It's hard to believe that the Age of Empires series will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. Over the course of a decade, the Age of Empires games have immersed strategy fans in the ancient and medieval eras, and with last year's Age of Empires III, the series covered the era of discovery. This was the era when the European powers colonized the New World and encountered the Native Americans already there. With the upcoming WarChiefs expansion, you'll be able to play as the natives for the first time, and we went to Ensemble's Dallas studios to get the new details behind the upcoming expansion.
Much has already been written about the WarChief's main features. To reiterate, there are three new playable Native American factions (the Iroquois, the Sioux, and the newly revealed Aztecs), new random maps, and some new content for the existing European civilizations. We were able to dig deeper on some of the new features and discovered how Ensemble hopes to change up the core game by introducing new victory modes and powerful new units.
Lead designer Sandy Petersen introduced the new revolution feature to us last month, but we got a better sense of it at Ensemble. Revolution is an all-or-nothing gamble to try and win the game, and it can be used to crush a stubborn opponent or as a last resort to turn the tide of battle. You can only declare revolution in the late ages of a match, and by doing so, you cut off all ties to your home city. You will get a choice of revolutionary leaders to follow, all your citizens will turn into militia, and you'll receive reinforcements in the form of ironclads, Gatling guns, and more. Since you can't build new citizens or gather resources anymore, you are pretty much finished if your forces are wiped out--so there's the gamble. But if you need a sudden surge in military units, revolution will be there to help speed up the game.
Another new way to win a game will be through a trade monopoly, which is basically an updated version of the old wonder victory from earlier Age of Empires games. Trade monopoly tasks players with seizing the various trading posts scattered across the map. If a player can control a majority of the trading posts during the fourth age of a match or later, a timer appears. If the timer reaches zero, the player in control of the trading posts wins, so there's going to be a lot of effort thrown into breaking that player's monopoly before time runs out.
The expansion won't neglect the European civilizations from the core game. Each European nation will get a number of new features, such as spy units that can stealthily explore the map and observe enemy locations. These spies will be practically invisible, save for other spies, and they specialize in taking out enemy explorers and mercenaries, as they get a damage bonus against them. You will be able to upgrade spies with the assassin card from the home city, and assassins will have attack bonuses versus almost all enemy units.
Another way to observe the enemy will be through the new balloon upgrade. Veterans of Age of Empires III will recall the balloon that some explorers could briefly summon. In fact, it was too brief, so the balloon wasn't that useful. As part of the move toward making less useful cards more attractive by upgrading their capabilities, the balloon upgrade will now make balloons permanent, and they can't be shot down, so you can have a constant eye in the sky. Of course, the balloon will move slowly, so you'll need to position it carefully.
This new balloon is a perfect example of how the designers have gone back and rethought many of the lesser-used cards from the home cities. As veterans know, in Age of Empires III, you can request shipments from the home city, and you decide ahead of time what sorts of shipments are available. You can request reinforcements, resources, special new technologies, and more. However, some shipment cards were used less often than others, so those cards have been tweaked to make them more attractive.
Of course, the big new content in the expansion are the Native American tribes, and what we saw gave us a better appreciation of how they can really change the game. The new WarChief unit is potent, as it's essentially a leadership unit that exudes an aura that boosts the performance of nearby units. For instance, the Sioux WarChief can speed up nearby units, and considering the Sioux are mostly horse mounted to begin with, this can make them devastating for hit-and-run raids. The Aztecs never used horse units, but they have a wide variety of speedy foot units to compensate. The Aztec WarChief is perfect for battle, too, since nearby units get double experience for kills when he is near. This doesn't sound like much, but it can add up, and this can result in two to three extra shipments per game.
The Native American tribes have access to the fire pit, which can be used to generate special powers and abilities. Basic dances will increase unit production or heal the WarChief, but more advanced dances can generate a powerful unit in the fourth age. In the case of the Sioux, it's the dog soldier, and in the case of the Aztec, it's the feared skull knight. These units are designed to help break the stalemate in a prolonged game, and they provide enough firepower to make the Native American tribes the match of any European power.
The expansion will also introduce a number of new territories to flesh out North and South America. As before, these are all randomly generated maps, but each one has specific properties corresponding to each territory. For example, the Northwest Territories generate a very wooded map with a long coast and a large island capable of holding a base, while the Andes maps feature a cluster of settlements at one end. Meanwhile, fans of the Age of Empires III story will be able to continue the Black family saga with 15 scenarios that cover the American Revolution and beyond.
When we visited, nearly everything in the expansion was in place, and the tricky process of balancing all the new content with the existing content was underway. Ensemble is intent on honing the gameplay to a razor's edge, and studio policy is for everyone to play the expansion at least once a week (it used to be daily, but the studio grew too large for that). These matches are closely monitored to make sure everything is as balanced as possible. Ensemble already has a team dedicated to supporting Age of Empires III, and if past performance is any indication, we can expect balance patches to continue after the expansion ships later this year.