Interview: How Total War: Three Kingdoms blends character & relationships with grand strategy

A lot is changing in Total War: Three Kingdoms, as they tell a story of the Three Kingdoms era in ancient Chinese history, both in a realistic and Romance of the Three Kingdoms fashion that amps up the power and importance of the many historical characters and heroes.

Catch our hands on preview with the campaign here, but following this we sat down with Pawel Wojs, Project Art Director and Attila Mohacsi, Lead Designer to chat about the characters, politics and how it adds new depths to the game’s diplomacy. But first, we start with the most important question:

TSA: So when you guys start a new campaign, is Liu your “bae”?


Pawel Wojs: Yes he is, yeah! [laughs]

He’s one of my favourite characters. Well, he himself isn’t, but the celebrity that he brings to the story is, as in the characters that follow him. Being the virtuous leader that he is in the story and in the game, a lot of the men of talent follow him. That was one of Cao Cao’s biggest issues and jealousies, “Why do all these men follow Liu Bei and not me?”

TSA: One of the things I found while playing the early campaign, and I find this with a lot of grand strategy games to be fair, is that there’s lots of things going, there’s lots of different characters, and for me it’s made compounded because I’m not familiar with these Chinese historical names, factions, locations… How are you trying to manage that for people new to the era?

Pawel: Well, obviously if you’re not familiar with the Three Kingdoms, then it’s a bit of a learning point, but I think that the characters themselves are quite evocative and quite unique. So it’s through the game mechanics, when you play, you will come to know that this guy does this, that guy does that. The starting point that we give you of their titles, their traits, how we describe them and present them to you through the faction intro and narrative that we give you for events will hopefully, even if you’re not familiar, let you come to understand and know these relationships.

And as you play through the game and these relationships build and collapse, you will make your own narrative to ground these characters. They’re far more complex than they’ve ever been before in a Total War game, so you will naturally create war stories that are far stronger than ever before, because we give you so much more to play with.

TSA: I suppose that once the first five or ten hours are up, you’ll have grounded yourself in this setting.

Attila Mohacsi: Even more, with the full depth of the game it’s hundreds of hours! But what we’re really emphasising is that this is your own story. We give you the starting position, and you know however much you know about it, but from that point you’re the director, you decide who will be your friend and then it’s totally your own story.

My favourite in Cao Cao right now, but right before him it was Sun Jian, because I’m going through all the factions and enjoying them thoroughly. I’ve had five campaigns [with Cao Cao], I made different friends at the beginning, I made different decisions and ended up with a completely different chain of events that I’ve created for myself.

I can tell these stories, like my favourite one where I allied with Yuan Shu at the beginning. I made lots of farming buildings, made heavy reforms there, certain governors, but I needed money, so I start trading with Yuan Shu. But then he accidentally captured one of my counties where I had my province capital, and I was like, “There’s no other way, I have to go to war with him!” But we had a very good relationship, so I asked, “Would you mind trading it with me?” And yeah, he gave me a couple of answers, wanted a little bit more food, and I was like, “That’s perfectly reasonable!” It made our relationship even better.

Then not long later, I had war declared against me by his brother Yuan Shao, and I’m like, “Do you want to team up for this one?” And he was like, “Yeah, actually I don’t like him either!” [laughs]

Pawel: You’ve very much got relationships that can build. You’ve got harmonies and disharmonies, so if you put two characters that have opposing values together, their relationship will deteriorate over time and culminate in one of the characters leaving and potentially worse. One of the wonderful things that makes these stories and characters far more poignant is that characters are no longer tied to factions, they move around. We’ve never had that before in a Total War game

You can have several faction leaders of failed factions all in your faction after they came looking for work once they were, you know, out of a job!

TSA: I do like that you’ve got character management, you’re trying to keep people happy, but when they do get dissatisfied, it doesn’t always end up in civil war.

Pawel: Yeah, they can just leave, and you can also kick them out!

Attila: You don’t have it in the preview build, where you can only banish characters, but you can also release someone. So, if I have a financial crisis, I can also release someone to avoid going bankrupt, but if they’re on good terms, they might be coming back just because you got on quite well!

Pawel: You pay their salaries, right? And depending on their position in the faction, you’re paying them more and how you promote them, you could be paying them for all these additional ranks and titles.

TSA: So maybe it is a bit like a football management sim? The Chinese Super League? [laughs]

Pawel: [laughs] You know what? This is the closest you’re ever going to get!

TSA: How have you tried to integrate the concept of Wu Xing into the game?

Pawel: So Wu Xing, which is this ancient philosophy of the five elements, underpins everything in the game. Military, for example, is fire, so all the reforms to do with military, the buildings, the Vanguard classes are all linked with fire in some way.

TSA: So how do you expose that to people in a way that they can sit down and make cool, calculated decisions with a spreadsheet and numbers?

Pawel: Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock!

Attila: [laughs] So there’s these supporting branches were the wood element feeds fire, so it’s a bit more intricate than just rock, paper, scissors, because of this concept. We’ve created these very nice synergies that compliment each other quite well.

Pawel: It’s like an onion, so you can happily sit on the surface and experience the game’s features without really getting into this. These layers are there for those that really want to delve into those features, but it’s not really in your face that you have these five elements and you have to care about it. It’s just that everything’s connected and related and you discover those relationships and connections through the game so that you’ll subliminally become aware of them.

TSA: One of the interesting new twists is the faction specific gameplay, such as with Liu Bei’s Unity, which I wasn’t really expecting. Has this been drawn from Total War: Warhammer?

Attila: Yes, we felt it went really well and people really love the distinctions made in Warhammer, so we looked at history and thought where we could do that as well. For us it’s a bit…

Pawel: It’s a bit tougher, right? [laughs]

Attila: So we looked at the key pillars of the game, the characters, and how you can steer a person themselves to have an impact. We have one or two things at a very factional level – so Unity for Liu Bei – but also how we can get a little bit of player agency and choice.

You also have the prime minister and others who give you quite game changing bonuses that drive how you play the game. But it’s your choice who you appoint as your heir, who you appoint as your prime minister. In the long run, Liu Bei could die and then the heir takes over, and that was your choice.

Pawel: You can see all the skills and effects a character has if they were made faction leader, heir or prime minister. That’s there for you to be able to tailor and tweak your faction’s uniqueness.

A lot of the faction differences are quite unique to the characters that lead them. Yuan Shu, for example, can advance really quickly through faction ranks by asking people to support his legitimacy, and Cao Cao can literally just manipulate people into hating each other, or liking each other, or attacking each other. That’s huge!

They’re very, very impactful differences, but very much grounded in the period and the game.

TSA: Are these only in the Romance mode, or do they carry over to the Classic mode as well?

Attila: It’s in both modes.

Pawel: For both modes, the characters are just as important on the campaign side, so the key difference is on the battle. In Romance the pace of the battles is much quicker, the heroes are more impactful, but in Records you have to think about tactics, your army as a whole and protecting your generals.

Attila: In Records, you have to be really careful because characters can very easily die, and if Liu Bei dies, the amazing faction bonus you have vanishes!

Thanks to Pawel and Attila for chatting to us about Total War: Three Kingdoms. Make sure to catch our hands on impressions from the start of the campaign here.

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