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…

 

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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!