I’ve always considered “Strategy” to be my favorite genre of games.
This love affair started with Final Fantasy Tactics and the cult hit Front Mission 3 on the PSX. Today, games like Invisible Inc. and Xcom 2. Something about their design philosophy tickles my brain in a special way. At best, there is a situational sense of problem solving, that if you plan properly and play your cards right, you can often scoop yourself from the jaws of defeat.
I’ve played most of the iterations of Civilization and have collectively dumped hundreds of hours into them, but I’ve never finished a campaign. I’ve had so many desperate attempts to grok Paradox’s grand strategy games like Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings, but they never click. I’ve finally come to understand that I like tactics games, not necessarily strategy games. It may have to do with my general inability in life to plan for the future (often to my significant other’s distress.) Another possibility is that often in grand strategy games you’ve doomed yourself without knowing it. Oh, you thought you could get away with increasing the tax rate in Paris for a few years to boost your military production? Guess what, now it’s 1875 and the people in Paris don’t like you very much and are revolting. Unless you’ve internalized the systems in mechanics-heavy strategy games to an extreme degree, you’re often DOA.
My first ten hours with Total War: Warhammer were spent in relative bewilderment, as often are the first ten hours while learning a new strategy game. It goes beyond memorizing which UI element does what, but to my previous point, understanding why and when you need to use the resources at your disposal. I eventually hit a rhythm that kept my empire sustainable, but wasn’t totally sold on the experience.
After about sixteen hours of playing, everything snapped into place.
The psychological burden of juggling numbers, people, places, and threats ceased to be a burden. I finally reached a state where I could reliably make a high level strategic decision and predict its relative outcome.
I was playing as The Empire, the humans. I had been at war with my neighbor, the Vampire Counts, for a long while; a constant tug-of-war of land ownership. Things back home weren’t great. My neglect of the recently colonized Averland quickly snowballed into full-on rebellion, which took two nearby burgs. I couldn’t fight two wars at once, I would never defeat the Vampire Counts while burning my proverbial candle at both ends.
And so I ceded several more settlements to Averland in hopes that we could come to an agreement and declare peace. I would deal with them later. They obliged, which allowed me to finally settle my affairs with the Counts, whom I had driven back to their heavily fortified capital. On day two of the siege I knew they would retaliate, so I moved in my secondary army to help Emperor Karl Franz.
And so the blood would spill.
We were heavily outnumbered but I had invested too much in this war to pull out now. If we didn’t win this pivotal battle, there was a good chance that the Counts would immediately counterattack and sweep across my lands while I rebuilt my armies. I did, however, have one thing that the Counts didn’t – a human brain with years of tactical experience.
Early on in my campaign I focused my research on long range bombardment. I would group my hellfire rockets, cannons, and mortars, support them with handgunners, and build a solid wall of swordsmen around them to hold the lines and protect from flanking maneuvers. Then I would wait for the enemy to close on us and rain hell. Generally, that would work, but not against these odds.
My reinforcements from the metallurgical Treasurer Balthasar Gelt (who has the dopest name ever) would arrive to the side of the field, and I was lucky enough that they were concealed by a dense wood. Two staggeringly large armies were headed through a valley toward my artillery, with several minutes of marching separating the two waves. As they bore down on my artillery, I sent three groups of cavalry charging in to give their lives to The Empire. This would slow down the first enemy army, allowing the second to catch up and move forward en masse. Now my artillery had one massive target, and my second army remained concealed. My hellfire rockets tore through walls of zombies, their desiccated corpses launching in the air. Brimstone fell from the sky as my mages invoked an ancient tongue. When the horde was just moments from reaching my small artillery division, I ordered my army of reinforcements screaming down the hill, crashing into the enemy’s exposed flanks.
By the end of the battle, the pitch was a covered in a carpet of dead – foe and ally alike. But with the Vampire Counts vanquished, that hardly mattered. More young men would gladly lend their life and sword to The Empire.
Total War: Warhammer isn’t perfect. I wish the research tree felt more imperative. Some mechanics are not well explained (if at all) like laying siege to a city. It takes a good while to know what the hell the game expects of you. The map is static, not lending much to replayability. But the trade off is that every battle requires a tactical focus. This is mirrored by its strategic layer, which constantly forces the player to make simple, yet crucial decisions. In many strategy games, you simply smash armies against one another and the bigger number wins – but in Total War: Warhammer, like real historical battles, the better general wins the day.
Between it’s tight strategic layer and fever pitch battles, Total War: Warhammer is hard to not be excited about. It’s sense of scale is staggering, and your ability to shift the tides of battle is paramount.