My Extraordinary Week With Total War: Warhammer

By Julian Benson on at

Total War: Warhammer has helped me get in touch with my inner Mongol. In the past week I’ve united crushed the Ork tribes of the badlands, then prised the mountain strongholds from the dwarven clans and hunted them out of existence. I now control the whole of the southeastern region of the world map, my raiding parties harass the human empires to the west, and two of my warbands are punching northwards deep into the lands of the vampire counts and the chaos horde.

It’s the most fun I’ve had with a Total War game in years.

The Ork campaign begins with you holding one ill-equipped settlement in the Eastern Badlands, Black Crag. It’s not even the capital of its province. To the west and south stretch open plains, sparsely dotted with settlements. To the east, forming a wall that stretches north and south from my home settlement, is a range of mountains, rich in resources.

Neither of them are exactly ripe for the taking: the plains are being fought over by several warring Ork tribes and the mountains are firmly in the grip of the different dwarf clans.

Both races present a different threat. The plains of the Badlands are a whirlpool of war, with Ork tribes in constant, shifting combat. The different groups raid across the plains, looting and razing any settlement they come across. The armies couldn’t settle if they wanted to: if Ork warbands sit still for too many turns they begin infighting. Each unit in the army will begin depleting in number, leaving the warband weak and defeatable. However, if a warband engages in enough battles successfully then it can attract a WAAAGH! – an AI-controlled warband that follows the main army, essentially doubling its heft in battle. These competing mechanics have left the plains in perpetual, necessary war.

The Dwarves to the east are the opposite. They sit in their mountain cities hoarding gold and further entrenching their position. Dwarf armies are expensive, even more so when they’re on the move. The AI tends to have few armies and it likes to keep them garrisoned in its settlements. Yet, when they do fight, it’s like facing a wall of angry axes. Dwarf troops are well armoured, strong, and they aren’t short of health. It will be hard to tear them out of the mountains.

You’re stuck between a Warhammer version of Scylla and Charybdis.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.37.29 am

That fundamental difference between the races has driven my enjoyment of the campaign. Mechanically, it’s brilliant. Playing as an Ork I had clear strengths (cheap, fast-moving armies) and clear weaknesses (I can never stop fighting). With that it in mind I knew exactly how to approach the challenges of my starting position. In my first turn I attacked the nearest enemy warband. The next turn I took the capital of the province, where my only other settlement sat. The next few turns were about rapidly recruiting troops to my warband, smashing any nearby armies I could, and raising my fightiness. Then, like a latter-day, green-skinned Genghis Khan, I brought the whole of the plains under my control and set my attention to the dwarves holding the mountains.

So long as I didn’t outright attack them, the dwarves wouldn’t leave their gold hoards to fight me in the field. The AI knows that the cost of a dwarf army significantly increases as soon as it is in the field, it can cripple your economy, preventing you from upgrading your buildings, recruiting more troops, and better establishing your position.

By this point I had two large raiding parties, both of which had WAAAGH!s in tow. Despite the dwarves’ tough units, the mountain-dwellers couldn’t face up to the sheer numbers of my armies. Over the course of the evening I went from province to province wiping out the factions that held the mountain ranges.

Then I hit my first hiccup.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.38.19 am

I’d swept through Badlands and straight into the mountains in my conquest and paid little attention to the settlements I’d taken. In Total War, settlements are pretty simple: each camp has a town hall-style building that can be upgraded. With each level it adds a slot to your settlement that can be filled with a different buildings.

As I’d taken ground, I’d only built buildings that increased my income. Each turn I was generating thousands of gold that I could pour right back into my armies, increasing my military strength and speeding up my conquest. Clever, right? Turns out: no, not really. This single-minded approach opened me up to two things: rebellion and invasion.

When I wiped out my Orkish enemies in the Badlands and occupied their settlements I had thus made the previous inhabitants, the residents in the settlements, unhappy. And, because I’d immediately packed up my armies and moved onto the next area, the obedience in those regions dropped. Instead of building buildings that would have raised the obedience, like Boss’ Tents, I’d built money-making buildings. I’d inadvertently set the fuse on a continent-wide rebellion. Over the space of five turns rebellions sprouted in three of my newly captured provinces.

Each one was an immediate drain on my income and represented a long-term threat. Every turn I left the rebels unmolested they grew in strength. Once they grew strong enough, they would start attacking and occupying the settlements in their provinces. All that land I’d captured would fall into the hands of angry mobs.

Except, it wasn’t just the rebels who were taking advantage of my ill-conceived battle plan. As I swept through the badlands, I pushed up to the edge of my borders with the human empire in the west, but made sure to stop short of crossing into their land. Early on I’d signed non-aggression pacts with my immediate neighbours and stuck to the treaties so that I could mop up my enemies to the east without worrying about an invasion from the west.

Turns out humans are wankers who will betray you as soon as your back is turned. As I pushed into the mountains to the east, three different human factions pushed into my land from the west, betraying our pacts (it probably didn’t help that I was wiping out their dwarven allies quite so methodically). They didn’t capture any territory, they just looted the towns, seizing tens of thousands of my gold.

So, in the space of five turns, rebellions had sprung up across my lands, severely limiting the amount of gold I could raise each turn, and human raiding parties had started stealing whatever cash I did manage to raise. I was broke, fighting wars on two fronts, and suffering a spate of rebellions. I’d flipped from a position of growing strength to a precarious fragility.

Before I could fight back I had to consolidate. To do that, though, I’d need cash. Lots of it.

dawImage via Creative Assembly

In the songs written about my campaign in the southern provinces, the dwarven homeowner is going to serve as an angry chorus. Taking a tip from my human owners, I didn’t capture any more dwarven settlements: I looted them, stealing tens of thousands in gold.

Flush with cash, I began building Boss’ Tents in all the my settlements that weren’t in open revolt. This meant that within a few turns those areas would have calmed down, quashing new rebellions.

Then, raising the middle finger once again to the dwarves and their insurance companies, I set my warbands in dwarven territories to raiding. Raiding is a stance unique to Ork armies. It roots the warband to the spot and sets its troops to harassing a local province, earning you a wodge of income each turn, lowering the region’s obedience, healing the warband’s units and increasing its fightiness.

With the threat of new rebellions in hand and something of my regular income restored, I began recruiting a new army built for one thing: crushing rebels. The main bulk of my army was made of Ork boyz and goblin archers. This central throng would be able to soak up a charge from the rebels through sheer force of numbers. I recruited packs of fast-moving wolf riders armed with either spears of short bows – perfect for harassing ranged troops and artillery left unguarded. My plan was to use my main force to engage the rebel’s footsoldiers and have my wolf riders mop up ranged troops before charging into the rear.

I didn’t bother with artillery, as I had no plans to besiege towns. This was a fast army that could race across the campaign map and make short work of the traitors who had halted my campaign against the dwarves.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.41.37 am

It was extremely effective. Led by Bartorg Dribblechin, the army swept through the Badlands, putting down the first two rebellions it met before they could seize a settlement. Slipping into the role of a brutal Ork leader with worrying ease, I ordered Dribblechin’s men to eat any prisoners taken in the battle. This had the advantage of replenishing some of the troops I’d lost in the battle but, largely, it just seemed like what an Ork general would have his men do.

This time, as I took the cities, I made sure to build Boss’ Tents as I went. I wasn’t going to let another revolt slow down my conquest.

Dribblechin wasn’t fast enough to catch the third army before it took Iron Rock. Without any artillery units I couldn’t immediately attack the city, as I had no way to break through its gates. So I was forced to lay siege to its walls. This locks your army to the spot and hangs a turn counter over the city. After 10 turns the rebels holding the city would be starved out, and I could take it back without a fight. However, starting a siege lets you begin building siege equipment like battering rams and siege towers by the city walls.

I wasn’t just going to let the rebels hold my city for ten turns and let them take the easy way out.

While waiting a couple of turns for my siege weapons to build, a message filled my screen. Dripping foreboding, it said that far to the north the forces of Chaos were mustering their legions and would soon march south, wiping out everything in their path. Like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, Warhammer’s Chaos legions want only to lay waste to everything between them and the bottom of the world. They don’t build settlements, you can’t negotiate with them, and their armies don’t stop.

Looking at the map there was a whole lot of ground between me and the wastelands in the north. This isn’t a fight I was going to see for a while: Chaos’s armies had to push through the Vampire Counts, what’s left of the dwarves, and the northernmost factions of Empire to reach me.

I’d still have plenty of times to break those rebels.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.42.30 am

Total War: Warhammer’s sieges are the game at its most impressive. Legions of AI troops line the walls, raining flaming arrows down on your troops. Slow-moving siege towers wheel their way towards the city’s walls, pushed by teams of your soldiers. A battering ram beats steadily against the gates. As soon as you breach one section of the wall, either by scaling the wall or breaking the gate, your army pours into the city, like water out of a cracked glass. This is true of all the recent Total War games but there is something even more impressive about seeing the Warhammer races doing the besieging. Creative Assembly has detailed every soldier as though it were a tabletop figurine. My Orks have rough, battered armour, skulls tied to their belts, and chipped, rusted weapons in their hands. The goblins are smaller, noticeably flighty thanks to some very subtle animation, and similarly adorned in familiar Warhammer attire.

In the case of the rebels of Iron Rock, it was the city gate that cracked first. My wolf riders flooded in and the rebel troops were swept away.

With the Badlands back under my control, obedience returning to positives, and cash back to pre-rebellion levels I could shake my warbands in the mountains out of raiding stance and finally mop up the last of the dwarven resistance. Back in the Badlands I marched Dribblechin north and sat his band in raiding stance just across the border in the Border Princes’ territories. A little deterrent to any more sorties into my land.

Here I hit something of an Alexander the Great-shaped snafu. In Total War: Warhammer, each race – Orks, Dwarves, Empire, and the Vampire Counts – can only capture settlements held by its own race or that of its nemesis. Meaning, now that I’d wiped all the other Ork factions off the map and taken out most the dwarven strongholds, I was quickly running out of worlds to conquer. Even if I took over every one of my enemies’ lands I could only ever hold a quarter of the world map.

This mechanic has caused a bit of upset in the Total War community. In the other Total War games you can take over the entire world. There is no limit to your armies. It was certainly disappointing to realise I’d almost captured as much of the world as I could.

I love it anyway, though.

I really like the Total War games: I own and have played all of them. But I don’t think I’ve ever completed one. There gets to a point in every campaign where I’ve tipped into supremacy and all that lies ahead is taking lands from factions who have no chance against my assembled masses. I can’t be bothered with that. Inevitably I either start a new campaign or move onto something else.

But in Total War: Warhammer, I still want to see the rest of the world map, and to do so I’m going to have to change up my tactics. I can’t just keep eking out my expansion, creeping through my enemies’ territory, turning more and more of the map my shade of green. I’m going to have to take notes from Genghis Khan.

geeImage via Wikimedia Commons

Having united the Mongol clans, Genghis Khan consolidated control of the steppes and pushed into his rival China’s territory. Meanwhile he tasked two of his generals, Jebe and Subutai, to lead scouting parties into Europe. Genghis had heard rumours of the civilisations out in the west and wanted to know more about them before a potential push after his campaign in China. Considering I couldn’t capture much more territory, but I could see from the world map that there’s a great deal more territory to the north, I sent three of my warbands out to see what they could find. One would go west and follow the coast on the edge of the territory held by the Empire. The other two would strike north into the Vampire Counts’ lands and beyond into the wastelands of Chaos.

This is where I’m up to now in my campaign. I’m holding the south in relative peace and fielding a few warbands to keep any aggressors away, while a great reconnaissance mission is taking place on the edges of my reach. For the first time in absolutely ages a Total War game is consuming my imagination. I’m not one to roleplay, but I’ve been completely absorbed in the idea of my Ork clan’s history. They’re a brutal bunch, taking control of their lands because they could. They beat the old factions, put down rebellions, and fought back the weak men who tried to invade. Now they have sent armies out into the world to both know it better and to see if they can find a new kingdom to conquer.

With each passing turn my warbands pushing northwards are exposing more and more ruined settlements, and the signs of great battles between the Vampire Counts and Chaos. I’m itching to see how my best Orks manage in a fight against the Big Bad of the single player campaign, particularly as, that far north and with no friendly settlements in sight, if they get into trouble I have no way of sending them help.

That’s not a story I’ve told in Total War before. And I genuinely don’t know how it’s going to pan out.