The Wargamer

23 July 2017

PC Game Grognard Review: Empire: Total War - A Grog's Perspective

Colonel Bill takes a look at Empire: Total War from a particularly Grog perspective and concludes its some of the best Hollywood History you’ll ever play.

Published on 20 APR 2009 2:31pm by Scott Parrino
  1. The Creative Assembly
  2. SEGA
  3. ground combat, turn-based, real-time, north america, strategic, tactical, online or multi-player, single-player, empire building, age of sail, europe, naval combat, 18th century

Author:  Bill Gray


OK, first of all let me say that I was not supposed to be doing this review. In fact, when the game was offered, I specifically turned it down noting that I simply knew too much about the era in question, and would likely be too critical. I mean, hey, it’s me, Colonel Bill here and I notice when the number of buttons on a Garde Francais gaiter is off by one. Smooth move. Because about four days later I get a brand new DVD in my mailbox, complete with Mick Jagger in Continental garb on the cover belting out “Start Me Up!” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

So get prepared for a review from a very historical, vice purely game play, perspective, one that looks at everything from diplomacy to tactics to flags. And get prepared for some surprises, because in the end it seems that despite all the things that make both Grog and demi-Grog (that would be me) cringe, it looks like SEGA may have done this game right, though in a mildly depressing sort of way.

Raise an eyebrow or two? If so sit back, relax by the fire with a good portion of your favorite 18th century libation and read on . . . if you dare!

The Campaign Game

I’ll leave such matters as playability, interface and more game related functionality to another reviewer. I will say up front, however, that I found the game pretty easy to learn and play with an interface I judged to be straightforward and intuitive. I also like the idea of leaving certain management functions, such as town construction up to the computer AI and wish other similar processes might have had the same option. As the ruling monarch of my country, that’s what I pay a bevy of long wigged ministers to take care of, subject to my approval of course, leaving me free to deal with more important matters such as foreign policy and starting a war or two. About the only thing negative I’ll say at this point is that I found the strategic board, with its little toy soldiers and spies marching about, visually stunning but a bit juvenile. This is a matter of opinion to be sure, so let’s move on.

This level of the game is supposed to portray grand strategy and resource management during the era known to all as the Age of Reason. This was a more regulated time, an actual social, political and economic backlash against the debauchery and near genocide that was the 30 Years War (1618 – 48). As such international politics rested solely on a paradigm called the “Balance of Power” system. Simply this meant that aggression and acquisition of another empire’s territory was limited in scope, as to do more would invite an immediate alliance by the rest of Europe to restore the status quo. Thus the balance of power was maintained and insured no single nation could create hegemony on the continent.

The military component of politics during this time has been variously named the “War of Position” or the “War of Maneuver,” but I have always favored the term “Lace Wars,” or la guerre en dentelle, French from Guillaume d'Esparbes book on the same subject. Armies were well drilled, but small, expensive and slow on the march due to being tied to a complicated system of magazines and depots. The conduct or war was so regulated as to be choreographed, or even polite. Frederick the Great actually stopped with his staff at an “abandoned” castle for the night, only to find it chock full of enemy Austrian hussars. The Prussian king politely asked if there was room for him as well, where upon the Austrian troopers graciously bowed and left the premises to find lodging down the road. It was a time when siege was more common and preferred than battle, a time when French Marshal Maurice de Saxe (1696 – 1750) would note that truly exceptional generals should be able to win an entire campaign by simply maneuvering his opponent into an impossible position, thus never fighting a single battle.

With this in mind I decided to fight the game’s short campaign which began in 1700 and lasted for 50 turns or about 25 years. This would place it right before the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), one of my truly favorite periods of history and one in which I maintain a certain level of expertise. I chose France as my country, not only because I just like France, but because Louis XIV, the l’etat c’est mois Sun King, was the 800 pound gorilla everyone watched like a hawk on No-Doze. Given his ape in a china shop approach to foreign policy, I figured that if anyone could start a war, and do it quickly, it had to be Louis XIV.

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Seriously, do I want to take on the Cherokee, without plug bayonets?

From a historical perspective, there were problems from the start. First, my goals to achieve victory primarily concerned conquering North America, which was divided between the British and several Indian territories. This seemed odd to me for two reasons. First, history tells us that unlike the English, the French came to North America to trade, not to colonize. This remains the fundamental reason why most Indian tribes backed France when it came to dealing with the British. Picking a fight with the Cherokee seemed totally contrary to good policy, so I didn’t. To my surprise, however, none of the Indian nations wanted to ally with me no matter what I offered.

My goals also seemed a bit squirrely because historically Louis had little interest in an overseas empire. As Andrew Lambert, Professor of Naval History at King’s College, London, wrote, “Louis was more interested in Spain, or attacking the Protestant Dutch Republic, than advancing the interests of French merchants.”

Nevertheless, Louis’ Minister of Finance and Marine, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683), built him one Hell of a navy to do so if he changed his mind. Yet, this navy wasn’t present at the beginning of the game, only three small fleets with nothing bigger than a sixth rate frigate. One was in North America, one at Brest and one in the Mediterranean where also to my surprise, the home of the French fleet in the area, Toulon, did not exist and had to be built.

The reality was far different. Between 1665 and 1670, Colbert built a fleet of 140,000 tons, to include 65 battleships of which 10 were massive three-deckers. The Dutch never matched these numbers and the British did so only after 1690. In 1695, the French fleet was more massive with a total of 190,000 tons. Toulon and its harbor saw the building of both a huge arsenal and massive fortifications in 1660 as well. Yet these resources were not available to France at the beginning of the game, although my goals for victory seemed to point in the direction of needing a large navy. Odd, I thought, but I soldiered on.

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Where the Hell is Toulon, and more importantly the big fleet that goes with it?

My strategy was to conclude alliances with specific countries that would geographically isolate the Hapsburgs in Austria, and secondarily Prussia. Doing so, I thought, would raise a red flag and have the Hapsburgs howling to the Bank of England for funds to put that sneaky Louis back in his place, which was Paris, preferably without Alsace-Lorraine. I managed to get military alliances with Spain, the Italian States, Russia and Sweden, effectively ringing Austria with unfriendly bayonets. I also got my war . . .

With the Duchy of Wurttemberg?

Seriously, one of my agents was sent packing out of Stuttgart, but Wurttemberg is going to take on France? The only thing I could figure was that since the small principality was technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, this was the slap in my face that would eventually bring Austria into conflict. I dutifully declared war as well and my allies followed my lead. Not a single country lined up behind the Wurttembergers, so I offered peace only to be told to pound sand.

It wasn’t the war I wanted, but I’ll take anything in a pinch so assembled a large army, crossed the border and marched into Stuttgart. Here I learned that I could obtain surrender in five turns, or two and a half years. This was patently absurd as no 18th Century siege ever lasted that long, especially with an army as small as what Wurttemberg had historically. Indeed, the Duke of Marlborough’s 1709 siege of Tournai lasted only 70 days and that was considered an exceptionally long investment.

My obvious choice was to give battle instead, so I marched into the Tactical Game only to discover that tiny Wurttemberg had a REALLY big army. To be sure a lot of it was militia, but it was a sizable force, one that actually eked out a narrow victory and sent my army back to France (more on that in the next section).

At this point I simply began to lick my wounds, restock the treasury, and continue building a port on the Med. Non political-military investments were concerned primarily developing things like plug bayonets and wedge formations, while I noticed the British continued to put troops on ships which then disappeared into the Atlantic, only to reappear in North America. Accordingly I redoubled my efforts to make alliances with the Indians, but found no takers, even if I offered the Chief ownership of a city in Europe in return (OK, so it was Vienna, but still . . .).

I’m not sure if it was something I said or typed, but a few more turns of not much going on and I decided to call it a century, pretty well versed in how the game played at this level. I will say I missed the ability to buy subsidy troops – think Hessians in the American Revolution – or the opportunity to effect an alliance or outright annexation by marrying off a member of the family. However, I will freely admit I might not have gotten far enough into the game to make this happen.