Best Total War Games (Updated 2021)

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Summary List

There are plenty of great PC games out there, and within them are tons of great niches for every type of player. One of the most popular genres is the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. If you strategy games or the strategy genre and are a real history buff, then the Total War games are just for you.

These games are excellent recreations of historical battles from a number of periods and cultures. The games are fun, but like most video game franchises, the entries in the franchise come with their own unique features and differences. If you want to know which ones are most worth your time, here are the ten best Total War games in the series.

The series began two decades ago with Shogun: Total War. It came onto the scene with a unique battle system, robust resource management, and governance mechanics that tried to rival Sid Meier’s Civilization. It doesn’t always stick the landing on its mechanics, but Shogun: Total War lays the groundwork for the rest of the series.

The game takes place in 16th century Japan, where the players leads one of seven clans on a campaign to unite Japan under one banner. Each of the clans has unique traits as well as geographic advantages. Having seven clans to choose from gives the player a lot of replay value, especially considering each clan will require a slightly different approach to succeed.

The game’s campaign mostly takes place on the world map, where players move pieces to accomplish certain goals such as spying, assassination, and taking provinces through force. All the while, the player gathers bushels of rice, called koku. This is used to buy more troops and construct buildings. Players have to pick and choose what to invest in as well as balance your populace’s loyalty with tax rates and farmland improvements.

Battle mechanics are the real meat of the game. Players have to implement strategy with flanks and unique formations. It’s a surprising blend of turn-based strategy and turn-based combat.

However, not all of the mechanics work well. Outside of combat, diplomacy and espionage feel tacked on and aren’t nearly as robust as other simulators.

Shogun: Total War still holds up and is an engaging play for any fans of the strategy genre.

Key Features
  • 3D real-time combat
  • Choose between several clans
  • Progressive research and technology mechanics
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Multiple clans makes for great replayability
  • Realistic combat situations
  • Up to 5,000 troops makes for truly epic battles
Cons
  • Weak diplomacy and espionage mechanics

Attila is another game in the franchise that focuses in on a specific leader, this time the infamous warlord Attila the Hun. While he isn’t as prominent as Napoleon in the earlier game, he still has a significant influence.

Players can choose between four factions, including the Huns themselves. Here there are the typical politics, resource management, and conquering from the previous games. However, if you’re playing as one of the other factions, the Huns are almost a wildcard, randomly appearing to loot and destroy. It’s a monkey wrench in an otherwise copy-paste game.

However, the real fun comes when players choose the Huns. The Huns are hardly unified beneath Attila, and there is as much fighting between barbarous factions as there is the other empires. However, once players get accustomed to the politics, it can actually be pretty easy to amass a giant horde of Huns to take against the enemies in the game.

However, the game doesn’t make that management particularly easy. In fact, players will likely have to try and fail, then try again to get a hang of the horde mechanics. That will be frustrating for some, but with a little patience it can be pretty rewarding.

The game also notably improves siege mechanics, particularly technical issues that stopped siege units from moving properly.

All in all, Attila is a fun - if not entirely essential - Total War game.

Key Features
  • Use fire to deal epic damage to the environment
  • Legendary Start - playing as Rome gives players almost complete control of the map from the beginning
  • Take control of the horde with new mechanics
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Fire destruction brings new ferocity to battle
  • Improved siege mechanics improve overall battles
  • Horde functions bring fresh experience to the game
Cons
  • Requires trial and error to master Hun faction

At this point in the franchise’s life cycle, Total War was developing a very loyal fan base. The emphasis on strategy and campaign management was perfect for hardcore PC gamers, but it also had a drawback. All the complex diplomacy, resource management, and battle strategy was simply too much for players who hadn’t already invested a lot in the series. The learning curve was simply becoming too much for average players.

Empire: Total War remedies this rather effectively with its Road to Independence campaign. In this campaign focused on the American revolution, players gradually get introduced to the nuanced mechanics of the game. It’s great for new players or returning one who need a refresh on how to play.

After that, players are taken to 18th century Europe, where they can choose from a number of European factions to take control of the continent. This Grand Campaign is the real meat of the game, and it's where veteran players and players up to speed will spend the majority of their time.
Empire is vastly layered thanks to the technology tree. With so many branching paths to go down, the game is near endlessly replayable. Politics as usual is shrewd and relies on cunning on the player’s end. Naval battles also get the 3D treatment, and players can enjoy watching and controlling their ships in naval combat.

Empire also introduces online mechanics where players can battle against other real-life players.

Key Features
  • 3D naval warfare
  • Episodic campaign
  • New multiplayer mode
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Episodic campaign makes the game more accessible as it introduces more complex features later on
  • Players can now enjoy fully 3D naval battles
  • Multiplayer encourages players to return for more
Cons
  • Has a comparatively slower pace

Rome: Total War was the most ambitious game of the franchise when it came out. For one, it was the first game to transition to 3D with its new engine, which greatly improved the game’s visuals and gave battles a more dynamic look and feel. It also focuses on one of the great conflicts in human history: the peak of the Roman Empire through to its eventual fall.

Instead of a dozen factions like the prior title Medieval, Rome only has three factions. These factions are major families in the Roman democracy, and the player spends a great deal of the campaign working with rather than against these factions. Each faction also has its own particular focus and goals, so there is still a lot of replay value.

The campaign is particularly intriguing in Rome thanks to its revamped diplomacy system. Players will get orders from the Roman Senate to complete certain missions, and completing them will win you a certain amount of influence. The player must also place loyal generals and governors, as well as help family members gain influence in the Senate. This mechanic is particularly important for the late game when the factions begin to turn on each other.

Battles are also overhauled in the game. The new 3D engine allows for more complexity in battle. Many of the battles operate on a smaller scale, but they don’t lose their epic scale thanks to the new graphics.

As far as the franchise goes, Rome: Total War is where the series really starts to hit its stride, and that’s why it is a favorite even today.

Key Features
  • Three Roman families to play as
  • Use Senate and families to gain influence and power
  • Living world with unique seasons that affect gameplay
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • New engine. Greatly improves the graphics
  • Diplomacy has been overhauled and offers more complexity
  • Skirmish mode lets players dive right into combat
Cons
  • Naval combat is novel but ultimately unsatisfying

Medieval: Total War builds on its predecessor - Shogun - in nearly every way. It has more factions, more robust management, and a more complex diplomacy system. Plus, the era the game is based in the Middle Ages, which makes for a more layered and politically complex game.

The first big change comes with playable factions. Medieval has twelve unique factions to choose from, each with their own motives and traits that change the way they play. That’s five more than Shogun, which nearly doubles the replay value of the title.

Diplomacy is also more complex, and players can forge alliances with other factions to gain more influence. Religion also adds an additional layer of complexity in the game. Conquered provinces adhere to specific beliefs, and players will have to manage the zeal through tax breaks and other diplomatic measures. You can also gift followers with lands and titles to rule in your stead, which can greatly affect the loyalty of that region to your growing empire.
All of this makes for a rich game that is complex and layered. In fact, it may even be a little too complex for some players, and it is pretty easy to be overwhelmed by what is happening.

The main draw of the game is the real-time battles, and Medieval ups the ante here, as well. The battles are larger now, with up to 10,000 units and over 100 unit types. Plus, with management of things like formations, fatigue, and ammo, the battles are complex and require plenty of strategy. It is easily one of the most rewarding experiences in the strategy genre.

Key Features
  • Command up to 10,000 troops in battle
  • 12 playable factions
  • Put enemy strongholds under siege
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Religion adds a new layer of complexity
  • Larger and more robust battles
  • More factions makes for more replay value
Cons
  • As your empire grows, it becomes a little confusing on how to manage it

Total War: Shogun 2 is set in 16th century Japan in the aftermath of the Onin War, approximately 300 years after the original game. While the first game was more complex and had more parts to accomplish, Shogun 2 has only one directive. Take control of the capital and establish yourself as shogun. While there are still some struggles with the AI, the historical accuracy is relatively correct.

One thing to love about Total War: Shogun 2 is the amount of detail brought into every aspect. During battle you can see smoke coming off the flaming arrows, the undiscovered parts on the map are identified by appealing paint strokes, and the soundtrack perfectly matches the adrenaline levels of the game. While the visual appeal is arguably not the most important part of a game, there’s something to be appreciated about the small details put in.

If you’re not a huge fan of playing against the AI in Total War: Shogun 2, never fear. The game has a few ways that you can play multiplayer. There’s the multiplayer campaign mode which allows you to take turns with another player to fight your way across Japan. The Avatar Conquest allows you to play in a more interactive way, taking on a persona and unlocking different skills and gear along the way.

Total War: Shogun 2 is a game that will keep you entertained for an extensive amount of time. Even after you complete the mission in every difficulty, there is still so much to explore. The graphics are well done, the gameplay is entertaining, and the map is expansive. Whether you’re new to the Total War games or not, there’s something here for everybody.

Key Features
  • Two DLC packs included
  • Multiplayer battles and campaigns
  • New Hero units give players an edge in battle
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Improved diplomacy from the first game
  • Multiplayer constantly gives players a fresh challenge
  • 3D graphics are greatly improved and hyper realistic
Cons
  • AI is still buggy at times

Before Creative Assembly introduced the Sagas games with Total War: Three Kingdoms, it experimented with the formula in Napoleon: Total War. Instead of focusing on a broad swath of history, Napoleon focuses on the twenty years of conflict France had under Napoleon’s rule. It doesn’t do much to change up the franchise’s formula, but it does offer an engaging and more immersive experience. The granular focus on this particular period helps raise the stakes of the conflicts. The game also has a number of major historical figures from the era, including English Admiral Nelson and the Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
The game has notable additions that Empire did not include, such as a full system for seasons, climate, and weather. All of these have in-game effects and can directly impact your troop movements and supply chains. The game also has new buildings including arms factories, banking houses, and supply depots. Players can also switch buildings from one type to another. This adds an additional layer of management, as certain buildings are better for peace and war time respectively.

Combat hasn’t been greatly altered from its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deliver. Battles are still epic, and the slightly improved graphics makes for a stunning view of the map as things turn cacophonous.
All in all, while Napoleon isn’t the most innovative game of the franchise, it is still a polished and engaging experience. Plus, multiplayer gives players a chance to come back and relive the conflicts working with or against their friends.

Key Features
  • All DLC included in Complete Edition
  • Engage 20 years of conflict at Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Create your own custom stadiums
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • New buildings and weather systems deepen the mechanics
  • Improved visuals make battles look great
  • Multiplayer has unique campaigns to play with friends
Cons
  • AI still struggles

If you’ve been a fan of the Total War games, you may be ready for a more intense challenge. Medieval ll: Total War is the game in the series that is for the more advanced player. Although the developers added in a large amount of helpful tips and even an always present button in the top corner, the complexity of the game may be overwhelming for players new to strategy games.

While the graphics may seem a bit dated in Medieval ll: Total War, the gameplay is still intriguing. When you’re not on the battlefield, you’re spending your time building and controlling your cities. Since this is the Middle Ages, the Catholic papacy is a large part of the gameplay. You can use the church to help you in your crusades or you can risk becoming a target yourself. The religious components of the Middle Ages and the crusades are a good chunk of the gameplay and you’ll have to learn how to maneuver through hoops to keep your people happy and thriving while you take over neighboring nations.

When you’re not building your cities in Medieval ll: Total War, you’ll be out on the battlefield in true Total War fashion. The amount of soldiers battling in this game is actually quite impressive. You can choose to view from above and guide your troops from a birds eye view, or you can be on the ground and appreciate the vast amount of detail on individual battles. What makes this game more difficult is the amount of moving parts, especially during battle. You can control smaller fights within the larger battles.

While this game is more difficult than the others in the series, Medieval ll: Total War is also one of the most memorable ones. You get to have more control over more components in this game. And as we know, power is everything. If you’re looking for a strategy game that gives you more chances for management, this may be just the game you’re looking for.

Key Features
  • Massive 450-year campaign
  • Over 250 units from 21 factions
  • Play as either a Christian or Muslim faction
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • The largest scope of any Total War game up until this point
  • Introduces medieval weaponry for sieges
  • Huge emphasis on lineage and bloodlines
Cons
  • AI is not always bright

In the first of Creative Assembly’s Sagas line of games, Total War: Three Kingdoms breaks out all the stops and transcends the struggles of the genre and past games alike. It fixes many of the AI issues that have plagued the series, and its emphasis on characters makes it a compelling drama that beats everything the series has put out to date.
Three Kingdoms begins at the end of the Han dynasty in China and takes us through the infamous conflict of the Three Kingdoms. It plays like all the other Total War games, with players gradually building and expanding their empire’s reach while battling against other factions. It also features all the great battle mechanics from the other games.

The game has two different game modes: Romance and Records. Romance gives the historical generals immense power and lends to the romanticized nature of the conflict. Records is a little more subdued, though the generals are still plenty powerful.

The AI of your opponents is also greatly improved. Gone are the clunky or forthright intentions of enemies. Three Kingdoms truly makes players think four or five steps ahead in an intellectual game of chess, and the AI feels more alive and motivated than ever before.

Three Kingdoms is the Total War franchise at its finest. It provides a truly polished experience with improved AI and stunning combat. The focus on a particular period makes the interactions between factions more organic and the stakes more real. Whether you are a new or returning player, there is plenty to enjoy in this game.

Key Features
  • Romance and Records modes to adjust gameplay
  • Guanxi System determines unique personalities and traits
  • Larger than life heroes
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • Greatly improved AI fixes longstanding issues in the series
  • Graphics are some of the best the series has ever put out
  • Revamped diplomacy makes the campaign management more compelling
Cons
  • With so many things to manage, it can still be overwhelming for new players

Creative Assembly began telling smaller-scale stories with titles like Napoleon and Shogun 2, but Rome II: Total War brings back the massive scale as players try to conquer all of the known world. With nine playable nations to choose from, there is plenty of conflict to be had in the game.

From a gameplay perspective, Rome II scales back certain elements without sacrificing complexity. The UI has been overhauled to be cleaner and more legible, and the number of generals you can have scales with the size of your empire.

Rome II: Total War also introduced a new game engine that greatly improved the scale of battles as well as graphics. The conflicts are more brutal and violent than ever, and players have more control over how they navigate the map and control their troops. Naval battle has also been overhauled and now plays similar to land conflicts. However, it is still underwhelming compared to the land battles.

Rome II has its share of bugs; more so than usual in the series. Texture pop-ins are frequent and the bad AI is practically a feature of the series at this point.

However, those issues hardly detract from the fifty or so hours of conflict players will get from an otherwise great title.

Key Features
  • New and improved engine
  • Nine playable nations
  • Overhauled naval combat
Specifications
  • Genre: Strategy
  • Mode: Single-player
  • Rating: T
  • Publisher: Creative Assembly
Pros
  • New engine brings heightened realism to combat
  • Campaign takes place on a global scale
  • Diplomacy is more complex with so many nations to work with
Cons
  • Texture pop-in and AI still buggy

Total War is one of the most popular PC franchises on the market, and it has found a very vocal and active community online. The developer, Creative Assembly, has grown substantially over the years and the studio now has over a dozen titles in the Total War series under its belt. If you’re new to the franchise, here are a few things you need to know.

What is Total War?

Total War is a strategy game that lifts elements from a couple different genres. The game is, at its core, a turn-based strategy battle game that also has a heavy emphasis on resource management. It is akin to real-time strategy (RTS) games, but it is notably slower paced and puts a heavy emphasis on tactics like flanking and formations.

Most games take place in a different era of world history or focus on a broad spectrum of conflicts in a particular historical era. While most of the titles are standalone, some of them do have have sequels such as Total War: Rome and Total War: Shogun.

While most of the games center around historical events, Creative Assembly took a different turn with the series a few years ago with Total War: Warhammer, based on popular tabletop game series Warhammer. That game took the series in a unique direction, and it also became one of the most financially successful games in the franchise. The game’s success more than justified the sequel and the forthcoming third game.

What’s Next For Total War?

Creative Assembly says it will continue the traditional Total War games in the near future. However, they still have to complete the Warhammer trilogy.

Creative Assembly is also focusing on sub-series of Total War called the Saga series. These Total War games will focus on conflicts in specific moments of history, as opposed to the broad eras of the previous games. The first game, Three Kingdoms, has already been released to critical praise. The next Saga game, Total War: Troy comes out later this year.  

Troy is based on Homer’s Iliad and focuses primarily on the conflict at the city of Troy in Greece. Players can use famous warriors like Achilles in battle, and there is also a fairly complex economy system to fuel the conflict.

However, that doesn’t mean the developer are done with the larger eras. Creative Assembly has said there is still much left to explore in the potential for further Total War installments, so fans of the original formula will see a return to form somewhere down the line. Creative Assembly is committed to always pushing the limits and innovating with every title, which is completely evidenced by the Total War games in this guide.

FAQ

Q: What’s the difference between Era, Character and Saga classes in Total War?

Let’s break this down, shall we? Era classes herald a new era in time as well as for the Total War series, and are a leap forward in both tech and feature sets for the franchise. Era titles include Three Kingdoms, Empire, Rome, and Warhammer. Character classes are standalone follow-ups to the Era main titles. They typically follow on closely from the timeline depicted in those games, but they can be a prequel to them. These include Napoleon and Attila. Finally, Saga classes are smaller standalone titles that focus on a flashpoint of history – one of those powder keg moments in time in which anything could have happened. These include Thrones of Britannia and Fall of the Samurai. And that’s it!

Q: What’s the difference between the various types of DLC that are available?

There are two different types of DLC available in Total War. Faction Packs, also known as Culture Packs or Lord Packs, typically add new ways to play through the main game. Depending on the title, these could be new playable factions or characters, and can include new campaign or battle mechanics, new units, and other new elements in support of the general theme of the pack. On the other end, Campaign Packs typically add new expansive areas, entirely new playable races, and new campaigns to the game. These will be particularly large expansions to the main game and will feature a considerable amount of new content.

Q: Are Total War games historically accurate?

The games made here are as close as they can be to being historically accurate. Accuracy is a granular term. You can apply it to parts, but not the whole. The games aim for accuracy with many elements of the game, such as arms and armor, tactics, fighting styles, and historical events that occur during the course of a campaign. These elements help to make the overall experience more authentic, and accuracy is therefore a very important part of the mix. Ultimately, Total War is still a computer game and is not designed to replace history books or documentaries. It’s simply designed to entertain people in today’s age.

Q: How do I get started playing Total War?

Great question! What makes the franchise so great is due to the fact that you can start at any game, simply because there’s a new story to tell from each of them. Three Kingdoms, they’re latest addition, overhauls many existing Total War gameplay systems and introduces new ones. For new players, we recommend first playing as the warlord Cao Cao, whose campaign is relatively forgiving. The early turns of the campaign will provide you with some scripted guidance to help you get to grips with the game.

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