Age of Mythology Showcase: Ra

Our regular series of civilzation showcases continues with a look at the Egyptians and their sun god, Ra.

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Last month, we kicked off our monthly Age of Mythology showcase by looking at the first of the Greek factions in the game: the followers of the mighty Zeus. The Greeks are by far the most familiar of the Age of Mythology cultures, borrowing many conventions and design elements from the civilizations in Age of Kings. Thus, their units, abilities, and basic gameplay style are similar enough to be welcoming to new players--and have enough variation to provide new options for Age of Kings veterans.

Now, we move on to the second faction in our ongoing showcase. This time we turn our attention to the Egyptian civilization. Of the three Egyptian gods in Age of Mythology, the most prominent is Ra. Egyptians themselves are quite different from the other two cultures in the game--Greek and Norse--but even within the Egyptian culture, the followers of Ra have many strengths and weaknesses that even the other two gods, Isis and Set, do not possess.

Egyptian and Norse troops prepare to square off outside a Norse town.
Egyptian and Norse troops prepare to square off outside a Norse town.

The Egyptians are overall a defensive culture. They would be a great follow-up to those players who enjoyed playing Age of Kings civilizations like the Teutons. Greg Street, designer for Age of Mythology, leads us into our Ra showcase by giving a general account of the Egyptians.

"At the risk of oversimplification and making the Egyptians sound less versatile than they are, they are defensive, with a strong economy, a broad tech tree, and a lot of buildings. While Egyptians are capable of rushing or any other strategy, they excel at digging into their portion of the map and building up a strong army before they explode outward to challenge their opponents. The prototypical Egyptian soldier is less expensive, faster and weaker than its Greek equivalent, but only to a point. Egyptian siege, for example, is more powerful. If you are the type of player who likes to manage a lot of things at once, would rather have one large city than a dozen smaller ones, and likes being able to try out lots of different strategies, you may find yourself gravitating towards the Egyptians. They do take some learning, however."

Egyptian troops march into a Greek town.
Egyptian troops march into a Greek town.

Egyptian mythology is arguably less well known than Greek mythology, yet it is no less rich and storied. Egyptian civilization is thousands of years old, one of the most ancient cultures to ever come into existence. It stands only to reason that their myths would be as developed as the Egyptian empire and as reflective of the ancient Egyptian lifestyle.

According to Street, "Egyptian mythology is older, broader, and more convoluted than Greek mythology, so it is not easy to find myths that even agree on the same gods or events. Nevertheless, the figure of Ra is easy to find in most Egyptian myths."

Ra and Egyptian Gameplay

Pharaoh
Pharaoh
At the head of the Egyptian pantheon stands Ra, a deity with the aspect of a bird of prey, who controlled the power of the sun.

Says Street, "Ra was the falcon-headed pharaoh of the gods who sailed the sun on his ship across the sky every day, keeping it out of the jaws of the serpent Apep. In keeping with the complexity of Egyptian myth, Ra eventually became old and senile and was replaced by Osiris, a new king. In Egyptian history, the persona of Ra became blended with that of the first monotheistic pharaoh, Amun Ra. Whereas Greek mythology is largely made up of tales of heroes supported by the gods battling monsters, Egyptian mythology is more cerebral. The typical Egyptian hero is a lector/priest who overcomes adversity with mystical knowledge rather than with brawn. But Egyptian myth is not without its own excitement. There are still plenty of tales of monsters, haunted tombs, and visits to the underworld. That is the essence of Egypt--forbidden knowledge, mummy's curses, and cyclopean monuments--which we want to capture with AOM."

Priest
Priest
The Egyptians play differently from the Greek factions in a variety of ways. First off, they do not get named heroes like the Greeks do. Whereas the Greeks get different types of heroes, like an archer hero, footman hero, cavalry hero, and so forth, the Egyptians do not. They do have a hero-type unit, who is in many ways even more helpful, but in keeping with the more cerebral Egyptian mythos, their hero unit is less a battle dreadnought and more an inspirational leader. Naturally, this hero unit is the Egyptian pharaoh. Pharaohs are a unique unit to the Egyptians. You start the game with one, in addition to your handful of villagers and a priest. That means unlike other civilizations, Egyptians immediately start out with their "hero." Moreover, he doesn't cost anything. If he dies, he comes back automatically, albeit not instantly. The pharaoh can also be joined by priests, who are basically lesser versions of himself. Egyptian players must build priests at the town center or temple, and they are expensive and limited. However, these "hero-lite" units give the Egyptians the ability to heal their units (as they did in Age of Empires) and fight enemy myth units. Yet, unlike pharaohs, if a priest dies, you must spend the resources and time to create another one.

Egyptians have one drop off site for each resource of gold, food, and wood.
Egyptians have one drop off site for each resource of gold, food, and wood.

The resource buildings for the Egyptians are slightly different as well. The Greeks had only two resource drop-off sites, combining the depositing of gold and wood in one building. However, the Egyptians have one drop-off site for each material resource. They take food to granaries, gold to mining camps, and wood to lumber camps. The extra cost in having to build three structures instead of two is minor. In addition, with their pharaoh unit, they can boost production at each site and gather resources even faster than other civilizations.

The greatest difference, though, between the Egyptians and other civilizations lies in how they acquire favor. Street explains, "Egyptians do not gain favor by praying at temples, as do the Greeks. Instead, they build expensive monuments that generate favor on their own."

Of course, aside from the differences in heroes and resource gathering, the Egyptians also have different units and mythological creatures altogether. Let's take a closer look at the bonuses for the Ra player and explore this god's mythological abilities. But to do that, we need to take a closer look at the pharaoh.

Pharaohs and Ra Bonuses

The pharaoh is very different from the other heroes in the game. He isn't a warrior who can go toe to toe with infantry units or heroic fighters, but he has immense power to shape his civilization.

With the pharaoh and several priests, an Egyptian player can boost production at several buildings, such as the mining camp, granary, and town center here.
With the pharaoh and several priests, an Egyptian player can boost production at several buildings, such as the mining camp, granary, and town center here.

According to Street, "It is difficult to discuss the Egyptians in Age of Mythology without discussing the pharaoh. All three Egyptian gods have a pharaoh, and if the pharaoh is killed, a new one will arise to take his place. While a Zeus player might be tempted to use that precious bolt god power on a Ra pharaoh, he isn't going to be out of commission for very long. The pharaoh has several important abilities. He can heal allied units, banish enemy myth units, and empower Egyptian buildings. Empowering buildings makes them better--they train and research faster, gather resources faster, fight better in combat, and even build faster. Ra typically begins the game by empowering the town center to train villagers but then will shift to empowering the various Egyptian drop sites or their docks or barracks to train ships or soldiers."

To task a pharaoh to empower a building, you simply send the pharaoh there and click. He then stands there and waves his staff regally as a divine light shines on the affected structure. If it is a building where units are built, they are produced faster. If research is being done there, it is completed in a shorter amount of time. At resource sites, the villagers work faster. Pharaohs can even empower Egyptian monuments so that they gain favor faster as well.

As mentioned earlier, all Egyptian players--Ra, Isis, and Set--gain a pharaoh and priests. However, one of Ra's faction bonuses is that his priests are much better. Street explains, "While Isis and Set's priests can heal, fight mythological units, and collect relics (unlike in Age of Kings, there is no concept of conversionin Age of Mythology), Ra's priests can also empower, albeit at a lesser bonus than the pharaoh himself. It is common to come upon a city of Ra, where every building is glowing because each is empowered by a different priest. While priests are roughly equivalent to the Greek heroes, they feel different in practice. Priests are not strong soldiers, and they aren't cheap." Moreover, they are vulnerable to mortal military units and aren't meant to be mass-produced. In a game we played a few weeks ago, we were able to build only two, although this is by no means an official cap. Moreover, such numbers can always change.

Several Egyptian monuments, from small statues to large, square temples.
Several Egyptian monuments, from small statues to large, square temples.

Ra has other bonuses as well. His military bonus enables him to train better late-game military units, like chariot archers. Ra's are faster and have more hit points than analogous units from other civilizations. In addition, as befits the pharaoh of gods, Ra gets a favor bonus. Street continues, "[Ra's] monuments are also cheaper and stronger than other Egyptian monuments. There are five Egyptian monuments in total, each must be constructed before the next one, and each is more expensive and provides more favor than the last."

The different monuments have distinct looks and aren't just slightly modified versions of each other. Some are tall statues of gods, while others are squat, tomblike structures. Because monuments can be readily built, the Egyptian player has a good amount of control over his accumulation of favor. While he can't suddenly ramp up favor acquisition like the Greek player can (who simply pulls villagers off other resources to start praying for divine juice), he can guarantee a steadier supply of favor--and without drawing manpower away from gathering temporal resources. It's at least more reliable than the Norse method of collecting favor, and unlike the Greek approach, it doesn't cost manpower.

Ra's Pantheon and Mythological Units

Wadjet
Wadjet
A huge part of what makes each faction unique is that as you advance through the game's ages, you get to pick minor gods to worship and thus gain their mythological units and technologies. These minor gods are adherents of your one major god, and the pool of minor gods you can pick from is different for each major deity. It's thus easy to see how your choice of minor gods can completely shape your civilization and even make followers of the same major god seem entirely different.

Each god has two choices to make during each age advancement. In the classical (second) age, one of those choices for Ra is Ptah, who is the god of creation, technology, and invention. Street says, "In Age of Mythology, Ptah has many mythological improvements that upgrade the armor or weapons of human soldiers, such as the scalloped ax or leather framed shield. Ptah's myth unit is the wadjet, a winged cobra common in Egyptian art and architecture. In Age of Mythology, the cobra does not use his wings to fly, but to elevate its hood enough to spit venom at range." In comparison with Athena's minotaur, the wadjet is weaker, but it makes up for this with its speed and ranged attack, which has a range equal to that of a mortal archer.

Ptah's Wadjets moving to support mortal Egyptian troops.
Ptah's Wadjets moving to support mortal Egyptian troops.

The transition to the heroic (third) age brings with it the choice to worship Sekhmet, a goddess of war with the head of a lioness. Street provides some background: "In mythology, Sehkmet was quite insane and in fact almost destroyed the planet in her lust to slay, had Ra not tricked her into passing out by [making her] consume what appeared to be a lake of blood that turned out to be good, old Egyptian beer." Sekhmet's mythological improvements benefit archers and siege weapons. Stones of red linen improves the damage of catapults, and bone bow increases the range of archer units. The myth unit provided by Sehkmet is a huge beetlelike creature called the scarab. With its mandibles, it can lay siege to buildings, crushing them in mere moments. In several games we played, the scarab was able to demolish fortified towers with ease. Street adds, "Even if a city's defenders manage to kill an invading scarab, they might still fall prey to the acidic blood that the scarab leaves behind on death. A scarab is easily worth three or four human-powered siege weapons, though they aren't cheap."

Scarab
Scarab
When the Ra player comes to the final Mythic Age, he can choose to worship Osiris or his son Horus, the hawk-headed god of vengeance. "Horus is called 'the avenger,'" says Street, "because he fought against the malevolent Set after Set tricked Osiris, murdered him, and scattered the pieces of his divine body. Like Ptah, Horus' mythological improvements benefit human soldiers, specifically infantry. Vengeance lets infantry do more damage to buildings, while spears on the horizon increases their movement speed."

Street passionately describes Horus' mythological unit: "The avenger is possibly the most deadly myth unit in the entire game. These warriors, cast in the mold of Horus with the body of a man and the head of a falcon, are deadly in armed combat. With their twin khopesh (the crooked Egyptian scimitar), they slice and dice any mortals foolish enough to enter their range. Periodically, the avenger performs a whirlwind attack in combat, causing damage to every enemy unit in the area. Even a simple blow from an avenger causes as much damage as the most upgraded hoplite, and they have the hit points of a Norse giant. Only their great expense keeps them in check. Virtually the only chance to defeat an avenger is to use arrows against it. Once you close to melee, the outcome of the battle is a foregone conclusion."

Ra's God Powers

Ptah's shifting sands god power.
Ptah's shifting sands god power.

In our earliest previews, we stated that the god powers in Age of Mythology might cost favor. That is not the case. God powers do not cost any resources. They are one-shot special abilities that are granted each time you choose a new minor god to worship. With your major deity providing you a god power as well, each player ultimately gets four god powers in total. You can use these god powers at any time you wish, hoarding them until the fourth age or using them as soon as they become available in the earlier ages. However, you can use them only once. Yet, although they are very powerful, Ensemble notes that the play testers aren't just racing to god powers. They aren't game breakers by themselves, because you really have to follow them up with your full arsenal of mortal units, myth creatures, and research. Yet, god powers are still extremely useful.

Street provides details on two of the god powers granted by Ra's divine entourage:

"The god power granted by Ptah, shifting sands, is one of the most versatile in the game. Shifting sands forms a vortex that sucks in targeted units and deposits them at the other end of the whirlwind, wherever the player chooses. While this power is useful for traveling between islands, sneaking up behind an enemy town, or getting an army out of danger, it has more sinister uses as well. Lately, our play testers have been using shifting sands on enemy units! A group of [enemy] villagers or soldiers can be transported to an island. The most ambitious use involves creating a prison with walls and towers (and lions for the truly sadistic) and then shifting an entire army into the trap. It may seem powerful, but like all Age of Mythology god powers, it can be used only once. It's a tough decision to figure out the price on a prison that may kill only one army.

Horus' tornado god power.
Horus' tornado god power.

"Tornado is Horus' mythic age god power and is more straightforward and much more spectacular. The tornado that forms where the user targets wanders around a short distance, blowing the roofs off buildings and sucking up enemy soldiers, wildlife, and even trees, hurling them about the landscape. While Zeus' lightning storm is more useful against units, and god powers like Meteor are more dangerous to buildings, tornado is capable of damaging both. Units with more hit points can often flee the twister with only moderate abrasions, but weaker units get sucked right up. It is mostly a visual effect, but in order to make tornado more versatile, it can be cast on ice or even water, forming a waterspout deadly to fish and ships. Like lightning storm, tornado is not going to win the game for you on its own. However, it may soften up an enemy for your impending attack or distract a foe long enough to shore up defenses in your town. Deciding when and where to use that one precious tornado is one of the most fun decisions that occurs when you select Horus as a minor god."

This ends our look at Ra, the first of the Egyptian gods. Next month, we turn our eyes away from Egypt and instead consider the Norse pantheon. The Norse culture is even more of a departure from Age of Kings than the Egyptian one. While the Egyptians might be thought of as a defensive culture, the Norse are the complete opposite, with units, buildings, and bonuses geared straight toward attacking. They are a culture within the game that thrives on pure violence. They good at it, and they actually need to indulge their naked aggression to simply survive. Join us next month as we unveil Thor, the first of the Norse gods.

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pretty impressive