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!

Musical Monday: Behind the Scenes with Shogun 2

Celebrating the fifth birthday of Total War: Shogun 2, this week’s Musical Monday is slightly different – a behind-the-scenes look at its taiko drum music. I was interested to learn it was recorded in Sydney by a local troupe, Taikoz. Enjoy!

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Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously

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

Welcome to the final instalment of my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

Previously, I stood on the verge of Shogun 2’s endgame — “realm divide”, in which most of Japan joins forces to stop the player. My armies were ready. My treasury was bursting. And so, I resumed the offensive after a long period of peace. Here is the situation, shortly before the end of Part 2:

S2 power blocs

In the east, my armies had just won their first victory against the Hatekayama clan (green). In the west, I was at peace; I shared my border with an allied clan, the Imagawa (grey), and a former ally, the Jinbo (light blue). Further west, past the Jinbo and Imagawa, was the single largest computer player: the Otomo clan (blue, also my ally).

Once I resume the game, Takeda Shingen and his son Nobushige lead my eastern armies against the Hatekeyama’s remaining force.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

When we left off, my Takeda clan controlled a modest slice of Japan, to the north and west of modern Tokyo. To the east were my enemies: the Satake and Satomi clans. Further north were my old foes, the Uesugi clan; an uneasy peace prevailed between us, ever since I crushed their last invasion attempt.

My previous victory against the Satomi in Part 1 gave me a window of opportunity. and so, my first order of business is to march east. Takeda Shingen, lord of the clan, is off on another frontier. Command falls to his two brothers: Takeda Nobushige in the north, leading his army out of North Shinano province, and Takeda Nobukado in the south, crossing the river from Musashi.

S2 pt1 end North S2 pt1 end SE Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2


Hello, and welcome to my Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2.

Shogun 2 casts players as a daimyo, one of the regional warlords of sixteenth-century Japan. The ultimate goal is to march on Kyoto, at the centre of the map, and enthrone oneself as shogun. Along the way, the player must manage a realm, raise armies, and command them in battle. The game triumphs on every level — as an exercise in strategic decision-making; as an epic come to life; and as an aesthetic treat. It is my favourite strategy game of all time.

For this run, I have opted to play as the Takeda clan, led by one of the most renowned warlords of the period — Takeda Shingen. This is, in fact, my second Takeda attempt — I abandoned the first after painting myself into a corner. I turn the game’s difficulty up to “Hard”, which affects both the strategic map and the tactical battles. My intent is to turn down the battles to “Normal” — the computer cheats on higher battle difficulties. Instead, I forget. As a result, the game so far has been entirely played on Hard.

I’ve chosen the Takeda for two reasons. First, their location in central Japan will make for a nice change — I won my last Shogun 2 campaign (using the Fall of the Samurai expansion pack) as an outlying island clan. Second, I’ve been meaning to make more extensive use of cavalry in Total War games, a job for which the Takeda are well-suited — all their horsemen receive a bonus.

Here is the opening cinematic for the Takeda:

And here is the situation at the beginning of the game:

S2 Takeda startThe Takeda start in Kai province, a landlocked mountain pass that runs north/south. All cavalry trained in Kai will receive a bonus, courtesy of the province’s superior horse pastures; this stacks with the innate Takeda bonus to cavalry.

To the north of Kai is North Shinano, also landlocked. It is home to the Murakami clan, who begin at war with me — you can see a small Murakami army near the border. To the south are Musashi province, home to modern-day Tokyo, and Suruga province, home to the allied Imagawa clan.

To win the game, I have to hold 25 provinces, including Kai, Kyoto, North Shinano, and three other provinces all to the north of Shinano. Before then, I must face one of Shogun 2’s most distinctive challenges — realm divide. When I draw close to victory, most of the remaining computer players will declare war on me; I’ll need to build my empire around surviving that final difficulty spike.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger”

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.

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The Best Games of 2012

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy Ne1st Place Award Ribbonw Year, everyone!


2013 has dawned, and it’s time to review the best of last year’s games (that I played). This year I’ve opted to break from the traditional “best RPG”, “best strategy”, etc format normally used in Game of the Year rankings. For one, it papers over the vast differences that exist within any genre: Dark Souls is not Skyrim is not Mass Effect. For another, there are sometimes multiple standout games within the same genre. So instead, I’ve opted to recognise games for their special achievements. Here are 2012’s exemplars:


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Musical Monday: “Uncle Samurai” (Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai), composed by Jeff van Dyck

While I was bitterly disappointed by Creative Assembly’s Fall of the Samurai, the stand-alone expansion to last year’s Total War: Shogun 2, its soundtrack was another matter. Series composer Jeff van Dyck turned in some of his best work to date, as seen in energetic battle theme “Uncle Samurai” (Uncle Sam + Samurai – geddit?). Enjoy!


Matchlocks for my Eyes, or Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai – The Verdict

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
The Fall of the Samurai


Set during the sixteenth-century zenith of the samurai, Creative Assembly’s Total War: Shogun 2 (2011) was one of the best strategy game in years. CA soon followed it up with a first expansion, Rise of the Samurai¸ which wound the clock back to the Gempei War of the twelfth century. Now the latest, stand-alone expansion, Fall of the Samurai, wraps up almost a millennium of Japanese civil strife by moving forward to the nineteenth-century Boshin War. How does it compare to its illustrious parent?


The promise


Fall’s greatest strength is the clarity of its theme: this is a game about change, in a way that no other Total War game has been. In fifty years, Japan went from a land of shogun and samurai to a power that could beat a Western empire; and from look to feel to mechanics, that wrenching transformation is written all over Fall.


You’ll notice the game’s new aesthetic straight away: riflemen face samurai in the game’s loading screens, the new map looks like a nineteenth-century atlas rather than a Japanese scroll, most of the playable daimyo are dressed in Western uniforms.  As you build up your empire, you’ll see more wonderful touches in the graphics and flavour text. Trains puff smoke and chug through little tunnels. Generals receive stat boosts by picking up Western knick-knacks: pianos, penny-dreadfuls  and more. New technologies are accompanied by poetic blurbs, running the gamut from bleak to resigned to hopeful. (Compare the descriptions for six techs: “arms deals”, “modern army”, “cordial relations”, “gold standard”, “capitalist production”, and “charter oath”.)


But text is only part of the story. Gameplay mechanics are another vital way to communicate theme, and this is where Fall shines. As you fight your way across Japan, you’ll witness the end of an era, or more precisely, the transition through several eras, compressed into a single frantic period. Within the span of a single campaign, you’ll go from the shock-dominated battlefield of the Middle Ages, through the pike-and-shot era, to the fire-dominated age of industrial war. At the start of the game, samurai and even levy spearmen will roll right over peasant musketeers, but soon enough, trained soldiers with modern rifles will take their toll on anyone who approaches on foot. As firearms get better and better, riflemen more and more skilful, and artillery more abundant, modern armies will eventually massacre hordes of samurai or peasants with barely a scratch.


A bang, not a whimper: the power of modern weaponry


As such, modern weaponry is a literal game-changer. But not just due to its lethality. Riflemen do what bowmen have always done in the Total War games, just much, much better. Even greater transformations are visible in the other arms, cavalry and artillery, and what they do to the overall feel of combat. Traditionally, battles in the Total War series were about pinning the enemy’s infantry in melee with your own, preferably heavier infantry, then swinging around with cavalry to roll up the enemy from behind. Heavy infantry beat spearmen, spearmen beat cavalry, and cavalry beat anything if it attacked from behind. Even in the gunpowder-era games (Empire and Napoleon: Total War), battles were decided after the armies were close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes. Not so in Fall. Spearmen still counter cavalry if they catch them in hand-to-hand… but now the cavalry have guns aplenty, and they need them. The best counter to a charging lancer is no longer a man with a pike; it’s another horseman with a gun, or perhaps even a well-trained rifleman. And woe betide the spearman who tries chasing a revolver-armed horseman. That is, if that spearman survives artillery that long. The inaccurate cannon of Empire and Napoleon are gone: American Civil War-era Parrott guns unlock early on, and they will rack up hundreds of kills per battle. Massed Parrotts will knock out even elite regiments long before they enter the fray, and later artillery is even more lethal. You will see the death of chivalry in this game, and you will see the road towards the slaughter of the Great War.


The failings


At their best, Fall’s battles might just be the finest in the entire series. The key phrase is “at their best”. All too often, the battles are not at their best, due to problems with the campaign AI. And that sums up Fall’s greatest weakness: it all too rarely fires on every cylinder. Here are some examples:


1. Land combat. Battles at the start of the game, when both the player and the AI rely on levies backed by a handful of samurai and modern riflemen, are tense and fun. The problems come later: the computer just doesn’t understand how badly quality eventually beats quantity. Even in the endgame, I’ve only seen the AI use high-end modern infantry once. I see rather more regular modern infantry (especially after installing an AI mod), but I also see lots of samurai and peasants  – by this stage, target practice. All too often, the game serves up fodder instead of challenge.


This becomes repetitive after a while


2. Sea combat. The war at sea is meant to take a similar course to the war on land. Wooden ships burn en masse once explosive shells show up, and ironclads sound their final death knell. Pitched fleet battles, especially in the presence of coastal defences, can be spectacular. Unfortunately, the designers evidently thought it was fun to make the player play whack-a-mole against constant, small raiding fleets (especially on “Hard” difficulty). It’s not. The problem is exacerbated by naval zones of control that are too small; and puny coastal defences. I alleviated this with a homebrew naval mod, but I shouldn’t have to fix games myself.


Wooden ships: all too vulnerable


3. Diplomacy. In the base game, diplomacy was “every man for himself”, but Fall divides Japan into two broad camps (based on the way religion worked in the original game): pro-Imperial and pro-Shogunate. Players of the same allegiance enjoy a healthy bonus to diplomacy; players of opposing allegiances take a serious penalty. The victory conditions reflect this: your camp has to take X number of provinces and both Edo and Kyoto, but you personally have to take far fewer provinces (14 in the short campaign, rather than the base game’s 25). And rather than “you vs the world”, realm divide now functions as the final Shogunate/Imperial showdown: only the opposing camp will attack you, while clans of the same allegiance will rally behind you instead.


On paper, this is a great idea. And when it works (i.e. when the war between the two factions hangs in the balance), it works well. It’s very cool to be part of, as opposed to the focus of, a greater conflict – especially after realm divide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work: the course of the broader war is a crapshoot. If your faction does too well, the game is boringly easy. If your faction does too badly, then the game turns into a grinding slog. It’s aggravating when such a key part of the overall experience comes down to luck of the draw.


4. Difficulty and balance. More broadly, Fall’s campaign feels as though the developers didn’t have the time to properly tune the game’s balance. It shows up in the difficulty settings: on “Normal”, the campaign is often rather easy. “Hard” is a different story, but not because the computer is cleverer. No: everything costs roughly 15%-20% more, and the computer players team up for a game of kick-the-human. It shows in the victory conditions: requiring that your camp hold Edo and Kyoto might be historically accurate, but it skews the game, since both (particularly Edo) are within Shogunate territory. As a result, my Normal Shogunate campaign felt much shorter and more anticlimactic than my Imperialist campaigns. (Compare the base game, in which you fought your way towards Kyoto, in the centre of the map.) It shows in the game’s economy. The developers clearly intended money to be scarcer: trade nodes have been removed, most farmland is poorer than in the base game, and everything costs more. But they went too far: now money is artificially, annoyingly scarce unless you beeline for “fertile” and “very fertile” lands (especially bad on “Hard”). And it shows in the issues I described above. Given time, surely the developers would have fixed the AI issues, the ship spam, and so forth.


As such, my playthroughs of Fall have been a decidedly mixed bag. Playing on “Hard”, my campaigns began promisingly, with plenty of challenge and thrills, before eventually degenerating into frustration. Playing on “Normal”, one game I spent fighting small, weak clans was dead boring. One game in which the opposing faction took over most of Japan started well, but turned into a slogfest. And my final, most rewarding playthrough delivered the experience that Fall should have been from the start. I played differently that last time – by then I knew the “optimal” path to take, and I didn’t turtle (which I think helped the game’s pacing). But I also had to apply the AI and naval mods mentioned above, and I benefited from luck (e.g. with the progress of the Imperial/Shogunate war).




The Twilight Samurai


Ultimately, Fall of the Samurai didn’t live up to my hopes. Fall brings together theme and mechanics with a superb battle system, only to hamstring itself with a wildly inconsistent campaign. Its highs are higher than the base game’s – but its lows are just too frequent, and too annoying, for it to fill its predecessor’s shoes.


At the end of the day, I have to formulate my recommendation based on one wonderful campaign –and five (!) that were love-hate. And that is: wait for patches, mods, and/or a bargain sale. Buy Fall of the Samurai then. But don’t buy it now.


You can buy Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai from Amazon (US).


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




Province fertility/specialty map, updated for Fall of the Samurai.


Radious’ AI mod. It’s hard to unpick the difference made by a mod, but I do think this helped the AI recruit better armies.


My homebrew naval mod. To install, simply unzip and place in the \data folder in the game’s Steam directory. Its key features are:


  1. Bombardment range is still 8 (or 10 for Tosa, which gets a +2 bonus).
  2. The Tier 1 harbour (“If this is a port, then one wall is a house!”) remains defenceless.
  3. The Tier 2 port now has level 1 defences (equal to the base game’s trade ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 70% health.
  4. The Tier 3 trade port now has level 2 defences (equal to the base game’s military ports) with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 50% health (again, equal to the base game’s military ports).
  5. Tier 3 military ports and the foreign (British/French/American) tier 4 trade ports now have Level 3 defences (equal to the base game’s drydocks), with a range of 12. The defences are silenced at 30% (again, equal to drydocks).
  6. Drydocks, whose defences were already maxed out, have received no boost.
  7. The naval intercept radius is now 12.
  8. These changes will be reflected in the tooltips when you mouse over the buildings, but not in the in-game encyclopaedia.


The basis of my review


Time spent with the game: I estimate at least 20 or 30 hours.


What I have played: Two campaigns won (Nagaoka/Normal/Short, Tosa/Normal/Short). Four campaigns aborted: two as Nagaoka/Hard, one as Tosa/Hard, and one as Tosa/Normal. Briefly, the cooperative multiplayer campaign (Choshu/Hard, with a friend playing Tosa). A couple of multiplayer battles.


What I haven’t played: The PvP multiplayer campaign.

Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai first impressions

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
"The Battle of Hakodate", c. 1880. Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikipedia.


Note: my final review can be found here.


With its promise of firearms, ironclads, and railroads, I was eager to leap into Fall of the Samurai, the nineteenth century-themed expansion to Shogun 2. After getting ~70-80 turns (up to 1867) in my abortive first campaign on “hard” difficulty, starting a second hard campaign, and then reaching the mid/late game (1866) of a third campaign on “normal” (all three times as the Nagaoka clan), here are my early thoughts:


I like the balance between firearm and traditional units. At first, cheap spear levies should remain the core of any army – early muskets are inaccurate and slow-firing, which makes levy musketeers better suited to manning fortress walls than to the open field. However, it doesn’t take long (~12 turns) to unlock modern rifles, which shoot much faster and more accurately than the muskets. Train up a decent force of riflemen (again, this doesn’t take long; they’re not too expensive, and they only take a single turn to recruit), and you can safely relegate the spearmen to anti-cavalry support or castle wall fodder. And not only does better technology unlock new units, it also grants bonuses to the basic ones, so those basic riflemen remain useful later on. In my first game, it was a delight to give a whole army of charging samurai a lesson in modern warfare.


Fortress assaults are even more lethal, due to the ubiquity of guns. Against well-defended castles, artillery seems to be essential.


I have yet to get the hang of naval warfare. Unlike Empire and Napoleon: Total War, all the ships are steam-powered, so the wind doesn’t play as big a role as it did in those games. For now, it seems to be a matter of bringing the most (and the most technologically advanced) cannon, engaging broadside to broadside, and praying one of your ships doesn’t blow up to a lucky hit. I have not yet unlocked the high-end naval units (ironclads and torpedo boats), so these might shake up the equation.


Naval bombardments are cool without unbalancing the game. If a land battle takes place near a friendly fleet, you can call in up to two barrages. While powerful, they have a very long cooldown and aren’t especially precise, so navies aren’t the “I win” button.


Money is harder to come by. There are no more trade nodes, so to obtain goods for export (silk, tea, etc), you have to seize the provinces where they’re produced. As such, resource-producing provinces are now far more valuable than in the base game. This is even more pronounced when playing on “hard” difficulty, in which everything is more expensive.


On “hard”, the AI loves to dogpile you – especially if you’re at war with its allies. You do get significant diplomatic bonuses with clans that share your allegiance (pro-shogun or pro-imperial), but that, by itself, is no guarantee of your safety. In this regard, Fall feels similar to the previous expansion pack, Rise of the Samurai.


The in-battle voices have deteriorated. No more Japanese voice acting from your units, no more “yari ashigaru de gozaimasu!”, and no more advisor yelling, “shameful display!” Instead units acknowledge orders in accented English a la Rome: Total War, and the battle commentary now comes from a hammy, booming-voiced, all-American sort (“The enemies’ allies run like he-eathens from a preacher, sir!”). I liked things better in the original. Still, this is a relatively minor problem for me.


The “hard” difficulty setting lives up to its name – after a while, I found it more frustrating than fun. “Hard equates to more demands on less money (costlier buildings + more enemy armies to fight), and the overall difficulty is closer to Rise of the Samurai than to the base game. Unless you’re a lot better than me at Shogun 2, I don’t recommend Hard for your first game.


Meanwhile, “normal” turned out to be pretty easy once I  hit the midgame. It would be nice if there were a difficulty setting in between. (Of course, realm divide could shake me out of my complacency!)


Apart from the difficulty, though, so far so good. I missed Empire’s gunpowder warfare, and I’m glad to see it back in Shogun’s more polished form. Watch this space for more!


UPDATE: So as of late 1867, I can state that on “normal”, the short campaign is quick enough to finish in a single day. I haven’t finished… yet. But I’m two provinces away from fulfilling the victory condition (14 provinces, plus Kyoto and Edo in the hands of Shogunate-aligned clans), and standing on the cusp of realm divide. I could easily have won the game any time in the last hour and a half; I’ve just been holding off so I can unlock the endgame units (Gatling guns!).


UPDATE 2:  Went back to an earlier save and won the campaign, on “normal”, in one day! Hurray!


UPDATE 3: Reflecting on my campaigns as Nagaoka, I feel disappointed with Fall. While as noted above, I really like Fall‘s basic building blocks, the difficulty and pacing have prevented my early experiences from becoming the sum of their parts. I’ve described above my problems with the “hard” campaign, and “normal” turned into a pushover once I got past the early game — all the nearby clans were either friendly, too small to be a threat, or both. And since I was playing the short campaign, realm divide wasn’t a serious danger: this only kicked in after I took 13 provinces, and only needed one province more to win! (The victory thresholds, at 14 provinces for the short campaign and 26 for the long, are far lower than for the base game.) However, I’m willing to give Fall another chance: it’s possible I was (A) unlucky*, (B) playing a less fun faction, (C) unwise to play a short campaign, (D) not experienced enough for my first, “hard” campaign (when I was still learning how Fall worked) and too experienced for the later, “normal” campaign, or (E) some/all of the above. I look forward to reporting back once I’ve tried another campaign.

Postcards from Sengoku Japan: The Mori’s Last Stand

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Making a game’s visuals spectacular is a technical achievement. Making them beautiful is an artistic one, and at its best, Shogun 2 delivers both. Here, as a vastly superior enemy army marches out of the fog, the Mori clan prepares to make its last stand. (To be precise, my last stand. This is what happens when I attempt an econ strategy before securing my borders.)

How to add AI players to a Shogun 2 multiplayer skirmish

With its quick PvP skirmishes and its co-op campaign, Shogun 2 is my go-to game when I want to play multiplayer – but sometimes I want to play a co-op skirmish, with human and computer players. Until a couple of days ago, I thought this was impossible (not to mention a very odd omission), but it turns out the game does support comp stomps. This is how to set them up.


First, look at the top row of the screen:


See the silhouettes representing slots for human players? Delete a human player slot.


The screen should now look like this:



Then click the computer icon in the bottom-right hand corner of the box. The screen should now look like this:


Tadaa! You have now added an AI player – in this case, the Chosokabe. Click that AI player’s banner, and you can change its clan. Have fun stomping those comps!

My Game of the Year – 2011 is…

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

2011 was a good year in gaming. Just counting new releases, I enjoyed all of:


  1. Bastion (PC), an isometric action game with pretty art design and an original world;
  2. Dark Souls (PS3), which (so far – I haven’t played enough to form a verdict) offers a promising mix of finely tuned challenge and great drop-in co-op gameplay;
  3. Frozen Synapse (PC), a stylish and clever squad-based indie strategy game;
  4. Section 8: Prejudice (PC), a bargain-priced team-based shooter. This is a genre I wouldn’t normally touch, but I had a great time roving around Prejudice’s battlefields as an engineer-medic-tank commander, a role that could survive my lack of reflexes;
  5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP),  the modern remake of Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s tactical roleplaying game; and
  6. Total War: Shogun 2 (PC), the latest and – by far – most polished instalment of the long-running historical strategy series.


One title, though, managed to stand out from the pack. One title was the best example of its genre I’d seen in years. One title is my Game of the Year. I present to you:


Game of the Year – 2011: Total War: Shogun 2 (review here), developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. This truly deserves the “strategy” label: it’s packed with interesting and well-executed sub-systems (diplomacy, realm management, campaign manoeuvre, and battlefield tactics), well-paced, and blessed with a clever computer player. With this, CA has addressed every complaint I’ve had – and redeemed its mistakes – as far back as Rome: Total War.


And there is one more with a similar appeal:


Runner-up: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (review here), developed and published by Square Enix. This is the pinnacle of the “traditional” turn-based TRPG genre; built around combat that’s fluidly lethal without being frustrating, it then tries to sand away every little annoyance in the genre – from unskippable random battles to unclear camera angles – and tell a story more meaningful and mature than “kill the foozle, save the world”. It doesn’t quite succeed at those two goals, but it aims high and comes close to its mark, something I appreciate all the more after going back to older, cruder TRPGs.


Well done, Creative Assembly and Square Enix. And Happy New Year to all of you!

Ninja FAIL

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Fresh from winning every* battle in a Shogun 2: Rise of the Samurai campaign and still losing the war, I found some much-needed comic relief in the following video.



My favourite segment is the one beginning at 0:18, but it wasn’t an easy pick!


Separately, Matchsticks for my Eyes wishes you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Thanks for reading, and may you experience many wonderful stories in the years to come!


* Okay, almost every.

Meiji Restoration standalone expansion for Shogun 2 on the way!

Sega has announced a new standalone expansion for Shogun 2, “Fall of the Samurai”, and boy does it sound cool. Excerpt from the press release below:


Based on the backdrop of the Boshin War period, the new campaign starts in 1864, a time of growing resentment against Western colonial power and influence. As Japan began to modernise and industrialise, the inevitable social and economic changes led to increasingly militant nationalism and antipathy towards the Shogunate.


New foreign powers


The American, British and French nations played an important part in the story of the Boshin war and your relations with these foreign powers will be integral to unit recruitment and to advancing your technology trees.


New 19th century Japan campaign map

  • The new island of Ezo extends [nowadays Hokkaido] the SHOGUN 2 campaign map northwards.
  • Fully refreshed towns and other campaign map features reflect the different time period, with railways making their first appearance in a Total War title.


Railway lines on the campaign map

  • Develop your own railway network to move armies and agents between your regions.
  • Railways can be sabotaged and transport can be blocked by enemy armies who take control of parts of the line or railway stations.


39 new land units

  • Including modern ranged units – such as the Gatling gun and Armstrong gun – controllable in a new first-person mode.
  • New units can also be recruited from foreign powers, including the British Royal Marines, US Marine Corps and French Marines.


10 new naval unit types with a total of 21 ships

  • New steam-powered warships, heavily armed with modern artillery.
  • Foreign ironclad ships can also be purchased, including the Warrior-class ironclad.


New port siege battle type

  • This new battle type triggers when attempting a naval assault on an occupied enemy port.
  • The attacking fleet must sail into the harbour and capture the port, running the gauntlet of coastal gun defences.


New land and sea unit interactions

  • During a land battle, armies can call in offshore artillery support barrages.
  • Conversely, costal gun emplacements can target enemy ships during port siege battles, when ending their turn within the range of upgraded coastal defences.
  • Campaign map bombardments: offshore naval units can bombard armies and cities in adjacent coastal areas on the campaign map itself…


Railroads! Gatlings! The Boshin war! Steamers! Ironclads! Naval bombardment (wasn’t this originally promised for the base Shogun 2?) and coastal batteries! Port battles! — something they should add if they revisit the eighteenth century or the Napoleonic era, incidentally. Woo!


I am leery about the first-person control for Gatlings, but that likely won’t be a big deal even if it is weak.


I also wonder if this is a dry run for an American Civil War game…

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.


My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.


Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.


You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)


I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.


Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.


* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

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.

Shogun 2 impressions: THIS is a difficulty spike

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

EDIT: I’ve since won the Shogun 2 campaign! You can find my updated views on diplomacy here, and my verdict on Shogun 2 here.



A while back I declared that I’d hold off buying Shogun 2, but in the end, positive reviews and word of mouth, even from skeptics of the series, were enough to change my mind. I’ve now played an abortive campaign as the Oda on Normal, and I’m in the early-to-midgame of a Shimazu campaign on Hard. What are my impressions the game now that I’ve had the chance to play the full version?


For starters, two points were quick to jump out at me:


1. Shogun 2 is much more user-friendly than its predecessors: Compared to the earlier games, Shogun 2’s interface makes it much easier to keep track of your empire. In Shogun 2, a handy panel on the right-hand side of the screen that allows you to quickly jump to any army, province, fleet, and so on (a little bit like the information panel in Europa Universalis III). Previously, you had to open up separate menus to access this information; now, not only is it more convenient to access, it makes it much easier to hop between locations on the map. And Shogun 2 also makes an effort to better document itself: the various unit blurbs and statistics are now collated in the in-game encyclopaedia.


2. The diplomatic AI lives on the same planet as the player (on Normal difficulty): One issue endemic to strategy games is computer players that just will not say die. Their armies can be shattered, their homelands aflame; no matter, when you drag them to the negotiating table, they’ll demand your firstborn. But my Oda game was an overdue exception – if I beat a rival clan badly enough, they’d come to me begging for peace, and once I was even able to use diplomacy to demand a beaten clan become my vassal. I am not sure, however, whether the diplomatic AI is always sensible on the higher difficulty levels; in my Hard Shimazu game, AI players have a stubborn tendency to outright refuse (without even making counter-offers!) to sign trade agreements with me. (That said, even on Hard, the AI will surrender when it knows it’s beaten.)


And as I played more of the game, a more fundamental difference jumped out at me. My standard gripe with the Total War games – again, as with many other strategy games – is that they’re challenging for a few turns, then I break out of my starting position and snowball until I grow bored and quit.  Shogun 2 changes this formula in two ways: it’s both shorter and sharper.


3. In Shogun 2, the short campaign really does seem short: The short campaign requires the player to conquer 25 provinces, including Kyoto – and in about five or six hours of play as the Oda (and auto-resolving trivial battles), I wasn’t far off from the 20-province mark. I think that a skilful player, on Normal, could finish the short campaign over a single weekend, which is a pleasant change from long slogfests. However, in order to finish, you’d have to survive the endgame. And that leads me to my next point….


4. This game is the textbook example of a “difficulty spike”: All too rare in grand strategy games, Shogun 2 finishes with a bang rather than a fizzle. This is how my Oda campaign, on normal, compares to the other Total War games I’ve played:


Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration
Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration


Remember the win condition in the short campaign is to capture 25 provinces including Kyoto? Well, when you draw too near to victory by capturing 20-odd provinces (the precise number can vary) or Kyoto, that is Shogun 2’s “crossing the Rubicon” moment. This triggers a “realm divide” event that will make almost every single computer player in the game declare war on you. Allies, trade partners, neutrals, formerly subservient vassals, even clans all the way on the other end of Japan – all of them will soon be at your throat. UPDATE – I have corrected this observation; refer to my post on the game’s diplomacy.

Now, from a thematic perspective, I like this a lot, for the same reason that I liked the noble lords dashing for the capital at the end of an old strategy game, Emperor of the Fading Suns. From a game structure perspective, I like this, too – I’ve argued before that games should build to a climax, and showdowns don’t come much more climactic than Player vs Everyone Else.

But a clever difficulty spike is still a difficulty spike. My Oda game went from “pushover” to “unwinnable” in the blink of an eye, as armies attacked me on every front. I had been able to coast up until that point; my fortifications were pretty minimal and my armies largely consisted of ashigaru zerg swarms, but they worked. By the time realm divide rolled around, I was complacent. Boy, did the actual endgame come as a nasty shock after that. Given that I did complain about the series’ tendency to have “a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game”, maybe this was a case of “be careful what you wish for”…


So far, the game is promising enough for me to keep playing. This time, with the Shimazu, I intend to dig in and tech up as much as I can before realm divide sets in. I’ve set the campaign length to “short”, this time, so the game should end on a high note with the realm divide showdown. And I’m looking forward to that, even after the hammering I took the first time. Finally, a challenge worthy of the name “Total War”!

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.