Wot I Think – A Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia

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From my vantage point, there’s something enchanting about the snow-capped palisades of Dinefwr. Although I imagine its majesty is somewhat lost on the seven hundred exhausted Welshmen I’ve just ordered to breach the stronghold’s walls, with nothing but battered wooden shields between them and a typical British forecast of flaming arrows. I’d like to pretend their sacrifices come at the bitter end of a long, failed diplomatic campaign. Truthfully though, like so much of the conflict in history, they had something shiny, and I decided I wanted it.

This is Total War, however, so before navigating the perils of battle, it’s necessary to navigate the perils of the labyrinthine UI. Helms off to Creative Assembly for making it not only workable, but attractive. Drop down menus make shuffling through armies and provinces intuitive, which you’ll come to appreciate. The exclusive focus on the extremely disunited kingdom means a smaller landmass, but densely populated provinces with multiple settlements, each of which can be built up to provide different resources or research paths. It really pops, too. The stained glass and wood carving motif reinforces the sense that you’re writing your personal legend into history, which means it’s always fun to imagine the glassworker who has to immortalise your brutal pillaging in glittering detail.

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Thrones of Britannia includes ten different factions split evenly across five cultures. There’s two each for English, Welsh, and Gaelic. There’s also four Viking factions. Two for the regular land vikings and two for the Viking Sea Kings, an aspirational title if ever there was one. Not only can my enemies get in the sea, they can also pay me a tribute for the privilege of drowning.

A narrative thread running through each campaign influences the direction of the early turns, but so do the faction-specific rules. Welsh factions are bloody heroic, they are, so ranking up heroes and owning Welsh land grants bonuses. The Sea Kings collect tribute from other factions, and also take slaves after battle. Common to all factions is a meter tracking your populace’s War Fervour. Your people might cheerlead a few victories, but years of seeing their countrymen march off to war and never return will eventually take its toll on their happiness.

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Faction-specific units are few, so personality comes from unit specialities. West Seaxe has some seriously nasty late game cavalry, for example, and a few units of Welsh archers with flaming arrows will make short work of an approaching siege tower. Those coming from Total Warhammer might be disappointed that the most novel thing on offer here is units of ferocious war dogs, but it’s still satisfying to watch a charge of pugilistic puppers who’ve just decided the opposing frontline have biscuits in their pockets.

You bolster the ranks of your army from a universal pool that can be accessed from any owned settlement, regardless of buildings. The disadvantage of marching into the pub and thrusting a spear in the hand of whoever hasn’t passed out already is that units are recruited at a quarter total strength. A number of factors affects replenishment, but generally, it makes forethought and planning an absolute necessity. Early on, I made the mistake of leaving weak borders unguarded, and had to make do with hastily cobbled together levy spearmen to defend against sieges. Initially weak units also mean that attrition can be a serious problem, as starvation or seasickness devastates an already threadbare force.

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Playing as Alfred of West Seaxe, starting with so many provinces also made loyalty and betrayal a very real concern. Options for subterfuge are many, but a real drain on your coin stash. More reliable is gifting your disloyal underlings one of the estates you’ll accrue during your time spent painting the map your colour. Marriages, dishonor, and getting stabby are all at your disposal, providing you have the coin to pay for it, and the influence to deal with the potential ramifications.

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Character progression comes in the form of retinues, which are basically just a group of lads so enamoured with your kingly beard that they follow you o’er hill and vale, begging for hot grooming tips. Each time a character levels up, you’re given a point to either add a new follower or upgrade an existing one. If you’re planning on having an army steamroll through a few rival provinces, add a champion for command and charging bonuses, and a quartermaster to increase movement range. Combine a forager and a pillager, and play havoc with the enemy food supplies while nabbing a gold bonus every time you reduce a stately manse to matchsticks. Governor eyeing up your table scraps? Priests keep them loyal, and scribes scrounge up extra cash.

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There’s also siege engineers, and whether you decide to take them or not, siege combat is where Thrones of Britannia shines like a stolen crown. Major settlements are distinct and memorable, displaying the same density and detail as the rest of the map. Moats, islands, bridges, and wide city streets means plotting and executing multi-tiered master plans is endlessly satisfying. War drums echo like thunder, pipes make pipe noises, and siege engines tear up soil in a stunning iteration of the venerable series’ trademark spectacle.

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Coming down from these moments, however, the cracks can sometimes show themselves. Abstracted systems are a necessary albatross in strategy of this scale, but after the dynamism of the tactical battles, things like automatic trade routes and simple tech trees can feel like poor representations of the political and social machinations they aim to simulate. After a few stretches hitting the ‘end turn’ button after not doing very much of anything, it becomes apparent that Thrones of Britannia’s streamlining may have come at the cost of some of the series’ intrigue.

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It’s also worth noting that, on standard difficulty with an easy starting faction, I was able to breeze through the campaign to an ultimate victory in a single night of play. For the last quarter of this campaign, I was at a constant food deficit, frequently bankrupt, and pretty much shrugging off both diplomacy and my own populace. Trickier factions have much more precarious early games, of course, but it was a little disappointing to be able to brute force my way through so many hindrances. Thrones of Britannia’s many systems started to feel like optional indulges, rather than tactical necessities. On the plus side, commanding an unstoppable legion of red caped bastards is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling like Tywin Lannister, so there’s that.

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After the clattering of hooves and the din of hoarse war chants, it can feel odd to return to a tactical overlay that, while occasionally tense, can often feel vacant of meaningful choice. It’s all focused firmly towards evoking the period though, and here, Creative Assembly’s love for history absolutely bleeds through. Or would, I guess, if there was any blood in the game. There’s a greyed out ‘DLC’ tab on the main menu, though. Make of that one what you will.

A Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is released May 3 on Steam for £29.99/$39.99

44 Comments

  1. BobbyDylan says:

    I’m cautiously optimistic for this title. I was sorely disappointed by Rome 2 (after the majesty of Shogun 2) and bounced off Attila pretty hard. I didn’t buy the Warhammer games, as the universe holds no interest for me. I’d love to incentivise CA to come back to making historical games… I’d just like them to be more Shogun / Rome 1 than Rome 2.

    • napoleonic says:

      I used to feel like you do, that I had no interest in the Warhammer universe, and that I wished CA would stick to historical games. Then I actually played Total Warhammer, and it was awesome. I loved it, and changed my mind immediately. If you have any interest in fantasy – not the Warhammer universe specifically, but fantasy in general – then I would strongly recommend it.

  2. Templar says:

    At this point this stuff is the equivlent of cod 37. Total War use to be one of my favorite series but after years of shit ai and a engine with lack of collision its just a recycled shit fest. They want to ride the dlc money train up your ass and still have the gall to charge people 60 bucks for rome II LoL. Modders time and time again are forced to do the work these hacks cant be bothered with to make the games halfway playable. They are going to release a half finished buggy mess with barely any optimization and charge top dollar because thats what they do. Id rather free base my money out of a spoon than give it to creative ASSembly.

    • BaronKreight says:

      too right

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      “creative ASSembly”

      While I agree with the statement that some of their games are poorly optimized and tested, come on, man.

      Are we doing this now? Are game site comments going to turn into reading Fox News comments and seeing tRUMP and democRATS and crap like that?

      You can make a point without that kind of juvenile nonsense.

        • Premium User Badge

          Drib says:

          I am unreasonably irritated by people capitalizing parts of names to make try to make an invective. It just comes across as excessively juvenile to me.

          So it was probably an overreaction. Sorry about that.

          • DodgyG33za says:

            For what it is worth Drib, I think you were perfectly justified. While I am all in favour of a good expletive or five on occasion, some people seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with back passages.

            OP was right about the TW series though. The AI has always been lacking – my memory is that the strategic AI was better when it was ‘move to adjacent territories’ movement as with the original Shogun or Medieval, but that may just be rose tinted glasses.

          • Replikant says:

            @DodgyG33z4: Its quite likely that tbe campaign AI sucks more nowadays, the map in the current Heroes of Might and No Magic TW games are in a different league, complexity-wise. And I never understood why they did that. I loved the strategic map of shogun and Medieval: Clean, elegant and a nice balance to the battles. I tried to love Medieval 2 and couldn’t, travel times are too long and chasing enemy armies around is boring as hell, especially considerin the long times you spent in the turn calculation screen.

    • Lordcrazy says:

      *Gaul*

    • fegbarr says:

      I dunno, you could just not buy it? Maybe go a step further and don’t even read articles about it if it annoys you that much. Do something you enjoy instead.

      • Templar says:

        Yeah good idea. I mean if people dont agree with what you consider correct why should they be able to share their views right? Its not like theres a comment section here for everynody… Oh wait…

      • Rindan says:

        …did you not read the words he wrote? He said he is going to do exactly as you advise and not buy it. I’m pretty sure a Total War article on gaming website is exactly the right time to express your disappointment in your once favorite series.

    • FireStorm1010 says:

      I think you missed a few recent games, so your indignation is unjustified. Warhammer was great froms start, and had decent AI from start.The DLC and expansions I bought were all worth its price. I havent bought it yet but WH2 acoording to most is same.

  3. Crackerjacker says:

    I love me some TW,(Highpoints for me are Medieval II and Warhammer II, Shogun II also good), but I really don’t think the strategic map sections are that strong. It’s improved an awful lot over the years and I like it a lot more, but at times I find myself longing for a TW game that can just give me a C&C-style campaign series. This(Britannia) doesn’t seem it, but by using a small map and automating the campaign map, or by other means reducing it down to make it faster so players can get back to playing the tactical battles feels at least worth exploring. I mean, I don’t need loads of movie files to create a story – I’m not saying TW needs to do a Starcraft – but something that removes, or almost removes entirely the overmap? I’d buy that.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Ironically I liked TW for the exact opposite reasons. I loved Strategic map and found the battles quickly got repetitive. But I’m covered these days by Paradox games.

      • Crackerjacker says:

        lol yeah, I have Stellaris or a deep-dive into Civ for that. Maybe a slider in TV that has the current split focus of TacticMap/StratMap, can be moved to left or right to make game almost all Tactic game or almost all Strat game? I dunno. I don’t want to lose it completely, I value it, but sometimes I want to focus on not the overmap.

      • Axolotl says:

        I can sort of identify with both of you. While all battles with a faction feel similar after a while, they allow me to build up my empire, which allows me to recruit cooler units into my army, which allows me to grow even more and so on. But it’s true that a after a couple dozen hours all parts of the game get somewhat repetitive, and Paradox have spoiled me too with their giant, interesting games.

      • melancholicthug says:

        You know, I liked CK2 well enough, but the whole “have a bigger number on your army than your foe to win the war” thing is crap. I’d really dig if they put a turn-based (maybe wego) battle interface. In a massive scale (unlike the 3000-tops armies of TW), managing hundreds of thousands soldiers. That’d be the last game I’d ever buy.

        • BobbyDylan says:

          There are some modifiers to combat (terrain, morale, leadership) but I boradly agree with you. The method for abstracting the battle outcome in CK2 means you’re very very unlikely to get a Poitiers or an Agincourt.

      • bacon seeker says:

        I’m in the weird situation where I loved Total War growing up, then fell in love with EU3 for its complexity and scale, but have now fallen out of love with Paradox games, since the devs keep revising Stellaris and EU4 in ways that I don’t like, adding “features” like 10-year truce timers and the Stellaris 2.0 FTL changes, maybe for the sake of playing balanced multiplayer games with each other. Ironically I had a LOT more fun with Total Warhammer 2 than I had recently with Paradox. Its systems, even if they’re simplistic, feel a lot more intuitive and less “gamey”, and the scale is acceptably huge.

        • Replikant says:

          Same here. I stopped upgrading my EU4 installation and went back to version 1.11.4. No forts, no excessive micro-management, no province development levels… I love the scale and the setting, but hate the direction the game is heading. DLC prices as well.

  4. WoodGuyThreepBrush says:

    I have a question. It’s a two word question…

    Family Tree?

    • ThePuzzler says:

      A question with more words, such as “What is a family tree?” or “Does this game have family trees?” or “Would my family benefit from owning a tree?” might be more likely to provoke a useful answer.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I have to stand with a couple other commenters here in lamenting the strategic map gameplay. Streamlining is all well and good, but I don’t much care for the actual battles, and autocalcing them just leaves you with a very lackluster TBS game.

    I know the battles are half the point here, but I’m awful at them and after playing three or four you start to realize that they’re all very similar to a high degree.

  6. Auldman says:

    I’ll probably pick it up at some point soon. I really liked how they kept at improving Rome II and adding to it. I think that’s gone largely unnoticed by people still complaining about CA. They made mistakes but they kept trying to improve their games. I also like where they’re headed with this “Sagas” idea because too often their games can get a little too immense for me (Empire was just a bit too much) and so something that focuses on a smaller map and conflict is actually pretty interesting to me.

  7. Zenicetus says:

    I’m tempted because I’m a huge fan of combat with arrows and pointy sticks, but two questions first, for whoever has played this or seen previews:

    1) Are the sieges designed to force an assault from just one side of the fortifications, like TW Warhammer? Or are they proper sieges where you can attack from any side, terrain permitting?

    It’s a longstanding problem in these games that the AI defenders are easily faked out, with feints to draw the enemy away from the walls you intend to attack. So in recent games they’ve only allowed the player to attack from one direction, making it easier on the AI. Is that the case here? Or has the siege AI been improved?

    2) Another problem with recent TW historical games like Rome 2 and Attila is that the travel speed of armies and spacing of settlements means that you don’t get enough open field battles. AI armies tend to retreat to the nearest settlement if they can reach it, instead of facing the player in a stand-up battle. That gets boring, at least if you’re the type of player who prefers a higher percentage of open field battles. CA has never had great AI programming for siege battles, so I can only suffer through so many of them.

    • thrasius says:

      100% agree on #2. That destroyed Rome 2 for me. I’ve always hated TW sieges but loved the field battles. It was oh so difficult to coax the enemy AI into even a somewhat advantageous (for me) field battle. If intended, it was not a fun game mechanic. Haven’t played a TW game since. Has it changed?

      • ThePuzzler says:

        TW: Warhammer has a reasonable balance of field & siege battles, due to:
        Rampaging chaos hordes.
        Small settlements with garrisons but no walls.
        Quest battles.
        The ability to attack an enemy army adjacent to one of their cities, to draw out the garrison.

    • Rindan says:

      I’m with you. I hate Total War sieges. It isn’t that I don’t like sieges. Sieges are awesome. I love me some fortifications and the process of tearing them down. I just loathe the Total War game play in a siege. Every single unit moves like complete and total dog shit inside of the city. It’s nearly impossible organize your units, and it just becomes a disorganized mess even faster than the field battles.

      There is nothing fun about fighting in the streets of a Total War game. The fact that this TW game seems to have even more of that than normal is probably enough to make me pass. TW is just getting a bit stale for me. I wish they would go with a new engine or someone else would would make a solid AAA go at this sort of game.

      • Moose_Knuckle says:

        Yeah I do agree that its an area that could be improved upon for sure, anything outside of a field battle has the potential to be a little messy shall we say. There are a few variables though that can still make those battles fun. I’m a sucker so i’ll likely still end up preordering it.

      • shde2e says:

        I loved the Shogun 2 sieges, but those were an entirely different kettle of fish from the regular “big wall+streets” maps.

  8. g948ng says:

    Hope is really prolonging the suffering of men. When I saw that 2nd screenshot for a moment I thought they had returned to the boardgame-like strategic map of old. But, of course they did not. Just the diplo-menu.

    The purely optional, vaguely historical flavoured sideshow-mechanics, acting as window-dressing in every iteration of TW, never convincingly hid the shallowness of the strategy part. Neither could the tactical spectacle.

    Having found a formula that pays adequately, we should blame ourselves if we expected them to do something more ambitious. People have a lot of time to do the blaming, too, while they chase AI armies wandering aimlessly to and fro over the countryside.

  9. Syt says:

    The map reminds me (showing my age) of Vikings: Fields of Conquest from 1993.

    link to mobygames.com

  10. mariandavid says:

    I have to admit that I am getting rather blase about extended ‘reviews’ – for whatever rationale the issues raised by a reviewer (however astute or accurate) never seem to reflect any serious concerns I have with a game. In this case I have instead been relying on the multiple extended campaigns on You Tube for my judgement – detailed visual descriptions that reveal the (to me) fascinating complexity and interaction of the elaborate ruling, governing, producing, relating etc mechanisms that must be used (and understood) to be effective in the game.

  11. SaintAn says:

    This would have been great pre-Warhammer, but having played Warhammer, this just doesn’t sound very interesting.

  12. Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

    I’ve noticed the stream of more recent Total War games surge past, but have never thought of getting any of them. I’m still entirely happy with Medieval: Total War (with mods for better AI), and Europa Barbarorum as a magnificent conversion for Rome: Total War. The scale and imagination of that mod are so much greater than the vanilla Hollywood disappointment.

  13. EatingDirt says:

    Ending comment of the article is a fitting one.

    Sega & CA started losing me after the Empire debacle. But even more so with pre-order & post-release DLC of factions & races that were already in the games in the first place(Rome 2, Atilla, Warhammer). The ridiculousness of the Blood & Gore DLC, and the amount they’ve been charging for something that’s been built into the engine for 6+ years just turns me off even more.

    No doubt most of them are good games, but paying full price for any of them, even a smaller, cheaper game like this is a hard pill to swallow.

  14. Syneval says:

    No word on the performance though ?! Apparently Thrones runs like an arthritic 3 legged dog covered in molasses (if you believe the usual streamers like Heir).
    Maxed out 1080ti beasts struggling to maintain 60fps on high qhd. Quite an important fact for a pc game.

  15. Moose_Knuckle says:

    Sounds like a slightly stripped down Total War which is slightly worrying, it was never just about the battles and it sounds like this is mostly the direction its taken. I’ll likely still have some kind fun though with it though as its a interesting period. Noticing a lot of people saying they didnt like Attila which seems crazy to me. Each to their own and all that but I thought that was pretty much the best Total War to date, its not optimised well enough but it was a big improvement over Rome 2 in most ways.

  16. Lawbringer says:

    Good to hear there is emphasis on siege battles and the ability to properly line up and fight in the city streets. Although Total Warhammer is great fun, I’m not a big fan of the way you have an exciting battle for the walls, but then it’s basically over once you get inside.
    Personally I miss Medieval II & Shogun II’s method of creating multi-layered castles where you could fall back to the next defensive line and really fell like you were fighting to the last man.

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