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!

Inside The Art of Total War

As promised, here are photos I took of The Art of Total War.

Here is the table of contents. The book focuses on three branches of the Total War family — Shogun 1 & 2, Empire & Napoleon, and Rome 1 & 2. There is less on Medieval & Medieval 2, and less still, a bare few pages, on Attila and the spin-offs (Battles, Arena).

20150214_101205 The art itself ranges from unit sketches to concept paintings, and even some of the original maps that the developers used as inspiration. Read on:

Continue reading “Inside The Art of Total War”

I played, I thought, I wrote: a design analysis of Rome II, the Total War series, and what makes a good 4X game

This is not a review of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II, but if it were, my opinion would be, “Worth a look… but wait for the <$10 Steam sale.” I’m around 30 hours into Rome II, spread across two campaigns and multiple stand-alone battles. I’ve had enjoyable times, and some spectacular moments. I’ve thundered elephants through the flank of a distracted foe, raised last-ditch armies, and marched from the Tiber to the English Channel, but the whole of my experience has been less than the sum of its parts. And the really interesting question is why.

Continue reading “I played, I thought, I wrote: a design analysis of Rome II, the Total War series, and what makes a good 4X game”

Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.



Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.


But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.


In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.


*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.


You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 from Amazon here.



I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.



The basis of my review



Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).


What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.


What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.

Total War? Only for the undiplomatic: the lessons of Shogun 2

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Update: You can find my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

Total War: Shogun 2: A diplomatic victory, but not in the way you’d think

I’ve now finished the Total War: Shogun 2 campaign (short length, Hard campaign difficulty and Normal battle difficulty, playing as the Shimazu), and I can update one of my earlier impressions. In my previous post, I mentioned that getting too close to the finish line would trigger “realm divide” – a final showdown, with “almost every single computer player in the game [declaring] war” on the human.  It turns out this is not quite correct: even after realm divide I was able to stay on good terms with several allies both large and small. How did I pull this off?

You see, realm divide’s effect is indirect – it works by lowering the human player’s relationship with the AI  players. This negative modifier is big to begin with, and grows turn after turn after turn (there is a cap, but it’s ridiculously large). When that relationship becomes sufficiently negative, the computer will declare war1.

The trick, then, is to pile on every positive modifier possible. Research techs (such as the tea ceremony) that grant a bonus to diplomacy, and keep your daimyo’s honour high so everyone will be more fond of you. Then bribe your chosen buddies to get the ball rolling. Once they’ll agree to it, wed their daughters (or vice-versa) for another, large positive modifier. Strike an alliance for a further boost to relations. Exchange hostages – in my case, an eight-year-old grandson – for yet another boost. And for good measure, declare war on their current enemies (you’ll fight them anyway once the realm divides) for a final bonus.

The net effect: I never had to take on more than a handful of enemy factions, and the ones I did fight were usually busy with wars on other fronts as well! Good relationships bought me the time to win the game before my allies, too, turned on me.  In other words, diplomacy made the final war manageable before I fired the first shot. That is how it should work in a game like this.

How Shogun 2’s diplomacy stacks up to other games

Seeing diplomacy done properly in Shogun 2 underscores how weak it was in the previous Total War games. Afterwards, I loaded up Empire: Total War – from 2009, just two years ago – to compare the available diplomatic options, and boy, has Shogun 2 come a long way since then. Empire has barely any tools I can use to influence a relationship – I can give gifts, I can return land, and, uh, that’s about it – and the options which are there, in my experience, do not work nearly so well as they do in Shogun 2. Suicidal computer players, ahoy!

Shogun 2 also showed up the weakness in the diplomatic system of another game, one you might not immediately think of: Civilization V. Its predecessor, Civ IV, is much like Shogun 2 in that it provides plenty of ways to butter up a computer player, from trade to missionaries and shared faith to open borders. Civ V is a big step back from that. It offers a bare handful of ways to influence a relationship (I can sign “declarations of friendship”, denounce people I don’t like, and… what else?); those features present are poorly documented; and the computer’s attitude can feel infuriatingly random. This was not helped by a design decision to make diplomacy feel more like interacting with other humans – who are explicitly out to win, who are harder to read, and who are more prone to treachery – and less like the application of a game system. Firaxis undid some of the damage in a patch that allowed you to see some of the factors underlying the computer’s attitude, but the lack of diplomatic tools remains. The overall result, as I wrote around Christmas 2010, is an unpleasant throwback to Civ I, a game that’s 20 years old this year.

In contrast, Shogun 2 does appear to owe something to another game renowned for its diplomacy: Galactic Civilizations II, the 2006 4X game from Stardock. I only played a moderate amount of GalCiv2, but I did observe that like Civ IV and Shogun 2, it offered plenty of tools to influence relationships – including techs that conferred a bonus to diplomacy, an idea that Shogun 2 may well have picked up from here.

What makes Shogun 2’s diplomacy work – lessons for other strategy games

What underpins the successful diplomacy in Shogun 2 is the clear link between investment and payoff. In an RPG, if I spend points on my speech skill, that visibly pays off when I unlock new dialogue options. In Shogun 2, if I spend my money raising an army, that visibly pays off when I take my new recruits and use them to conquer my neighbour. And in Shogun 2, if I spend my money on bribes/gifts to other factions, my in-game time researching the tea ceremony when I could be researching gunpowder, and my real-world time messing around in diplomacy screens, that visibly pays off in a secure border and healthy profits from trade.

In turn, this is the result of both successful design and execution. From a design perspective, Shogun 2 provides players with a whole menu of options, most of which involve a tradeoff of some kind (the “investment” part of the equation), while making it very difficult to take on everyone at once in the endgame, especially in the absence of trade income (the “payoff” part of the equation). And from an execution standpoint, these tools work because the diplomatic AI in Shogun 2 is not – at least, in my experience so far – the spiteful and bloody-minded brute that it is in so many other games. Offer a good enough deal, and it will accept. Treat it well enough, and it will be your staunch ally for years.

The benefits to gameplay are real. Good in-game diplomacy means less whack-a-mole, more choices, more strategy. More intangibly, it contributes to immersion and suspension of disbelief. RPGs have party members and non-violent quest solutions, adventure games and shooters have sidekicks and snappy dialogue, Gondor had Rohan, and strategy games should have proper alliances. If even so martial a game as Shogun 2 can succeed here, then other strategy games should follow suit and offer us the rewards of jaw-jaw.

  1. I believe, but do not know for a fact, that realm divide makes the computer more willing to go to war when the relationship is negative (whereas pre-realm divide, a computer player that hates my guts may be more willing to keep the peace). This is conjecture, though, based on how quickly the computer is willing to attack, post realm-divide, once the relationship becomes low enough.

Total War: Shogun 2 – Demo thoughts

The demo for Shogun 2: Total War Total War: Shogun 2 is out, and I’ve spent a little bit of time with it. What do I think? Well, I saw absolutely nothing that would change my expectations for the finished game. The demo consists of the campaign tutorial plus a single battle scenario, Sekigahara, which is really not enough to judge the actual quality of the game. So what are those expectations?


At the design level, I’m reasonably confident that the finished game will be great on paper. The demo reveals that a bunch of the improvements in Empire: Total War (maritime trade posts and the trade route system; the ability to automatically route reinforcements to an army instead of having to manually play deliveryman after every battle; the income-producing structures, such as rice paddies and ports, scattered across the map…) are still present, and that gives me hope for the game’s strategic layer. The series’ main design flaw is the typical strategy game problem of a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game, but I’ve lived with that before, and it wouldn’t prevent the early game from theoretically being a blast.


My skepticism, rather, concerns execution. The Total War series is infamous for inept AI — just ask anyone who’s seen AI armies happily milling around in front of the player’s archers — and bugs. The most splendid graphics, the finest tactical battle engine, the broadest variety of units are utterly useless if the computer opponent just does not understand how to play, or if the game crashes repeatedly. And this is the kind of problem that will not become apparent until after people have spent days or weeks with the full version of the game, not a highly restricted and scripted demo.


Will I get this game eventually? I’m sure I will — but I’ll give it a year or two to wait for patches, expansion packs or DLC, and mods. By then, I hope, the game will be close to the spectacle promised on paper.

The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.


I’m not actually that great at playing games.


Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?


The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?


The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.


Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.


Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.


Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.


Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.


As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.


Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…


* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

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.

Continue reading “Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected”