Let’s talk about games like Age of Empires. Ensemble’s classic set a gold standard in RTS game design that has had few competitors, most of which hail from contemporary challengers such as Command and Conquer or Starcraft. Since these halcyon days, no newcomer has really managed to topple these titans from their gilded thrones.
Even the creators of Age of Empires were reluctant to challenge the series’ own legacy, with a fourth game finally coming in October 2021, 16 years after the release of Age of Empires III. If you are still looking around for something similar, we’ve thrown together a quick guide on six strategy games that we think are pretty neat, and follow the same formula.
We’ve not included titles such as Command and Conquer or Starcraft II, because while these games are RTS titles they are also very informed by their respective settings and differ in key ways. Age of Empires is first and foremost an historical strategy game, so with only a couple of exceptions we’re looking at RTS games that also use this as a starting point.
Games like Age of Empires
Here are six great games like Age of Empires:
- Empire Earth
- Rise of Nations
- 0 A.D.
- Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds
- Empires Apart
If you take the basic mechanical foundation of AoE and apply the long-term design goals of Civilization, you’d have created Empire Earth. An excellent counterpoint to Ensemble’s behemoth, you start a game in the prehistoric era and can take it all the way through to the near-future.
While this may remove some of the depth and nuance Age of Empires had due to its more focused time periods, you’re still basically playing out a game of Civ in real-time which more than makes up for it. Empire Earth 2 innovated slightly by breaking up the landmass into chunks, which you had to control before you could fully build on them. This gave the map more strategic relevance, especially as valuable late-game resources started to appear. We don’t talk about Empire Earth 3, but you can get the first two on GOG.com at a pretty decent price these days.
Rise of Nations
Designed by Brian Reynolds, notable designer of Civilization II and Alpha Centauri, Rise of Nations is more concerned about trying to translate the concepts of Civilization and turn-based strategy games in general into real-time, than trying to take on Age of Empires directly.
Still, the place it landed is very comparable to both Empire Earth above, and Age of Empires itself, as it also spanned the whole of human history. You can control any one of 18 civilisations, each with their own unique units and attributes. These civs are otherwise detached from reality and you have a lot of freedom in how you develop them as you progress.
Originally a total conversion mod for Age of Empires 2, 0 A.D. has evolved into an open-source – and completely free – historical RTS game that, overall, has been worked on by over 100 people in its twenty-year history. It’s still being worked on and even with the impending release of Age of Empires IV it still remains an incredibly popular alternative to Age of Empires I, given that the time-frame it focuses on stops at 1CE. It also has a deeper economy system than what is present in Age of Empires.
At the time of writing, there’s still no timetable for a finished release, and in 2013 an IndieGoGo campaign failed to raise the desired $160,000.
There have been many modern RTS games that have tried to take on Age of Empires, and this Viking-themed offering is probably one of the better candidates. Where-as the rest of this list is essentially contenders from the strategy series’ prime, this is a modern interpretation well worth your time.
Northgard puts you in charge of one of nearly a dozen fantasy Viking clans who land on the edge of new, unexplored territory.
You’ve got to build up your village, and tame the land around you, dealing with mythical monsters and other, aggressive clans. Its innovations come from the use of indirect control, and a winter phase that you need to plan and prepare for, lest your village succumbs to starvation. Each clan plays very differently, and developer Shiro Games has given it a lot of love and support over the years with new content and game modes.
Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds
An often overlooked footnote in the history of Star Wars games, Galactic Battlegrounds is notable because it was also made by Ensemble. Released in 2001, it dropped a couple of years after the studio released the incredibly popular Age of Empires II. The tl;dr is that this is basically Age of Empires with a Star Wars skin, although there is a bit more nuance to it than that.
It’s not the best Star Wars-themed game that’s ever existed, even with the expansion that focused on the Clone Wars. The pair only came out around the time of Episode II’s theatrical release, so generally it never benefited from a lot of the good work that’s been done with the setting in the post-prequel era. Still, it’s available on Steam for under $5 and it’s remembered very fondly – there’s some great mods for it as well.
This is probably the best game like Age of Empires you’ve never heard of. Developed by a small indie team and publisher by Slitherine, it wears its AOE inspiration on its sleeve. It also comes with a pretty stylistic graphics design, a competent AI, and some well designed factions.
You can actually play a basic version of the game for free, and then you unlock the other civilisations available as micro-expansions. There’s skirmish play against the AI, as well as online multiplayer, as well as a survival and challenge mode. Empires Apart struggled to get off the ground, even after its switch to a free-to-play model, but it’s a pretty decent and under-appreciated attempt to pay homage to Age of Empires legacy. As we contemplate the arrival of Age of Empires IV, projects like this are worth keeping in mind.