I admit two failings right off the bat. I have only vaguely played previous Total War titles and I'm generally ignorant of history. It stood as my least favorite subject in school and that was American history, let alone all of the grand events from elsewhere around the world. It is with these two constants that I'm diving in Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is the first major PC spin-off of the Total War franchise of strategy games. The Total War games place themselves as strategy experiences putting players at the head of great civilizations during momentous eras in history. Part of the game is a fairly detailed real-time strategy game, based heavily around troop movement, composition, and formations to carry the battle forward. The rest is diplomatic in nature, juggling cities and settlements to feed the overall war machine.
The Total War Saga spin-off is envisioned by developer Creative Assembly as the same thing, but with a focus on a smaller region of the world or a specific point in history. More focused gameplay, a quicker experience, and a smaller price tag for players. The developer has likened the concept to Total War: Shogun 2 - Fall of the Samurai, which limited itself to the Boshin War in Japanese history. Total War Saga also allows Creative Assembly the chance to experiment with the core Total War mechanics in a setting that won't hurt the entire franchise.
The first Total War Saga is Thrones of Britannia. The title begins in 878 AD, following the turnabout of the Viking invasion by English king Alfred the Great. The British Isles include England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; under the control of the player, any of the factions included in those regions can fight for control of Britain as a whole.
The English kingdoms, also known as the Anglo Saxons, include Alfred the Great's West Seaxe and Mierce, which is under the control of King Ceowulf. The Welsh Kingdoms offer up Gwined, under the control of King Anaraut or Strat Clut, home of the freshly-minted king Run. The Gaelic regions of Thrones of Britannia include the northern Circenn run by Áed and Mide to the west, controlled by King Flann. The Great Viking Army was turned away by Alfred, but remains in certain pockets of the isles: Guthrum's East Engle is in the south east near West Seaxe, while Northymbre is just a bit further north, led by Guthfrid. Finally, there's the Viking Sea Kings: Bardr runs the relatively tiny Dyflin and Eirik controls the vast, but mostly uninhabitable Sudreyar in the north.
Each Faction has an initial challenge level, largely determined by their starting territory, armies, and neighbors. (You can make the experience harder or easier with pre-campaign sliders.) Your faction carries regional strengths, but also specific faction-based ones. For example, the Great Viking Armies gain more income from raiding and sacking settlements, but East Engle gains a bonus to melee strength in enemy territory and Northymbre has improved charge for all units. If you've played a Total War game, or even a 4X title like Civilization or Stellaris, this is pretty straightforward to understand. I went with West Seaxe, as King Alfred was the only faction leader whose campaign was listed as "Easy". Baby steps.
I've mostly avoided the Total War titles because I'm not a huge fan of troop positioning and movement. Combat in the Total War games requires a certain amount of focus on actual troop tactics like flanking and hit-and-runs, or meeting the enemy force in standard lines, wedges, or more interesting formations. I tend to prefer either tactics strategy games, where troops are generally singular units, or 4X titles, both of which prize army composition over specific movements on the battlefield. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia gives players a smoother ramp onto its specific style of combat by streamlining everything else around the combat.
For one, settlements are more focused compared to their Total War counterparts. Leveling up your capitals is a fairly straightforward endeavor, with each major settlement having a few building slots to work with, including a unique one usually based on the history of that region. Minor settlements have a single building slot and upgrades are in a linear chain, it's just a matter of your starting point. It works more like direct RPG-style level-ups rather than a complex series of choices in settlement specialization and economy.
One interesting facet of Total War Saga is minor settlements lack walls, so they can be taken by enemies just walking into your undefended city. I lost my very first game because I lost a number of settlements to an enemy force before one of my two armies could catch the invasion force, only to have those cities taken back by an ally. Oops.
The RPG feeling I mentioned before also extends to your nobles. Each noble, including your faction leader, has their own character page, which details their stats (Command, Governance, Zeal, Influence, and Loyalty), character-specific effects and traits, and followers. The latter are straightforward linear bonuses you can unlock by spending points whenever a noble levels up. Total War Saga has family trees with wives, children, and divorces, and your nobles age over the course of a campaign's limited time frame. There's a certain amount of relationship building between nobles: where you have to marry them off, gift them land, and appoint them to certain special titles to keep them happy.
Loyalty is also something you have to manage: keep it up, or your noble will revolt, causing a civil war. All in all, the nobles mechanic seems like Total War trying to bring in a lighter version of Crusader Kings' fairly detailed character relationships. It mostly works, if only because it puts a face to your army and isn't as complex as Crusader Kings. I do wish there were a bit more diplomacy options. No complexity, but I enjoy the nobles idea and which there was a bit more done to extend it, especially in the case of commanding (or simply dealing with) vassal kings.
Army composition has also changed. You pull additional units from a region-wide faction pool. Basically, as long as an army is within a settlement, you can add units from your overall pool to that army. And each turn, there's a certain chance for each unit type in the pool to replenish. The drawback there is you can't just queue up an entire army or specific unit, even if you have the money to do so. This allows you to be more flexible with your armies, but combined with the settlement changes above, I found that when you begin to lose, it snowballs fairly quick. New units also have a short period of time where they're at a lower strength, preventing you from calling an army out of thin air.
Researching tech trees is very different in Total War Saga, at least from what I remember in Total War. New technologies can't be unlocked without completing certain tasks first. You can't build medium siege engines until you win 5 siege battles, for example. Civic techs work the same: you can't build Taverns without first progressing along the starting Market Hall building chain. Essentially, you get better at the things you already do, focusing the player towards their own playstyle or requiring them to play in a certain way to unlock certain techs.
Total War Saga offers three victory conditions and one Ultimate victory. Conquest victories require control of a number of settlements or provinces, Fame victories are about increasing your faction's influences, while Kingdom victories are about controlling specific regions depending on your faction. The Ultimate victory has you completing the upper end of any victory type and then banishing the Vikings from the Isles. Give the series title, Conquest is the easiest victory condition, but the other two are firmly within reach. Sometimers, you'll find you're just handed the victory when another kingdom straight up dies and cedes you the territory. After that, it's just grinding out the Ultimate, which is a pretty big slog.
Thrones of Britannia looks good, which isn't surprising, given that this is a spin-off using an existing engine. The game has to render battles where the player can either see the conflict from high overhead, or right in the middle of the action and it does so pretty well. Individual soldiers fight and die on the battlefield, fires burn, and all the seasons are here and accounted for. Performance-wise, it runs okay, though I wish the AI's side of each turn didn't chug on my PC as much as it does. It feels like the game is struggling through that part.
Overall, Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is a game that feels like it was built to bring in players like me. I keep using the word "focus", because that's what's really happening here. Creative Assembly has distilled Total War down to a single, interesting moment in history, while also simplifying the core mechanics surrounding the strategy experience. I'd say it's a mostly successful attempt, though I wish they had done more work on the combat to find a middle ground between the deep troop control of Total War and other strategy titles. As it stands, the solution for me is to simply simulate the battles, which seems like a bit of a dodge.
"Minus all the extra stuff, this is Total War," the game says to me, but I'm not sure how much I'm into what Total War is. If you want to get into the series though, Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is an excellent place to start. I'm looking forward to more Saga entries in the future to see if further changes or a different era is what's needed to really entice me. But if everything above sounds great to you, the game is worth picking up.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia aims to focus the Total War series. Instead of a grand chunk of history to explore, it drills down to some specific decades, with a much smaller map. At the end of the day though, you still need to love the real-time strategy play for the Total War series. If you do, Thrones of Britannia is an experience that tries not to suck up all of your time and energy.