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From Sticks to Axes: A Beginner’s Guide to the Age of Empires 1

By: Edward
Published: 13 May 2023, 9:08 am

Whether you are exploring the new graphics in Age of Empires 1: Definitive Edition or want to relive older memories with the original 1997 real-time strategy video game developed by Ensemble Studio, you must come prepared.

To help you learn (or remember) the basics of the game, we have prepared a beginner’s guide to Age of Empires 1 for you to kickstart the experience. Before we start, remember that you can buy the Age of Empires Definitive Edition on Steam, currently at $19.99. It has wide-screen HD support (up to 4k), enhanced gameplay, a new UX, additional civilizations, movies, cutscenes, and support for multiplayer battles. Go to the AOE Steam Page to check the latest price and possible sales. If you are still unsure about the HD version, or you want to relive the nostalgia of the past, you can download the original 1997 Age of Empire (demo version) from this website.

Age of Empires
Age of Empires

Even though this is a beginner’s guide, we still recommend you complete at least the first few levels of the Egyptian tutorial campaign. It will give you a solid understanding of basic things like building and controlling units.

Choose the Nation that Will Rule Them All

Before you start the game, you will have to choose a civilization to play as. Each nation has its own strengths and perks, and you have to capitalize on those things if you want to succeed.

These are the nations in the original Age of Empires 1 and their perks:

AssyrianVillagers move 10% faster, Archers fire 25% faster
BabyloniansStone Miners work 20% faster, walls and towers have +75% HP, priests rejuvenate 30% faster
ChosonsShort/Broad/Long Swordsman and Legion +15/+20/+60/+80 HP respectively, towers +2 range, priests cost -30%
EgyptiansGold miners work 20% faster, chariots +33% HP, priests +3 range
GreeksAcademy units move 30% faster and cost -20%, ships move 20% faster
MinoansShips cost -30%, farms have +60 Food, composite bowmen +2 range
HittitesAll archers +1 attack, stone throwers, catapults, and heavy catapults +50% HP, warships (except Fire Galley) +3 range
PhoeniciansWoodcutters work 15% faster, all elephant units cost -25%, catapult triremes, and juggernauts fire 30% faster
SumeriansVillagers +15 HP, farms have +125 Food, stone throwers, catapults, and heavy catapults fire 30% faster
PersiansHunters work 30% faster, elephants move 20% faster, triremes fire 25% faster
ShangVillagers cost 40 Food, walls have +75% HP
YamatoVillagers move 10% faster, all cavalry units and Horse Archers cost -25%, ships have +25% HP
Age of Empires (1997) - choose your civilization
Age of Empires (1997) - choose your civilization

These are the ones added in the Definitive Edition:

CarthaginiansAcademy units and all elephant units +25% HP, camel riders +15% HP, fire galleys +25% attack, transport ships move 25% faster
MacedoniansAll non-ranged units +2 LOS, academy units +2 pierce armor, Siege Workshop units cost -25%, all units four times more resistant to conversion
PalmryansVillagers cost 75 Food but have armor and work 25% faster; you start the game with +100 Food, camel riders move 25% faster, tributes are free, and trade ships return 2x gold
RomansBuildings cost -15%, except for towers, walls, and wonders; towers cost -50%, swordsmen attack 33% faster

Out of all these, the best beginner civilizations would be the Assyrians and Babylonians. We also would recommend looking at a dedicated guide on the civilization that you chose.

Planning is Key

Once the game starts, there are a few key things you need to think about. Start by exploring the map and finding resources that you can claim during the game. These could be gold mines, stone deposits, or animal fields. Whatever you think you will need the most.

Exploring a new map in Age of Empires (1997)
Exploring a new map in Age of Empires (1997)

Keep in mind that resources don’t grow back. If you have limited stone, you must find new means of obtaining it, for example, through trading. And spend it wisely.

With resources in place, plan your buildings. Build houses closer to the fog of war to have more map visibility. Then think about where you will collect your resources from. And ensure there are appropriate storage buildings near them to save time:

  • Granary: for Berries and Farms
  • Storage Pit: for wood, gold, and stone. They can also accept food from elephants, shore fish, crocodiles, lions, and antelopes.
  • Town Center: all resources

When planning buildings, leave enough space between the buildings to go through. Units in Age of Empires 1 can have terrible pathing, which we will discuss later. Just ensure there are more than 1 square gaps between the buildings for big units to go through.

Create Villagers and Start Collecting Resources

With the plan in place, you can start gathering resources. Start by sending 2-3 villagers after wood and everyone else on food. Spend food on new villagers, build up to 2 houses, and continue maximizing food.

Age of Empires (1997) - a small village
Age of Empires (1997) - a small village
Maximizing food is key to advancing to the Tool Age (which costs 500 food in the Town Center) and then to further ages.

In the Tool Age, you can shift your focus to collecting wood, building barracks, collecting stone, and researching new buildings and upgrades. And then, when you have around 23-24 villagers, start aiming at the Bronze Age.

Note: This was a general recommendation (thanks to u/Rysible on Reddit). Always remember to consider your civilization's strengths.

Building an Army

After completing barracks, you can start building your army. But don’t just splash on a few dozen of infantry units. Keep the units diverse so that you can fight different enemies in different conditions. You have to be very selective because of the unit cap. Build as much as you need, not as much as you can.

Age of Empires Definitive Edition - build your army
Age of Empires Definitive Edition - build your army

The kind of units you will be building depends on your nation and the nation you want to fight. Every civ has its best unit, and you have to be prepared. Still, you should know which regular units counter which to end up victorious in a battle:

  • Archers beat swordsmen
  • Cavalry and siege weapons beat archers
  • Spearmen beat cavalry
  • Hoplites/phalanxes/centurions beat almost any unit
  • Chariots and cavalry archers beat almost any unit

You probably noticed that regular infantry is nowhere to be found. They are on the lower end of strength in Age of Empires 1. But make sure to use infantry to protect other units if the unit cap allows for it.

Keep Your Villagers and Soldiers Busy

Now that you have a bunch of units make sure all of them are busy. In the early stages, you can use the minimap (given that the map is not too big) to see if the units are moving or not. But in the Definitive Edition available on Steam, there’s a handy counter at the top left with idle villagers. It doesn’t count military units, though, so be advised.

Age of Empires Definitive Edition - how to find idle villagers
Age of Empires Definitive Edition - how to find idle villagers

There are a few reasons we mention this. First, whenever a unit completes a task, they will stand there awaiting orders. And in the heat of things, it’s easy to forget about some of your lonely units.

Another reason is the terrible pathing in Age of Empires 1. It improved with the Definitive Edition compared to the original, but it can still be annoying. Your units may get stuck in weird places, or not all of them will be performing an action if commanding a group.

If any of that happens, just spam right-click a few times, and units should find their path. The main thing is to notice that in the first place.

Civilization Management (Tips & Tricks)

This section of the beginner's guide is some tips and tricks to help you out. It is important to manage your civilization and respond to any developments in Age of Empires 1 as fast as possible.

First of all, pay attention to sounds and sound effects. Whenever a building is complete, a unit is created, or a fight begins, there will be a corresponding sound effect. Learn to recognize them and then follow up on them. This will save you a lot of time and save you from having idle units.

A battle in Age of Empires (1997)
A battle in Age of Empires (1997)

While the game can be played with a mouse alone in a point-and-click manner, you will be most effective using key binds on a keyboard. Get familiar with controls and implement them in your gameplay. In the end, the quickest hand always wins.

For example, in the original version, you can start the creation of the following buildings by selecting a Villager, then pressing B or V, and then one of the following keys:

Town CenterNMonasteryY
MillISiege WorkshopK
Lumber CampZOutpostQ
Mining CampGPalisade WallP
DockDPalisade GateX
BarracksBStone Wall / Fortified WallW
MarketMWatch Tower / Guard Tower /KeepT
BlacksmithSBombard TowerJ
Archery Range AWonderO

To select one of the buildings listed above, press the Ctrl key plus the shortcut simultaneously, e.g., to go to a Market, press Ctrl+M. To select a Town Center, just press H (without the Crtl-button). Also, if you want to center the map to the currently selected building, use the Space key.

Take Your Empire Through the Ages

If you went through our beginner’s guide carefully, then you are ready to start building your first empire in Age of Empires 1. This guide, however, will only get you so far. To succeed, you need to learn much more.

Some will come with trial and error. But we would recommend you go through some of the more in-depth guides like the ones on AOE Tips YouTube channel.

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