For the love of war — Thrones of Britannia interview with James Given

After an hour and a half of unsupervised exploration in the first playable build of A Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, I got to sit down with Community Manager James Given to talk about history, tactics, Family Trees, and the unique art style for the newest installment of the Total War series. After a day filled with history lessons and battlefield tactics, I was eager to learn more about this newer, smaller, and highly historical Total War title.

What’s the biggest difference fans can expect between Thrones of Britannia and other Total War games?

Well, for Total War, this is our very first Saga series. We’ve done the Warhammers, Warhammer I and II, which came out about two years ago and last year. Historical titles, we’ve done Attila, and that would have been three years ago, and we’re following that through. So Saga is our smaller title, where it’s more focused on a more focused part of history. Less about maybe more epic spanning and time consuming… not time consuming– wide amounts. Like Rome, for example, where you’re building up a massive Mediterranean empire, or Empire, where you’re building massive colonial empires. This is more focused on a smaller part of history, but still with it’s own deep variations and factions, and challenges and geographical uniqueness that comes with the British Isles.

Are you planning on doing more of the Saga series?

We’ll see how this one goes! First time doing it, first time really delving into this kind of departure from our very standard model.

What are some of the benefits of this more focused, smaller scale approach?

A lot of the changes we made, to recruitment provinces, characters, and all that, gives it a sense of more of a–you are ruling a kingdom. You’re involved in that Game of Thrones of Britain. You have your kingdom, you have your starting territory where this is safe for you. But outside of there is all the challenges and pitfalls that come with trying to build going from a tiny petty kingdom to a larger one, and all of the pitfalls that come between that. For me, the fun parts of this is the early game, where you’re building up your armies for the first time, you’re initial challenges, your first attempt to take settlements from other people. Especially sieges!

Sieges are actually glorious in our game, because you… First of all, you push back the enemy to their last holdout, this is where their King is holding out, he’s got his most loyal troops, his best troops, and they’re in Doubland, for example. The Vikings have been pushed back to their last holding in Ireland, and you’re going to attack it. You bring your siege equipment out, you’re starting fires, and the town starts to set afire, and there’s flames everywhere, and you see the smoke, and so forth.

Then your troops are coming up and getting killed! You’re losing some of your best troops you’ve taken ages to recruit, and they hit the wall and come over, and hard fighting eventually get the gatehouse and push through. Hundreds of people have died by this point, and the town is in flames and ash, but you push through and eventually find their king in the very end of the siege and you kill him. And there you go! The Vikings have been kicked out of Ireland, for example. And that’s the kind of gameplay you get. You can order it all, you don’t have to fight that battle, but you get such more of a visceral experience, getting in there and doing it yourself. Also… a lot more painful, because you lose your favorite troops… or your own king, for example.

I spent a lot of time playing it zoomed in, because maps in this game are really beautiful and atmospheric. I almost didn’t want to play, and to just take in the scenery–

–Just press K, put cinematic mode on and just sit back and relax!

But yeah, we pretty much sold two games in a box. We have the grand campaign, which is where you manage your empire, build your troops, manage your family and your estates, and the sprawling map of whatever you’re campaigning on, and then you have the real-time battles. Come across [an army] while you’re on that campaign map and you can then fight them, and then you’ve got a completely different game, where you have to control the morale, cavalry, you’re moving your flanks, you’re dealing with reinforcements, you’re dealing with the loss of your king, or a massive rout when loads of your troops run away, but then they rally again. It’s a completely different game. It’s all anchored in the campaign map, but it changes the turning points. The turning points come in the battle, but the setting comes from the campaign.

I spent a lot of time just poking through the menus–

[Grahame Gallacher] spent three hours trying to pick one person to play!

I was really impressed by the thought given to each character. While they may not have been generals themselves, the female characters had stats that impacted their husbands. It looks like you do things like coerce other people to marry to try and boost a generals loyalty, for example?

Yes, you can influence loads of things, and that’s something that the Family Tree is absolutely brilliant at, is that you’ve got all of those dilemmas and the kind of troubles that every royal family has from the beginning of time, of like betrayals and so on. You’ve got your daughters and also your wife, and you’re marrying into a faction…they can give bonuses, but they can also give negative bonuses as well. They can be archetype of why an empire rises and falls, because they can give such strong bonuses, but they can also be the reason it fell apart.

There’s always this balancing act that takes place in the Family Tree, and politics you can really get lost in, if you really wanna focus on it. And a lot of people do, and a lot of people very much enjoy that, and some people spend a lot of time just assassinating anyone who looks at them funny.

I was surprised by how much I really cared about the generals in this game, when often, in RTS titles, I just want them to just get out there and follow orders.

We want you to have attachments to you banners, we want you to feel like they’re important. We want you to feel like.. If the king, and then his heir dies, that’s a massive blow, and it reverberates through your campaign, if you lose your king. No one treats you the same, the other factions probably do not care as much about you. If your very successful and very famed king dies in a battle, then they probably don’t care as much about the successor, and maybe then they take that opportunity to try and take chunks out of your territory because of it.

Losing a king in a campaign can be disastrous, because, like I said, not only do you have to worry about the external threats, but the internal threats of power struggle can kick off. Once again, if you wanna role play really deep, it can absorb you for hours upon hours. Our games, most definitely have the most — some of the most — replayability of any. You could be sucked down for a good ten hours just playing one or two campaigns, and we’ve got ten factions, with all of their own unique challenges, there’s so much replayability. Let alone all the dilemmas and events can go in other directions, if you want them to. You can get lost in it, my team can testify to that.

I was impressed by how rational the artificial intelligence seemed to be. The other factions were constantly reaching out for trade agreements and alliances, and one was even pretty forgiving and willing to negotiate a peace agreement after I sacked one of their settlements.

In some previous titles, if someone declared war on you, and you had an army on the other side of the map, they would literally send an army to you no matter what, that won’t happen here. What we tried to be focusing on was making the AI believable, and feel like a real opponent, and more importantly, a possible ally. Not everyone has to be your enemy. You’re trying to build a patchwork of petty kings into a realm, and into a nation, you can’t do that if you can’t believe they could be a possible ally or friend.

So you spend a lot of the early game looking at who will be your potential ally, who will be a potential enemy, building up this patchwork of alliances and future friends, putting pins in them and coming back to them later when you need to take them out. But their friendship might change, depending on who’s leading them at the time. If a king dies, the son might be a little nicer to you than the previous incumbent. So, it does kind of have that flavor if you really wanna delve into it — and everyone should, because it’s more rewarding. You can get lost in it, that’s the thing I like most.

This game is very clearly rooted in history, and doing that takes work. Were there things you all discovered about your history while researching the game?

Yeah, I knew about the Viking invasions, I didn’t know how much they’d affected Ireland or Scotland. I’d always been brought up with the very first Viking invasion was Holy Island in Lindisfarne, but actually, it was the second. The first was actually the South of England, in the Kingdom of Wessex, that would eventually be the kingdom that stops them. In some ways it’s quite weird; the first kingdom to ever be attacked by the Vikings in England is the kingdom that eventually stops them.

And also just learning… for example, the Saxons were previously the invaders and occupiers. They pushed the Welsh into what we all Whales. Their name for the Welsh was is “foreigner,” so they literally pushed them out and called them foreigners in their own country. You learn quite a lot, and Jack Lusted is the lead on this, he absorbs himself into the historical period. He joined us as a modder, back I believe in Napoleon or Empire, maybe Shogun 2. He used to make mods for like Medieval 2, and he’s… whichever project [he’s doing] he pretty much absorbs himself into it.

I went up and asked him, “Where did we get all the flags from? We’ve got loads of flags in this game, why is it always this flag? Where’s the historical record of this flag?” It’s such a unique thing, because a flag becomes the identity of a country in a lot of ways. Where’s the record of that? When’s it first seen? Are people drawing all these flags down? How do we know? I asked him about… loads of the battles we know about during this time period, we know them through songs. We know them through poetry. Poetry’s how we know about most of the battles of this time period, not because someone sat there and wrote a unique and studied history of these time periods, they usually didn’t. And he would tell me all about those, and it makes my head spin.

The art style is very different from Total war, but very much fits the time period. What made you decide to go with this look?

We wanted to do something different, make Saga stand out from other Total War games, bu also, attached to that time period. That is the art in the books of the time, that was the art in churches–and churches, at that point, is where most of the artistic outpouring would be. There’s no printing press, there’s not great other buildings of stone. Castles aren’t built in England until after the Norman invasion. The idea of building something in stone was lost with the Romans. We’re building everything with wood and mud at this point, and it wasn’t until the Norman invasions and the conquest did stone keeps start to become a thing. And this is how we know about the kind of art style, and that’s what we wanted to show. And just like we changed all of the place names to be authentic to that time period, even though it’s familiar, it’s still alien to you, I think. That art style also lends itself to that, I think, kind of transports you back to the dark ages of Britain.

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