Saturday, 9 July 2011

The British Are Coming! Empire: Total War Game Diary

Empire: Total War is a sprawling mess. It's an insanely huge game, upgrading the theatre of war from the country or continent of past Total War games to three enormous landmasses – all of Europe, the East coast of the Americas (the Caribbean and the top of South America included) and the Indian subcontinent. Play the Grand Campaign, and you're having to navigate all of them.

It's entirely appropriate.

The World Wars of the twentieth century were global conflicts due to the size of the empires engaged in battle. The British Empire of 1914, covering a quarter of the globe's population and land, dragged India and the Caribbean in after it, not to mention Oceania (which we shall henceforth ignore out of necessity). The French empire pulled North Africa in too. 1700, when Empire is set, is the moment when the Great Powers of Western Europe decided that their own stomping ground wasn't big enough for the lot of them, and went out and fought over the rest of the world instead. On the other side of the continent, Russia, Denmark, Norway and Poland kicked off the Great Northern War against the Swedish Empire. It was a time of great turmoil, the century brought to a close in political revolutions and the domination of Europe by a single military genius.

I'm pretty sure that won't be me.

I've played Empire before, briefly pounding through the extended tutorial campaign that follows Washington's victory in the American Rebellion, but I've never embarked on a Grand Campaign proper. To make things more masochistic for myself, I'm playing with the DarthMod Ultimate Commander mod, for that touch of realism to make things just so. This means I'm playing with more aggressive AI, more historically accurate units, and an altered version of the map to reflect the historical territories held by the various nations.

Of all the strategy games I've ever played, it's the Total War fantasy that has always appealed most. The combination of the grand strategy feeding directly into the tactics of every individual battle has had me gripped since the first Shogun. But I've never taken on a Total War this huge, with this much to cope with, from the very start. Things could very easily go horribly, horribly wrong.

These maps show my starting positions. I'm playing, patriotically enough, the British. In red. Gulp.

I'm at the top.

I'm at the right

My dear Castlereagh,

I require your most urgent assistance. Since my joint appointment to the positions of First Lord of the Admiralty and General-in-Chief of the Forces, with extraordinary powers of diplomacy and espionage, I must confess that I find our position most precarious. Our American colonies are, sadly, operating in a state of quasi-independence, and I fear that our sole outpost flying the Union flag unadulterated in the North American continent is vulnerable. The French surround to the East, the Indian to the South. Our trading outpost of Benghal on the Indian continent may suffer a similar trying fate. You must take ship to our American lands, and hasten, for enemy forces are swiftly massing against us...

In each of the three theatres of war, these are the situations:

In Europe, I'm probably fine. The English Channel, as it has since the Norman Conquest, provides the perfect defence, and I have enough of a naval presence to prevent any sudden attacks. I'll blockade the channel to protect my trade routes, but there's no point being aggressive. I'm not at war with France. Yet.

I'll prioritise research buildings here, as it will help with developing my tech trees relatively safe from attack, but the length of time it would take to transport troops to the other maps means that mass-recruiting here is only really worth it if I need to create a huge invasion force. Let's call this Plan B.

Rapid response forces were entirely off the cards in the eighteenth century, so I'm going to have to play a long game in India. I've got Benghal, but no army to speak of, and I'm not likely to end up at war with any of the locals unless they see me as easy pickings.

It's in America that I'm screwed.

I've got one territory in the North, the magnificently named 'Moose Factory', entirely surrounded by either Native American tribes or the French. Further south, I've got Bermuda and Jamacia, but they can be more or less discounted as anything bar naval bases. The Thirteen Colonies, that, seventy-odd years from now will revolt against my hefty taxes and refusal to grant them their own parliament, aren't part of my empire. They do, however, dominate the continent. We've got a golden handshake deal - they're essentially a vassal-state, but I can't control them. This could change at a stroke. I've been set a mission to conquer three territories: one in the North, the captial of French Canada, one halfway down the side of the States, ruled by the Cherokee, and Georgia in the South, ruled by another Native group. If I can conquer these three regions then suddenly they become part of my empire. I'll become the most powerful nation in the Americas, and have a base to fund any ambitions I might have to rule the world.

There is one problem. It's almost certainly impossible.

I've got to protect my one mainland American territory, my Moose Factory, at all costs. If it falls, there's a good chance the French and the Native tribes will have solidified their hold over their lands, and built up armies on a scale I wouldn't be able to match, even with a vast invasion force from Britain.

I get to work building my defences. For a turn, it looks like it's all going well.

Then a Native American tribe I hadn't been paying any attention to, the Huron-Wyandot Confederacy, declares war on me, apros of nothing. Who the hell do they think they are? It's not as if I've done anything to them. Except, probably, push them off their ancestral lands and demand tribute, but that wasn't me! That happened before I started playing! It must be the Mooses (Meese?). I have no idea what goes on at Moose Factory, but with a name like that, I bet it's something that people as in touch with nature as the Hurons are simply can't stomach. Maybe I can sit them down and explain that whatever it is, it's probably for Science. I try to negotiate. It doesn't work. They laugh in my face.

It gets worse. The Thirteen Colonies, obviously feeling the beligerent land-grab urges that would later define their expansion west, declare war on the Cherokee. The Cherokee, it turns out, are the best armed, best equipped, and most advanced Native American tribe on the continent. The only way I can avoid war with them is to break by golden handshake with the Thirteen Colonies, and so lose any chance I might have to take over the Americas. I have to do it. I declare war on a nation that already has me surrounded. This cannot go well.

I hike all the taxes I can think of, and pour as many resources as I can into my one American stronghold. I also build a getaway fleet in its harbour. Just in case.

Two turns later, the Native American tribes have wiped all presence of my British forces from mainland America. No one made it to the boats alive.

My dear lady Castlereagh,

I write to you with utmost sorrow. Your husband gave his life in the noble service of our great Empire, and for that you can be very proud. His life, and his legacy, will not be in vain.

I must write to you regarding the battle in which he fell, leading his troops most valiantly. Your husband commanded a force that numbered similarly to the savages against which he lost his life, but unlike they, whose numbers swelled with barbaric warriors, the garrison under his command was filled out by locals from the colony, boys and old men who were unfamiliar with the musket-barrel, yet who nevertheless fought with all the bravery that they could muster.

Under the Union flag, your husband commanded three units of hardy British troops, who are and remain the best in the world, all for their numbers being filled by the ingrates of her Majesty's gaols, alongside a unit of local militia, a scattering of rangers, and the locals of the town. They set up a redoubt upon a small hillock, from whence to resist the oncoming horde.

Three times the enemy stormed our brave soldiers, but with the presence of your most gracious husband they stood firm, and with the sound of their guns, many Indians died. Three times they came, breaking through the ranks of our soldiers to do battle by hand. The confidence of our men may have wavered, but they recovered. The savages were held at bay.

The brutes, the cowardly Indian, looked shattered, their bare-chested men shot at by muskets, but sadly their hand to hand fighting could not be contained, and they burst through into the makeshift redoubt. Your husband most bravely charged the enemy, and here tragically fell in valiant combat, rallying his men to his standard. With his death all courage fled from our boys, and they took flight. They did not escape.

Your husband's noble actions in the service of our Empire shall not go unrewarded. I hearby award you an annual stipend of twenty pounds, and posthumously confer upon him the Imperial Medal of Gallantry. He died as he lived, with honour. I console you on your loss.

Yours, etc.

My best laid plans lie in ruins. My ambitions to rule the Americas, torn apart. But those Native Americans don't know who they've messed with. I'm still the most advanced, richest empire in the game. It might take some time, but I will hold Moose Factory in my hands once again. I order all the cities of Britain to start recruiting troops, and the shipyards to build as vast a navy as I can afford. They might think me defeated, but I'll be back.

Time for Plan B.

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