Every single Total War game gets compared to this one memory from one battle I fought about fifteen years ago. None quite measures up, and sometimes I think that’s a problem with me, sometimes I think it’s a problem with the series, and the truth is that it’s a problem of experience, expectations, and change. A problem of aging, both for me and for Total War. Nevertheless, it’s to this memory I return.
In one of my campaigns as the English in Medieval: Total War, I was mired in a war of attrition against the seemingly endless strength of the Byzantine Empire, on a front stretching from Poland to Italy. So I did what empires so often do, which was to open another imperial frontier in an attempt to gain new resources that I could then turn against my main rival. In my case, this meant a Crusade across Northern Africa against the the game’s great Muslim power: Egypt. I would capture the Nile Delta, shatter Egypt’s strength, and then use the the Nile basin as as a launchpad for direct attacks on the Byzantine heartland.
I don’t remember the details of the campaign, only that it succeeded wildly… and left me massively overstretched. Vast numbers of troops were diverted into occupation armies, tasked with putting down rebellions in newly-captured provinces ranging from southern Spain to Libya, denying reinforcements to my exhausted Egyptian expedition. I sank all my money into expensive upgrades for my main fortress in Cairo that would make it a kind of medieval Death Star, but which would take many, many turns to complete. In the meantime, my front in Poland was starting to buckle. And now the Egyptians were mounting a counterattack.
In the end, everything came down to one desert battle along the Mediterranean coast. My last great North African army had to hold off the Egyptians or I’d lose everything I’d gained across this campaign. Hell, I’d lose everything I had gained since my armies had been scrapping in the Scottish Highlands to consolidate my hold on the British Isles. There was the weight of in-game history behind this battle.
The game seemed to feel it, too. A different soundtrack than the bombastic ones from my European battles accompanied this engagement: Instead of drums and horns, there was only a lonely, solo lament. Clouds of sand swirled over the battlefield, and the wind and waves seemed to boom like a drum from the distant shoreline. I don’t remember if you could hear pennants snapping in that game, but in my memory I can hear them clear as day as my depleted army of elite knights, longbowmen, and men-at-arms waited for the Egyptians to descend on our position.
Here, finally, nothing seemed to go right. My armored knights were roasting inside their armor, and every maneuver left them dangerously fatigued. My horse cavalry were spooked by the handful of camel archers they encountered, who then mercilessly pelted my infantry with deadly arrows.
My formation came apart under the harassment from those skirmishers, who retreated across the sand whenever one of my forces lunged against them. My knights could shatter almost any foe they managed to catch… but each time there were fewer of them left. An army that had boasted hundreds of mounted knights dwindled to a few groups of a dozen men apiece. Finally, when my army was down to fewer than a couple hundred men—with piles of dead stretching from one end of the map to the other that almost formed a diagram of the two armies’ maneuvers—my last survivors started to break and run. It was the beginning of an imperial retreat that would never stop until a doomed last-stand in the Pyrenees sometime much later. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but as my forces fled from the victorious Egyptian army, the death knell was sounding for my empire.
For me this has always captured the definitive Total War experience. A hard-fought strategic campaign required battlefield heroics to turn in my favor, and culminated in a do-or-die battle to determine the fate of an empire. This was the dream: A game where tactical battles and the grand strategy layer informed and contextualized one another, and you saw the impact of your decisions and your performance reflected in both places.
But I don’t know if any of that is true. I have this memory, but it’s well-over a decade old at this point. Parts of it are real, but I know there are details that were probably filled-in by imagination at the time, and then further gilded by nostalgia. Do I actually remember Medieval: Total War, or do I remember the game I thought it was at a time when I was less skeptical, and more willing to collaborate in the work of building a narrative?
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia has me reconsidering what is essential about the Total War series because it feels so in-essential. In form it is undeniably a Total War game, but in function so many of these familiar pieces are either strategically inert or so indifferently executed that it’s left me questioning how well I really know or understand this series. Yet its flaws are so in-keeping with this series’ miscues and shortcomings since Rome 2—and maybe even since the original Rome—that it leaves me wondering if an experience this hollow has always been lurking under these games’ various facades. I remember lots of games where I faced hard choices and desperate struggles on far-flung battlefields, but in the wake of Thrones of Britannia I worry that I’ve just been making up stories for myself this whole time.
Thrones of Britannia is supposed to be the start of a new line of focused, historically specific Total War games—Total War Sagas—that will exist alongside the giant sandbox campaigns of games like Rome 2 or Total War: Warhammer. In many ways this is merely codifies the split between major tentpole releases like Empire and Rome, and the series’ generally superb standalone expansions like Napoleon and the mighty Fall of the Samurai (which is quietly the best gunpowder-age Total War ever made). In general, these expansions have been places where Creative Assembly can set aside the more unwieldy aspects of their sandboxes and evokes a more specific setting and conflict.
Yet it’s this tradition that Thrones of Britannia singularly fails to live up to. Set during the era of Viking invasions and occupation of the British Isles, Thrones of Britannia promises to be an incredibly detailed treatment of a period that has always existed in the imagination as a mix of history and myth. This map of the Isles is colossal, devoting as much space to every nook and cranny of Britannia that previous games devoted to all of Europe. It’s packed with Viking raiders, Celtic and Welsh kings, and Anglo-Saxon warlords, battling from from Cornwall to the Orkney Islands.
It’s a great setting and could be a great take on this set of rivals… but then we come to the question of what you actually do in this game. Which never feels like much, to be honest. Because this feels like the most stripped-down the strategic level of a Total War game has ever been. Not distilled, not refined. Just gutted.
Your fledgling empires barely offer any opportunities for governance: Each small settlement follows a linear upgrade path while the major cities that form the administrative centers of each province are the only locations where you can make choices about how to specialize your territory. But since that specialization is informed by those predetermined village upgrade paths, most of your potential choices feel like they are being quietly discouraged.
This leaves Thrones of Britannia feeling like little more than a territory-acquisition game, which is perhaps always the essence of a Total War game, but never before has the process of empire-building felt so hands-off and uninvolving. More territory quickly turns into more troops which turns into more territory. While there are still important decisions about when to expand or build-up forces versus develop existing territory, it never feels like those decisions give you a way to be an effective ruler, or to build a nation that reflects any specific strategy. You nation is simply a piggy bank that funds your army, but not the actual wellspring for that army. As ruler, your job is to press the accelerator or brakes on a strategic progression that you can’t meaningfully guide or steer.
Or maybe the idea is that the nation is a vessel containing competing agendas and goals that your real job is to mediate. After all, in Thrones of Britannia, each faction is led by nobles who intrigue for their own advancement even as they serve their state, and each faction has its own animating politics that you have to factor into your decisions. There’s a evidence of a major Crusader Kings 2 influence on Thrones of Britannia… though most of that evidence could be used to convict Creative Assembly of missing the point of that game.
Thrones of Britannia quickly drowns you in relatives, spouses, governors, and generals… all of whom have their own traits and abilities and, supposedly, political influence and ambitions. It’s represented by a loyalty system that can eventually cause major leaders in your cause to defect or mutiny. This is not a completely new idea in Total War—loyalty has played a roll in a number of earlier games—but this the first time the system has somehow required more maintenance than ever before while also causing absolutely nothing to happen.
From time to time, you’ll learn that a general or governor has become borderline disloyal or outright treasonous and you have a few ways to resolve this problem, including pressing a big button labeled “secure loyalty” that tends to work far more often than not. But what really drives disloyalty is when your leaders are jealous of your king’s holdings—estate titles—and will become more disloyal the more estates your king has. The estates don’t do anything, nor do they play any role in governance. So there is nothing to stop you from simply giving away your titles until all your generals are happy again—which they will be once they have almost the same number of titles as their ruler.
The reason this kind of tension works in a Crusader Kings game is because giving a title to a character means giving them that land, which means giving them the economic, military, and political power associated with it. This is the fundamental problem of feudalism: The feudal state divides its authority and dilutes its power even as it grows in capacity. But Crusader Kings models that with its systems and those systems become a major factor in each new decision as the game unfolds. But in Thrones of Britannia, feudalism is effectively meaningless. You give your officers their pacifiers and problems go away immediately, then stay gone until the next time you add some new territory and your officers get jealous again.
At its lowest points, the series has rarely been this fussily uninvolving. And yet there are moments even here, on some battlefields, where Thrones of Britannia evokes that long-ago, battle in Egypt. At those times, I can briefly recognize what was and is enduringly great about this series.
Battles are invested with greater consequence now thanks to some genuinely good ideas about recruitment and replenishment. You can muster new units anywhere in your empire and have them take the field immediately. The catch is that it takes them several terms to get up to full strength. Likewise, armies take longer to replenish their losses, which means that the consequences of each victory of defeat are a little heftier. If you can shatter an enemy army, it can’t simply retreat deep into friendly territory and bounce back within a turn or two, giving you more space to exploit your victory. Likewise, if you absorb heavy casualties in a Pyrrhic victory, you’ll either have to conduct the rest of your campaign with whatever survivors are left in your army, or you’ll have to retreat and wait for your army to get back up to a respectable strength.
It produced some memorable drama that kept me coming back to Thrones of Britannia in spite of my disenchantment. There was a pivotal battle halfway through a war with a Viking kingdom, when I was attacked by two strong Viking armies at once… but outnumbered each one separately. So in a driving Irish rainstorm, my army raced through a forest to pounce on a legion of Viking axemen, hold them in place long enough for my few units of heavy cavalry to get into position behind the forest, and then break them with charges from behind. Their line broke and ran only moments before their allies arrived, and the last of my units were just taking their positions when the second half of the battle began with a Viking charge. Three quarters of the troops on both sides were killed, but I came out ahead and was able to continue my offensive while the Viking army was basically out of the fight for the next several turns.
Even here, however, Thrones of Britannia sabotages itself sometimes. The amphibious landings that are a major feature of the game—particularly where Viking raiding factions are concerned—are completely beyond the AI’s capacity to handle. Ships spin in place, entire fleets get fouled up in a kind of nautical scrum, and sometimes enemy troops just cannot seem to disembark and so you have the choice of either letting the battle timer run out, or you can quit and take the defeat. Stuff like this happened during every coastal battle, a complete travesty when you consider that amphibious invasions have been part of Total War since Rome 2 came out five years ago.
And then there are limitations that the series seems increasingly incapable of transcending. The battle AI still appears to be in roughly the same shape it’s been in for several games now. The AI generally lines its troops up effectively and keeps them oriented squarely at your positions no matter how much you shift around, but you can also make it completely fall apart with a couple units of fast skirmishers, as the AI’s aggro-driven units overreact until its formation is a tatters.
The AI’s cookie-cutter armies also breed really similar-feeling battles, which is especially notable in this game compared to the Warhammer games because the unit types are so much less fanciful here. AI armies will always have a force that’s about one-quarter ranged units, one-quarter line infantry, one quarter shock infantry, and one quarter cavalry. There’s hardly a moment where you see a unit composition that poses any kind of asymmetric dilemma.
That’s kind of the dilemma for Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia: It’s best moments are familiar because they are part of that sturdy, underlying Total War formula, but even here they quickly become repetitive. Yet when it attempts to do something new and to be something new, Thrones of Britannia seems to lack any kind of compelling original vision for what a Total War game can be. In its unsuccessful mimicry of Crusader Kings, in its paring-down of what is possible within its strategic layer, this is a Total War game that only knows what it wishes not to be, and what it dreams it could be, but never what it is.