A deathmatch is a game with a random map where players start with 20,000 food, 20,000 wood, 10,000 gold and 10'000 stone. Thus resource gathering is not necessary (unless the game goes on for a long time), and towers are basically free (you can build more than 100 of them). The costs of the units that usually reflect their strength become meaningless, and it is important that you can produce a lot of units very quickly.
Because a deathmatch game is usually decided by Iron Age units (you can upgrade quickly since you have more than enough resources), it makes sense to start at the Iron Age. Some of the strategies mentioned below will have to be altered a bit if you do not start at the Stone Age, but this should not be a problem.
Even though you have plenty of resources at the beginning, always keep an eye on your resources! Suddenly, they get scarce, and you will have to work for them. Make sure your production of gold, wood and stone is running well before you are running out of them!
Villagers are the key for a fast unit production. A crucial part of the game is getting up the buildings that produce the military units and upgrade quickly. Never stop producing villagers until you have 15+ of them. Later in the game, you will need the villagers to build towers everywhere so they will remain useful.
Towers become much more important than in normal games since you can get (almost) as many of them as you wish. However, you should not build too many towers at the beginning because their construction time is so high. Once you have enough villagers (about 17), you can build your towers and other buildings very quickly. Do not waste stones for towers at useless positions, though.
Catapults will rule on land maps, and they are also important on sea maps. Make sure that your research Ballistics as soon as you hit the Iron Age, along with an upgrade from the Stone Thrower to the Catapult. A bunch of Heavy Catapults is almost unstoppable. The only thing that can stop them is more Catapults :)
Because their high cost does not matter anymore, you can set up 12+ Siege Workshops that keep pumping out these catapults. This will also offset another disadvantage, the high production time. If you have some Ballista Towers that protect your Catapults, all other units (Infantry, Cavalry and Archers) will become useless and hardly ever touch one of your Catapults. 30+ catapults mow through all buildings and towers really fast, it is only a matter of seconds until they are crushed. Cats rule in deathmatch!
Ballistas are less important because they have no radius damage and can be killed with one Catapult shot.
Juggernaughts are the most important unit at sea. If you start at the Iron Age already, forget about Triremes and go for Catapult Triremes from the beginning on. Research Engineering to be able to get the Juggernaught upgrade, then Ballistics. Build at least 10 docks so you can pump out these ships quickly. Protect the docks with towers, later with Catapults. Put all Juggernaughts together in one group and try to eliminate the enemy fleet. If successful, go for the docks first, then spread your ships around the enemy island so no new dock can be built. If you have made it that far, a land invasion will be no problem.
Never underestimate the value of Scouts! Even though casualties will not matter that much in deatchmatch (you can simply produce more units to fill the gaps), Scouts are crucial to detect weaknesses in enemy defenses. Later in the game, Heavy Horse Archers can replace Scouts. However, even when fully upgraded, their attack value is negligeable compared to Catapults, so their main use will be to kill villagers.
Since you need all the units mentioned above, there are only few tribes to choose from. On land maps, these tribes are the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Hittite and Sumerian. Only these tribes get all the units you need. The Assyrian tribe has faster villagers and better Archers which is not that helpful. Babylonian towers have double hit points, so this tribe is a good choice. The Greek tribe is not that good on land maps. Sumerian Catapult fire 50% faster, so a Catapult rush with this tribe is truly scary. Only Hittite Catapults are better, having double hit points. This makes the Hittite tribe my favorite one on land maps.
On sea maps, you should choose the Greek tribe since that is the only one that gets Juggernaughts and all other important units. The faster war ships make this choice even better. Another great choice is the Phoenican tribe - the highly increased siege ship fire rates make Juggernaughts deadly, and War Elephants can stop Catapults after destroying the towers with Juggernaughts. Thanks to PTX for that tip. However, do not choose Phoenician if you are not playing in a team! Because you cannot get Catapults, you will be helpless if someone attacks your island.
It is crucial that you build up fast. Keep producing villagers and build a Barracks first, together with Houses and another Stone Age building - Docks if you are playing on a water map. Upgrade as soon as possible; build more Houses and a few Barracks to get a lot of Clubmen. These guys will be your first scouts. Send them into any part of the map. Do not forget to build a Granary and a Storage pit while upgrading. You should have 12 houses (for 50 units) after the Stone Age.
At the Tool Age, the buildings you need are Stables and a Market. Get some Scouts, build some Towers (while getting more and more villagers), then upgrade. Do not forget to build an Archery Range since it is required for the Siege Workshop later. You should not train Bowmen, though.
After upgrading to the Bronze Age, build a Governement Center and a lot of Siege Workshops! The Government Center is needed for the upgrades and for getting more Town Centers - you can replace lost villagers more quickly then. Build your Town Centers in different places so you can get the villagers where you need them.
In the Iron Age, you should get the Ballistics (Gov. Center) and Siegecraft (Market) upgrades first. Then, get all other upgrades as soon as you can. The "Catapult Wars" should already be raging then; at sea, Juggernaughts will rule the game as soon as you can get them. Concentrate your forces and use Ballista Towers to protect your units. Any attempts to destroy Catapults with Cavalry or other units are futile if you have enough towers. You will need to play some games to adapt to the different tactics that a deathmatch game needs.
Especially on land maps, it may happen that you cannot occupy a hill that is defended by 20+ Catapults having the bonus of standing at a higher elevation. Then, Wonder or Artifact strategies may be the best way to win a game. In one game, I had conquered all artifacts and lost them later; meanwhile, I had built up a wonder. My towers that were spread through the entire map could delay the attack long enough for my victory.
Usually, you will not have to harvest any resources, but be ready to do so once they are running low (below 2,500). You can easily get enough villagers to keep your war machinery going.
Because of the funding situation, the winning units are always Super units. (...) It is a Super unit battle, with the exception of the Priest. Priests, en masse, can be very successful. I once held back 3 onslaughts of catapults with an equal number of Priests (then I ran out of gold). Wonders built on both sides keep the action offensive.
We noticed the same thing you did. Our first Death Matches lasted 15 - 20 minutes. Before we shipped they were lasting 2+ hours.
The key to winning, in my mind, is resource management. You will lose if you run out of resources, the good players always outlast the poorer players. It is very challenging to keep 10-15 villagers bringing in resources, when they could be replaced by the same amount of catapults and possibly turn the tide of war. However, this is just selling out your future.
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