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Unlike later games in the "Age of" series, Age of Empires 2 has no handicap system. This means that if a group of my friends want to play against each other, the game just turns into a bunch of skilled players stomping over the less skilled players, which isn't fun for anyone.

Whilst we can team up vs the AI, we'd like the option to do a versus game from time to time. What handicaps might we be able to hand out to keep the game interesting?

It'd be nice if there was a clear way to adjust a given hanicap's intensity - forcing skilled players to play a particularly difficult strategy is good, but it's hard for us to apply that handicap partially if the skill difference is small. Bonus points if there's a clear way to compute that intensity.

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    If the skill difference is small then is there a need for a handicap? The only way to get better is to play against people that are at least marginally better than you otherwise you plateau and it's really not fun at all. As for having noob vs expert I would suggest something like an honor system where "Experts cannot touch their game for the first 5 or 10 minutes and are not allowed to advance beyond the Feudal Age." Depending on how many people are participating then you could have a noob vs noob showdown with an expert coaching them. – MonkeyZeus Dec 17 '18 at 14:17
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    @MonkeyZeus I think the goal is to achieve fun for everyone involved, not to become better. Maybe some of his friends only play AOE when playing together and not in their spare time. – Mixxiphoid Dec 17 '18 at 14:30
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    @MonkeyZeus I should probably have said "smaller" rather than "small". Googling what other people have done came up with suggestions involving making the more skilled players use wacky strategies. Whilst this idea is fun once or twice, there are matchups in my group where one player could easily beat another using a conventional strategy, but where the odds would be completely reversed if you told them that they had to win using nothing but Spanish villagers. The point I was trying to make was that forcing a niche strategy didn't usually have a middle ground. – ymbirtt Dec 17 '18 at 16:52
  • @MonkeyZeus, also, your idea of giving less skilled players a few minutes' head start sounds pretty good! Would you be able to make that into an answer? Maybe with some guidelines on how to decide on how big the head start should be? This isn't supposed to be for competitive play, we're just a few friends who like the odd game now and then, so we can generally trust each other to do what they say they will. – ymbirtt Dec 17 '18 at 16:55
  • Following Roflo's suggestion, if you're on Steam version and consider playing with AI, then I might suggest a custom AI ResonanceBot by Resonance22. He also posted some gameplay videos on YouTube. (Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated at all, just very often heard about it when browsing AoE2 videos on YouTube...) – antimo Dec 18 '18 at 12:15
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To my knowledge the only 'handicap' you could set up for the better players is to create your own custom map and assign player location carefully. Less skilled players could have more resources nearby for example, or are surrounded by forest (but with the resources within of course). Of course, all the players would need to agree to your set up and respect the location you choose for them. This could be more entertaining for the stronger players as well, because the challenge is bigger now.

Some things to consider for the stronger players:

  • More dangerous wild animals (wolfs, jaguars, etc...) and closer to the town center. This makes it risky for villagers to go too far from the town center and explore.
  • Scarce resources (or even shared resources in between camps, to have them fight over it)
  • no/less relics (you can even make them hard to find, like inside forests)
  • disable specific buildings/research/units in the custom map (I'm not sure this still works with AOE II HD for custom maps which are then used for multiplayer)

Some things to consider for the weaker players:

  • Longer peace treaty
  • Enclosed area where the the stronger players can't reach them
  • More starting villagers
  • Starts with a small army
  • No dangerous wild animals, instead supply more deer or turkeys.
  • More resources and closer by
  • Relics (be carefull! Too many relics can seriously break the economy of your map, 2 per weak player should be enough.)
  • Start with a castle next to the town center
  • Start out with resource buildings next to resources (mining camp/mill)
  • Lock teams when setting up the game

If you create a custom map and use it for a multiplayer game, make sure you do NOT toggle the 'All techs'. This will reset player specific settings, like disabled units.

Note that settings starting resources in the custom map won't work for multiplayer games because this will be overwritten when selecting the resources (low, medium, high).

At LAN parties I would prepare a custom map in advance and use this setup for new people. Other times I would create a custom map where we would challenge ourselves with a very powerfull AI, where the AI would start with an army of 2000 (buffed) units. Teaming up against such a strong enemy could be fun with people from different skill levels, as you need to assign roles to make a strategy work properly. Usually if a skilled player thought he could go solo against the AI, he would lose, requiring a team.

Another more advanced options is to make use of triggers. In a custom map, triggers allow you to do various actions on the map or to players based on an event. For example, if a player1 comes into a certain area, you can grant player2 1000 gold. You can even place units or increase their attack and HP. In a custom map the world is yours :). Some ideas I put the practise in the past:

  • A strong player crosses a certain border (think of the only bridg to cross deep water). This would grant the weaker places 2500 of each resource.
  • A strong player comes into view of the town center, boost the town centers health to 20000.
  • A strong player comes into view of a 'sacred monastery', kill all units in a certain area.
  • A strong player comes into territory of another strong player and they become enemies (make sure to lock teams, triggers can still override this in-game)

To give it more flavour, you can have the 'world' (gaia) send out messages to all players from time to time, to warn them for certain dangers. Now the stronger players are warned and would have to think twice if their strategy would actually still work.

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+50

One idea for handicaps could be as simple as having one or more honor system rules such as:

  • Expert cannot touch their game for the first 5, 10, or 15 minutes
    • During this time noobs cannot rush the expert nor are they allowed to amass an army which could walk across the map as soon as the time is up and wipe out the expert unfairly
  • Expert not allowed to advance past a certain age such as Feudal
  • Expert can only make use of army units x, y, and z
  • Expert cannot use siege units
  • Expert not allowed to build defensive walls or towers
  • Expert not allowed to attack noob towers which are x number of grids apart from the next closest tower
  • Expert not allowed to attack from a higher ground position

The list can go on and on so just think of random things which would make it both easier for the noob and will keep things interesting for the expert.

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    In my experience, having the higher-level player idle the game for the first X minutes is the most enjoyable and fair handicap. It's enjoyable for the lower-level player because they actually get to play the game and have a chance of winning. It's enjoyable for the higher-level player because they really have to work if they want to win. And the number of minutes is easily adjustable to fit different skill levels. – Justin Dec 18 '18 at 20:48
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    @Justin Seconded, I was looking specifically for a time-based handicap. With most RTS games, the stock strategy involves constant growth in production (you should have more villagers at 20 minutes than at 10). A better player grows their production faster, so with a handicap of N minutes, they should reach equal production after M minutes. Something nice with this approach is that you can pick a target M, and fine-tune N to match. That is, if you decide it's the most fun when the better player catches up at 30 minutes, you can fine-tune their handicap a bit until that happens more consistently – Lord Farquaad Dec 18 '18 at 22:30
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    @LordFarquaad, that's a compelling idea. So, one way to balance it could be to just watch a few replays, see how long it usually takes each player to reach, say, 50 population, and then tell faster players to wait out the difference at the start? If the differences are vast we'd have to assign some kind of limit on things like sheep theft, but that sounds like a great idea! – ymbirtt Dec 19 '18 at 9:11
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What I’ve done a few times is teaming the weak player with one or more AIs.

Combining the number of AIs and the difficulty, you have ways of balancing just how much of a handicap you intend to give.

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In a diplo game, there tends to be a natural balancing, as players will gang up on stronger players. If you're creating a custom game, there's a wide variety of handicaps you can give, such as resources, terrain, and events. In a team game, you can try to balance the teams. In a one-on-one game, you can add AI players. For a small skill difference, the weaker player can get a weak AI teammates. For larger differences, a stronger one or several weak ones. Small skill differences can also be handicapped by choice of civilization. You can give the stronger player a civilization that's weaker in general, or one weak against the one the weaker player has, or one that is a poor fit for the map (for instance, a civilization with a weak navy on a water map). You can also look at asymmetrical game types. For instance, it's probably easier to play as the defensive player on Defend the Wonder. You can also have handicaps not handled within the game, such as the stronger player idling for the first x minutes, agreeing not to use certain units or get certain upgrades, having a time limit and resigning if they don't win within it, etc.

Keep in mind, though, that the larger the handicap, the harder it is to keep the game balanced and fun. For instance, the original AI on the hardest level started with a bunch of resources, which eliminated early rushes as a valid strategy. The more of a handicap there is, the more the stronger player is going to be pushed into "How do I play around the handicap" and "How do I exploit the other player's weakness" rather than "How do I play an optimal AoE game". Going back to the Hardest AI example, one of the ways to play against it was to get a choke point and draw them into throwing a bunch of units away until their initial stockpile was used up, and then come in and kill them. This made the game very different from "normal" AoE, and if, you don't like that play style, less fun.

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I used to run a handicapped clan competition back in the day. Each player was assigned a skill value between 3-7, with the most skilled players having the highest number.

When teams were due to play, the challenging team would pick a points value, and both teams could pick players as close to that value as possible.

So, you could get two high skill 7s facing off against three others players (4, 5, 5), or even four low skill players (3, 3, 4, 4). The games were surprisingly balanced, and teams began adapting their tactics and map usage.

  • It allows you to use standard maps etc.

  • It needs to be handled tactfully so nobody is upset.

However, it could help you balance your games out!

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Unfortunately I can't comment, so I will make another answer.

A custom map might be a good decision for you, but generally its a lot of work and you need to rebalance it every time the skill of the players changes. Also this solution doesn't allow for a lot of variety. There are so many beautiful maps in the game, and you only want to play one map the whole evening? Meh...

@MonkeyZeus put the best answer in here, which is to make the better player idle for a little while. This is actually what is usually done when 2 players of different skill want to play against each other. A general rule of thumb is 1 minute for every 100 Elo points difference. And you can easily adjust this, by just raising or lowering the idle time depending of the outcome of the game.

If you don't know the Elo of the players, you can look up checklists of what different Elo players should be able to do and estimate it.

There is also a series of an AoE 2 caster, T90Official, playing against the best players in the world and making them idle 1 more minute every time he loses.

  • Good answer! With the amount of content here, it's probably better of as an alternative answer rather than a comment. Would you be able to link to an example checklist that you'd recommend, or copy the salient points from it into your answer? – ymbirtt Dec 24 '18 at 17:19

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