Crappy Bronzing Revisited


Guiding Principles of Warfare

I owe a lot of my strategic thinking to Sun Wu’s The Art of War and Sun Bin’s The Lost Art of War. Despite having played AoE for 9 months, I continue to be amazed at the sheer depth of strategy that remains to be explored. This chapter then, represents what little wisdom I have gleaned in my many enjoyable hours of AoE.
Know yourself and know your enemy. We’ve spent the last 10 chapters on ‘knowing yourself’ so I won’t say any more on that matter. As for ‘knowing the enemy’, we did do a bit on it in chapters VI. Achievements in Stone and Early Tool and VII. Defending against Early Rushes. Stone and Tool Rushes are as far as I’m prepared to discuss for reasons of length and the fact that many Bronze rushes exceed my area of expertise. My descriptions would not do them justice – you will need someone more qualified than myself to accurately describe those strategies to you.
On to stuff I think I can describe:

AoE is primarily a game about economy.
Forget the idea of epic battles between two large armies – pared down to the core, the game is all about who has the stronger economy. Everything else being equal, he who has the largest economy wins. While this is true for all Real-Time-Strategy (RTS) games, it is more true for AoE than for others.
The reason for this is that there are four different resources (all of which play an important role), and five distinct ways of gathering the most important resource – food. Being able to understand and exploit the relationship between these resources, as well as knowing how to gather them efficiently gives you a significant advantage over a more ignorant opponent.
Therefore, to be good at AoE you first need to study and understand the economic concepts underlying AoE – the pros and cons of each method of food gathering, and the utility of each resource. This is beyond the scope of this essay, so I refer you to that very excellent siteShai’tan (http://netleague.com/aoe) for more details.
The second reason economy dominates is that upgrades and military units are not cheap. Every military unit of note costs a fair amount of resources. While the figures may look reasonable numerically, when you compare them to the typical gathering rate for resources, you will soon realise that units and upgrades are relatively expensive. Therefore in order to build a strong military, you first need a strong economy. Hence the power of the Villager Boom.
What is a larger economy? The largest economy is not always the one with the most villagers/boats. No, the largest economy is the one with the most efficient villagers – villagers that are all productive, and are not idling around. Resource management to ensure that your economy is operating at peak efficiency is extremely important – and this is probably the strongest argument for playing at 1.0 speed.
Economic efficiency encompasses not only non-idleness, but also economic upgrades. Villagers with Woodworking, Gold Mining etc are more efficient than their unupgraded counterparts – in that they bring in more resources within a shorter time. Gathering resources that you don’t need is also inefficient – having 6000 gold when what you need is food and wood does very little for your game. Therefore, move your villagers around depending on what resources you need
Wood is the key. As discussed in A Guide to Villager Boomingwood is life. It is from wood that you can get more food, and most importantly, more buildings. It’s when you have TCs and Stables/Archeries/Siege Workshops all over the map that you can build and strike with impunity, without fear that an enemy strike on a subsection of your economy will leave you unable to recover. So you can never have too much wood – just construct more buildings (in different places on the map)! Lots of wood is also useful if you want to go Catapult crazy in Iron.

The key principles of economy and warfare. 
Now that we understand the importance of a strong economy in AoE, we are now in a position to define the goals of warfare. 
The most obvious principle to be derived here is to cripple the enemy economy. Or to put it in more general strategic terms, “He who can protect his economy while disrupting the enemy’s will secure victory, and the enemy – defeat.”
Protecting your economy. Warfare isn’t just about building troops and then sending them after the enemy. If the enemy is doing the same to you, you’re both caught in a lose-lose situation. The idea then is to be able to secure your economy first – so that you can strike at the enemy without fear of reprisal.
This concept is even more important in team games because of the possibility of being double or even triple-teamed. Remember that an adequate defence protects you from all opponents – while a “the best defense is an active offense” mentality will deal with only one opponent at most.
This doesn’t mean that you should sit around with your military and not attack. This is where static defences come in – and why Walls and Towers are incredibly useful. Securing your base need not be done with military, it is more effectively done with stone.
Even while attacking the enemy, you should also take a military unit or two to scour your side of the map to make sure that the enemy has not set up any forward bases on your home soil. Securing your side of the map allows you to fully concentrate on attacking the enemy.
Disrupting the enemy economy. Disruption comes in many forms – you do not actually need to kill the enemy villagers (although this is best), all you need to do is to render the enemy villagers unproductive. Forcing the enemy to relocate, or to run their villagers around is an excellent example of disruption. Every second not working is a second of production lost – this hurts your opponent doubly because not only are his villagers unproductive, but your villagers are still working at the same time.
Disruption also occurs through rendering the sources of production ineffective. Walling a TC or taking out a Dock seriously puts a squeeze on your opponent’s ability to Villager Boom.
Strike wood first. Because of the primary importance of wood up through till mid-Bronze, wood should always be your primary target. Wood allows your opponent to Villager Boom, and slowing enemy wood production allows you to get the early lead in Villager Booming and basically allows you to outresource them.
Why wood, and not gold? Well, get the enemy gold if you can as well but wood should remain your first priority. No wood means no fishing boats, no new TCs, no farms, no Chariots/Chariot Archers, no War Galleys and no Stone Throwers. No food and no fishing boats also means no Iron, regardless of how much gold they have. Certainly, if you check Achievements and you note that your enemy has mined very little gold, and you know that your opponent is heavily reliant on gold (Yamato), go ahead and deny them gold if at all possible. 
In practice though, you’ll find that the enemy starts mining gold real early – enough to get them going in Bronze. Enemy mines are also usually a little away from the enemy base, so finding the enemy gold before they accumulate a sufficient stockpile can be difficult. Wood on the other hand … is almost always fairly close to base. And even if you find and disrupt the enemy gold mine, what’s to stop your opponent from simply spending another 120 wood on a new gold pit?
This is not to say that you should never hit enemy gold. Hit wood firstthen food and only then gold.
I used to believe in hitting the enemy gold first, but time and experience have taught me that until the game reaches mid-Bronze, wood and food are almost always better targets. It is because wood is so important that you should consider keeping a strategic reserve of 120 wood if your base is breached and is under heavy attack. With just that one wood pit, it is possible to rebuild an entire empire from ruins. If I may say so once again, wood is life.
The mid-to-late Bronze transition. From Stone until mid-Bronze, your primary goal in warfare is raiding enemy bases and killing villagers. As the game progresses however, the enemy economy will boom to the point where it becomes more and more difficult to hurt the enemy. When this happens, it is time for you to switch strategies, and begin focusing on denying resources to the enemy.
How do you know when to switch strategies? By watching the enemy Villager High. If you’ve hurt the enemy economy, you’ll find that the enemy has trouble Villager Booming and his Villager High will remain static. If the enemy Villager High continues to climb, that means you’re not doing enough damage and you should switch strategies.
Again, note that switching strategies doesn’t mean you should stop attacking or harassing the enemy. Carry on doing so, but you should now also grab a handful of villagers and begin denying resources to the enemy. Begin by section walling the map into compartments, and block off access to resource-rich areas of the map. Tower the high ground, so that opponents cannot use hills to gain a combat advantage. Guard the oceans and waterways, so as to prevent your enemy from boat fishing as well as to deny access to other parts of the map via enemy Transport. Control the seas, so that you are the only person who can harvest the bounty of the oceans. Wall or Tower the key resources on the map.
The idea here is that if you cannot deal sufficient damage to cripple the enemy economy, at least you limit the total amount of resources they can gather. This way, in the long run, you will run your opponent out of resources. 
These are the key principles of economy and warfare.

Surprise, Confusion and Convention
“One reason for the use of surprise tactics is that they are ordinarily more economical than conventional tactics, insofar as they are designed to strike at points of least resistance. To obtain the greatest advantage with the least embroilment is one of the key arts of war.”

Thomas Cleary (commentary) on Sun Bin, The Lost Art of War.
Well put, but how does this translate into AoE? Surprise being surprise, it would no longer be a surprise if one were able to explain and write down exactly how surprise worked. For the purposes of this essay then, I will only discuss its relationship with convention and the forms of surprise.
Surprise is the opposite of convention. Convention dictates that you play to the strengths and do what is generally accepted as ‘best’ for your civilisation. Surprise is doing the unexpected, and sometimes even choosing a less effective strategy in order to throw your opponent intoconfusion.
The advantages of confusion. One should not underestimate the value of surprise, or rather – the value of the ensuing confusion it creates. Many, if not most, players who have been playing AoE for some time pretty much play the game on autopilot – practising the same strategy over and over again, and playing against the same type of opponents over and over again. These players will be totally flummoxed if they come across something they have never seen.
Even if your opponent knows what to expect, they still may not know what to do. For example, many people know what a Tool Rush is, and may even see one coming – but even with the benefit of this information, they still may not have the faintest idea of how to defend from aTool Rush. So even if your enemy is not surprised, doing something unconventional can still be strategically advantageous.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
This is why it is important to know your enemy. If you know and understand how a particular strategy works, its minimum conditions, its goals and aims, its limitations – it allows you to predict the form and function of enemy strategy, and allows you make the right decision whatever the circumstances. Even if the enemy tactic or strategy is something you have never seen before, knowing yourself allows you to understand what effect a particular decision will have on your economic and military position.
It is for this reason that I repeatedly stress the importance of understanding the philosophy or the whys behind a particular strategy, and why I detest strategies that focus solely on execution. Being able to think, understand and improvise is what makes you adaptable in all circumstances.
“All warfare is based on deception.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
The forms of surprise. Surprise comes in many forms and (superficially) they are:

  1. Directional surprise – attacking from an unexpected direction.
  2. Unit surprise – using a different unit mix from what is considered ‘typical’.
  3. Timing surprise – attacking during a different Age, or not attacking when the time comes to attack.

There is a fourth form of surprise – and they are collectively known as feints. Against a wary opponent, who is expecting you to do the unexpected – you can mislead your enemy into believing what you want them to believe. For example, if you’re playing Shang and you want your opponent to believe you are about to Tool Blitz (even though you actually plan to Fast Bronze), you might consider building a Clubman at or around your 10th-12th villager. Similarly, you can mask a Tool Rush by building fishing boats to make your opponent think you still are building more villagers.
As you can see, Achievements can be as much a tool of misdirection as early warning. Intelligent opponents may not necessarily be fooled (and stupid opponents won’t even check!) but you should be aware that Achievements can be both a tool for and against. Once surprise becomes expected, convention becomes surprise.
Surprise must constitute a threat. It is not enough just to surprise your enemy, it must be something your opponent must react to, or else concede an advantage. Tooling with just 3 villagers is guaranteed to surprise your opponent, but it’s not going to do you a whole world of good.
Even posing a threat (but not acting on it) is a feint – because it may lure your opponent into committing resources to defending against a threat may not materialise. For example, exploring with a fishing boat and allowing your opponent to see your fishing boat right next to his dock may convince your opponent to divert wood into Scout Ships for defence when your main threat is coming from land. Similarly, letting your opponent see an empty Transport focuses your opponent’s attention on a possible sea landing.
It is because a threat must be acted upon that posing a threat is a very effective feint. It is for this reason that without the benefit of an Achievements screen, Shang will get the greatest feint of them all – being able to simultaneously threaten to Tool Blitz and Tool Rush (both of which have to be acted upon) and not having to act on either of these threats.
“Crushing force is due to timing and control.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
Posing no threat is the last type of feint. Apart from lulling an opponent into a false sense of security, it also allows you to strike a single crippling blow from which your opponent will not recover. For example, you are Tool Rushing but instead of attacking immediately with your first Scout or Bowman (which can be gang-banged by a group of bone-happy villagers), you wait till you have two Scouts, two Bowmen or a combination of the two. At the same time, you might cover all possible exits before striking – in this way, you prevent the enemy villagers from escaping and rebuilding in another part of the map. This example is equally applicable to a Bronze or Iron Age attack.
By making sure that you are able to strike a decisive blow before attacking, you finish the game there and then instead of giving your opponent the opportunity of making a comeback

The Rules of Engagement
“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”
“Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat fights first and afterwards looks for victory.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
The primary role of your military is to kill enemy villagers, not enemy units. Fighting long and unnecessary battles with enemy troops simply becomes a test of who has the stronger economy. This merely exhausts resources and is advantageous to neither side.
Therefore in order to alter the balance of power in your favour, your military should not engage the enemy army unless necessary and strike instead at the heart of the enemy economy. The explanation behind your primary targets (wood, food then gold) are covered in b. The key principles of economy and warfare.
The concept of momentum. Napoleon understood this concept perfectly – an army on the move, with a defined objective, is 10 times more dangerous than an army at rest. An army at rest is static, and has no purpose except defending against the threat of an enemy attack that may never materialise. Base defence should be an assignment of last resort – having 15 Cavalry defending your base (one of the RDs did this against me in a game) is ineffectual and plain ludicrous. 15 units that could have been better used attacking the enemy town.
Therefore, if you can force your opponent to station troops in his town, you have effectively rendered a portion of the enemy’s army useless. This can be easily accomplished from sporadically raiding the enemy town – striking without warning and then disappearing when enemy units arrive. The moral of this story is that if you plan to defend your base, employ static defences such as Walls and Towers. No worries aboutmomentum there.
Momentum also applies when you are in an enemy town. Remember that the primary role of your military is to kill villagers, and not to sit around shooting or hacking at buildings. Once you’ve cleared the immediate area of enemy civilians, move on to the next area – don’t stick around. If you want to destroy buildings, use Siege.
“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, isforeknowledge.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
Strike at points of least resistance. You’re sold on the idea that an army on the move is better than one that is stationary. Problem is you got to give it an objective – an army wandering aimlessly isn’t very much better. The key here is to strike where the enemy is weakest, but in order to do this, you need to have effective scouting.
If you run into enemy fortifications (which you’re likely to see if you’re playing against anyone decent), start discovering the location and extent of the enemy defences. Find out how far the walls extend, and where the enemy defences are concentrated. There will usually be a weak spot or two (almost always to the rear of the enemy) that is lightly defended, and/or is approachable by water.
If a lightly defended area is approachable by water, build a Transport. If not, go for Stone Throwers. The key thing here is not to wait – you should already know by early Bronze whether or not you need a Stone Thrower or Transport. Build one of them as early as you can so as to give your opponent less time to settle into a rhythm. Don’t wait.
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Sun Wu, The Art of War.
Regrettably, combat is not always avoidable. There are times when you have no choice but to slug it out with enemy troops. But if you must give battle, there are a few things you can keep in mind and which you can turn to your advantage.
Advantage usually accrues to the defender. This is because the defender has chosen the battlefield. Prepared defences, such as Walls and Towers or units on top of a hill give the defender a significant military advantage. Avoid attacking well-defended areas if possible – far better to strike at points of least resistance.
Even on level ground, the defender has the advantage because it takes longer for attacking units to move into position. While the attacker is manoeuvring into range, enemy range units can immediately open fire.
To lure a defender onto a battlefield of your own choosing (or where neither side has an advantage), strike at a place your opponent must defend. If the position is vital to the enemy economy or if it is of significant strategic advantage (such as a hill overlooking the enemy town), then the enemy has to give battle or else concede that advantage.
Elevation. Elevated terrain (hills) is the most advantageous terrain for conducting battles. A quick explanation on the effects of elevation follows:

  1. If a missile unit (Archery, Siege, Towers) on a higher elevation fires at a unit on a lower elevation, it does 150% (3/2) damage. E.g. A Chariot Archer on a hill does 6 damage per shot to a Cavalry unit below it.
  2. If a missile unit on a lower elevation fires at a unit on a higher elevation, no modifiers apply – the missile unit does normal damage. E.g. A Chariot Archer shooting at a Cavalry unit on top of a hill still does only 4 damage per shot.
  3. A hand-to-hand unit on a higher elevation attacking a unit on a lower elevation will do normal damage – no modifiers apply. E.g. A Cavalry unit attacking a Chariot Archer below it will do 8 damage per hit.
  4. A hand-to-hand unit on a lower elevation attacking a unit on a higher elevation will only do 67% (2/3) damage. E.g. A Cavalry unit attacking a Chariot Archer above it will only do 5 or 6 damage (the damage alternates between 5 and 6) per hit.

So in essence there is a damage reduction for hand-to-hand units attacking uphill and a damage increase for missile units firing downhill. Hand-to-hand units have the further disadvantage of having to climb the hill (units suffer a decrease in movement rate when climbing hills).
It is for this reason that you should stay clear of the enemy if they are camped on a hill. It is also for this reason that it is a good idea to construct military buildings on hilltops if there is enough room. If there is a particular hill which you don’t want to fall into enemy hands, Tower it.
Concentrate your forces. Failing the advantage of elevation, always aim for numerical superiority. Your army may have been split up into smaller groups for individual missions, but if you encounter any sort of resistance, concentrate your forces before giving battle to the enemy.
What should you do if the enemy outnumbers you? Flee – to your base or a nearby hill or join up with friendly forces – anything that will allow you turn the tables on your opponents. On no account should you engage superior enemy forces.
The idea here is to only give battle on your terms. It doesn’t matter what the size of the enemy army is if you refuse to engage. The enemy could be twice as large as yours for all you care – so long as you don’t engage the enemy, those numbers mean nothing. This is the way tofrustrate larger armies and render them ineffective.
The principle of concentration gives rise to the doctrine of concentrated fire. In any battle, you should get as many troops as you can to target one opponent, so as to reduce enemy numbers as quickly as possible. One less enemy unit = one less enemy attack = less damage. Concentrate on the wounded units first whenever possible.
One interesting tactic that forces your opponent to violate the doctrine of concentrated fire is known as dancing. This term was coined byThumP after he watched me in a game against Kleitus. I confess that this tactic isn’t mine – I originally learnt it from DVT_Cool, and he may have gotten it from playing against Maimin-matty. I have no hard facts either way, but the tactic of dancing originated from one of them.
What is dancing? In any skirmish between highly mobile ranged units (Chariot Archers/Horse Archers) and hand-to-hand units (Cavalry), it is a simple matter to find which single ranged unit the hand-to-hand units are targeting. Dancing entails taking that unit and running around in circles, with your other range units firing at will at the hapless lot of enemy hand-to-hand units that are chasing your single unit in a merry-go-round. It is most effective against an opponent that isn’t looking.
The enemy can only close the distance if they assign one hand-to-hand unit for every ranged unit. What I usually do in this case is run the whole lot away, but even if you stay and fight, you have forced the enemy to violate the doctrine of concentrated fire while being able to employ that doctrine yourself.
While its original use was confined to getting the better of Cavalry with Chariot Archers, the dance is applicable to any situation where you have a single mobile unit that is being targeted by a group of enemy units. Hence you have the Trireme Dance, the Cavalry Dance, the Horse Archer Dance etc.
Using Combined Arms. Over-reliance on a single unit type leaves you vulnerable to counters. For example, if your entire army is made up of Cavalry, your opponent is likely to go Priests. Mixing it up not only leaves you less vulnerable to counters, but in many cases also enhances the effectiveness of your units. Some examples follow.
Strictly speaking, a Scout/Cavalry combo is not combined arms but it is an excellent example of how one unit makes up for the weaknesses of another. The Scout acts as the eyes for the notoriously blind Cavalry and the Cavalry provides the punch that the Scout lacks. Through the combination of the two, you have a crack unit that can effectively hunt down fleeing villagers.
Similarly, in a Chariot Archer/Chariot combo, the Chariot Archers act as eyes for the blind Chariots. You usually see them in a 3:1 ratio – with the Chariots acting as interceptors and all-round added nuisances. Against any form of hand-to-hand unit, the Chariots act as damage sinks, intercepting and absorbing damage while their ranged counterparts rain death on the enemy. Against range units, they divide the enemy’s attention and force the enemy Archery units to research Armour as well. I might also add that this group is extremely Priest-resistant.
Composite Bowman/Stone Thrower combo. The Composite Bowmen provide cover for the vulnerable Stone Thrower and the Stone Thrower provides effective artillery support in a fight against enemy Chariot Archers or Composite Bowmen.
Another dangerous combo is the Scout/Bowman Rush, invented by Berry_King (Rommel_DEST1). He only exclusively used a Scout Rush before – but he ran into problems with my walling and counterattacking. The Scouts provide the initial reconnaissance for the Bowmen, so the Bowmen know exactly where to go the moment they are built. The Bowmen then guard the available exits and stop walls from going up, and then help the Scouts clean up. Needless to say, the next two times I played him, I got creamed:(
Anyway, these examples are just to get the ideas rolling – you’ll find that if you play a bit of Deathmatch, the combinations are pretty endless. The whole point here is that properly chosen, combined arms enhances your units’ overall effectiveness.
Minimising attrition. Back at the very beginning of this chapter, I mentioned that military units are relatively expensive. It is for this reason that you should always try to repair or heal your units whenever possible. A healed unit is equivalent to a free unit. Repairing ships isn’t free – but it is a lot cheaper than building a new one. In the long run, you save resources.
The other advantage of healing/repairing is that you can effectively double your numbers in battle. For example, instead of waiting for a replacement ship to send into battle, you can both repair a ship and build a new ship at the same time. You are then effectively sending two fresh ships into battle instead of one. Talk about military advantage:)

The death knell to rock-paper-scissors
Just a short spiel about how the rock-paper-scissors theory of one unit being the counter for another totally breaks down with respect to Barracks and Academy units. There really are only six Bronze units in Random Map – Cavalry, Chariot Archers, Composite Bowmen, Stone Throwers, War Galleys and Priests. 
Notice that no mention is made of Barracks and Academy units – and this is because Infantry units just totally blow. In Random Map, Barracks units, while cheap, take too long to research and build up. You might see a lot more Barracks units if Short Swordsmen, like Cavalry, were automatically available at the beginning of Bronze. Don’t ever build Swordsmen (Clubbers/Axemen can be useful though).
Academy units, while powerful, are slow, easily riddled with missile fire and are avoided with impunity by Cavalry. Like Swordsmen, don’t ever build Academy units in Random Map. Not even against Elephants (go Priests instead).
Well, I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy but I would like to see Barracks units play a more prominent role in Rise of Rome. With hope, and fingers crossed, this may be rectified.

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