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    Map Design Tricks for AoE Definitive Edition

    Using the Editor like a Palette of Paint:

    Map Design with Age of Empires Definitive Edition


    An article by Ingo van Thiel

    This article was written in July 2018. Age of Empires:DE has launched earlier this year; at this moment, support of the game unfortunately seems to have been abandoned by the developers. This has created some frustration in the community and it is not as big as it could be. So you may ask: Is it still worth designing with the Age of Empires editor? It’s your choice, but if you ask me: Yes, I think so. You may not have huge audience of players, but there will be dedicated gamers who are very happy about maps that are designed with love and attention to detail.

    In spite of its bugs, the AoE:DE editor is intuitive and simple to use. You can create amazing terrains with this editor, and do a lot more than you will see on a random map. I was a fan of the old editor 20 years ago, and I find this new editor even more powerful. It has several new terrain features and features that the old game didn’t have.

    This article combines the knowledge of many designers from the original Age of Empires game and the Definitive Edition, together with some observations I made.

    All these tricks described here work on their own if you have Age of Empires: DE. More tricks are possible if you also have the original Age of Empires and Rise of Rome (see last chapter).


     Screenshot from Budonian Tales

    1) Get familiar with the basics

    When you read this article, you should already be familiar with the basics of the editor: It is very simple and intuitive, and most of it explains itself. You can create new maps and terrains, place items and units on them, choose the number of players and their personalities, what their diplomatic stance is toward each other, what individual or general victory conditions they have, what messages players should get before the scenario and after winning or losing it etc. Note: As I am writing this (July 2018), the „Cinematics“ menu is still very bugged with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and I am currently not using it. If the bugs get fixed, it will also allow you to place your own introductory bitmaps. It is a pity that this does not seem to be possible now; with the original Age of Empires, introductory bitmaps were an art of their own.

    If you want to get started, a good basic article is on Age of Empires Heaven can help. It is based on the old original editor, which has not changed much for the new Age of Empires:DE remake:

    2) The Units menu. Meet GAIA, the Goddess of Earth!

    This article mainly focuses on the UNITS menu. When you design a map, you need the TERRAIN menu to place forests, water, roads etc. However, the UNITS menu is where the magic happens!

    The UNITS menu allows you to place units, buildings, animals and other items on the map. Even the standard functions already allow you to make very nice maps. However, the editor has a few secrets. When you use them to their fullest, your map design could go through the roof. You can do much more than just place a few units on the map. You can turn design into an art, and actually “paint with the editor“.

    One of my favorite sections in the UNITS menu is the one for a player called GAIA (the Greek Goddess of Earth). In this section you will find all those natural items such as gold and stone mines, rocks, shrubs, gazelles etc. The GAIA unit menu is my favorite editor menu, where I spend most time.

    Besides natural objects, you can also place GAIA units or buildings on the map. These belong to nobody at first. They are automatically captured by a human player, as soon as they come into his line of sight.

    There are some interesting aspects about GAIA units and buildings. Knowing them can help you find interesting new tricks.

    a) Only human players can detect/capture GAIA units or buildings. Computers cannot. For example, you could put a GAIA swordsman into the middle of a computer player’s village. The computer soldiers and villagers will ignore him, and he will patiently stand there until you arrive – and then he will still be yours.

    b) To capture GAIA units/buildings, they need to be in your own „line of sight“ (LOS).

    Almost all your units have a line of sight (= vision). It is the visible circle around your units that you always see when you play, which helps your units to reveal the map, see enemies etc. The only AoE units that do not have a line of sight are blindlame priests and mercenaries; these can stand right next to a GAIA building and they will not detect it. If you share your vision with allied computer players (research Writing at your government center, or start in Iron Age), they cannot capture GAIA units for you either. You may see the GAIA units through your allies‘ eyes, but not capture them until your units go there.

    There is one interesting exception: You don’t always have to personally go to a GAIA object to capture it. Ranged enemy soldiers (archers, slingers, priests or siege engines) light up in the darkness when they shoot at you. This little visible “flare“ is also your line of sight: So if an enemy archer stands next to a GAIA object while he fires at you, he may „involuntarily“ discover the GAIA object for you. You can use this feature for some interesting tricks, e.g. to uncover GAIA armies in blocked parts of the map that your own units cannot reach or see.

    c) Some GAIA items are bugged, especially heroes: You can place them on the map, but they will disappear as soon as you test the game, and also be gone when you return to the editor. These GAIA heroes will disappear: Hero, Alexander, Amon Ra, Archimedes, Corlis, Hector, Hersifon, Jason, Mor Havoc, Perseus, Tiberius, Vercingetorix, and Xerxes. These GAIA heroes can be used and will stay on the map: Achilles, Ajax, Caesar, Hannibal, Mark Antony, Muwatalli, Odysseus, Paris, Pericles, Ramesses, Scipio, Xanthippus and Xu Fu.

    d) GAIA buildings in AoE:DE change their appearance according to the civilization and age settings of Player 1. So if you play as an Egyptian player in Bronze, the GAIA buildings you will detect will also be Egyptian Bronze Age buildings. This was different with the original Age of Empires/Rise of Rome, where all GAIA buildings had the appearance of Asian Stone Age buildings.

    3) Hotkeys: Freedom is just three clicks away

    When you start the game and open the editor, you will have a few limits when you try to place your units. In standard mode, you can only place units, buildings and terrain items on the grid. “On the grid“ means they go into fixed places. Also, in standard mode you cannot place any land items on water, you cannot overlap units and buildings, and you cannot place some terrain items close to each other.

    These limits are only useful in some circumstances, e.g. when you place walls. Then it’s good when all the wall elements properly match, and you automatically place them on the grid. Sometimes when you place stone and gold mines near a cliff, it is also good if the editor forces you to do it on the grid. Place these mines too close to the cliffs, and your units may not be able to harvest from them properly, or not at all.

    For almost everything else, these limits in placing untis are not helpful.

    You can switch all these limitations off. When I start the editor, it’s the first thing I do. Use these hotkeys:

    Control + G: This allows you to place units/buildings/ items off the grid.

    Control + S: This allows you to overlap units and buildings.

    Control + R: This allows you to place units/buildings/items on any terrain.

    Voilà. Three clicks and suddenly you have all the freedom you need.

    Now you can freely place all units everywhere, how you want it, such as overlapping buildings or even trees on water. Now you can create all those special looks you normally can’t. You need these three hotkeys for almost any trick described in this article.


    Screenshot from Budonian Tales

    Note: You can also place towers on water with this trick. This looks nice, but makes that tower almost invincible. Even a catapult shot will just take away one hitpoint each; an archer will need 8 – 10 arrows to even scratch it. Only use towers on water in very special situations, when players are not supposed to destroy them.

     4) Trees, buildings and other items on cliffs

    Naked cliffs look a bit dull. The AoE:DE editor allows you to have a lot of shrubs on them with just one click: If you go to the map menu and click the „regenerate eye candy“ button, shrubs will automatically be created on the cliffs.

    You can have more than that. If you did your hotkeys (Ctrl+G, Ctrl+R and Ctrl+S), you can manually place units, buildings, trees and other terrain features on cliffs. Note that units on cliffs cannot walk away and are stuck there.

    An alternative is to place these items (e.g. trees and buildings) first and then draw a cliff under them.


    Screenshot from Tai Gun

    5) Hedges

    Go to the Units/Gaia menu, select one of the Shrub types. Place them close to each other to create an effect of hedges. These hedges are walkable, but make a very nice visual effect. Experiment with different shrub types: Some will give your hedges a rougher, uncut look, others will make your hedges look neat and trimmed.

    In the original Age of Empires, the “shrub“ element did not exist and I used closely placed cacti instead. Unfortunately the cacti are very bugged and I do not recommend using them. I find the new shrubs look nicer too.


    Screenshot from Tai Gun

    6) Flowers and vegetable gardens

    If you want to create a look of special vegetable gardens, you can place shrubs and rocks over each other. E.g. I sometimes take the flower-type jungle shrub and place it over a grey rock. It will look like a plant growing out of an earth pile.

     ingode5 ingode6

    Screenshots from Budonian Tales and Tai Gun

    7) GAIA bridges

    You have a vast selection of “rocks“ in the GAIA menu. Some of them can be placed on solid earth, others are under water. With the G/R/S hotkeys, you can place them anyway you like.

    You place them closely  to each other to create new visual effects, such as bridges. The bridge should start with a thin stripe of land across a river. Place rocks next to each other along the outlines of that land stripe. I prefer to use the most plain-looking rocks for this. You can also simulate small pillars going into the water. I use land rocks above water, and 1 or 2 sea rocks at the bottom. Now it looks like pillars with their feet in the water.

     ingode7 ingode8

    Screenshots from Tai Gun

    You may find other interesting combinations of rocks, be it for bridge illusions or other visual effects. Just keep experimenting!

    8) Swamps and muddy rivers

    You can create a swamp effect with items from the Gaia/units menu: Place desert patches or grass clumps over water. If you want the water to be walkable, place them on shallow water. Again, to be able to do that, you should have pressed the hotkeys Ctrl G, R and S in the beginning.


    Screenshot from Tai Gun

    You can also create a new type of muddy river by the same method as swamps: place desert patches or grass clumps at the shore of a river.

    9) Overlapping units/buildings

    This is also simple with the three hotkeys. You can have overlapping buildings that look like novel building types, e.g. a siege workshop blending into an archery range. The editor has some limits here: Different populations have different building graphics. This makes it more challenging when you place overlapping buildings, because some combinations just look good if you find exactly the right placement. Alas, in editor mode buildings for certain player always show with one certain population graphics, e.g. Egyptian for player 1. So you need to look at your scenario with the Test button several times, to make sure your buildings look just right in-game.


    Screenshot from Tai Gun

    You can create a lot of new visual effects, with this method. E.g. you can place an enemy ballista on a siege workshop ground, or an archer inside an archery range. These units are not able to walk away, but they will shoot to defend their buildings.

    You can also have trees growing inside markets or barracks, you can move towers into walls so they look more like one element.

    There are lots of possibilities, try them for yourself.

    10) Burning Gaia/Computer Cities

    In some scenarios, you may discover Gaia or computer cities which are already on fire. This is a popular trick from the original Age of Empires series. It requires a lot of testing, trial and error. As of July 2018, a bug makes this trick very hard to pull off (see warning below). The effect is created by having two enemy computer players fight each other, and create splash damage to the buildings. Catapults work best for this in Age of Empires:Definitive Edition and I recommend to use them. Scythes and elephants do not work as well in AoE:DE as they used to with the original series, because their splash damage does not affect allies anymore.


    Screenshot from Chou Kung

    To create this trick, 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 a crocodile near the catapult. It will slowly destroy the catapult, but while this happens, the catapult 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 crocodiles, because they paralyse the catapult as soon as they start mauling it.

    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 hits. 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.

    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… or for some reason, a catapult still survived. You’ve got a high chance to avoid these accidents, but only if you keep testing.

    Warning: At the moment I am writing this (July 2018), a bug in Age of Empires:DE makes it impossible to use the “reveal map“ and „no fog“ cheats, which are vital tools to test this trick. The game freezes when you use the chat function. This bug may not affect all language versions of AoE:DE but it is a problem with the English and several other versions. If this bug is still not fixed when you read this, think twice if you really want a burning city in your scenario. It will be hard to test without these cheats. There may be a workaround, if you are allied to one of the computer players that are fighting in the burning village: Put player 1 in Iron Age, so that Writing is automatically researched and you can share the vision with your allied computer player.

    (As an alternative workaround: pressing Alt+Tab to switch in and out of the game OR clicking the Chat button a couple of times in upper right corner of the interface makes the chat function regain focus – PhatFish).

    11) More hints

    Using farms to delete terrain items

    Most of the time, the Delete button in the Units menu will do everything you need. If you need to delete a building, unit or tree, you can rely on that button.

    Unfortunately, there are situtations where the Delete button does not work, or where it is simply not a good idea. You may encounter one of these problems:

    • Grass clumps, desert patches, cacti and several other terrain items just do not go away with the delete button. Sometimes it helps to change the terrain under these items, e.g. placing water terrain under cacti. But even that does not work for grass clumps.

    • It is difficult to delete shrubs, stone paths or other small terrain items if they are near buildings, trees or units. No matter how well you aim, you will end up deleting your precious buildings, units or trees first – even if you didn’t directly point your mouse at them.

    There is a workaround for these problems: You can safely delete all those Gaia items on the ground, without affecting your units, trees or buildings. Simply place farms (again, to freely place them, you need to have done your 3 hotkeys in the beginning) over the terrain items you want to delete. They instantly remove all rocks, shrubs, cacti etc but do not affect units or buildings. After that, you can easily delete the farms with the normal Delete button again.

    Playtesting: You must do it.

    You must always fully test your own scenario to check if it is fun, and if the balance is right. Are the enemies challenging but not overwhelming? Can you lose with the wrong tactic, and win with the right one? Do the victory conditions work? If it is a fixed force scenario, can your units pass through everywhere? Free paths may suddenly be blocked if you use the „regenerate eye-candy“ button – suddenly there is just that extra tree in the way. There is no way around it: Play your own scenario before you submit it! More than once! Otherwise your work may be unplayble, boringly easy or impossibly hard, which is  frustrating for players.

    Baby Prez: Your eager little helper for fast playthroughs

    Testing your own scenario properly, without cheats, is a must. However, at some point, you will have tested your scenario enough to know it is balanced and fun to play. Maybe you want to be sure, one last time, that all the victory conditions (VC) work as they should before you submit your scenario, or maybe you have fixed something in them; you want to just check if your VCs work, but you don’t want to play for one or two hours again to answer this question. You can speed this up: Play through your scenario with cheat units. At this moment (July 2018), using cheats is almost impossible because of the Chat Window Bug. There is an alternative though: Use the editor (Units menu) to place several cheat units such as Baby Prez on your map, so you can quickly overrun challenging parts, e.g. when you need to raze an enemy town and destroy the wonder to win. I prefer Baby Prez (or Laser Troopers) to Nuke Troopers or rocket cars, because they do not create splash damage to your own units. With this, you can quickly breeze through your scenario for a final check, just to make sure that all victory conditions work as they should. Don‘t forget to delete your cheat units again after testing your scenario!

    Writing Instructions: Overcoming the Text Editor Bug

    The text editor in Age of Empires is also very buggy. When you first start writing, type as much as you can, ideally in one go, from the beginning until the end. Don’t click your mouse before you are done typing. Just keep going as long as you can.

    The problems begin when you click your mouse, e.g. because you want to correct a typo. At first, the cursor innocently blinks where you put it; but as soon as you start typing, BAM! You will be transported to the beginning of your text, and the letters you‘re typing will appear there instead.

    There is a workaround though: Click your cursor where you want to correct the text, then delete one letter forward; if you do this, you can then start typing from there. Do this whenever you want to correct or add something in your text later. With this workaround, you can still complete your texts, and correct them later.

    Transferring scenarios from the original AoE to AoE:DE

    The tricks described in this article assume you only have Age of Empires: DE installed on your computer (like I do).

    More design tricks are possible if you also own the original Age of Empires (1997) and Rise of Rome (1998).

    The original AoE and RoR games allow you to change some in-game files such as the .dat files. This is currently not possible with AoE:DE, where much of the game code (dat files, AI and PER files) is hidden.

    Note that I have not tested this myself yet, as I only have AoE:DE on my computer – this is information I received from PhatFish at Age of Empires Heaven: There are tools such as the Composite editor and RockNror. You can find these tools at the “Granary“ section at Age of Empires Heaven. These editors only work with the original AoE and RoR (not AoE:DE). They allow you to access many hidden in-game units and terrains, and unlock a mode which allows units to have higher hitpoints. Scenarios designed with these tools can then be transferred from AoE/RoR to Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. The additional hidden units and terrains will still be there. As a downside, you first need to design your scenarios with the original AoE and RoR game, with its old grapics, and put in everything that you want. Once a scenario is converted into AoE:DE, you obviously cannot edit it with the original AoE/RoR editor anymore.

    When you transfer an original AoE/RoR scenario to AoE:DE, make sure you refresh all the victory conditions (VCs) for all players. Bugs may sneak into the VCs during the transferring process. Fortunately, custom AI and PER files will be stored with the scenarios and still work in AoE:DE.


    I hope this article inspires you to design your own scenarios and take your map design to the next level. Special thanks for PhatFish and Trisolo for their feedback and additions to this article!

    Ingo van Thiel
    July 2018

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