What does it mean to be a Total War Saga? Developers Creative Assembly have been putting out focused, standalone spin-offs from their era-spanning games since Napoleon, but come April, Thrones of Britannia will launch them as an official series.
We’ve had a chance to play with it twice now, and it makes a number of bold changes – there are no more agents, and there is a Warhammer-inspired focus on telling stories from the period, to name but two. We spoke with game director Jack Lusted and community manager James Givens about what else is new in Thrones.
PCGamesN: How will the tactics of the time period, such as the shieldwall, affect battles in Thrones of Britannia?
Jack Lusted: Rather than it being a specific ability, we’ve changed how the units that can use it behave, so they feel like they’ve got a shieldwall at all times. They’ve got much denser spacing, the charge distances are a lot shorter, so you get that feeling of a sudden rush of shields against each other.
It means they can’t do things like loose formation, so the only way they can protect themselves is to use an ability called shield castle. They then tier up their shields to protect against missiles. It means you get battles where these very dense, tightly-packed melee units form a shield for your missile troops, and you’re trying to manoeuvre them into as much of a coherent line as possible.
A lot of the formations we’ve got now have removed the space between melee troops, so you can get a really nice solid wall of troops going on. Because the shield wall units are quite defensive, if you’ve just got a pure frontal grinding match, battles can go on for a long time, because there are guys with big shields fighting each other. Few people are going to die.
So it’s then dependant on the player – flanking, using missiles and stuff – to try and break that deadlock and chase the enemy from the field. That means axe infantry for the Vikings, who don’t have very strong calvary. Because your axe infantry is often armed with two-handed axes, they don’t have shields, and that means they’re quite vulnerable to enemy missiles. You want them to be your flanking force, or to punch holes through the enemy line.
How does this compare to previous historical Total War games in terms of pacing?
Jack Lusted: We’re aiming for battles to last for about 12 to 15 minutes on average, so that’s a bit longer than Atilla’s were.
Warhammer’s battles were faster than this. What determines the pacing of battles in a Total War game?
Jack Lusted: It very much depends on the title and the balancing for it. Shogun 2 had quite fast-paced battles, but you don’t tend to see people comment on it much, because I think it fit very well with the balancing we went for. Ultimately, we’re going to try to make feel right for the period, and in thisperiod – with shieldwalls, you know – you want that feeling of combat dragging on for a while, that grinding between two forces.
Naval combat is back. How will it work this time around?
Jack Lusted: It’s similar to how it was in Attila. There’s a reduced selection of ship types, we’ve got no fire-breathing ships, as there were in Attila for the Eastern Romans, and you don’t tend to get much ramming – longships weren’t really built for it. The focus is very much on getting close and boarding, with missile ships providing support.
How do siege battles compare with Warhammer and Attila? We hear there will be a large variety of maps.
Jack Lusted: Sieges are much more like Attila than Warhammer in that there’s the whole settlement on the map. What we’ve gone for is as large a variety of siege maps as possible, so there are 16 different types of map modelled on various historical settlements. There are ones based on Winchester, Dublin, Dunottar, Birkhead – there’s a whole variety, and you get very different graphical looks as well as geographic layouts.
So you have to approach each settlement differently. There’s one which has two rock walls on either side of the entrance, so you’ve got to fight your way through there, or try and come in from the sea. Or there are long Roman walls you can attack.
The big difference in terms of how they play is the lack of artillery. There is artillery in the game, but it’s very rare, so most of the time you’re brute forcing your sieges – you are hacking down the gates, you are using your siege towers to get over them – they can be very bloody affairs. And there’s quite a bit of manoeuvring in those settlements – you’re not just down narrow streets, you have room to flank around, and engage in bigger brawls inside the walls.
What are you expecting to see in the multiplayer scene?
Jack Lusted: It will be very interesting to see what strategies people come up with. Multiplayer players always find some interesting way to take your balancing and push it very odd ways. I’m sure you’re used to it with your background, James.
James Givens: Yeah, definitely. People are always going to play it in their own unique way. A lot of people embrace the role-play aspect more. And then there are people who prefer to play head-to-head campaigns over co-op campaigns – head-to-head campaigns are hilarious – but some of the best Total War experiences I’ve ever had have come through that. Putting yourself up against a human player makes it so much more rewarding when you smash them.
But, at the same time, I think we’re going to see a lot more people focusing on the role-play elements of this one. For example, we were talking in the presentation about being able to evolve your kingdom, changing it from this faction to the Anglo-Saxons, or to England, you know? That feeling of progression, like you’re actually the one uniting it. Previously you’d just be painting the map your colour, which is fine, but now you get the sense that you’re actually evolving as you encompass more of the country you’re taking over. I think that is really going to keep people pushing along to unite more and more of the country.
The only faction we haven’t seen much of are the Viking Sea Kings. What can you tell us about their mechanics?
Jack Lusted: Their kingdom victory is dependent on ports. They’re all about controlling the sea, so they have to control a certain number of ports to do it. The kingdom victory conditions vary by faction groups – the English are all about owning certain settlements, the Welsh are all about owning certain provinces. The Gaelic Kingdoms are all about having a certain number of vassals, and the Great Viking Army are about destroying a certain number of factions. So each victory plays into the theme of those factions.
The Viking Sea Kings are quite good fun. Their units are immune to sea sickness, so you can really press that advantage in the campaign in the naval battles. They’re also immune to high seas attrition – we’ve painted a lot of areas of high seas attrition on the map, because your navy can move twice as far [as your army]. So the Viking Sea Kings can move around a lot quicker, on the inner Irish sea and stuff, and attack places more freely than other factions who, if they tried the same thing, would lose a lot of troops.
What does the ultimate victory look like?
Jack Lusted: Once you’ve completed one of the long victories you get events talking about how people overseas are looking quite enviously on your kingdom – you’ve built this rich, prosperous land, and maybe they want to take it for themselves. So you then get an nice little event chain, and then one or multiple invading armies can appear. Where you are on the campaign map will dictate who appears. Your difficulty is also a factor in who turns up – the harder the difficulty, the more invaders. Then, once you’ve defeated them, you win that ultimate victory.
Which factions will attack?
Jack Lusted: Norse, Normans, and Danes can come in, and if you’re on Legendary you get all three.
So it’s inspired by the Norman invasion in 1066?
Jack Lusted: It certainly was one of the inspirations, but we didn’t want to force players into justdoing 1066. We wanted it to be reflective of you, because it’s all about this role-playing, and this dynamic story stuff. We wanted the endgame to reflect that, so it should be like: ‘well I’ve conquered most of the South, the Normans have turned up. I’ve conquered most of the North, the Norse have turned up. I’m in the Midlands, the Danes have come in’. So it’s more reflective of what you’re doing in the campaign, and it fits in as a nice final chapter.
What do the invaders look like in terms of roster and mechanics? Are they based on the in-game factions?
Jack Lusted: The Norse and Danes share a lot of units with the existing Viking raiders you’ll see in the campaign. The Normans have their own roster, very much 1066 – they’ve got knights! Well, I should say their knights are not high medieval knights with lances. They’ll still run up to a shieldwall and poke at it and go: ‘ohhh, better not try that’.
Why did you decide to do away with agents?
Jack Lusted: Agents always produce a lot of discussion – both good and bad – so we’re just exploring different ways of handling that. Warhammer has its heroes, which I think work really well – they can get embedded into your armies, they can be these really powerful characters on the battlefield. But that kind of solution doesn’t work for Thrones because having a single guy on the battlefield… well, they’ll die, very quickly.
Instead, we looked at merging them with the generals, so you get these characters – who we wanted to be important – becoming more important because of what they can do. So you get a guy with a top-level pillager, he stops enemy armies replenishing. Get a high-level priest on a general, he’s going to cause desertion in enemy armies.
Some of it’s on buildings as well – you build a garrison chain, and enemy armies move half as far in that province. So it’s all about moving that gameplay into other areas and making those more important, so that if you lose your general with all these awesome bonuses, you’ve got to put a newbie in there who’s not going to be as good. That’s a big blow, and that adds to the story of that campaign.
Razing and recolonising settlements has also been cut, correct?
Jack Lusted: Yes. Vikings didn’t really burn stuff to the ground – they wanted it to be there so when they came back five years later, they could take the gold again.
Are these changes just because it’s a Saga game in the Viking invasion, or is Total War getting more experimental as a series?
Jack Lusted: A Saga title certainly allows us more freedom to experiment in that way, because of the very focused nature of it. But we’re always changing the features of Total War, game to game – we don’t like to think of this one monolithic set of rules outside of: ‘there’s a campaign, and there are battles’. It’s always key to get the features right for each game, so it will continue to change.
Are you at all concerned that the ageing Attila engine might put some people off?
Jack Lusted: I don’t think so. I mean, many of the areas that Warhammer moved it forward are things that fit with its setting, like the great landmarks in the campaign. We can’t have giant skull mountains in early medieval Britain – it doesn’t quite fit the period!
But I think it looks fantastic. Sure, there are similarities, in much the same way that Rome 2 shared some similarities with Attila, or Fall of the Samurai shared some similarities with Shogun 2. But you get in that campaign, you look at the detail, you get zoomed in, and it is something that feels fresh and different. If a slight similarity there is going to turn people off, then they’ve not been listening to the new features, or any of the other massive changes there. This is not Attila; this is Thrones.
How are you expecting Thrones to perform in comparison to an era-spanning Total War title?
Jack Lusted: Our expectations for our smaller titles are never as big as with our tentpoles. I think it’s fair to compare this with Fall of the Samurai, or Attila. It’s pretty much the same price point, it’s something that is, I think, going to appeal to fans and new players.
You are making a lot of Total War right now. Are you at all worried about audience saturation?
Jack Lusted: We keep producing more and more, and people keep on buying it. When we reach that saturation point, we’ll worry, but we’ve not hit it yet!
Thrones of Britannia is out on April 19. Check out the Thrones of Britannia Steam page for more.