We've managed to reach the end of my Total War: Warhammer ranking list, an endeavor that accidentally became way more of an endeavor than I thought it would be. It's been a nice writing exercise, and a good reminder that I can try and follow a prompt of my own making, but now my RSI is acting up and it's time to wrap things up. Before we get to the Top 4 though...
Let's talk about DLC content and pricing
While Total War: Warhammer II routinely drops to around $20 during various Steam Sales, that'll only get you access to around five of the factions I've ranked here. To be frank it can be somewhat intimidating to scroll slightly downward and look at the sheer amount of additional content you can purchase when you also factor in the first game. Combined, there are no less than six full paid DLC factions (Brettonia is free in both games) and six paid Lord/Unit packs between both Total Warhammers. The good news is that you don't need it, and can easily have dozens of hours of enjoyment with just the base game and free DLC. The bad news is that a lot of those new units fill useful holes in faction army rosters (for example, Red Crested Skinks, the Lizards best source of cheap armor piercing damage, are tied to the Prophet and Warlock DLC) and seem like they'd be at least semi-important if one were to seriously engage in the competitive multiplayer. It can also lead to some awkwardness when interacting with these DLC factions controlled by AI, as you can't confederate them unless you own the associated DLC (something that really only comes up in a major way for Tyrion, who suddenly has to split half of Ulthuan with Allarielle instead of just confederating with her.)
The only thing I'd really consider out-and-out "necessary" is to also grab the first game (which goes on sale for around $15) so you have access to the four base Old World factions and Mortal Empires, which offers a more "standard" Total War campaign if you get tired of the Heart of the Vortex's more focused ritual objective. After that, I'd probably prioritize the second game's two DLC factions, Norsca, and any lord packs for any factions you're interested in. If my rankings weren't enough of a guide, I would seriously caution against getting either Warriors of Chaos or Beastmen unless you want to play them in multiplayer, and take a keen sideways glance at the Wood Elves. Similarly, while I like my boy Volkmar a whole lot, the two lord packs for the first game are only really worth it if you want to mess around with the Old World factions they're tied to. (Even then I'd argue that Crooked Moon and Clan Angrund are meant to be "Hard Mode" starts for their respective factions and probably not worth getting unless you already have a grasp of how Dwarfs and Greenskins play)
Now, onto the ranking!
Lore: The Elves may be ancient, but the Lizards are more ancient still, having been around since the time of the Old Ones and having seen the wheels of The Great Plan having come into motion long ago. They are the ancient enemies of Chaos, and seek the preservation of the world, all according to The Great Plan. Oh, they’re also basically Aztec Dinosaurs.
Campaign Mechanics: Lizards can interlink their settlements with special “Geomagnetic Web” buildings. Doing so improves the strength of province-wide commandments, and gives the lizards a lot of late-game flexibility, as you can choose between serious bonuses to income, recruitment cost, winds of magic, or province defense with only a turn’s notice. They can also take special quests at the behest of the Old Ones, which grants them access to more powerful versions of their units.
Aside from subfaction-specific mechanics, it’s probably worth mentioning that the lizards have to enact special rituals to recruit their Slann Mage Priests, easily the most powerful generic mage lords in the game (and honestly, better than a lot of Legendary Mage Lords) as well as embark on a chain of sidequests to summon Lord Kroak, an ancient, powerful Slann who might as well be a mummified Lizard WMD (unless you play as Itza, at which point you just start with Lord Kroak.) I haven’t really touched on the second game factions’ ritual mechanics, but they’re often quite powerful.
Army Roster: The main Lizard roster is split between Saurus (who are nearly as slow and durable as dwarfs), Skinks (who are fast and usually have poison attacks, but are not nearly as good at holding), Kroxigors (who can deal a lot of damage if you mix them in with your front line) and lots and lots of dinosaurs. Their ranged capabilities might not be the greatest, but their Slann Mage Priests are some of the best magic lords in the game and did I mention that they have dinosaurs? It’s true. They’ve got anti-infantry dinosaurs, anti-large dinosaurs, support-focused dinosaurs, cheap dinosaurs, and the single most expensive unit in the game in the form of the Dread Saurian, all of whom are quite good at causing terror and plowing through the enemy. If you go for the cheaper, feral variants, they have a tendency to rampage (and which makes them uncontrollable when their leadership drops too low) but there are also versions that have ranged utility or magic lizard shrines on top of them for stuff like buffs, damage, and even artillery support. Of course, nothing is stopping you from fielding a doomstack entirely full of Carnosaurs except the cost.
Favorite Legendary Lord: The Lizards are currently the only faction with six legendary lords, which gives any player plenty of options for how they want to play. They’re also the only faction who have it easier on the continent of Lustria, given that it’s their homeland and most of the AI factions there happen to be other lizards ripe for alliances and confederation. You’ve got one of the strongest magic lords in the game with Mazdamundi, two strong warrior lords who make Saurus Infantry cheaper with Kroq’Gar and Gor’Rok, a lord who starts with a flying mount and gives serious bonuses to fliers with Tiktaq’to, and Nakai the Wanderer, a giant albino crocodile who is Creative Assembly’s first stab at trying to make a horde faction that isn’t incredibly boring (results are mixed) and Tehenhauin, whose faction is the lizard equivalent to Crooked Moon (but you know, playable.)
Who among these cold-blooded reptiles could come on top? Well, for as tempted as I am to pick Tehenhauin for all that sweet sweet sacrificing to Sotek, being stuck with Skinks is a pretty rough start. So instead let’s go with Kroq’Gar, whose easily defendable starting location in both campaigns and massive upkeep discount on the basic Saurus infantry basically ensure some serious early-game dominance. Also he can ride a Carnosaur. True, Gor’Rok gets access to Lord Kroak from the get-go
Official Scientific Ranking: I could make roughly half a dozen Jurassic Park references right now, but then I remember that their Hunter and Beast DLC trailer already did.
3. Dark Elves
Lore: The Druchii are your fairly standard group of decadent, murderous Bad Elves. Having been exiled from Ulthuan and forced to settle in the frozen wastelands of Naggarond for supporting Malekith, the Witch King, they bitterly plan for the day they can retake their original homeland… or just burn it to the ground. Still Elves, still assholes.
Campaign Mechanics: All of the “evil” factions in Total Warhammer II have to deal with a loyalty mechanic with their non-legendary lords. Your lords’ loyalty score that increases or decreases based on random events and their own performance in battle, and if it drops too low they’ll become a rebel army. Dismiss too many units from their army and their loyalty will drop, but win manual combat or conduct certain rituals to keep them happy.
The Dark Elves are infamous raiders and slavers, with their economy being heavily reliant upon slave labor from captured enemies. More slaves in a province means more income, but also an increasing penalty to public order. If you play as Crone Hellebron of Har Ganeth, you can also hold a “Death Night” where the slave pens are opened and the populace murders an increasingly large number of them in an ecstatic haze of blood and death, something required to keep her young (you get massive penalties if you don’t hold one for too long.) This turns the Dark Elf slave mechanic from a passive economic bonus into a constant upkeep requirement, but only applies to her faction.
Being a foremost naval power, the Dark Elves are also backed up by their massive Black Arks, which are basically mobile horde factions on the sea. They can recruit armies of their own (with a massive upkeep discount) occupy and attack port cities, and offer logistical support (recruitment, bombardment, bonuses to post-battle income) to all armies within their zone of influence. They can only be recruited with a ritual, unless you play as Lokhir Fellheart, the Krakenlord of Karond Kar (Warhammer names are good and dumb), who gets one every time he captures a major port settlement.
Army Roster: While they still have access to most kinds of units, the Dark Elves are less focused on silly archers than their brethren, instead having very strong infantry backed up by good cavalry and scary monsters. The half-naked, extremely buff Witch Elves and Sisters of Slaughter are basically glass cannon cuisinarts when set upon lesser foes, while Black Guard of Naggarond and Executioners of Har Ganeth offer some of the best-in-class greatsword and halberdier foot soldiers. Back these up with regenerating hydras, medusae, manticores, and black dragons and they’re not only good at tearing through the enemy lines, but also causing terror. Like their other Elf brethren, they’re not much for artillery (basically having the same bolt thrower as the Asur) and they’re similarly a little squishy and/or expensive on average.
However, in a fun inversion to the High Elves, the Dark Elves get better at fighting the longer a battle goes on thanks to their “Murderous Prowess” ability, which procs once enough things have died. It can be scary to wear a Dark Elf army down, only for them to turn things around at the end of the battle (and similarly, it can turn a previously even engagement into one where they can win) and gives them incentive to try and inflict maximum casualties instead of merely going for the rout.
Favorite Legendary Lord: There’s no doubting that Malekith is one of the strongest lords in the game, being scary in melee, having access to the Druchii-exclusive Lore of Dark Magic, and being able to ride around on a Black Dragon should he so feel like it. This is where I’d say “But actually (insert niche, weird lord) is better! But you know what? I’m not going to. Hellebron is “erase enemy lords and heroes in seconds” powerful, but requires a constant influx of slaves, Mommy Morathi gets to spread chaos corruption, but has a far less secure start, Lokhir Fellheart is the Dark Elf entrant in LustriaBowl, and Malus Darkblade’s split campaign start and demonic possession are fun, if a little difficult to get a handle on. Nah, Malekith is a damn monster, which only makes sense for a guy who is basically Elven Darth Vader.
Official Scientific Ranking: Evil Elves are the Best Elves, as any 14-year-old pretending to dual-wield scimitars could tell you with absolute certainty. While the Dark Elves actually do have multiple units who dual-wield scimitars (Black Ark Corsairs, Witch Elves) it’s when you back those scimitar wielders up with everything else that they come into place. I also think they have the benefit of some of the most interesting and varied Legendary Lord starts; there’s not really any redundancy between them.
2. Vampire Coast
Lore: Vampirates. VAMPIRATES. Aside from Norsca, the Vampire Coast is the other faction without a one-to-one tabletop analogue, but as far as I can tell, it’s mostly based around the tale of the insane (Vampire) Pirate Captain, Luthor Harkon, whose mind was fractured by ancient lizard magic while he was looting one of their temples. Listen, all you need to know is that they’re Pirates who are also Vampires. One of the DLC factions for Total War: Warhammer II.
Campaign Mechanics: The Vampire Coast is almost as reliant upon spreading vampiric corruption and raising the dead as their landlubber counterparts. Their armies don’t suffer attrition in untainted provinces, but their settlements suffer the same massive public order penalties, which prevents them from expanding too quickly. Because they’re also pirates, they can build up their own ships (in a similar manner to horde factions or black arks) set up secret coves in enemy port cities to spread corruption or get income, go on treasure hunts around the world map, and just steal shit.
They also have an infamy ranking, which is sort of like the opposite of Brettonia’s chivalry resource (you can spend it to increase the loyalty of your captains, in case it starts flagging.) While being the most infamous pirate in Mortal Empires gives nice bonuses, it’s required to win their Vortex campaign, as you attempt to gain pieces of a lost sea shanty needed to find and kill the Merwyrm that guards Ulthuan. Like the Tomb Kings, it’s significantly more freeform than the ritual victory the four main factions have to deal with and a good change of pace if you want something different and don’t want to deal with the giant combined map of Mortal Empires.
Army Roster: In a strong inversion of their Sylvanian counterparts, the Vampire Coast are one of the most powerful ranged factions in the game, with armies of zombie pirates, zombie pirates with guns, zombie pirates with BIGGER guns, zombie pirates with guns being carried by giant bats, heavy artillery (They have a giant mega-cannon called Queen Bess that can erase large chunks of the enemy army by itself) and a couple of horrific undead monsters, Giant Enemy Crabs, and animated ship hulks for good measure. In fact, the first few shots from any of their gunpowder units do extra damage, which incentivizes proper targeting and ammo management. Oh, and also they have access to the fantastic Lore of Vampires and the Lore of Death, in addition to their own exclusive Lore of the Deep in case you really didn’t get that they’re defensive in a way only rivaled by the Dwarfs.
Sure, you might say, their frontline units are either disposable or expensive and they don’t have any real cavalry, but does that matter so long as you can hold the line long enough for your gunnery mobs and artillery to pelt the enemy to shreds and your monsters to mop everything up? The answer is “actually yes, it does matter somewhat when you’re facing more mobile enemies” but that matters less with the AI than it does with a more canny human player who knows how horses work. In campaign, the Pirates of Sartosa get access to better (living) infantry units and Cyclostra Direfin can summon undead versions of Brettonian cavalry, so those can help fill in some gaps if you desire a more active playstyle.
Favorite Legendary Lord: There’s only one ruler of the Vampire Coast, and it’s Luthor Harkon. Sure, Count Noctilus might start in the middle of the damn ocean, Aranessa Saltspite might have regular human pirates who perform far better than their undead counterparts, and Cyclostra might have ghost horses, but there’s only one insane Vampire to rule LustriaBowl. (he’s a scary hybrid-weapon lord who has access to all of the Lore of the Deep spellbook once you fix his mind, rides a Terrorgheist, and has a bunch of mage-killer abilities to help counter enemy spellcasters)
Official Scientific Ranking: YO HO HO LET’S MAKE THEM WALK THE PLANK AND THEN DREDGE THEIR CORPSE UP AND RAISE IT FROM THE DEAD. Playstyle-wise, they’re somewhere between the Vampire Counts and Dwarfs, having top-tier ranged capabilities like the Dawi, but trading their legendary holding power for a bunch of different spooky tools and access to some of the best magic in the game. Also, need I remind you this is a faction that has both “Shipwreck Golem with three cannons strapped to its arm” and also “Giant Undead Crab Leviathan” as its two premiere high-tier units.
Lore: Skaven? The Skaven don’t exist! There’s no such thing as “Giant Ratmen” skulking around the sewers, hefting strange weapons and ringing bells to summon their dark god. If such a thing did live in this world, it would be an affront to Sigmar himself! Now keep quiet before a witch hunter hears your nonsense and they hand you over to the Inquisition!
Campaign Mechanics: As you’d expect from a horde of intelligent rats that skulks underneath civilization, the Skaven do not exactly seek a fair confrontation. Like the Beastmen (or Alith Anar’s subfaction) they have an automatic chance of ambushing an enemy when engaging in combat. Their settlements appear as ruins until investigated, and one of their main ways of gaining an edge on the enemy is to expand their under-empire beneath the cities of other factions. Under-empire settlements can be used for benign things, like gathering income or food (unsurprisingly, food is a concern when you’re a civilization of giant rats) or, if you manage to keep them hidden long enough, you can unleash a vermintide army to bolster an already-existing invasion force. They also spread their own brand of corruption, which in addition to the whole “undermine enemy public order” thing, also allows them to summon more units of rats with their “Menace Below” ability (of course, having too much skaven corruption actually causes them public order penalties as well, since the skaven’s biggest enemy is sometimes other skaven.) They can also summon special heroes with rituals who can be used to establish special under-empire buildings, blow up city walls, or spread plagues that cause massive penalties to an enemy’s infrastructure.
Army Roster: The Skaven rely on a combination of sheer numbers, specialized troops, and just straight up unfair play in lieu of, uh, durability. That’s as true in Total War as it was in Vermintide. Having no cavalry, all Skaven foot units are relatively fast, have large unit sizes, questionable leadership, and an ability that lets them run away and recover more quickly when their morale breaks. Theirs is not a frontline meant to hold for long periods of time, with only Stormvermin being an especially respectable basic infantry unit. If this starts to sound a little like the Beastmen, they’re not far off, though while the Beastie Boys are purely rush-oriented, the Skaven have a larger focus on dirty tricks and far more ranged options. They can summon clanrats from the ground to disrupt enemy ranged units, skirmish with gutter runners, escape or blow things up with their three(!) unique lores of magic, lay down an impressive amount of ranged damage of their own thanks to various weapon teams (Ratling Guns, Poison Wind Globadiers, Warplock Jezzails, Warpfire Throwers) or go for more conventional hammer and anvil stuff using Plague Monks, Death Runners, or Rat Ogres to flank. Somehow, their scariest unit isn’t the aptly named “Hell Pit Abomination” but is instead the Doomwheel, which combines all the momentum of a chariot with the added bonus of shooting powerful bolts of death every few seconds. Several of their lords and heroes are even specifically designated for lord killing, as a way of forcing an enemy rout more quickly.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Ikit Claw, Chief Warlock Engineer of Clan Skyre is responsible for the Skaven’s most daring technological advancements and is also an anthropomorphic rat in a suit of power armor. His faction has exclusive access to special weapon team upgrades and also the Warhammer Fantasy equivalent of nukes. It’s hard to go wrong with the Skaven, between Queek Headtaker’s strong lord erasing capabilities and cheaper conventional units (letting you run around with a frontline of Stormvermin far earlier in the game), Lord Skrolk’s bonuses to plagues and corruption, Tretch Craventail’s focus on ambushes, and Deathmaster Snikch’s rat ninja skills and special contracts, but Ikit Claw is the right combination of ridiculous and profoundly powerful to win this distinction.
Official Scientific Ranking: The Skaven are great, not just because they’re a bunch of insane, paranoid ratmen who run around with gatling guns while everyone else has flintlocks, but also because they’re the craziest, most unconventional faction in a game filled with its share of crazy, unconventional factions. Every aspect of their gameplay is focused around that lore, and it seems fairly obvious someone at Creative Assembly is a fan (they also have the best DLC lords, for starters.) As it turns out, so am I.
That does it for me and this accidentally exhaustive series of blogs I wrote, which should probably tell you how much I like this game. That said, even though big meaningful video games are still a month away, I think I might take a bit of a step back from the Monster Hunter/Warhammer haze I was in for most of January and mix it up a bit. I’ve been staring at too many eBay listings for weird JRPGs and now I should probably get to something in my backlog before I impulsively end up expanding it. Thanks for reading!