Total War campaigns tend to come in two flavors. There is the standard “rise to power” campaign where you take part in an expansionist drag race to become the unchallenged hegemon of the setting, which has been the basis of most Total War games since the original Shogun in 2000. Then there is the “edge of the abyss” Total War game, like 2015’s Attila, where a decrepit but salvageable balance of power is poised to unravel in a series of compounding catastrophes. Total War: Three Kingdoms was the first kind of game. Its first major expansion, Mandate of Heaven, turns it into the second.
If you’ve played a Dynasty Warriors game at any point in your life, you have heard of the Yellow Turban Rebellion that is at the heart of this expansion. There’s a mass revolt of cultist fanatics, and the Han Dynasty’s sluggish and inept response is what reveals the depths of its incapacity, while the rise of a coterie of effective commanders and governors opens the door to a series of coups. In Dynasty Warriors, the Yellow Turbans are brushed-off as a level 1 prologue to the main action of the story. That’s understandable: For reference, this is all stuff that’s covered in the first half-dozen chapters of the 120-chapter Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic.
Mandate of Heaven takes a different tack, de-emphasizing the mysticism surrounding the Yellow Turbans and focusing instead on the fact that it was apparently an unprecedented mass uprising across a wide swathe of China. Instead of a fanatical personality cult, Mandate portrays a popular communitarian movement whose aim is to tear down both the Han Dynasty and the deeply hierarchal economic structures it has codified for centuries. They become the tragic heroes of the expansion, racing to overwhelm the Han Empire and its ambitious and self-dealing leadership before the might of its institutions and infrastructure can be brought to bear against them.
Their play styles, broadly, are momentum-based. The Yellow Turbans gain power from Zeal, which increases as they fight battles and capture territory, and with enough Zeal their peasant armies can punch way above their weight to smash far better equipped and trained professional forces. But Zeal wanes rapidly if the Yellow Turbans lapse into inactivity, which gives their game a very different pace from the other factions and leads them into taking on more challenging fights that they should. They also can’t ever really become legitimate in the eyes of the other factions. Everyone else can do political deals and turn yesterday’s enemy into tomorrow’s staunch ally, but the Yellow Turbans will always be surrounded by enemies in what will at best be a hostile peace.
Mandate of Heaven commits one sin, however: It tacitly discourages new players from playing as the Empire. Among the factions you can select, the Emperor’s is rated “very hard” implying that it’s the kind of brutal and unforgiving experience reserved for those who are already pretty seasoned veterans. But this also puts the most panoramic, dramatic campaign in Three Kingdoms behind glass. You could argue it’s the one campaign that provides context for the entire expansion and the main game that was released last year.
Three Kingdoms’ main campaign opens well after the Yellow Turbans have been suppressed. Its action begins just as the usurper Dong Zhuo is about to flee the Imperial capital, and the coalition of Han loyalists, ambitious nobles, and upstart officers has come undone as everyone finally recognizes there’s no putting the dynasty back together. Mandate of Heaven’s earlier starting date opens just as the first stirrings of the infamous Yellow Turban Rebellion are first being reported in the countryside but, superficially, the Han dynasty is still at peace.
It is, however, utterly screwed.
The thing that makes Emperor Liu Hong’s faction a perfect place to begin this expansion is that its problems are so pervasive that there is something critical to do using almost every game system. Where the usual campaign arc is about carefully planning your next move and plotting out the most efficient way to scale-up your economy and military, the Han Dynasty needs triage. They have a massively powerful army of elite endgame units under the command of General He Jin, but no way to replace their losses. They have a massive balance of money in the treasury… but they are running a deficit so mind-boggling that it will bankrupt you in ten turns. They nominally rule all of China and as such have a near-complete view of the entire, gorgeous map, but they operate through vassals who control their own armies and budgets. The Emperor reigns but does not actually rule anything.
The biggest problem the Empire faces is its finances, and it doesn’t exactly take a forensic accountant to figure out why everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. Just look at this.
This is what we’ll call “the eunuch problem”. One of the cool things in Three Kingdoms is that just about every faction has a unique game mechanic that can help them triumph in the face of adversity, but also some constraints that impose special challenges. The Han have a doozy: to rule China for centuries, they’ve built up a massive bureaucracy, and to safeguard the dynasty they have placed just about all that machinery under the control of Imperial eunuchs, who hold all the key government offices and who enjoy the loyalty of just about every member of the court. The various generals and officials may serve the emperor, but they work for the eunuchs. The whole thing has created a massive patronage system as well as a host of expensive sinecures that are rapidly bankrupting the empire. (Remember this is an era before corporate boards and university administration existed, so elite looting was a bit more direct.)
No problem, just start downsizing right? That’s what you’d do in a normal game, where you can remove people from your fledgling court at will and have personally recruited just about every one of your generals and retainers. But remember the Han Dynasty has gotten weak, and the retainers are the ones running the show. So every single firing costs 80 “political influence” points. And the Emperor starts with 10. If you work hard, build infrastructure, and retake territory… you can fire like one dude. Because while nobody can say “no” to the emperor, they can slow-walk his directives redirect his attention and in general keep their people and policies in place regardless what directives they’re given. The emperor can gain more influence points as he changes the political allegiances of his court, but that obviously takes time and comes with its own tradeoffs. This is something that has become much more punishing since Mandate of Heaven came out, as the first major patch worsened the math for the Han Empire across the board, and sharply increased the inertia the faction is laboring under.
At the start of the game, the court is dominated by the Bureaucracy faction (the eunuchs and their hires, basically). The Dynasty faction, loyal to the Han and hoping for a strong Emperor, are almost nonexistent. There’s the Emperor’s wife, and that about it. Then there’s the militaristic Warlord faction, who want to rebuild the imperial army so that it’s not the brittle shell that it has become. Each faction provides bonuses and penalties as they ascend in power, and characters who identify with those factions get happier or unhappy based on the political fortunes of their faction.
If things were not quite so desperate, this would be a slow-going reform project. But the moment the Yellow Turban Rebellion hits, the Han dynasty has effectively run out of road. Because the way the Yellow Turbans work is they spread Fervor from province to province, and their armies intensify it as well. So as the Yellow Turbans gain ground, they inspire more uprisings in nearby territory. It’s very easy to get trapped in a loop of counterinsurgency where you have armies running between provinces, suppressing new rebel toeholds, but completely unable to mount an offensive against the main Yellow Turban strongholds. On top of that, the Empire’s own governors start squabbling amongst themselves and may effectively start fighting a low-key civil war against each other rather than contribute anything to the cause of the Han.
As the Emperor, you have to keep a lid on all these tensions somehow while also gaining enough power to start to have some extra direct agency within the empire and its administration. But the reason I love it is because unlike typical Total War campaigns, where you are usually choosing which decision gives you the upside you want the most, the Emperor has to weigh all of those upsides against very significant downsides. If you burn political influence to fire a minister, you’re going to lose the bonuses that their ministerial office provided, and you won’t be able to use that influence to, say, annex a territory from an incompetent official and bring it under direct Imperial rule.
Likewise, if you send armies out to fight the Yellow Turbans, you’re not going to have them available to handle any new rebel armies that spawn in your own territory, or to go and bring treasonous officials back into line, and their upkeep cost will prevent you from spending money on infrastructure you desperately need. Every affirmative decision you make implies letting at least one other thing (and usually more) get worse.
I love this kind of campaign. If most Total War campaigns operate according to a principle of virtuous cycles, the “collapsing hegemony” style of campaign introduces spirals of chaos that make the game feel more alive and less under my sole direction. You have a starting position that is at once more and less constrained than the traditional ones: You have a lot of problems and a lot of resources are in danger of slipping out of your grasp, but you can also make radically different choices about what to salvage, which can set the rest of your game on a different trajectory.
But I think what I like the most about these types of campaigns is that they force you to look at the ways the game’s different systems are tied together. Total War games sometimes have a problem where there’s a lot of complicated obscure rules operating in plain sight, but their impacts are so marginal at first that it’s easy just to focus on simple decisions based on simple math. If a province is sliding into revolt because Public Order is at -2, I’m going to buy a building that gives me Public Order +4. I need more money, so I’m going to build a workshop to produce 400 gold per turn. The second-order variables that drive things like Public Order or total income fade into the background.
But when you’re already leading an empire with tons of money, tons of spending, a slew of important diplomatic relationships, and advanced infrastructure, those sorts of incremental fixes aren’t going to cut it. It’s harder to isolate one variable, and instead you start seeing how public order is being affected by the fact that one of your characters is a jerk, and overcrowding in one of the cities, and the food reserves available across the empire. And each of those factors leads you to another web of relationships that you have to consider. While they may be driving you to ruin in a game like this, in coming to grips with them, you can also see how those same dynamics can be manipulated and turned back to your advantage.
Mandate of Heaven doesn’t quite reach the heights of cascading chaos that Attila achieved, where every faction felt like it was desperately clawing for survival while pieces of the fractured Roman Empire fell down around them. But it’s built within a much better game, and it also connects its action to the main campaign in a way that subverts the sometimes Gibbon-esque character of Total War’s implicit politics. The Han may survive this campaign or they may fall apart, but either way the game will continue into the familiar outline of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The rise of the Yellow Turbans and the fall of the Han isn’t the end of order and the dawn of anarchy, and neither side is fated to win or lose. The story will continue with or without them, as Mandate of Heaven’s time comes to an end and the story turns toward the establishment of a new order, for better or worse. Either way, it’s a reinvention both of Three Kingdoms and of what we expect from a Total War expansion.