Classifying the Total War games

Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.

There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope.  This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:

Classifying the Total War games by scope and structure. Source: Author

Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.

The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.

The categories

I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:

  1. Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
  2. Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
  3. Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
  4. Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
  5. Warhammer II: still deciding… Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.

My favourites

My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.

… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.

The future of Total War

I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode II: Havoc on the High Seas, Losses in the Low Countries

When we left off with the first instalment of the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign, Great Britain had held off the French at sea, while on land, the Dutch had driven a mighty French invasion force out of their homeland. What could possibly go wrong for Great Britain? (Wondering what this series of writeups is all about? Here’s the introduction.)

 

Read my  writeup, below, to find out…

 

***

 

The War of the World

 

At the start of the game, I had sent Britain’s shipyards into overdrive producing warships and merchantmen, and that pays off. With the defeat of the French fleet at the end of the first turn, this leaves the Royal Navy – and accompanying British ground forces – free to go on the global offensive, ready to make the world safe for tea, cricket and British trade.

 

Britain's targets in its initial Caribbean offensive

 

Britannia’s might lands most heavily in the Caribbean. The pirates, in their lairs at Antigua in the Leeward Islands and San Jose de Oruna in Trinidad & Tobago, learn that His Majesty’s soldiers do not know the meaning of the word “parley”. The undefended Spanish – formerly French – colony of Martinique surrenders without a shot.

 

To be sure, the Spanish computer player ensures that the naval campaign is not a one-sided affair. The Royal Navy takes its fair share of losses in a series of largely auto-resolved skirmishes in the Caribbean and in the East Indies. But when the smoke clears, the Spanish navy has been driven from the East Indies, leaving British trade fleets free to move in.

 

What’s Spanish for “‘tis only a flesh wound”? The Battle of the Invincible Frigate

 

When the Spanish fleet finally shows up in force in the Caribbean, my luck looks like it’s run out. Against my fifth-rate frigate and sloop, the Spanish have brought a frigate and sloop of their own, plus a galleon that tremendously outguns anything else on the field. My first response is to panic. And then, once the battle starts, I breathe a sigh of relief: the Spanish ships are damaged and missing most of their guns. It’s still not a done deal – even in its weakened state, the galleon is able to blow away my sloop when it strays too close.  Still, the frigate duel is as one-sided as I could have wished. I shoot away the Spanish frigate’s masts, destroy many of its remaining guns, leave its hull blackened and punctured. Yet the crew neither flees nor surrenders in the face of volley after volley of cannon fire. And, to add insult to injury, their morale remains high even as the ship rides lower and lower in the water.

 

The Ship of the Black Knights?

 

I am left wondering, over the in-game chat, what the Spanish sailors are eating for breakfast. It takes the outbreak of fire for the crew to abandon ship, by which time I am convinced that if they had been around 120 years earlier to man the Spanish Armada, history would have taken a very different course.

 

Disaster in the Low Countries (I): Never rely on a computer-controlled ally

 

Back in Europe, though, things don’t go quite as smoothly. When we left off, the French had been repelled at the gates of Amsterdam and John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, was leading a mid-sized force into what is today Belgium. The small Spanish garrison in Brussels falls quickly, and I turn the territory over to the Dutch. I feel well pleased with my raid! While my army doesn’t have the movement points to make it back to the sea on the same turn, I am able to withdraw my army so that it’s close by a friendly, smallish Dutch force. What could possibly go wrong?

 

As it turns out, plenty. The French army – numerically superior, even after its defeat at the walls of Amsterdam – moves in to attack Marlborough. The Dutch computer player, instead of taking up a good defensive position, charges out into the open field, and I follow suit, fearing the piecemeal annihilation of the allied armies. My infantry-short army lacks the numbers to shoot it out with the French, and I botch the timing of a cavalry charge at the French flank. When the dust settles, the British army in Europe is reduced to Churchill, a single artillery battery, and a handful of horsemen who escaped the rout. In an eighteenth-century version of Dunkirk, they slink back across the channel, and with them goes any thought of a quick land victory in Europe for Great Britain.

 

That did not go according to plan

 

Disaster in the Low Countries (II): Le Roi, Jeeeenkins!

 

Still, when the French army follows up on its victory by marching into the Netherlands and laying siege to Amsterdam for the second time, I am less than fazed. True, the Dutch are outgunned – the professional garrison is small, so most of the defenders consist of hastily armed townsfolk.  But as the first battle of Amsterdam showed, even armed civilians can put up a good fight from within the fortresses protecting the city.   “No problem,” I shrug. “I held off the French once, I can do it again.”

 

The turn ends. And the Dutch AI player abandons the shelter of its walls to attack the French.

 

The ill-fated Dutch sally

 

The resulting battle, trained and experienced French soldiers versus the Amsterdam mob on an open field, goes predictably. The best thing about the fight turns out to be a bout of unintentional comedy, when one Dutch regiment, retreating from the massacre, climbs the walls of its own fort to get back inside after the gates refuse to open.

 

Amsterdam falls soon after. And with that, Britain’s strongest ally is now out of the war. (Portugal remains in the fight, but is too far away to threaten France.) With the French in force across the channel – over the coming turns, they march out of Amsterdam and briefly lose control of the city, but retake it soon afterwards – and a mighty Spanish fleet of galleons crawling up towards the English Channel, I’m getting nervous. For all my successes overseas, the European theatre isn’t looking too good for the British Empire…

 

Unfortunately, at this point, we had to switch French players, as PC issues forced Peter Davies, our original France, to drop out of the game.  Stay tuned for the next update!

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode I: The War Begins (France)

The following post, by Peter Davies (aka Beefeater1980), playing France, is the belated first instalment in the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign write up! Click here to see what it’s all about.

 

In this episode, Britain and France go to war on the high seas and in the Low Countries. Will one side score a knockout blow early on? Or will the war turn into an early stalemate?

 

Over to PD…

 

***

 

Here they come (Crick! Crack! Bang!), those red-coated, black-booted, musket-toting minions of a mercantile empire, flags waving and cannons bristling. In ETW, Britain has advantages to make a royal weep and hang up his ius primae nocti: unassailable home regions in Europe that can each churn out a land unit or several every turn; high-value ports, ready to knock out those sleek and deadly fifth-rate ships that will demolish the sixth-raters I can build in the time it takes to say ‘Hornblower’; and the most powerful alliance in Europe at its beck and call.

 

Against them stands France and my enviable record of five defeats and no wins against the campaign AI on ‘Normal’. Oh, and Spain as an ally: 10/10 for machismo but, in deference to Real Historical Fact, her glory days are behind her and she will lose interest a few years in, only to spend the rest of the game swigging Sangria and reminiscing about Pizarro and Cortes. Gentlemen, place your bets!

 

And yet. PS may have more and better ships and an invulnerable home base but the British army starts the game small and unimposing: France on the other hand has a solid core of infantry, cavalry and artillery in Europe itself and a huge income from her home regions – after a couple of turns I was pulling in around 8000 income per turn net despite a comprehensive trade blockade. If anyone can save the world from the fate of British hegemony, association football and the expression ‘eff off’, it is La Grande Nation.

 

Empire: Total War - The War Begins

LE PLAN: France is likely to fall behind Britain diplomatically early on, since my fleet is made up of a couple of bathtubs floating in the channel with only three one-eyed gunners between them. Unfortunately, the one thing CA didn’t mess up in programming this game was making the AI a vicious little jerk whose sole aim is to kick hard in the unmentionables the human player it judges to be weakest. Naval strength is a major component of that determination. Left to their own devices, Britain’s AI allies (Portugal, Netherlands and Austria) will declare war on me in the first few turns, leading to a three-front war on sea and land and a very, very short LP.

 

However, I have a cunning plan. Because my position starts uncertain, Peter S (who is a solid strategist) will probably expect me to try for a boom, building a couple of grant continental armies – he’ll never suspect a pre-emptive attack. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds: attacking in turn 1 will force Britain’s scary allies to make a snap decision on whether to join the war at a time when the calculus is more likely to be more favourable to me. This is why my first action in the game is to move my leaky little fleet to attack the nearest British armada, a move which goes swimmingly in the sense that the remains of my navy are now doing the breast-stroke back to Le Havre.

 

Empire: Total War - We are sinking, we are sinking

 

A SHAMEFUL DISPLAY! Over the next couple of turns, PS moves his fleets into both of my northern ports, leaving them smoking ruins. However, what we lose on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts. Austria and Hanover – the only land powers in Britain’s coalition – decided that they had better things to do than get in a bust-up with my army and have said ‘Nein’ to this war.

 

On the home front, while conventional wisdom is to tear down those religious schools as soon as possible and replace them with hotbeds of radical study so as to speed off down the tech tree. I want to see if the additional tax and stability I get from keeping Europe Catholic can outweigh this, so I’m following the Jesuit path for now. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

 

DIPLOMACY: Diplomacy? Diplomacy! I’m worried about protecting my American colonies, since I need all my resources for the struggle in Europe. To get around this, I sell a few of my less wealthy colonies to Spain for 1000 / turn over 10 turns. It’s probably not a great deal, but it’s better than trying to extract income from provinces I can’t reliably hold.

 

Over the next couple of turns, I start my army marching on Amsterdam. My initial plan was to carry out the siege for the full 5 turns, but immediately after deciding to end turn 4, I get a bad case of invader’s regret; now that he’s smashed my fleet, PS probably has an army inbound and, while it’s not going to be as big as France’s, if it catches our force at the walls of Amsterdam, my only army is going to be ground into so much mincemeat. Since I have more artillery than the defenders, I will try an assault next turn, and hope that it it goes badly I’ll have enough of a force intact to hold off a British counterattack until reinforcements get there.

 

Drawn up before the walls of Amsterdam. Imposing, aren’t they.

 

Empire: Total War - The French at the gates of Amsterdam 

 

Onward for France! They charge, they charge…

 

Empire: Total War - Here Come the French

…and they retreat, as natural to my troops as eating frogs and cruelty to geese.

 

Empire: Total War - The French Retreat
So, yeah. That went well. At least the army didn’t get totally smashed. To add insult to injury, as my battered soldiers flee in disarray from the walls of Amsterdam, PS has landed a large army under the command of John Churchill, aka 1st Duke of Marlborough, aka the Mindelheim Murderer, who eats Parisian babies with his morning breakfast and cleans his teeth with toothpicks made from the bones of French grenadiers, to besiege Brussels. I try to console myself with the knowlege that it would have been even worse if the army had attacked while I was besieging Amsterdam, but it doesn’t help.

 

Things are looking bleak for L’Hexagone.

 

Next up, in Episode II, the Royal Navy goes on the offensive around the world  — but closer to home, events proceed a little differently…

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Introduction

The Total War series of PC strategy games does not dream small. Players choose a nation – a sweeping empire, ambitious upstart republic, barbarian horde, or anything in between – and set out to conquer all before them. On the games’ strategic map, players move around armies, spies, and generals; form new alliances and break outdated ones; and sink their money into economic development or raising fresh troops. When those armies clash, the game swoops down to put the players in control of a 3D battlefield showing hundreds or thousands of men at a time, charging, fighting, dying, fleeing. Set in periods such as the late classical world (Rome: Total War), Sengoku Japan (Shogun: Total War), and the Middle Ages (Medieval: Total War), the games wear a veneer of history, but ultimately they are not about accurately representing the past. They are about bringing toy-soldier childhood play to thrilling life.

 

The series’ ambition reached its zenith in Empire: Total War (my writeup here). Set in the 1700s – a century which started with a war over who should become king of Spain, and culminated with the American and French revolutions – Empire propelled the series into the age of gunpowder. And instead of tasking the player with the conquest of Europe or Japan, Empire broadened its scope to the whole world. In Empire, players can fight in three main theatres (Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent) and send ships to four lesser ones (the coasts of Brazil, West Africa, and the East Indies, and the straits of Madagascar). British redcoats can square off not just against French regulars in the fields of Flanders, but Iroquois warriors in the Thirteen Colonies, Maratha cavalry in India, or those same French in Quebec. Empire also plunges into naval warfare, allowing players to command their ships in battle and using overseas trade as a carrot to reward players for achieving command of the seas.

 

Unfortunately, Empire has a particularly noticeable Achilles’ heel. As with many other strategy games, the computer player cannot keep up with a human over the course of the campaign*.

 

The option to play the campaign in multiplayer alleviates this problem.

 

And this is what Peter Davies, aka beefeater1980 (edit: later replaced by Shane Murphy, aka Talorc), and I are doing. Each of us manages his respective kingdom and commands his troops and ships on the battlefield. And the way the Empire multiplayer campaign works, each time one human player fights a battle against a computer player, the other player is given the chance to take over for the computer. The result should be a game that’s exciting and epic in equal measure, and so far, it has lived up to our hopes.

 

The game: Empire: Total War.

 

The rules: The winner of the game will be determined by Prestige, which as far as we can tell is awarded for researching certain technologies, and building fancy public buildings ranging from infrastructure to palaces. We have set the campaign difficulty to Hard (which gives a boost to the computer players) and the battle difficulty to Normal.

 

The two sides: Peter Sahui (PS) as Britain (that’s me!). Peter Davies (PD) and later Shane Murphy as France.

 

Our game begins in 1700; historically, this was the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession. Great Britain** is allied to Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria and Hannover. France is allied to Spain. Britain controls the British Isles, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Prince Rupert’s Land; France controls metropolitan France, the Windward Isles and what, today, is eastern Canada. Each of us also has certain American possessions represented by a computer-controlled ally: the Thirteen Colonies for me, Louisiana for the French. Geography presents several obvious potential flashpoints for the two powers. But while conflict is inevitable, when it will break out, and the form it will take, are not set in stone.

 

And now, over to France…

 

 

* Based on my personal experience playing as the British in single-player.

** In real life, England and Scotland did not come together to form Great Britain until the Act of Union in 1707;  however, the game represents them under the British banner from the start.

Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

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