How should a 10-foot mound of putrefying flesh wrapped around a ginormous mouth of chipped teeth and rancid pustules move? What kind of sound does it make as it goes? Does its second maw lick the lips where its belly should be?
It’s not something many Warhammer fans would consider when looking at a Beast of Nurgle miniature on the tabletop, but these were the sort of questions Creative Assembly had to wrestle with in order to bring the Warhammer world to life in Total War: Warhammer 3.
The latest and most ambitious entry in the grand-strategy series, Warhammer 3 not only takes fans to places they’ve never been in a Total War game, but areas where even the lore of Warhammer has rarely ventured. Whole regions of the campaign map needed to be created from the ground up, and the factions that populate them fleshed out into fully playable armies.
In the original Warhammer tabletop game, the Imperial China-inspired Cathay only received a passing mention, and never any proper miniatures of its own. In Warhammer 3, however, it’s the biggest faction on the map.
“It wasn't so much us creating [Cathay], as it was us working with Games Workshop [the studio behind the Warhammer franchise] while they created it,” says director Ian Roxburgh. “We were part of that process right from the beginning, and they were very open to saying, ‘If you know the kind of things that would benefit you for the sake of it being in a Total War game, let us know’.”
Kislev, another little-known army in the tabletop wargame, was substantially rewritten to sustain a full Total War faction. Its inclusion was an odd choice given the relative obscurity of the Viking-esque army, but with the four Chaos factions – Khorne, Slaanesh, Nurgle, and Tzeentch – already in the game, and only Cathay to oppose them, Creative Assembly reckoned it needed another human army for balance. “We needed more goodies in the world,” says Roxburgh, “because it was gonna feel like: if you don't like chaos, what are you going to do?”.
It’s a kind of freedom the studio doesn’t usually have when developing Total War games. For the series’ historical titles, the nations and factions of the campaign map are set in stone. Creative Assembly’s job is to work around that historical tableau, adjusting to whatever imbalances or quirks it might throw up.
“Ultimately, the way we treat history with our history games, and our IPs when we work with IPs, is we just want to be absolutely authentic,” says Roxburgh. Historical authenticity comes in the forms of geographical, political, and military accuracy, but creating a game to fit snugly in the Warhammer lore involves filling its gaps. Sometimes that means asking Games Workshop to create an entire faction from scratch, and other times thinking about how a plastic two-inch figurine of decaying mouth flesh would move if blown up to 60 times its size.
In the name of the lore
It cuts both ways. Just as the Warhammer world needed to be altered to adapt it for Total War, so too did the video games. “The Vampire Counts from Warhammer One don’t have any ranged weapons,” Roxburgh says. “In a Total War paper-stone-scissors context, we’d normally look for some throwaway reference to an archer unit for vampires, so we could bring in a balanced army. But no, we wanted to embrace this asymmetry, because that’s part of the juice of what makes the tabletop army so fun. We wanted to embrace that.”
The Orc’s Doom Diver Catapult was another step away from Total War’s usual RTS fare. An artillery unit that flings goblins across the map to smash into enemy ranks, it uses an odd dice-rolling system in the tabletop game that lets players maneuver the screaming payload as it’s falling.
Total War: Warhammer mimics this by switching to an over-the-shoulder perspective of the goblin hurtling through the air, letting you control its flight to knock down as many enemies as possible. It’s not as significant as the introduction of asymmetrical armies, but it pointed to a big shift in tone, which the series has leaned further into with each game.
“I certainly enjoy throwing a few curveballs here and there,” says DLC director Rich Aldridge. “The Vampire Coast was a good example of that, something maybe people didn't expect.”
The swashbuckling undead faction – think zombie pirates, ghost cavalry, and monstrous crustaceans – was added through DLC to Total War: Warhammer 2, when the developers started to consider the more peculiar aspects of the game’s world. “We probably wouldn't have been given that opportunity early on,” Aldridge says. “We had to establish the game itself, and add the core races.”
All of those additions have culminated in Immortal Empires, a mammoth extra game mode for Total War: Warhammer 3 that stitches together every map, every faction, and every playable Legendary Lord from the trilogy into one humongous free-for-all. It spans the entire Warhammer Fantasy world, showcasing the richness of the fictional world, as well as why it just needed to be made into a Total War game.
“When you look at what the IP is all about at the top level, it's lots of diverse races that are very different from each other, in a perpetual state of war,” Roxburgh says. “We don't get much better settings for a Total War game.”