Which is more important, strategy or mechanics? Build orders, or cute hussar micro? It's a broad question, with some people believing that mechanics are more important while others believe it's strategy. In my opinion, both are important, but if you are really seeking to improve, then it's definitely easier to improve at strategy than at mechanics.
Thus, I decided to write a guide about strategy in general to give the up-and-coming player a sense of basic strategy so that he can learn something new after each game, whether it be a game he won or lost. I took a lot of inspiration from chess, where strategy is a huge part of the game. This guide will describe my thought process before and during games.
I believe this guide will specifically be impactful for players between PR25 and PR35 to improve at strategy, and to become more creative, less predictable players. For players below PR25, it would help more to focus on execution first, and for players above PR35, you probably already understand what I'm going to explain, although it might still help to read this guide to better solidify one's understanding.
This will be a very theoretical guide, and while I'll cite as many examples as I can find, I hope it isn't too controversial!
What is Strategy?
1. A method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.
2. The art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most efficient and effective use. The term is derived from the Greek word for generalship or leading an army. See also tactics.
I find that both these definitions are very relevant to AoE3, but for the purpose of this guide, I prefer the first one. Essentially, strategy is a “plan” to get an advantage over your opponent.
As a result, a “build order” is not a strategy. It's similar to an opening in chess - that is to say, it's an optimised way of getting into a decent spot from which you can execute your plan. A build order in and of itself, though, is not a plan.
Thus, when some people ask me why they lost a game, and claim that they played well strategically because they went for the right build order, I shake my head. However, it shows a real issue: most people below PR35 play without a plan. They go for the same build order again and again (which is better than playing without a build order, true) but they don't get an advantage out of it because they are playing without a plan.
It's nice to know that you should play to get an advantage, but it doesn't help much if you don't know exactly what those advantages are. Here is a list of advantages - their importance depends a lot on the map and civ match-up.
1. Water control: If you can get the control of the sea and your opponent doesn't punish you, you're in a great spot! You'll have significantly more eco as the fishing boats are a huge supplement to your regular economy. Warships are also especially good at fighting land units, which means that you'll often get some land control too.
2. Trade route control: Not as substantial as a water boom (although it's less of an investment as well), the TP line still gives you a large amount of resources. Furthermore, trading posts provide good LOS, and you can even go for a trade monopoly later in the game.
3. Eco advantage: Having more income, of course. It doesn't necessarily mean having more vills however, because you can have more vills and less income if your economy isn't allowed to gather.
4. Military advantage: Quite obvious, having more army population.
5. Map control: Having control of the map. Usually you get it by either having a military advantage, or a forward base that can't be pushed easily.
6. Tech advantage: Basically, being an age ahead of your opponent. Your units are going to be better, so having fewer units and less economy doesn't really matter if you are consistently taking good trades.
7. Better scaling/unit composition: The most match-up dependent, so this is mostly decided in the game lobby, but when one civ is better in the late game simply because their units become stronger. As a result, if the late game oriented civ can survive and extend out the game, they'll more frequently get very good trades as their units' strength become too overwhelming. The most relevant example is probably Japan. Japan are vulnerable in the early game, but have one of the best late games after they've had the opportunity to send some of their many military upgrades.
Of course, you shouldn't be able to acquire all of these advantages unless you're playing against someone of much lower skill, so you need a plan to get as many advantages as possible while denying your opponent from doing the same.
Thus, before clicking into a match-up, it's important to have an idea of what advantages you want to get and what advantages your opponent wants to get. This is an active question that is continually answered the more scouting you do once in-game.
Once you have established your plan and got a sense of what your opponent's plan is, there are two reactions:
A. You estimate that your advantages are better, in which case you can ignore your opponent's plan and continue with your build order, as it will give you an edge.
B. You think that your opponent's advantages are bigger, and thus you want to deny these or at least punish him. Then, you should change your plan, and punish your opponent for being greedy.
I understand that this sounds very theoretical, and that most readers might not think it important to apply this sort of thought process to their gameplay. However, I believe that visualizing the game in this way will give a player better situational understanding in all stages of a match, and will greatly improve their success, as it has for me.
Before greening up, you should have an idea of what advantages you want to get, and by having an idea of what advantages your opponent wants to get and scouting in-game you can react to his plan accordingly.
Getting Further Ahead and Making a Comeback
During a game, you should always try to identify whether you're ahead or behind. If you are ahead, you want to get even more ahead, by getting more advantages and denying your opponent's advantages. An example of this would be denying your opponent's gathering while you have a military advantage.
On the other hand, if you are behind, you should try to “cheese” an advantage by using unorthodox methods and hoping your opponent can't punish it. An example of this would be ceasing your villager production to get a military advantage so that you can push your opponent's economy, in effect giving you both a military advantage and economy advantage. If you play “normal” while behind, you can usually count on losing.
I will now go over some recent tournament games from the NWC 2019 to illustrate how the strategical thought process can be applied to high-level games. Let's start with two easy examples, where the players didn't change their plan during the game.
Example 1: When both players go for their own plan and a small advantage makes the difference
diarouga vs Mitoe - Game 3 of NWC 2019 Group B, Match 2
I/ Before the game:
I'm playing as China against Japan on New England. China can get a big mass units in Age 3 and control the flow of the game while Japan is usually slower but has a better mid game economy and slightly better late game.
My plan: I decided to go for the most “natural” way to play the MU, using my army advantage in early Fortress to get map control, TP line control, as well as control of the lake. If I can get these 3 advantages, then I'm probably winning.
Mitoe's plan: Mitoe decided to go for a very eco heavy build, playing his civilization in the most “natural” way too - that is to say, get an eco advantage, survive, and try to win in late Fortress thanks to your better mid and late game scaling.
II/ During the game:
Army advantage: By sending 1000 Wood first in Age 3 (which may have been too greedy), I didn't get as big of an army advantage in our early engagements. I usually had slightly more units, but our trades ended up even.
TP line control: Mitoe didn't really try to deny me the trade line, and I got it fairly easily.
Water (lake) control: Mitoe knew that he couldn't give me the lake or else my map control would be too overwhelming. Thus, he tried to deny that part of my plan, and was very successful. He did manage to kill my frigate and my (only) caravel, denying this advantage.
Eco advantage: Mitoe usually had a big eco lead (about 20ish vills ahead for most of the game).
Betting scaling: By sending Naginata HP and Close Combat quite early while I didn't send upgrades, Mitoe managed to get a relevant scaling advantage.
Mitoe denied me the control of the lake, and I couldn't really get a military advantage, while everything went right for him. As a result, he got 2 advantages (eco and scaling), while I got only one (TP line control).
Thus, Mitoe got a strategical advantage which won him the game (although it was actually due to the execution; I didn't get enough units out in early Fortress Age and only got 1 Caravel from my 2 Caravel shipment, which is probably why he didn't pick Japan again during our rematch).
Example 2: When one player manages to out-plan his opponent and gets all the advantages
diarouga vs tabben - Game 3 of NWC 2019 Semi-Finals Match 1
Note: Game 5 (Spain vs China) and Game 7 (Dutch vs India) of this series are also good examples of this, very similar to this one.
I/ Before the game:
It is an India mirror on Deccan. Usually, both players want to get control of the middle of the map with the Agra Fort and play Colonial.
My plan: In this game, I wanted to get a scaling/tech advantage by going Age 3 vs Age 2 or Age 4 vs Age 3 at the expense of having a military and eco disadvantage.
tabben's plan: He either expected me to do that or found out quite early. As a result, he decided to get a hard eco advantage, as I gave him that by skipping the Age 2 Wood Trickle and the Otto consulate, and he followed me up to Age 4 so that he wouldn't be at a tech disadvantage.
II/ During the game:
tabben got similar techs, had more economy, and was able to get a bigger military, making for an easy victory.
tabben got all the advantages, and of course won that game thanks to a better plan.
Example 3: When you have to adapt your plan during the game
diarouga vs tabben - Game 1 of NWC 2019 Semi-Finals Match 1
I/ Before the game:
Brit vs Germany on Kamchatka. This is considered to be a very close match-up. Usually, the Brit player wants to go for a strong manor boom, and then go to Fortress while trying to deal with the big Fortress timing from Germany.
On the other hand, Germany usually wants to deal some eco damage with Uhlan raids in Colonial and then try to win in the Fortress age.
My plan: I've practiced that match-up a lot, and I was confident I would win a “normal” game where both the players go for their own plan. I went for the Virginia Company Semi-FF build, trying to get the eco advantage while not getting a tech disadvantage, at the cost of the map control.
tabben's plan: tabben probably expected me to go Virgina Company and wasn't confident playing a macro game, so he decided to be aggressive in Colonial, getting map control and a military advantage to try to deny my eco advantage.
II/ During the game:
I went for my plan. At one point, I saw that tabben had a forward tower and rax. I expected him to go for some early Fortress pressure (I know that Kaiser likes to go for a forward tower and be very aggressive) so I decided to siege that tower.
tabben was actually going for a Colonial timing, so I lost a lot of units to that, and I had to adapt my plan and make more units in Colonial.
I didn't panic or overreact (except for maybe the 6 musk shipment) - I still went for my plan and went Age 3, and was able to preserve my economy advantage.
After aging to Fortress, tabben identified that he was behind because his plan didn't work well. As a result, he decided to get a tech advantage by aging to Industrial, at the expense of a military disadvantage.
That was a really good decision. When you're behind, you should always try to think of a way to come back, and cheesing to Industrial can be good.
Unfortunately for him, I was aware of my military advantage, so I punished him for his age up. Having an Age 4 deck would have helped him, but he probably would have lost regardless. I didn't make a lot of anti-cav because I saw he didn't have any cavalry shipments in Age 4.
Because I was able to react well to tabben's Age 2 timing, he couldn't deny my eco advantage so he ended up behind. He tried to go Age 4 to get a tech advantage but was punished for that.
Example 4: How to push an advantage
diarouga vs LordRaphael - Game 1 of NWC 2019 Grand Finals
I/ Before the game:
While it might be contrary to popular belief, I think that Brit mirrors are very strategical. Army positioning, timing, and quick decision-making all add up to small differences that swirl around one focal point: map control. In a Brit mirror, map control can be very crucial.
My plan: Having played this match-up a lot before the tournament, I was confident I could put up a fight by going for the “normal” start: establish map control with a forward base and train musketeers with a good eco and upgrades.
Raphael's plan: It's hard to say if playing defensively was his initial plan, or an adaptation to the Age 1, but he decided to go for a defensive Longbow Semi-FF. By doing so, he gave up map control and the eco advantage, but got a tech advantage by aging earlier. With Raphael's strategy, when the opponent keeps playing in Colonial, you usually win thanks to a very strong Vet Musk/Falc timing.
II/ During the game:
I identified quite early that Raphael wanted to get a tech advantage by going to Fortress. Thus, I decided to get an eco advantage and then follow him up to Fortress to deny his tech advantage. However, this meant ceding my initial map control in early Fortress.
By getting an artillery foundry, I secured a scaling advantage (because Musk/Falc is better than full Musk) on top of my military and eco advantage to try to get even more ahead.
It's interesting to note that LordRaphael tried to use his map control advantage to try to come back, raiding my villagers with Musketeers and the 5 Hussar shipment. Furthermore, in the big fight at 14:15, he pulled his villagers to hold my timing, trying to get a military advantage at the cost of some villagers.
In this kind of game, a military advantage can quickly snowball into an eco advantage and win you the game.
By aging later, I got a big eco advantage and was quite far ahead. I tried to get a scaling advantage as well to push my advantage. Raphael, on the other hand, tried to use his map control in early Fortress to deny my eco advantage, and sacked some eco to come back in military.
Example 5: How to make a comeback
diarouga vs PrinceofKabul - Game 2 of NWC 2019 Group B, Match 4
I/ Before the game:
It is an India mirror on Pampas Sierras. Usually, both players want to get the control of the middle map with the Agra Fort, and play Colonial.
My plan: I wanted to play it in a conservative way, by getting some map control with a forward Agra and a nice economy while scouting for his plan.
Prince's plan: Prince really wanted to take map control, and decided to go for an aggressive consulate build, getting an early military advantage to further push a map control advantage.
II/ During the game:
Prince's plan worked really well for him. He was able to kill my Agra very easily, establishing a military and map control lead while not really being behind in economy. After killing my Agra, Prince went for a lot of economy with the Age 2 Wood Trickle and all the market upgrades including imperial bureaucracy, trying to get even more ahead.
However, I knew that Prince really likes to go for a Sepoy/Sowar composition, which performs poorly against a Gurkha/Zamburak. Thus, I decided to go for Gurkha/Zamb to try to come back thanks to a compositional advantage.
At 12 min, I managed to clean up Prince's army, thanks to my better composition and a slight advantage in numbers.
When you're behind, you should try to get an advantage - playing “normal” is not an option. In that game, my superior army composition allowed me to come back.
I hope that this guide is insightful. It's not easy to change old habits, but I'm confident that by applying some of the principles of this guide to your in-game thought process, you will improve.
Thanks @Cometk for editing this. This guide wouldn't look the same without you