Age of Mythology: Understanding the Gameplay


Within a year of release, Age of Mythology sold over one million copies, earning itself a platinum title for the game series. Produced by Ensemble Studios, this real-time strategy game (RTS) focuses on economic strategy and resource management to create a comprehensive, wargaming sensation for players through its mythological environment. A year after the first release of AoM in 2002, the gaming company released a sequel, “The Titans,” which included more civilizations, more characters, and new game mechanics. Two more editions have been released since 2014, reaching thousands of players. The expansions have resulted directly from continued success of the series, with over 3,000 downloads of the most recent edition on Steam, a gaming distribution platform. Although met with success in its first years of release, why has AoM continued to prosper over the years? An analysis of the game’s use of resourceful economic strategy and warfare, interactive animation and narrative, and queer gameplay help shape the understanding of AoM’s decade-long popularity.


As a real-time strategy game, players do not need to wait to take turns incrementally. Rather, each player focuses on strategically positioning units on the map to control or destroy the opponent. The constant requirement to expend resources necessitates and limits the creation of new units and structures, such as soldiers and town centers. A player can attain more resources by controlling specific locations on a map. For example, several goldmines may appear on the map that either team can use, given that the team can protect that resource. Like most RTS games, a successful campaign in AoM demands calculated resource management. Efficient and effective management of resource gathering and base building provides opportunities for more poignant control of units and leveling up to stronger forces and more in-game technological abilities, as differentiated by the different mythological stages—classical, heroic, and mythic.

Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell’s, The Military-Entertainment Complex, explores the connection between wargames and real-life military needs which help mold the public’s perceptions and expectations of warfighting. AoM undertakes a mythological theme. Yet, many of the core ideas in the game aliken to those of real war. The most notable example of this in AoM is the greater emphasis on resources that adds weight to game play economics versus micromanagement, or micro. A player focusing on the micro aspects of the game may pay attention to minute details like raiding or performing smaller tasks to earn extra gold, the most important resource in AoM. However, without an even closer attention to economic resources and proper allocation, the player places himself at higher risk of failure. For instance, in a tournament between two players, Illuminaze and Kimo, Illuminaze chose to “harass” the opponent early on in the game by sending scouts and heroes (military men with greater lifespans) to attack other player’s goldmines, granaries, and villagers. These tactics provided Illuminaze an initial edge but without proper unit analysis and preparedness, Kimo continually gathered resources and played a more long-term economic strategy that allowed him to eventually overthrow Illuminaze. Likewise, long versus short-term investment in the real-world military relies on evaluation of resources and units to access the risks of interim loses in contrast to continued gains.

On the idea of unit analysis, proper economic strategy in AoM would entail developing the most effective units to overthrow the opponent. For instance, in the game play between Illuminaze and Kimo, Kimo’s constant leveling up provided him with more technologically-developed military units like scorpion men that he used to directly target Illuminaze’s calvary, which Illuminaze kept producing rather than allocating more resources to archers who have a higher kill rate for the scorpion men. Therefore, success in AoM campaigns stems from not only building large military forces and garnering resources efficiently, but also building and producing units that most forcefully put opponents at a disadvantage in their resources.

Specifics like unit analysis support Philip Sabin’s discussion in “Wargaming in Higher Education: Contributions and Challenges” on how wargames can “engage systematically” with players in ways that other media like literature or film cannot. In the example of the AoM tournament above, reading about strategy would probably not have changed the output of the game given the plurality of factors that led to the final outcome of Kimo’s success. More practice, however, may have. Sabin suggests that successful wargaming campaigns require time and practice to cultivate the proper experience needed to understand game-specific lessons. AoM game education may include not only the opponent’s gaming style but also the advantages of different tools available throughout the game, i.e. the ways to fortify resources and military and when to expend resources to do so.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, AoM provides no means of peacebuilding. While overthrowing the opponent stands clearly as the aim of the game, perhaps inclusion of negotiation tactics would provide for more interesting gameplay. If player 1 has gold resources and player 2 has agriculture, would trade for specific resources add another layer of sophistication to the game without deterring its “warring” agenda? Besides the trade itself, players would have more opportunities for dialogue and direct interaction apart from raiding. In “Gaming the Nonkinetic,” Rex Brynen notes the potential that social, political, and diplomatic can bring to a game. AoM, even in its more recent editions, foregoes any inclusion of these types of tactics. Despite a possible style change, the game would more closely mirror real-world military campaigns wherein diplomacy and negotiation have increasingly taken on a significant role.


AoM boasts a set of  critically acclaimed, vibrant, meticulously crafted animations. When archers destroy an opponent’s Siege Tower, the player visualizes the destruction before the unit slowly sinks into the environment. Likewise, when the Norse portable ram strikes a wall, the 3D reverberation of the wall provides an extra level of careful animation that adds to the reality of the art. Although completely different games, the high-quality animation of Age of Mythology reminds me of Old Man’s Journey. The latter has a higher level of sophistication in the hand-drawn graphics, but AoM provides a similar level of care to its environment especially compared to other games released in 2002.

The animation works particularly well with the long, story-like narrative of AoM in the campaign edition of the game, versus the multiplayer expedition. After each journey in the expedition, the game presents the player with a mini-movie, furthering the mythic storyline. The animations and voices used in these cutscenes dramatize the narrative and allow for spatial immersion that consumes the player into a temporary world of order, separate from ordinary life. This narrative animation of AoM works differently than in films or narratives; due to the interactive nature of games, it relays a sense of elevated story interaction when compared to other media. Similarly, the player’s ability to interact with the main avatars of the campaign during actual gameplay, such as Arkantos, enable a heightened sense of identification with characters during cutscenes.

While cutscenes in AoM disrupt gameplay, they progress the backstory and provide visual information about character motivations. Interruptions in gameplay at times irk players but AoM only initiates specific cutscenes when players level up and provide a clear structure in the narrative of the game. In “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Henry Jenkins suggests storytelling as a tool rather than a necessity that embeds narrative into a game. Corresponding to Jenkin’s argument, AoM’s narrative does not rely on player actions but rather forms a pre-scripted insertion of information that advances the set plot. Nevertheless, AoM’s structured storyline works for the game since each level has a specific mission, meaning only one route exists to a successful mission. For instance, in one of the final levels of AoM: The Titans, the only way a player can uncover the last bit of storyline is to summon the Earth goddess,Gaia and defeat the titan Kronos.

Furthermore, the limitation of the narrative speaks to the limitation of choice in AoM. The RTS aspect of the game requires a myriad of unique choices that can affect the gameplay. However, these work mainly in strategy and the eventual mission of each level shapes the selection of players’ choices. The game rules certainly change as players level up, but the basic mechanics of resource collection for warfare do not allow players to break the rules and still succeed; the difficulty of the level may present a challenge with more frequent raids by the opponent, but the player faces no new challenges in how to achieve the game’s goals.

AoM follows a Marie-Laure Ryan’s depiction of a video game that follows constructed narrative of a sequence of events linked by conflict-motivated causal relations. The expected resolution creates an impetus for players to keep playing and continue the narrative even through a new series of the game. For instance, the first Age of Mythology game series follows Greek hero Arkantos through his final mission, “Fall of the Trident,” after which he dies and becomes resurrected as a God. In the next edition of AoM, The Titans expansion, the storyline continues with Arkantos guiding his son Kastor through his own expedition. The idea of a conclusion and a continued narrative is prevalent in several forms of media: films, games, books, etc. Simple yet aggressive, this progressing storyline that promises an eventual ending motivates players to keep playing, to keep binging, and to keep buying. The binge attribute especially speaks to current society and the risks of addictive behavior fostered by the likes of AoM.. Nevertheless, for game designers this is one tool that if adroitly tapped into can lead to mass profitability.

Reexamining the use of choice in AoM, the non-campaign version of the game very distinguishably changes the overall gameplay. This single-mission play, performed in single or multiplayer mode, forfeits the narrative but provides players with more flexibility in how they choose to play. Most notably, players can choose a specific civilization, major god, and minor gods at the start of play. These choices then influence the types of units, powers, and upgrades available throughout the course of play. The immersive environment allows the player to control the specific narrative of the singular game as he acts according to his intuition on how to best maneuver his resources to defeat the opponent. Interactions of players with the game therefore change significantly depending on the mode of the game chosen, with one bearing a narrative, linear-structure to play and the other providing more diversity in experience and player freedom.


In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe a game as a set of unwritten and written rules that provide for meaningful play and compelling decision making. As discussed earlier, AoM limits the forms of choice in the campaign play of the game. The availability of a diverse toolset of powers, units, and game strategy still contribute to a varied gameplay every different play of the game. On the first expedition through the narrative, a player might choose to build a robust army before attacking. On another trip, the player may choose constant “harassment” before a final launch. In every case, however, a player plays to succeed, with success as the fulfillment of a specific mission denoted by a progression in the storyline.

But what if a player chooses to play to play, not play to win? Bonnie Ruberg defines her queer theory of playing video games as playing against the game’s expectation or playing to lose. Without playing to win, there exists no way to level up or progress the storyline in AoM. However, at any point, a player can choose virtual suicide, i.e. by positioning units with the intention of defeat by the opponent. Or perhaps a player might skip out on all military expeditions and simply explore the map until the opponent destroys all units. A single or multiplayer option of the game versus the storyline campaign series would allow for a different version queer play. Having played “queerly” myself, a player can scout out areas of the map without significant threat to even losing the game. As long as one unit remains alive, the possibilities for queer play are endless. This form of play breaks the expected “status quo” set by game designers, who expect a focus on strategy and resource management.

Although a seemingly odd concept, the idea of proud failures is not uncommon for players of a multitude of games as mentioned by Ruberg. AoM does not differ. Several game players have posted their fail videos of various campaign episodes. These videos demonstrate not only the satisfaction of the player posting the video but also that of the viewers, who express reactions in the comments like, “awesome” and “pretty enjoyable.” Many players provide commentary on their play as well and imply retrial of the episode. A second take on the level failed can provide an opportunity for players to learn from their mistakes and overcome their flaws. Not all cases include players purposefully losing, as opposed to videos of games like Burnout or Need for Speed. Still, judging by the reactions of the players and the viewers, failure seems a natural aspect of the game, and an aspect unfeared by those playing.

Returning to Salen and Zimmerman’s idea of play, maybe game designers’ expectations serve as a part of the unwritten rules in AoM. A choice for a player to either strictly adhere to the rules imposed on him or to undertake a loose, creative interpretation that allows him to draw upon a deep-seated consciousness. Never does the game force players to militize and strategize, but the majority of players understand these means as a necessity. Nonconformity to the wargaming component of AoM breaks an undefined rule. The entirety of AoM changes with queer play. The game plays differently when played queerly. Players’ interactions with the games and other units drastically changes. Thus, AoM becomes a “queer game that queers us as we play.” An interesting study in game research may look to understanding the types of players that choose queer play and the possible relations between queer players and homophobic players. Ruberg offers an interesting theory in that anyone can play queerly but falls short in defining who actually and intentionally does so.

Likewise, do certain circumstances encourage queer play? In AoM, the point of defeat is relatively clear when hit. Once players reach that stage, they may choose to end the game or continue playing without attempting to succeed. Perhaps a player expecting defeat chooses elongate the game unnecessarily and prevent the success of the opponent. Ruberg does not consider this case where in a player plays to his/her defeat and to the lack of success of the opponent. In a multiplayer campaign wherein one team must win and one must lose, then this form of queer play would present an issue. If the opponent quits, then the player who expected defeat succeeds resulting in a queer play of queer play.


AoM players have the option to choose a story-driven, multilevel campaign or play a singular game against an automated team or other, real players online. In the campaign edition, players evolve through a structured narrative with a definite conclusion that contributes to gameplay value. In the latter case, players have an increased variety of choice with the ability to pick specific civilizations, deities, mythological ages, and even who they play against. While one version of AoM allows for an engaging gameplay and the other offers variability and flexibility, both benefit from the carefully crafted animations that add vibrancy to the overall gameplay. AoM demands careful calculation and economic strategy similar to other RTS games; however, queer play of AoM provides an alternative gameplay that defies traditional means. Targeting these three key aspects of the AoM series helps to explain the continued popularity and steady fanbase of AoM even 16 years after release. And while I currently play AoM, I constantly wait with other dedicated fans for yet another release.


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