When you think of the Creative Assembly’s Total War series of computer warGAMES, the first thing you think of is the incredible eye candy, both in graphics and animation. Let’s face it, this firm is CGI – R-Us (too soon, Bill -ED) However, serious wargamers also think ‘Hollywood History’, a not so nice comment about how the product line plays fast and loose with military reality. It’s sorta like a documentary on the Alamo versus the John Wayne movie of the same name. History be damned, there’s no contest as to which was more fun to watch.

However, with their latest offering the Total War folks have taken some large, though perhaps purely unintentional, strides towards redressing that disparity. The game in question is the recently released Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia (or TOB), covering 10 warring factions that vie for control of that wet, often dreary isle from 878 AD. This is Alfred the Great territory, and the entire so called “Saga” concept is to produce a Total War game covering a smaller, shorter, flashpoint in history in order to enhance detail, realism and player involvement. The effort isn’t perfect, but its on the correct path.

Shield Walls and other Battlefield Sundries

When fighting on a TOB battlefield, the thing to remember is the armies involved are not professional, full time forces. They are mostly made up of farmers, black smiths, etc formed into a national militia called the Fyrd, with the Great Fyrd encompassing every freeman between the ages of 15 and 60. Conversely, the Select Fyrd was raised by the petty nobility (Thanes) on the basis of one man serving for every five ‘hides’ of land. The former performed local defense duties except in emergencies, while the latter could be called for 60 days service at a time, often outside the boundaries of the kingdom, and garrisoned fortified Burghs. Normally, only half the Select Fyrd served at a time to insure agricultural production did not suffer. Rounding out the army was the king’s Hird or Huscarls, royal household troops often recruited from Scandinavian mercenaries, constituting the only professional soldiery in the land.

The army was almost entirely infantry, and although scholars have argued for years, what little cavalry there was seemed to have been mounted infantry. Archers were also very rare, or at least singularly ineffective. Thus, the most common tactic was defending or attacking infantry locking together as a shield wall, with Stephen Pollington in his book The English Warrior, From Earliest Times until 1066, describing the process thus:

  • Preliminaries – The lines are drawn up and leaders make pre-battle inspirational speeches.
  • Advance to close quarters – a battle cry would be raised and one or both shield walls would advance.
  • Exchange missiles – both sides shoot arrows and throw javelins, axes and rocks to break the enemy’s resolve.
  • Shield to shield – one or other side closes the short gap and attacks, using spears and swords, protecting themselves and pushing with shields to try to break the enemy line. If neither line broke, both sides would draw back to rest. More missiles would be exchanged, and then the two lines would close again. This would continue until one line broke through the other, perhaps aided by the death of a leader or capture of a banner.
  • Rout and pursuit – One side would begin to give way. A final stand might be made by some, as at Maldon, but most would flee. The victors would pursue, killing all they could catch.

Armies were small (the Great Viking Army may well have been but 1000 men strong) but battles bloody. Indeed, at Stamford Bridge it was recorded that only 24 ships out of 300 were needed to return the defeated Viking survivors home.

This was the tactical environment and TOB does a very commendable job of recreating the flavor and detail thereof. Yes, the tactical game still works the same way, but there are some significant differences. First and to me most significant, the armies opposing each other, regardless of which of the 10 factions owns them, are practically identical in terms of weaponry, tactics and organization. This means little to no cavalry or archers, but lots of very close order infantry and lots of shields. Shields and decreased spacing for warriors play a big part in this game because you can recreate the vaunted shield wall, and this turns infantry formations into miniature forts that move, totally impervious to projectiles zipping around except for the rare critical hit (think King ‘arrow in the eye’ Harold at Hastings). Likewise, cavalry in the game actually stops dead and rears up when confronting one of these things, then walks into contact, totally negating any charge bonus. And BTW, charge distances themselves have decreased, showing the difficulty of keeping formations tight over long hauls when using irregular troops.

When contact is made, cohesion degrades into a bar room brawl where one side or the other dies in place, almost to the last man with very few survivors. This is typical Total War, but finally history matches what has long been a game institution. What few cavalry charges occur also work differently. Although infantry now operates on a much reduced frontage to produce the shield wall effect, cavalry spacing seems much looser and its not uncommon to see opposing horse pass through each other when their formations collide. Overall, about the only nit I can pick is that the formations still seem a little too nimble to me.

Well, OK, outside the visuals, but even here the effort is acceptable. Yes, animation and detail are magnificent, and the 3D models themselves glorious in their lack of uniformity. There are different clothes and shield patterns within a unit, and different colors to boot. The armies really look like irregular, sub-Roman, near barbarian forces, except for . . . Well, TOB has opted to use a common color for each warring faction, such as a dusty blue in various shades or variations. Some warriors have blue cloaks, some a different shade of blue grey tunic underneath their chainmail, but regardless, there is blue somewhere. Matrix Games Pike & Shot Campaigns used this technique, but simply did it better to the point it wasn’t even apparent. TOB is close, but not quite there yet.

Finally, and just as a point of information, this Total War offering does not include historical battles, which does make some sense. Not only were engagements small, but record keeping was not any of these kingdom’s forte (actually writing was not any of these kingdom’s forte). Instead single players must use either campaign generated battles or design your own custom battles using prepared army lists.

In the Name of the King

However, it is the strategy or campaign segment of which really makes this game shine. Like most Total War games, the entire effort is to manage resources and maneuver armies so as to generate tactical battles, so all those drop dead gorgeous Varangians can kill stuff. TOB works the same way, but like the battlefield portion, there are some significant differences and way too many nuances for me to discuss here. Overall, however, the strategy portion of this game seems far more player demanding, yet with far more options to make the game your own. Gone are agents and advisors found in other games, and instead the player as king must deal with most affairs of his kingdom himself, as well as family matters. And trust me, preparing your successor is a must in this game and as a small kingdom, you don’t have a Roman size civil service to help. But then again, you can develop specific personality traits (expert foraging, for example) for both your king and his minions by completing objectives or providing incentives (libraries, for example, or giving a Thane a priest to guarantee loyalty) to encourage greater efficiency. What traits you develop are up to you, so you can mix and match according to taste. The same goes for your technology tree, which is more varied but specific, all with the purpose of allowing the player a choice. If you want to develop one type of infantry vice other types of arms, you can now directly do so without having to pass through another series of mostly unrelated upgrades.

Sustaining an army has also gone through some significant changes, and in my view really reflects the overall character of the period as well as some of the more interesting details of Alfred’s reign. Instead of building barracks everywhere to recruit troops, additional military forces are drawn from a kingdom wide pool that randomly changes its composition. The units appear immediately pretty much anywhere, but at a very reduced strength, reflecting the time and trouble it takes to gather the Fyrd for campaign. Over time, especially if in garrison, the unit will gain the strength and efficiency to make it combat ready.

Related to this is the logistics non-system. Resources to feed and maintain your military does appear in garrisoned settlements but is mostly the responsibility of small villages and mines, none of which have a military presence. Keeping these villages secure while acquiring more is critical. Losing them, or God forbid, the main settlement, means your ability to produce food and materials goes down and your army starves. This system does a really good job of highlighting Alfred’s system of garrisoned Burhs, each no more than one day’s march apart, used to confront and stop localized raiding. Otherwise it is thus possible to stop an enemy army dead in its tracks by snagging so many villages it can’t feed itself. Yes, think like Alfred and remember he wasn’t named ‘the Great’ for nothing.

Finally, all of this feeds into a War Fervor rating which measures your population’s willingness to support your policies, or not, or even revolt. It’s a balancing act and not having enough domestic support to invade your neighbor is entirely possible.

Royal Decree

I never thought I’d say this, but I really like this game even though its not my favorite period of history. It is, however, my favorite Total War game so far and a good part why is because it is the most historically realistic. And this trait comes not in the arena of flashy battlefield play, though spectacular and much improved to be sure. It comes in one of the best and most historically flavored strategy or campaign systems I’ve seen. Knowing the background of the period, the campaign system seems to capture exactly what it must have been like to manage a kingdom and survive in the disintegration caused by Rom’s departure. It’s a chaotic world that demands strong leaders who are not afraid to get their hands personally dirty as regards every aspect of the land they rule, and that is the way the game must be played.

Just remember I’m a miniatures guy, and forsaking cleaving heads for worrying about farms or recruiting really goes against my grain. And I for one, am happy it does.