For the past 18 years, Total War games have taken us to ancient Rome, Shogunate Japan, Napoleonic Europe and — by way of a fantasy detour — to the universe of Warhammer. Now the military sim series is turning to the Vikings.
I played Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia for an hour or so at a recent demo event, and I came away encouraged. It’s billed as a new direction, taking place over a much shorter timeframe than previous Total War games. But it feels more like an evolution on 2015’s Total War: Attila, which is no bad thing.
It’s set in Britain, beginning in the year 878 AD. In Wessex, King Alfred has stemmed the tide of Viking invasions, which are now rooted in the East of England. Ireland, Wales, Scotland and some English fringes are a patchwork of fiefdoms which seek both autonomy from one another, and mutual protection from the Northmen.
You can play as any of these leaders, including the Vikings. For my demo, I ran Meath, a central kingdom in Ireland, surrounded by rivals, riven by internal rebellions. As the game goes on, it becomes clear that this is a time of consolidation, with smaller kingdoms falling to proto-nations. Standing still is not really an option.
It’s a turn-based strategy game in which I command my fiefdom’s direction, moving military units around the map, researching new technologies, investing in building projects, dealing with neighbors through diplomacy.
All this calls for a forest of menus and screens. Throne of Britannia offers a more simplified user interface than Attila, allowing me to ignore notifications that don’t interest me, while working menus as and when needed. This is a complicated game, but developer Creative Assembly understands something about the tension between data presentation and pacing. I don’t feel overwhelmed by the information, though it takes some learning.
When opposing forces meet, the strategy part of the game gives way to battlefield tactics. Here, I enter a detailed slice of country, where I position my armies to the best effect, taking advantage of higher ground, making sure experienced units are in position to support those less experienced.
I throw my armies into the melee, watching as they either triumph, die or scatter. This has always been one of Total War’s attractions, the ability to direct battles at a believable level of detail.
Even so, victories and defeats are often decided before battles begin. Strategy is more important than tactics. And so I make sure to recruit armies that suit the strengths of my people and the weaknesses of my enemies.
Meath is good at producing swordsmen and spear-men, which are given bonuses. Other kings favor cavalry or archery. In a change from previous games, I select my soldiers from a pool, instead of via military buildings. So long as I have enough resources to feed and pay my soldiers, all is well.
In order to simulate the reality of mustering, new recruits come with only 25 percent strength. They need time to be trained and seasoned. This makes me more cautious about keeping my military units alive. They are more than a temporary cash investment.
I also spend time looking after my elites. These leaders and generals can be awarded RPG-like qualities that can transform them into powerful units. The shorter timeframe of this game — which takes place over a few decades, rather than over centuries — means that I am motivated to invest in my leaders. It’s a lot more satisfying than watching them die of old age, as in Attila, where one generation bled into another too rapidly.
Keeping my extended family sweet is important. As my empire grows, I need governors and generals I can trust. Factions emerge which must be controlled or pacified through appointments, land gifts and marriages.
Technology research is embedded in my actions, rather than being some separate stream of choices. So, if I recruit a certain number of swordsmen, I can research a related tech. This plays to the particularities of the people and the country I rule. The same is true for civic research. In Meath, there is a long-established tradition of Christianity, and I can win culture boosts by researching and building great churches. Other lands have different traditions, like a strong economy driven by market towns.
Each player also has a series of events that confer nice bonuses. For me, it’s a great fair that generates contentment, profits and culture. But the fair can only be held if my coffers are full, and my capital is safe from invaders.
Capitals are heavily fortified, but smaller settlements lack walls and defenses. Farms, mines and towns can be annexed, starving out enemies without having to defeat them in their fastnesses. Towns have a smaller number of building slots than cities, and must be harvested to satisfy the demands of a military economy.
The victory conditions tend toward military conquest. They include complete victory over the entire map of the British Isles, but also a more historically relevant win of uniting a nation, like Ireland or England. I’m the sort of player who enjoys creating a highly functioning kingdom, and so I’m more likely to play for a fame victory, in which my achievements are cultural and technological, as well as military.
During my game, I encountered some of my neighbors in diplomatic relationships. I haven’t played enough to judge this system. According to Creative Assembly, the AI leaders are designed to behave as rationally as their biographies suggest. So if I’m dealing with a neighbor who is known to be easy to provoke into war, I know what I’m getting into.
One last note on this game: I really like its art style, which feels like the decorations on manuscripts from the time, a Bede-ish sense of time and place. The Viking era is narratively dramatic, culturally rich and historically complex. It looks like a good pick for Total War.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is due out on Windows PC on April 19.