Spying on the Competition in Total War: Three Kingdoms

Total War: Three Kingdoms is offering fans a different kind of Total War experience. Its “Romance” mode puts players in command over powerful generals, individuals capable of single-handedly turning the tide of battle. It’s a dramatic shift from previous games, wherein battles were decided solely upon factors like unit quality, numbers and deployment. This isn’t, however, the most dramatic addition Three Kingdoms is introducing to the series; that particular honor goes to the game’s inclusion of spies. Due to how generals relate to one another in Three Kingdoms, it’s not unusual for individuals to move from faction to faction. This can yield incredible results in a solo campaign, but it’s in multiplayer that this capability will have its greatest effect. Simply building up one’s faction and its forces will no longer be enough; now players will have to successfully navigate the realm of political intrigue if they want to come out ahead.

A recent conversation with some of Total War: Three Kingdoms’ developers provided a general overview of exactly what spies can do and the checks against them. Having a general function as a spy begins with “dismissing” them from one’s faction. These characters often clash, so having a falling out is not that unusual. Once dismissed, that general character can eventually get picked up by another player’s faction. Once that happens, their work as a spy begins.

At first, they’ll just provide a window into what’s going on in the enemy faction’s organization, but that will change as long as they remain undiscovered. The spy will gain power and access to different actions depending on their character class and how much the faction leader trusts them. Fierce warriors could be placed in charge of armies, while more logistically-strong characters could eventually be installed as the governor of a province. It’s only upon the acquisition of such power that their full suite of possibilities opens up. Large army groups can be made to change sides, provinces can change ownership and entire factions can be plunged into civil war if the conditions are right. Under the right circumstances and with a fair amount of luck, spies can be absolutely devastating. It’s not like they’re immune to discovery, though.

Every action a spy takes risks exposing them to the affected faction. This risk can be mitigated by growing one’s spy network in the faction, but it can’t be entirely negated. Factions can also increase their chance of discovering spies by following certain policies and developing specific technologies. If not used carefully, spies can and will be quickly discovered. Once they are though, their captors have options. They can end the threat outright with a summary execution, exile them or send them back to their original faction as a double-agent. Of course, finding and dealing with one spy doesn’t mean one has found them all. One could potentially be surrounded by spies and be none the wiser. This situation is bad enough in a single-player campaign, but it takes on a new level of meaning in a multiplayer setting.

Head-to-head multiplayer in the Total War series works by dropping two players into the same campaign and tasking them with conquering their opponent. Alliances can be formed in order to clear out the AI-controlled factions, but the victory condition remains the same. One isn’t going to implicitly trust their opponent either way of course, but spies still make an alliance of any sort into far more risky venture. If temporary ally manages to get a window into one’s operations, what’s to stop them from finding a weakness and immediately exploiting it before the alliance ends? Simply bluffing one’s way past that danger won’t be an option anymore. The same applies when dealing with computer-controlled factions. Trust must be extended nonetheless though, as simply going it alone only removes the danger of being stabbed in the back by an ally; it doesn’t do anything about spies themselves.

Alliances have always been calculated risks in these sorts of games; there’s never been anything stopping them from switching sides and attacking out of the blue. One could at least rest assured that they weren’t operating based on insider information. In Three Kingdoms, however, the enemy could be embedded deep in one’s own structure, just waiting for the perfect chance to strike. With so much more uncertainty present in the game, players will have to operate much more closely to how they would were they in a similar position in the real world: either act boldly to prevent ones enemy from making use of their intelligence or build up enough that a betrayal won’t be irreparably damaging. Either way, multiplayer in Total War: Three Kingdoms will not be as simple a matter as it used to be. Knowledge is power after all and players will have far more means to both acquire and apply then they ever have before.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is set to launch for PC in Spring 2019.