What Counts As a Historical Total War Game?

Over the last 10 years, The Creative Assembly has released eight major games and a plethora of smaller downloadable contents, including Total War: Warhammer 2, Total War Three Kingdoms, and Total War Rome 2. These games are conventionally divided into two large categories: historical and fantasy, with the popular Warhammer franchise occupying the latter role. In this article, I question whether that is a useful categorization, and whether we’ve actually had a historical game since Total War: Attila.

I distinctly remember the fateful launch of Total War: Warhammer. Indypride and I laughed at how hilariously demi-gryph knights in patch 1.0 overran every unit in the entire game and had to be capped at 4 in multiplayer for any level of competition. I would soon put the game away out of frustration and return to Total War: Attila before finally exiting the scene almost entirely to begin preparing my CV for a PhD. What I didn’t realize, however, was that, in that moment, I had witnessed the beginning of the evolution of the entire franchise.

Prior to its dalliance with the Warhammer universe, The Creative Assembly was most known for its historical Total War franchise, producing the popular and critically acclaimed Rome: Total War, Medieval 2: Total War, and Shogun 2: Total War games. Its latest titles, Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila, while commercial successes, had both caused significant controversy within their respective communities for poor technical performance and game effecting bugs and optimization1.

The Warhammer games, while based on their predecessors, were significant departures from the Rome 2 and Attila design philosophies. The two previous games had expanded on the Shogun 2 formula by introducing a multi-settlement province based system, where economies had to be micro-managed by synergizing wealth types and stacking modifiers to generate wealth. Units were unlocked by progressing through a building tree that synergized with a technology (Rome 2) or reform (Attila) tree: reforms unlocked buildings, which in turn unlocked units. There was a kind of synergy between economy, technology, and military, each feeding the other.

The province of Roma in Total War: Rome 2

In addition, provinces had to be managed to account for multiple factors, such as public order, food, slavery (Rome 2) or immigration (Attila), and culture (Rome 2) or religion (Attila). If that doesn’t sound complex enough, the overall faction was managed through a political system, which was barebones in Rome 2’s initial release, but was fleshed out in subsequent patches. Add basic character, army, and agent RPG mechanics, and the campaigns of Rome 2 and Attila were some of the most complex and multi-layered of the entire franchise.

What made these games historical, however, was that each of the mechanics was an attempt to represent a particular aspect of a historical phenomenon. Each province, for example, was divided into a major city center and outlying minor settlements, attempting to simulate a rural and urban divide. Food, an ever important resource, could only be grown in minor settlements, while the largest military and religious buildings could only be built in major settlements. This symbiosis, which started in Rome 2, but really flourished in Attila, simulated a synergetic yet hierarchical relationship between rural and urban populations – with rural populations providing the economic and population foundation of the province, but the major gubernatorial and cultural trends being set by the city centers.

These kinds of large scale abstractions but simulations of history were present in technology systems, political systems, military systems, and more. While not everything represented the most up-to-date scholarship on the era, it was still an attempt to turn historical interpretations into a setting, and allow the player to explore that setting in a kind of sandbox.

Warhammer, in contrast, took all of those systems and stripped them to their most exposed layers. Economic management was stripped to a few basic buildings. Troop advancement was stripped of tech trees and simply locked behind bigger buildings. Food was eliminated as a consideration all together. While culture/religion were replaced with chaos/corruption mechanics, this only mattered to a few factions and was usually easily managed. And all this made sense – when there is no history to convey, what is actually being simulated?

Malekith the Accursed from Total War: Warhammer 2

Along with stripping the franchise, the Warhammer games also made three major introductions to the franchise as well: single entity generals, magic, and fantastical units. General units, which had always been much more powerful versions of normal units, were now made a single model unit. Additionally, certain generals and other units types could perform powerful spells on the battlefield, and general abilities (which had been a part of the game since Napoleon) became battle shifting rather than of niche usefulness. Finally, giant monsters, undead warriors, and flying dragons came to the field with the Vampire Counts, Greenskins, and High Elves. Total War had fully adapted a fantastical setting into its engine.

The shift to fantasy proved immensely popular, not only with Total War’s already established player base, but also with an influx of new players from the well established Warhammer franchise. Together, they propelled the game to astounding popularity, and its sequel, Total War: Warhammer 2, remains the most consistently played Total War game in the franchise2. This popularity combined with market growth led to a significant change in design philosophy for the next two “historical” games that The Creative Assembly published.

In 2018, The Creative Assembly published Total War: Three Kingdoms, the next major title in its “historical” branch of the franchise. However, it displayed significant marks of “Warhammer-fication.” As opposed to Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila, which placed a significant emphasis on economic management and building provincial infrastructure, Total War: Three Kingdoms borrowed from its Warhammer predecessors’ emphasis on character-based gameplay and placed an exceptional emphasis on character collection, growth, and power.

On the battle level, Warhammer like single-model generals were designated as characters. These characters were divided into types. Character type unlocked basic recruitment options, and character levels unlocked more powerful recruitment options (combined with nominal reform tree synergy). In addition, particular character classes (strategists and, after patch 1.2, commanders) unlocked powerful formations. Character skill points gained at leveling up unlocked powerful abilities, such as fire arrows or the ability to negate charge bonus, and character abilities, like the magic spells in Warhammer, were battle altering abilities which swung the tide of battle.

The legendary character Lu Bu in Total War: Three Kingdoms

Characters even made significant impact in the economy as governors or through important assignment positions or by giving faction-wide bonuses in high court positions. Much of the game revolved around collecting the best characters, maximizing their value, leveling them up quickly, and deploying them in the most advantageous manner possible. This is not to say that the game lacked any of the strategic elements of Total War: Rome 2 or Total War: Attila before it.

It had a significant economic system, but it reduced its complexity by disabling building management in minor settlements and locking them to producing only one kind of wealth. Thus, while still more complex in economic management then the Warhammer games, it was still not as robust as its Historical predecessors. In addition, the culture/religion dynamics were reduced to a “faction support” mechanism, where support for a faction upon conquest is low, but naturally rises over the course of a few turns. Therefore, instead of the jostling over culture and religion needed in its predecessors, Three Kingdoms’ “faction support” simply acts as a minor road bump that doesn’t require any investment from the player to manipulate.

Food plays a major role in Three Kingdoms, as it is the major road block to expanding settlements. However, with slight management, food can be easily stockpiled and used to create bigger and bigger settlements. Public order in most campaigns can be entirely ignored, as can most clandestine operations. The only other major mechanic is population.

Population replaced the growth mechanic that dominated the franchise from Total War: Rome 2 onwards. While growth as a mechanic shackled the player and forced them to confront it, manage it, and play around it, population as a mechanic only provided bonuses (and a public order penalty at high population). What this meant is that high population, while desirable, was not necessary at all. A commandery at 0 population could still function, especially if its other modifiers were functioning.

What this created was a game entirely divorced from its larger historical context focused entirely on the characters that inhabited it. It was a tactical RPG with campaign elements, much more akin to the Warhammer games than Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila before it. Total War: Three Kingdoms was a clear attempt to significantly simplify the historical campaigns to bridge the gap between the fantastical and the historical, to add more fantastical elements to the historical and to simplify the historical. The end goal was to appeal to fans of the fantasy games and entice them to play historical games.

The latest release in the Total War franchise, A Total War Saga: Troy, follows much of the pattern of Total War: Three Kingdoms: single-model generals with spell-like abilities and RPG-esque leveling; a massively simplified campaign layer; and almost entirely absent historical background in comparison to Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila. The design direction in these games seems to be clear: in an attempt to win over fans of the fantasy franchise, the history in the historical games is consistently being sacrificed and the role-playing elements are being increased.

The result, then, is the unhistoricizing of historical Total War. In truth, the last “true” historical Total War game was the ill-conceived, short-lived, and ill-received Thrones of Britannia. Except for that short-lived experiment, the last “true” historical Total War was released in 2015, with Total War: Attila, and the last flagship release was in 2013 with Total War: Rome 2.

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1. Total War: Attila continues to run poorly, even on high-end contemporary hardware.
2. According to statistical comparisons in total daily concurrent players

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