Strategy Game Design Theory: Total War – The Campaign Cycle

The Total War series has had a long and successful place in strategy gaming. However, the series has not innovated its gameplay style in a long time, and as such, many games play very similarly to each other. No game is perfect, and the Total War series provides a good series to look at when considering strategy game design theory.

One thing I’ve noticed that I’m sure other experience Total War players have noticed is that the game series usually suffers from mid-to-late game slowdown/tedium. The basic premise of the game is:

Scout -> Attack -> Reinforce -> Develop -> Repeat

Scouting – as it is currently is too basic, too easy. You spot the town and see the garrison strength simply by being in proximity. There should be a more active component for scouting. Intelligence reports are too simple and reliable, especially considering how vital they are to strategy in reality.

Attack – in Total War, before an attack, you may sabotage an enemy army or the town itself, then attack with the army. You go through the field setup, then assault. The AI will usually set their units at the place in the perimeter closest to you, and you’ll fight it out. I think the idea of setting up siege weapons over a few turns works okay, and the act of attacking is probably the strongest part of the cycle for a typical Total War game.

Reinforce – After the battle, your army may be in various stages of weakness, and you may need to shore up your defenses in the event of a counter attack. This usually involves using agents to delay/harass nearby enemy armies, hiring mercenaries to fill in gaps in your army roster, or simply moving another army into proximity of the recently captured town.

Develop – You will end up developing the city, often by rebuilding damaged buildings, changing the structures to suit your needs, and providing you a place to launch new attacks from.

Strategy Game Design Theory – Analysis:

strategy game design theory

Scout, attack, reinforce, develop, repeat ad nauseaum.

If you think about it, over the course of a game of Total War, you’re repeating this process about a hundred times a game, once for each territory you take. It’s fun the first few times, but after your tenth city assault, they all start to feel the same. The AI reacts the same way, the units the AI chooses to defend a city with are set up the same, etc.

In the context of strategy game design theory,  how do you break the tedium? You do it by breaking the cycle. Make scouting harder and not completely reliable unless skill checks are met. Reinforcement should not be automatic through replenishment, but should require setting up safe supply lines and reinforcement route for new soldiers to come in.

Development speed should be dependent on how many forces you have, as well as how cooperative the local populace is. I should not be able to rebuild an entire city within a few turns, and I should be able to set aside or build a garrison of troops to keep a populace in check. I’m not a fan of the “units must be in an army, and all armies must have generals”. I miss being able to move units around on their own, like in previous Total War games.

Overall, I think the Total War development team has managed to streamline the gameplay mechanics for the series, but at the same time, has kind of “dumbed-down” the difficulty. Campaigns are almost linear in the way they can be conducted, as the gameplay is almost TOO straightforward.

There will be more posts about strategy game design theory, as I particularly enjoy looking at and breaking down the mechanics in the genre. What do you think of the Total War series campaign cycle?