Complexity of Total War: Medieval 2

I recently took a look at Total War: Medieval 2 after several years of not playing it. Unlike in the past, I actually had the awareness and mental capacity to see how the game was really supposed to be played, and put in the time to research how various parts of the game fit together from a gameplay perspective.

In the process of doing this, I found a comment complaining about the AI of the more recent Total War games.

“We have these agents and stuff but they are useless […] We have diplomacy but it’s basically useless in terms of actually fighting your enemies. There isn’t really any economy, no trade routes. Causing rebellions in enemy territory takes forever and accomplishes pretty much nothing, it’s a waste of time and gold*.” They say the player’s only choice is a “full-scale frontal invasion,” as it’s always just the “fastest, cheapest, most efficient way” to win.

The complaint is about the enemy AI, but in truth it’s the wider design of the game itself. The lack of player choice. The only choice you have any reason to choose is a full frontal attack, and you have no other reason to choose other options, unless for roleplay.

Reading this in the midst of playing the game again, for the first time of really understanding how the game worked in all its nuance, led me to write a little discourse on where this old 2006 game still shines to this day.

Let’s just take the ‘Agents’ system mentioned before. Diplomats, Spies, Assassins and Priests are the main ones. Priests convert populations both your and other countries’ to your religion. You can make the priest more powerful and respected by doing this, and seeking out heretics and witches.

Making them more powerful makes them better at their job; the more influence they have with the papacy, the more they can do in return, the more of a target they are for enemies and the more of a loss they are if they’re killed. All the Agents can grow in strength like this, giving you an invested reason to try to protect high-ranking Agents and use them carefully, since they can always be killed on failing a mission, rather than tactlessly spam them on every mission you can find.

If you send priests to a foreign land with a different religion, you can destabilize the government by converting the majority to your religion. If you have a high enough priest he becomes a Bishop, and then he can become the Pope. The big bossman. If your country has a pope, you can get away with screwing over other Christian countries and call Crusades against infidels.

Assassins can kill enemy Agents, Generals (governors, who can lead either military armies or manage cities, and are necessary to help things run smoothly, prevent riots in cities and desertion in armies), members of the enemy royal family or destroy buildings in cities and castles. This can all be done strategicly… maybe the king of the enemy faction is a great leader but his son is a dunce.

Assassinate the King, an idiot replacement is put in charge and you invade, and they’ll be weakened. Likewise, you can specifically target buildings in their cities that make money (markets, grain exchanges, mines, ports) and assassinate their merchants, and they’ll have less money to support their armies in defending their castle. Or just bomb the bowyer and they’ll have less archers, or bomb all their churches and kill their priests and the Pope will like them less. Or simply assassinate their diplomats… do this in the early game and keep doing it and you’ll asphyxiate the whole country by preventing them from making trade deals or alliances with any other factions.

Diplomats, Spies, Princesses and Merchants aren’t so useful, but they still add to the game. Diplomacy lets you enter negotiations… it’s just something you need rather than just having a ‘negotiations button’ that lets you instantly talk to any faction on the map. Spies can show you what units and buildings the enemy has. Princesses are diplomats but you can marry them to royalty and generals of other factions to improve relations with them. Merchants can make good money if you invest some time and money into them first, but I’ve yet to really care that much (they cost 500 to recruit, are free to maintain, but only make around 20 a turn at starting levels, and can be killed by enemy assassins or merchants at any time).

If you put Agents with a ‘General’ there’s a chance that the General will pick up traits. Putting a Priest will give the General a ‘Pious’ buff. A spy might make him harder to assassinate, or give him wider line of sight, or extra Dread. These changes are permanent to the General. Every General has their own traits. Cleverly/Dread, Loyalty, Piety and Command. Your actions affect what traits they get.

If you take an enemy town, you can have the option to slaughter the population and pillage it for gold, or let everyone live (but they’ll have extra ‘unrest’). If you consistently choose one or the other, the General’s Cleverly/Dread (whichever route you go) will increase. The same can be said for choosing between releasing prisoners of war or executing them.

They also have ‘routines’, which act like traits but are more specific. Perhaps you’ve put this general to lead an assault on many castles, so now they build siege equipment more quickly, or have +2 command during siege attacks. Perhaps they’ve survived assassination attempts before, so they’re now harder to kill and harder to spy on. Do they like alcohol? How much?

The progression for drinks goes from ‘Social Drinker’, ‘Gets Merry’, ‘Steady Drinker’, ‘Drunken’, ‘Alcoholic’ and ‘Paralytic’. Each of these come with their own changes to the General. For example, ‘Social Drinker’ increases his Command and Popularity, whereas later levels decrease them, lower his Authority or the amount of Tax Income they can generate.

This Drink trait can be acquired by adopting a ‘lesser’ son, getting married, if their father has the same traits, if they belong to France or Denmark (don’t ask me?), if they’ve survived an assassination attempt… the list goes on for a dozen more ways of increasing Drink. And that’s just one trait of many.

Cleverly can have benefits like higher morale, enemy factions ‘not’ targeting that General for assassination, the Pope will like that person more; if he’s commanding a City the people will love him more and the taxes will be higher. Meanwhile Dread will lower morale but will lower the morale of the enemy army more. They’re more likely to surrender without a fight or run away, but the population will fear and dislike being a part of your empire.

Piety makes him more loved by the Pope. High command gives his units more control in battle, lets them move further a turn and decreases the chances of desertion. Loyalty makes the General himself less likely to desert. He’ll turn down bribes made by other factions and won’t ‘steal’ taxes from the settlement he’s managing (‘corruption’).

The point I’m making with all this is that there’s so much thought put into all these small aspects of the game. How you use your agents and your General does have an impact on the wider game. It has depth to the level of people decompiling the game to look at the pseudocode and try to figure out how it fits together.

While Agents have a less sophisticated setup than Generals in terms of their traits and routines (as their skill is either higher or lower, without Chivalry, Authority and so on) the fact remains that everything you do with them can have a wider impact on how they work, not only making them feel more like real people (or at least dynamic NPCs) than just soulless tools. This deepens the player’s investment in the game as they see the consequences of their decisions, and the cause-and-effect of the changing state of the realm and the wider world effecting their units too.

Mentioning the General’s effects on a settlement… every settlement has ‘unrest’ which is a situation where the people are going to riot (fighting in the streets, damaging buildings, military getting killed) or fully rebel where it returns to being part of the ‘rebel’ faction. This unrest can be fought by lowering taxes, having a lot of religious faith or building entertainment or government buildings…

Well, I should just mention that there are a fixed number of settlements on the campaign map. You can’t build or destroy any, just upgrade them or convert castles into cities or cities into castles. Also, each settlement can only build one building at a time, and that takes 2 to 10 turns to build. If you need to decrease your unrest, to avoid riots or so you can put up the taxes*, you can build a town watch, administration building, inn, brothel, farming improvements and so on.

*Most commonly it’s because you’ve just taken this settlement so there’s lots of unrest, but it’s kept under control because of the large military force you’ve got there after taking the settlement. But if you don’t bring the unrest down, you have to keep the military units there to prevent a riot, which slows down your advance and also costs a lot of money in upkeep of those military units.*

However, if you’re building these things, it means you’re not spending that time and money improving the farms, ports, market or the roads, all of which increase money from trade, which is your main source of income usually. This is also money you could be spending on a bowyer for bowmen, training yards for foot soldiers, stables for cavalry, workshops for ballistas, catapults or trebuchets, or iron foundries which let you unlock higher-tier armour for your soldiers all-round.

But if you want to get even more out of a settlement in terms of military gains, don’t use a city, convert it into a castle. Castles are way more focused on military recruitment and are easier to defend, but have very little “population growth” and also have lower taxes than the cities do. Cities make the money, castles make the military.

The money is important of course, since every single General, military unit and Agent has both a recruitment cost and an upkeep cost, as does upgrading buildings. But all this is needed to effectively push for a military dominance over your neighbours. Use your Agents to bring down their economy or ‘public well-being’ while building your own. Put money into your military and push forwards to take their cities and castles. Every victory brings you stagnation as you first have to subdue the population, but overall you push forward to take more and more from the enemy faction, until they have nothing.

Or until you overextend yourself having put too much money into your military and not enough into building up a solid economy (war’s costly after all). Or until you get wiped out by an army of well armoured, highly trained cavalry, since they were investing more time into research and technology while you were fighting with the other monkeys. Or your citizens revolt against you, or the Pope calls a crusade on your capital city, or…

Again, this just exemplified how Medieval 2 brings the player deeper into the game. The AI doesn’t cheat (at least not as openly as in more recent Total War games). If you destroy specific buildings, it will have an effect. If you push to have better military equipment than the competition, you’ll reap the rewards and will have to deal with the other consequences. The player has choices they can make which go beyond being a ‘good’ decision or a ‘bad’ decision. They’re what the player believed to be the best choice at that time, and would make further down the line.

This development of technology, military and otherwise is present in all Total War games of this kind, and yet having things set in the Medieval period has its own advantages: the invention of gunpowder, to be specific, which radically changes the late-game playstyle of the campaign.

Suddenly, having the strongest walls and the heaviest armour is next to useless. Cavalry units flee from the noise, archers are decimated by cannons and pikemen roam the fields. All the rebel villages and weaker countries have been eaten up by the powerful few, and all that’s left is for these superpowers to wipe each other out.

If you get to this point without having properly managed your military, finances, economy, Agents, Generals, population, cities, technology… there’s no longer any buffering space between superpowers: no walls of stone nor skins of steel between your strength and theirs. The papacy doesn’t have the influence to keep the peace; all alliances are likely dead.

People complain that the ‘allied’ factions are useless and that negotiation is useless overall, since countries backstab and betray one another (sometimes annoyingly senselessly), but it is called ‘Total War’ for a reason.

Part of the reason I’m so excited to tell you all this is because I’ve not played this game properly for several years, and only now I had the proper capacity to really understand how everything links together and how everything can work. I played the base game on the hardest difficulty a few days ago and found it easier than when I had played it on ‘normal’, just because I can see how all the small parts connect and manage to maintain everything. I’ve also realized I was playing it somewhat wrong.

This is an issue I can’t be the only one to have had. This is something you should take note of too.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of room for micro-management. In every city you can choose exactly what military units it has and trains. You can choose which buildings are built and manage the flow of taxes. You can adjust the location of every General, unit, Agent and ship on the map…

I used to play the game dealing with all of those aspects, and would put time into every ‘turn’ (which is half a year… it takes two turns to build communal farming and one turn to train most units), so as the game went on, each turn took more and more time to check and manage everything.

I felt like the ‘value’ of each turn was equal to every turn. To put it another way, I saw every turn as just as important as every other. I’ve recently realized this isn’t the case. There’s no issue with just giving every city a list of 3 to 6 buildings to buy and build (one at a time), and then just skip the 20 to 30 turns for everything to be built. Of course you have to respond to changes in the state of the game, but no need to check everything every turn.

Let the pieces move and the wheels turn. Let the game progress or you’ll never get out of the early game and will be sat asking yourself why you’ve spent three hours on a handful of moves.

I feel like this is the intended way to deal with turns, and something I’ve missed until now.

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