The Total War Theorist: Creating a More Engrossing Campaign Experience – Sublimity

The Total War series is, by far, my favorite video game series. I have spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours playing Total War games. I have owned (not pirated) every Total War game and expansion ever made. Some were masterpieces (Shogun 2, Medieval 2), others utter disasters (Empire). Still, I have enjoyed all of them, and I will continue enjoying Total War as long as more Total War games are made. Everything, however, can improve. This series will be my few cents on how to go forward with the Total War franchise.

Creating a More Engrossing Campaign Experience – The Sublime and Total War

Playing Shogun 2 on legendary difficulty is akin to playing through a horror movie. It is at once terrifying and absorbing. Each click of the end turn button is filled with simultaneous excitement and dread. The feeling is most appropriately described by Edmund Burke:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling …. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and [yet] with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.”

Shogun 2’s campaign was sublime. It was at once terrifying and, having achieved the slight modification of which Burke speaks, gave great delight. Unfortunately, later iterations of Total War were unable to re-capture the sublimity of Shogun 2’s campaign. In order to create a truly engrossing campaign experience, however, the campaign must be imbued with a real sense of danger which at once terrifies but never overwhelms.

The foundation of this sense of danger must be an existential threat, a looming disaster, confronting the player. This can be achieved by implementing 3 changes to the grand campaign as found in Attila, the most current Total War: making the AI more aggressive, giving more meaning to alliances, and eliminating the sacking/razing mechanic.

More Aggressive AI

In general, strategy gamers are obsessive about planning. That’s the point, right? It’s a strategy game – you’re supposed to create strategies and implement them. This, however, creates a problem: the gamer cannot be left to his own devices to create sublimity. Indeed, a strategy that requires heart pounding, will it/won’t it action is usually not a good strategy.

To create sublimity, the player must be put into situations for which he may or may not be prepared – situations that, because they were not planned for, may have dire consequences. Therefore, the AI must be required to take control. This should be done in two way: diplomatically and militarily.

Diplomatically, AI faction personalities should be more likely expansionist than defensive. The conception of expansion itself should also revert to a more Shogun 2 form: factions should seek to get big and powerful. In Attila, it seems far more concerned about causing pain to those it hates. Factions should be focused on expansion, not personal vendettas. This can also translate into a more diplomatic expansion options, but we’ll get to that later.

Militarily, there need to be two major changes: military decisiveness and national security goals. The AI should have an overall goal for the war (such as subjugating the such and such faction, liberating such and such faction, or capturing such and such settlement). Once achieved, or if the achievement of it is delayed beyond a certain point (fifteen, maybe twenty turns), the AI should be ready for peace. Currently, like/dislike is far more important to the AI than actual war goals. Instead, the AI should go to war/make peace based on national security goals, but choose upon whom to make war based on likes and dislikes.

Militarily, once war is declared, the AI should seek to actually win the war. This means that, within the first two to three turns of the war, it should seek a decisive engagement near its war target. Based on the outcome of that engagement, the AI should be ready to make peace or continue the war. The AI should pursue the war with its entire means. This means that, instead of declaring war and sitting near its settlements for a hundred turns, the AI should either be actively engaged in war or interested in peace to prepare for war.

Greater Alliances/Coalitions

Currently, alliances are rather lackluster. You can get a defensive alliance or a full alliance, and the AI is most likely to betray either. I suggest a third kind of alliance: an offensive alliance.

An offensive alliance is a pact between two or more factions against a single enemy, and no faction in the offensive alliance is bound to a defensive war (accept against the target enemy). It lasts for ten-twenty turns. The first five of these turns are “preparation” turns, meaning that the AI gets ready for the war. After that, anyone in the alliance can declare war on the target of the alliance, and it will trigger a call to arms for every member of the alliance. A failure to answer the call will result in a major relations penalty with all factions and a coward trait for the faction leader. Each faction can only be allowed into one/two offensive alliance at a time.

The target for the offensive alliance should be based on two things: proximity and opinion. Only AIs directly adjacent to the faction should seek an offensive alliance against it, and only AIs with less than -50 opinion should seek or join an offensive alliance.

Each faction leader should also have a “desires this settlement” trait under his name. This settlement should be decided by wealth, culture/religion, and trade goods of the settlement, as well as relative strength of the offensive alliance vs. defensive alliances. This means that, upon capturing the settlements that the AI wants, he will seek a separate peace from the rest of the alliance. Or, if he is constantly stymied in his quest for the province, he will seek peace.

Eliminate Sacking/Razing

While razing settlements was thankfully removed from The Last Roman (good riddance!), sacking remained. The AI has shown a complete inability or lack of interest in actually acquiring settlements. It would rather constantly sack and raid settlements, meaning that borders remain and empires remain basically unaffected by war. In order to create a sense of danger for the player, he must be afraid of losing his territories. My Western Roman Empire campaign on legendary difficulty in Attila, for example, would probably have ended in failure if I the AI actually took provinces instead of simply sacking/razing them.


To create a truly engrossing campaign experience, the first step is to make the player feel real existential danger. This can be done by implementing three steps: making the AI more aggressive, creating offensive alliances, and eliminating sacking/razing from the game.

I hope you enjoyed this first post in the Total War Theorist series. Next up: How to Fix Diplomacy

One thought on “The Total War Theorist: Creating a More Engrossing Campaign Experience – Sublimity

  1. Great suggetions here!. If Total War Warhammer will implement those changes it will be the best total war ever, i hope that they will actually look back at all the total war titles and then take the best of each one and combine them in Warhammer. It would be amaizing if a mod creator/ team could go ahead and fix all these things on atilla. That does of course not mean that creative assembly and sega should stop doing patches, but i fell like thosee patches do to less overall important changes but too many little changes. Once they get the main campaign fixed they could change some unit balances. Until then they should focus on the important things to change,
    PS: Keep up the series admiral, Am a big fan your channel

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