Expansion packs can be hard on seasoned gamers and reviewers. Often times, the pack adds unbalancing elements, or in the interest of extending the life of the original title, adds completely new gameplay elements that can be initially baffling to long time players of the game. As far as reviewing goes, it’s a fine line between critiquing the original game and just the expansion pack. Age of Empires III has gone down the expansion pack road with the recent publication of Age of Empires III – The WarChiefs. Yes, it’s true, native populations played a role in the non-expanded version of Age of Empires III, but do they really need to have a starring role in an expansion pack?
GameplayFor those not in the know, Age of Empires III is a real time strategy game with a card collecting mechanic, situated at the dawn of the New World’s colonization by European powers. Obviously, the New World wasn’t barren of population as it was, and the original title handled this by including the natives as “minor tribes.” Headlining the expansion, and giving it the “WarChiefs” name are three native civilizations upgraded to playable status- the Aztecs, the Iroquois, and the Sioux. With the native civilizations, come native buildings that take the place of their European counterparts. Two unique additions come to mind- two of the three playable native civilizations use a Tribal Council to replace the home city mechanic, and all native civilizations can make a fire pit. The fire pit is the equalizer in the game for the native powers- by having your natives dance around the fire pit, the reward you get for tying up the villagers varies on the kind of dance you dance. Take heed, native players, the Fire Pit is the path to victory. It’s a very easy item to overlook and can spell the doom of your civilization at the hands of the Europeans if not utilized correctly to generate the appropriate bonus! Regardless of the title, the European powers also accumulate some extra goodies mainly for the later stages of the game, but the game does focus on making some native tribes playable.
I had previously mentioned sweeping game mechanics changes often included in expansions. The WarChiefs has some, some sweeping, some not. Most dramatic is the inclusion of being a Revolutionary nation, rather than just a vassal state of a home nation in Europe. Does any of this sound familiar? In Age of Empires III, at a certain point and when certain wickets are met, you head your civilization into the Imperial age. In The WarChiefs, you have the option of becoming a Revolutionary nation, rather than an Imperial one. Much like when the European powers land in Sid Meier’s Colonization from back in the day, this phase of the game feels totally different than the earlier phases of the game- all of your gatherer units become militia, and your economy suffers for it. Countering this, the revolutionaries get various military reinforcements in the form of playable cards much like the cards collected in non-expansion play. In my play-throughs of Age of Empires III, I found the revolutionary nation endgame to be significantly harder than an Imperial ending, but your mileage may vary. Any time a game takes a departure from the beginning of the game’s formula, it’s a gamble. In this case, in my opinion, this gamble has paid off.