Conquering Britain and growing up Total War with Phil Wang

Behind the Scenes

Ben Barrett
April 30 2021

As you’ve hopefully seen, we recently began a new documentary series detailing the Roman invasion of Britain with comedian Phil Wang leading his own takeover of the noble isles. Battle standard in hand and gladius at the ready, there’s four episodes of Roman goodness on the way in the coming weeks.

We sat down with Phil to talk shooting the series, videogames, and his life-long love of Total War.

CA: Hey Phil, hope you’re well after your invasion – was that your first shoot in a while since COVID stopped most productions?

Phil Wang: Yeah, that would have been my first ‘on location’ shoot in a long, long time. Some TV has come back, I’ve done a few studio TV records since the pandemic hit, but that’s my first ‘trip’, my first gig travelling, yeah.

Did you think the show was a success, having come out the other side?

I think so, I’ve seen a couple of the rough cuts and they look really, really great. I think from day one I knew that I was joining a pretty good team. A team with good taste, good comic sensibilities, and who really cared about making a good series – which is always a relief.

Of course, you film so much there’s a hundred different possible shows that what we recorded could come out as. So, you just have to trust they’ll use the best bits, and if we use the best bits, I think it’s going to be a very good show. I’m really excited to see it, and for people to see it.

Were there any truly awkward or embarrassing moments on set?

No for the most part, everyone was in on the joke. Sometimes people were like “what is he talking about, why is he behaving this way?” but everyone was pretty into it.

The reaction from everyone when we were teasing the show was exactly what we were looking for, especially from your fans on social media.

It’s funny, this is very much the case with gamers, less and less over recent years as it’s become a more mainstream piece of popular culture – but the minute you mention a videogame, suddenly people come out of the woodwork – “omg I’ve played that / I used to play that / I still play that / wow you’re involved with Total War, that’s like my favorite thing.”

These people I know who have never, you know, spoken about videogames before, suddenly everyone is like “Yeahhh, I played so much Total War when I was younger, I still play some now.” Someone messaged me on Instagram saying that he is still playing the original Rome: Total War now.

Do you think it’s the nostalgia that brings people back to old games such as Rome: Total War?

I think there is nostalgia, because it was that first great step up in real time strategy. Suddenly – ‘omg you can actually do this,’ you can make it look like a real battle, you can have hundreds and hundreds of units, individually animated, individually acting, I don’t know what the technical term is. Individual guys, basically, and you could zoom out, zoom in.

I look back on the pocksy little laptop I played it on, while I was supposed to be doing GCSEs in the school library. That it could run at all was amazing really.

So, there’s that element. Also, I think it’s always the case with franchises that while the new games become shinier, a little more complex, a little more nuanced, a little prettier, and there are, you know, these quality-of-life improvements to the interface and stuff.

People start to… a small part of them starts to miss the simplicity of the very, very first one, when it was just those core features of the game. And maybe that’s an element of it. You see it throughout all of gaming I think, I think that’s why people who aren’t hardcore gamers still have that real soft spot for those old platformers. Those old Marios and Mario Kart and so on. There’s a simple game there.

The nostalgia is really interesting, and it’s a new kind of nostalgia because it’s our generation coming of age. You know what I mean? We’re the first generation to be nostalgic about videogames, I think.

That’s a good point as its still so young as an industry. My parents let me start gaming around 11, 12. What about you?

I must have been about the same, maybe a bit younger, 8 or 9 or 10 or something.

And was that a natural road, were you playing with siblings or mates? How did you discover games?

My first ever computer game was SkiFree on Windows 95.

The height of videogames. I had no interest in skiing but I was like “get me the computer with the skiing game on!” and it was really hard, and I would always get eaten by the yeti that comes out at some point.

And then my first console was, and you won’t hear this very often: a Sega Saturn.

A less common choice, where’d that come from?

It came from my cousin, my older cousin. My parents were like “okay Phil, you can have a console” and it was between the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. Maybe it was more prominent in Asia, the Sega Saturn? This was Malaysia in the late ‘90s.

The Sega Saturn was a much more prominent competitor to PlayStation growing up for me – and I remember my cousin saying something, which I’m sure was based on zero truth. But he said that the PlayStation was better for 3D games and the Sega Saturn was better for 2D games.

And because I was thinking about Street Fighter and the like, and because he had a Sega Saturn and I wanted to be more like him – I went for a Sega Saturn.

How does that road then lead down to a laptop or a PC and you becoming a general and tackling RTS & Grand Strategy?

Well, once we got the computer I started hearing about this thing called ‘Red Alert.’ People spoke about Red Alert in these lofty tones. “Red Alert is where you command an army.”

And my Dad, my Dad had it in his head, that he could kill two birds with one stone by buying me the right videogames – in that he would entertain me and prepare me for a life in the business world. So, a general-based game was like “He’s having fun – but he’s also learning ‘how to lead!’”

He was very interested in getting me Theme Park Tycoon – it’s all about business management, so ‘he’s having fun but he’s learning.’ So, he was quite proactive about getting me into computer games, until I got really addicted, and then he was like ‘this kid needs to do some running!’ and I was like ‘nahhh, too late, too late, you can’t uncook this egg.’

So yeah, Red Alert, I loved that, then Age of Empires, and then there was this series – Pharoah and Caeser III. They were mainly city-building, in ancient Egypt and Rome. Each level you were a city planner and you were given the challenge of building a settlement, and had goals to hit – build a pyramid, build so many legions. One level you had to get an olive industry going.

In Caeser III you could build a barracks and have soldiers and I was like ‘yes! This is so sick!’ But any time there were enemies you would just command this perfect square of stocky soldiers. They would just waddle over to the intruder and go ‘Nyeh! Nyeh!’ and the guy would fall over.

Then Rome came around, Rome: Total War.

This was while I was at boarding school in Brunei, a friend of mine had it on his computer and I just sat down and started playing it. Four hours later, I just woke up like ‘where…? how long has it…?’ people were now going to bed. I can’t – it had felt like all of 20 minutes.

As a kid I loved realistic stuff, all the RTS games I had played previously were really fun, but I hadn’t seen that level of realism. The feeling that you were actually, really doing something, you were really conquering the world, that’s what really got me hooked, like really hooked.

I then spread it out to everyone – I mean I’m making it sound like a virus – but I passed on Rome to the other kids at the boarding school. I remember one day in GCSE year, two weeks before the exam, we’re all under teacher supervision in the library, and I’m just looking at everyone’s laptops and they’re all just on Rome.

You had conquered them all.

My little flag all over the library.

Was there other media about that historical period – Gladiator, Rome on HBO, Time Commanders – did any of those things help play a part in you wanting to be that general?

Gladiator definitely, that first battle scene in Gladiator is SICK, it’s so good… Unless you talk to the good people at the Augustus Second Legion, who appear in the second episode of this documentary series. If you mention the battle scene from Gladiator, they will spit on the ground.

They will start listing every single thing they got wrong, the armour is from a different country and a different century, the formations are all wrong. Apparently that scene at the beginning of Gladiator is basically fan fiction. David, who led me around that day, genuinely went *hrk* when I mentioned Gladiator. To them Gladiator is non-canon.

But for me, that scene is great. They get into the Testudo formation, fighting the goths, that big fireball comes tumbling down, the cavalry charge – it was really great.

If you were in the same position to film again, is there a different Total War or area of history for a Guide To you’d be fascinated to jump into in the same way?

I feel the Shogun series is crying out for it, and not just because I want to go to Japan. That is such a different situation, it’s not so much about expanding outwards, as fighting inwards – it’s a completely different dynamic to Rome which is empire building, compared to feudal Japan which is a country coming together in a way, while fighting amongst each other. That would be so interesting and so cool, and of course, more great armour for me to put on.

Have you played the Shogun: Total War games?

I have Shogun 2 on Steam on my laptop, and I’ve not started it, I don’t know why. I downloaded it and I just had no time to play it. I need to get on it – haven’t played a game in a while now, I’ve just been busy.

I was going to ask if you had managed to get any gaming done during lockdown?

A little bit at the start of last lockdown, I got a PlayStation 4. I played Death Stranding, which is crackers, it’s so strange and it takes a while, but there’s something weirdly haunting about it in a sense. It was quite scary but eventually I became quite invested in just delivering people’s pizzas and stuff. Then The Last of Us 2 which, when I finished that, I had to sit down, put the PlayStation away, and go to therapy.

But the last Total War game I played was Empire. Which I really liked, it came off of Medieval 2, which I was maybe even more obsessed with, I’m not sure. The most obsessive I’ve been is either Rome or Medieval 2. I just thought Medieval 2 was so sick.

I mean, a ‘Crusades Series’ doc for Medieval would be amazing wouldn’t it? As that’s when the S really hits the fan in Medieval 2, when the Crusades start.

It’s so sick, the mercenaries you get, the Knights of Saint John, and the unhorsed Knights, they’re so cool, they’ve got all the cool armour, the holy sepulcher with the black coats and huge claymores.

And then the Mongols come and that’s it, goodbye, you’re finished, you can’t deal with the Mongols.

Anyway because you discover America in Medieval 2, you start to get guns, you start the European conquest of the America’s. Then in Empire you go from taking over the America’s with these rudimentary firearms, to suddenly you’ve got flintlocks, kneeling formations, smoke clouds, and all that cool stuff.

So that’s another documentary series: across America.

Has Rome getting a Remaster tempted you to go back to that over starting something new like Shogun 2 or an Age of Empires 4, that sort of thing?

Yeah, yeah I’ve watched some of the videos, it looks beautiful, and I started getting emotional listening to some of the generals speech’s again, is that weird?

Not at all, when I hear you go into a speech in one of the episodes, we were really invested in having someone that could relate to it that little bit more – do you think that helped you?

It’s very funny boring historians about something and giving them a taste of their own medicine. Usually they’re the ones boring people – but I was there going on about mechanics where if you command your legion to run, then they’ll lose stamina. They won’t fight as well. They’re like ‘… right okay.’

It did make the world of difference that I love the game, I played the game, I know the game. As computer and videogames become more mainstream, its more common to see them being talked about by people that don’t actually have an interest or experience in them, and it’s quite annoying, it comes off wrong.

And so I think it made a world of difference that it was a game I loved, and that I got to live out a fantasy by doing for real these things that I had seen in the game. Coming up with my own speech, marching with the troops, wearing the armour.

Any other stand out moments during filming or about the game that you want to talk about?

I mean, what stood out to me, sounds a bit sappy, but it’s how kind everyone was, and how up for it everyone we met was, and how much all the contributors really, really care about Ancient Rome.

They really like it, but they’re also willing to be funny about it, and they didn’t take themselves too seriously – we got so many funny bits out of it, just because these experts were up for having a laugh, up for having fun with it, I think the show is made so much better by them and their involvement.

In terms of the game – I’m just looking forward to playing it really!

Give us the faction you’ll be going for.

Every time I start up a game of Rome: Total War I say to myself “I’ll tryyyy the green guys, I guess I should” and then I just go Juleii again. It’s the red! They have to be red. I literally thinks it’s just the colour, I don’t want to take over the world in green, no one wants that.

Yeah, so go Juleii, take Sicily first. Start to take the leg, go after Carthage. There’s the Gauls, they’re just good practice, they’re good fun, they charge out and just die – it’s like Gladiator.

Carthage were more challenging, but what was more exciting about going over to Carthage was if you were lucky you could hire a unit of elephants.

I knew you were going to say it.

That was the real prize of Carthage. You roam around and hope a unit of elephants spawns and you can hire them, because then you have them for centuries. I knew elephants were old, but I didn’t know they could last as long as they do in Rome Total War.

You could have that elephant battalion for centuries. You could take them to England, people freaking out, they don’t know what the hell is going on, getting stomped on by elephants. It’s the best. Those were my tactics – get elephants.

Fine strategy! Delighted you had fun, we’re looking forward to airing the series and thanks for your involvement!