Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is a smaller game with some very big ideas

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It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. That’s a useful motto, a pick-me-up for the smaller among us, but the truth is right now, I am a very small dog with very little fight left in it.

I’m the boss of Mide, a province in the middle of Ireland. The 9th century is drawing to a close and everything is in disarray. The coasts are saturated with Danes, there is no unification among my own people, and at the horizon’s edge, England is burning. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia has a cumbersome name but it might be the leanest and meanest game in Creative Assembly’s long-running strategy series. It’s a little dog with a whole lot of beautiful fight in it.

When Creative Assembly announced that they’d be making some smaller historical games, covering periods that weren’t quite suitable for the usual Total War epic treatment, I was as keen as mustard. I’ve long been of the opinion that these strategic sandboxes work best when there is a clear end-game in sight. The domination of other clans and unification of Japan, for example, in Shogun 2.

That clarity of purpose, which can get lost in the larger games, such as Rome II. Drop me into a big wide world full of possibilities and no specific goal, and I sometimes feel more constrained than I would if I had a bit of direction. Like a tourist in a new city who has done no research whatsoever, I’m likely to stick to the most brightly lit streets; free to do anything at all, but defaulting to what is right in front of my nose for fear of getting lost.

Thrones of Britannia makes things relatively simple. Whoever you are, you want to be king. That’s the destination, but there’s plenty of flexibility in the approach.

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If you’re playing as the Danes, conquering England might involve subjugating the north of England and Scotland, to use them as recruitment grounds, before turning your sights to the Anglo-Saxon strongholds of Alfred. Play as Alfred and you might try to unite your neighbours around a common cause, or dominate them so that you can bring them into the fight as your unwilling vassals rather than as allies with a will of their own.

None of those routes were open to me though. As the leader of the Mide (you may know County Meath; that’s roughly where you’d locate us) I had one measly province and a whole stack of problems even before I’d started making new difficulties for myself.

Thrones of Britannia takes place after the viking invasions. It’s not a game about repelling raiders on the coasts, it’s a game in which the inhabitants of the isles are divided and whether your faction can be approximately described as Scottish, Irish, Danish or English, you’re trying to unite rather than to defend against a common enemy. There are still raiders, their arrival foretold in newsflash-style chronicles between turns, and there’s a fantastic sense of a living world beyond your own borders.

In my case, that meant hearing about raids on the South of England, a place that would be half a turn away in an ordinary Total War game, but here is effectively the other side of the world. The map is small, geographically, but it is dense, with loads of minor factions and provinces.

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If Creative Assembly were simply shrinking Total War down, this whole Saga idea might be dead in the water before it even reached the shore. That’s not the case though – in reducing the scale of the conflict, an opportunity has also been seized to trim some of the fat around the systems, and then to experiment with the formula that has kept these games ticking through so many eras.

There are enormous changes to the way army recruitment works, agents are completely gone, province management is streamlined and research is almost unrecognisable. It’s far too soon, after playing for just over an hour, to say how well all of these changes will work but it’s not too soon to say that they all make sense. I spoke to game director Jack Lusted about the changes and he explained the process of matching the specific period and scope of the game to suitable mechanics.

Total War is not, or shouldn’t be, one-size-fits-all. Battles and trade and means of production have changed over time, and where possible the mechanics of the game should reflect those changes. Here, because the time-scale is narrower than in a typical historical Total War game, there’s a greater emphasis on immediate results.

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This is most obvious when it comes to recruitment. Units are no longer tied to a specific province but rather sit in a global pool, which replenishes over time. That means as long as an army is in friendly territory or fortified, it can receive reinforcements from that pool. Those new units won’t be at full strength immediately, requiring a few turns to organise themselves and fighting at reduced power until that time, but there’s no need to send units across the map from a barracks town to meet up with the bulk of your army.

The mustering penalty, that initial flimsiness, means forward planning is still required but by removing the positional requirement, Thrones changes something significant about settlements. Because units can be produced anywhere, provided the tech required is unlocked (more on that shortly), there’s no need to build any of the usual barracks or training grounds. That means every available building slot in a province is free for specialisation and you won’t need to go through the same build queues over and over again just to get the basics in place.

Provinces are much more like little characters now. That might seem an odd way to describe swathes of land, but I’m going to run with it. In Thrones, each province has one major settlement and a few minor ones. The major settlement might have five or six building slots, in which you can place churches, monasteries, markets or other useful things. The minor settlements just do one thing, providing additional resources and support.

You can enhance buildings in the major settlement to unlock upgrades in the minor ones, and it’s a bit like levelling up skills and buffs for an RPG character. That goes for research as well, which is no longer something pursued in separation to the rest of your actions. Instead, you learn through repetition – build enough of one unit type and you’ll learn how to create a better version. As with the provincial management, it should bring character to your faction, allowing you to see how the things that you set out to do directly influence the things that you can do in the future.

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And when it comes to actual characters, Thrones has family trees and political actions, dilemmas and loads of traits. It’s the closest a Total War game has ever felt to Crusader Kings, though the stats and relationships here are much simpler, and the number of pieces in play is much smaller.

Even in the short time I had, I managed to bring some of the other Irish clans into an almighty scrap against the Danes who had taken Dublin, and then promptly abandoned them to their fates when the noble Danes offered me a big wodge of cash. There are all sorts of manipulative tactics possible and Lusted says the personalities of leaders and factions are one of the driving forces of the game. You can see the personality type you’re up against, or trying to cosy up to, at a glance, and if the game tells you that someone is untrustworthy and carelessly aggressive, you should expect them to behave that way.

My general impression is that Lusted wants to make a game in which there are very few small decisions. That has influenced how characters work, how trade works, how alliances work, and how construction and recruitment work. It’s also evident in the narrative events, which don’t intrude on the sandbox approach but do embellish it with faction-specific branching stories.

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Almost every time you click the mouse, it should be meaningful. That’s why you don’t need to build a barracks or send an army traipsing across the map to collect some archers from that one town and some cavalry from the next one along. It’s why the skills traditionally associated with agents in Total War are now rolled into the central characters. That serves a double-purpose: it means there are less moving pieces moving around the map and makes high-ranking generals even more valuable, and their loss even more devastating.

I spend a lot more time thinking about Total War these days than I do playing the actual games. Warhammer II has completely passed me by, not because I have no interest in it – because I don’t have any spare time to dig I and learn its factions and new features. It’s the battles that appeal most in Warhammer and I barely even touched the battles in this Saga because there’s so much else to look at and to do. Thrones of Britannia definitely appeals to me more in terms of its setting and scale, but I think there’s more to it than that.

This is a Total War game that could have been an excuse to go back to basics. Instead, it’s questioning precisely what those basics should be and making some bold decisions about how to rebuild the foundations. That’s very exciting indeed.

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is out April 19th.

41 Comments

  1. 1Derby says:

    Excellent read. Adding this game to my wishlist.
    May have to dust off Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories a little later this month to get me in the mood!

    • Blastaz says:

      If you are wishlisting this it’s probably worth noting:
      Game is out 19 April
      Costs £29.99
      25% of preorders go to War Child.

      Three bits of “news” that Eurogamer reported.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Firstly, I approve of basically all of the listed changes.

    Secondly, wow. I’m American, so possibly I can be forgiven here, but this game is about a time period I know zero about. As in, if you hadn’t mentioned “the 9th century” I’d have no idea when these events occurred, or even that they had to start with.

    I should learn some British history at some point I guess.

    • punkass says:

      Every British child learns the same 5 things in history:

      1) The Roman Invasion
      2) The Viking Invasion
      3) 1066 & all that (Norman Invasion)
      4) The Elizabethans (not an invasion!)
      5) WWII

      Suddenly I’m realising where some of the Euroscepticism we see is coming from…

      • lordcooper says:

        And the bloody Titanic for some bizarre reason.

      • Someoldguy says:

        Don’t forget the Wars of the Roses, partly stirred up by who was seen to be more in the pockets of the French and the English Civil War (with French support) and the Glorious Revolution (which was totally an invasion, even though it’s been glossed over).

      • TheDandyGiraffe says:

        There’s also Napoleon and all that.

      • Gothnak says:

        I was lucky enough to learn the following at GCSE….

        The Zulu War, (I got 75% in the Mock GCSE, 3rd in my year)
        The Liberal Reforms of the early 20th Century (I got 19% in the Mock GCSE, Last in my year).

        :p…

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Of those, as an American, I got… WW2.

        That’s it.

        All Britain was in my history classes was basically “where the colonists came from” and then “enemy in the revolutionary war”.

        It’s always weird to me how nationalistic education systems are. I think I’ll spend today reading up on British history instead of working.

      • napoleonic says:

        We learn about Elizabeth for two reasons: one, she was the defining hardline Protestant ruler in antagonism to those perfidious Catholic Europeans (Henry VIII was a Protestant of convenience, and Edward VI died very young); and two, her navy beat off the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada.

        So yeah, the pattern very much still holds.

        • khamul says:

          You’re not allowed to learn history after the end of first world war. That’s when Britain stopped being Top Nation, so that’s when history stops. (link to en.wikipedia.org)

          I tend to think of Elizabeth I not as a hardline protestant, but as the first point in English history – and probably the first point in European history – where religious freedom became a thing. Which I’m probably completely wrong about.

          • Harmless Sponge says:

            You’re also not told about many of the non-glorious things done in the name of the Crown. Take the occupation of Ireland, the 1916 rising, all of the fun stuff up North (N.I, Bloody Sunday in ’72). I brought my English gf and her friends along to the free museum in Croke Park and they were fairly shocked, they’d never heard of it, and that’s only within the last 100-ish years.

          • Someoldguy says:

            There was a huge amount of religious strife in Elizabeth’s reign. The hard line Protestants were determined to root out all Papist plots after the country turned briefly pro-Catholic again under Queen Mary I. Mass was outlawed, celebrants were imprisoned and priests were outlawed. Around 130 priests were executed for religious treason. The Pope was not helping, issuing instructions that it was the duty of all faithful Catholics to unseat the ‘illegitimate’ Queen. This was the era of Inquisition so it’s hardly surprising. Most faiths were doing appalling things in the name of saving your soul.

      • Tundra says:

        In Scotland it’s more like Vikings -> Scottish Wars of Independence -> Tudors and Stuarts -> Liberal Reforms -> Appeasement -> Labour Reforms.

      • Holderist says:

        Don’t forget Henry the VIIIth! link to youtube.com

      • gnuif says:

        Don’t forget the Dutch invasion

    • 1Derby says:

      Read the book series I mentioned above. A great intro to time period. Or… watch The Last Kingdom on Netflix!

    • SaintAn says:

      Watch Vikings. Think all but the current season are on Hulu right now. They aren’t completely history accurate, but it gives you a base understanding how how things went. Vikings works its way to these events, and the invasion just started this season after like 5 seasons of Ragnar’s life. Then when you’re caught up watch The Last Kingdom on Netflix.

      I also recommend watching the Vikings parody TV show Norsemen on Netflix, it’s really funny.

      Once you do all that you’ll be hyped as fuck about this game.

  3. LinasKK says:

    Total War game for filthy casuals? Shut up and take my money!

  4. JRHaggs says:

    What’s up with the unbiggenable images, my guy? Can’t read any of that text.

    • dsch says:

      Welcome to RPS.

      • napoleonic says:

        And these pictures didn’t even have funny tooltips. Worst of both worlds.

    • Ghostwise says:

      It’s a “bring your own looking glass” sort of website.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      [CTRL] Mousewheel is your only option

      But seriously RPS. You really could do with using more than a third of the standard 1920 width, particularly since you are targeting PC user. I mean, I know you have a penchant for the Victorian, but responsive UI has been around a while now.

  5. Eightball says:

    That sounds really promising.

  6. JRHaggs says:

    I’m very interested in the research mechanic. I really like the idea of research as learning through doing. Seems like a brilliant move.

  7. Someoldguy says:

    I really didn’t need another computer wargame right now, but this is going to be extremely difficult to ignore. It looks so good!

  8. lordcooper says:

    That first image after the header seems to imply they’ve gone for the ‘one huge featureless wall’ approach to sieges again. It’s astounding to me that they’re sticking with this godawful design decision which is a blight on the otherwise fantastic Total Warhammer games, particularly given that they seemed to have finally solved almost every long running issue with sieges in Attila.

    • Fingolfin says:

      Oh, god, why? All of the changes in the article seem pretty good ideas and will likely improve the game, but they should really get rid of these ridiculous sieges. It’s not only the fact that there is only one wall, the problem is this wall is only a small obstacle that any infantry unit can climb easily without too much of a penalty. It would only make sense to make assaults on fortified cities or castles be very costly for the attackers, and only possible with a great numerical advantage. In reality most castles were taken after long sieges, as assaulting them straight away would have been suicidal. Instead, I really can’t remember ever bothering to hold a siege in a modern Total War, why waste 10 turns (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s a lot) when you can assault it straight away and have your army fully replenished in one or two turns?

    • Gothnak says:

      I like the Siege Engines in that picture which look like they could roll over the tiny walls in front of them.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Apparently, CA has never figured out how to make an AI that can’t be fooled by the player head-faking with a mock attack at the rear of the castle. The AI rushes its troops to that side, and the player’s real attack begins on the side they left.

      It’s stupidly easy to do, because the AI doesn’t judge the threat by size of the approaching forces, but proximity to the walls. So you can run the fake attack with a small number of units.

      That exploit has been a constant problem with sieges in TW games for as long as I can remember. So their simplistic solution is to force the player to attack on only one side.

  9. Jeremy says:

    I like the shot of Giant’s Causeway. Hopefully we’ll see some other landmarks on the map

  10. Jievo says:

    Now THIS is a definite buy… Where did all this come from, 2018? I haven’t felt this enthused about gaming since 2012. Subnautica is the first game I’ve truly felt passionate about and sucked into in a half decade and this looks like it has the potential to be a serious return to form for TW (Total Warhammer looks great and all, and I will try it someday, but I’d much rather see a reinvigorated Creative Assembly tackle some real world settings – and small scale real world settings really feel like a wonderful way to make some cracking hits, release some good titles for those a bit done with the £60 AAA game (I assume, though I’m not unwilling to pay 50/60 quid for this if it gets strong reviews all around), and should avoid the potential backlash that a Rome 2 or an Empire can bring – big games are big risk, I’d much rather see companies fire out little morsels at us on a more regular basis and be a bit more creative without the same risk of a despised stinker.

  11. Auldman says:

    I really like this idea of theirs of hitting some smaller scale conflicts that could get ignored by the big huge releases. I’d love to see some of the pike and shot conflicts get this treatment and maybe some of the 18th century conflicts that Empire was too big to do properly.

  12. pookie101 says:

    Interesting time period and without it I wouldn’t be here. Even if I wonder how when most of my ancestors were trying to kill each other

  13. mattevansc3 says:

    “whether your faction can be approximately described as Scottish, Irish, Danish or English”

    And Welsh!

    Not only were there three Welsh princes vying for control of the country, this time period is the only time where we had one recognised ruler. This game covers the birth of Cymru.

  14. Banks says:

    Some of those changes sound interesting enough but everything else seems to be a rehash of Attila and Rome 2, using the same assets and with nothing to make it stand out. I’m very interested in Three Kingdoms and WH3, but I can’t say the same about this one and 3 total wars a year plus DLC seems a bit much.

  15. Creeping Death says:

    So… It’s the Britannia campaign from the Kingdoms expansion of Medieval II?

    Luckily for CA that happens to be where all my fondest memories of Total War games originate so I’ll probably pick this up and futilely attempt to unify Ireland again.

  16. Vasily R says:

    Well I was going to let this Total War entry pass me by as it didn’t seem to be doing anything different from the past. They already covered this setting and period in Total War: Kingdoms. However, after reading this, I can say that I’m definitely intrigued. Might actually have to pick this game up, if the reviews are positive of course.

  17. elvirais says:

    Well, finally! Wasn’t much of a fan of the last ones, this looks like a nice improvement upon a classic.