Dave and T90Official having fun while casting at Red Bull Wololo in Heidelberg, Germany on October 21, 2022.
© Marius Faulhaber/Red Bull Content Pool

8 tips to help you survive Age of Empires 2

These are our top tips for beginners to not only survive, but thrive in the classic strategy game that's become an esports favourite.
Written by Miri Teixeira
7 min readPublished on
Age of Empires 2 is potentially the most iconic competitive RTS there is, even in 2024, 25 years after its initial release. It's impossible not to have heard of it and as its esports following swells in popularity, thousands of new players are looking to pick up this classic game and forge some strong civilisations.
As with many strategy games, Age of Empires 2 beginners might need some support. There are potentially hundreds of factors to keep an eye on, unlimited ways to play and a whole dictionary of lingo that you'll slowly build familiarity with. Playing alone is the best way to start your Age of Empires 2 journey, honing your skills until you're ready for the world of ranked matches.
So, where to start in Age of Empires 2? We've put together a list of the best tips and tricks for the early game, including advice from esports pros.

Find some inspiration

Just like any competitive sport, esports professionals have honed the art of their gameplay to be observed on the international stage. Esports competitions like Red Bull Wololo are full of teachable moments, from fumbles and mistakes to incredible turnarounds and dominating wins. You'll learn to appreciate the nuance of certain tactics and become familiar with new concepts and slang from the game – you might even come away with a new role model.
Winner of Red Bull Wololo V, Ørjan 'TheViper' Larsen, spoke to us in 2022 about his strategy in the final. "All the games were quite close, especially the final game, which was neck-and-neck for a long time," he said. "But I went for a bit of a wild civilisation pick and strategy and, in the end, I was able to build up a lead slowly and control it into a victory." Reading interviews, articles and advice like this from the pros can impact how you play your game. Start by emulating a playing style you admire and then adapt it over time to fit your personal preferences.
Participant during Red Bull Wololo V at Castel Heidelberg, Germany, on September 18th, 2021.

TheViper is an AoE2 master, so listen to what he says

© Julian Schilase/Red Bull Content Pool

The biggest mistake I see in general is not producing enough villagers
Ørjan 'TheViper' Larsen

Play single-player campaigns

Don't rush into ranked play. You've got all the time in the world to become an AoE2 legend, so start at the beginning. Playing alone means you can be bold, afford to make mistakes and even try things completely out of your comfort zone. Campaigns are a perfect place to start, interspersing gameplay with cinematic cut-scenes and enabling you to play repeated scenarios until you master the art.
Stick with one or two civilisations to begin with, play their campaigns and focus hard on the early game. Aim for abundance, rather than spreading yourself too thin. Start cautiously and, over time, learn where you can make changes and take risks. Once you've mastered a couple of civs in this way, you can start thinking about broadening your horizons, either with ranked games or trying out more civs.

Keep the town centre busy

Another tip from TheViper: "I think the biggest mistake I see in general is not producing enough villagers." Newcomers who leave their town centre (TC) idle might be unaware of the root of the issue when their supplies and manpower dry up down the line. Aim to keep your villager to army ratio at about 50:50 and understand the need to prioritise food, and trade to keep them healthy and happy.
Right from the start, you need to keep that TC producing – whether it's villagers or research – and as soon as you reach the Castle Age you'll need to pop another couple of TCs down. Never halt your economy entirely unless you have no other option and you should always garrison specific at-risk villagers before you resort to hitting the town bell and stopping production.
Participant during Red Bull Wololo V at Castel Heidelberg, Germany, on September 18th, 2021.

Age of Empires 2 has become an esports favourite

© Julian Schilase/Red Bull Content Pool


Customise your hotkeys

Something that can eat a lot of time for new players is learning what all the different UI elements are for and how to use them. You'll find yourself knowing you want to make a certain move or start an action, but are caught up in trying to find the right button. Hotkeys make life so much easier and you'll notice pros use them extensively to cut whole minutes out of their gameplay.
Hotkeys can be customised, so notice the actions and movements you make repeatedly and tie them to a key of your choice. Just remember the key that makes the most sense isn't always the fastest key. Using backspace or DEL to remove something will cost you precious seconds, as you move your hand across the keyboard. Try to keep hotkeys under your left hand as much as possible – and there's no shame in printing off a list and pinning it to your desk!
Dave and T90Official having fun while casting at Red Bull Wololo in Heidelberg, Germany on October 21, 2022.

Before you get to the Red Bull Wololo stage, first master single play

© Marius Faulhaber/Red Bull Content Pool


Get your Dark Age default down

When you're just starting out, you should take all the time you need to explore and improve at every stage. However, once your games start feeling more comfortable and you're finding yourself lasting longer, it's time to do what every successful AoE2 player eventually does: create a 'Dark Age default'. Pro players will have a set (yet still slightly flexible) method of blasting through the first stage of the game. They'll know what to prioritise and build. Although Age of Empires 2 can seem overwhelming at times, the strategy is not impenetrable, you just have to decide what you need to get to – and thrive in – the next age.

Put your villagers to work

Make sure your villagers are making your life easier by contributing to the economy in the most efficient way possible. Early on, you'll want to stick most of them on sheep, with a few sent out to hunt boar when you've got Loom technology (which makes villagers harder to kill). Keep the rest of your villagers on wood and remember that the more timber you have before the Castle Age, the more farms you can build.
You won't need to micromanage too much, as the game will usually assign villagers across resources. For example, if you have a load of villagers selected and you assign them to trees, they'll spread through the nearby trees on their own.

Think of it as chess, not city building

With the prevalence of city builders – think SimCity or Cities Skylines – it can be easy to get distracted in classic RTS games, which don't actually require almost any of the same skills. When you're playing a game like Frostpunk, you'll think about resources, but also about zoning and sensible layouts for your buildings. You'll maybe plan nice areas and industrial areas, and make a city that makes sense to the eye. Age of Empires 2 is not that game. You're basically playing chess and you need to be several moves ahead of your opponent at all times. Expand, protect and conquer. It doesn't have to look nice or even make sense.
Participant during Red Bull Wololo V at Castel Heidelberg, Germany, on September 18th, 2021.

You always need to be a few moves ahead of your rivals in Age of Empires 2

© Julian Schilase/Red Bull Content Pool


Start as you mean to go on: defensively

There are a number of things you can do to ensure your civ's safety while you play, but they might not all be obvious to a newcomer. From the very start, you need to be building your base defensively by placing buildings around it to reduce the amount of path available to attackers. This way, you force them through a funnel and can get the upper hand. Using buildings like this also reduces your costs, as you won't be spending stone on walls that can be better invested elsewhere.
If you feel you're ready to take on ranked matches, head over to our Age of Empires multiplayer tips guide and keep up to date with all things Age of Empires 2 and Red Bull Wololo over on X.

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Red Bull Wololo is the ultimate 1v1 Age of Empires II competition, pitting the world’s best amateur and professional players against each other.

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