The Improvement Mod doesn’t fundamentally overhaul the game. It adds some bug fixes, tweaks, and some new features to the landscape. They also introduce an entirely new faction: America. But it’s, at its core, based off the European civ model, with a similar stack of home city cards. The new additions to the game are largely represented by a few new buildings, some new technologies, and some new units and mercenaries added to the core game. The AI was modded, so that is uses the new content, cards and started building walls again.
Age Of Empires III games are classically long-term engagements, lasting upwards of 45:00 per round. The game is geared for this, not the rush, which is a horribly annoying strategy to take, in my opinion. Most of the time, gameplay breaks into a few identifiable segments (roughly 3): Building Phase, Defense Phase and Attack Phase. In the Building Phase, your goal should be to create upwards of 30 villagers, a market and a barracks. It helps in this phase to grab a few trading posts too, because the experience income is useful in getting several home city shipments sent, which if you are thinking ahead, may bolster your economy. The Building Phase should focus your concentration on developing a fast-moving economy, and depending on what faction you chose, you might be below or above the recommended villager count. But by the end of it, at about 10:00 in to the game, you should have enough resource income to start dispensing troops, and get a standing army of 15 – 30 units of varying functions. If you have the AI set on Hard, they will be attacking at 12:30 nearly every time, and with maybe 20 units, some cavalry, mostly infantry. You must be ready to defend your colony and start the Defense Phase. Usually, this phase lasts the bulk of the game, and goes from 12:00 or so until the 35:00 mark. During this time, your economy should be growing still, reaching a villager cap of over 60 (depending on your civ). Your standing army should reach a full battalion, possibly two, and you should build every house you can, and at least one additional town center. The enemy will attack you at regular intervals, and usually from a different angle every time, to try and avoid marching directly into your standing units. I typically have my villagers who are still gathering raw resources (like trees) on the fringes of my control, because I have enough standing units to come rescue them, or have an army stationed near them in case things go down. I might divide my army into two distinct fronts, holding ground at any sort of choke point I can find. In the final phase of the game, the Attack Phase, I’m moving my 2 – 4 full battalions up the field into enemy territory. The AI is pretty good about building walls, but they usually leave a hole in them somewhere because of terrain problems. My units go in on attack-move, and stop to kill units they find, and start in on destroying the structures after that. With 4 full battalions, there’s not a whole lot they can do to stop that. It’s just an overwhelming number of troops to contend with. Fixed structures and spare units can make 1 battalion go away in just a few minutes, but not 3 – 4. For each faction, there are slightly different procedures for getting through the phases.
I typically use Aztecs, Portuguese or Americans. The American civ is a lot of fun, because they get going pretty fast in the building phase of the game with an early boon of 400 wood to get some houses and a market built right away. You can infinitely ship pilgrims from your home city, and at a clip of 4 at a time, but usually in these games I don’t get to using that card often. By the time you gain access to it your villager population might be already capped. The map gets explored very fast because the explorer unit is mounted and has great line of sight, but he’s just about useless for capturing treasures.
Aztecs are insane: once they get past the 2nd age, they move rapidly, using the fire pit and warrior priests to create units ridiculously fast. I typically spend the first part of age 2 getting 10 warrior priests built and dancing around the fire pit, sending 3 with a shipment and building the rest right out of the fire pit. After I have them, I switch them over to the productivity dance, and units are cranked forth from structures at a furious pace. I can accelerate the process of gathering resources dramatically, getting my 60 villagers and then some in only a couple of minutes. I will have more than the afore mentioned villager cap, because I usually need 10 – 15 more of them to add to the fire pit to get it really blazing. Then when the Attack Phase rolls around, I switch the fire pit over to increased attack, and get another 30% – 40% amplification to damage on all my units, which is difficult to deal with when you consider just how many units I make with the Aztecs. The skull knight might be the single most amazing unit in the game altogether.
The Portuguese are a separate story. They tend to be slower, and cost more to get going. The skirmishers and musketeers all cost a chunk of gold, and that’s almost always the constraining factor. If my gold income is awesome, which can usually be managed by 25 or more gold gathering villagers, I can get a good deal of ranged units built, which is where the Portuguese excel. They have several home city cards which amplify gunpowder infantry, and some which help their cavalry and artillery. Organ guns are the unique artillery for the faction, and they abuse standing units, much like the gatling gun for the American faction.
All told, I get some different looks from the three factions I play, but not too dramatic a swing. Aztecs I prefer the most because of how fast they are. They can be into the Defense Phase pretty early, maybe even 8:00 or so with my first standing army. I can also have an amazing economy, especially when villagers come out every 5 – 9 seconds or so. And the unit selections for Aztecs I really like. You know me: infantry is the way to go. I vastly prefer it to any other troop type. Portuguese are all ranged infantry, so that fits. America is a mix of both. You can’t be successful with just infantry from them, even if they do have two kinds of decent ranged units. This combination has kept me fairly entertained through more than 10 separate matchups. I have yet to lose one that I actually got started right and didn’t accidentally forget to pause. I highly endorse installing the Improvement Mod if you have a chance, it really makes the game so much nicer, cleaner, better.