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'Total War Saga: Troy' screenshots courtesy of Sega
Games

Why 'Total War Saga: Troy' Is About the Wrong War

How Thucydides ends up being a hidden character in this retelling of Homer.
August 28, 2020, 1:00pm

Total War Saga: Troy presents itself as a depiction of a loosely-plausible history behind the legends and myths that make up the stories of the Trojan War. That's tricky, because any realism about a mythical Bronze Age conflict that maybe-happened around 1200 BCE, and whose details were documented in a poem recorded 500 years later, is going to be pretty speculative. Troy doesn't really seem like it has an historically plausible vision of warfare in the late Bronze Age when the war supposedly happened, nor the the Archaic Age from which the myths themselves largely date. It's a mashup of out of context historical inspiration and literary reference, which ends up being pretty damned fun because of it. 

But the more I play Troy, the more I start to think that Creative Assembly's Sofia studio ended up making a game about a completely different Greek war: the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta that occurred from 460 to 404 BCE. Not the units themselves—this is emphatically not a game about hoplite warfare and naval battles, mercifully, are dispensed with altogether—but the overall shape of the war. That also makes Troy one of the most interesting games about imperial conflict in the Total War series. 

In general, Total War games are about a conflict among peers to see who can become a dominant power by subjugating or outright conquering their neighbors and rivals. The Shogun and Medieval games both let you command one of several similarly powerful feudal kingdoms, and the entire game becomes a race to see who grows most powerful. Warhammer throws some narrative curveballs into the mix, but even there, the faction battle royale model holds strong.

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Troy ends up being a very different. It's about  competing coalitions built around powerful and dangerous leaders and, crucially, a war that neither side is strong enough to win. The arc of the campaign, then, is unique among Total War games: it becomes a game of widening conflict at the imperial periphery, and increasing tyranny at its heart.

The defining feature of the Peloponnesian War was the inability of either the Spartan or Athenian alliances to hit the other where it really hurt. The Spartans dominated the agrarian heart of Greece with the most powerful land forces, while the Athenians were secure behind elaborate fortifications and a navy that controlled their holdings across the Aegean Sea, guaranteeing trade and food imports. If anything, that conflict made the Trojan War look like small potatoes by its ending: the two alliances fought with varying degrees of intensity for about 60 years. 

But unlike the mythical ending of the Trojan War, where the Greeks tricked their way into the fortress city, the Peloponnesian War ended after it had expanded catastrophically into Sicily, pulled the Persian Empire back into Greek affairs, and reduced most of the Greek city-states to grudging vassals to one hegemon or the other. This is also how Troy charts your course to victory, using some clever game mechanics and balance decisions to arrive at an unexpectedly sharp depiction of Greek warfare and the dynamics of imperial expansion.

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The direct line between Greece and Troy is over a forbidding expanse of water, and while the Greeks can land a lot of troops there, they can't reinforce quickly enough to overpower the Trojans and their allies, who dominate the Ionian coast. Likewise, the Trojans don't have anywhere near the numbers to attack Greece directly. However, the southern Aegean is ripe for an island-hopping campaign that can draw the two adversaries closer, while the northern Aegean has tons of neutral factions and potential resources.

Troy makes sure you'll need those resources because it imposes penalties as you field more armies. In Total War games, every unit has a cost for initial recruitment, and then an upkeep cost that's paid every turn. To keep the numbers of armies under control, and to check the "snowballing" dynamics where players' conquests fuel unstoppable war machines, Total War games have adopted different approaches. In Troy, every additional army raised—that is, every collection of units serving under a hero-general—increases upkeep costs across the board for your army. The penalty gets significantly steeper with each additional army, so that even having 3 or 4 different armies becomes a heavy burden on your economy: more than that and their cost is crushing. 

Likewise, Troy breaks from Total War tradition by having multiple resources, so that advanced armies require both food and bronze to be maintained. If at any point you can't make the upkeep payment at the start of your turn, all your armies begin suffering attrition and their numbers rapidly dwindle. Most Total War games feature some mid and late-game buildings that create sizeable resource multipliers to meet the soaring expense of advanced armies, but Troy is a bit stingier. Almost until the bitter end, fielding overwhelming armies is back-breakingly expensive. This has two effects: first, it becomes much more cost-effective to invest in garrisoned fortifications to hold territory, but because everyone is using large garrisons you need even more field armies to undertake a successful attack.

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This is a recipe for stalemate: the two major alliances can't really conquer each other's core territories because the distances are too long, and they can't field the kinds of armies that enable them to roll through the enemy frontiers while simultaneously defending their own. To tip the balance, then, you're encouraged to look elsewhere: at the slew of neutral powers at the fringes of the Aegean. Their territory is inaccessible and lies in almost the opposite direction of the war's main fronts, but they have the resources you need to win a war between burgeoning empires. Paradoxically, conquering all these third-tier powers involves massively widening the conflict and fielding even more armies, but it's a way to secure vulnerable frontiers and amass the resources to sustain the final push across the Aegean.

Even then, however, it's hard to make ends meet in Troy. There are two ways to really support massive armies beyond what the game's natural economy can sustain. The first is battle and conquest, both of which yield massive spoils that can ensure that your war feeds itself. But that's only really viable in the endgame, when you're waging pitched battles in the densely populated, staunchly-defended heartland of your enemy. To get you to that point, you'll probably need the help of your allies to make donations to your cause.

It's a weird dynamic in Troy, but AI factions end up with massive hoards of wealth. The smallest ones are often the richest, perhaps because they're not fielding big armies, but my suspicion is they're getting resource bonuses to help cover the notoriously poor budgeting that's dogged Total War AI for most of its life. Either way, the factions who view you as a staunch ally will be open to gifting you large amounts of resources semi-regularly. The chances are you'll also end up with ridiculous amounts of spare bronze, gold, and stone as the game goes on, and can trade to cover your army upkeep.

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I remain torn about this. On the one hand, I kind of love that a fully-equipped war machine in Troy practically requires donations to sustain, because this was the essential dynamic of Hellenic imperialism. The Spartan-led coalition to defend Greece from Persia ran out of momentum as Persian forces fell back away from the parts of Greece where Sparta and its allies were based. To fully drive-off the Persians and establish the kind of standing forces that would secure the Aegean, the Athenian-led Delian League effectively passed the hat among small Greek islands and cities along the Ionian coast. But over time, the Athenians started treating this less like donations and more like tribute, which is part of what led them into a terminal conflict with the rest of Greece. To defeat the Athenians, the Spartans also started soliciting financial support. Any good game about Greek warfare is going to be about the ruinous cost of policing an empire with far-flung standing forces, and the need to extract extra resources from friends and neighbors to sustain that cost.

On the other hand, these systems only sort-of exist in Troy. Agamemnon has the ability to extract resources from vassals at-will, but it doesn't scale well as the conflict escalates. Strong allies are almost comically generous with funds, so if you're willing to make the rounds every few turns, you can practically double your money just from donations. But what you can't do is coerce anyone. The diplomatic model makes AI factions so averse to ultimatums that a threat of war is effectively a declaration of war. The only way to extort money, then, is to kick the crap out of someone for a few turns and then force them to pay you for a peace treaty and, later, for a non-aggression pact. 

If you squint, you can kind of see the kind of imperialist machinery that raised a handful of Greek cities to hegemonic power, but it all occurs via a diplomacy model that's about balancing scales. It makes Troy an undeniably cumbersome game to play but, having spent more time with the game, I increasingly love how all the kludginess captures, in broad strokes, a unique setting and type of conflict. The systems don't really map well to Greek warfare or imperialism, but their overall effect "feels" right, even if the player has to keep reaching into the gears to keep them turning smoothly. If this becomes the model of the Total War Saga series, where existing systems are awkwardly contorted to tell new stories, they might just end up enriching the series a great deal.