Total War is known for its sweeping grand strategy that consumes entire continents with the machinations of empires, but there’s an awful lot of history that doesn’t match up to that scale. That’s what the Total War Saga series is meant to explore, and Thrones of Britannia takes us back to a suitably fractious period in British history. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia takes players back to 878 AD, a time where Britain and Ireland were still divided up by by vying rulers and their kingdoms, under the looming shadow of Viking invaders from the seas.
As a Brit, it’s a setting that speaks quite well to me, but it also takes me back to a period of time that I”m not particularly familiar with. I’m loosely aware of the fractious nature of the kingdoms in the British Isles, the way that the vacuum of Roman power was filled by the Anglo-Saxons, and obviously the Norman conquest that pivoted around the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The rest of my knowledge is a little hazy, but that gives Thrones of Britannia the opportunity to teach me some things. It’s cool to look at the map and see Lunden, Mameceaster, Snotingaham and other cities that continue today but with slightly different names – no, you won’t spot Milton Keynes on here.
The introductory videos for each faction also lays the historical foundations for you, rendered to look like gorgeous layered metalwork. Take on the role of King Alfred in West Seaxe – Wessex in modern English – and you’re in a position of great power with numerous vassal states, but also face the continuing threat of Viking Sea King invasions and the lingering resentment that the Great Viking Army have, having been forced to settle to the north east. You can obviously play as those two factions as well, or take on the role of the Welsh, Scots and Irish in this world, seeking to unite their fractured lands under one banner.
While the campaign map is nowhere near the size of, say, Total War: Rome II or Total War: Warhammer, Creative Assembly have zoomed in and packed it full of smaller regions, provinces and settlements. It still feels like a fairly big map, though probably closer to some of the campaigns previously featured in Total War expansions. It plays well, however, and there’s a pace and fluidity inherent in its design. While major settlements have walls and can have huge holding garrisons, the smaller settlements within each province are less substantial than in other games. They often just have a single building to them and you can simply march through them to occupy or plunder, letting you choke a rival faction through pillaging before you attack their walls.
Building your armies has been significantly altered for Thrones. Instead of simply buying a unit and then having it ready at full strength in your army, you’re instead presented with a depleted unit that has to muster over time while in friendly territory. It might take a good few turns before they’re at full strength, but the trade off is that you can recruit any of your unlocked units wherever you are and not just in a particular region, though each unit’s recruitment pool is limited and only replenishes gradually over time. With enough reserves of gold and food, you can quickly draw together an army at the maximum 20 units, especially with later tech tree unlocks.
In battle, things are kept relatively straight forward thanks to the limited variety in different troop types you can have and an emphasis on shield-based tactics of the day. Creating shield walls can defend from archers and javelins, as well as halt a cavalry charge, but they’re obviously weak to flanking. On standard difficulty, it’s fairly easy to roll over enemies, especially once you’ve unlocked more advanced versions of the handful of unit types.
The tech tree is now based around your actions and choices, as opposed to simply setting your smartest minds to ponder what a “longbow” or “catapult” is. If you want better spearmen, you need to recruit ten spearmen units to unlock their upgrade path, if you want siege weapons, you need to besiege five province capitals, and for certain civic upgrades, it’s about fully upgrading certain building types to unlock taverns, libraries, and so on.
It’s an approach that also works well with the simplified Noblemen system. Agents have been done away with, but you can assign characters to either lead your armies or govern a province. They now have three attributes of Heroism, Governance and Zeal that are improved by spending skill points in various categories, and these help boost certain aspects of their army and province management. The one thing you might have to be aware of is their loyalty to you and if they’re more influential than your leader, but there’s everything from rewarding them with country estates through to simple assassinations to keep these in check.
Each faction has their own special features, like West Seaxe’s Witan council of nobles to propose policy changes, and there are certain narrative events that pop up that can be quite fun, such as an ambitious governor seeking to take on certain responsibilities that I slapped down. He responded by plotting against me with fake family trees and other equally devious schemes.
However they could have made more of these moments. After a while, I simply learnt that I needed to hand over country estates and they’d get on with their jobs, and could happily ignore the missions pointing me to capture settlements halfway across the map. Diplomacy hasn’t really changed outside of now having arranged marriages to help improve relations. It’s still nigh on impossible, I find, to create vassal states until they’re about to make a last stand, which simply pushes me to war once more.
After Total War: Warhammer II’s Great Vortex campaign, Thrones naturally has to step back to reality. The overriding goal is conquest and domination once more, but there’s a few differences in how you can go about this. You have the Conquest and Kingdom goals in both short and long forms, where you’re tasked with either ruling a certain number or particular set of provinces, but there’s also Fame. This allows you to be a little more benevolent and less bloodthirsty, seeking to grow your technology or capture certain settlements and important buildings for their fame boost. The short campaign goals provide you a convenient out after around 10-12 hours before the grind of conquering can set in, which is something I very much appreciate.
While the way the game has been streamlined helps certain parts of the interface, the menus can still be a bit maze-like at times. Keeping a grip of the long list of noblemen in a sprawling kingdom would be tricky at the best of times, but your kingdom’s bloat is annoying when the start of your turn has pop ups that talk about characters you can’t remember, don’t tell you where they’re in charge of and don’t let you put them to one side to get an understanding of the situation. You’re forced to make a summary judgement with barely any facts.
While Total War has often focussed on the big picture, Thrones of Britannia shows there’s plenty of scope for a series of Total War Saga offshoots to explore the smaller conflicts and civil wars through history. It’s also a great place for Creative Assembly to experiment with gameplay, and the changes to recruitment, tech trees and story elements give us a glimpse of what the series might hold in future.