Total War: Thrones of Britannia artwork showing a Viking ship

Thrones of Britannia is the very first of the newly announced Total War Saga spin-off series, and it really shows. It has some great ideas and it even fleshes out many of the systems found in previous Total War games, but due to it being the first of its kind a lot of those systems are currently either unfocused or too easy to ignore. Yet despite all of that, Thrones of Britannia still remains a fairly enjoyable experience, and one that future Total War games will be taking a lot of inspiration from. 

So if you're interested in finding out what Thrones of Britannia does right, as well as where it stumbles and falls flat on its face, allow me to share my thoughts after playing through a couple of campaigns on various difficulty levels.

Total War: Thrones of Britannia artwork for Alfred the Great

I first played as Alfred the Great. I mean, how could one possibly resist that mustache!?

While I don't know much about the historical period Thrones of Britannia takes place in, I can tell you that the designers have gone to great lengths in order to make sure it feels authentic. The numerous pieces of heraldry are beautifully drawn, the music and voice acting are both immersive and exciting, while the new campaign map is one of the most intricate and visually interesting ones in the entire series.

Not only have the British Isles been recreated with a great deal of precision, but the map itself is full of little details that add an impressive amount of personality to it. The best example of this are the various buildings you can create throughout the campaign, buildings that actually show up on the map and grow as you upgrade them! It's a small feature in the grand scheme of things, but I found it quite pleasing to see my actions reflected on the campaign map, especially in those early turns when each building and upgrade are a massive investment.

As far as the campaign gameplay is concerned, it's rather similar to previous historical Total War games. It's all about securing a solid economy, building up your armies, and then crushing anyone that dares question your choice of facial hair. The one big problem with all of this is that it's far too easy, a sentiment I'm afraid you will see repeated throughout this review, though more about that later.

Total War: Thrones of Britannia screenshot of a city on the world map

Little details like this are always welcome as they make the world a lot more lively

The one area where Thrones of Britannia's historical accuracy becomes a negative is the unit variety. While the names, stats and appearances of units differ somewhat between the factions, there is unfortunately only so many things you can do to make a Welsh, English, Viking and Irish axeman distinct from each other. Because of this, watching battles from above is not as enjoyable as it would be in Warhammer or Attila. It just so frequently devolves into a massive blob of angry, bearded dudes trying to stab each other with essentially the same swords and spears.

On the positive side, the actual combat is pretty much your standard Total War fare, by which I mean it's both exciting and tactical at the same time! In terms of improvements, however, Thrones of Britannia has brought back the always-useful Guard button, formations that include the option to build a shield wall, as well as the ability for archers to occasionally shoot around shields in order to score accidental but still impressive kills. The latter might not sound like much, but it goes a long way towards making battles feel just a bit more realistic since a giant hail of arrows now actually results in numerous Vikings littering the floor. 

Perhaps most importantly, at least for my tastes, Thrones of Britannia has added a much more impactful cavalry charge. It's still nowhere near Total War: Warhammer 1 or 2 levels given how monsters can throw units aside like they're made out of straw, but it's definitely much better than in Rome 2. It also helps that there really isn't any super-heavy cavalry going around, so there's a much bigger focus on mobility and constant charging, both of which keep the cavalry combat engaging despite the somewhat lacking visuals.

Total War: Thrones of Britannia screenshot of a cavalry charge

It's still not on Warhammer's level, but the cavarly impacts are starting to become a lot weightier

Since I'm already talking about units, it's important to mention that Thrones of Britannia has completely redesigned recruitment. You no longer need to construct military buildings, recruit specific units from specific provinces, or even wait multiple turns in order to bring them all into your army. Instead you now have access to a global pool of units you can recruit at any friendly settlement or while in the encampment stance, you unlock higher tiers of units through research options, and the units themselves are recruited instantly - regardless of how many you might purchase at once!

The 'catch' is that you don't recruit them at full health, but rather as heavily wounded and lacking in manpower, which is supposed to symbolize that the regiment is still assembling. This right here might just be my favorite change in all of Thrones of Britannia as it removes the need for standing around for dozens of turns, while still keeping the whole recruitment system relatively balanced. After all, you can't exactly dive into a fight while all of your units are at one third of their full strength, especially when you consider that you're paying the full price from the very beginning.

But wait, there's more! The global recruitment pool and the relative scarcity of high-tier units in the early game means that in Thrones of Britannia you will have to play with more low-tier units than ever before. In my eyes this is another excellent design choice since it makes the high-tier units feel like actual demigods on the battlefield, while also making the battles themselves just a bit more interesting since you now also have to consider how you're going to utilize your undisciplined and poorly trained Levies. 

The recruitment system might not be fully balanced just yet, mostly due to the ability to essentially materialize an entire army deep within enemy territory by capturing one city, but I still have to admit I'm impressed with what I've seen so far. With a bit of polish and some restrictions, I can easily see this becoming the new standard for Total War games in the future - it really is that solid of a concept!

Total War: Thrones of Britannia screenshot of the army recruitment page

It's simple, it's effective, and it's also quite fun!

The problem, as always with Total War games, is that the AI simply cannot handle all of this additional complexity. While the combat AI makes some silly decisions on occasion, it's still competent enough to give you a proper challenge on the harder difficulty settings. The campaign AI, however, is absolutely helpless. Almost every single war, regardless of starting position or difficulty, is decided by one gigantic and impressive fight at the very start of the war. Secure a win there and the the AI will never be able to field an even remotely competent defense, thus leaving you to simply steamroll through all of their lands.

As such, the actual campaign in Thrones of Britannia is unfortunately short. During my first exploratory campaign I managed to conquer all of the major factions within 100 turns, the amount of time it took me to unite the Empire and conquer a bit of Sylvania in my first Total War: Warhammer playthrough. Even fighting against enemies that are of a higher power level than you results in the exact same thing - one or two giant fights near the first major city, after which you're free to do as you wish. 

This is partly because the new recruitment system prevents the AI from spawning in additional stacks of battle-ready troops, and partially because the various minor settlements are now completely unguarded. I understand it's historically accurate for small villages to be helpless against large armies, but in gameplay terms it's a huge problem since there is nothing to stop a victorious army from snowballing even further. The newly introduced supply system is supposed to prevent this as it requires attacking armies to resupply every once in a while, but in reality it's simply far too easy to ignore.

Total War: Thrones of Britannia artwork showing the Vikings

The Vikings look pretty darn menacing, but they fall just as quickly as the rest

The newly upgraded settlement and politics systems are similarly a mixed bag. On one hand they have been simplified enough that I could learn all I needed to know within the first 30 minutes, but on the other hand they have also been simplified enough that I could learn all I needed to know within the first 30 minutes. There is a lot of depth that appears to be here, but outside of the early game where you have extremely limited resources, almost all of it is easy to ignore. I would love to constantly have to bribe, offer marriages or swindle my nobles in order to have them stay loyal, but none of that really matters when you can simply keep giving them estates you acquire by endlessly conquering new lands.

While Thrones of Britannia has added a whole bunch of new systems, it also removed some of previous series mainstays like ambushes, the forced march stance, and perhaps most controversially, agents. I have absolutely no idea why there first two were removed rather than expanded upon, though I have to begrudgingly agree with the removal of agents. It doesn't feel right because spies and diplomats were definitely a big part of history, but in actual Total War gameplay they were more like a swarm of mosquitoes the AI constantly kept sending after you - just endlessly trying to assassinate your leader and greatly slow down your troops.

Still, while I will agree that without agents the gameplay is more fluid and the turns go by quicker, I can't help but feel like a much-needed level of depth has been stripped out. As such, I do hope a future update, or even just one of the upcoming Total War games, will bring them back in a new and improved form. The premise behind all of it is fairly solid, it's just that it hasn't been fully fleshed out just yet.

Thrones of Britannia screenshot of the family tree

There is a lot of decisions to make, but they don't matter much outside of the early game

What I am extremely happy with, however, is the return of large and intricate siege maps. Unlike the ones from Total War: Warhammer which are nothing more than a wall with a couple of buildings behind them, the siege maps in Thrones of Britannia genuinely feel like cities. Most of them are absolutely huge and beautifully crafted, though more importantly, they all offer a variety of different strategies for both attackers and defenders. After all, there can be no simple solutions when the city you're supposed to fight over is as large as a standard map!

As expected, the AI struggles with adapting to this type of an endlessly changing battlefield, though I think it's more due to a bug than anything else. I haven't noticed this while playing, but when I was going through some of my replays I realized the AI would constantly, and I really do mean constantly, reposition their troops. So instead of having them defend an area, the AI would mostly focus on giving its archers some high-intensity cardio, because let's face it, you can't have a proper fight if you're not warmed up! Once this issue is fixed, and I do hope it'll be fixed fairly shortly, the siege battles will have a good chance of becoming one of the most defining and entertaining aspects of Thrones of Britannia.

Total War: Thrones of Britannia screenshot of a siege

Nothing like a good siege to start off your morning with!

Closing Thoughts

As I said in the very beginning, the end result of all the numerous changes and additions is that Thrones of Britannia feels like the very first game of a brand new spin-off series. It has a ton of ideas, some of which are really good and well worth implementing into future Total War games, but right now very few of them have been fully fleshed out. In many ways it feels like Thrones of Britannia represents two solid steps forward for the Total War series, but also a noticeable step backwards in regards to complexity.

A lot of these issues can be fixed through mods and post-launch patches, so I do believe Thrones of Britannia is worth a try if you're a fan of historical Total War games. If you're on the fence, however, I would recommend waiting for a couple of months and then grabbing it during a sale. Most of the issues will be fixed by then, thus leaving you with a rather interesting, albeit somewhat flawed take on the classic Total War formula.

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