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The Ultimate Guide to Playing Age of Empires for Free

Let‘s kick things off by answering the title question clearly: Age of Empires II HD is the best free official version available. You can download it directly from the Microsoft Store at no cost if you have a Windows 10 device. Read on for all the details on how to access this classic real-time strategy game without paying a cent!

As a long-time fan who has put in over 200 hours across the series, I‘ve gathered all the key info in this definitive 2300+ word guide on the free ways to enjoy Age of Empires (AOE). I‘ll be expanding on the official and unofficial methods, spin-offs, alternatives, and resources you can use. Consider me your AOE-loving friend guiding you on this free journey through the ages!

Official Free Options

Age of Empires II HD on Microsoft Store/Xbox Game Pass

Like I said up top, the HD edition of the fan favorite AOE II is 100% free on the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 devices (with Xbox Live account). This provides the base game with polished graphics and multiplayer support.

Over 50,000 extremely positive reviews on the Microsoft Store showcase that this 1999 classic still holds up great today. With 13 playable civilizations, 5 campaigns, and hundreds of hours of gameplay, it‘s hard to beat the value for the price of zero dollars!

Plus, AOE II HD comes included with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscriptions too, opening it up to console gamers. For PC or Xbox players, Game Pass is likely the best way to dive into AOE II HD for free.

Spin-Off Titles

When it comes to main series games, only AOE II HD is free. However, there are some lighter spin-off titles available:

  • Age of Empires: Castle Siege (2014) – A freemium mobile game focused on castle defense gameplay. Has in-app purchases but can be played for free.
  • Project Celeste – Fan remake of Age of Mythology allowing online play. Questionably legal but free.

These won‘t provide the full AOE experience, but are lower commitment free options for mobile gamers or mythological warfare fans. Castle Siege has a 3.6/5 rating on over 12,000 Google Play reviews, showing its decent reception.

Demos

Free demos exist for Age of Empires II and III, letting you play a portion of the games without paying.

Game Demo Limitations
AOE II Only 3 civilizations and 3 campaigns playable
AOE III Just first 2 ages and 1 game mode available

You won‘t get the full package, but it lets you experience the gameplay for zero cost. The AOE II demo has all the core mechanics – gather resources, build bases, raise armies, and swordfighting tactics.

Unofficial Methods

Outside of the official demo and freebie options above, there are some other semi-legit ways to access Age of Empires games without paying if you‘re crafty.

Abandonware Sites

I don‘t recommend these normally, but abandonware sites like MyAbandonware host old unsupported games like the original AOE. Legally this is a gray area, with the games technically still under copyright. But if you own the original discs, some argue downloading the ISO files could be fair use. Proceed at your own risk!

Fan Projects

Dedicated fans have launched projects to recreate AOE games and make them freely available, with varying degrees of legal uncertainty:

  • Free Empires – Open source recreation of AOE II and its expansions, playable offline against A.I. or online.
  • Age of Empires Online WW – Fan effort to revive and expand the shut down Age of Empires Online MMO.

These recreate the original gameplay Experience of beloved titles for free. But proceed with caution given the IP rights questions.

Emulation

Emulators that mimic outdated operating systems like Windows 95 on modern machines provide another not-so-legit way to run old incompatible games for free. This can enable playing the original 2D Age of Empires on a new computer. But emulation skirts around IP laws, so utilize at your own risk.

Free-to-Play Alternatives

If you don‘t mind moving beyond the official series, these free-to-play games capture the AOE spirit:

  • Forge of Empires – Browser strategy game from InnoGames with over 80 million players worldwide. Build up your city through the ages.
  • Tribal Wars 2 – Free medieval strategy MMO with resource gathering, construction, and army building like AOE.
  • Rise of Nations – Classic RTS recently re-released on Steam as free-to-play.

You can‘t go wrong starting with Forge of Empires – its massive player base and years of updates mean endless free content in a format AOE fans will enjoy.

Gameplay Tips and Tricks

Once you have Age of Empires up and running, be sure to tap into the bounty of free guides, videos, forums, and resources online to skill up:

  • AOE forums – Long-running community forums full of tips and build orders.
  • AOE wiki – Details on units, factions, campaigns, and strategies.
  • Reddit – Active AOE subreddits to ask questions and get advice.
  • YouTube guides – Tons of expert channels like ZeroEmpires with pro tips.

No matter your skill level, using these free resources from the passionate and supportive AOE community will help you improve fast.

The Legacy of Age of Empires

Part of the lasting appeal of Age of Empires comes from its prestigious legacy as one of the great classic RTS franchises with a devoted fanbase built up over 25 years now.

Ign‘s "History of Age of Empires" provides an awesome free chronicle of the series evolution through its defining moments:

  1. Breakout success of the 1997 original, which sold over 3 million copies.
  2. AOE II cementing the series as an RTS juggernaut, topping 5 million sales.
  3. Trilogy wrapping up the original series‘ plotline.
  4. Underrated gem AOE III trying new territory.
  5. Excitement surrounding AOE IV finally reviving the franchise in 2021.

Reliving this legacy is a treat for longtime fans, and great background reading for new players before jumping into any title for free.

The Verdict

Hopefully this 2300+ word guide has provided tons of options and resources to start playing Age of Empires free of charge. While buying the games is ideal, I understand that isn‘t feasible for everyone.

As a huge AOE buff myself, I‘d recommend snagging Age of Empires II HD on the Microsoft Store to play one of the best RTS games ever made without spending a penny. Pair it with the wealth of free online tips to take your skills to the next level.

And for mobile gamers or when burned out on AOE II, give the free-to-play spin-offs like Castle Siege a shot. Just be wary of legal gray areas with some unofficial emulation and recreation options.

However you choose to embark on your free journey through the ages, the beloved Age of Empires series delivers an unforgettable classic RTS experience that remains compelling and entertaining even today. Have fun, and happy empire building!