The Malay are a naval civilization with strong economic bonuses. Their Fish Traps are cheaper than normal and provide unlimited Food. This means that the Malay can save a lot of wood that would otherwise be used on rebuilding Fish Traps, and can instead use it on ships in water maps, and they'll save land space since they do not need to waste space for Farms. The Malay also have a strong navy, only lacking the Heavy Demolition Ship. The Malay also have fully upgradable Arbalesters and Elite Skirmishers, as well as fully upgradable Halberdiers. Their unique unit, the Karambit Warrior, serves as a cheap, fast cannon fodder to protect the more fragile units, and takes only half the population space. They also have a reasonable naval defense, with the Harbor unique building and having Bombard Towers and Keeps, and only lacking Arrowslits, Fortified Walls, and Architecture. Their Militia-line infantry will cost no gold once Forced Levy is researched, allowing the Malay to excel in trash wars should gold run out, and the Two-Handed Swordsman upgrade is sufficient enough to deal with other trash units. Their Monk line is also solid, having every Monk upgrade except for Theocracy and Fervor, and is the only Southeast Asian civilization to have the Heresy upgrade, making their Battle Elephants a much less risky option against Monk-centric civilizations such as the Aztecs compared to their northern neighbors. They also have a reasonable siege line, only lacking the Siege Onager and Siege Ram. Finally, the Malay can advance through the ages early with the faster age advancement time, meaning they can reach to the next age before other players can.
While the Malay have a strong navy and Fish Trap economic bonuses, their land unit options are very limited. They do not have access to Hand Cannoneers or the Heavy Cavalry Archer upgrade, leaving the Arbalesters their only reliable anti-infantry counter. Their cavalry is noted to be among the worst in the game, as they not only lack Bloodlines, but also Chain Barding Armor and Plate Barding Armor as well as the Hussar and Paladin upgrades. This makes their cavalry and Battle Elephants less reliable late game, since they will end up as paper mache to arrow fire from archers, towers, and castles. To make up for their weaker cavalry, the Malay have cheaper Battle Elephants, putting emphasis on numerical superiority over quality. However, the cheaper Battle Elephants should be primarily used as a means of applying early game pressure thanks to their faster Age advancement bonus and the Malay should transition to their late game strength of trash spamming.
While the Malay have a powerful Forced Levy upgrade, they lack the Champion upgrade. This means the Malay's infantry will be incredibly weak lategame, even when the Forced Levy upgrade is put into consideration.
The Malay is a unique naval civilization where the economic bonuses focus on Fish Traps over naval warships. While it doesn't seem much, since Food isn't the most important resource in water maps, having cheaper Fish Traps as well as having Fish Trap provide unlimited food is considered to be more of a wood bonus instead, as a lot of wood can be saved for warships. Because of the Malay's strong Fish Trap bonuses, the Malay can simply skip out on building Farms or researching any Farm upgrades in water maps, have most of the Food economy on fish and Fish Traps, and simply retask the villagers focusing on gold and wood instead. That being said, Fishing Traps are far more vulnerable to enemy sea raids than Villagers, so protection of Fishing Ships should be a high priority. Luckily, the Malay Harbors can help protect the Fishing Ships and Fish Traps from raids. The player can also build Harbors near enemy Docks and islands to deny their Docks the ability to build any ships as well as securing control in key areas and objectives. The extra line of sight of Malay's Docks and Harbors makes it easier for Malay to find nearby Fish earlier as well as warn incoming enemy raids.
The Malay Fish Trap bonus also have good synergy with their infantry line, with their Militia line only costing Food once Forced Levy is researched. This will allow the Malay to infinitely spam Two-Handed Swordsmen combined with the infinite food from Fish Traps. Players should consider building Barracks along with Harbors within the enemy's island to add extra pressure in water maps. This combo can be even useful on maps with small ponds or rivers if a Malay player can use them for creating their unlimited fish traps.
On land maps, the Malay are played similarly as the Vikings, as they need to use the faster Age advancement bonus to get an early game advantage over their opponent. Otherwise, their late game will fall off, since their army composition is incredibly limited. That being said, in situations where gold runs low, Two-Handed Swordsmen with Forced Levy should suffice. The Malay should never attempt to build any cavalry units (except battle elephants) or go for a Knight rush since their cavalry is incredibly weak, lacking Bloodlines and two important armor techs for their cavalry. If the Malay needs to build any cavalry unit, they should take advantage of the cheaper Battle Elephants, as even without the armor techs and Bloodlines, a Battle Elephant in the Castle Age is far more threatening than their weaker Knights. Malay players can even consider performing a Battle Elephant rush, but supported by infantry, as their Battle Elephants are cheaper (Malay Battle Elephants cost only 84 food and 49 gold, in comparison a regular knight costs 60 food 75 gold, so in gold terms, Malay Battle Elephants are noticeably cheaper than Knights, while having also better attack and more hit points but lacking speed).
Their unique unit, the Karambit Warrior, is incredibly cheap, only occupy half population space, and is created fairly quickly, but is also very weak. this unit is useful as cannon fodder, especially in large groups, and may be treated as a " trash unit", even when they cost 25 food and 15 gold. Karambit warriors are also helpful for Castle drops. The advantage of the Karambit warrior is more noticeable in games with higher population limits, since if the player has 100 population space, it can turn that population in 200 karambit warriors.
Those who enjoy playing as the Vikings on both water and land maps can easily pick up playing as the Malay, as their tech tree and civilization bonuses are relatively similar. The Malay Battle Elephant rush strategy is very comparable to the Viking Knight rush strategy, since both civilizations have suboptimal cavalry rushes when compared to other civilizations (in the case with the Malays, the Khmer Battle Elephant rush outclasses the Malay's), but viable due to their strong early game economic bonuses.
The Malay received a significant amount of nerfs in the Definitive Edition. Their Elite Battle Elephants are much weaker now, since their base attack is reduced from 16 to 14. This nerf matters little, since their Battle Elephants are already weak and the Malay often transition into trash wars with their Two-Handed Swordsman. In regards to their trash Two-Handed Swordsmen, Forced Levy now replaces gold cost with additional food cost, which is meant to balance their access to the Supplies tech. With both Forced Levy and Supplies researched, the Malay Militia line units cost 65 food, which is 5 more food when compared to the HD version.
Their naval defenses are also weaker with Harbors, as Harbors now gain a minimum range and are affected by Murder Holes. In addition, the Harbor's naval attack is reduced from 6 to 3, making Harbors significantly weaker against land units. On the other hand, the Harbor's attack is increased to 10 vs. ships, making Harbors still viable against naval units.
With update 39284, their Battle Elephants were weakened further with the trample damage reduced to 25%, but their cheaper price still makes them viable in the late game. In addition, the food cost of the Karambit Warrior was reduced to 25 food, which greatly improves their spamming capabilities.
While the Malay team bonus may seem useless on paper, it helps allies to find nearby fish faster, and to see earlier an overcoming navy. The Malay have several good teammates that can make good use of the increased vision of Docks. Allying with the Japanese allow the Malay Galleys to scout better in water maps (as well as the Japanese benefiting from the increased Dock vision that would allow them to secure fish control thanks to their Fishing Ship bonuses). Having a Viking teammate would be incredibly useful, as the Malay only save a lot of wood for their infinite Fish Traps, their Harbors will cost even less, saving even more wood and allow more coastal defenses. The Dock bonus is also very helpful for Italians.
Malay Harbors are very useful in team games on water maps, as the trade routes to the Malay player will be slightly better defended, and in some cases they may be used as walls for an allied island with the plus of the attack.
That is being said, the Malays also have valuable teammates when it comes to land maps. A Goth ally will make Two-Handed Swordsmen spamming more viable in conjunction with Forced Levy tech. A Berber ally is also relatively useful, as they will not only increase the creation speed of the Karambit Warrior, but also give the Malays Genitours, adding more power to the Malay's trash unit line, in conjunction with the Two-Handed Swordsmen that cost only food (although it should be noted that the Malay Genitours will be weaker since they don't get Bloodlines). An Italian ally would also be useful for the Malay, noting that the Malay do not have the Champion upgrade and the Condottiero can serve as a viable infantry unit alternative to their Two-Handed Swordsmen (as well as giving the Malay some anti-gunpowder capacity). If the Malays wish to use their fragile, but cheap Battle Elephants(with Heresy upgrade), the Huns would make a great ally thanks to the boosted workrate for the Stables (plus supporting Paladins), Vietnamese are also a good ally for them, as the Imperial Skirmisher will give the team an edge in "trash wars", while at the same time the Vietnamese can give their Malay teammates the initial locations of the enemy team, and give them 500 gold with the Paper Money technology.
The Malay's unique gimmick is their infantry focus on "quantity over quality" and out-attrition of their opponent in the late-game, when gold runs low. The Malay do not have access to the Champion upgrade, but is compensated with the Forced Levy tech where the Militia-line do not cost gold. Their unique unit, the Karambit Warrior, is comparable to Zerglings in the Starcraft games where they have incredibly low stats, but can be produced en masse thanks to their fast creation time, their cheap cost, and their high mobility (as well as Karambits only taking up half population space), and can serve as powerful raiding units. Even civilizations with strong foot archers (such as the Britons and the Vietnamese) may struggle to micro their archers against swarms of Karambit Warriors, thanks to their high mobility and attacking in large numbers. Combined with their "trash" Two-Handed Swordsman, this makes Malay one of the best civilizations in "trash wars", especially against civilizations with poor trash lines such as the Turks.
Thanks to their cheaper Fish Traps and their Fish Traps providing unlimited food, the Malay can save more wood for their warships and have their Villagers gather wood and gold instead of food from Farms. This gives the Malay a significant advantage on water maps, especially against civilizations with weaker navies, such as the Mongols and Huns. Thanks to their access to the Harbor as a defensive structure, Malay Fishing Ships are less vulnerable to Castle Age raids, even against naval civilizations with strong raiding potential, such as the Vikings.
Being a civilization with strong early-game economic bonus of faster Age advancement time, this makes Malay an incredibly strong rushing civilization that can apply early-game aggression and pressure and can fare well in open maps such as Arabia. This in turn makes the Malay incredibly strong against civilizations that are vulnerable to early aggression, such as the Vietnamese, Portuguese, Saracens, and Turks.
Much like the Vikings, the Malay have complete upgrades for their foot archers. As such, they have an advantage against other infantry civilizations, as their infantry can shield their archers that should attack from behind them.
Thanks to their cheaper Battle Elephants, the Malay are one of the few civilizations that can preform a Battle Elephant rush (the other is the Khmer with their faster movement speed with their Battle Elephants). This makes the Malay incredibly threatening in the early Castle Age, as even when they Malay don't have access to other important technologies for their Battle Elephants, their Battle Elephant themselves are incredibly threatening in the early Castle Age, especially for unprepared opponents with weak early-game.
Despite Karambit Warriors being incredibly strong raiding units and their ability to overwhelm their opponents in large numbers, they are incredibly frail units with low attack and defense. This in turn makes them incredibly vulnerable to civilizations that have access to strong cavalry and infantry units. Any unique infantry unit (especially Jaguar Warriors, Teutonic Knights, Samurai, and even Huskarls and Shotel Warriors) can easily dispose of any Karambit Warrior that comes into the field. Civilizations with strong defensive structures (such as the Byzantines, Koreans, and the Chinese) can make it hard for Karambit Warriors to raid. Likewise, units that deal bonus damage against infantry (such as Byzantine Cataphracts, Incan Slingers, and Hand Cannoners) can easily deal with Karambit Warrior swarms. More specifically, the best way to deal with Karambit Warrior swarms are units with strong trample damage, such as the aforementioned Byzantine Cataphracts with Logistica, Slavic infantry with Druzhina, Persian War Elephants, and Battle Elephants. Slavic Boyars and Bulgarian Two-handed Swordsmen are also a huge threat to Karambit Warriors due to their melee armor. Other heavy cavalry units, like the Bulgarian Konnik, the Lithuanian Leitis, and the Tatar Keshik, are very dangerous to Karambit Warriors.
While their Battle Elephant rush is incredibly strong, their cavalry is considered to be the worst in the game, as the Malay are missing a lot of key technologies for their cavalry units (such as Bloodlines, both the Castle Age and Imperial Age armor, and the Hussar and Paladin units). Unlike the other Southeast Asian civilizations, Monks are less effective against the Malay Battle Elephants, as the Malay have access to Heresy. As such, the best counter to their Battle Elephants are civilizations with access to strong Halberdiers (such as Goths, Burmese, Japanese, Slavs, Byzantines, and Celts) or civilizations that have access to strong Camels (such as the Indians, Berbers, Malians, and Saracens).
Civilizations with strong cavalry archers (such as the Cumans, Mongols, Huns, Magyars, and Turks) have an advantage over the Malay Battle Elephants, due to the Battle Elephant's natural low mobility and the lack of Castle and Imperial Age pierce armor, as they can effectively hit-and-run their Battle Elephants. Similarly the Italian Genoese Crossbowman is an incredibly strong unit against the Malay Battle Elephant. In the same way, the Lithuanian Leitis is a very devasting unit against them, thanks to their attack that ignores armor, and the Malay Battle Elephant lacks two armor upgrades.
Alternatively, other Southeast Asian civilizations have better Battle Elephants than the Malay's Battle Elephants in the late-game, and the Persian War Elephants are still superior to them.
While the Malay have incredibly strong naval bonuses, none of their naval bonuses directly affect their warships, nor do they have a unique unit warship. As such, civilizations with inherently stronger naval bonuses (such as the Portuguese, Saracens, Koreans, and Vikings) will have a significant advantage over the Malay navy late-game.
Despite Forced Levy effectively making their Two-Handed Swordsman "trash units", they Malay lack the Champion upgrade, putting the Malay in a significant disadvantage against civilizations with stronger infantry units such as the Japanese, Slavs, Burmese, Celts, and the Teutons. Similarly, civilizations with strong Hand Cannoneers (such as the Italians, Turks, Portuguese, and Spanish) can decimate their Two-Handed Swordsmen in a similar vein with the Karambit Warrior.
While their Harbor discourages any form of naval raiding and is a strong defensive structure, the Malay's defenses are average at best (they lack Fortified Walls, Arrowslits, and Architecture), and their siege weaponry is considered to be average (the only significant siege weapons the Malay have are Heavy Scorpions, Bombard Cannons, and Trebuchets). Civilizations with inherently strong siege weapons (such as the Ethiopians, Celts, and Mongols) can decimate their siege line and their defensive structures.
Despite the fact that they have complete Arbalest and Skirmisher upgrades, they don't have any archer-specific bonuses, so their archery line can be easily overturned by civilizations with either better archers, good Skirmishers, good Onagers, or a specific anti-archer unit. These include Mayans, Britons, Goths (with their Huskarls), Vietnamese and Ethiopians (this for good Onagers and better archers) and Celts (for their Onagers).
Despite the Malay's focus on "out-attrition" of their opponent, there are three civilization that are considered the biggest rivals to the Malay in the late-game:
The Magyars have access to the Magyar Huszar, which is an inherently strong trash unit that can easily match the Malay's Two-Handed Swordsman trash unit and have a trash line that is as strong (if not better) as the Malay's trash line.
The Goths' infantry army counters the Malay's land army perfectly; their cheaper and fast-producing Champions can easily take out the Malay Two-Handed Swordsmen, Karambit Warriors, and Halberdiers; the Goths' Huskarls can decimate the Malay's archers and skirmishers; and the Goths' fast producing and cheaper Halberdiers can make quick work of the Malay's already frail Battle Elephants.
In the Definitive Edition, the Persians are considered to be one of the biggest rivals to the Malay in trash wars due to Kamandaran, which makes their Crossbowmen trash units. Since the Persians can research Kamandaran in the Castle Age, this allows the Persians to enter trash wars much sooner than the Malay, and the Crossbowmen are still strong enough to take down Malay Two-Handed Swordsmen (although the player should watch out for Elite Skirmishers, since the Persians do not have Bracer for their own Elite Skirmishers). In addition, the Persians' trash units can be backed with their gold-efficient late-game units such as War Elephants and Paladins, since the Malay don't have many gold-efficient late-game units.
While the Malay are incredibly strong in the early game, their late game army composition in the Imperial Age is very limited on land maps. As such, civilizations with well-rounded and diverse tech trees (such as the Chinese, Byzantines, and Malians) have a significant advantage over the Malay in the late game.
While the Malay are incredibly strong in both land and water maps, their civilization bonuses are best used in amphibious maps such as Bog Islands, or maps with mixture of both land and Water (such as Salt Marsh, Mediterranean, or Baltic) since the Malay can effectively use their unlimited Food supply of Fish Traps and the Malay trash Two-Handed Swordsman with the fullest effect.
In Regicide games, the Malay have an advantage since all players start out with a Castle, allowing them to immediately produce Karambit Warriors for both offensive and defensive plays.
The Malay are incredibly strong in Deathmatch scenarios, as starting with large amount of resources allow the Malay to swarm out their Two-Handed Swordsmen and Karambit Warriors easily (especially when the match starts in the Imperial Age).
The Malay are incredibly strong in 1v1 matches due to their strong early game economic bonuses and their strong trash war potential when gold runs out.
Regarding the population quirk their Karambit Warriors have, it is usually more advantageous to swarm this unit in higher population settings. For example, if playing with a population cap of 500, the player may use 200 population for spamming 400 Karambits (that can easily overwhelm most armies in larger battles). The higher the population space, the more they can get out of their Karambits.
The Malay age up faster, which can be a huge advantage in "sudden death" mode, since players are limited to 1 Town Center, and aging up faster means that the Town Center will spend more time producing villagers than other players.