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.
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.