How Total War: Warhammer’s Mortal Empires engineers a world of unending war

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they underwent to make the best bits of their games. This time, Total War: Warhammer’s Mortal Empires campaign [official site].

Mortal Empires is the logical conclusion of Total War: Warhammer. It asks this: what happens if all the races, factions, legendary lords and terrain of both Total War: Warhammer and its sequel were folded together into a single giant campaign? The answer was released in October as a free addition to owners of the two games, and it is, as game director Ian Roxborough tells me, “By far the biggest, most content-rich campaign that we’ve ever done in Total War.”

But how do you make games that are designed to be played both in discrete and distinctive smaller chunks, and also in huge and unified ones? How do you balance Warhammer’s strongly asymmetric races against each other while continually adding more? And how do you make a game as big as Mortal Empires comprehensible and playable at all?

The Old World of the Empire, Vampires, Greenskins and Dwarfs, and the New World of the Lizardmen, Skaven, High and Dark Elves, were each designed to push their native races into carefully orchestrated conflict. Whether Greenskins against Dwarfs, Skaven against Lizardmen, each campaign in the base games has a specific flavour within Total War’s general open world of conflict. But when the horizon opens out as much as it does with Mortal Empires, geography had to change. Lizardmen players settling the expanses of Lustria might go hundreds of turns without coming across Empire or the other races from Warhammer I. “It’s important to try to redress that balance by encouraging players to come out and intermingle across the rest of the world,” Roxborough says. So there are chunks of the western edge, such as Naggaroth and Lustria, which are therefore slightly smaller in Mortal Empires than they are in Warhammer II’s standard Eye of the Vortex campaign, to push them closer to the Old World.

This is Mortal Empires' map, with starting positions. It looks rather comprehensible from this perspective, but in play it feels much more expansive.

But more than that, faction victory conditions and starting positions are tweaked to get players to spread out into the world. Play as Karl Franz, and you’ll start as you always did in Altdorf, but his long list of victory conditions give him plenty of reason to voyage out into the New World and not, as design lead Jim Whitson puts it, “Turtle in the same place he played in the Old World.” Luckily, the sheer volume of Warhammer lore pretty much supports any character going off to duff up another. After all, the reason the setting exists is to give some kind of reason why one set of tabletop figures might be fighting any other.

Another big geographical change in Mortal Empires is its use of Warhammer II’s climate mechanic. In the first game, races had restrictions on what settlements they could hold: Greenskins couldn’t occupy any Empire territory, only raze and sack it. It was about pushing certain strategies and choices beyond simply allowing players to blindly attempt to occupy the entire continent, and it was also fairly appropriate to the lore, supposing that mountain crag-loving Dwarfs wouldn’t want to live in some dinky riverside town. In Warhammer I it worked well, because the races were divided 50/50 across the terrain types, so as any race you could occupy half the map. But Warhammer II’s more ragtag races didn’t present the same neat split.

My Greenskins campaign is way too young to have extended beyond its traditional reaches, so it all feels pretty familiar so far.

As such, Creative Assembly knew that Warhammer I’s settlement restrictions weren’t going to last; climate mechanic was first considered way back before Warhammer I was released. “And it was a marmite feature,” Roxborough says. “A lot of people liked it and there were others who wanted to paint the whole map their colour. I get that sentiment.” Climate does both: it allows players to occupy any terrain, but if it has a climate that doesn’t suit their race it imposes various penalties, thereby allowing total domination while also steering player choices. It was ideal for Mortal Empires, holding in check any Old World faction as well as it does any New World one, while also introducing new and fresh choices to Warhammer I veterans, such as the chance for the Empire can take over Dwarfen karaks.

“It also reduces complexity for what players have to get their head around,” adds Whitson. Instead of having to note what settlements you can capture, climate is a universal law clearly communicated with a single icon. Mortal Empires’ size presents a big cognitive challenge for players as they attempt to take in everything that’s going on, so any chance to streamline was welcome. In the same way, Mortal Empires encouraged Creative Assembly to introduce various tweaks to the ways in which the game reminds players to move some army or hero, or if it’s possible to upgrade a building in some far corner of your vast empire.

One of Mortal Empires’ most immediate effects on the game is the length of its turn endings, which is when the game calculates the actions of AI-controlled factions. There are a lot of those factions. “We thought long and hard about it,” says Roxborough. “The fans are going to want all this content in, but at the same time they’ll also say the end turn times are really long, so we had to find a line.” Ultimately, they decided that since Mortal Empires was the domain of the hardcore, they’d prefer as many factions as possible over longer turn times. It was the right call. In fact, I agree with players I’ve heard say cheerfully that they see turn times as additional motivation to wipe out factions.

Still, Creative Assembly introduced new controls for what you see during end turn sequences so you can shorten them by speeding up movement of armies and heroes on a faction basis, so you can monitor allies and enemies and ignore everyone else, or just ignore everything and just see where it ends up when it’s your turn again, whichever you prefer.

And it's all Dwarfs Dwarfs Dwarfs at moment.

One thing Mortal Empires does not tweak, however, is Total War: Warhammer’s fundamental workings. “The sandbox is sacrosanct to us on Total War,” says Roxborough. If a player is conducting five wars in a Mortal Empires campaign, another angry faction won’t hold back to give them room to breathe. “The systems are all designed to provide AI that will think on its own and do things that make sense for that AI, rather than being manipulated by us to determine the player experience.”

“Obviously, it puts more of an onus on us to balance the game, so we put a lot of thought into how we could upgrade our systems that handle that kind of thing,” says Whitson. That meant more testing, making the game playable from an earlier stage and running a lot of auto-run data, gathered by running the game’s systems and seeing on spreadsheets data on how they play out. “It’s to make sure we don’t have a runaway faction scenario, that they’re all holding each other in balance to a certain extent.”

The sheer amount of testing has made Total War: Warhammer something of an ocean tanker of a game. “The sheer magnitude of it when you’ve got not just two games but also constant DLC being fed into it, we have to constantly have to re-tweak how different races suddenly become prominent for one reason or another, and every time you put some content in it can influence the entire structure of how the races in the area develop and expand,” says Roxborough. The Norsa race, for instance, which was the final DLC released for the first game, has yet to become playable in Mortal Empires because of how much work it is to ensure they play nicely in the sandbox. (OK, Norsa would probably never play nicely in any sandbox, but you get the point.)

Having said that, some Lizardmen set up near-ish by. Don't know how they got there, and I haven't met them. I wonder if they'll like us? (They won't like us.)

But Creative Assembly can still move fast when it really matters. Mortal Empires’ launch was remarkably smooth, but for one important element. Its Chaos invasion mechanic, whereby players would have to deal with northern incursions from Chaos after a certain point in their campaign, was not having the intended effect. “It was really upsetting for me personally because it was just a little blip and, ah, if only that hadn’t happened, everything else would’ve fitted in perfectly,” Roxborough says. In Mortal Empires the incursions were more challenging to suit the kind of experienced players who’d tackle the campaign and live up to Chaos’ role as Uber Bogeyman, as well as help ensure that New World races based in the south would actually see them.

But they’d become too intense. The Chaos hordes would make a beeline for and stack around the player, appearing to ignore other races you’d expect them to be attacking in a way that was not only overwhelming but also seemed contrived. As it happens, the incursions were working correctly: when it appeared that Chaos wasn’t attacking other races it was simply because it wasn’t at war with them. But it was clearly a serious issue and Creative Assembly raced to implement a fix that ensures Chaos is at war with more races, creating a trail of destruction that reduces the pressure on players and looks more natural, and issued it a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the grand project continues. Warhammer II’s DLC programme has yet to kick in (Tomb Kings, right?). And even then, Mortal Empires is far from finished. The Total War: Warhammer series will be a trilogy, which means the grandest of campaigns will eventually encompass all three games. It’ll be fascinating to see how its world of unending war will bend and twist to accommodate it.


  1. Merry says:

    So is there no way to “forget the weird and emergent shonkiness” of this game? That’s a negative for me.

  2. RogerMellie says:

    I love the games but it’s too early for a lap on honour on Mortal Empires. Will be great I’m sure but yeah, still a few things needed.

    • DarkFenix says:

      Yup, I’ve been holding off, it needs another major patch or two before it’s in a state I’d call adequate. That and ME has really just given me a tantalising taste of what I really want, that being all three games hooked up in the same fashion, with all the races present and accounted for.

  3. Kakrafoon says:

    +1 for Mortal Empires, I like the sheer ambition of the thing. However, with war on such a big scale, it becomes a bit tedious shuffling armies around the world. Maybe we could get something like the same system we had in the old Total Wars, Shogun and Medieval? There, we could insta-send troops from coastal province to coastal province (or from port to port, so to speak) if we had an uninterrupted chain of unchallenged naval patrols in between. Most Total War games constantly irk me with the low movement range of their armies and enemy forces constantly dancing beyond the reach of my Generals, avoiding battle. The cowards!

    • SaintAn says:


    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      I agree that it can be a hassle, but I think that’s part of it. An expedition from Altdorf to the lizardman lands SHOULD take forever and be a huge deal, far from support. That’s what makes it adventurous!

    • bills6693 says:

      Regarding being unable to catch enemy generals running away from you, this mod might help:
      link to

      Its a small mod that gives you 10% movement bonus in your own territory. It works for you and the AI so they get the benefit in their territory. Its not a huge bonus, but it means that a defending army is able to see off an attacking army, giving a little defensive bonus both for you and the AI. Very useful without really messing with the core game.

  4. Premium User Badge

    wozmir says:

    I’m not a fan of this piece. I love reading the Mechanic series because it delves deep into game design, while this piece is more like an ad. Even more, I’m a total war (psycho)fan and ME – while being fun – is no revolution or change to the TW formula, like I think TW:WH1 was.

  5. ThePuzzler says:

    “The sandbox is sacrosanct to us on Total War. The systems are all designed to provide AI that will think on its own and do things that make sense for that AI, rather than being manipulated by us to determine the player experience.”
    That doesn’t sound like the Total War I know.

  6. Mungrul says:


    I really wasn’t convinced by the original release of Total Warhammer.

    I’d been away from the series for so long, that coming back in to it I found it incredibly hard to get a grasp on how the economy worked. And even on lower difficulties, it seemed intent on punishing even minor mistaken decisions.

    On top of this, after playing a couple of live battles, I remembered that with every previous iteration of Total War I’d played, I had eventually resorted to auto-resolving the majority of battles, as they’re too slow paced and take too long to resolve normally if you’re going to have any hope of completing a single campaign in a reasonable period of time.

    I honestly think these games have disappeared up their own arses, and are at this point only interested in catering to an audience already intimately familiar with their obscure mechanics.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      It’s simpler than most strategy games with an economy:
      (1) Cities produce income. Some cities can have buildings that produce money every turn. If the cost/income ratio is good, these are worth building as a priority.
      (2) If you win battles or sack cities, you get money.
      (3) Troops (but not garrisons) have a high maintenance cost, so only build armies you’re going to use.
      (4) Soldiers are gradually replaced for free while your troops are resting.

      As for the length of the campaign… it’s a game for people who like long campaigns.

    • EvilMonkeyPL says:

      I have to disagree with the game being only for series veterans. The only TW game I played prior to TWWH was Shogun 2, and even that only because I was into japanese culture at the time, and never conquered more than a handful of provinces.
      This one though I love to bits, even though I don’t know a single thing about Warhammer.
      The money issue never really came up when I played, but that’s probably cause I had the Conquer Everywhere and Confederation mod on and I obsess over the economy in the early game.

    • Vacuity729 says:

      While it’s true that the campaign mechanics have followed a general upward curve with regards to complexity over time, I wouldn’t put the mechanics of the recent releases to be obnoxiously difficult to get the hang of. While it’s true that mistakes will cause you trouble sooner or later, the nature of a sandbox is such that you always have the opportunity to claw your way back.
      As for the battles; if you don’t enjoy them, dare I say you might not really enjoy this family of games? The battles are the core experience of the game to me, and as far as I’m aware to most other players. The strategy layer gives context, direction and substance to those battles, but the battles are the core experience nevertheless. If you don’t enjoy playing them, perhaps you’d be better off with a different title. I think the only Total War games that could be completed without an enormous amount of time spent in a single campaign have been: the original Shogun, and then the mini campaigns like the Viking Invasion in the original Medieval, or the Britannia campaign in Medieval 2. Or just picking a short campaign in the games that supported the option. It’s true that Mortal Empires requires longer for a campaign than a campaign of something like Empire or Rome 2, but the base Warhammer II Vortex campaign isn’t particularly lengthy. People choosing to start an ME campaign know what they’re getting into, and the demand for the ME campaign has been huge. People want this; it’s not just CA deciding this is how their games should be.

  7. Sweeper says:

    I can only say beautiful….

    i have been playing all total war series from the day 1 and i love them all.

    This campaign is one of the best expiriences i have ever had.I dont mind waiting for turns at all even i slow down and watch battles around the continents and movments of the whole board.
    I have restarted with so many races, tried over and over again on legendary and every campaign i had all the way to the end of it could be a novel for its self :).

    …playing as Lizard having Dwarfs as mine brothers defending side bye side against hordes of Vampires on 1 side and hordes of rats emerging from infested mountains on the other, than a orcs rebelion f…ing beautiful. Than as we finaly set a foot hold and stoped invading Vampire hords damned poity ears wood elfs emerge from the other side of mountains looking down on me like a worm :) I cant wait to finish this post and see this afternoon what happens o i forgot and Chaos stirs in far lands ……

    I can only say beautiful…

  8. drenzul says:

    AI is too dumb and cheats far too much which really doesn’t help.

    Really makes it hard to play when you can’t get anything resembling a fair fight to actually be fair.

    They really need to invest some actual dev time in the AI instead of releasing the same thing over and over.

  9. icarussc says:

    So, I feel like I have to ask — what are they saving for the *third* game? Because I’ve read several places now that they anticipate doing this whole thing again when TWW3 comes out. It already seems like every army and every everything is in the game. What’s left?!

    • Horg says:

      Ogre Kingdoms, Chaos Dwarves, Demons of Chaos and Tomb Kings are missing as major factions, and will almost certainly be the game 3 roster. There’s some evidence in the game files that DoC could be split into potentially 4 factions, one for each chaos god, which might let a DoC faction into TW2. Then there’s Araby who will probably come as DLC for TW2, and several minor factions (various empire, vampire, and wood elf) who could be expanded to allow an existing race pack to play in TW2’s campaign.

      • lglethal says:

        Just a quick correction – Tomb Kings will definitely be a DLC for II – Khemri is on the continent just south of Ulthuan.

        Warhammer III will almost certainly be the Dark Lands (to the right of the Worlds Egde Mountains and the Old World). Ogre Kingdoms, Chaos Dwarves, some more Greeknskin factions, maybe a more necromantic/undead based faction (over the vampire counts), and I suppose they could start pushing some of the human factions (e.g. Cathay/Ind) a little bit closer, not that they were ever really defined armies…

        Looking forward to it!

      • andycheese says:

        There are other minor factions that could be fleshed out or at least reskinned: Kislev, Estalia, Tilea, The Border Princes & Sartosan Pirates. Also, Dogs of War and Arabay are likely to make an appearance.

  10. wombat191 says:

    I will say I’m enjoying my wood elves with 268 range with bows muahahaha

  11. ForeverMorbid says:

    They really should have just released a patch that gave multiplayer battles access to all races initially. Mortal Empires is extremely buggy and doesnt even include the content from a month before Warhammer II’s release (although that is on its way). We only had the game a month before the vortex campaign (that has a fantastic campaign map) became obsolete. The Mortal Empires map is brutal. I love Total War Warhammer and theyve done a great job at so many aspects of it don’t get me wrong. It would have been fantastic if they had kept the whole WHTW II vortex map and then make some adjustments to the old world to fit them together. Then we would have the new map of the vortex with an updated old world. Instead it feels like they took out content removing 1/4 of the map of the entire south. They could have redone some of the lord starting poisitions so not all the races are jammed into the old world and spread out a bit (which they still might do). They easily could have increased the movement at sea a bit rather then removing The Great Ocean completely. Other then that it is great fun being able to clash all the races together. Please CA don’t do this again with the 3rd game. If you chop out half the Mortal Empires map to fit in The Dark Lands I will be very dissapointed. I know im not the only one who is dissapointed with how the map turned out, it recieved a lot of critisism when they first gave us a preview. The only reason I complain about such things is: There is only one map play on (unless you only want access to half the games content). And since other then that the game is so well done that you wish the map could be too. Needless to say I still have 400 hours in WHTW 2. But for now im sticking to the Vortex Campaign until they fix Mortal Empires.