What to expect from Total War: Three Kingdoms

Warlord Dong Zhuo

If your gaming past is anything like mine, the first image that came to mind when you heard the name Total War: Three Kingdoms was probably Lu Bu flipping around like a wuxia hero in the Dynasty Warriors series. But beyond Lu Bu's sweet spin attacks is one of the most dramatic, tumultuous, and fascinating eras in China’s history. The Three Kingdoms period saw the rise of some of the region’s most celebrated heroes, clever generals, and legendary warriors. The literature surrounding it (notably Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written over 1000 years after the actual events and the basis for a boatload of video games) stands beside historically inspired world classics like the Iliad and the King Arthur mythos.

With so many adaptations over the centuries in literature, film, poetry, and video games, the Three Kingdoms is an era with many faces. There are the actual, historically verifiable events. There are legends passed down that are embellishments and additions to those events. And then there is the grand mythology surrounding the novel and its central characters. Based on what we can see in the trailer, it looks like Creative Assembly is skewing more toward the mythical and legendary than the purely historical. But before looking at what that might mean for Total War's battles and strategy, let’s get the political realities of the historical scenario set.

A brief history of the Three Kingdoms

In essence, it’s a story about a bunch of warlords agreeing that this jerk, Dong Zhuo, can’t be in charge. But once he’s gone, they get into a big fight over who should be in charge.

As the Total War: Three Kingdoms campaign starts in 190 CE, the Han dynasty is collapsing. In power for over 400 years, the Han were one of China’s most successful and prestigious dynasties. To this day, the majority ethnic group in China refer to themselves as “Han” Chinese. When the dynasty went into decline, things got a little messy. After a period of rebellion and bloody, intra-court rivalries following the death of the Han Emperor Ling, the warlord Dong Zhuo took control of the Han capital. This is the evil-looking husky dude in the trailer, and the traditional villain in most tellings of the Late Han narrative.

Historically, Dong Zhuo liked to burn people starting with their feet so he could maximize the time spent enjoying their suffering before they died. So the literary adaptations don’t need to stretch to make him a Very Bad Dude.

Dong Zhuo deposed (and eventually forced to commit suicide) the legitimate heir, Emperor Shao, the teenage son of Emperor Ling. Shao was replaced with his eight-year-old half-brother, Emperor Xian. With the child emperor in his possession and the once-powerful court eunuch faction out of the way thanks to a bloody purge, Dong Zhuo had de facto control over the Han Empire. His power-grab did not go over well. The Chancellor Cao Cao (this is the wise dude moving pieces around on a board) fled into the countryside and joined a coalition of warlords to oppose Dong Zhuo, initiated by another former imperial official, Yuan Shao. In the Romance version of events, this was following a failed assassination attempt on Dong Zhuo by Cao Cao, but such a plot has no historical basis.

Cao Cao plans his next move.

Given the start date Creative Assembly's chosen, this is likely going to be the situation we find ourselves launched into. Dong Zhuo rules with his puppet emperor from Luoyang, the inland capital roughly 750 kilometers southwest of modern Beijing. Cao Cao and Yuan Shao’s coalition of warlords (there are at least 13 named specifically in the sources) seeks to oppose him. Among them are the seeds that would become the titular Three Kingdoms which came to power after Dong Zhuo was eventually defeated.

Cao Wei was founded by Cao Cao and his son Cao Pi, located at the traditional capital of Luoyang and controlling Northern China. Sun Wu (commonly called Eastern Wu) was located in the Southeast at Wuchang (modern Ezhou, about 750 kilometers west of Shanghai), having officially split off from Cao Wei’s government after a period of nominal independence. Shu Han, located in the Southwest at Chengdu (the capital of the modern Sichuan province), was founded by Liu Bei, one of the three heroes depicted in the trailer taking the legendary (though probably not historical) Peach Garden Oath with his brothers-in-arms, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, to protect China together. Liu Bei was descended from an earlier Han emperor, and named his state Shu Han as a statement that he saw himself as the restorer of rightful Han rule.

So in essence, it’s a story about a bunch of warlords agreeing that this jerk, Dong Zhuo, can’t be in charge. But once he’s gone, they get into a big fight over who should be in charge, which includes some of the warlords who used to be loyal to Dong Zhuo as well. At least historically, this led to a period of about 40 years with the three, independent, relatively stable kingdoms Cao Wei, Sun Wu, and Shu Han staring each other down, each claiming to be the legitimate emperor. (Spoilers: Cao Wei won… sort of, after having their own royal family overthrown, leading to the establishment of the Jin Dynasty over a united China).

The mechanics of Total War

Regardless of the faction you choose, the goal is clear: Become Emperor of all China. I expect the campaign will proceed similarly to Shogun 2 in this respect, potentially with some equivalent of the Realm Divide mechanic, which forced a would-be shogun into a final, climactic civil war after achieving a certain realm size. In terms of Chinese history, this could model something like the split between Cao Wei and Sun Wu.

What doesn’t have precedent in past Total Wars is the four decades of relative stability that characterized the middle of the period. Assuming the campaign is a sandbox, though, there’s no guarantee we’ll even get three kingdoms at all. We could end up with four, or seven, or Dong Zhuo could defeat the warlords and laugh at their burning corpses.

The other big question is how closely Total War: Three Kingdoms will stick to history, and how much it will indulge in the legendary and pop culture-informed aspects of these characters. From everything we’ve seen in the trailer so far, it seems skewed towards the latter, with heroes like Guan Yu and Lu Bu taking on entire army formations by themselves. We already have precedent for this in Total War: Warhammer, with demigod-like heroes that are practically one man (or woman, or orc, or vampire) armies. Three Kingdoms could be a first for Total War to portray a historical era with such a fantastic, unrealistic style.

As a history nerd, that would leave me slightly disappointed. But there’s definitely something to be said for this approach. After all, the larger-than-life characters of Romance of the Three Kingdoms are intimately tied to this story in the minds of many, and it would be extremely anticlimactic to lose Liu Bei to a crossbow bolt in your first battle.

Could we see some Warhammer influence here, with legendary heroes wielding power and abilities like their Dynasty Warriors counterparts?

However much is borrowed from the literature, I hope to see at least a strong grounding in history as well. Chinese history is a broad, deep, fascinating tale left mostly untouched by Western games of this scale. We’re looking at an era when great inventors were perfecting the repeating crossbow, centuries before the single-shot version caught on in Europe. Both history and literature surrounding the period are full of accounts of unorthodox tactics, clever misdirection, and masterful betrayals of the sort we don’t often see in Total War games, and I’d love more options to win wars with witty uses of trickery rather than conventional tactics. Total War has been running on the same battle formations and systems for many games now.

The changing economic realities (some estimates from the time say China may have lost more than two thirds of its population between the fall of the Han and the establishment of the Jin) could create interesting strategic concerns, with the world declining into chaos like in Total War: Attila, rather than building up to become more stable like in most other Total War games.

So are we in for a sobering look at a bloody era in Chinese history or an over-the-top, hero-centric soap opera of backflips and backstabbing? We’ll probably see elements of both. However it shakes out, though, I look forward to leading the righteous Shu Han (which was the correct answer, if anyone was wondering) to battle against however many other kingdoms join the fray.