As someone not into fiction-reading, my appreciation of history grew because of my belief that everything witnessed and recorded is real, thanks to ancient scribes who made Instagrams out of stones (later, papyri).  No fantasies, no magic, no Hollywood-ized romanticism or tragedy, and no glorious pile-up of adjectives and adverbs.  And if those scribes did romanticize (which happened every once in a while in time), forensic anthropologists will do the trick of uncovering the true truth.

Dear Microsoft and Ensemble Studios, I wish I had better grades in high school World History.  Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure didn't help much.  Thank goodness AoE2 happened anyway, five years after my high school graduation.

Then the study of human history just got cooler, and interactive, all without the sick repetitions of humanity’s lowest points in time.  And I have Microsoft and Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires II: Age of Kings to thank for that.

History lab in less than 700MB

It was in the early 2000’s that my brother brought home a CD of Age of Empires II.  I could hardly recall having played the first one, but it’s a good thing I started with the sequel.

Age of Empires II was set in the Middle Ages, from after the Fall of Rome (not counting the Byzantine Empire) until just before the Early Modern Age.  Perhaps, I wouldn’t be able to relate much to the earlier version because I found it a little too far off in the past.  Back then, scribes were writing more about epic bravery with mythological embellishments than military science.

How does AoE2 become a safe history lab compared to Bill and Ted and Superbook (yes, Superbook will get you in the cross-spears between Israelites and Amalekites if you make bad decisions in Season II)?  To begin with, you have to be Scotland’s William Wallace in the training game.  As the lead character—a 32-bit Celt woad raider and not Mel Gibson—you have control over William using your mouse and a few hot keys.  Learn moves like walking, attacking, guarding, building, gathering resources and relics, and even converting other units to your alignment.

In the William Wallace training game (also a short campaign game) you’ll learn about the history of the belligerent races (the other one being the Britons of England) and their key people (there’s more than one special character in a campaign game).  You also get to learn about the uniqueness of each race’s and age’s technology.  Scotland has tough infantry units which are good at destroying cavalry and buildings.  England, however, has a special unit called the longbowman which is an archer with a slightly higher offense and significantly longer range compared to all other archers.  Both are true to history—if Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is true enough history for you (HowStuffWorks' says otherwise).  The Britons’ longbowman and the Celts’ woad raider are special units produced only by castles: military buildings that appear only when one has resources enough to advance to Castle Age (to each his own advancement).

Who needs historical accuracy when you have princesses?  The English took one from me, I take one from them--big time!  Don't blame me (as director and producer); you kids need a lot of manning up to do and I had to provide the right motivation.
Civilizations, technology, special units…and lots of history!

The 13 civilizations in AoE2 are (with present-day nations for locating on contemporary maps):

  • Britons (England),
  • Byzantines (Romania, F.Y.R. Macedonia, Turkey, Greece),
  • Celts (Ireland and Scotland),
  • Franks (France),
  • Goths (Germany and Denmark),
  • Teutons (Germany and Denmark),
  • Vikings (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, European Russia),
  • Saracens (Arabian peninsula),
  • Persians (Iran),
  • Mongols (Mongolia),
  • Turks (Turkey),
  • Chinese and,
  • Japanese.

In the later expansion, Age of Empires II: The Conquerors (set in the age of exploration of the New World), additional civilizations include the Spanish, Aztecs and Koreans.

Like in real medieval history—unlike fairy tales that have princesses and frogs as staple characters—civilizations have their own unique characteristics that are largely influenced by their place in globe and available resources (wood, food, gold and stone).  If you are using the Mongols in the Genghis Khan campaign, expect to start with little resources lying around.  But you can also expect the Mongols to have units that cost little to make with villager units that are good at hunting and foraging.  Real Mongols—even certain nomadic tribes today—live on scarcity in the steppes of Central Asia.

Persians are known to use war elephants, both as heavy cavalry and as siege weapon.  Below all the the action are the game's controls and the game map (screen capture by Strategy Games, Wordpress).

The unique characteristics of a civilization means you have to read up on World History to win your campaigns and scenarios.  The Mongols’ ability to live on little while building up fast (especially on cavalry units) means you have to start raiding early in the game to acquire your opponent’s nearby resources.  The Japanese, coming from a land with naturally little resources, have villagers and fishing boats that are efficient fishers.  The technologically-advanced Chinese are historically the first to research gunpowder; you should therefore take advantage of flaming arrows early in the midgame and cannons by the endgame. But thanks to the Silk Road (a trade route not made of silk and not a real road), the Turks also have cannon units including a special cannon infantry called the janissary that shoots lead instead of arrows.

Time also plays a big part in game play. After all, what is a World-History-based video game without the element of time?  With the exception of certain scenarios and campaigns, you and your opponent will each begin in the Dark Age.  It is characterized by not having great castles and churches (which produce monks that practically “proselytize” your opponent’s units).  In reality, the Dark Ages described by early modern Western historians was a time of localized politics and skirmishes, and a time of lethargy for the sciences (as it was curtailed by the Catholic Church; it was, however, a bright age for Islam and the Saracens).  To advance to each age and gain the ability to tap into that age’s technology and architecture, you have to spend considerable resources (especially gold) and be willing to wait.  Fashion changes too—your units will be better-dressed to kill and be killed.

Technology development requires both a predecessor technology and progression through the ages.
After the Dark Age comes the Feudal Age (better cavalry units), followed by the Castle Age (castles, stone fortifications, keeps and churches).  Lastly, the Imperial Age arrives (universities and siege weapons).  The Imperial Age allows the creation of a world wonder: a building that takes long to build, and once built, you have to hold it up for “several hundred years” (several minutes) in order to win the game.  That assumes you were the first to build.  The game will tell all other players that you started building one.  An example of this “wonder” is a large cathedral building of the Franks (an imitation of Notre Dame Cathedral).

Then and now, everything connects

Every great civilization has a humble beginning.  If you can hunt, forage, chop wood and mine gold and stone early in the game, your efforts will be rewarded with advancements in technology which allows for faster food production, lumberjacking and mining, as well as better offense and defense.  While fast fingers make for quicker progress, it would be better to bet your victory with your knowledge of your own race and the lay of the land.  You can know more before playing by looking up the clickable History icon, which contains the brief histories of all 13 civilizations and the periods that make up the Middle Ages.  That part of the game is what really stimulated my history learning.

Religion plays a great role too—both in the game and in reality—beginning in the game’s Castle Age.  Churches with venerable relics typically saw increases in donations from their faithful, thereby increasing a civilization’s gold production.  The church building also has its own technologies that increase the conversion reach and efficiency of monks.  It was also in the real Middle Ages that the Catholic Church and Islam saw significant rises in power and influence through ministry, media (block printing) and the funding of military campaigns and holy wars.

Aside from religion, trade and alliances can also help towards victory.  Remember that you need resources to advance to each age.  A little betrayal also helps.  Immaterial and non-technological factors such as trade, alliances and the breaking thereof will enable you—as it did me—to look deeper into yourself as a leader.  You then begin to wonder if, in reality, you are a forthright diplomat, a loyal ally, a moral consequentialist, a traitor for the right reasons or a dictator who sees his people as mere expendables.

These said, go buy that remake of AoE2 by Hidden Path Entertainment (2013 HD Edition available on Steam) and start learning World History all over again.  How you forge alliances, trade, maximize resources, prioritize research, make and end war (or competition as Sun Tzu for Business would put it) and—above all—learn from history, may just determine our country’s future.

Oh, there’s also a Nintendo DS version.

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