Ah, Medieval Total War (MTW). The game brings back many fond memories for me. Although I discovered the Byzantine Empire in Age of Empires 2, it was MTW that solidified my love for them. Developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Activision, MTW is a turn-based strategy game with real-time tactics.
The Creative Assembly is a British video game developer established by Tim Ansell in 1987. But in March 2005, it became a European subsidiary of Sega. Some of their other products include Shogun: Total War, Rome: Total War, Medieval II: Total War, Empire: Total War and the latest Napoleon: Total War. All the earlier games have won many industry awards.
Personally, I enjoy moving the chess like pieces across the map and watching my empire grow bit by bit in MTW. Yet, the game is not perfect. There are a few historical inaccuracies here and there. But the other features make up for this minor flaw.
The main campaign
The historical campaign allows you to play out historical battles as Richard the Lionheart or Saladin. You may even test your battle tactics as the Mongols through key battles in their conquests. But it is the main campaign where I can shape history that interests me.
The main campaign map covers medieval Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This is the turn-based strategy aspect of the game where the fun lies. Here you get to manage the economical, diplomatic, military and strategic planning for your empire. Deciding the direction your empire building and expansion will take happens here.
The main campaign has 3 scenarios. The Early Middle Ages begins in 1087. The main feature of this period is the beginning of the crusades. The High Middle Ages is next and begins in 1205. In this period, the Mongol Horde appears from the east to destroy all who stand in their way. And finally, the Late Middle Ages begins in 1321. Gunpowder and the rise of the Ottomans occur in this period.
The importance of developing your provinces
The goal of the game involves total domination or strategic conquests. Sooner or later, you will find yourself involved in costly wars. Therefore developing your financial muscle is necessary to build your armies for defence and attack. To simulate the feel of the Middle Ages, MTW allows you to tax your provinces. Part of your taxes involves income from trade with other countries. By developing your provinces, you will gain more income and better quality troops from them.
The power of diplomacy
Sometimes, diplomacy, tributes and bribery are preferable compared to costly wars. As such the diplomatic aspect of MTW is a welcomed part of the game. This option allows you to resort to bribery to buy off enemy troops or to buy provinces instead of wasting your troops in battle. Diplomats also serve an important function in arranging alliances and royal marriages. Having allies allows you to focus most of your strength against the enemy. Personally I enjoy using diplomacy to make gains instead of engaging in messy wars.
When diplomacy fails, eliminating your enemy may require more aggressive measures. Again during the middle ages, espionage and assassinations were pretty common. In MTW, spies gather valuable information about enemy plans and more importantly, they can cause revolts in enemy provinces by fermenting unrest. There have been numerous times when I have swept in to take advantage of the chaos caused by spies.
Assassination is also a good way of getting rid of the enemy. Once I assassinated a rival after assassinating all his heirs. With no proper claimant to the throne, the remaining territories split up and became independent of each other. All I had to do was to slowly bribe or conquer them at my leisure. The use of spies and assassins adds to the means you can use to achieve your goals. In this way you can replay the game endlessly to mix and match your methods as you see fit.
The impact of religion on MTW
Religion was a dominant force in the middle ages, and so it is fitting that it is a powerful force in MTW. There are 3 major religious groups; Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Each religious group has its own unique features. For example, both the Catholics and the Muslims can declare crusades and jihads respectively. Orthodox Christians, who did not believe in the concept of holy war, lack this ability. It is important to note that conversion of conquered provinces to the one true faith is important for preventing unrest and revolts. This is where religious agents like imams, bishops and priest come in to do God’s work.
Because I usually play as the Byzantines, one heart-stopping moment is when the Catholics launch their crusades against the east. As the Byzantium Empire lies along the road to the east, the crusaders will pass through Byzantine territory. Along the way, they might pillage the lands. From this, I can easily imagine the dangers the unruly crusaders posed to the Byzantine emperors and their land.
Character growth and development
One of my favourite parts of the game involves the characters and their development. Characters have given attributes of piety, dread, command and acumen. For example, inquisitors, who were rampant in the middle ages, can burn characters of the Catholic faith with low piety at the stake. On the other hand, characters with high acumen make good governors. The provinces under their care are happier, more stable and produce more money.
As the characters develop, they may pick up some habits along the way. These habits translate into vices and virtues which generally affect the character’s attributes. For example, if the character has weak principles, he will be more open to bribery. For the right price, he will deliver his troops or province into the hands of his new master. The attributes, vices and virtues add greater depth and dimension to the game by reflecting human nature and the realities of the middle ages.
Each faction has their own unique troop types which add to their distinctiveness. For example, the Byzantines have the Varangian Guards while the Mamluks have their Mamluk cavalry. All of this training and preparation finally culminates in total war. The battle which takes place in real-time can be a massive scene of chaos. MTW rewards battle tactics and strategy. Flanking the enemy, attacking from the rear, and deploying reserves to critical areas are tactics that increase the possibility of a victory. Additionally, the terrain, climate and weather affect the effectiveness of your troops. Armoured knights tire quickly under the hot sun in the desert, leaving them vulnerable to counter attacks. Morale is another important consideration that can affect the outcome of the battle.
Admittedly, the graphics and battle system of MTW is pretty much outdated today compared to the later Total War games. But since MTW came out in 2002, this is understandable. I concede that I am not a fan of the MTW battle system. Instead I prefer the battle systems in the later Total War series. This is the reason why I usually choose to auto-resolve my battles.
Reflections of the Vizier
I always enjoyed the turn-based strategy aspect of the game, preferring to leave the fighting to my generals. Only when my generals prove too incompetent to win a crucial battle will I command the armies personally. Developing my provinces, appointing capable governors and generals and deciding who to attack next has always been more interesting to me. In fact, just writing this review makes me want to replay MTW as the Byzantines. It’ll be fun to once again pit their outdated troops and weapons against their technologically advanced enemies. Where brute force fails, I can always resort to other means to turn the tide in my favour. I am sure the Byzantines would appreciate my way of thinking.
Disclaimer: All the images in this article are screenshots taken from Medieval Total War. They are copyrighted by The Creative Assembly and are not of my making.