"In the past," says Age Of Empires 2 project lead Bert Beeckman, "if we wanted, say, the AI playing the Holy Roman Empire to stay in the game even if they lost all their units, there was... a little trick we had to do". On remembering this, he sounds somehow nostalgic and faintly harrowed at the same time. "We had to create an invisible unit, somewhere out of the way. And the way to do that was to take a horse. And then garrison it inside another horse. Which would then become invisible". He pauses for a moment. "No, we had no idea either. But it worked."
Back in those days of impossible nested horses, Beeckman was on the player side of AoE2 - one of a group of enthusiasts still tinkering with the game a decade after its 1999 release, and finding ever more creative uses for its in-game scenario editor. In 2011, that group found a way to insert new civilisations into the game, and began creating their own, unofficial expansion pack, called Forgotten Empires.
To cut a long story (told excellently here) short, Microsoft was sufficiently impressed by the group's work that they were brought on board to make official expansions for AoE2's 2013 HD release. They formed a studio - taking on Forgotten Empires as their name - and got to work.
As of the present day, Beeckman's team have just launched Dawn Of The Dukes, their fifth expansion for AoE2 (it has six overall, including 2000's The Conquerors), and the second launched during the game's astonishing period of revival following the release of its Definitive Edition in 2019. And according to Beeckman, they're still nowhere near discovering the full extent of what AoE2's ancient scenario editor can do.
But good crikey, have they ever made progress.
Dawn Of The Dukes - and I say this as someone who's sunk thousands of hours into AoE2 over the decades - is the best expansion the game has ever had. That's not just my love for the game's current golden age talking, either. The first post-DE expansion, Lords Of The West, left me a little cold. I thought the new civs' unique mechanics were off-base, with big, one-off, Overwatch-style Ults replacing the more incremental bonuses civs usually have, while the single-player campaigns were stuffy and overcomplex, albeit with frequent moments of brilliance.
I don't know what sort of lightning has struck Beeckman's team since then, but all that's left is the brilliance. Dawn Of The Duke's seventeen-mission, three-campaign tale of Poles, Lithuanians and Bohemians is a genuinely compelling adaptation of a fascinating and bloody patch of history. The two new civs featured are solid designs which innovate without straying from the broad conventions of the game, and I'm struggling to think of a better single-player experience I've had in the RTS genre.
No jokes: Dawn Of The Dukes is a total home run. And what impresses me most about it, is that barring the new civs and the voice acting, it was made with just the good ol' scenario editor tool included with the base game. Literally anyone could do it, which is why the sheer skill and design experience of Forgotten Empires' scenario team - for this expansion the folks known as Bassi, Lord Basse (no relation) Freeman1302, and HockeySam18 - stands out so strikingly.
Historically, AoE2 scenarios tended to fall into one of two categories: a fixed-force "destroy this city / get through this mountain pass with these blokes" situation, or a "build and destroy" mission - which was basically the same, only rather than starting off with an army, you started off with a cluster of villagers and basically had to play Age Of Empires at the enemy until you won. Sure, there would also be rudimentary NPCs who would charge you with finding relics, or reinforcements that might show up. But you were basically always playing a comp stomp match with a twist.
Only a handful of Dawn Of The Dukes' missions fall into these old categories, and even those all have at least one significant twist. Most, however, have been built on intricate frameworks of clever triggers that essentially turn them into entire new game modes for AoE2. Some take the form of point control scenarios, where your economic income comes entirely from occupation of neutral villages. Others face you with a limited time window in which to wreck an enemy's economy before a battle against a huge force, forcing some seriously tricky prioritisation decisions.
Others are even wilder. The Polish mission "Duel Of The Dukes", sees you and the AI take turns to pick starting towns, each with their own production buildings, from a pool of eight, before embarking on a hectic, high-resource brawl which plays out almost like an autobattler. It genuinely makes you feel like you're playing alongside something like a human, rather than a punchbag made of numbers. The same goes for the fantastic mission in the Lithuanian campaign where you have no economy at all, and must requisition resources from your ally, using the chat function to specify what you need.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the whole expansion, at least for me, is the siege of Vilnius, in the Polish campaign. This plays a little like an extremely complex tower defence game, not unlike the famous community scenario The Last Romans (made by former FE designer FilthyDelphia). Vilnius gets attacked by vast successive waves of enemies, which you must withstand until they withdraw and leave you ten minutes in which to rebuild. There's an allied army to command here too, and - the icing on the cake - a blue filter which drops over the map after each assault, to represent night. Sometimes, it's the little things.
It's amazing what complexity the scenario editor's toolkit of "if x, then y"-style programmable triggers, which are simple enough to be used by a code-illiterate chump like me, can produce. But DOTD's missions aren't solely good because of their complexity. Indeed, there are plenty of times in AoE2's history when campaigns have suffered from extreme cleverness in the use of the editor.
"In the Sforza (Italian) campaign from 2013's The Forgotten," Beeckman remembers, "There was this section where you had to sneak around the town and not be seen. It was a stealth mission, and we made it work with hundreds of triggers. But that's such a very foreign concept to Age Of Empires, and when we came to adapt Sforza for Definitive Edition, we replaced that mission entirely. I think the campaign's better off for it, too."
I'm also reminded of the Dracula campaign - also part of The Forgotten, and also largely redesigned for Definitive Edition - for which AoE2 had basically been forced to play as an RPG. It was like the weirdest possible Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines prequel, and while it was extremely impressive from a technical standpoint, it wasn't much fun. It's easy to see where Dawn Of The Dukes draws from all of these past experiments, and where it has thrown its own new tricks into the mix to boot. Lords Of The West attempted the same, I think, but ended up with a result worth slightly less than the sum of its parts.
"Dawn Of The Dukes was an experiment, which I'm happy to say went right."
Where this second Definitive Edition expansion properly soars, by contrast, is in incorporating all of this complexity and experimental design, but still feeling like Age Of Empires. I don't know how better to put it than that. It is an old dog, which has somehow been genetically rejuvenated to puppyhood, but which has been worked on by a team of makeup artists to look like an old dog again, because people loved that dog. Also, a halberd has been duct-taped to its tail.
"We've been doing this for eight years now," says Beeckman, "and you ask yourself, 'Hey, how can we make something new? How can we keep it fresh?' And you experiment with things. Dawn Of The Dukes was an experiment, which I'm happy to say went right".
Obviously, Beeckman is tight-lipped on what's coming next, but when I ask him if he thinks his team have reached the bottom of what Ensemble Studios' immortal scenario editor is capable of, the answer is an emphatic shake of the head. "I always thought there was a limit on Age Of Empires in general. But the player base just keeps growing, and the game is probably doing better than it ever has done. Age Of Empires keeps growing, so we keep on making expansions. But we're absolutely aware that we need to keep on innovating, too."