In Forge of Empires, great Buildings are definitely better and more interesting than regular buildings. In effect, they are like large Premium buildings (often much better!), which makes sense given that many were at least partially bought with diamonds, and/or require a LOT of investment to complete. On reviewing their benefits, it is clear that some ARE better than others. It's difficult to figure out exactly how much though, and whether the difference is fair or not. In part, this is because the initial resource costs of GBs go up significantly – by nearly a factor of 3 for each age. (A Tower of Babel, for example, costs the equivalent of 3000 coins and 3000 supplies to produce the 150 Bronze Age goods needed. Building the Deal Castle though, requires Colonial Age goods that would require 800,000 each in supplies and coins to produce. So is the Deal Castle 267 times better than the Tower? Probably not). Likewise, the space needed is also a big factor. The Lighthouse, for example, produces 12% less goods than St Marks. However, it uses less than half as much space (4×4=16 vs 6×6=36 squares). Further complications are that each GB has different combinations of benefits, and some benefits are worth more in different ages (or when boosting better buildings). For the purposes of the latter issue, I made a table where I estimated the output value of GBs in the Early, High and Late Middle Ages, with an assumed standard set of houses and supply production buildings. (Reality will be different of course, but it is a useful gauge/estimate).
To summarize though, GBs are nearly always worthwhile building, and GBs of later ages tend to be a BIT better than those of earlier ages, to offset their significantly higher costs. If faced with a choice, you should normally build the highest level GB for which you can afford the space and goods construction costs. Exception: both the Bronze and Colonial age GBs can be marginal – check if you really need them for your type of game. Personally, I recommend the Lighthouse and the Hagia Sophia as two of the best GBs in the game (so far, at least).
Tabular summary of Great Building benefits, at different levels of the Middle Ages
COG = "Cost of Goods" – Total of both supplies and coins (same number of each) needed to pay for the goods required build the GB. For example, a Bronze age GB costs 150 bronze age goods, which cost 3000 cash and 3000 supplies to produce.
"c" normally refers to coins produced or provided by the GB
"s" normally refers to extra supplies produced by the GB
"G" refers to random goods (of the current age) produced by the GB. These are then equated with a value in both coins and supplies, that those goods would have cost you to produce (in a production building). e.g. 5 High Middle Age goods can be produced for 800coins and 800supplies, so would be shown as 5G => 800*
Analysis of individual Great Buildings
Statue of Zeus: Mostly decorative (ok for PvP).
The Statue gives a unit attack/defence bonus when attacking. Although this is somewhat helpful to all players for conquest of map sectors (and hence saves on some goods), it is particularly helpful to players later interested in PvP contests and medals, so has enduring value. (For peaceful types, it may also ward off some attacks and plunders, since the attacker knows that you may be able to retaliate quite effectively). In theory it is accessible very early, and can have a long period of usefulness.
The Statue is interesting both because it is the smallest GB (2×3, only 6 spaces!), and the only one with only a single benefit. Since some other later GBs give the same benefit, this is very useful for comparison purposes. It is still hard to figure out the real value of the Statue, but at a guess, I'd think it should give a 5% improvement in your weekly medal rewards, and some goods saved. These are at minimum sufficient to pay back the cost of the space and goods required to build it. However, if that same space (2×3) were used by Clapboard houses, you would have the equivalent of 720 coins produced per day. That's about the value of one Late Middle Ages good per day, or about one expansion space every 4 weeks. I suspect that the Statue can't really achieve that real value level, so it's mostly a decorative / vanity addition to your city, and helpful to those who really enjoy the PvP battles, or want to use those battles to improve their overall game score. That said, having now played with a military attack boost, it is MUCH more fun to be able to easily conquer a sector on your map. The Statue (and Cathedral etc.) do encourage more militaristic play, if you can get them up a few levels.
Tower of Babel: Weak.
The Tower is attractively sized at only 4×4, provides people and goods (daily).
The daily goods production is a bit less than that from the Lighthouse, and the Dresden Frauenkirche. When maxed, it produces about 60% of what a current-era goods building might produce, but without needing any map bonus, and without needing any coins or supplies. This means that the value of the output doubles with each age, as the equivalent coin/supply costs would double to produce those goods in a regular building. (This works out to about 4800 coins and supplies daily in Late Middle Ages, so handily beats the Clapboard-house equivalency test used re the Statue). It's not as good in earlier ages though, and is of dubious value in the Iron Age or earlier. If you have one of these, you'll want to spend your forge points to advance to later ages as rapidly as possible.
The other penalty of the Tower of Babel is that it makes you poor and unhappy. That is, it gives you people, without any corresponding income. When maxed, it gives you 1140 people, which is more than 5 LMA Apartment houses, but without the corresponding >5000 coins per day. Worse yet, the extra people require happiness, so you may lose out on the happiness productivity bonus unless you build a few Public Baths or something. That 4×4 small size is suddenly more like an 8×8 monster.
Bottom line, a maxed Tower is bad news early on, and only really beneficial in the Late Middle Ages or later – unless you have another GB or two to cover the increased need for happiness and income (e.g. Colosseum and Cathedral of Aachen).
Lighthouse of Alexandria: Excellent (for peaceful/traders)
The Lighthouse is also an easy 4×4 building, boosts your supplies output, and provides goods. It improves as you progress.
The daily Goods output of the Lighthouse is similar to, but slightly better than that of the Tower, or about 6080 (coins +supplies) equivalent every day (in LMA). You'll still want to have some goods production buildings, but the Lighthouse definitely makes life easier. Again, you'll want to advance to the next age as rapidly as possible, to get the maximum benefit.
The other benefit is to boost your supply buildings (by up to 145%). You'll want to have 10 supply production buildings, collected 4 times per day, or some similar arrangement. The supplies boost is very good (more than 27,000 supplies per day, when you have some farms), and actually exceeds the benefits of the Goods side. With all those supplies, you'll be able to upgrade your houses fairly easily.
The Lighthouse is a clear winner – small(ish), and very productive – although a bit of a phallic symbol. The Goods output is primarily of interest to more peaceful players, and people wishing to buy provinces, rather than those trying to use military for everything. And if you happen to reach the end of the tech tree or take the last sector of your map, the Lighthouse might not be very useful anymore – but you'll have had good value in the meantime.
Colosseum: Very Good
The Colosseum is large (6×7=42 squares), but provides happiness and some medals.
A fully maxed Colosseum provides 4000 happiness and 32 medals per day (big increase in update 0.26). The happiness is almost as much as 8 Churches, while using half the space. (It's also more happiness than four premium Printers, for the same space, i.e. 1800 diamonds or so). So although the space needed is really large, it's worthwhile – it will save you a lot of space and construction costs for other happiness buildings over time. (I have often found a need to build several of the latest age happy buildings, e.g. multiple Arches, or markets, only to tear them down again later on when something else more space-effective is available. This cost can be avoided, if you have a maxed Colosseum).
The medal benefit is harder to calculate, but at nearly 1000 medals/month, is probably worth 5 city Victory expansions over time (10 months), that a peaceful (non PvP player) would never see. Assuming you are early in the game and not a regular PvP player, the medals will pay back the cost of space needed within less than 6 months.
So, the Colosseum is good, if you are early in the game and can use a happiness GB. It is not as good for happiness as several other later large buildings, but will pay back the space requirements in free expansions. Choosing between GBs is now much tougher after the 0.26 update. If you can't afford enough space in your city to have two large GBs, I still slightly prefer the Notre Dame or Hagia Sophia happiness GBs over the Colosseum, but if you get a full set of Colosseum blueprints first, then build it for sure. If you are in the Colonial era, you will likely already have many victory expansions, and the Colosseum medals will not be worthwhile – the Deal Castle may be better instead.
Hagia Sophia: Excellent
The Hagia Sophia is also large (7×6=42 squares), providing happiness and forge points.
At 6400 Happiness, a maxed Hagia Sophia makes the Colosseum look puny. That's the equivalent of 12.3 Churches, or 4.3 (LMA premium) Palaces, but in much less space of course. So like the Colosseum, the space needed to build this GB is well worthwhile. That is, it saves you both space AND multiple happiness building costs. (Read the Castel del Monte section for another interesting comparison).
The daily 6 forge points benefit is harder to quantify. Research-wise, you simply end up being held up by unlock costs of technologies. So the main benefit of those forge points is in donation races when contributing to other Great Buildings – it will be significantly easier for you to win first place to get more blueprints and medals that way. Quite simply, the Hagia Sophia allows you to get more GBs (and allows you to get them levelled up faster too). For the altruistic team players, it also allows getting level 0 GBs of other players into production faster, which will be more of a challenge over time.
Bottom line: strongly recommended, and 50% better than the Colosseum, if you have a choice.
Cathedral of Aachen: Very good
The Cathedral is moderately sized (4×6=24 squares), providing coins and a military unit boost when attacking.
The unit bonus when attacking (+50% when maxed) is the same as the Statue (and stacks), so the Cathedral could be considered as being part Statue, and part (24-6=18 squares) income generator. The daily income provided jumps significantly after level 7, and is rather nice when maxed (12640 coins since update 0.26), but does not improve further over time. The Cathedral is effectively providing the same income as about 12 Apartment houses, while using the same space as 4.5 (or 6 really, plus the military bonus as a freebie). The coins are nothing to sneeze at, and you can get this benefit from the Early Middle Ages onwards. That said, by the Colonial age, the Lighthouse is effectively providing over 12,000 coins and 39,000 supplies daily, in less space. There's a lot to be said for GBs where the output benefit improves as you progress through the ages. (By the way, the Cathedral is a very helpful addition to your city if you have a Tower of Babel.)
Bottom line: get it – it pays for itself and is not too hard to fit in. Pretty, too. And it helps everyone. Strictly speaking, it's a lot better than the Statue of Zeus, because at low levels, there is very little benefit from the attack strength bonus (on either GB), but the Cathedral still gives you some coins. (You will want to get the Cathedral up to at least level 6 though, before it will be paying more than the land cost).
St Mark's Basilica: Excellent (peaceful/traders)
St Mark's is large (6×6), provides a better daily Goods output than the Lighthouse, and boosts coin production.
The Goods output (25 goods per day) produces about the same amount as a single regular production building, but without the costs (7680 coins+ supplies each per day, in LMA). Again, it's better at higher ages, so you want to advance to the Colonial era or later as soon as possible.
Where St Mark's shines is in the coin boost ability. Assuming only 20 town houses (probably in LMA or later), a maxed St Mark's will be boosting your income by 34,000 coins per day (and more in the Colonial era, or if you upgrade to better houses). This is can unlock nearly one city expansion per day, which is astounding! (You may soon run out of expansion spaces, unfortunately).
Bottom line: definitely worth while, and will quickly pay for itself. Interestingly, the Goods output of St Mark's is only somewhat (15%?) better than that of the Lighthouse, while needing twice as much space, and having a greater initial goods cost. So the Lighthouse is better for it's size – but the coin boost of St Marks is so huge that it makes up for the larger size. I'd really rather have both GBs if I could, as a peaceful player. It might not appeal as much to aggressive PvP players though.
Notre Dame: very good
Notre Dame is moderately sized (4×6=24 squares), providing happiness and also supplies.
When fully maxed, it provides 7240 supplies daily. This is nice, but pretty weak compared to the supply boost benefit of the Lighthouse, or even to the goods production GBs' output.
The other benefit of Notre Dame is to provide lots of happiness (3900 when maxed). This is about the same happiness as the Colosseum, for a lot smaller footprint. (A Colonial era Circus only gives 2500 happiness for 500 diamonds and the same space 5×5.) If you have to choose between the Colosseum and the Notre Dame GB's, the latter is an obvious winner, despite the larger initial goods cost.
Bottom line: yes, take it for the happiness (the supplies are just a bonus). It's not as powerful as some other GBs, but this is offset by the smaller footprint.
Saint Basil's Cathedral: Good
St Basil's is moderately sized (5×5=25 squares), providing a defence boost, and coins.
The (maxed) daily output of 19750 coins (much less than the pre 0.26 output) is weaker than that from St Mark's (which is a larger GB), but much better than the Cathedral of Aachen (same size, but earlier age).
The other benefit is a defence boost (100% when maxed). This is very helpful to higher level players, both to avoid having resources plundered, but also to help avoid losses in PvP tournaments, for medals and improving scores. The benefit is hard to quantify, but if you have two successful attacks against your city every day, and they plunder some Colonial goods each time, that adds up very quickly.
Bottom line: take it for the coin production, or if you are in an aggressive neighbourhood. It's a bit expensive for what it does, but still worthwhile. And it's pretty colorful!
Castel del Monte: underwhelming (ok for PvP)
The Castel is moderately sized (5×5=25 squares), providing an attack boost, and forge points.
The attack boost is the same as that for the Statue of Zeus (+50% when maxed), and stacks. PvP players are going to want to get a full set of this GB, the Statue, and the Cathedral of Aachen.
Unfortunately the other benefit of this GB is to provide forge points, at the same rate as the Hagia Sophia (+6 each day). Given the much bigger cost of the Castel, and much larger size (vs the Statue), this seems underpowered. Subtracting the Statue's space (for same benefits), it seems that 19 squares of the Castel are used for the forge point production, which means that the Hagia is producing 6400 happiness from 23 squares (vs only 3900 happiness for the Notre Dame's 24 squares). Anyway, the Castel could have been better. The forge points may still be very helpful to progress through the enormously long Colonial age technology tree, or the upcoming age of Industry.
Bottom line: get it if you are a PvP player, wealthy, or just collect GBs. Otherwise, go for other GBs first.
Deal Castle: Ok
Deal Castle is huge (7×7=49 squares), providing a defence boost, and medals.
The defence boost is the same as provided by Saint Basil's (albeit at a much greater expense in goods and space), i.e. +100% when maxed.
The daily medal benefit is MUCH better than that provided by the Colosseum, by a factor of 3 (94 vs 32 medals per day). Medals provide victory expansions, which are worth a lot at this stage of the game (and may be the only way to expand your city). I'm not sure that it's really worth this size of building, but at least it will eventually pay for the space that it uses. The Deal Castle medals work out to more than what you can get from all the PvP competitions each week, or about 2820 medals per month, or about one expansion every month or two, depending on how many victory expansions you have already taken. At this rate though, it will take a few months to pay back the cost of the space needed to build it – assuming you can get it up to level 10. And the medal value is less if you have already been getting expansions from an iron age Colosseum.
Bottom line: a bit overpriced. Don't kill yourself to try get this one early (before the colonial era), but it's ok if you can afford it. Both PvP and peaceful players will like the defense benefit, while the medal benefit is more helpful to peaceful/trader players. It is an amazingly pretty castle though.
Dresden Frauenkirche: Very Good
The Fauenkirche is moderately sized (5×5=25 squares), providing happiness, and goods.
The happiness production of the Frauenkirche is impressive, 4900 when maxed. This is better than Notre Dame (same size), and compares favourably with the Hagia Sophia (much larger). It's worthwhile for this alone.
The second benefit is to provide up to 17 random goods daily. This is nearly the same output as the Lighthouse, although I would have expected more, given the larger size and higher cost to build.
Bottom line: build this one for the happiness benefit alone. The goods production is just gravy.
Update: Note that the original analysis was made before the 0.26 update announcement on Feb 5, 2013, and some comments have been modified or updated since then. Several GBs were rebalanced or nerfed in happiness, medals and goods production. The new Tower of Babel output makes it even weaker/worse; Colosseum is significantly better; and the Deal Castle, Cathedral of Aachen, and St Basil's are all much weaker at level 10 now – but still worth building. Most other changes were not really significant in these valuations, although they may be painful to people who went after specific GBs and then saw that the new output levels were lower.
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