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    Ingo’s Design tricks

    Map Design Tricks for Age of Empires and Rise of Rome

    by Ingo van Thiel

    Download the Word version here

    This article contains some design tricks. They should help you make your maps look as good as possible. Beautiful terrain does take a lot of work, but it can make a good game even better – and your scenario will stay in people’s minds for much longer.


    (There are two types of swamp you can make).

    a) Shallow Water Swamp – Boats can go there as well as land units. For this type, you put Gaia desert patches (you’ll find them in “Units”) on shallow water. When you do that, you might get a problem every now and then. There seem to be some spots where you simply cannot put desert patches. This happens both in the middle of the water and at the shore. You can often solve this problem by

    • Deleting all fish patches which are near. You can put them back in later.
    • Deleting a bit of the shallow water surface.
    • Deleting all small objects such as rocks and skeletons at the shore.
    • Surrounding the water with desert ground. You can cover this desert ground with desert patches, so that it will still look green.

    I used this type of swamp in my “Tai Gun” campaign.


    b) Swamp on Grass Ground – As far as I know, this is imhotep’s invention. He used it in “David Saga #2”. Boats cannot go on this swamp, but you can build trees, houses etc. on the water.

    1. Start out from an empty grass ground.
    2. Cover the ground with a layer of Gaia grass clumps.
    3. Put a bit of shallow water somewhere on your map to use as raw material for this trick.
    4. Click onto “Units” in the editor, and select the “Gaia” menu.
    5. The surface of shallow water is made of light blue tiles. Click on “move” and move one of them. Then click on “place”. Now you can place as many of the blue tiles as you want.
    6. Place these surface tiles into the green layer of grass patches. The blue will half disappear under the green stuff.


    Your swamp is finished now. As there is firm ground under it, you can place anything you want on this swamp: You can have trees and berry bushes growing in the mud, you can build houses into it, or you can place some gazelle there. It will look like they are drinking. You can also place ruins, or gold and stone mines in the water. Besides, you can also put gaia paths (e.g. brick paths) on that swamp.


    Trees and Other Items on Cliffs

    There is one basic rule about cliffs: they are only illusions of different height. In fact, everything is on the same level. Don’t put varied elevations under cliffs! If you do that, the results will look rather weird.

    Naked cliffs look a bit dull. They will become much more alive and impressive when you place something on them: trees, bushes, animals, towers, houses, people… make your choice. The trick is to put all these things first and then to draw the cliff under them. Try it, and you may be surprised! If you want to create a good-looking map, trees on cliffs are a must. (unless you are creating a desert map, maybe.)

    There are some other cliff gimmicks that you can add afterwards:

    • If you work with AoE, you can also put rocks and skeletons onto cliffs – after placing the cliffs. In RoR, this is not possible anymore.
    • There are other things which work out both in AoE and RoR: you can place all sorts of Gaia paths onto cliffs. Of course, you cannot walk on them – they are just an optical illusion. (e.g. in Kyle Leach’s AoE scenario “Fortress”)
    • Dead trees (Gaia) can also be placed on cliffs afterwards. This is a nice effect and looks a bit like roots of trees sticking out., and it is both possible in AoE and RoR. (e.g. in Frank Steidel’s RoR campaign “Land of the Two Rivers”) 


    Burning Gaia Cities / Injured Gaia Units

    Imhotep did this first. I used a different method and developed his idea a bit. There are at least two ways of creating a burning gaia city:

    1. The catapult method (imhotep)
    2. The war elephant/ scythe method (I used this one)

    Both ways involve two computer players battling each other. The Gaia buildings which are near the fighters also get damaged.

    1) The catapult method: Place a computer catapult somewhere (e.g. a red one). Place a yellow watch tower/ sentry tower next to the Gaia building (e.g. a temple) that you want to see on fire. Put the catapult far enough to be out of the tower’s range. Put Red and Yellow to enemy with each other. The red catapult will destroy the yellow tower and damage the Gaia temple.

    If you want to cover up your tracks, place an alligator near the catapult. It will slowly destroy the catapult, but while this happens, the cat goes on shooting at its targets. By the time the human player arrives, the catapult will be destroyed and (hopefully) have disintegrated. Don’t place lions instead of alligators – they paralyse the catapult.

    If you want to have fragile buildings such as houses or farms on fire, don’t place a tower next to them. Houses and farms will be destroyed after two catapult blows, and a tower will take at least three or four blows. You could place a yellow blindlame priest – he doesn’t move and will get killed instantly. If you want to have injured Gaia units, place a blindlame priest next to them.

    You’ll probably need two or more catapults. Place all catapults in one spot – or put them far away from each other! The catapults must not be able to defend each other. If they can, they’ll shoot at the alligators which gnaw away at their fellow cats. The alligators will die instantly, and the catapults will still be there when the human player arrives.


    Between the walls and the trees on top of the pic, you can see the destroyed catapult that was exchanging fire with the tower.

    2) The war elephant & and scythe method. War elephants and scythes fight next to the gaia buildings and also damage them. Be sure to “lock in” the fighting parties next to the buildings by drawing cliffs under them or surrounding them by trees. Otherwise, they will run off into all possible directions and spoil everything.

    This method works best when Gaia Towers are involved. Gaia Towers shoot at everything that isn’t Gaia, and they will kill off the survivors of the battle. This is another way to cover up your tracks.

    You probably know already – at least you’ll be guessing at this point – but let’s say it again just to make sure. Computer players cannot discover gaia buildings and units. In a singleplayer game, you don’t need to be afraid that the computer will discover Gaia units first. You can place a Gaia swordsman in the middle of an enemy village. The enemy peons and soldiers will ignore him, and he will patienly wait there until you arrive.

    A Burning Gaia City requires a lot of time and strong nerves. You’ll have to test it until your eyes are burning as well. Start the game, type “reveal map” and “no fog” and see what happens at the Gaia city. Even if everything seems to be fine, test it again. And again.

    I spent many hours just because buildings got hit too often and were destroyed completely. Sometimes the buildings were burning nicely, and I thought “yeah, finished.” But when I restarted the same scenario version, I just got some pathetic piles of ashes. You’ve got a 99% chance to avoid these accidents – but only if you keep on testing.

    You’ll find Burning Gaia Cities in imhotep’s “David Saga #2” and in “Scipio and the Second Punic War.” He used the catapult method. If you’d like to see my elephant/ scythe method, you might take a look at my campaign “Budonian Tales.” Find out which method suits you best. I didn’t know imhotep’s campaigns and tricks when I created my burning city scenario. Now that I know his method, I prefer working with catapults (combined with my alligator trick).


    Water Plants

    This gimmick is less spectacular than the Burning Gaia City, but it is a nice effect. You put some shallow water and delete the surface. Then you place some cactuses onto the water. It looks even better if you mix two types of cactuses: place the little round ones onto the broader ones, so that it looks a bit like waterlilies. 




    Another cactus trick. You just put lines of cactuses which are very near to each other. A word of warning here: once you start placing the cactuses on your map, don’t stop doing it until you have finished! Don’t choose any other function (“move” instead of “place”, or any option in the menu) before every cactus is in its place. If you do that, the cactuses will get a mind of their own. You will find it impossible to place them next to each other – they will jump into all sorts of places. Deleting the cactuses doesn’t help in that case. Change the ground under the faulty cactuses to Desert and then back to Grass. The old cactuses will disappear, but the new ones will “obey” you again. 


    There are a few other things you can do with cacti. Consider mixing them with dead trees to cause a different effect. If you draw a cliff close to a hedge (facing away from the player) and cover that cliff with dead trees, you can get an impenetrable hedge. Note that cacti disappear if you draw a cliff directly under them. Thanks to OldGrex for these last two suggestions.


    Mixed Forest

    This doesn’t take much work, but will make a lot of difference to your map. Let’s face it – pine woods are nice, but the standard forest does look a bit dull and lumpy. Jungle is even worse – no darkness and thickets, just a symmetrical field of thin, light green palm trees, and they all look pretty much the same.

    For a jungle, try to put normal forest first. Then click some very small jungle patches into that wood, and voil�: you’ll have a jungle that looks much darker and more impenetrable.

    A similar thing goes for standard forest. If you click some small pine wood patches into it, it will look much more natural and colourful.

    Here’s a suggestion which requires more work, so it’s only for map design fanatics: The Gaia editor contains a lot of awsome trees which offer even more variety. They can do wonders to your map, but you have to place them one tree at a time.

    P. S.: Avoid climate clashes. Hawaiian palm trees in a cold and wind-beaten Canadian pine forest don’t look very convincing, do they? 


    Wild Horses

    They were taken from an unreleased beta version of AoE, I think. They have become quite popular with scenario designers in the past two or three months. Cherub Shadow and imhotep have made scenarios available where horses are included for you to cut out and paste into your scenarios (downloads are in the Level Design Forum). They have been used by, among others, Rich Parker in “The Martial Emperor” and The Rasher in “Like a Thief in the Night”.

    If you’re designing with RoR, you’ll get a problem. When the horses move, they disappear and turn up somewhere else. In AoE, you’ll see them gallopping off. If you have RoR and still want to include horses, lock them to the ground so that they cannot leave their places. You can either surround them by trees or water, or you can draw a cliff under them.




    Things that slow the game down

    A beautiful map with many details is nice. Unfortunately, there is a risk in it. The more details you put into a scenario, the greater is the danger that your game will slow down. I guess you know the problem. Arrows stopping in mid-air are fun-killers, and so are units that seem to be walking on glue. If you want to follow the suggestions I made, you may have to stick to average-sized maps – or smaller ones. I am no expert, but here are some observations that I and other people made. Please let me know if there are any other reasons or even solutions to this problem. As far as I know, potential slow-downers are

    • Gigantic and very big maps.
    • Big battles with many movements.
    • Snow via discoveries.
    • Maps with a lot of cliffs.
    • A lot of burning buildings.
    • A big number of fish patches and/ or birds.
    • A lot of alligator and gazelle kings.
    • In rare cases, even a high number of Individual Victory Conditions might affect the game speed, but this happened to me only once.

    As you see, all the features that are fun and look good can have a negative effect on the gameplay. If you are working on a scenario and it starts slowing down, see if there is anything you can go without. I usually take out some of the fish patches and birds first. If that doesn’t help, I often can’t make up my mind what to leave out then. Once or twice I even had to discard a scenario.

    Things like that can drive you round the bend. But believe me, it’s worth it. In my “Budonian Tales” campaign, most people seemed to like the “Jasonites” scenario best. Working on it was a nightmare. The scenario was as good as finished when it started slowing down hopelessly. There was no way I could fix it, so I restarted from an earlier version and rebuilt three quarters of it. Now I’m glad I didn’t just kick the scenario into the garbage can.

    Since that day, I always keep several versions of a scenario until it is really finished. Just because. 

    By the way, if you want to see some more design tricks, be sure to check out Cherub Shadow’s Showcase Scenario. You’ll find it here in the Siege Workshop soon.

    Ingo van Thiel 

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