Now that Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is here, fans are starting to once again ask a question that they've been asking since 1999: Which Age of Empires II civilization is the best? Naturally, there's no one "right" answer to this query; the best civilization depends on your playstyle, your map, your available resources, your opponent and a whole host of other factors. Furthermore, AoEII: DE has 35 civilizations from which to choose; the differences between some of them are going to be very, very granular.
Still, while there is no "best" civilization, there might be a best civilization for you, particularly if you're new to the game. Read on to discover which civilizations you'll want to try right away, and which you'll want to save for a challenge.
How do civilizations work?
Like most RTS games, AoEII: DE lets you choose a playable race. Unlike StarCraft, though, where the races are totally asymmetrical, the civilizations in AoEII have more in common than not. They all need the same resources, which they gather with the same buildings and the same technologies. And while unit composition varies by civilization, they all draw upon the same core pool. Almost every race is going to have infantry, archers, cavalry and siege weapons — the difference is in which of these units it favors, and which it can't fully leverage.
For example: the Goths can field excellent infantry, letting you upgrade your simple Militia clubmen all the way up to Champion swordsmen. They can research the Squires technology, which lets infantry move faster, and the Arson technology, which lets infantry deal more damage to buildings. But they can't upgrade their archers or their cavalry all the way. They can't research Hoardings, which makes castles more durable, or construct Siege Rams, which can make short work of an enemy base.
Additionally, every civilization has unique bonuses, units and technologies. Continuing with the Goths, their infantry is 35% cheaper, their villagers are better at hunting boar, and they can support 10 additional population late-game. Their unique unit, the Huskarl, is infantry that can make short work of archers; their unique tech, Perfusion, lets your Barracks churn out infantry twice as fast.
Just by paying a little attention to the tech tree, we already have a good idea of how to play the Goths: train infantry, upgrade infantry and use infantry to destroy buildings. You can access every race's technology tree from the main menu, then do a little legwork to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and how they might play.
(And, yes, you'll have to do this 35 times if you want to examine every race in depth. But hey, you'll get an achievement each time you earn a victory as a new race, so that's somewhat rewarding.)
There's no perfect way to evaluate each civilization, of course; you may lose a match with a race that suits your playstyle, or win with one that doesn't, depending on your opponent and the conditions. For newer players, the campaigns are a good way to learn about half of the playable races, since you'll get at least a few missions and a few hours with each one.
The best Age of Empires II civilization for new players
At the risk of giving a non-answer, there is no "best" civilization for new players, just as there is no "best" civilization overall. Each player is going to approach Age of Empires II a different way. Some are going to seek naval supremacy; some are going to want a balanced army; some are going to want to turtle up and seek economic victory.
Still, some civilizations are more straightforward than others. I'm going to focus on a handful of races that can set up good early defenses, or can lean on a handful of unit types, or don't need to expend too many resources to get off the ground. Bear in mind that any strategies I give a) are not guaranteed to work in every situation and b) will almost definitely not work at higher levels of play.
First off, there's the Celts. The Celts are an infantry civilization whose soldiers have a bonus to movement speed. Their siege weapons fire a little faster; it's easier for them to find and keep sheep, which are an important early-game food source. The Celts are straightforward to play, but more important than that, they're probably the first civilization that first-timers will encounter in the game, through the comprehensive William Wallace Learn to Play campaign. There's something to be said for familiarity.
Here's a somewhat controversial take: I like the Huns for new players. This civilization can create awesome cavalry archers, and their unique Tarkan cavalry are great for hit-and-run attacks against enemy outposts, as Tarkans can demolish buildings with ease. Although the Huns start with a deficit of wood, the trade-off is more than worthwhile: You'll never need to build houses. You start with your population cap at maximum. Some players on Reddit and Steam argue that this builds "bad habits" for new players, and they're not wrong — but there are plenty of other skills to learn without focusing on population growth.
The Byzantines are a fairly conventional choice for new players, and it's easy to see why. Their buildings are more durable right off the bat, and they get Town Watch, a technology that increases line-of-sight early on, for free. Skirmishers, spearmen and camels are cheaper, so it's easy to pump out units to specifically counter whatever kind of early-game rush you might face. I would argue that mastering the Byzantines is more about late-game performance, and the race's "jack-of-all-trades" approach can leave new players a little paralyzed with choice. But if survivability is a concern, the Byzantines are hard to beat.
If you're tired of being harassed by Britons in the first two campaigns, give the race a try yourself. The Britons have one of the very best unique units in the game: the Longbowman. Fully upgraded, an army of Longbowmen can annihilate almost any kind of unit before it even gets close. Protect your base with these archers, and an enemy will have a tough time getting close; attack a base with them, and enemy soldiers will fall just as soon as they appear. Of course, experienced players can rout a Longbowman battalion — but that's true of any army that leans too heavily on one particular unit.
Other good choices include the Teutons, the Franks, the Ethiopians, the Japanese and the Persians.
Here's a good rule of thumb: In the tech tree, just below each civilization's name, you'll see a descriptor of their general playstyle. Try anything that says "Infantry civilization," "Cavalry civilization" or "Archer civilization." If a civilization combines two aspects (the Vikings, for example, are an "Infantry and naval civilization,") save them for later. Or try them out; diving into the deep end is also a perfectly good way to learn.
How to choose
Experienced players don't need me to tell them the best way to learn a new race: play random map games and select "random" when you choose a civilization. Truthfully, the same core principles apply for most races; it's just the units and technologies you'll want to emphasize that differ. You'll always need resources; you'll always need buildings; you'll always need a standing army of some kind. Consider each race's benefits as a bonus rather than a crutch, and you'll be better off in the long run.
In any case, I did promise to take a crack at pinpointing the "best" civilization in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, so here's my take: I like the Spanish, the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols. Cavalry and gunpowder tend to work pretty well for me, and I'd rather field a sophisticated army late-game than try to rush a foe early on. But I've lost about as many games as I've won, so who knows; there might be a better choice out there for me.
Perhaps I'll take my own advice and start going through random maps until I find it.