With Total War: Three Kingdoms, the Creative Assembly studio of Sega is branching away from pure history, moving into the realm of legend and myth. While the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the battle for control of ancient China has historical roots, it also has a lot of mythical elements like leaders with superhuman powers in battle.

That setting gave an interesting challenge to Pawel Wojs, art director for the game. I played the latest build of Three Kingdoms, which comes out in the spring of 2019, at a preview event. The demo depicted a night ambush that showed off a different kind of combat and landscape than past Total War games. And then I interviewed Wojs about the approach to art.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Total War: Three Kingdoms art lead Pawel Wojs

GamesBeat: From the art point of view, how did you go into this project?

Pawel Wojs: With great pleasure, just because, from every level, China has an amazing history of art, as well as a massively diverse landscape. It was a pleasure to craft the campaign map and the battlefields.

But the approach we wanted to take is a very modern approach, almost like looking at the history through a modern lens. Rather than the skeuomorphic, wooden detailed panels like we’ve done previously in, say, the Shogun games, we wanted to take a much more minimalist approach. At its base, lots of flowing black ink you can see in the UI, with this paper just dipped in the ink. All of that filling with detail to give you the character illustrations, and this painterly effect. Almost this ethereal, mystical depiction of China.

And color, lots of color. It’s a period of hope. The Han Dynasty has fallen. It’s about gaining that mandate of heaven back to the kingdoms.

GameBeat: The campaign map must be huge. How do you deal with that?

Wojs: This was probably the most — although to be honest, with the fantasy games, we’ve had lots of visual diversity as well. It’s not too dissimilar from that. But for historical, yeah, it’s the most visually diverse environment, compared to previous games like Shogun or even Attila, where even though China is one country, there’s so much contrast between the different sub-climates and other areas than there is in Europe, or anywhere else really.

GameBeat: When you’re doing that flythrough, it seems like there’s a level of detail effect to it. You have less detail looking at the whole map, and then as you zoom in you start seeing the greenery and things like that.

Wojs: We always have that. We always layer the details. As you get closer you get more information, more detail. Also, from a distance—obviously we have to balance that level of detail in that if you’re pulling out and looking at that scale, it can create a lot of visual noise. We try to clear that up a bit by tweaking the way things appear at a distance. We also have new effects like fog and depth of field to give you that subtle blur at a distance. That brings it all together.

GameBeat: With the ambushes, how much of that can happen? In past games there might be just one path through the mountains, so if you put an ambush there….

Wojs: And just wait for someone. Yeah, you can ambush anywhere. The way this is set up, you know there’s an army there because of your spy. You have some vision of the enemy army, so you set up an ambush nearby. The way the ambush works is similar to previous games, where you place your army in a certain spot, set them in an ambush stance so they’re prepared, and then you have this zone of control, the area around your army. If any army enters it, you can trigger the ambush.

Very much like previous games, it’s possible to do it anywhere. But potentially, especially in the subtropical area of China, where you have those karst mountains, there are a lot of tight paths and channels weaving their way through the mountains and between rivers. There are plenty of good places to set up an ambush.

Above: Night battle. The lanterns and fires illuminate the scene.

Image Credit: Creative Assembly/Sega

GameBeat: Can you discover someone’s ambush through your spies?

Wojs: When an army enters the zone of control of an ambushing army, there’s a chance they’ll be discovered. There’s a chance you’ll see them. If you don’t, the ambush is triggered. But yeah, if you have a spy in the faction that has the ambushing army, you’ll potentially have vision over the army sitting there in the ambush stance.

That’s the exciting thing about the spy. It’s the first time we’re introducing that feature. Previously we’ve had agents, and these agents were just pawns moving around. But this particular feature — I guess you’re familiar with what we were talking about, how the world is all about the characters. It’s one country, one nation, where the characters have relationships. The characters know each other. You could have two characters who grew up together, and now they’re displaced in two different factions, but they have a relationship. Something connects them.

Characters can move between factions. You have this system of imperial recommendation, where men of talent were recommended at court and then sent on appointments throughout the country. Characters move around, and certain characters can have a predisposition to spy. It’s almost like a trait. If a character is very honorable they probably won’t be open to that, but some other characters may have that disposition.

So then you can choose to cast them out into the world. To everybody else it seems like that character left your faction because he was unhappy. Characters can leave if they’re unhappy, or you throw them out because you’re unhappy with them. That character can be appointed by another faction. He can be made a general or a court noble or a governor. Depending on what their appointment is, that determines the actions they can perform, and the amount of time they spend in that position builds up the underground network of spies.

GameBeat: If you lose your faction leader, can you just replace them?

Wojs: Well, imagine if you have a character embedded in the enemy faction. That character does well. He’s there maybe 20 years and he becomes really strong. The faction leader has heirs, but his heirs are useless. So he appoints this character as his heir. Say that faction leader dies. Your spy is now a leader of a faction. Or even when he’s the faction heir, he can — because again, the position and the time unlocks new abilities. The longer he’s there, his spy network is larger, he can do more things.

One of those things, toward the top of the tree, is basically initiating a civil war, a hostile takeover of a faction. If he’s a governor he can take his province over to you. The thing is, these are talented men. They will always succeed if they have enough cover, always succeed in the action. The trick is whether they get caught or not. If they don’t have enough cover, or the enemy faction has a security building chain that you don’t know about, which increases the cost of these actions — it’s a risk you take when you try to perform an action.

Say he’s discovered. That enemy faction has a choice. They can execute him. They release him. Or they can strike a deal and release him back to you as a spy for them. You think, “Oh, he got caught, but I have my character back at least.” But he’s now spying for the enemy.

Above: A night battle in Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Image Credit: Creative Assembly/Sega

These are features we’ve tried to implement based on the novel, based on the material we have from the Romance. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but there’s a story where Taishi Ci gets caught and released, caught and released, caught and released. Eventually he says, “You’re so honorable for releasing me so many times. I want to join you now.” These are things that can happen. That’s why we’re calling this not so much a character-focused game, but a character-centric game, where these relationships that you build up between the characters really affect the dynamic of the campaign.

Imagine spies in a multiplayer scenario, where you’re playing with someone in a multiplayer campaign. The paranoid of, “Oh, maybe this guy is a spy?” And your friend wins and you say, “Well, you think you won, but you actually won with my spy at the top of your faction. Technically I win!” The possibilities are quite fun.

GameBeat: The night battles, what sort of complexity did you encounter in making those happen?

Wojs: We’ve had night battles before, but with this particular battle, I wanted to achieve — to have that kind of mystical, almost magical sense of — not too dark and gritty, but again, bringing that color in, which is why it’s so blue. It’s light enough so that you can see what you’re doing. It feel like night, but it’s super clear and visible in how you play it out. The lanterns, as well, give you that additional light and contrast with the lighting in general. It’s quite successful, I think. And obviously we have a night and day cycle on the campaign map, which will be continuously running. It reinforces the night battle feeling.

Above: Total War: Three Kingdoms

Image Credit: Creative Assembly/Sega

GameBeat: The one problem I ran into, that hill was too big to defend. I had enemies coming from two directions.

Wojs: You have to almost make a square formation to protect your flank, or charge the first force and then come back to defend against the other. It’s tricky. But it’s an ambush. It’s not supposed to be easy. The idea, again, with the extraction mechanic—previously, if you get ambushed, you die. Or you win, but if you lose, you die. Again, to get this feeling of the novel across, where so many times ambushes happen and you have your loyal troops rushing in to defend their lord, while the lord tries to escape — that’s the idea.

These heroes are precious. You don’t want to lose them. You can lose them, but it’s so unforgiving. This gives you the opportunity to say, “Okay, I’m cutting my losses. I’ll throw in my troops to block the oncoming forces and just run with my most precious units.” If you extract your forces, it’ll be a defeat, but at least you’ve saved these units to fight another day.

GameBeat: I felt like it was hard for my hero to win more than one duel.

Wojs: It depends on who she duels against, yeah. The opponent heroes are quite strong, so yes, you have to — you’ll grow to know the heroes and the characters as you play. Some background knowledge of the Three Kingdoms definitely helps, so you don’t run straightaway challenging Lu Bu with your rookie hero. If you choose poorly, you could lose your hero there and then. In that sense, yes, it takes a lot to duel against an able hero. You have to be careful.

You can choose to retreat. You can choose to intervene in a duel to save your hero. But there are serious morale penalties for that. If you start pelting arrows at the enemy that’s dueling your hero, those men will lose morale, because they feel it’s a very dishonorable thing to do.

GameBeat: And yet the duels are important, because you can swing the battle suddenly in another direction.

Wojs: In the Romance mode — obviously we have the two modes, the Records mode and the Romance mode. In the Romance mode, the battles are very much determined by how you choose to use your heroes. In Records it’s more like the classic Total War experience, where it’s about the positioning of your troops, the formations that you use, the tactics, the flanking, the maneuvering. It’s a slower pace, as you would expect.

But in Romance mode it’s very much about how you use your heroes, how you break those flanks with your heroes, how you use those abilities. The same goes for the enemy. The enemy will be using his heroes against your men. You have to use your own heroes to stop them by distracting them with a duel, holding them back from destroying your units. Maybe you can defeat them there, but it also buys time for your troops to move out of the way.