Meet the elite ‘dragons’ of Total War: Three Kingdoms

The latest historical Total War mixes Wu Xing elements to make dragons, its new, multi-role elite units

When Total War: Three Kingdoms comes out on May 23, it’ll be the first large-scale historical game in the series since 2013’s Rome II. Fittingly, it promises to make a number of bold changes to the Total War formula. One idea that took my interest as soon as I heard about it is Wu Xing. This is a conceptual scheme of five interrelated transitory elements which underpinned the world-view of Han Dynasty China, and so has been elegantly incorporated into Three Kingdoms.

Elsewhere, fans on the Total War subreddit have noticed that Three Kingdoms introduces a new category of elite unit – multicoloured, multi-role ‘dragons’ – alongside true endgame units that only unlock when you proclaim yourself Emperor. As a unit concept, the dragons are unique to Three Kingdoms “primarily because of their mixed roles,” according to lead game designer Attila Mohácsi. As it turns out, these mixed roles are another expression of Wu Xing – once again, it’s striking how Creative Assembly has managed to weave this philosophy into the game at every level.

I spoke with Mohácsi, senior designer Leif Walter, and art director Pawel Wojs about the inspiration for these elite units – historical as well as philosophical – and how the team brought such distinctive troops to life in visual terms.

PCGamesN: Where did you get the idea for these elite units?

Attila Mohácsi: The idea was to create units that are either in-between roles (the dragons), or something really powerful (for the emperor units), that you want to get your hands on and wreak havoc with.

Leif Walter: With Wu Xing as a design lens, we were wondering: ‘how would elite units fall into this system – units that incorporate the best from multiple elements?’ Wu Xing then helped to define various bits around their design. Each element represents certain strengths or characteristics on the battlefield, so designing units that would incorporate two of these angles into one was very interesting.

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So what exactly is, say, a Protector of Heaven or a Jade Dragon?

AM: Protectors of Heaven are the elite troops of the Emperor. They are pretty much the best infantry you can get in the game. Their ‘weakness’ is the price tag: it takes quite a bit to train and equip soldiers to this level. Jade Dragons merge the toughness of Wood and the shock of Fire. They are cavalry that can break enemy lines, but also won’t shy away if they get stuck in prolonged melee.

Is there any mention of elite units named for coloured dragons in the Records or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or is this a bit of embellishment?

LW: During the Han times, there were various elite units with flamboyant titles. ‘Gentlemen Rapid as Tigers’ were a hereditary guard, and ‘Men of the Feathered Forest’ were 1,700-strong elite units, made up of the orphaned sons of fallen fathers and grandfathers. We picked up on this theme because it really suited the idea of hybrid units that incorporate the best of two Wu Xing forces/elements.

How did you decide on how these units should look, and signify their elite status?

LW: The design was primarily driven by the elemental mixture of these units. Jade Dragons, for example, are supposed to incorporate Wood aspects into a Fire unit, so they were meant to look durable and resilient – other dragons similarly incorporate various elements into a single design. They usually have mixed weaponry, which signals their versatility. They also typically look more flamboyant and special, with unique armour pieces, which helps to highlight their presence on the battlefield.

For the Emperor-rank units, we wanted to make them look impressive. They are amongst the heaviest-looking units, with special armour and heavy weaponry. The goal was to make it clear that these guys hit hard.

Pawel Wojs: Given our character-centric design philosophy, the standard units were always intended to be a ‘faceless crowd’ devoid of much colour or any standout detailing. The hero characters were the focus for colour, unique detailing, and design.

So when it came to designing the elite units, we wanted to blur that line a little bit, and incorporate some of those elements to make the elite units feel like a hybrid of basic unit with a touch of heroic essence.

This can be seen in the unit cards, where more of the unit is visible through the fog than a standard unit, and in the more decorative armour elements and use of colour.

Was it a challenge to devise prestigious, endgame units in a broadly historical setting that – unlike Warhammer – isn’t conducive to huge power gulfs between units?

AM: It was a challenge, but we ended up using some creative licence here and there.

LW: Using Wu Xing as a design lens helped a lot in that process. The aim to make these units elemental hybrids informed a lot of the original high-level design.

An interesting case is the Yellow Dragons, an elemental hybrid between Fire and Earth. Fire and Earth units are normally cavalry, but when we talked about some of the key qualities of Fire (assault, offensive power) and Earth (fast, protection against missiles, high morale), we felt that an infantry unit with large shields, specialised in assaulting walls during siege battles, was a great angle.

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How do they fit within the character retinues system?

AM: As they have mixed roles, they fit in an interesting way, especially the Azure Dragons. They are great against cavalry but have decent ranged weapons as well. Hence, if you have a Champion and you have the appropriate reform, you can have a unit that also replaces the better ranged units that would otherwise come from Strategists.