Know the enemy, and know yourself
It seems fitting that 2000 should have seen the release of Shogun: Total War, the inaugural entry in one of the decade’s defining strategy series. Combining turn based empire-building with spectacular tactical battles, Shogun was the game I had always wanted. Strategy and tactics were finally living side by side, and it seemed for a moment like the Total War series might be my one-stop shop for wargaming and strategy. My friends and I would argue over where the series should go next. Feudal China? Napoleonic Europe? The Middle Ages? The Roman Empire? It was impossible to play Shogun and not have your imagination fired by the possibilities it suggested.
I was 16 when Shogun came out, and Shogun remains the game of my adolescence. If my friends and I were swept away by the series’ limitless potential, we were no less confident of our own. It is also true that the subsequent Total War games, with their various disappointments, have mirrored my transition into adulthood. Creative Assembly’s efforts often receive sharp criticism from die-hard fans, and I suspect it is because those fans remember that it was supposed to be better than this. Shogun seemed to herald a revolution, and those of us who were the first to embrace it have also been the first to be disillusioned.
What I always wanted from the Total War series was a great 4x game married to a good tactical wargame, and only now do I see the paradox built into that expectation. Shogun is the only one of the Total War games where the series’ name is a promise rather than a brand, and it is stronger for it. Shogun avoids the series’ recurring flaws by ignoring whatever is not directly tied to conquest. Diplomacy? It is meaningless in the game’s Hobbesian landscape. Navies? You can build ports and use them as express lanes for your armies, but there is no naval combat or ship-building whatsoever. Economics? Your territories produce money, and you can invest in upgrades to produce greater wealth. The only thing to do with that wealth, however, is pour it into your military. Religion? It only comes up if you accept guns and Christ from the Portuguese traders.
At the time, it seemed like Creative Assembly had missed a lot of opportunities for more interesting gameplay. The game was good, but how much better would it have been with Alpha Centauri-style diplomacy? What if it had included technological research? What if maintaining the domestic health of your faction involved more nation-building? Why weren’t there navies?
Later in the series we saw that a poorly implemented feature is worse than a nonexistent one, and in retrospect Shogun seems the product of wise restraint. Creative Assembly was aware of its limitations, and succeeded within narrow ambitions. Since then, Total War’s guiding design philosophy has become, “Why not?” and the series has lost the tight discipline on display in its earliest iterations.
Nor has the series ever quite topped Shogun in terms of aesthetics, because no Total War game was ever as informed by its setting. The motif of Feudal Japan runs throughout Shogun’s art, interface, and music. All the artwork is drawn in the style of Japanese rice-paper prints, and the strategic map looks like it was hand-painted and decorated. A horseman charges across the cavalry province of Shinano, and a swordsman readies a strike in the southern province of Satsuma. The map’s frayed and torn edges are bordered by the dark wood of the table in the player’s throne room, where his daimyo avatar is ostensibly plotting conquests. Shogun’s map suggests its place and era in much the same way that AGEOD has crafted a particular map style to each of its subjects. Shogun’s strategy map is not just a picture of Japan, but a portrait.
There is also a captivating physicality to the strategic interface, because it makes the player a character in Shogun’s drama. The map is dotted with weighted miniatures of soldiers, warlords, and castles. They stick to the map ever so slightly before the cursor can tug them loose, and they make a satisfying thunk as they are set down. Seasonal harvest reports and battle results are delivered by a retainer, and emissaries from other factions arrive with flowery expressions of conciliation and threat. The music is sparse, never being more than an intermittent companion to your thoughts, and it is broken by the sound of wind blowing through your castle.Where the player’s role in later Total War games is as an indistinct, eternal entity guiding his faction through history, Shogun invites the player into the world as an isolated, brooding warlord in a time of civil war.
All this style makes for a game that is far better than it has any right to be. By involving the player as a character in the game, by letting him inhabit Shogun instead of simply manipulate it, Shogun wins forgiveness for its shallow strategy game and exploitable tactical game. It is charming and modest, and chooses its battles wisely. This seems like a greater accomplishment today than it did nine years ago.
Next up, Sacrifice – the great game that no one has bother to remake.