Dev Diary: Balancing Total War: THREE KINGDOMS


CA KingGobbo
February 11 2020

Balancing any game is no mean feat – and Total War: THREE KINGDOMS is no exception.

We’re handing over to associate designer Matt Perkins in order to give you an insight into the balancing process, particularly in the leadup to the release of Mandate of Heaven – check it out below.

Welcome to the battlefield

When I started working as a designer to help with battle balancing for Total War: THREE KINGDOMS in July 2019, it was clear from the start I had a lot of work on my hands. I’ve been an avid fan of Total War for a very long time, having started playing MEDIEVAL: Total War when I was just 7 years old. As such, I arrived full of excitement and energy, ready to graciously fix every issue I encountered.

I quickly found that was not how things were going to go down.

My first balance fix was to decrease the damage of the defensive arrow towers, which the community had correctly pointed out were far too strong. However, when the patch went live the community suddenly found it was now impossible to hold unwalled settlements without a garrisoned army. The arrow towers no longer did enough damage to enemy heroes, who would now kill the entire garrison with impunity.

Maybe this wasn’t as easy as I first thought…

So, after some discussions with senior designers and community management, I started to create an expansive document detailing each battle-related community issue, the reason for said issue, and my suggestions as to how fix each one.

Identifying issues

Most balancing issues raised come from you, the community. Whether it’s a strongly worded complaint on steam, an in-depth discussion on Reddit, or a video showcasing how to win a multiplayer battle with only three Xu Chu clones, I probably have a link to it in my battle balance document.

Most issues usually fall into one of three categories:

  • The mechanic in question had originally been designed with the Romance mode campaign in mind, meaning there was issues with its use in either Records mode or competitive multiplayer
  • An issue that the community had strongly differing opinions on (for example should heroes be reduced in power to be more balanced or should they be able to defeat entire armies alone like they do in Romance of the Three Kingdoms?)
  • Something that was working in theory but didn’t have the desired or a reduced effect when played outside the situation it was designed for

I’d also like to give a huge thanks to Milk and Cookies Total War for his video, which focused on the various issues with multiplayer balancing. With Patch 1.3.0, I tried to tackle a lot of these issues by rebalancing many abilities and creating counter tactics against the most powerful heroes.

When THREE KINGDOMS was initially being balanced, the system was based around a very large, very scary spreadsheet made of infinite pages of calculations that, somehow, spit out very detailed and rather lovely looking graphs.

It was clear, however, that when tested in the heat of battle, players were able to use exploits and tactics that previous balance design hadn’t accounted for.

Mandate of Heaven balance changes

When deciding what balance changes I should make for Mandate of Heaven, I decided early on that I wanted to focus on units. With the last rebalancing having been based around heroes and multiplayer, I thought it best to try to address some of the issues the community were having regarding the lack of gameplay diversity in battles.

The main issues being brought up in terms of unit balancing were:

  • Metal infantry units were underpowered across the board. As such, they were not being used
  • Militia units were far too powerful for their cost bracket, with players and AI often not upgrading them to higher tier units as there was no need to do so. Militia archers in particular were seen as too powerful, with the entire Water roster also considered an issue
  • Fire cavalry was more effective overall than Earth cavalry due to Fire cavalry being used to efficiently rout missile units

With these issues in mind, I started to create a strategy to deal with them.

First, I performed my own playtests. It soon became clear that, while each Metal unit could defeat its Wood counterpart, they would have so few men left afterwards that you were essentially sacrificing one unit to kill another. As such, we saw that many in the community had abandoned using Metal units, as they were not the most effective army build.

To fix this, I didn’t want to simply increase damage for all Metal roster units – I wanted to add more tools for the player to use. This was the main reason that I gave axe units bonuses versus shields, and sword units bonuses to melee evasion.

With these changes, axe units could then do more damage to shielded spears, who due to their low melee evasion took horrendous damage from the high damage output of the axe units. Meanwhile, the sword units could defend much better than before, meaning they took much less damage against Ji units and would eventually wear them down while taking little damage themselves.

To accentuate these changes, I also lowered the morale of most Wood units as well as overhauling a large amount of the morale variables. This meant that the Wood units would now rout at higher numbers, meaning much more of the Metal infantry units would be left intact after combat.

The morale changes also helped to consolidate the changes I’d made to make militia units weaker across the board. Militia units now felt fragile and prone to routing compared with the higher-cost and better-equipped units.

All these changes mean you should now see greater variety in roles and tactics on the battlefield, with:

  • Axe units being great counters for shielded infantry
  • Militia units no longer as dependable as they once were
  • Sword and shield infantry able to hold the line without taking as many casualties
  • Archers being focused towards unshielded, low armour targets
  • Crossbows for anti-armour damage and hero suppression
  • Morale and fatigue should play a greater role on the battlefield, focusing on small groups of units should make pockets of the enemy battle line collapse, allowing for breakthroughs and flanking
  • Using missile troops to attack wavering troops is a good way to cause a rout

Looking forward

This is an ongoing strategy – many changes are still planned. In the future I plan to cover those things I didn’t have chance to get to during patch 1.4.0, such as looking into creating a clear distinction between the two cavalry rosters and how players acquire higher tier units, as well as understanding why archer usage has gone up despite them being reduced in power.

With the changes made for Mandate of Heaven, I have taken steps to increase the diversity of gameplay. I hope you’ve all been enjoying the new changes and myriad units added with Mandate of Heaven and, as always, would love to hear your feedback – we’ve made a thread on the official forums for this very purpose!