Total War

In the comments on my recent rant about overly complex strategy games, regular Tea Leaves reader Andy P sung the praises of the Total War series. It was a very short song, but very spirited.

I’d heard of Total War but never really paid attention to the details. So, I decided to check them out.

There are at this point, not counting expansions, 5 Total War games, with fairly self-descriptive names: Shogun and Medieval are hard to find (read: not on Steam), so I didn’t spend too much time thinking about them. Rome is the oldest one you can get, and was followed up by Medieval II and the latest release, this year’s Empire: Total War.

I have something of a bee in my bonnet about ancient Rome, so I opted to pick up Rome: Total War. The fact that it was a mere $9.99 on Steam helped seal the deal (for our Macintosh brethren, an OS X version of Rome: Total War will be released on August 30.

I enjoyed Rome so much that two days later I dropped $20 to pick up Medieval 2 as well.

The basic premise of both games is the same: your faction, playing on a map of the world divided into provinces, raises an army and grooms leaders to battle for control against other factions. You conquer a province by taking control of the city or fortress in it. This will almost always involve a siege, but you may also become entangled in field battles along the way. Your leaders and your troops improve their fighting skills through battle.

The strategic game is turn-based, not unlike Civilization. The battles themselves are conducted in real-time, but you can pause as much as you want to consider your tactical situation and issue orders (if this sounds a lot like Legion Arena_, that’s because it is). In battle, your troops are divided into groups of soldiers who move as a unit - for example, a unit of 45 javelin-throwing Velites, or 55 light infantry. Victory in tactical battle comes from using a combination of combined arms and flanking manuevers. In a typical battle, you’ll deploy your troops, start the battle, and immediately pause (at least if you’re not playing online), and then issue orders to your units. With some exceptions, these orders mostly consist of telling your troops to march (or run) around the battlefield, maneuvering and engaging (or avoiding) enemy troops.

Battles can be won by annihilating enemy units, of course, but a more common outcome is to cause the enemy’s morale to flag, causing their troops to rout. Enemy morale can be reduced in a number of ways, including inflicting casualties, by exhausting them, by attacking from their flanks or rear, or by killing their general. All of these factors apply equally to your troops, as well.

You can resolve battles automatically, skipping tactical combat, if you like, but since the battles are sort of the point of the game I don’t recommend it. The tactical battle is the center of the game.

The older game is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the better one. In addition to having a more consistent feel and being more focused, it is simpler, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s clear that in Medieval 2, Creative Assembly tried to make everything bigger and more complex. They achieved their goal, and the game suffers for it. To take just one example, in the strategic game in Rome, in addition to troops and their leaders, you have spies to infiltrate cities, and diplomats to negotiate with other countries and their armies. That’s it. In Medieval 2 you have spies and diplomats, as before, but you also have merchants, who can make money by wandering around the map, and assassins, who can try to kill leaders, and priests (or imams) who can convert the populace and try to kill heretics, and you also have Princesses, who are just like diplomats, only with breasts.(Footnote 1)

In Rome, recruitment of troops and agents works like this: if you’ve built the right building in a given town, and you have cash, you can recruit them. In Medieval 2 you can recruit them if you’ve built the right building, you have cash, you haven’t reached your muster limit in that town, you haven’t hit the mysterious global limit on that number and kind of agent, and this is all affected by several other variables that, on my second play through, I still don’t understand. Medieval 2 adds complexity, but this complexity doesn’t make the game appreciably richer. It just makes it busier.

The tactical game feels a little better to me in Rome as well, although it’s hard to separate my opinions on this from my subjective enjoyment of the setting. As you would imagine, towns in Medieval Europe tend to be better fortified and a little more closed in than your average Gallic outpost. The net result of this is that sieges take longer (especially at the beginning of the game, when you don’t have elaborate siege engines yet) and your options for maneuver warfare are more limited.

None of this is to say that Medieval 2 is bad, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who prefers that milieu to that of ancient Rome. But I do think it’s a fascinating case study of how adding features to a game can in fact detract from the experience. By some reports, the most recent game, Empire has gotten even worse, and is sagging under the weight of newer features, such as detailed naval combat, although recent patches have reportedly improved things somewhat. I haven’t played Empire yet. It does look beautiful, though:

If you’ve played any of the Total War games, please share your comments on the games with us below. I’m especially interested in anyone who can compare Empire to the previous games.

My nigglings about the world map game mechanics aside, I like the Total War games I’ve played. I like them a lot. I like them because they allow me to play at my own pace. I like them because they don’t abstract the combat away completely, and instead keep the realities of cohort-level tactical engagement constantly in the foreground. And I like them because they work hard to balance the desire to match over-the-top levels of military detail to keeping the game fast, simple, and fun.

Footnote 1: No, I’m not kidding.