Empires: Age of Discovery (2015) is the second edition of Age of Empires III (2007), which contains both the base game and the Builders expansion. I have the original Age of Empires III, but I had not tried Builders before. The name has changed in this new edition of the game, due to the high licensing cost of using the AOE3 name, but the core game is the same.
Age of Empires III is not new to me, so I will just explain Empires: Age of Discovery briefly. This is a worker placement game. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing workers on spaces on the right half of the board. In the second half, these workers perform actions in a specific order. You conquer new land (the game calls this "discovery" *cough*), you send colonists to settle the new world, you collect trade goods, you construct buildings, you fight wars etc. Buildings are an important part of the game. They give you strong powers and augment your abilities, e.g. giving you an extra worker every round. One special feature of the game is you have different types of workers. The common worker is a colonist, but you can have specialist workers like soldiers, merchants, and builders. Soldiers are the only type which may kill enemy workers. Missionaries bring along an extra colonist when they migrate to the new world. Some workers have multiple uses, making them more flexible. E.g. the captain counts as two workers when competing for the merchant ship or when launching an expedition. Specialists can be used as normal colonists, just that you will be wasting their talent.
Scoring is done in several ways, the first being area majority in the colonies. At each colony, whoever has most workers gains 6 victory points, and whoever has second most gets 2VP. In case of a tie for first, the winners only get 2VP each. So there is strong incentive to be sole winner. Some buildings give VP at game end. Trade goods and merchant ships generate income every round. At game end, this earning power scores VP.
Here are five different workers. From left to right - colonist, missionary, builder, captain, soldier. I forgot the merchant. He was left out of the group photo. On the right we have a merchant ship.
The coins in the second edition are gorgeous.
The artwork of the game board is different. The colours are lighter, the design a little cleaner. I like the newer version better.
South America is divided into only 3 regions. Each undiscovered (i.e. unconquered) region has a face-down discovery tile, which specifies the strength of the natives and how much money you earn when, ahem, "discovering" the region. Discoveries are not automatically successful. Your expeditionary force needs to at least match the strength of the natives. So there is risk. The larger the force you send, the lower the risk.
These are some of the spaces you can place your workers. The green tiles on the right are the buildings. We did the full six player game. Every round only five buildings were made available, so at least one player wouldn't get a new building. Every round only one merchant ship was available. With six players, it was not easy to fight for it. In case of a tie when fighting for the merchant ship, the winner is determined using the turn order. The tricky thing is turn order changes during action execution. The turn order at the start of the round may have already changed by the time you resolve the merchant ship space.
Here is another difference between first and second edition. In the second edition, the turn order box is here on the far right. The box for competing for turn order is at the other end of the board, near the top. In the first edition, both boxes are next to each other near the top of the board. I don't quite understand the change. Maybe it is to reduce confusion? Or is there a rule change I missed?
In Round 1 of the game, I had first pick at buildings. I was second in player order and had not expected I would have first pick. However, Sinbad who was first in player order chose to place his first worker in the trade goods box. I placed mine in the buildings box without hesitation. Initially, expecting to have second pick, I had planned to get the building which gave me one extra colonist every round. When I won the right for first pick unexpectedly, it threw me off balance. I couldn't resist buying the New World Cartography building. The building itself was 4VP. The free discovery it gave me (next to it) was worth 5VP. It also saved me the manpower I would otherwise have spent on an expedition. This all sounded good. However, my decision crippled me for many rounds. The benefits from New World Cartography were all immediate benefits, and didn't help build my long-term capabilities. I had spent my initial capital, and it would take me many rounds before I earned enough money to buy another building. In hindsight, I should have picked the free colonist building.
In this game we played, Jeff and Ivan did best. Both invested well in building the capabilities of their nations. The merchant ship was won by one of them most rounds. Jeff was by far the richest player. In a way, it was good for me that they did so well. They were the obvious leaders, so the other four players collaborated to hinder them. When there was a choice on who to hurt, the preference was usually one of them. I, having screwed myself so effectively at the beginning, had to play the pauper and hope for mercy. Jeff and Ivan had difficulties with colonisation, because Sim and Dith were constant threats with their soldiers. Jeff and Ivan had to think twice where and when to send their colonists. I was the indirect beneficiary from all this. I couldn't compete in making money, launching expeditions, or getting the merchant ship. So I tried to focus on simple colonisation. That resulted in me doing better than most others in colonisation.
Sim was the warmonger. He had buildings which gave free soldiers, and he trained the most soldiers and initiated the most battles. Dith invested in warfare too. However the two of them did not have many conflicts. They coordinated their efforts to attack Jeff and Ivan. Sinbad and I did worst, and declared ourselves Belgium and Luxemburg. We were no match for the big boys - France, England, Spain and Holland.
At this point everyone wanted to colonise. The queue was almost filled up, and every player had a foot in - all six colours were represented. Most workers here were colonists. I (green) had a missionary. Sim (orange) and Dith (red) had soldiers.
At the start of the game, the Caribbean was the only region open for colonisation. Most players were not really interested in colonisation in the early game, so I (green) ended up dominating the Caribbean. Being weak meant I had to go where no one else wanted to go. I intentionally sent more workers than was necessary, as a deterrence. Others could have fought me for the Caribbean, and won, so I needed to make it costly and thus unattractive. Sim (orange) could have killed my colonists with his soldier, but it would take many turns and rounds, so he couldn't be bothered to waste his actions this way.
Sinbad (yellow) was leading in Peru. Sim (orange) had the guns. Jeff (blue) had a merchant. Sim could choose to kill Sinbad's colonist, but it would be pointless. If no player had 3 colonists in a region, the region would not score at all. Sim would need to kill Jeff's merchant so that he could be the sole second place player. If he tied with Jeff in second place, neither would score. This is a situation where you probably don't want to target the leader.
This was the end of the first of three eras. Many regions were not yet discovered.
This was the middle of the second era. All regions were discovered by now.
Near the end of the second era, Sim (orange) had majority in two South American regions. He had exactly three workers, which was required for a region to score. Unfortunately, one of the buildings purchased this round was an epidemic. All players who had three or more workers in a region had to lose one of these workers. This completely messed up his plans. He lost his third workers in both these regions, and the era ended with neither region scoring. That's 12VP lost!
These were the scores at the end of Era 2. I was leading in scores because of my colonists. I knew this would be short lived, but at least I had my moment of glory. Discoveries and buildings were scored only at game end, and I knew I was going to do poorly in these aspects.
This was near game end. See those stacks of gold coins at the top right? Those were all Jeff's. He was swimming in gold.
Final scoring. We knew it would likely be Jeff (blue) or Ivan (purple). Going into the final reckoning, I thought Jeff would emerge victorious, because he was so ridiculously rich. Also, near game end, Ivan was denied a building he wanted. He was forced to buy another building. It should still score him points, but there was a big element of uncertainty. To his pleasant surprise, this last building scored very well, and allowed him to defeat Jeff narrowly, by just 2VP!
The builders are a nice addition to Age of Empires III. Handy but not overpowered. They feel like they have always been around, and not an awkward addition or patch. One ability of builders which we never used in our game was their ability to increase the VP value of regions. We only used the builders to get discounts for buildings. It is good that buildings become cheaper. The buildings drive diversity and specialisation among players, and make the game colourful. This was my first time playing a 6-player game, and I think the more the merrier. There is much more competition, which makes the game intense and dynamic. So many opponents to watch!