Total War: Troy is coming! We chatted to the lead designer

Todor Nikolov talks us through his newly announced game, A Total War Saga: Troy

The Total War franchise is heading to Troy, with Sega and Creative Assembly announcing a new PC strategy game that is going by the title A Total War Saga: Troy. It will release next year through Steam, and today we’ve got a lot of information to share as well as an interview with one of the game’s key developers.

Taking inspiration from Homer’s Iliad and various historical artefacts and archaeological digs, the Total War Troy game will take players further back in history than this franchise has ever been before. The game will also blend historical accuracy with proposed explanations for the myths and legends of the era: for instance, you might come across a ‘Minotaur’ in battle, which is actually a very tall person who wears an animal hide to intimidate their enemies. You will also have to curry the favour of gods if you wish to succeed, as well as getting to grips with a bartering-based economy.

Players will be able to battle it out for control over the legendary city of Troy, with iconic figures such as Achilles being present in the game. Before we get to our interview, you might fancy watching this announcement trailer, which gives you an idea of what A Total War Saga: Troy will be like…

Prior to the game being formally announced, Sega was showing early footage to journalists behind closed doors at Gamescom 2019. We were lucky enough to see this presentation and have a chat with Todor Nikolov, the lead designer of the game. And now that the project has been announced, we’re free to share with you the results of our chat. If you’re looking for some extra info about the game, then, read on…

Den Of Geek: A good place to start might be, why Troy? And why have you decided to cover it now?

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Todor Nikolov: Well, the main reason for me would be that the Trojan War is a conflict of immense importance, because it might have happened, it might have not actually happened, we don’t know. But the fact is that after the Bronze Age, there was a collapse of civilization all around the region of the Aegean and nearby places. So civilization was extinguished, and there are a couple of centuries about which we know literally nothing. Very little.

And after that, when civilization was enkindled once more, it came out of the darkness carrying the memory of the Trojan War. These stories about heroes that were fighting each other. And afterwards, the Greeks believe that they are descendants of the Achaeans, so they associate themselves with Agamemnon and Achilles and whatnot. So the story of this conflict actually influenced the history of the people that followed in the next centuries. And it still influences us now. So it’s a great opportunity and a great challenge for us to represent it in a Total War game.

You mentioned in the presentation that this is the furthest back in history you’ve gone with a Total War game. How much further is it than where you’ve been before?

Well, we’re talking about the late Bronze Age, the Trojan War is believed to have taken place at the end of the 12th century BC. So we haven’t gone back that far before, from what I can remember right now. The eldest period up to that point was the DLC for Rome 2, about the war between Athens and Sparta: that was the fifth century BC. So we’re going to seven centuries earlier than that, although we do not specify in the game.

How did you go about researching and working out the kinds of things that were used back in those times?

Well, there are plenty of archaeological remains that we have. So basically, when we had to decide how the units are outfitted – how there armours and armaments work – we used a source of archaeological finds. For example, there is a famous bronze armour called the Dendra armour, named after a village. It’s a whole suit of bronze armour, a heavy one, and so we have that in the game.

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We also use some remaining art like murals, which, you know, represent warriors. So we have tried to recreate them in the game as well. All kinds of archaeological finds that are priceless, really. For example, we have a battle map of the city of Mycenae, which is based upon the archaeological digs. The city has been discovered, we’ve known about it for centuries, and we are basing our battle map on that. These are the sorts of sources that we have used.

You mentioned that you’ve read The Iliad. 

Seven times. [Laughs]

What was that like? Was it difficult to make sense of it?

You need a lot of context, because of how it is written, sometimes characters are referred to in their first name, sometimes they’re referred to as the son of someone, so you might read about Achilles, then you might read about the son of Peleus – it is the same character, so that is a bit confusing. But once you get to remember all those bits and pieces, it becomes easier to read it very easy to go into. And it covers about 50 days from the Trojan War. So it begins in mid-action.

There are plenty of bloody battles, and you know, people slaughtering each other… which I like to read, always! [laughs] It’s very Total War, the whole of it. And there are some more emotional moments. What I particularly like about the Iliad is that, at first glance, it looks like it glorifies war and slaughter and stuff like that, but it actually the main message is that it tells us about the inevitability of death and the uselessness of war, which is great. I mean, it was composed somewhere around a 1000-years BC, but those things still ring true today.

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And did you try to get those kinds of themes and ideas into the game?

Well, not in particular, no. We have tried to recreate the Trojan War as faithfully as possible, so all the bloody battles are going to be there. And whenever you lose a battle, you will see the inevitability of death and you will realize that it was all useless. [Laughs]

One thing that’s really fascinating is the approach you’ve taken with gods and mythical creatures and trying to ground them all in reality. Was it a long discussion before you landed on that as the approach you wanted to take?

Yeah. Well, we have decided that we are looking at the truth behind the myth – it is this concept that encompasses the entire game. So we’re having the archaeological, the reality, the real world down there. And then we’re using are using the armour, and the Iliad, and the Greek artworks that came after. So it’s only natural that we try to explain some of the myths which are well known. For example, we’ve got the centaurs, and with the centaurs in the game, we have tried to explain how this myth came about. I mean, we’re talking about certain wild tribes that, for some reason, they are capable horseman, they are capable riders. And this would have been very unusual in the late Bronze Age, but it gives us the opportunity to represent them, make a reference to them, and also include them as a cavalry unit, which there is generally a lack of in this era.

I’m sure you must have thought a lot about the Trojan Horse, as well?

Yes, we have that. We actually have Trojan horses [plural]. At least three of them. They are based on different theories related to what the Trojan Horse might actually have been. So, for example, one of these theories says that the Trojan Horse might have been an earthquake, because the horse is a symbol of the god Poseidon, who is master of the sea. But he’s also ‘the earth-shaker’, and he really hates the city of Troy. So just thinking of that idea… and there are archaeological finds that show, at a certain time, in the city of Troy, there was a siege, and during this the siege, there was also an earthquake. Because the signs of violence are mingled with signs of cracked buildings and rubble. So maybe this was the Trojan Horse siege and maybe the Trojan Horse is an earthquake. In the game, it basically means that on certain turns an earthquake event might be triggered in Troy and the buildings become damaged, the garrison was severely depleted, and the map is updated.

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And do you have a more traditional wooden horse that you can wheel towards your enemies?

[Laughs] Yes, we have that too. We really have that.

And what was your approach with Achilles, who is obviously such an iconic character, but maybe one that we don’t see brought to life very often these days?

Well, one of the tools that we have are the faction mechanics. And we use these, not just for gameplay variations and innovations, but we use them to improve and deepen the characterization of each faction. For example, with Achilles, one of his faction mechanics is linked to his moods – he’s much like a tempest or a force of nature. He’s governed by them, and his moods also affect his entire faction. For example, when Achilles is enraged, his troops fight harder, he himself is much stronger in battle. If Achilles is insulted, that means that he can do almost no diplomacy – there is no trade between factions while he is insulted and sulking. But on the other hand, he can also get depressed sometimes because he sees the inevitability of death. So you get to choose his moods, you get to control them, in a way, because sometimes you need the enraged Achilles, but sometimes you might have use for the other moods.

So that is one of his faction mechanics. The other one is ‘the greatest warrior’. He always tries to be the best. He tries to overcome everyone, and he wants to be recognized as the greatest warrior there is. So basically, wherever he is in the world, he is checking the other characters that are in the nearby regions. And he must defeat every one of them: either in open combat, or challenge them, which means that he will be unavailable for a few turns as he sets off to challenge another person. And the result will be a series of dilemmas, and the results of those events will be related to the mechanics. For example, if he went off challenging an opponent, but the opponent was disrespectful; Achilles might be insulted, you know, so the two things are related. And what Achilles strives for is always to be at the top of the list of all heroes in his immediate vicinity, which will bring bonuses to his armies – they will become much more efficient in battle, and his characters will be more loyal.

And just one stupid question before we go: what is Achilles’ Achilles heel in the game?

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[Laughs] We have no Achilles’ heel, really. As it is, there is no special weakness. It will very much depend on how you will build him: as he levels up, you get to choose different skills, and of course, every different build of Achilles means that he will be lacking in a certain direction. For example, you know, the ‘war leader’ Achilles that provides crops for nearby units will not be a strong personal fighter – his philosophy will affect his armies, also. There will be strengths and weaknesses for every hero, depending on what you choose to do with them.

A Total War Saga: Troy will launch in 2020 for Steam on PC.