Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part IX - Recurring Nightmares

Karl Franz was now the master of the Reikland. He had crushed the secessionists, driven back Todbringer's agitators, defeated the Skullsmasherz orcs of Grung Zint and returned the Free City of Marienburg back into the Imperial fold. Astride his griffon Deathclaw, the young Emperor was rapidly making a name for himself as a bold, incisive and formidable general in the field.

The first battle of Grung Zint. The Empire forms up in a familiar line of battle with the Reiksgard on the left flank. Free Company skirmishers harass the flanks of the oncoming orcs.

Yet only a few knew his secret.

The Free Company usually do a better job of dispersing the oncoming horde but in this case the orcs maintain cohesion and crash into the Imperial line.

All his life the Prince of Reikland had been tormented by recurring dreams and nightmares. As a youth these visions of chaos, blood and death were merely visceral images, jumbled fragments which made no sense to the terrified child. Supplications to the temple of Morr, the Imperial deity of death and dreams, suppressed the dreams for a time, but as Franz matured the visions became even more persistent. Franz's father Luitpold spared no expense in trying to find a cure for his son's malady. He spoke candidly to the Grand Theogonist, consulted the masters of the Colleges of Magic, and prayed at various temples and shrines, hoping to gain an insight into his son's condition. All were in vain. At Luitpold's deathbed, the young prince confessed to his father that he believed that it was the future he was seeing in these visions. Karl Franz could not shake the feeling that everything he did, and everything he would do, he had already done before.

The aftermath of the first battle. The orcs shatter the Imperial line and pursue the broken Imperials. Karl Franz is wounded and his Household guard wiped out.

This was no mere fancy or trick of the mind. His advisers and generals were constantly astounded at Franz's ability to predict his opponent's moves. He anticipated Ludenhof's rebellion and Todbringer's treason. He knew that the Skullsmasherz were massing in force in the mountains, and placed his army in Eilhart in time to defeat the greenskin horde. Even envoys sent by fractious lords were surprised to find Franz aware and fully cognizant of their demands, and already waiting with a considered response. This prescience did much to enhance his reputation and prestige among his followers.

Sigmar has granted you the sight, they said.

Franz had no answer for that. Little did they know that Franz kept the darkest parts of the visions to himself. While he reluctantly shared his prognostications of the mundane and passed it off as strategic acumen, he never told anyone else the recurring visions which plagued his nights, and woke him in the dark gasping with dread, heart thundering in his chest.

Altdorf in flames, overrun by the walking dead.

Sometimes the visions were different. Sometimes the invaders were fur clad Norsemen, with their cold blue eyes and fair skin emblazoned with blue tattoos and sigils acknowledging their worship of the Chaos Gods of the north. In Franz's dreams they tore through the streets of Altdorf, raping, killing and pillaging everything in their path. In some of the dreams he saw elves, cold, fey and unimaginably beautiful, enslaving thousands of his countrymen and spiriting them away to a cold and distant land across the seas. In one particularly vivid dream he saw the greenskins engulf the capital, felt the cold bite of steel impale his chest and watched his lifeblood drain away at the hands of a large green-skinned monstrosity at the gates of Altdorf.

Yet for all that horror it paled in comparison to the fate of the city in the hands of vampire counts. Commoners hung from their feet like so much cattle, bled to satisfy the blood thirst of the nightkin. Men and women torn to pieces by ravening ghouls and mindless zombies. Babies wailing as they were held by pale skinned beauties, cooing and stroking the child, looking for all the world like adoring mothers in gesture, voice and action. Yet from the visions Franz knew that they admired the children for the sole reason that their blood was the sweetest and most delectable, a rare delicacy prized within the Night Aristocracy.

During the day Franz gave no sign of his tortured nights. His friends and advisers fretted and worried about his increasingly serious mien, but nothing they could say could persuade him to relinquish the mantle of responsibility he had draped over himself. His victories over the rebels, the rout of the greenskins and the recapture of Marienburg, although widely celebrated, seemed to lack any significance for him. In fact at times he seemed impatient, much like a spectator at the theater watching a play he did not particularly care for and has seen many times before.

There is no time, he would state grimly.

Reckoning for the Skullsmasherz. Franz, now on Deathclaw, leads a Reiksgard army to annihilate the greenskins once and for all.

There was only one time where Franz felt the burden of loneliness lift from him, and it was during the battles against the orcs of Grung Zint. Driven by the vision of a greenskin tide obliterating Altdorf he marched his army to destroy the orc stronghold before they could muster their forces. His army was ambushed and virtually annihilated. Franz was lucky to escape with his life. But before the rout Franz had spied upon the orc warlord at the head of the host and immediately recognized him. This was not uncommon for Franz, who saw people, places and beasts in his dreams long before meeting them in life.

No, what shocked Franz was that the orc recognized him, too, and had known he was coming.

The first battle of Grung Zint was a disaster for the Empire. The subsequent battles were not. In the second battle of Grung Zint the Empire avenged their first loss and destroyed the Skullsmasherz for all time. But looking at the fallen orc warlord before him Franz could not avoid the feeling of kinship he shared with this vicious brute of a creature, and the inescapable feeling that this monster, defeated now, had once slain him and conquered the Empire.

I am not mad then, he said to himself. And the future is not set.

The orc, mortally wounded, roared its defiance. In its mien Franz saw a burning desire for vengeance for a lifetime of suffering for its kin - hunted to near extinction, their mountain homes razed, wandering the peaks and valleys in constant fear of trappers and bounty hunters stalking them for the bounty on their ears. Franz met the implacable hatred in its gaze, and nodded.

Till next time, orc, he said, before administering the final blow.

Poor Franz. To paraphrase a quote from the movie Groundhog Day, he's died so many times he doesn't even exist anymore. I'm now in Legendary playthrough number ten, and that doesn't count the numerous campaigns I played in the original game. While Legendary Lords are technically immortal - if they die they come back in a few turns' time - Franz has lost every Legendary playthrough in Total War: Warhammer II. In four campaigns Altdorf has ended in flames, surrounded either by the Vampire Counts and/or the Varg Norsemen. In my last campaign Altdorf was overrun by orcs. Four campaigns have been abandoned, three because I didn't like my starting position and one because I wanted to include the Tomb Kings in the campaign. 

Now I'm playing to see if Franz can avoid the nightmare of those previous campaigns. At this point I'm feeling kinship with Cassandra, the Greek oracle who had the power to see the future but was completely unable to do anything about it. I know the vampires will run rampant in the east. I know the Norsemen will sweep all before them in the north. The question is what I can do about it. At least at this point Franz has prevented the future in which the greenskins obliterate Altdorf from coming to pass. The rest are still up in the air.

Mortal Empires, Part VIII - History Repeating

Armed with the foresight of my previous two losses, I resolved to begin Legendary campaign number ten with the mindset of not taking anything for granted.

Karl Franz's starting army. Franz is positioned squarely in the center to give all his troops a Leadership bonus. Spearmen, swordsmen and halberdiers hold the line while handgunners and crossbows support from behind. The Reiksgard cavalry are deployed far to the right to flank the enemy.

We united the Reikland without any issues, fighting each battle manually to make sure of the result. Afterwards we ignored Marienburg and immediately headed north-west to Grung Zint to destroy the Skullsmasherz before they could rise to power. Karl Franz was met by a massive Orcish army, but we fought them nonetheless. I was confident that I could beat them despite the numbers.

As the enemy advances to the Imperial lines the cavalry sweep behind, take out missile troops, then attack the enemy from the flank or rear.

I was wrong. Our army was wiped out in a disastrous defeat.

This single orc stronghold of Grung Zint was a simple annoyance pre-DLC, but post-DLC united with the Skull-Smasherz and the Crooked Moon to wipe me out in the ninth campaign.

If you recall, I was trying to keep Franz's Household guard intact for narrative purposes, because the idea of how these units fared in the overall campaign appealed to me. Well, I need not worry about them anymore. The whole army was wiped out. Franz was wounded, and carried back to Altdorf. While Franz recuperated I hastily raised another army in Eilhart under neophyte General Alberich Hergiger to defend against the Skullsmasherz. They came down like before in numbers, and attacked the Empire's north-west. It looked like a repeat of campaign number nine was on the cards. The crucial difference, however, was that Wissenland was able to destroy the Skull-Takerz in the south-east instead of being overrun by them, and that difference gave me the chance to defeat the Skullsmasherz in the north-west without being double teamed by the Orcish tribes. It's better to be lucky than good sometimes.

Franz had recovered by the time the Skullsmasherz arrived at the gates of Eilhart, and this time around Franz was able to avenge his defeat. Once again, however we could not pursue the orcs and finish the job, because rebels in Altdorf demanded our attention. After the rebellion was put down another orcish army was en route, and Franz was forced to defend at Eilhart once again. If we say one turn in game is equivalent to one week, then this back and forth took a four to six months of fantasy time. The orcs would come down from the mountains, the Empire would defend, but be too weak to pursue. One particularly crushing victory gave the Empire the opportunity it was looking for, however, to pursue the orcs back to Grung Zint. In the second battle of Grung Zint Franz was able to capture the stronghold and end the Skullsmasherz once and for all.

The wars with the Skullsmasherz did serve a greater purpose. They gave Franz enough experience to get to level 15, which is when he unlocks his flying griffon Deathclaw. With Deathclaw in play Karl Franz changes from a somewhat dangerous cavalry commander to a deadly tactical threat able to strike anywhere on the battlefield. Once we defeated the orcs we immediately attacked Marienburg, and this time the siege was much more one sided than in my seventh playthrough, because Franz could literally fly over the walls, attack the enemy artillery, then swoop back and assist the troops scaling the castle walls by directly attacking the defenders on the parapets. Having a lord on a griffon shortens sieges dramatically and removes the need for battering rams and siege towers, which typically need a few turns to construct.

The siege of Marienburg. Free Company militia scale the walls and suffer heavy losses.

The capture of Marienburg finally squares up this playthrough with where I am in the written account. The sequence of events is slightly different. In playthrough number seven the order of events are (1) unite the Reikland; (2) capture Marienburg; and (3) capture Grung Zint. In my current campaign the order goes (1) unite the Reikland; (2) attempt and fail to capture Grung Zint; (3) defend against Grung Zint; (4) capture Grung Zint; and (5) capture Marienburg.

Karl Franz on his griffon Deathclaw attacking the defenders on the parapets while the Reiksgard break through below.

If these were parallel universes then the capture of Grung Zint and Marienburg took place months after the original campaign documented in my earlier posts. Franz is also more battle hardened, having lost his beloved Household guard in the first battle of Grung Zint, and now riding to battle astride his griffon Deathclaw. This version of Karl Franz is grimmer, darker and more ruthless, but perhaps better suited to the coming wars than his more idealistic counterpart in the campaign I abandoned when the Tomb Kings DLC dropped.

Mortal Empires, Part VII - Gameplay Changes

It was time to take stock of the new world Creative Assembly had made for me, and to make adjustments.

The Warhammer World. Before it was blown up by Games Workshop.

First of all, no more auto-resolves unless army strength overwhelmingly favors my army. There is a bar which displays relative army strengths, but having a mild advantage is no indicator of victory, as I found out to my chagrin. Winning battles when you have a mild advantage also results in severe damage to your army, which is problematic in the later game when you need to fight two or three battles in a row. Your line units take the brunt of the damage when auto-resolving, even when you win. By contrast when I play in real time the enemy is usually so diminished from skirmisher and missile fire that when they finally contact my swordsmen they are easily rebuffed at little cost to themselves.

Secondly, no more underestimating any faction. If they're the enemy we go after them until they are wiped out before moving onto the next. The Skullsmasherz and the Skull-Takerz have become priority targets, since we begin the game at war with them. I used to let them harass and annoy other factions as they roam the map, but no longer, especially since they burned down Altdorf in the last campaign.

The area covered in the Mortal Empires campaign. Creative Assembly had to squash the map to make it fit.

Thirdly, I can no longer rely as much on mercenary units due to gameplay changes. Regiments of Renown are mercenary units available for hire in the Empire, and they consist of strong albeit expensive units available for hire instantaneously. They are used to immediately beef up an attack or raise a quick defense, as long as you had the gold available. They were exploitable, however, because you could dismiss them in one turn and then have them available for rehire immediately the next. Since the patch these regiments are now harder to unlock, and have cooldowns (typically 10 turns or so) after being dismissed. I used them a lot in the early game to gain a quick qualitative advantage, but it seems everyone else does too, which led to them being hit by the nerf bat by Creative Assembly.

Fourthly, the focus on army building is to now build the best possible stacks for your army. In the past you could get away with mediocre stacks because you could exploit the lightning strike mechanic. In Total War the forces are either mobile armies, or garrisons tied to a settlement. Armies could sit in a settlement to beef up the garrison and take advantage of walls and defenses, or move around on the map. Garrisons are tied to a settlement and never leave it.

Armies that are near each other can reinforce each other (as can nearby garrisons). So you could theoretically make a mass of full stack armies (the maximum size of each army is 20 units) and move them across the map, safe in the knowledge that any army that is attacked will be reinforced by the others nearby. A way of bypassing this is a skill in the general's tree called lightning strike. A general with lightning strike can isolate a single army, effectively bypassing the reinforcement rule, creating a one on one battle regardless of how many other enemy armies are within reinforcement range. This is how Karl Franz takes on multiple armies at a time, by defeating them in detail. Lightning strike can be further exploited as follows. When you attack an enemy army near one of your settlements the garrison sallies forth to help you, creating a two on one scenario. Lightning strike stops the enemy army being reinforced by other enemy armies nearby, but it doesn't stop your army from being reinforced by a garrison. So effectively you are double teaming an enemy army with your own army plus your garrison.

This has been the go to tactic by every Total War player, and this is what makes provincial capitals so important, because they can house large garrisons. The common defensive scenario is to let several enemy armies surround a provincial capital, and then defeat each of these armies in detail by exploiting lightning strike and the garrison. You double team each enemy army in turn, and decimate the enemy one by one.

Except with this new DLC and update, you can't do that anymore. So in the past you didn't necessarily need the strongest army you could muster, because you could exploit lightning strike to get the assistance of a garrison to defeat an enemy army. Post-DLC lightning strike is now a purely one on one affair, meaning that stack quality is now important. The only exception to this rule is in defensive battles. If your army is attacked the garrison always comes to help you. Other armies maybe precluded from reinforcing, but the garrison always sallies forth when an army is being attacked within reinforcement range. As an attacker, however, the best you can do now is one on one.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part VI - Greenskin Armaggedon

So if I thought it was going to be pretty easy to replicate the steps I'd taken in previous campaigns, I was completely mistaken.

Apparently it wasn't just the Tomb Kings that dropped into the Mortal Empires map with the new DLC. There were also some updates and fixes, and a balance pass which made the Legendary campaign even harder. Harder. Are you kidding me. The very first battle of Karl Franz's fledgling career is to hit the rebels south of Altdorf. No problem - we did that, and then marched on to Grunburg, which is lightly defended by a tiny force of rebels. I reinforced the army, sent them in and pressed auto-resolve - after all, I've done this seven times before on Legendary and never had any problem.

We lost.

So now I'm already majorly behind the campaign, because by the time we rebuild Franz's army the rebels will have dug in at Helmgart and Eilhart, and it will no longer be a glorious consolidation of the Reikland, but a long and painful civil war which will leave the Empire sadly diminished by the time the Norsemen and vampires come into power. Not to mention having to fend off attacks from opportunistic Elector Counts or small factions who will look at the divided Reik and say to themselves, hrmm, I can take those guys.

I'm ashamed to say that I restarted. So much for playing on till the bitter end.

So onto Legendary campaign number nine. I am taking personal command of every battle. No auto-resolves at all, because it's too risky in this post-DLC world. The Empire unites the Reikland. In my written account we take advantage of the war between Marienburg and Bretonnia to secure the city of Marienburg. Except this time there is no war, because the two conclude an armistice. So the glorious re-annexation of Marienburg, detailed in Part III in this series, never happens in playthrough number nine.

The end comes for the Empire.

Determined to make the facts fit my written narrative, I resolve to attack Marienburg anyway. We build up at Eilhart to prepare a surprise attack. Then suddenly orcs from Grung Zing come barreling down from the mountains, march past Marienburg, and attack us. We barely hold. We re-build, and march past Marienburg to attack the orcs at Grung Zint. A fierce battle ensues which decimates both armies, but leaves us too weakened to march onto the stronghold. We are forced to retreat back to Eilhart. We rebuild for another attack. Then suddenly more orcs - the Skull-takerz - completely destroy Wissenland, the province on the Empire's south-eastern border. They march into the Reik and take Grunburg. Now I'm facing two Orc armies, one in the north-west and one in the south-east. In every other campaign I have ever played - both in the first game and the second game - these two Orc factions are basically just nuisances to be swatted in the early game. They force you to watch your border cities lest they get plundered by a bunch of rag tag orcs. They never become world powers.

Or do they?

Someone in Creative Assembly must have decided that these guys needed some loving, because the Skull-Takerz sent army after army into the Reik after consolidating in Wissenland. We are forced to abandon our frontier cities and make a stand in the capital of Altdorf. Then somehow or other the Skullsmasherz make an alliance with the dwarves of Karak Ziflin - Dwarves! The ancestral enemy of the greenskins - and those backstabbing assholes take our last frontier city of Helmgart. Only Altdorf remains.

Karl Franz's last stand against the greenskins. Except in my game he didn't have a griffon.

Ashamed of my capitulation in playthrough eight I resolve to play till the bitter end. And the end comes, but not after Franz smashes greenskin army after greenskin army. Every victory leaves us more and more diminished, however, and we don't have time to replace our exhausted troops. The final straw in the coffin is when the Skull-Takerz invite the Crooked Moon - a Goblin tribe in the southern Grey Mountains - to join the fight against us. Karl Franz and Altdorf eventually fall under an overwhelming tide of greenskins, ending playthrough number nine.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part V - Rise of the Tomb Kings

Creative Assembly just released the Rise of the Tomb Kings DLC, and this has presented me with a unique problem. I love the Tomb Kings. I collected a Tomb Kings army almost two decades ago. In fact, as a student and a young adult I collected five complete Warhammer armies - Empire, Orcs and Goblins, High Elves, Dark Elves and Tomb Kings. I played in tournaments in Australia between 1998-2003 before giving up the hobby when I moved to Japan in 2003. For many years my miniatures languished in a Kennards storage locker in the Central Coast before finally being resurrected and shipped over to Japan. They now adorn a large wooden floor to ceiling display case built solely for the purpose of showcasing of how I misspent my youth painting little toy soldiers. It was either that, or toss them, and I just couldn't.

The Tomb Kings.

My love for Warhammer was a big impetus in starting this playthrough account, but since the Tomb Kings have arrived I feel it very remiss of me not to include them in my playthrough. So, I guess I'm starting again in order to include them in my Mortal Empires campaign. This makes this Legendary playthrough number eight, but to keep with the established fiction of what I've already written I will just replicate the steps I have taken to get to the point I'm currently at in playthrough number seven. So I will start again as Empire, kill the rebels, unite the Reikland, take Marienburg, complete the Bloodpines quest, conclude a bunch of non-aggression pacts, and hope that I don't fall flat on my face along the way.

Never had one of these when I was collecting miniatures, but it looks nasty.

In order to allow my written account to keep up with gameplay I am concurrently playing two campaigns - my Legendary Mortal Empires campaign and an Eye of the Vortex campaign, which is set to an easier difficulty level. This means that my Mortal Empires isn't too far advanced, and I won't lose too much from restarting. The appeal of the Mortal Empires campaign is its ridiculously epic scope - as a Warhammer fan it is a amazing to be able to play a strategic game with over 100 fully realized Warhammer factions. So the obsessive compulsive in me can't allow a campaign of this magnitude to not involve the Tomb Kings. That just wouldn't be right. No, no. So even though I said that my seventh campaign would be the last one I'd record I'm going to have to renege on that, and start over, just so I can include the Tomb Kings. I just hope I can replicate my initial steps. In all my Legendary playthroughs the hard part is when the vampires come swarming from the east and my forces get overwhelmed. The steps leading up to that point, however, should be doable. If not, there will be some back editing done in my earlier posts to fit them to what actually occurs in my eight playthrough. The siege of Marienburg was close run thing so that's a point where my written history could possibly diverge, but I guess we'll see what happens.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part IV - Consolidation

With Marienburg and Grung Zint temporarily secured Franz's soldiers marched back towards Altdorf to put down another rebellion. Ludenhof's head may have already been put on a spike for high treason, but his ideas proved dangerously seductive and continued to circulate within the literate middle class. Franz's army was now battle-hardened and experienced, however, and they had little difficulty in crushing the peasant rabble rallied by the agitators and radicals. Franz also led his army east into Talabecland into the Bloodpine Woods, where he surprised and destroyed the mercenary army assembled by Todbringer and Marienburg's former Directorate.

The Free Company militia are an essential component of Franz's army.

With the capture of Marienburg and control of the Reikland Franz was now in a position to engage his detractors from a position of strength. He immediately concluded a non-aggression pact with Talabecland, offering them gifts of gold from the Imperial Treasury to mollify his trespass into their lands. Similar gifts were given to Nordland and Middenland. Todbringer, surprised by the gesture, agreed to a non-aggression pact. Todbringer had been impressed by Franz's recent feat of arms, but more so by the young Emperor's willingness to let bygones be bygones in the name of unity. No mention was ever made of Todbringer's involvement in supporting the Reikland rebels in their correspondence with one another. While this angered some of Franz's trusted inner circle, who believed that the Graf should be executed for treason, Franz was able to look beyond this to the greater threats beyond.

The same could not be said for the other Electors, however, who took advantage of the fractured Empire to advance their own claims or pursue petty grudges. Nordland solidly refused to be drawn into any kind of alliance with Altdorf, despite several overtures. More crucially, however, Hochland and Middenland erupted into all out war, as did Ostermark and Ostland. While the northern lords fought for prestige, land or ego, the southern lords were hard-pressed by external threats. Averland and Stirland fought several battles against the forces of Manfred Von Carstein, who declared himself the rightful ruler of Stirland. Wissenland was subjected to several raids by the orcs and goblins of the Crooked Moon tribe. Now more than ever did the Empire need unity and solidarity. Unfortunately at this point Franz still lacked the prestige, authority or military might to bring the Electors to heel, and it would be the common folk that bore the brunt of this.

The more I played Total War: Warhammer II the more I realize that I wasn't playing Total War: Warhammer I correctly. In the first game I relied mostly on auto-resolving battles rather than commanding them in real time, and so for me it was more a strategic game like Civilization rather than real time strategy game more akin to StarCraft. I'd plan on long sieges, and count on my stack quality defeating my opponents in quick, automatic battles. I saw real time battles as time-wasting inconveniences, and only played them when I needed to. As a result I never got into the nuts and bolts of the real time tactical game, simply because I didn't really need to.

In Total War: Warhammer II the game has been re-tuned to bring the real time combat more into focus. As stated previously the auto-resolve now significantly favors the computer, which means you have to be more careful in choosing which battles are resolved automatically. It means more time invested in the game, but it also makes it more rewarding. I have a vested interest in the continued longevity of Franz's Household Guard - the three units he begins with - and try to make sure they survive each battle. Units level up as they gain experience, and so I keep a close eye on unit health, pulling out units from the line that have suffered lots of casualties so that they can live to fight another day. Unfortunately in the siege of Marienburg my halberdiers were completely destroyed due to a misclick - I sent a contingent of swordsmen and the halberdiers to scale the walls, and the halberdiers decided to scale a section of the wall garrisoned by three enemy units. They were surrounded and cut down, despite my attempts to relieve them.

In the early game Franz rides with the Reiksgard as a cavalry commander.

The focus on real time battles has also had an impact on the customization of my generals. In the first game I picked campaign skills almost exclusively when leveling my generals, but now I spend more time tailoring depending on their role. My treasurer specializes in skills that increase public order, drive down the cost of recruitment, and battle corruption. Karl Franz, on the other hand, is being specced to become a beast on the real time battlefield. Once he unlocks his flying mount Deathclaw he will become a very dangerous combat unit. For now he is a cavalry commander, riding with the Reiksgard to make hard-hitting attacks on the enemy's flanks.

Mortal Empires, Part III - Marienburg

With the Reikland secured and his army resting at Eilhart, Franz saw an opportunity to launch an attack against the so-called Free City of Marienburg. Straddling the mouth of the great River Reik, the great port of Marienburg was once part of the Empire, but seceded in 2429 when Emperor Dieter IV granted the city its independence in return for an enormous donation to the Imperial coffers. The scandal ended Dieter's tenure as Emperor, and since its secession many Emperors have tried and failed to re-annex the city back to the Empire. Karl Franz's own great-grandfather, Wilhelm III, led three expeditions to take back the city, all of which met ignominious ends. The last expedition ended in disaster in the battle of Grootscher Marsh, and forced the Emperor to recognize Marienburg as an independent city-state once and for all.

The Free City of Marienburg.

So when open war broke out between Bretonnia and Marienburg Karl Franz saw an opportunity to reclaim Marienburg, avenge an ancestral grudge, and win more prestige for his fledgling rule. The city had just repelled a Bretonnian assault on its walls, and Franz, under the guise of protecting the Empire's trading routes, moved west from Eilhart to occupy the city. The Directorate, the ruling cabal of Marienburg's wealthiest and most powerful merchant families, immediately recognized Franz's intentions, and marshaled a mercenary army commanded by Emil von Korden to drive off the Imperial army. In a bloody battle Franz defeated the Marienburg army and was able to assume control of the great port for the first time in over 70 years.

A map of Marienburg and its districts.

There would be little respite for Franz's weary men. To the west of Marienburg, high in the peaks of the Grey Mountains, an Orcish clan calling themselves the Skullsmasherz was mustering near an abandoned hold called Grung Zint. Encouraged by the enmity between the human nations the Orcs were stirring from their warrens, and Franz was forced to march immediately to disperse the greenskins. In a series of short, sharp encounters, Franz's army, now bolstered by mercenary troops hired in Marienburg, ended the Orcish threat and established a small garrison in the mountains before returning to Marienburg.

Marienburg and Nuln are two key cities for the Empire when starting out. Provincial capitals in the game can build stronger walls and house larger garrisons than the smaller settlements, which means they become linchpins for your defense against multiple stacks. They can also house more buildings, and tech them up to a higher level than regular settlements. Provincial capitals should be the goal of war - declaring war against factions just to take a normal settlement may not be worth it. Conversely, if you ever see a lightly defended provincial capital, it may be advantageous to seize it if you have the forces available.

Marienburg has a special place in the heart of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplayers, because it is the setting of one of the best modules ever released for that game. Marienburg: Sold Down the River fleshed out Marienburg in exquisite detail and made it one of the most memorable settings for roleplaying fantasy adventures. Set in a fantasy version of Amsterdam, Marienburg is depicted as a great trading port presided by a cabal of powerful merchants. As the gateway to the Old and New Worlds it is a cosmopolitan place where anything is possible, where desperate merchants trade their souls for fame and lucre, sailors, pimps, prostitutes, thieves and worse stalk the streets, and dark things scurry in the depths. The unimaginably wealthy rub shoulders with the most desperate and destitute. Fortunately for the common folk for Marienburg, it is now under Imperial occupation in this alternate history, and under Karl Franz, the Great, the Enlightened, the worst excesses of the city will be curbed. The merchants will come to heel - or their heads will adorn the walls on spikes.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part II - Ascension and Secession

In the year 2502 Karl Franz ascended to the throne of the human nation known simply to its inhabitants as the Empire. Elected by the slimmest of margins, the young Prince of Reikland succeeded his father Luitpold, but not without dissent. Ostland, Middenland, Averland and Nordland all refused to back the young Emperor, deeming him to be too inexperienced. Boris Todbringer, Elector Count of Middenland, was widely favored to be the next Emperor. The Graf was a general of great renown and his experience in the wars against the Beastmen of the Drakwald Forest won him the respect of many within the Empire. When he lost the election Todbringer, in a fit of pique, authorized his advisers to send aid to a small but growing secessionist movement within the Reikland itself. Todbringer also conspired with the Burgomeisters of Marienburg to finance a mercenary company to assemble east of Altdorf in the Bloodpine Woods. Their job would be to assist any advance on Altdorf itself by the secessionists led by a fiery radical named Helmut Ludenhof, who propagated heretical notions of "democracy" and "populist" government.

The Empire of Man.

Franz knew that he had to quell the rebellion in the Reikland if he wished to establish any lasting authority in the Empire. He immediately struck south towards Grunburg, and dispersed the nucleus of the rebel army mustering there. He swiftly captured Grunburg, then headed west towards Helmgart. The rebels fortified Helmgart, but in vain. Franz, assisted by his Household Guard of Reiksgard knights, halberdiers and hand gunners, and supported by a growing mob of Free Company militia loyal to his rule, were able to brush past the rebels' defenses and capture Helmgart. They then marched north to the last bastion of resistance in Eilhart and captured the remnants of Ludenhof's forces there. In a lighting one month campaign the new Emperor had secured the Reikland and destroyed the secessionists.  More importantly, however, he had earned the grudging respect of his critics with his decisiveness and his prowess on the field.

After so many starts the beginning is pretty much rote for me. It's only after 25 turns or so when things become chaotic and factions begin to splinter into different and new directions. But in the early game the destruction of the rebels becomes a matter of fact, and the first few declarations of war are almost identical in every game. The Empire begins with several non-aggression pacts already in play. The Empire has a non-aggression and a military access agreement with Stirland, which gives you the option to assist that province from the inevitable attacks from the vampire factions in the east. In fact, in the seven campaigns I have played, the first declaration of war has always been the Von Carsteins declaring against the Stirlanders. The Empire also starts with a non-aggression pact with either Talabecland or Wissenland, and it is easy to conclude a similar pact with the other non-signatory power in the first few turns of the game. This leaves Marienburg or Middenland as your first potential opponent. Declaring against Middenland is problematic because Nordland is their ally, and even conquering them removes a buffer against the Norscan tribes. The best move is to move against Marienburg after uniting the Reikland, because the Marienburgers are diplomatically isolated and are usually at war with either Bretonnia or Nordland.

The Reiksgard, the Empire's elite cavalry.

All of this moot however, if you are unable to unite the Reikland and wipe out the secessionists. Doing so immediately improves your diplomatic standing, because your relative strength is a factor in diplomacy. The first real time battle you have to play is the attack on the rebels in Helmgart, because if you auto-resolve it you will lose, and set yourself back badly in the early game. The real time battle itself is a cake walk. Free Company units are not rated highly by the computer when it comes to auto-resolution, but in actual battles they are worth their weight in gold. They are skirmishers that can deploy in vanguard in the enemy's faces, and harass them constantly with missile fire. If they are charged or attacked they automatically fall back, which means you don't have to babysit them during real time battles. They also disperse the opposing army very badly as enemy units begin chasing Free Company units all over the map, allowing you to pick off and destroy the enemy army in detail. This is the tactic that Franz has used over and over again, and is probably more suited to Wood Elves or a skirmishing type of army rather than the Empire. Franz starts with a solitary unit of Reiksgard knights, and it is this unit, along with Franz himself (the first point I spend is upgrading him to a warhorse) which is responsible for destroying elements of the enemy army piecemeal. If I have any line troops like swordsmen or hand gunners I perch these guys together on top of some hill on a far corner of the battlefield and set them on defend. Hopefully by the time the enemy reaches them the Free Company will have done its job in dispersing the enemy, and they will only have to deal with a few units strung out in a line. They will also have the support of Franz and the Reiksgard, who ideally, will hit the enemy in the flank or the rear.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mortal Empires, Part I - Yet Another Legendary Campaign

This is an account of my Total War: Warhammer II Mortal Empires playthrough. It is ongoing – I haven't finished yet, which means I could still lose, and probably will. The game is being played on Legendary difficulty. Manual saves are disabled, and the game automatically saves at the end of turns and at the conclusion of battles to a single save game file. No save scumming here – whatever happens, happens.

This is my seventh Mortal Empires campaign on Legendary since the game was released. I have not won a single one yet. Four games I played until the bitter end, with the end coming after Altdorf was surrounded by enemies. In each case it was the Vampire Counts running rampant, with the Varg piling in at the bitter end to take advantage of the Empire's weakness. I have won on Legendary difficulty on the original Total War: Warhammer, and that was not nearly as difficult as it is here in the sequel. For one, the Skaeling and the Varg capture cities now instead of razing them, making them superpowers. Their homelands in the frozen north can't be touched without a major undertaking, and so they are free to launch raid after raid into the Empire without fear of reprisal. In one campaign I sent an expeditionary force into Norsca in an attempt to establish a foothold there. One change wrought by the sequel is that any faction can build anywhere now, but are  penalized when doing so in climates inimical to their race. Franz was able to torch several settlements, but any attempt to create a permanent base was scuppered by the build penalties imposed by the unforgiving climate, and the Norscan counterattacks that built up faster than I could build my defenses. The razed settlements were also swiftly recolonized by the Norscans, and so when Franz's army returned to the Reik, ragged, frost-burnt and sadly diminished, they had achieved practically nothing.

Karl Franz, the Emperor.

The second reason for the difficulty of the sequel is that the Elector Counts and the Dwarf clans in the east cannot seem to check the spread of the Vampire Counts, who immediately rise to become the strongest power in the world. If they ally with the Von Carsteins, as they did in the first and second campaigns, they are unstoppable. Every campaign I played until the last ended with the Vampire Counts or the Von Carsteins with four, five or six full stack armies running rampant throughout the Reikland. In the first game you could destroy two, three or even four armies easily using lightning strike attacks from fortified cities. Unfortunately in the second game auto-resolve has been re-tuned to favor the computer, which means you have to manually play the battles more often to avoid losses through attrition, or even outright defeats against forces you know your army can usually destroy in the field. The net effect is that your forces are usually getting whittled down by constant battle. It is grinding and wearing. I love it. But so far I've been getting my ass whooped.

Thirdly, Chaos usually comes crashing into the Old World at around turn 125 in the first game. Their arrival makes every Order based faction your friend, giving you time to build and opportunities to re-colonize razed cities, to profit, in effect, from the ruin of others. I haven't seen Chaos yet in Total War: Warhammer II. My longest playthrough ended on about turn 150 or thereabouts, and that ended with me on a ship and a ton of gold, completely bereft of cities, looking for a place to restart in the New World. Alas, I ran into the Dark Elves, who promptly declared war on me and sank my vessel. In fact, except for that brief encounter but fatal encounter, I might as well have been playing the first game. We've never been able to expand past the realms of the Old World.

Four campaigns played to the bitter end led me to trying to optimize my starting position on my most recent two games. Ideally as the Empire you want to unite the Reikland, then take Marienburg or Nuln to give you two or three solid, defensible industrial centers as a starting base. When I couldn't do this I would abandon the campaign and restart. I stopped doing this because I felt I was breaking the spirit of the game. Everyone plays games their own way, but for me I play Legendary / Ironman because I like having no save game to fall back on. You have to live with your own mistakes, and forge ahead as best as you can under the changing circumstances, no matter how adverse. That is fun for me, more so than "winning" the campaign, which in reality becomes a chore once you pass a certain tipping point. The struggle to get to that tipping point is the highlight of the campaign for me, which is something I have not yet been able to do in Legendary on this game. I also love the role-playing element in seeing the growth of the lords, characters and units as the war unfolds. I'm one of those people who rename units once they pass a certain level of experience. It's all part of the fun for me.

The backbone of the Empire has always been its state troops.

So from here on out every Mortal Empires playthrough will be to the bitter end.  I have started this account six times already - I use the voice memo app on my phone to keep a record of the events of the campaign - and this, my seventh playthrough, will be the final one, regardless of whether I win or lose. I laughed a couple of times when listening to myself curse whenever something bad happened. Hopefully the seventh campaign will end on a better note, but if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. 

One thing I did learn in previous campaigns was the value of diplomacy in the game. While at its core it is essentially just throwing money at factions to keep them happy or to stop them preemptively attacking you, using it makes the Empire's job so much easier. In hindsight the original game's Legendary campaign must have been significantly easier, because I never really bothered using diplomacy in any meaningful way. In the sequel it is a must for the Empire, otherwise you will find yourself getting attacked from every direction. There is a quest in Karl Franz's skill line which requires him to forge a defensive alliance with Nordland. It appears in the first and second games, and I have never bothered to complete it until my Legendary playthroughs in the sequel. Getting Middenland and Nordland onside secures your northern borders against the Skaeling and the Varg, and allows you to concentrate on the Vampire threat rising in the east.

One final thing I should add. I love Total War: Warhammer because I played Warhammer Fantasy Battle as a child, and collected and painted the miniatures avidly as a hobby. My first ever Warhammer army was the Empire, and it makes me so happy that I can play as my favorite faction in a setting so familiar and dear to my heart. I even have the Karl Franz and Balthasar Gelt miniatures. Sadly, neither of them are completely painted, but to be able to assume their roles in such a large and epic sandbox-like campaign fulfills many a childhood fantasy I ever had pushing little toy soldiers around a table. It also allows me to write my own history alternate to that presented in Games Workshop's canonical End Times, in which the Warhammer world is obliterated by Chaos. Warhammer Fantasy Battle was discontinued by Games Workshop in 2016, but thanks to Sega and Creative Assembly, it lives on in the digital realm in a title that truly gives it justice.

So, without further ado, and for better or worse, here is Mortal Empires!