Overview – Rome: Total War
What Is Rome: Total War?
The Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War is a real-time strategy game set in the ancient world. Players take on the roles of ancient generals. The campaign mode contains a number of engrossing but unhistorical concepts that are best left to gamers — for example, the sense that the middle Republic was a time where rival Roman families commanded private armies and conquered territory in their own name. The custom battle creator, on the other hand, provides the flexibility to create a variety of conflicts between armies of historically belligerent cultures. Two players may compete or one player can fight against a computer opponent.
How Can Rome: Total War Be Used?
The game provides a reasonably accurate model of ancient battle. Students can learn some of the dynamics of ancient warfare (and it is worth noting how endemic war was in many ancient societies). Students can also compare the game’s version of ancient battle to valid historical evidence in order to practice the high order skills of historical criticism (on this point, see Simulations as Historical Interpretations in the theory section)
The demo version of RTW is free and can be downloaded online. This contains a tutorial and a working version of the Battle of the Trebia River (218 BCE) between Carthage and Rome (the player must command the Carthaginian army). Although the full commercial version is ideal,the demo is more than adequate for a complete set of lessons that involve playing the game and critiquing the historical interpretations found in the game. The demo will run on a PC with a 32 MB graphics card. Students can share computers taking turns playing and taking observation notes. Another option is to use a projector and have the teacher or a student assistant play the game while the rest of the class takes observation notes.
Rome Total War as an Ancient Battle Simulation
© 2005 Jeremiah McCall – permission is granted for non-profit educational reproduction. Please credit the author. Feel free to link to this page but do not reproduce the contents on another web page
Note: this entire analysis is based on my own study of Roman warfare (McCall, 2001) which in turn is indebted to the important work that has been done in this field over the past two decades, for example, P. Culham (1989), A. Goldsworthy(1996, 1997), V. Hanson(2000), and P. Sabin (2000). Recent investigations of ancient warfare owe much to the groundbreaking work of J. Keegan (1976), who emphasized the role of the individual soldier in battle, rather than the general.
RTW is a real-time strategy where players act as generals of ancient armies. The most useful part of the game, from an educational point of view, is the custom battle creator, which allows players to create a variety of conflicts between armies of ancient cultures. Two players may compete or one player can fight against a computer opponent. Terrain is selected and troops are deployed on the battlefield. Then the battle begins. The player-general commands by right-clicking on the desired unit and left clicking on the desired objective. If the objective is a location on the map, the unit will march or ride to it. If the objective is an enemy, the unit will close and attack. In addition, units can be ordered to change formation, charge, and use missile weapons(if available). Each unit has an attack rating, defense rating, and morale level. When a unit’s morale dips too low, the unit will rout and flee the battlefield. Ultimately, the winner of a battle is the side with the un-routed units remaining on the battlefield (a option to resolve the battle through a points system is available).
Once the troops are deployed, the battle begins. The player-general commands by right-clicking on the desired unit and left clicking on the desired objective. If the objective is a location on the map, the unit will march or ride to it. If the objective is an enemy, the unit will close and attack. Additional commands order troops to, among other options, change formation, charge, and fire missile weapons. Each unit has a set of associated statistics including an attack rating, defense rating, and morale level. So long as units have sufficiently high morale, they will follow the player-general’s commands and do battle. Units suffering from low morale can rout, however, and flee the battlefield. Victory comes in one of two ways determined prior to the battle. Either the side with most enemy units destroyed or the last side with un-routed units on the battlefield is declared the victor. Once one of these two conditions has been met, a statistics screen gives a summary of the battle.
It is a truth of ancient military history that no account can give a true depiction of the reality of war. That said, RTW‘s combat model offers a reasonably accurate depiction of ancient battle. Though there are a few fanciful unit choices(flaming pigs, for example), the vast majority of units represent those that were available to the historical cultures represented in the game. Roman options, for example, include all the various types of infantry available in the Republic as well as early and later imperial legionaries. Weapons are also portrayed essentially accurately. The Greek phalanxes fight with spears while the Roman hastati have both pila (javelins) and gladii (short swords). Additionally, formations are faithful to what historians assume was true of the past. Troops that historically fought in close order, such as hoplites and Roman legionaries, do so in the game. Loose order troops from history also maintain their spacing in the game. Finally, although maneuvering troops in the game is assuredly far easier than it was in real life, troops commanded by mouse clicks are not always quick to react and take time and space to change formations. In these respects, RTW is faithful to historians’ understandings of ancient warfare.
Additional elements add to the overall authenticity of the game as a simulation. Light cavalry will not engage enemy troops directly unless directly commanded, preferring to harass opponents from a distance with missile weapons. Similarly, light troops automatically retire after casting missile weapons rather than fight heavy infantry. The player-general can only override these behaviors by deliberate commands to close with the enemy.
Carthaginian war elephants
Equally as important, morale and fatigue are factored into the game model. It is a well-developed trend of the past thirty years in ancient military history to focus on the morale and psychology of individual combatants (pioneered by Ardant du Picq in the 1870s but certainly secured with historians by John Keegan’s Face of Battle). RTW, for its part, makes great efforts to factor morale into the outcome of battles. Units tire after prolonged marching or fighting and this appears to affect their morale. When a unit’s morale dips too low, its soldiers will flee the battlefield. As expected, flank attacks, and attacks by large and frightening forces (elephants for example) further cause soldiers’ morale to drop. Whether the levels of morale are set appropriately in the game is open to debate. At times RTW’s soldiers fight enemies to the front and side (a horribly demoralizing situation in real battles to be sure) and stand firm with a casualty rate greater than 90%. On the other hand, cavalry charges against an army’s flanks can have a devastating effect on enemy morale, as can the charge of war elephants. Although it may fairly be questioned how accurate the underlying calculations are, the overall implementation of morale is consistent, in its broad outline, with the emphasis modern historians place upon morale in ancient battle.
RTW’s strengths as a model outweigh its flaws, most of which are the understandable result of efforts to make the game entertaining. The greatest inaccuracy is that the player-general has an ability to survey the battle and command troops that even a modern commander would envy. The player can control his view of the battlefield by rotating the game camera 360º and zooming in or out on almost any point in the field. All units are listed below the view-screen and their fighting strengths and morale levels can be determined by holding the mouse over them. Any unit can be selected and ordered. None of this information, of course, was available to ancient generals. They were limited to a ground-level view of the battle and commanded through the strength of their voice and the speed of their messengers. Provided they could have even seen an already engaged unit on one wing or the other, they would have been nearly powerless to control it. The excessive power of the player-general, however, provides a helpful way to discuss limitations of command in ancient battles. By thinking about the flexibility the player-generals have in the game, a better appreciation might be had of the difficulties real generals faced.