One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is how closely it simulates the scale of battles fought in the time of the Vikings.
Total War games have been around a long time. But whether they are tackling the Roman empire or a Japanese shogunate, the sizes of armies on-screen are generally smaller representations of what historically occurred. Battles in Thrones of Britannia are based on the ninth-century wars in Britain and Ireland, where “armies” might refer to relatively small numbers of warriors. This is the time of Alfred the Great and of the Danegeld.
This sense of scale offers historical accuracy that feels, somehow, organic. I hope the video above offers a sense of how the game plays out, particularly when it crunches into the midst of a battle.
Another reason to be optimistic about this game is the pedigree of the Total War franchise. For sure, it’s had its missteps and dead ends over the past 17 years. But developer Creative Assembly has generally been moving in the right direction, tightening up the series’ complex and interacting layers of tactical and strategic gameplay.
You can get a sense of some of the improvements being brought to Thrones of Britannia in a feature I wrote some weeks ago.
But the basic premise always remains the same. Once again, I play as a political leader, seeking to protect my patch of land from aggressive outsiders, or looking to expand. At a top-down level, this is achieved through strategic management of finance, land, armies and associates.
There’s a basic economic engine at play. Population centers must be upgraded in order to generate food, income and other variable resources. Towns must be fortified.
The leader’s associates must be accounted for, with family members and allies nurtured and promoted as needs arise. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, which can be manipulated over time. These subordinates will fight for me in the field, and so they must be strengthened, while keeping them in line. Sons and daughters must be sired in order to provide for the future, and for alliances.
Armies must be trained and provisioned. Depending on whether I play as an Anglo-Saxon, a Viking or a lord at the fringes of this British Isles map, I must focus my attention on the particular military strengths and traditions of my people. The Irish do not fight the same way as the Vikings do, and I can use this to my advantage, whichever side I choose to play.
Occasionally, specific crises occur that offer me choices that can bring benefits to my armies or to my peoples. Often, though, the desire to keep everyone happy must give way to immediate, practical concerns.
There’s an overmap to manage, in which neighbors are wooed with alliances, or threatened with shows of force. Armies are positioned appropriately, with an eye on the seasons, which change on each turn. It’s a bad idea to leave an army in the field during the winter months.
Ultimately, the game plays out on the battlefield. Total War’s system of real-time action demands quick thinking and tactical acumen as divisions of warriors are ordered into formations.
Terrain, weather and comparative force are all factors, of course. But it also comes down to how I use my archers, javelins, cavalry and levies. Each division has its own level of experience and expertise. Replacing a division is more expensive and time-consuming than rebuilding them after a tough battle. This can make all the difference in the brutal late stages of a battle, when the time comes to sacrifice soldiers, or to pull them back and perhaps lose the initiative.
In a world of shield walls, flanking is of paramount importance. But my enemies are also keenly aware of this fact.
Making use of my elite forces, most particularly the leader’s own guard, is a huge deal. But losing a king or general will have devastating and immediate effect on the fighting spirit of the warriors.
I’ve seen and played Thrones of Britannia a few times in recent months, and am quietly optimistic that it will deliver a compelling and realistic take on the Viking world. The game is being published by Sega and will be released May 3 for Windows PC, with Mac and Linux versions following soon after.