One has been the preeminent tabletop war game for the last few decades, the other, a series of grand strategy that blends turn-based campaigning with real time battles. A game to combine the two properties has felt like an obvious move for a long time, and yet it’s only now that Warhammer and Total War are uniting under the same banner.
There’s been a steady drip feed of new information about how this alliance will pan out over the last few months, from hero characters to magic powers, flying beasts and more. In fact, the Dwarves and their underground battles have been revealed in the last few weeks, but we spoke to Andy Hall, the game’s lead writer, and Al Bickham, Creative Assembly’s communications manager closer to the initial gameplay reveal of a classic showdown between the Empire and the Orcs at the Battle of Black Fire Pass.
TSA: This merging of Total War and Warhammer is a bit of a match made in heaven, isn’t it?
Andy Hall: Funnily enough, that’s the exact term that we’ve been using!
TSA: It does feel like such an obvious match, to be fair, but how did it come about? Was it a long and arduous process to get this to come together, or was it just a very easy fit?
Andy: I’m on the other side of the fence now; I worked at Games Workshop for 16 years, so I know the two companies have been talking to each other for pretty much a decade now. I guess the stars finally aligned, where Creative Assembly was in a place where there was capacity – we’re not slowing down our production of historical war games – and Games Workshop was in a phase where they were looking to license the Warhammer brand out.
I think they’ve been friends in arms for a long time. When the contract negotiations were going on, I was still at Workshop and we were saying, “We’ve got to make this work! We’ve got to make this work!” From what I gather, it was the same at the Sega end. Eventually, contracts were signed and here we are!
Al Bickham: I think there’s a lot of philosophical similarities between our companies, you know? We’re both sort of cottage grown, English gaming businesses that sort of sprouted up at about the same time, really.
TSA: I think one interesting point is just how much Games Workshop are currently experimenting with licensed video games. Focus Interactive are publishing four or five different games alone, which is kind of crazy!
Andy: Obviously I don’t want to talk too much about Workshop, because I can’t speak for them anymore, but I think there was a desire after a very conservative period to start to leverage these quite valuable IPs.
TSA: Bringing the world of Warhammer to the Total War style of gameplay you’ve had to come up with some interesting ways of handling magic, aerial combat, and things like that? But how have you reconciled those elements with the existing battle systems?
Al: Well I guess the guiding light is balance. We’ve got things like big spells and big monsters, and if we did it a certain way they could easily dominate the battlefield. That would kill the gameplay that we’ve been designing for 15 years, with its ideas of rock, paper, scissors on the battlefield, troop movements, and effective and smart manoeuvres winning you the day.
We want those big, cool, fun, interesting, explosive crazy things to be tools in your armoury rather than things that dominate a battle. So magic’s a good example, and in this Battle of Black Fire Pass gameplay demo we’ve got three or four very high tier spells that go off, but in most games you’d be lucky to pull even one of those off, because you have limited mana, they need to recharge…
It’s based on the Winds of Magic system which is in the table top game, but our interpretation of that is that it’s variable. The amount of magic floating around in the air that you can use is variable at the start of the battle, and that also depends on where you are in the world as well…
Andy: Yeah, that’s because the Winds blow from the north, coming from the open Chaos gates. But it blows hot and cold, so sometimes it will blow a tempest, other times it will be a trickle.
For a start you’ve got to have wizard who is levelled high enough to unlock these powerful spells, and having enough mana from the Winds of Magic, and being in the right position – some of these spells have ranges as well – and being in a good place to cast the spell at the right time. There’s a lot of prerequisites that you need in order to get what’s effectively a nuke off.
If you do, it’s going to be a game winning strategy, but you’ve got to spend most of your battle alive as the wizard for a start, and that’s kind of hard to do…
Al: Yeah, they’re powerful, but they’re also very weak and you can’t hide them in a unit. They don’t attach to other units, they are their own unit.
TSA: I think that’s another interesting new addition, because this is the first time that you’ve really had individuals and hero units on the battlefield, like Emperor Karl Franz.
Andy: Yeah, we’ve got these legendary people and obviously each race will have their own mighty and special characters.
Al: Yeah, but we’ve had agents in previous Total War games and they’ve always been ways of altering your campaign game for the better. So, assassinating a general, causing riots in cities, sabotaging the gates…
Agents can now join armies and they may provide that army with a buff, but they can also appear in battle now. They’ll have their own magical or combat skill trees, which dictate what they can do in battle as well. So again, it’s another nice way that we’ve moved Total War on a bit and advanced the systems that we do have; we’ve taken agents and made them feature in battles.
Andy: At the same time, doing that also puts them at risk. You have deep skill trees for them, but effectively we’re not moving the timeline on. In a historical game, if you want to get to those historical battles, the timeline has to move, people might die of old age…
TSA: That would be such an ignominious end for some of these characters!
Al: Yeah, he just got a bit too old!
Andy: Because we’re in this heightened reality and we’re not moving the timeline on like that, we can have a much deeper skill tree and you as the player can tinker and custom build. Of course, that means you get attached to him as well, as they get very powerful, but bringing him into a battle also means there’s a risk, because if he dies, he dies.
Al: There’s a bit of risk-reward there, but this is, you know, the first Total War game where you really want to be throwing your generals into the fight with your troops.
Previous Total War games, he’s been useful, especially if you want to put the enemy army down – he’s still a cavalry unit – but you want to use him towards the end when there’s less risk. Here, they’re going to have sweet combat skills and spells.
TSA: They are also some of the most powerful units in the tabletop game, so you have to represent that, but they’re also giving you more of a focus on story. As opposed to following historical events, there’s a fictional narrative which you can tell.
Andy: One of the design pillars from the very first PowerPoint presentation was to bring a lot of narrative in. The Warhammer world has had thirty years of development into this IP, there’s literally hundreds of novels out there now, the army books themselves are crammed full of stories and stuff that we want to emulate. So our way of doing that is the quest battles.
Fundamentally, this is still a Total War game and a sandbox experience, but if you want to, you can take Karl Franz on a series of quest chains, which is a story and will feature choices to do one thing or fight here, and you play these very bespoke battle experiences. They’re not necessarily just a pitched battle, so they could be that you’ve got to hold on while a dragon is summoned, that you fight near a creature’s lair or chase a vampire through a fen.
So you still get that real time battle experience but in a very bespoke… I don’t want to say ‘scripted’…
Andy: Crafted. Brilliant, that’s the perfect word.
If you’re successful, you get a little bit more of that story and you also unlock a very specific magic artefact that’s famous for being used by them. So Karl Franz, for instance, might unlock the Runefang of Reikland in one battle, but if he finishes Black Fire Pass then he would unlock Ghal Maraz, the warhammer itself. But you’re not forced as a player to do it.
TSA: And I guess you have to accept that some people are going to fail to win these battles?
Al: Well, you’ll be able to go back and have another go at them. They’re there as an outstanding event so you can always go back, but you might go up to it and think there’s not a chance of completing it with your current army, so you’ll go away, build up your army and come back later.
Andy: In fact, it’s a kind of alternative history, just like the historical games are. If you wanted to see if you were as good as Napoleon, you’d play Total War: Napoleon, and it’s the same here. Karl-Franz was a very successful emperor in the Warhammer IP, but you might not be! You might decide to sod uniting the Empire and head straight for Archaon.
TSA: A major advance in recent Total War games has been a much greater focus on diplomacy. Is that something that you’ve been able to bring forward to Warhammer?
Andy: There’s definitely a lot of diplomacy and, in fact, I’ve had a lot of fun writing those diplomacy arcs, because it is like, “What does Karl Franz say to an Orc?” [laughs]
There’s a lot of “Greenskin scum”…
TSA: I mean, you’re not going to be able to make a lasting federation of peace between the Empire and the Orcs, are you?
Andy: No. Warhammer is very heavily designed from the tabletop origins to give people reasons to fight and have wars, and that is definitely carried through with us.
Saying that, there will be times when you can maybe placate the Orcs for a few game turns? There are even instances in the fiction of Karl Franz addressing Archaon, but achieving peace with Chaos is going to be really, really hard.
Al: But there’s also domestic diplomacy as well. If you play as the Empire, you start with Reikland basically, and there’s all these other regions around you under the rule of the Elector Counts. So uniting the Empire is going to be a challenge to do diplomatically.
Andy: Yeah, that’s pretty much your first job, really.
Al: Exactly, and it’s the same with the Greenskins as well; can you unite the tribes through diplomacy? Diplomacy isn’t just between races, but it’s between factions as well.
Andy: It really plays into that, because the way the Empire works in the IP is that they’re not one happy nation, by any means. It’s a massive sprawling empire, and most of the time, the emperor himself is just a far off name, a status symbol almost.
Al: And all the other Elector Counts are jumping on each other’s backs to get ahead.
Andy: They’re playing the game of thrones, stabbing each other in the back and having petty wars.
TSA: Well, that sounds like an IP to attempt at a different time…
Thanks to Al and Andy for taking the time to talk to us. Since we spoke, there have been further announcements and reveals for Total War: Warhammer, from Dwarves to underground battles and if you’re a fan, you should definitely be keeping your eye out for more!