With the impending demise of Ensemble Studios, now seems like the right time to look back at the game that started it all. Before they got roped into doing a Halo RTS, Ensemble was best known for the venerable Age of Empires series. What set the franchise apart from the dozens of RTS clones at the time was borrowing some key concepts from the Civilization series and squeezing them into a sleeker form. Starting as a tribal leader with a house and a couple villagers; you would progress all the way up through the ages without any cumbersome resource management to really weigh you down. Rather than just throwing together a jumbled collection of houses, barracks and war factories, a "real" looking city could be developed with a few non-military style buildings to bump up your production. The end result was a feeling that two nations were clashing rather than a facsimile of war being enacted by grunts spit out of a futuristic sheds.
Perhaps most important to me at the time was that walls were actually useful. With the right positioning, you could turtle up and win by building a great wonder or waiting for your enemies to weaken each other and exhaust their own resources. Some civilizations were better than others for tactics like these, which added even more layers without over-burdening the player with too much to manage. This was the first multiplayer RTS I really got into playing online with other people and strategies varied wildly depending on the kind of player you were. There was no single path to victory, which gave it some serious legs.
Finally, it was just loaded with charm. Villagers hauling armfuls of gold, chopping down trees and chipping away at stone were a joy to behold. Deer roaming the landscape, begging the villagers to hunt them for the succulent meat, berry bushes to be picked, birds wheeling about. It was all so alive.
Here's to Ensemble Studios and their consistent efforts in bringing us some of the best RTS games out there. May they find success when they break away from Microsoft and reform their studio.