At turn 129 in my campaign, I realized that my journey in Total War Saga: Troy might never lead me to the windy plains of Troy. As the wronged lord Menelaus, I was flanked by a very untrustworthy Achilles on the one side and a very strong Hector, prince of Troy, and his cousin, Aeneas, on the other.
And so I concluded that if I must rewrite Homer’s The Iliad, then I must. Rewriting the epic story of the Trojan War is one of the core fantasies of the game from Sega’s The Creative Assembly, which has been making Total War strategy games for two decades. To date, those games have sold more than 25 million copies. But they’ve mostly been about history, until recently, when they’ve expanded into myths.
I love the Total War games, which combine real-time strategy on the battlefield with grand strategy on a continent. But I don’t always have time to play. I didn’t get to spend much time at all with Total War: Three Kingdoms or Total War: Warhammer II. I’ve played this game a lot because I like the historical setting, and that’s not a bad reason to play a Total War game. It was a long, slow slog to get to Troy, but I eventually conquered it.
Make your own narrative
If you’re expecting a grand narrative to go with the great story of the Trojan War, this isn’t your game. It’s not The Last of Us Part II. It’s a Total War strategy game, where you move armies around on a map and fight when they meet on the battlefield. There are a few cinematics at the beginning of each campaign to motivate you, but the rest of the story is up to you.
The subject matter of Total War Saga: Troy had me hooked early. I’ve wanted to play this kind of game ever since I read The Iliad, The Odyssey (about Odysseus’ ill-fated return from the war), and The Aeneid (about the escape of Troy’s Aeneas and the founding of Rome) decades ago during school. I’ve read or listened to these books multiple times, and the game brings back good memories. And during lockdown, I’ve fortunately had the time to play a lot since its debut on August 13, when more than 7.5 million people downloaded the game for free in its first 24 hours on the Epic Games Store. This game uses the same familiar interface that has served the series well. So I knew how to play it right away.
The Bronze Age world is loaded with adventures. You can play on either side as one of the heroes of the tale. You can be the nearly invincible Achilles, the wronged Menelaus, the wily Odysseus, or the ambitious brother, King Agamemnon. Or you can be the archer-lover Paris or the noble Hector. The personalities of the heroes show in their strategies, which are all very different.
As it turns out, around turns 150 to 170, I was able to turn around the campaign as Menelaus, mainly by going back in my timeline and redoing some decisions (yeah, cheating) about where and how to expand across the Aegean sea. One of the eye-openers of the game is that the war is so much wider than the plains of Troy itself. There are more than 270 cities across Greece and Turkey that are home to scores of tribes. You have to conquer or unite them in a confederation.
I played as Menelaus of the Greeks, the king whose wife Helen was wooed away by Paris of Troy. You start out with just four cities including Sparta under your control. Rebels are threatening one of them so you have to take them out first. As with all Total War games, you can fight them instantly in a strategic-level battle on the campaign map, or you can choose to zoom in on the battlefield and fight in real time with your companies of soldiers on a 3D landscape. The real-time battles are best fought only when you have close battles where you don’t have numerical superiority; the campaign level duels are best fought as auto-resolved battles when you have overwhelming odds in your favor.
I played one of the earlier Total War games, Total War: Attila, for hundreds of hours, as I tried to save the Roman empire from collapse. And in this game, I had to conquer many of my Greek comrades before setting off on an island-hopping campaign across the Aegean. That involved some necessary fratricide, and I accidentally assassinated Agamemnon once. But he was such a key character that I didn’t permanently eliminate him from the game.
And while I’m living proof that the game can hold a strategy buff’s attention for many hours, the game has its flaws.
Different ways to win
Total War Saga: Troy rewards you for successful play in a lot of ways. If you take over Crete (known as Knossus in the game), you gain one of the victory conditions for Menelaus and also get a lot of resources. You can conquer lands through military means or colonize razed settlements to gain footholds across the region. One of the best ways to gain ground is through Confederation. This means that a faction that likes you a lot will agree to confederating with your faction. That means they join you, bringing their armies and cities with them. I was able to do this numerous times, and it helped me gain ground against the Trojans and squeeze them from multiple directions.
The danger of Confederation is that factions that are about to give up will be more likely to do it. So you may inherit a faction economy with some real problems, and you may have to disband a bunch of their armies in order to bring the economy back into proper balance. So I wouldn’t pay a lot to a faction in order to get them to join you. They will join you eventually, when the time is right and conditions favor you.
Where’s the naval game?
Helen of Troy may have had the face that launched a thousand ships. But don’t expect to use any of those ships for naval combat because the game doesn’t have any.
This title is a “Saga” because it’s more focused and less ambitious than some of the other games, like Total War: Three Kingdoms. I could tell because it was missing some things like sea battles. Instead of fighting aboard ships, the game assumes you can unload at one of the many small islands of Aegean to fight a land battle. That detracts from the realism of the game, which otherwise really feels like you’re fighting in the beautiful and ancient world of the Greeks and the Trojans.
If I’m docking the game for any reason, it’s this one. I mean, if it were Total War Saga: Cossacks, the lack of a naval game would be OK. But in a game set in the Aegean Sea? They might call it Total War Mini Game instead. The only good thing about this decision is that the naval combat in past games has been pretty weak, as you can only do so much with fire catapults and ramming vessels.
Behind the myths
Total War: Three Kingdoms, set in China amid the mythology of the Middle Kingdoms, had both a historical mode and a mythical one. It enabled heroes to duel with each other in single combat. With Troy, the team at the Sofia, Bulgaria studio of The Creative Assembly chose not to include the gods in the game in the way that Homer did. Rather, you can see the effects of praying to the gods like Zeus and Hera, like good weather while you are crossing the sea. I tried to keep those two gods happy with sacrifices of meat and grain. If you don’t do that, you may find every now and then that the wrath of the gods comes your way in the form of earthquakes or storms.
The mythological creatures, like the Minotaur of Crete, can also play a role in the armies. They take the form of larger-than-life humans who wear masks and have an outsized effect on the morale of the soldiers. The giants, for instance, are small in number but they can terrify the soldiers they are attacking.
The soldiers also believe in omens in the sky, and so you can get a priestess to perform a trick that will make them all see good omens. Then they’ll fight a good battle. I didn’t notice whether these had an effect or not, but I never hesitated to send envoys, spies, or priestesses to the enemy’s cities to demoralize them before attacks. If there’s a weakness here, it’s hard to see what the impact of the priestess missions are.
There’s another thing missing: cavalry. While Homer talks a lot about chariots in The Iliad, apparently this wasn’t part of the equation in the actual Bronze Age. The only place I saw the chariots appear was when the leaders earned them as bonuses in battle and at the end of the game on the plains of Troy.
While some enemies have mounted mythological Centaur units, they are pretty sparse. So you have to fight almost all of the game with infantry. That takes a lot of the maneuvering out of the battles, which means that flanking attacks and fighting with veteran infantry units is what matters.
It’s the economy, stupid
The economic system of Total War Saga: Troy is pretty deep, with five different resources to track such as gold, food, bronze, wood, and stone. You can do one-off trades or set up barter agreements that last for up to 10 turns.
I could have used better economic forecasting tools. One second, I was about to go bankrupt because I had spent too much on my armies. The next turn I was saved because one of the factions cut an unbelievably dumb trade deal with me.
The trading system in the game made some sense, as the animosity between Asia Minor and the Greeks was high, and so any trading happening between those parties had steep penalties, making the deals not worth it. But as Menelaus, I also got penalized by a lot of Greek factions, who didn’t want to trade with someone who was a great power or who had been deemed unreliable for breaking barter agreements in the past. That made trading impossible in the middle stage of the game, and it held back my growth. Only after I started winning a lot of battles and acquiring a lot of cities was I able to balance my budget pretty well and maintain multiple armies in the field.
At some point, I started selling off cities. And then, even later in the game, the deals came back far more favorable when the parties wanted to negotiate non-aggression pacts with me. There, the trading system felt broken, as I was able to negotiate highway robbery terms in my favor. That helped vault me to the No. 2 power and put me on the course back toward taking Troy. All this suggests that the economic system is pretty broken, and players should play the game multiple times to get used to it.
All of the economic windfall helped me wage a long and successful war against the Amazons. They were much bigger than I thought, but I couldn’t see their cities because of the fog of war. When I vanquished them, I moved my idle armies north. After Hippolyta of the Amazons fell, then Aeneas of the Dardanians stepped in as my antagonist. That meant he would never negotiate with me for peace. By this time, the diplomacy again changed in my favor, and many factions were willing to give me free food in order to feed my armies. I hobbled some of Aeneas’ efforts by repeatedly assassinating the military leaders he tried to recruit in one of his cities.
I started preparing for the assault on Troy. I used Sparta’s ability to colonize razed cities to add to my holdings all over the map. And then I had a stroke of fortune. Helen was hiding in a city called Clazomenal, in the province of Erythraea, far from Troy. My army took the city and captured Helen. I was totally surprised that she wasn’t in Troy itself. I sent her back to Sparta, and didn’t actually think that I no longer had a reason to fight. I just needed to finish my mission of sacking Troy.
The final stroke
As I approached Troy, King Priam of Troy reached out with a peace offering. That’s when I knew I had them. I concentrated my armies in the march to the Dardanelles Straits. My colonies in distant places began to rebel, but I let those settlements go, as they weren’t necessary to my economy, nor were they defensible. Agamemnon had done his job well in surrounding the territory. I closed in on Troy and Deiphobos led an army forward that took out my vanguard. And he wiped out my initial attack armies, using troops that were leveled up to the max.
As I approached Troy, I also had to choose whether to let Helen live or execute her. Since executing her was going to cut the costs of maintaining my armies by 10%, I chose that. So much for love. I realized that a frontal assault on Troy wouldn’t work until I got my giant Trojan Horse siege tower and until I had turned many of my newly recruited armies into veterans by throwing them against the Dardanians.
My final conquest of Troy was a bit anticlimactic. Hector and Paris were already dead. The end came in turn 195, and Troy itself was in ruins as my four besieging armies swept into the starving city and took it within a short time. Did I get an ending cinematic? Nope, except for a rainy day flyover of the ruined capital.
Hours of fun
By turn 175, I held 40 settlements. Agamemnon held more than 100 (yay, brother). I had captured 49 settlements and lost 47. I had encountered 67 factions, destroyed nine of them, and fought in 13 wars and 134 battles. I had established 25 armies and recruited 19 heroes. I had killed 64 heroes and eliminated 1,152 units while losing 490. I auto-resolved 111 battles and fought 23 personally. I had 99 victories and 35 defeats. Generally speaking, that was a great job by the AI side, even on the easy level. As mentioned, I wrapped up the Troy conquest by turn 195, and now I’ll have to play from the Trojan point of view as well. If you want to get your money’s worth, you can also play from all of the other characters to see what it’s like to play with their advantages or disadvantages. But it’s good to know that you can win while playing as Menelaus, even if it takes a lot longer than you might expect.
Overall, I loved my time in the Aegean. The game has its flaws, and I gamed those flaws to find an easier way to victory. But I hope the team can patch the economic systems — or at least explain them — so that it makes more sense. I don’t think they can do anything about the sea battles except to say that this game didn’t have that big a budget. I would also have liked to have some staged battles that laid out the events of The Iliad or the sacking of Troy in a narrative path. But the game can provide fans of the series with many hours of fun. And that’s no small achievement.
Sega provided a copy of the Epic Games Store version of Total War Saga: Troy for the purpose of this review. The game is available on the Epic Games Store and Steam on Windows, Mac, and Linux for $50.