Real-time strategy games are “real-time” in that all players, including the computer, move simultaneously – that is, they can move any and all units freely, as and when they like. This means that if your attention wanders for a few moments, your empire or squad of commandoes or whatever may be in for some surprises. They are strategic in that the strategies involve more than simply exploring and shooting: you have to manage resources, or consider the differing abilities of your units, or simply plan ahead for more than just which monster to kill next. Empire building games are often of this type. The other sort, managing squads of units, such as in “Commando,” or “Command and Conquer,” I haven’t played much as yet.

Age of Empires (AOE: the original game) and Rise of Rome (ROR: an expansion set): this game is about civilization-building with warfare, but somewhat abstracted: rather than dealing with an entire civilization, in practice you are dealing with one village (later it grows into what by the standards of those days would have been a city, I suppose). Your aim generally is to start with your stone-age village and your three villagers, and chop wood, pick berries, hunt animals, build barracks, houses, farms, temples, and so on, and advance to the Tool Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, research better weapons and clobber your opponents if necessary. In a way, it is something of a cross between Civilization and Warcraft 2 or perhaps Command & Conquer (a game which has never grabbed me). The graphics are really beautiful and the user interface is excellent. This is a 10/10 game and I highly recommend it. It is a textbook example of how a good game should be designed. Well done Ensemble Studios and er… Microsoft? This site has lots of AOE info, including strategy tips: AOE Heaven. 10/Ed8/Rp9

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings takes the original idea of Age of Empires forward in time. Beginning with the so-called “Dark Ages” after the fall of Rome when all the world (especially Eurasia) is once again up for grabs, you try and steer your civilization (or town, at least) through to just after the introduction of gunpowder in the West (your units never develop guns or muskets as such; the closest you get is the cannon and the “hand cannon,” which seems to be the ancient equivalent of a bazooka. This is the era of knights in shining armour, samurai, Byzantines, Franks, Celts, Saracens and all that. It is essentially the same game as AOE, with minor modifications to allow for the more advanced technology, and with the scenery changed so it looks more realistic. Perhaps it looks slightly less lush and shiny than AOE but on the other hand, you get a closer view of what is going on because the scale is zoomed in a little more. If your computer can stand the pace, try setting high quality graphics on in the options screen for the best look. You can give your units relatively sophisticated orders, such as telling them to guard specific other units; when you do this, the guards will hang around fending off any enemies that come by. If they chase off the enemy, they will return to their post afterwards. You can also garrison units inside your town centre and other buildings: in an emergency, you can get your villagers (for example) to run to the town centre or elsewhere, where they arm themselves with bows and arrows and shoot the attackers from a position of relative safety. Your armies march and to some extent fight in formation. You have a choice of several formations. Diplomacy is more sophisticated too, and on the easier levels, if computer players think you’re doing all right, one of them may well try to make an alliance with you, in return for some tribute from time to time. Take advantage of such offers! If you don’t, the computer will ally with someone else or another computer player and thrash you. The computer in AOK is far more aggressive than in AOE & ROR and always attacks early with an infantry rush: at first I had difficulty beating it on the Easy setting. Currently, I can beat a single computer opponent on default settings (e.g., 75 population limit) with a random map and random civilization on the Hard setting. The default map size, that is the playing area, seems larger than in the earlier games, which I count as a good thing. I find that games can go on for from 2 to 10 hours though (usually 2-3 hours), so make sure you have plenty of time to play. The score? Well, I’m knocking one off because defended buildings are a bit too powerful and if abused by gamesmanship-type players can unbalance the game, especially if they choose to raise the population limit to the maximum of 200. Also, you need a very powerful computer to run the game smoothly on such a setting. 9/Ed8/Rp9

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