The Making Of Warhammer: Total War (THE MOD)

Until Total War: Warhammer comes along from Creative Assembly, the most ambitious and comprehensive Warhammer fantasy strategy game is a colossal mod for Rome: Total War called Warhammer: Total War – A Call to Arms. Over the course of five years, a high school student and a handful of volunteers tortured and twisted the aging Rome: Total War engine into becoming a full-fledged Warhammer game.

Powered by an obsolete engine even when the final version was released a couple years back, and soon overshadowed by the news the Sega had acquired the rights to make a Warhammer fantasy game on PC, A Call to Arms could be seen as a classically quixotic modding effort. But if you look past the dated graphics, you’ll find that A Call to Arms might just be the most faithful adaptation Warhammer fantasy will ever receive on PC. It is a sprawling, ambitious, and scarcely-coherent effort to bring every ounce of Warhammer fantasy lore to life as a Total War game – and in doing so it captures the spirit of the old Warhammer fantasy universe better than official games might ever dare.

A Youth Well-Wasted

Warhammer: A Call to Arms creator James Baillie is a nerd polymath. He’s an inveterate game modder and aspiring board game designer, as well as the founder of Exilian.co.uk, a forum where strategy fans and history buffs collide.

Somehow, in the midst of a busy career of passion projects, he’s also found time to to excel at academics: he’s currently finishing his degree in history at Cambridge, where he focuses on Byzantine and Eastern Mediterranean medieval history.

But of course he’s not just a history major. His historical interest is narrow and specialized even by the standards of Classical and medieval studies. He explain it like this: “I’m sort of this odd mishmash, because I’m sort of specializing in the Classical bits of history — which tend to be the preserve of language-based people — but what I do is a lot more mathematically based history. I’m quite into quantitative methods and that kind of stuff.”

In other words, Baillie aspires to be an expert on how ancient and medieval civilizations did math. If you were wondering, this is just the kind of person who devotes his teenage years to taking a game engine that’s as creaky and tumbledown as the Byzantine Empire and turning it into a Warhammer game.

For Baillie, what sets Warhammer Fantasy apart is that it’s a complete mess. The messiness was baked-into its DNA when Games Workshop created it.

“It was being built up in the 90s as a world where Games Workshop could throw in every fantasy trope you could possibly imagine and shove it into one world,” he explains. “It means there’s a huge amount that you can then do with that. Because it’s designed to be almost infinitely flexible. So the background is very broad, you can come up with lots of sort of interesting scenarios within it. So I think that gives it a lot of replay value that you wouldn’t get from some other settings.”

At least, this is how Warhammer fantasy used to be. But since its inception, the unhinged lore of Warhammer has undergone a gradual process of consolidation and retconning by Games Workshop. What was once a universe that was almost gleeful in its ridiculousness has become something a little more familiar: a Manichean struggle between good guys (or good-ish guys – this is still Warhammer, after all) and bad guys.

Retcons are always controversial among fans, and Baillie is no different in his cool reception of them.

“I’ve adapted to a lot of changes by ignoring them. Digging into what I was looking at when I was building up Warhammer Total War, I was often digging into background stuff that was pretty old, or was being retconned as I was modding. Because I think that works better with the Total War engine,” he says.

“The older versions of the setting, you had something that was supposed to be more [reflective of] medieval Europe. Much less of a good guy/bad guy, fitting everybody into two teams. Which works much better when you’re trying to do something that runs with this Total War engine.”

Playing A Call to Arms, it definitely plays out more like old-school Warhammer fantasy. Everyone hates everybody else. There are no racial affinities or alliances to be trusted. Everybody is out for themselves, and the politics make no sense at all. It’s a mod of endless, “Who’d win in a fight?” battles between homicidal fantasy stereotypes.

Prisoner of Rome

Not that Baillie had a choice in how A Call to Arms plays out. In many ways, he was trapped by Rome’s own limitations, which he inherited when he began the project. A Call to Arms was not created from scratch, but began life as a continuation of an earlier, abandoned Warhammer mod. This is why Baillie ended up working with the Rome engine at a time when it was clearly nearing the end of its useful life.

But that also forced A Call to Arms to adhere to the rules that governed Rome: Total War. When you pick a faction and jump onto the enormous campaign map (which spans the entirety of the Warhammer fantasy world), you’re likely to find yourself immediately at war with all your neighbors. Some might even send a trade agreement the same turn their armies try to mug you.

“It’s very hard to make diplomacy in Rome do anything that isn’t just ‘everybody trying to kill everybody,'” Baillie admits. “It is a system that is designed for everybody to be going out for their own advantage.”

This was always the knock against Rome and its sequel, Medieval 2. The battles looked incredible, but the strategic layer made less sense than a season of professional wrestling. This doesn’t bother Baillie.

“I quite like it like that,” he argues. “I think I would have kept it with a fairly ‘everybody fighting everybody’ focus regardless. Particularly when you look at some of the older background. The Bretonians and the Wood Elves do fight quite a bit, and the Wood Elves and the Dwarves will happily kill each other on sight.”

While all the usual Warhammer Fantasy standbys are there in A Call to Arms — the Empire, the Skaven, the Dwarves — Baillie wanted to do more than just capture the familiar tabletop armies in a computer game. He wanted to explore the periphery of the Warhammer Fantasy universe, the things that are left as a part of the canon but never fully developed.

“I knew people would want to get their favorite core units more or less as they had them on the tabletop and get them into the core engine,” he says. “But one of my favorite bits was actually when I got to explore bits that you can’t get in the tabletop, like Araby and Kislev as entire factions. But also you’ll find there are several smaller localized areas which have their own mercenaries of recruitable units. It was good to be able to dig into the lore.”

If Ballie was digging into the lore of Warhammer, however, the Rome engine certainly ensured that the soil was rocky. While Baillie explains that the firearm and gunpowder artillery units found on Warhammer battlefields were surprisingly easy to adapt to Rome, flying units were another matter entirely. Rome could not handle them at all, and Baillie had to leave them out of the mod almost entirely.

With one major exception. “In Warhammer: A Call to Arms, Araby does have flying carpets, which is done in a rather odd fashion. What you see is a flying carpet with some wizards on the top. What the game thinks is happening is that there’s sort of an entire invisible elephant happening under that.”

A Moral Victory

Baillie knows where he cut every corner. He knows where the invisible elephants are hiding, where another fantasy race is just another re-skinned Roman. And after five years of work, he only managed to have a couple games to enjoy his own mod, mostly to prove to himself that it actually worked.

“I’m both happy and unhappy with the scale of what was achieved,” he admits. “I mean, there are lots of places where it could be neater. Where it could be more polished. If I’d had a bigger team for the whole time I was working on it and more people doing models… Well, the sorts of things I would really liked to have done would have been getting more unique kinds of battle maps and cities in there. It’s not the ‘perfect conception’ that I have somewhere at the back of my head.”

“But at the same time,” he continues, “I was pleased that I’d managed to stuff the game about as full as it could be stuffed. And there was a pretty big diversity of toys that people have been able to play with. So hopefully people have enjoyed that.”

In many ways, it’s a miracle he was able to finish the mod at all. While he never heard from anyone at Creative Assembly about his work, he was happy to struggle on in anonymity. Too much attention made him nervous.

“We were always never sure, if we did hear anything, whether it would be from the friendly end of the company or the legal department. We were generally quite glad to be left alone from that perspective,” he says. “There’s still nervousness, in the back of my head! There is always wondering whether someday the email will come. But yeah. …It was always something I was quite acutely aware of.”

These days, Baillie calls A Call to Arms a “mostly-closed” chapter of his life. There are always a few more bugs he wants to fix, but he’s moved on from the project. Finishing up his studies don’t give him a lot of choice. He’s hoping that after completing his degree, he’s able to continue with academics, though funding cuts make that a chancier prospect that in it used to be.

I ask him if he’s considered a career in game development and he says, ” I have considered it. If it turns out I failed my finals, I may be considering it very seriously! But yes. Game development is something which I really enjoy doing, and which I plan on carrying on doing.”

In fact, he’s not sure he can imagine pursuing any one role to the exclusion of the others. Here at the end of his studies, and at the end of his career as a Warhammer modder, he is still the kind of person who uses history and games to help relate to the world.

“The two [interests] have grown out of each other so much that I can’t imagine one falling to one side or the other. In my head, the things I am into have never existed as… totally separate and I can’t see links between them,” he says.

“I will think about my game design and apply things which I know about from history and weave them into that. And I will take away what I know of games… and the things you get from that — about how people act and the rules of how things work — that’s a sort of key part of looking at systems in history. They just knock together so much in my mind, I can’t imagine them being separated.”

Indeed, school and game design are inextricably linked for Baillie. Among the half-dozen or so Rome: Total War mods littering his desktop right now is one called “A Game of Colleges” which is a Game of Thrones-style dynastic free-for-all between the colleges of Cambridge. It’s the Warhammer fantasy version of the UK academic universe that Baillie now inhabits.

Stolen Triumph?

Perhaps predictably, it was just as Baillie and his team were putting the finishing touches on A Call to Arms that the news broke that Sega and Creative Assembly had acquired the rights to make a PC strategy game based around Warhammer fantasy.

Baillie looses a single, ironic laugh when the topic and its timing comes up. Total War: Warhammer is something he has mixed feelings about, in part because he knows he won’t be able to avoid comparing it to A Call to Arms.

“I can’t imagine that it will come out and then I won’t get it to have a bit of a play with it. I think it’s going to be interesting to see where they go with it and where they take it. There will always be a bit of a case of not wanting to think about it too hard because you don’t want to make the comparison,” he says.

“But…I did the whole thing because I thought the Total War engine is pretty much ideal for putting a Warhammer game into. It will make it interesting when I finally am confronted with the ‘real’ Warhammer: Total War, if you like,” he explains.

“Because I guess at one end, there will be the, ‘This is so much better and more professional than what I spent however many years of my life on.’ And on the other hand, I will probably be comparing it to the concept I have in the back of my head for precisely how I feel a Warhammer: Total War ought to be done. I don’t know how close it will end up being to that. But probably not very.”

And that’s the thing about fan mods. In many ways, they’re allowed more freedom to embrace the weird and cultish aspects of their source material. Even as Games Workshop attempts to pare down the source material and turn Warhammer Fantasy into the kind of (mostly) coherent universe that Warhammer 40,000 has become, it loses some of the whimsical strangeness that made Warhammer fantasy so delightful.

But Baillie didn’t have to make any of those compromises. His Warhammer fantasy, and the Warhammer fantasy of a couple generations of tabletop gamers, is memorialized in part by a Call to Arms. It’s a little janky, and certainly kind of ugly compared to subsequent Total War games. It’s almost certainly too big, with too many factions and a nigh-incoherent storyline as it unfolds.

It’s Warhammer.

26 Comments

  1. fuggles says:

    He might be fine, if the new Total War has to adhere to that god-awful new Warhammer end of days nonsense then most of the factions are dead anyway, so there will be less content. I thought this would be the medieval 2 one, that had a boatload of stuff in it. Anyway, great to see some WHFB in any game, been a fan since shadow of the horny rat which featured Gouraud shading and looked abysmal with stupid hidden items but great gameplay and unit types.

    Well done, Mr Baillie for completing such a large project.

  2. James Currie says:

    I get that they (Creative Assembly) want to do fantasy – but I find it strange that the ‘Total War’ series is unlikely to cover the actual ‘Total War’ – a term originating in World War One. Of all the wars in history, and going by the quality of CA’s modelling of arms fire and artillery, WW1 should be the logical progression for the Total War series. I find it strange that they would confine one of history’s most defining military conflicts in the dark from the rays of CA’s new shiny engine.

    • 2helix4u says:

      Yes and no, it would be if they were seeking to move the gameplay away from classical warfare since WW1 is the war in which Wars turned away from breaking your enemies army, routing them entirely and usually winning the whole war in one big battle and towards huge attrition slogfests.

      To do WW1 realistically it would basically have to be two giant blobs of infantry making no progress against eachother as artillery and planes filled up an “attrition” bar.

      Also for people who want more total war warhammer the Medieval 2 mod is much prettier than this one but from what I’ve played most races don’t work very well in campaigns. Fantasy worlds never do apart from Game of Thrones, fantasy has this weird habit of putting all the enemies on the other side of the world to the goodies which is sort of opposite of real life where usually your natural enemeies are the godless buggers next to you.

    • Arathain says:

      Same old problem that leaves WWI games so rare, I suspect. Defensive technology and tactics greatly outpacing offensive ones leads to static battlefields and lengthy, fruitless assaults.

      One of the interesting things Total War does is show you the piles of casualties. It’s relatively bloodless, but you do get a sense of the carnage you might find on the battlefield. I think Total War: WWI might be too unpleasant for a lot of people to play.

    • celticdr says:

      The Great War, aka WW1, sounds like a great idea for a tactical grognard game, and yes “total war” is the term invented for WW1 – but the inherent problem with The Great War (in gaming eyes at least) was the fact that for almost 4 yrs it was fought on static ground with very little in the way of a dynamic background (i.e. mud and trenches were the predominant fighting ground).

      Sure you could create a Total War: WW1, but who is attacking and who is defending… would you even bother attacking as the attacker only to have most of your force wiped out in said attack? Innovation was slow during WW1 due to the fact that on both sides (when I say this I refer primarily to the British Empire and Germany, other war fronts were a bit more fluid) were quite happy to throw human corpses at each other in the hope that “something would stick” – Haig was particularly fond of this – as such the area of innovation was limited to squad level tactics by people like Erwin Rommel or developments in the field of experimental weapons like the tank, which was called a ‘tank’ so as to confuse the enemy into thinking that the British were developing a water tank… that should give one an idea of the relative pace of military development during WW1 and that whilst it makes an interesting hobby to study this war the fact is that it was ultimately a stupid waste of human life that is not even interesting as a game.

      WW2 – now there is a war that is game-worthy!*

      *Let me qualify this by saying I had ancestors die in both wars (some on both sides) and that we should never glorify war but that my point is that out of the two major wars of the 20th century that WW2 is much more translatable into a gaming experience.

  3. mejoff says:

    Call of Warhammer for Medieval 2 strikes me as more complete and better looking than this?

    • thebob999coon says:

      Call of Warhammer AKA Rage of the Dark Gods.

      link to twcenter.net

      I get the feeling that CA’s version of warhammer will actually be much worse than this.

    • Democrodile says:

      Depends on whether they ever sorted out the “Sigmar Preserve Us!” crashes which ruin so many attempted playthroughs.

  4. Strangeblades says:

    Whaaaaaa? Rob? Is that you? You on this site too? Does this mean the Three Moves Ahead domination plan is really a thing and not just a myth like world leaders are all Skaven?

  5. DumbparameciuM says:

    Cease and Desist letters in 3…2…1…

  6. UKPartisan says:

    WH: Shadow of the Horned Rat made me skip work for a week when it was released, though it’s follow up Dark Omen left me a feeling a bit cold. Might have been the fact that I played it on the back of having just played the original Half Life.

    Edit: This was supposed to be a reply to Fuggles intial comment, somehow it ended up down here :P

  7. pepperfez says:

    For Baillie, what sets Warhammer Fantasy apart is that it’s a complete mess.
    Here, indeed, is a man who Gets It. I wish more designers still realized the virtues of a complete mess.

  8. Bran says:

    Excellent, I thought to myself. After reading comments on last week’s Warhammer: Total War announcement I had to track down and try out the mod people had mentioned. It took some time to get the parts in place and it was a litttle awkward to install but my God was it worth it, its amazing!

    But its not this mod….

    As others have mentioned Call of Warhammer is THE Warhammer mod. Not only that, its one of the best mods I’ve ever seen for any game. It captures the feel of the Warhammer world in great detail and depth and comes across as being as well made as any of the actual Total War releases (and far better than some).

    The developers of the upcoming game can look upon this as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, if hey merely repleicate everything that is in Call of Warhammer with updated graphics you would have a great game so they should be immensely grateful for having a fully functioning blueprint for how the game should work. On the other hand, if they fail to deliver a superior (or at least equal) game they have absolutely no excuse for being outdone by team of amateur modders with little resources and no direct support from Games Workshop.

    • Firkragg says:

      A bit suprised as well, thought this would be a worthy mention of Call of Warhammer too. I haven’t played the mod for Rome, so can’t compare it to the medieval 2 one, though I have the impression that CoW might be a lot more unbalanced, but in a good way! Chaos daemons, like Bloodletters and Bloodthirsters. are supposed to dominate the field against almost anything!
      But as Bran said, its a pain to install, i’ve done it 2-3 times because of changing computers. The process is lengthy due to mod seize, you have to follow the instructions EXACTLY (it may be easier now with a steam install of Medieval 2, haven’t tried it since) and sometimes you have to use an hour or two troubleshooting why it won’t run properly. But it is well worth it if you do get it to run. It is pretty unbalanced in places but thats part of why I still remember this mod fondly. Creative Assembly could learn a lot from playing it.

      Now i’m going to look up that Rome version, just to see what gems it contains.

  9. IanK says:

    ‘”what I do is a lot more mathematically based history. I’m quite into quantitative methods and that kind of stuff.”

    In other words, Baillie aspires to be an expert on how ancient and medieval civilizations did math..’

    WRONG.

    He said he USES math to study history, through statistics and modeling and such.

    Otherwise, good article.

  10. RanDomino says:

    Ooh, excellent. Is the campaign mode fully implemented? Last I saw there weren’t starting units, every town had the same population, and it was rather crashy. I went through the work of giving all the towns starting units (which I think solves some crashes), but did a poor job of documenting anything, such as which files I had changed and how. Right, looking through old PMs on Exilian, my Gmail outbox, a previous version of WHTW, and the most recent version of WHTW… it looks like I sent off my work and it got used maybe as a base for the current campaign starting units? Hum, I think so; I distinctly remember manually figuring out the X-Y coordinates for every town and then documenting them somewhere, and there they are in descr_strat with some irregularities (for example in the current version, Middenheim does not appear to have starting units and Theodoric Todbringer seems to be standing nearby, whereas in my version “;middenheim” mistakenly appears right above “faction romans_brutii, fortified mao” so I’m not sure what happened there). Couple other changes… So I’m pretty sure they used my descr_strat as a base and made some changes through playtesting. Neat!

  11. manny says:

    I thought the new engine was total crap compared to Rome Total War, which was the tactical peak of the series?

  12. El_MUERkO says:

    COME ON CREATIVE! GET CREATIVE!!!

    Total Warhammer

  13. wintermute000 says:

    How does it stack up to the Third Age?

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    CdrJameson says:

    Looks like we have Slann, but O shall have to wait another day to roll out the Vimto monks.

  15. JubalBarca says:

    Hi everyone! Thanks for the kind comments!

    A few notes:
    – Yes, Call of Warhammer for M2TW is excellent and very slickly made, and I absolutely recommend giving both that and A Call to Arms a playthrough. They and I have always been trying to do different things; their aim has always been to make something tight, neat, and focussed on the Old World, whereas breadth, diversity, and eclecticness characterise my work much more. I’d like to think people can enjoy either or both, rather than them being in direct competition.
    – IanK is right: my focus is on the maths of history, rather than the history of maths.
    – RanDomino, yes, IIRC it’s a mix of your stuff and a fair number of later tweaks as more provinces were added quite late into the process. In general the campaign mode should be fully functional, though its a bit less stable than vanilla.

    If anyone has any supplementary questions, I’d be happy to answer them here, or you can poke your nose onto Exilian (link up in the article) where I’m pretty easy to find. :)

    • IanK says:

      Vindication!

      I haven’t played Warhammer Fantasy (HERESY!) or any Total War (HERESY x 2!), so the brief description of Mr. Baillie’s research was the most interesting part of the article for me. Thus my particular-ness.

    • RanDomino says:

      Sweet!

  16. bill says:

    This new cleaned up warhammer sounds terrible. Why would they want to clean up warhammer?

    Old 40k was much better too.