Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs

5_1When Age of Empires 3 was released, Ensemble told people that there weren’t any Native American nations to play because the game wasn’t really about them. The Warchiefs expansion concedes the point that many of us like to play Native Americans, as a people either resisting foreign encroachment on their lands or waging their own wars of conquest. Ensemble has taken three of the most militarily competent nations—the Sioux, the Iroquois, and the Aztec—and dressed them up as formidable opponents for any imperial adventurer.

The Sioux rely on cavalry and have no siege weapons to speak of. The Iroquois can generate travois to construct new buildings. The Aztec have no cavalry at all, but they have a wide range of infantry and strong buildings. Each of the new factions has a distinct feel, which is more than you could have said about most of the nations in the core game. All of their units are unique, and each has very different opening strategies. You can’t customize the appearance of the native Home Cities the way you could the European ones, but there are lots of shipment cards to collect, once again tailored to the characteristics of each civilization.

All of the nations center on the Warchief unit and the Fire Pit. The Warchief is a powerful explorer unit that increases the battle hardiness of surrounding units. It can also tame treasure guardians, so a Warchief will be surrounded by animal and outlaw allies early in the game and is tough to beat to valuable treasure hoards. The Fire Pit is a dance floor that bestows special bonuses on your nation, bonuses that vary in strength depending on the number of villagers deputized to dance. You can shorten build times, generate experience, or produce elite warriors.

These native powers prove very tough to beat. The Fire Pit gives them a flexibility that the Europeans don’t get. Their major weaknesses—only the Iroquois have true siege weapons—are countered by their ability to assemble mass armies with seemingly little effort. And these aren’t all wimpy Russian strelets. Each Native American group has a stealth unit that can turn invisible and then slowly scout or set and ambush. All their barracks have defensive fire. Farms double as livestock pens. The tiny advantages pile up, until poor Cortez is facing an awesome assault from angry Aztecs, hot for vengeance.

The tried and true Euro-strategies don’t work as well, either. To make room for the changes, Ensemble has adjusted each of the old nations, so some veterans will need to reorient before wading too heavily into online combat. They get some new cards and can build a saloon to hire mercenaries—though the Old West gunfighters and riflemen look way out of place in a game that is supposedly about the discovery and exploration of a New World. So do the ninjas.

11_1But the power of the Native Americans does nothing to diminish the enjoyment of playing the Turks or the Dutch. Since each of the native factions is so distinct, a different strategy is needed for each one. The horseless Aztec can be faced with an army of skirmishers and artillery, but can you outproduce them? The Sioux have lots of cavalry, so you may want to leave the slow-moving cannon behind. Disabling the Warchief before he collects all the hidden loot could be a new mini-game that changes the course of the battle. The new nations pose good tactical challenges.

In many ways, the WarChiefs expansion shows what the original could have been with a little more tweaking. The core game was so familiar in so many ways that a sense of discovery was missing. It was technically sound, but not alien enough to be a new world. Throwing super-powerful native tribes into the mix may not mesh with the history we all know, but it does make every map they inhabit a more dangerous and challenging place.

System Requirements: Pentium III 1 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, 2 GB HDD, WinXP

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