One of the first games I actually bought for myself was Age of Empires II (the special “The Conquerors” Expansion edition). Up to that point, I mostly got games for birthdays and as christmas presents, and I didn’t get very many since most games up to that point had been console games and my parents had set up consoles as “family owned” objects so no kid could claim ownership. When I bought my own laptop at 13, a few years after The Conquerors came out, I bought a handful of computer games to play on it. Knights of the Old Republic and KotOR II were two such games, but those came later.
Since a laptop was a big expense for a child’s budget, albeit a child working a part-time job as a babysitter for all the local parents whose kids were a decade younger than him, I didn’t have much left to spend on games. My family owned a computer and we had some games, but most of them were educational games like Math Blaster (don’t get me wrong, the Math Blaster series was a lot of fun and the reason I’m still so good at quick math) or a couple Star Wars games that my brother would hide (and eventually damage) so only he could play them (X-Wing Alliance was a blast until suddenly it stopped working and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was a lot of fun, but I never got very far because it somehow kept getting uninstalled from my desktop on the family computer. Crazy how that happens when your older brother is entrusted by your parents to handle IT and so has an admin account that allows him to log into any other user’s account and manage the files therein).
So I did what any independent 13-year-old would do and rode my bike ot the local Best Buy and used what little money I had to buy a handful of games out of the bargain bins. Which meant I got a brand-new copy of Age of Empires II and a visibly damaged but still functional copy of Knights of the Old Republic, a newish game that the folks at Best Buy had severely undervalued.
Those two games formed the foundation of my experience as a player of computer games. KotOR made me fall in love with RPGs in general (which led to me making my own TTRPG in high school since I didn’t know D&D existed, much less what it was, beyond it being the work of the devil according to my religious parents and upbringing), which has led to most of my gaming experience in general and my interest in that type of open-ended storytelling. Age of Empires II led me to a lifetime love of… Well, Age of Empires II.
I’ve played a lot of other RTS games, and own a lot of them thanks to my general interest in strategy games, but the only one I routinely go back to is AoEII. Unlike almost everything else from my childhood, this game was never tainted by guilt, my brother, or my parents. It was just fun. Which means there’s a lot of nostalgia in it for me, and a deep and abiding association between the game and escapism. I still enjoy booting up the remastered version of the game, playing through the campaigns on different difficulties, and occasionally just running a one-off campaign against a pile of dumb CPUs as I create massive armies of infantry to just sweep across the map in a tide of destruction.
It’s not terribly rewarding, but it is incredibly relaxing. I don’t really get into clicker or idle games, they’re just kind of boring to me, like whatever makes them so addicting to most people is just missing in my brain, but games with numbers and patterns and rigid rules and a bunch of that crunchy stuff is exactly what gets me.
Most RTS games work that way, but AoEII is superior to all others in that I already understand it completely and don’t need to learn anything. Other games look better, play smoother, provide more interesting challenges or systems, and even sound better, but if all I want is some mindless escapism as I tally numbers and manage fake resources, AoEII is hard to beat since I don’t need to bother with figuring out mechanics and patterns in new games.
It’s the ultimate guilt-free indulgence and I’m lucky to have a friend who enjoys the game as well, if not for the same reasons (he prefers meme-builds and silly strategies while all I want is to watch resources and population go up until I make all my enemy’s numbers go down). It makes for some incredibly relaxing game nights to just tune out and indulge my nostalgia for a while. Even the complete and total escapism of Pathfinder: Kingmaker (which combines the best of both RTS resource-management and RPG open-ended style play) can’t compete with how fun a few rounds of AoEII feel.