Using hotkeys when playing Age of Empires III is a great way to make the game a lot easier (once you learn to use them) and lays the groundwork for you to become a much better player. Hotkeys, for those of you who don't know, are keystrokes that you can assign to build buildings, select buildings, train villagers and units, among many other things. Once you master a hotkey system, your mouse should be almost entirely freed up to control your units and move around the map. The game has default hotkeys, but these are based on the name of the unit (for example, the hotkey for a ruyter is r and the hotkey for a musketeer is m). For this reason they are spread all around the keyboard and are hard to manage while playing. In this guide, I'll explain some of the key points to keep in mind when assigning and using hotkeys. I've also included the basic custom hotkey set-up that I use, which is designed more systematically than the default set-up and allows you to play very efficiently.
This guide is broken into different sections, based on where things are in the hotkey editor. In each section I'll explain what I think is important about that group of hotkeys and show how I set them up. (Note: I do not explain control groups in this guide, or the abilities hotkeys in The Asian Dynasties. Perhaps these will be included in a future guide.)
Find Unit Hotkeys (extra important section)
Most of the hotkeys in the "Find Unit" section are to find your general buildings, such as stables and markets. Here, I want to talk about a group of hotkeys above those, five of which I think are the most important in the game.
Find Town Center (TC): The Town Center is far and away the most important building in the game. You'll select it at least every 25 seconds to queue villagers and it's handy to jump your screen view using your TC hotkey if you want to look at your town. My advice is to base you entire hotkey set-up around the location of your town center. I like to have this as a big button, easy for my hand to find, so I use Caps Lock as my TC hotkey (for this reason, my hotkey set-up is focused on the left side of the keyboard).
Find Idle Villager: The most important hotkey of them all! Because having idle villagers is one of the biggest mistakes you can make and because fixing this mistake is so easy, you should hit your idle villager hotkey early and often. This is the one hotkey I will give a specific recommendation for: always use your space bar. It's huge and you can hit it easily no matter where your other hotkeys are set up.
Find Home City (HC): Having to move your mouse to the HC flag in the middle of a fight for a treasure or while trying to micro your army is a pain. At the same, you won't go to your HC that many times in a game. I recommend placing the HC hotkey somewhere easy to reach, but not necessarily right in the thick of things. I have my HC hotkey set to F1, which I can reach from my hand's resting place around Caps Lock.
Here they are all together on the keyboard:
Find Explorer/War Chief: Your explorer is your most important unit in the first five minutes of the game, and if you play a Native civ, your War Chief is the most important unit throughout the game. While you can use control groups to find your explorer, I find that giving him his own hotkey is much easier (although if you play an Asian civ, it's better to stick with control groups). I recommend placing this hotkey close to where your hands rest. I use one of the extra buttons on my mouse for the explorer, so I don't have to move my hand at all to find him.
Find Idle Military: This is a helpful key to use if you're getting ready to fight and you want to make sure that you have all of your military. I use the other extra button on my mouse for this.
Building Construction Hotkeys
You want to set up your hotkeys so that the ones you use the most are the easiest to use. This means grouping hotkeys near where your hand rests well, which for me is with my pinky finger on the Caps Lock key (remember that's my TC hotkey). From there, I use the three rows of letters as my building construction, the first for the most basic and often-used economy buildings, the next for military buildings, and the last for other economic buildings. Notice that the rows higher on the keyboard have more hotkeys on them. This is because it's easier for me to reach up for a key than it is to reach down! As you use a hotkey set-up, fiddle with it so that it's comfortable for you.
1st Row, economy: Town Center (~) House (q), Wall (w), Market (e), Trading Post (r), Church (t), Livestock Pen (y):
2nd Row, military: Barracks (a), Stable (s), Artillery Foundry (d), Arsenal (f), Fort/Fire Pit (g):
3rd Row, economy: Dock (z), Mill (x), Plantation (c), Tower (v):
Find Unit Hotkeys (Buildings)
Now that we have a system for building buildings, it's easy to find the ones we've already built. Simply hold down the Control (Ctrl) key and then tap the hotkey for the building (as shown below, z for dock) you want to find. If you have multiple docks , hitting Ctrl and then z will take you to the dock you built first, hit z again and you'll be taken to the dock you built second, etc.
The "Allow Conflicts" button, available on The War Chiefs (TWC) and The Asian Dynasties (TAD), is your best friend, as far as hotkeys go. This allows you to assign a key more than one hotkey. You want to use this for buildings and units (we'll get to that part later) from different civs that fill similar roles. For example, if you play TAD, there are three different buildings that act as stables: the stable (Euro civs), the corral (Native civs), and the caravanserai (Asian civs). It's a pain to have a separate hotkey for each building, especially because the more hotkeys you have the farther they are from where your hand rests and so more difficult to use. With "Allow Conflicts," I set all three buildings to s and (Ctrl+s to find them). Here are some examples:
Unit Training Hotkeys
Now that you know how to build and find your buildings, let's turn to training units. The basic concept here is again to keep things close to where your hand rests. With unit hotkeys, you can mimic the order the units are listed in the in-game user interface onto your keyboard, making them easy to memorize. If you have TAD, you'll notice that the Asian buildings' hotkeys are already organized in this way:
Again, you can take advantage of "Allow Conflicts" button with your unit hotkey assignments. At the stable (or corral, or caravanserai), I always use this set-up:
q = Mainline cavalry (cav): Hussar, Uhlan, Cossack, Axe Rider, Kanya Horseman, Sowar, and Naginata Rider
w = Anti-cav cav: Dragoon, Cavalry Archer, Bow Rider, Musket Rider, Yabusame, and Zamburak
e = Specialty cav: Lancer, Cuirassier, Rifle Rider, and Mahout
r = Other Specialty cav: Tashunke Prowler and Howdah
The same set-up goes for all of your other buildings. For example, the villager hotkey, the priest hotkey, the fishing boat hotkey (etc.) are all q. The most complicated building you'll encounter is the barracks under this system, where many European civs share the same units, which are displayed in different places. Here's how I organize that (notice that beyond the 4th unit, I drop the hotkeys to the second row):
q = Archer units: Crossbowman, Longbowman, and Yumi
w = Anti-cav units: Pikeman, Samurai and Rajput
e = Musketeer units: Musketeer, Ashigaru Musketeer, and Sepoy
r = Anti-infantry units: Skirmisher, Cassador, and Gurkha
a = Specialty infantry: Doppelsoldner, Rodelero, and Halberdier
Some buildings don't quite fit the mold described above, so I'll explain my approach to them:
Native Trading Post: Here, you usually only have one unit available to train (sometimes two, like with the Incan Huaminca and Bolas Warrior). If you have "Allow Conflicts" available, simply set all your minor natives to one key (I use q), except for the ones that share a native TP with another, where you'll need to use another key (w for me). If you don't have "Allow Conflicts," the best approach is to assign hotkeys that are easy to reach to the minor natives which you use most often (for me that would be the qwer row), while setting hotkeys for natives that you use less frequently farther away.
Native Embassy: With this building, you'll need to take the same approach as if you were using the native trading post without the "Allow Conflicts" button, setting those natives which you use more often in accessible places.
Saloon/Monastery (for Asians): Use the same system as above, assigning accessible hotkeys to the Mercenaries you use the most. If you use Outlaws units, you might want to assign them their own row on the keyboard for easy memorization.
Firepit: There are several different ways to go about assigning hotkeys to the different dances at the firepit. You can use the above approach, setting the dances you use the most to accessible hotkeys. Alternately, you can try to mimic the in-game display by setting the dances' hotkeys in the order they appear on-screen. Finally, you can do what I have done, which is to simply set the dances to hotkeys in three rows like my military buildings, all of them relatively easy to reach.
A Note to Age3-Original Players
Because you do not have access to the "Allow Conflicts" button, your hotkey set-up cannot be quite as elegant as it would be if you had it. For example, you must have different hotkeys for Hussars, Uhlans, and Cossacks. For this reason, I suggest when you pick a civilization to play with, you set up the hotkeys specifically for that civ. This generally requires simply changing the stable and barracks unit training hotkeys to mimic the order in which you see the units displayed on-screen.
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