‘Age of Empires’ Finally Features Medieval Bulgarian Empire, Bulgarians in ‘Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition’

‘Age of Empires’ Finally Features Medieval Bulgarian Empire, Bulgarians in ‘Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition’

An official preview of the Bulgarians in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition”. Photo: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Fandom Wiki

The glorious medieval Bulgarian Empire has finally made its way to the cult Microsoft real-time strategy video game “Age of Empires" as the Bulgarians are now featured in the newly-released “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition".

“Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition", which was released on November 14, 2019, by Xbox Game Studios, includes The Last Khans expansion adding four new civilizations to the cult computer game based on Eastern Europe and Central Asia – the Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Cumans, and Tatars – and four new campaigns.

The medieval Bulgarian Empire was established by the Ancient Bulgars in the 7th century AD. It fought largely successfully the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, for roughly 700 years, until both were conquered by the Ottoman Turks invading from the southeast.

The First Bulgarian Empire lasted from 632/680 AD until 1018, reaching its height in the late 9th and early 10th century, with a territory of up to 800,000 square kilometers, the title of Tsar, i.e. Emperor, and sophisticated culture of its own based on Orthodox Christianity, the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) Alphabet, and the Old Bulgarian Language (today styled “Church Slavonic" by other Slavic-language nations).

The Second Bulgarian Empire lasted from 1185 until 1396/1422, and saw its political and military height in the first half of the 13th century, and its spiritual and cultural height in the mid-14th century, building upon the heritage of the First Bulgarian Empire.

The medieval Bulgarian Empire and its achievements remain rather unknown internationally, likely a result of its conquest and rule by the Ottomans for nearly 500 years (15th – 19th century), and Bulgaria’s modern-day isolation from the international community resulting from its captivity in the Communist Soviet Bloc in the second half of the 20th century.

The description of the Bulgarians in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition" reads, as follows,

When nomadic Bulgar horsemen approached the Danube in the 7th century and encountered the local Slavic tribes, the stirrups that they brought changed European cavalry warfare forever. Fortify the nearby mountain passes with formidable Kreposts and punish overconfident invaders with powerful combined armies of cavalry, infantry, and siege engines! Your valiant Konniks, the pride of your army, will continue to fight fearlessly even after their horses are felled beneath them."

The above-mentioned presumably “nomadic” character of the Ancient Bulgars has increasingly come into question among historians in recent years, along with the view espoused during the communist era that they were a Turkic people, as research since the end of the communist period has increasingly pointed towards an Iranian (Persian) origin of the Ancient Bulgars.

The Bulgarians’ “Wonder" in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition" is a replica of the Round Church, or Golden Church built ca. 900 in Veliki Preslav, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893 – 970, under Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893 – 927).

The Round or Golden Church built in the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire Veliki Preslav ca. 900. shown here as “the Bulgarians’ wonder” in the newest version of “Age of Empires II.” Photo: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Fandom Wiki

The partly restored ruins of the Round or Gold Church in Veliki Preslav. Photo: Wikipedia

The partly restored ruins of the Round or Gold Church in Veliki Preslav. Photo: Wikimapia

A painting recreating the view of the Round or Golden Church in Veliki Preslav, Photo: Wikimapia

The Bulgarians’ unique unit in the cult computer game is the Konnik (meaning “horseman" in Bulgarian), a cavalry unit that creates a Dismounted Konnik infantry when killed at no cost.

The Bulgarians’ unique unit in the game is the Krepost (meaning “fortress" in Bulgarian), a small castle that can train Konniks.

The Bulgarians have two unique technologies in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition": Stirrups (scout line and Konniks +25% attack speed) and Bagains (militia line +3 armor).

The Bulgarians have a campaign devoted to their civilization named Ivaylo, after Tsar Ivaylo (r. 1277 – 1280), a usurper who rose to the Bulgarian throne thanks to being successful in fighting off the Tatar (Mongol) invasions from the northeast.

Ivaylo is said to have originally been a swineherd by some Byzantine sources, although new lines of thought in modern-day Bulgarian history hypothesize that he was in fact a provincial nobleman from Eastern Bulgaria.

The campaign features the Pliska Rosette, an Ancient Bulgar bronze artifact depicting a seven-pointed star discovered in the earlier Bulgarian capital Pliska in 1961.

Possibly the most famous Ancient Bulgar artifacts, the seven-pointed Pliska Rosette. Photo: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Fandom Wiki

The description of the Ivaylo Campaign in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition" reads, as follows,

“Ivaylo (Bulgarians): During the Mongol invasions, a pig farmer leads a militia defending the Bulgarian villages. But when his victories attract the attention of the Tsar and his nobles, he is forced to lead a mass uprising. Can a man of such humble origins defy the established order and give his people freedom?"

The Ivaylo Campaign is narrated by the exiled Maria Palaiologina, the wife of Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257 – 1277), she told the story to her unnamed daughter from Ivaylo. Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih was the “incumbent” Tsar who was killed by Ivaylo during his uprising and after his capture of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Ivaylo married the widowed Tsaritsa (Empress) Maria Palaiologina as part of his assumption of the Bulgarian throne.

Tsar Ivaylo, the character from the history of the medieval Bulgarian Empire chosen for the Bulgarians’ campaign in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Photos: Video grabs from YouTube

The latest version of the Age of Empires game does make some references to the so called Volga Bulgaria – another Ancient Bulgar state in the Middle Ages so named after a branch from the original “Old Great Bulgaria” founded by Khan Kubrat (ca. 632 – ca. 665 AD) in today’s Ukraine and Southwest Russia migrated to the northeast.

Volga Bulgaria should not be confused with the medieval Bulgarian Empire in Southeast Europe, sometimes referred to as “Danube Bulgaria” in order to distinguish it from Volga Bugaria and other lesser-known states or tribal unions set up across Eurasia by branches of the Ancient Bulgars. Volga Bulgaria subsequently adopted Islam, became a Muslim center, and survived until the 13th century when it was destroyed by the Mongols (Tatars). Its descendants today mostly live in the autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Chuvashiya in present-day Russia.

The latest version of the cult video game “Age of Empires” – Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Photo: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

Following is a further description of the Bulgarians in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition" derived from the “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition" Fandom wiki:

Ivaylo is a campaign in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. It is based on the rise and fall of Ivaylo of Bulgaria (Bulgarian: Ивайло, also spelled Ivailo; died 1281). Ivaylo, also known as Bardokva or Lakhanas, was a Bulgarian peasant who became the leader of a peasant uprising in 1277 which ultimately resulted in him becoming the tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire. During Ivaylo’s short reign from 1278 to 1279, he managed to defend Bulgaria from Byzantine and Mongol invasions, but was forced into exile to the Mongols thanks to the treachery of the Bulgarian nobles (bolyars). Unfortunately, the Mongols later assassinated Ivaylo under the orders of Nogai Khan for being an enemy of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos.

Ivaylo’s legacy lives on when Bulgaria was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, where the hajduks are said to be inspired from folk songs and traditional legends about him, and Marxist historians even used Ivaylo as an example of early anti-feudal/bourgeois revolutionary.

The Ivaylo campaign consists of 5 scenarios. The player plays as the Bulgarians, and the player color is blue.

  1. A Most Unlikely Man
  2. An Unlikely Alliance
  3. Tsar of the Bulgars
  4. Echoes of Heroes
  5. Where the One-Eyed Man is King

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AI player names

When playing a random map game against the computer, the player may encounter any of the following Bulgarian AI characters:

  • Almish Yiltawar (Almış Iltäbär): The first Muslim leader (emir) of Volga Bulgaria who reigned from the 9th century to the early 10th century.
  • Asparukh (a.k.a. Ispor): 7th century ruler of the Bulgars who established the First Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans in 681. The 3rd son of Kubrat and younger brother of Batbayan and Kotrag. Father of Tervel, the ‘Savior of Europe’.
  • Boris I Mikhail (Boris-Mihail): Ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (852-889) who converted to Christianity in 864 and sheltered the disciples of saints Cyril and Methodius after they were expelled from Great Moravia. Also worshipped as a saint by the Orthodox Church. In 889 he abdicated from the throne in favor of his eldest son Vladimir-Rasate to devote himself to the faith as a monk in a monastery. After the new knyaz began to destroy his father’s achievements, Boris came out of the monastery to blind him and replace him with Simeon the Great. During the reign of Simeon the old knyaz is known to lead a division of the Bulgarian army despite his advanced age.
  • Georgi Terter: Bulgarian tsar from Cuman origin who was elected by the bolyars to rule the state after the death of Ivaylo and the exile of Ivan Asen III. Father of Theodore Svetoslav and father-in-law of the Tatar prince Chaka.
  • Ghabdula Chelbir: Ruler of Volga Bulgaria (1178-1225) known for the win against the Mongol Empire (one of the rare cases when the Horde of Genghis ever lost a battle).
  • Ivan Asen II: The greatest Bulgarian ruler (1218-1241) during the Second Bulgarian Empire.
  • Ivaylo Bardokva: The main character of the Bulgarians’ campain.
  • Khan Krum: After the crisis in the 2nd half of 8th c. the Bulgarian state needed a ruler who can stabilise it again. He was found in Pannonia and during his reign (803-814) Krum gave to the Bulgars the first written laws who were harsh but fair. During his time the capita city of Pliska was burned by the Byzantians but Krum cut their way back via ambush in the Varbitsa Pass [2] in Stara planina. As a result the emperor Nikephoros I Genikos lost his life (his skull notably became a drinking cup) and his son Staurakios ended with severe injuries himself.
  • Kotrag (Kazarig): The founder of Volga Bulgaria, a Bulgar ruler who left Old Great Bulgaria in what is now southern Russia and Ukraine to head north along the Volga river, in the late 7th century.
  • Kubrat: The founder of Old Great Bulgaria and father of Batbayan, Kotrag, Asparukh, Kuber and Altzek.
  • Simeon the Great: The 3rd son of Boris I, he was considered to be the future head of the new Bulgarian Orthodox Church. However, his older brother knyaz (prince) Vladimir Rasate (889-893) tried to reset everything their father did before and eventually he was blinded by Boris I. And so, Simeon was established as Bulgarian ruler (893-927). This period is called ‘The Golden Age’ and it’s both because of his capabilities as a warior and literature/culture supporter. Most notably he ordered the disciples of saints Cyril and Methodius to create Cyrillic script to replace the Glagolitic one. Today 1 of every 30 person in the world uses the new Cyrillic alphabet. He is the ruler during the time of the Hungarian AoE II campaign from ‘The Forgotten’.
  • Tervel Khan: Son of Asparukh, grandson of Kubrat and 2nd ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire. Known as ‘The Savior of Europe’ because of his help during the Siege of Constantinople in 717-718.
  • Theodore Svetoslav: Son of Georgi Terter and 2nd ruler from the Terter dynasty. After many changes of the tsar role he established himself to rule about 2 decades (1299-1321).
  • Tsar Konstantin Tih: The ‘antagonist’ in the campain about Ivaylo. The first tsar after the death of the last male descendant of the Asen dynasty. A wealthy bolyar from Skopje himself, he was elected by the bolyars to be a tsar of Bulgaria. Paralized after an accident.

    The Bulgarians’ special unit in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, the Konnik (“Horseman”), both mounted and dismounted. Photos: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Fandom Wiki

***

History

By the fourth century AD, the Roman Empire was struggling to keep control of its vast territory. In the Balkans, different groups seized the opportunity to plunder. While most of these incursions were transient, the raids of two groups were of a more permanent character. From the sixth century on, Slavic tribes began colonizing large areas in present-day Bulgaria. Despite their common culture, they did not develop any state. This task would be accomplished by the Proto-Bulgarians, semi-nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. Together, these newcomers would form the Bulgarian people and establish two powerful empires in the medieval Balkans.

Around 670 AD, Asparukh, the son of a fallen Proto-Bulgarian Khan (king), led his people to the Danube delta in search of new grazing grounds. During the following years, Asparukh united the Slavic settlers under his rule. However, as the successor state to the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire still claimed the region. Emperor Constantine IV launched several campaigns to defend his territory but encountered strong resistance. The invaders combined the best of two worlds: the Slavs fielded numerous light infantry, while the Proto-Bulgarians employed fully armored horsemen, each one equipped with a wide arsenal of weapons. Throughout the medieval period, the heavy cavalry would remain the backbone of the Bulgarian army and was one of the most feared forces in all of Europe.

After several defeats, Constantine IV was forced to relinquish the Byzantine claim to the lands north of the Balkan Mountains, marking the birth of the First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018). Nevertheless, its future was far from certain, as the Byzantines would continuously try to reconquer the lost territory. Internally, the new state was divided between the Proto-Bulgarian aristocracy and the Slavic population despite the early development of the Old Bulgarian language. Only in the ninth century would Boris I (r. 852-889) form the basis of a unified identity. By adopting Christianity as the state religion, he created a common ground for all ethnic groups. He also founded the Pliska-Preslav literary school, which stimulated the creation of the Cyrillic script, allowing the production of written works in the Old Bulgarian language.

Under Boris’ son, Simeon the Great (r. 893-927), the First Bulgarian Empire entered a golden age. After successful campaigns against the Byzantines and the Magyars, Simeon had expanded the empire to its greatest extent, controlling almost the entirety of the Balkans. As art and literature boomed, Bulgaria became the cultural center of Slavic Europe and Old Bulgarian replaced Greek as the lingua franca. The wealth to finance these cultural and military campaigns came primarily from trade. Thanks to its central position between the Rus’ and the Byzantines, Bulgaria functioned as an important trade hub for precious metals, horses and slaves. Although the intensified trade created some of the highest levels of urbanization in all of Europe, most Bulgarians made a living off agriculture and animal husbandry.

After Simeon’s death, his empire fell into decline. Weakened by continuous warfare, Bulgaria was conquered by the Byzantine armies in 1018. Despite strong political reforms, the Bulgarians retained their sense of a separate culture. Whenever the Byzantines levied heavy taxes, this identity proved a strong medium to channel social unrest into rebellions. In 1185, an uprising led by the aristocratic brothers Asen and Peter succeeded in driving out the Byzantines. The Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396) quickly became a major power in the Balkans under Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241). Art, architecture and literature would thrive until the fourteenth century, making Bulgaria once again the leading cultural center of Slavic Europe. Politically, however, the empire would never match the status of its predecessor. After Ivan II, it was constantly threatened by its neighbors and by internal uprisings, such as the 1277 rebellion of the swineherd Ivaylo. In 1396, a new superpower finally put an end to Bulgarian independence: the Ottomans would dominate the Balkans for the next 500 years.

The Krepost (“Fortress”), the unique building of the Bulgarians in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition: Photo: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Fandom Wiki

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Bulgarians/Strategy

Strengths

They are great at rushing, since their Militia-line infantry automatically upgrades upon advancing to the next age, while their team bonus enables their blacksmith to rapidly upgrade their units. Also, these units retain their value as their unique technology Bagains gives their Militia-line Infantry +3 melee armor. They have most upgrades available for infantry, only lacking the Champion upgrade.

Their unique unit, the Konnik, is a cavalry unit that when killed becomes an infantry unit (with all its implications). The strength of this unit relies on their durability, as they have to be killed twice, while they can also mess with the possible opponents’ response to cavalry. They can be created at Kreposts, which are a fortification similar to a Castle, but weaker and cheaper (about half the price of a Castle). The attack speed of the Konnik can be improved with their Castle Age unique technology Stirrups, who also improves the attack speed of the Scout Cavalry line. Regarding the Stable they have full upgrades for both the Paladin and the Hussar.

They have good siege units, as they have almost all the relevant technologies, only lacking Bombard Cannons.

Defensively, they fare well thanks to the Kreposts and the fact that their Town Center cost 50 less stone, letting them save some stone for more fortifications.

Weaknesses

Despite the fact that their Militia upgrades automatically and they have a unique technology that adds more armor to them, they still lack the Champion upgrade, which may make them vulnerable in the long run against well-rounded units or ranged units.

Their Archery Range is mediocre, as they lack the Crossbowman and Arbalest upgrades and the Ring Archer Armor upgrade at the Blacksmith.

They can create Kreposts that can help defend their position, but lack several defensive technologies like Hoardings, Bombard Tower, Fortified Wall and Arrowslits, making them rely almost only on the Krepost for that purpose (which despite being cheaper than a Castle is still more expensive and takes longer to built than towers).

They have lackluster naval technologies (no Shipwright, Dry Dock, Elite Cannon Galleons, Heavy Demolition Ships, or Fast Fire Ships) so they should avoid using ships unless it is necessary.

A map of the Second Bulgarian Empire depicted in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Photo: Video grab from YouTube

Strategy

The Bulgarians are an infantry-oriented civilization, and as such, they may try an infantry Feudal Age rush in the early game, which is particularly potent in their case. At the very beginning of the game, the Bulgarians do not have any bonuses (apart from their automatic improvement of their Militia line). As such, their build order for an infantry rush is very similar to most other civilizations, and they should try to advance to the Feudal Age as soon as possible. In this sense, the Bulgarian player must start to produce their Militia in the Dark Age, so when advancing to the Feudal Age, they will be ready to raid an opponent, who will hardly have the right counter-units for Men-at-Arms. Once in the Feudal Age, Bulgarians should create a Blacksmith (which for them works faster), research the infantry improvements there, and create additional Barracks to spam more Men-at-Arms. Bulgarians are not very flexible in terms of strategy in the early stage of the game, so they are predictable. When playing against Bulgarians, the player must hurry up to Feudal Age as well and prepare Archers, Towers, or turtle themselves in order to avoid their Men-at-Arms rush.

Bulgarians are probably at their peak in the Castle Age, when their bonuses start to really kick in. Once in the Castle Age, they will get access to the Krepost, cheaper Town Centers, their unique unit the Konnik, and, of course, their Men-at-Arms will be upgraded to Long Swordsmen. Some effective strategies a Bulgarian player should take into consideration is a Krepost Drop, Konnik rush or a Knight rush. In any case, a Fast Castle must be made first. In the first two cases, the player must gather stone beforehand.

For a Castle Age Krepost Drop, the player should research Masonry, Treadmill Crane, Murder Holes, and Ballistics at the University, as well as researching Fletching and Bodkin Arrow at the Blacksmith. Kreposts are very similar to a Castle, but weaker and cheaper. They also are created faster and cannot research technologies or train Trebuchets or Petards (so one castle will still be required to upgrade their Konniks to Elite, research their Castle technologies, and train Trebuchets in the Imperial Age). Since Kreposts are cheaper (about half the price of a Castle), the Bulgarian player may place two of them near each other to provide cover fire and start spamming Konniks. Krepost are also useful for turtling and defending locations, but the player must have in mind that they have less range, hit points, and attack than Castles, but the convenience that they can make almost two of them for the same price. Krepost are also useful when performing the Konnik rush, since having two of them instead of one Castle naturally means they can create Konniks faster.

Regarding the Konnik rush, this unit has the advantage that it has to be killed twice, since they become dismounted Konniks when die. Not only are they durable, but in many circumstances, it is hard to respond to a Konnik raid, since the armor class of the unit changes to infantry, so the typical counters for cavalry does not affect the dismounted version of this unit. Also, if the Konniks are caught by the opponent’s arrow-fire and killed, the Dismounted Konniks will automatically go and harass the nearest opponent unit or building. Because of this quirk, a Konnik rush should be preferred over a Knight rush, unless the player doesn’t have enough stone for making enough Castles or Kreposts. The Stirrups technology also makes the Konniks more appealing, since it increases the attack speed of both versions of the unit, and also the attack speed of the Light Cavalry.

In the Imperial Age, they must keep using their infantry and Konniks and support them with Hussars, especially when entering the “trash wars”. Their Imperial Age unique technology Bagains grants +3 melee armor to the Militia line, so their Two-Handed Swordsmen become more effective against melee units. Sadly, they lack the Champion upgrade, but Bagains is a good replacement for that.”

Also check out this story about a board game invented by Bulgarian archaeologists which pits archaeologists against treasure hunters:

New Board Game Pits Archaeologists against Treasure Hunters in Archaeological Sites All across Bulgaria

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