Frederick rushed me early on, and that disrupted my economy to some extent, but I had control of several trading posts and, with the stagecoach upgrade to the trading route, I was able to compensate for some of my economic losses and my economy was sort of booming. (I tend to play in a booming style — focus on gathering resources in the early stages, then use those resources to build big armies and buy lots of unit upgrades.) I built a wall around my town to fend off more raids, then took down a fort that Isabella had built halfway between her town and mine. Rather than take on Isabella immediately, I continued to generate infantry and artillery units, and once I had ammassed a very large army, I smashed Isabella. My grenadiers methodically took down building after building.

I saw on the game map that Frederick had built a fort near Suleiman’s town center. I dispatched a force from the ruins of Isabella’s town across the frozen lake to attack the fort. Meanwhile, in my town I continued to generate military units, and as they were generated, I dispatched them to the ruins of Isabella’s town to join my army there.

Frederick’s fort fell, and the victorious troops I sent to the north, near the site of an Iroquois village I had allied with.

Let me describe the basic tactical situation. Frederick’s town was to the northeast of mine, directly across the frozen lake. Isabella’s town was directly to the south of Frederick’s town. Suleiman was to my north-northwest. The Iroquois village was directly to Frederick’s east. My town was walled in. Frederick’s was an unknown; I had scouted it in the game’s early stages, but none of that intel was of any use now.

My basic plan was this. Move the large force that destroyed Isabella’s town north to strike Frederick from the south. Move the force around the Iroquois village east to catch Frederick unawares from the west. Classic pincer movement to crush Frederick like a vice.

Frederick attacked the wall surrounding my town.

I was pondering my plan, and Frederick’s war wagons were demolishing my town’s walls. My town’s only defenses were those walls. I had hit my population cap, too, so I couldn’t generate any more military units from my barracks, stables, or artillery foundaries.

And then I noticed that Suleiman the Magnificent was no more.

On the game’s mini-map, Suleiman’s town was gone. On the scoreboard, there was a line struck through his name with the word “OUT” after it. Frederick had demolished Suleiman at the exact same time that I demolished Isabella.

And now Frederick was making a move to demolish me.

The forces at the Iroquois village I set in motion — back to my town center, where they could harry Frederick’s forces. And my main force I sent north into Frederick’s town.

This was going to be a last-man-standing battle. Frederick was out to crush my town. I was out to crush his town. Who was going to win?

Frederick did a great deal of damage to my town — I lost my town center, two stables, and an artillery foundary — but I was able to limit the damage and defeat his forces. Honestly, the damage could have been worse. Frederick erred by having his forces focus on destroying the wall; once he had his breakthrough, he didn’t need to keep destroying the wall.

Frederick’s town wilted beneath my assault. He didn’t even put up a fight. Just wilted.

The victory was very satisfying. I even managed to rebuild my town center by the time I hunted down the final German villager. Last man standing!

Then I was possessed of a magnificent madness. Could I tweak the game’s AI files to make Napoleon, a foe I respect a great deal, a bit more foesome?

I dug into the game’s AI folders, and I started looking through files in a text editor. Some of the files gave me ideas, I saw variables I could tweak, and one file explained what all of these variables did.

So I went to work.

Out of the box, this is Napoleon:

btRushBoom = 0.0;
btOffenseDefense = 0.0;
btBiasCav = 0.5;
btBiasInf = 0.0;
btBiasArt = 0.0;
btBiasNative = 1.0;
btBiasTrade = 0.0;

I wanted Napoleon to be more aggressive, so I changed those variables to this:

btRushBoom = 0.6;
btOffenseDefense = 0.7;
btBiasCav = 0.5;
btBiasInf = 0.2;
btBiasArt = 0.3;
btBiasNative = 1.0;
btBiasTrade = 0.5;

This gave him a propensity to rush in the early stages of the game, and to be offensively rather than defensively oriented.

In practice…

When I play-tested this on Sunday morning, Napoleon was an unstoppable juggernaut. I found myself spending all of my resources training musketeers to fend off French raids, and any trading post I built was targetted and destroyed within two minutes.

I might possibly have resorted to the “Where’s my axe?” cheat code and used cybernetic, fire-breathing George Washington marble busts to dispatch the super-charged Napoleon and end the play-test.

I may put the tweaked Napoleon back in the box. You can’t fight Napoleon the way the Russians did back in 1812. There’s no room for a “retreat in depth” strategy. There aren’t supply lines to maintain. No threat of typhus to decimate an army.

Vive, l’Empereur, indeed.

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

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