Welcome! This column is part of a regular series in which we share what members of the Tom's Guide staff are playing and enjoying right now, with an eye towards helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our recent entry, where we talk about Lego Harry Potter.
Warlord: Britannia is right up my alley. On the subject of ancient Roman history, I’m a geek. I have an undergraduate degree in it. I read and listen almost exclusively to books about it. And when early Imperial Roman military history came up as a specialist subject on Mastermind — a TV trivia show here in the UK — I answered 19 out of the 20 questions correctly (on my incorrect answer, I named the wrong brother). I’ve been obsessed with Roman history for most of my life, and I put it all down to Rome: Total War.
I’ve sunk thousands of combined hours into Creative Assembly’s 2004 epic and its 2013 successor, Rome 2. Grand strategy gameplay combined with real-time tactical choices on a playable battlefield — what more could an avid Roman historian want?
Well, that’s easy: a first-person perspective. As great as those games are, there’s always been one element (understandably) missing from them. I don’t want to just command the battlefield; I want to be fighting ON the battlefield.
It’s that gap which Warlord: Britannia wants to fill. And after a good few hours of gameplay, it satisfies the almost double-decade-long itch I’ve had for a strategic and first-person Roman crossover. But it’s not quite there just yet.
Warlord: Britannia gets so much right
Set on an unspecified British Channel island, Darkmatter Games’ Warlords: Britannia thrusts the player into the position of Legate of the newly formed 13th Legion Gemina. You must build the legion up to strength and subdue the 45-square-kilometer map, which happens to be filled with unruly Britons.
Straight off the bat, Warlords: Britannia looks and feels fantastic. The scenery is pretty, but it’s the lighting and sound where the game shines, with golden dusks, moody dawns and thunderclaps regularly piercing driving British rain sounds. Characters are blocky, but it works. I’d rather have faceless legionaries than five face models copied and pasted over the legion. Perhaps the most important thing for a history nerd like me, though, is that it feels accurate. The legion is composed correctly, and more importantly, the armor is on point, too.
Gameplay-wise, my initial concern was whether both its combat and strategic game mechanics would feel thoughtful. They did. First-person combat is fun, yet challenging. The game demands that you balance heroism with prudence — solo charging the enemy, for instance, is suicidal in all but small-scale skirmishes. Armor feels weighty, with heavily armored soldiers presenting a serious challenge for you, your men and your foes alike. Upgrading your legionaries’ kit is of paramount importance. Pilae and bows provide ranged mechanics, which work well. Scoring a dead Pila hit on a semi-naked Celt from 15 meters away provides a macabre satisfaction. But you have limited arrows and javelins, so each throw must count.
At the tactical level, Warlord: Britannia is also good. Command mechanics are simple but effective: You can set troops to march or to fight. When fighting, they can hold formation, throw Pilae and stab from behind shields, or charge the enemy outright. There game requires only a few keystrokes for all of this, but don’t be fooled by the simplicity. Battlefield choices have consequences. Fight rigidly behind shields for too long, and risk being surrounded; charge too soon, and your men may spread themselves too thin, making themselves easy prey for your opponent. If you prefer stealth, you can march up on a settlement at night, torches stifled to avoid detection. But where's the honor in that?
The strategic elements of the game work well, too. You must subdue the island, but not destroy it. Catching trading convoys as they traverse the map will net you a respectable hoard of gold and silver, but won’t sustain you. Longer-term, you need the tribute of the surrounding villages, so wiping them out is only a last resort. The emperor needs coin, meaning you must balance ruthlessness with pragmatism to keep the locals paying their taxes. Now that’s historical accuracy.
Treat a settlement too harshly and they (plus neighbors) can rise up, sending raiding parties to your camp. These raids pose a serious threat, and make marching camps vital to your survival, as they were in reality. You’ve got to plan ahead.
Room for improvement
For all it does right, Warlord: Britannia has a few annoyances. There are bugs, of course, as you’d expect from an indie game this new. But the main issue for me is the troop placement function. It just doesn’t work. Placing soldiers requires lots of trial and lots of error, sapping the fun and tactical potential of battles. I’m not sure what guards or patrols do, either — they seem to function primarily aesthetically. I’d rather see genuine consequences or benefits for having them.
Camp building could be refined, as it’s a little clunky, and wooden palisades are ostensibly indestructible. None of the raiders I’ve fought have managed to get through them, which is kind of boring.
Centuries are roughly a quarter of their theoretical real-life size, and you can also currently only forage for trees, rather than food or other resources. For anyone interested in the macro-goings-on of military affairs, both of these issues are disappointing. If I’m not commanding an empire as I would in a grand strategy game, I at least want the jeopardy of managing logistics, supply lines and communications on as large a scale as possible.
All this said, it’s still the early days for the game. The developers are bullish on the Steam page, stating this is the first in a series, and that they’re in it for the long term. This implies that we can expect the first iteration to expand somewhat over time. Either way, Warlord: Britannia is off to a decent start, with strong core mechanics and an inherent appeal for strategy gamers like me. I’m looking forward to losing a weekend to it.