Part 1 is here if you want to see all that sweet sweet faction ranking from the top. Or, the bottom, as the case may be.
Oh hey I'm back again with my favorite "Writing exercise disguised as a listicle disguised as a blog that people theoretically might want to read" by ranking the factions of Creative Assembly's Total War: Warhammer II from worst to best in the most scientific of fashions. One of the main reasons why I want to do this, outside of the sheer self-indulgence of justifying 200+ hours spent with my favorite strategy game in years, is to put a spotlight on the insane amount of work put into this game to make each of these factions distinctive from one another. While other recent favorites like Age of Wonders: Planetfall offer a variety of factions and playstyles, Total War is probably the only strategy franchise with the resources to get away with something like this at this scale. Certainly, having 30+ years of Warhammer Fantasy to draw upon helps, but everything I've seen of Three Kingdoms suggests it draws similar lessons with faction mechanics even as it is more bound by "Historical Realism."
With this part of the list, we also move from the first game's factions to the second, and I think it's worth pointing out that I didn't intentionally start ranking them this way. I just genuinely think the second game represents an improved design ethos over the first. While a lot of the first game's "Old World" factions feel very classic Total War (at least based on the handful of hours I spent with Shogun 2) with a twist, it's really in the second game that you see Creative Assembly getting weird with stuff and leaning more heavily into the fantasy part of Warhammer Fantasy. It certainly also helps that they got the fairly standard Fantasy races out the way first, leaving the second game to dabble in the much weirder edges of Games Workshop's canon.
9. Vampire Counts
Lore: The Vampire Counts of Sylvania love a lot of things, namely blood, the sort of debauchery that comes from being immortal, terrorizing their living subjects, and plotting to overthrow The Empire. Mostly led by the Von Carstein bloodline, they’re extremely down to unleash some spooky scary skeletons upon the entire world. Listen, I spent multiple hours reading about Nagash and the dawn of multiple Vampire kingdoms, and I’m just going to take an L on trying to summarize any of it.
Army Roster: The Vampire Counts have zero ranged or artillery units, so if you said they’re another “melee-focused rush army” you’d be fairly correct. Their large, slow, and disposable frontlines of skeletons and zombies are capable of bogging down enemy troops, giving enough time to charge around the back with their elite monsters, cavalry, flying nightmares, etc. Generally speaking, Vampire Count units tend to be more expensive and slightly weaker than their living counterparts, but they make up for it in three important ways. The first is that, instead of routing when their morale runs low like living units, the undead will start to slowly crumble as the magic that animates them begins to fail. The second is that even the most basic undead units cause fear, which passively reduces enemy leadership. The third? Vampire Counts have magic for days. All of their lords have access to the semi-exclusive Lore of Vampires, which contains some of the best spells in the entire game. Enemy ranged units causing you problems? Summon some skeletons on top of them! Frontline starting to sag? Heal them up with invocation of Nehek, or just drop Winds of Death on whoever they’re facing and it’ll probably disintegrate them.
Campaign Mechanics: Vampires are reliant upon spreading the taint of undeath into the living world to sustain themselves, which basically means that their armies suffer attrition and their settlements suffer public order penalties in provinces that are not sufficiently spooky (inversely, living armies suffer attrition and public order penalties in areas with high vampiric corruption.) They also have the ability to raise the dead, which allows for fast recruitment and replenishment on the go, especially if a major battle was fought in the area (it also means you can get access to the Vampire Counts high-tier units even without building the necessary dwelling, which can give them an almost necessary leg-up in the early game.)
As part of their Mortal Empires rework, they also get access to “Blood Kisses” when defeating enemy lords and heroes, which allow them to awaken ancient vampire bloodlines with unique perks and lords. It’s a fun mechanic, since the perks and attached lords are powerful. So powerful, that they’re easily better than any of the generic VC lords, and arguably some of the legendary ones. Not really sure why you’d ever run with a Master Necromancer anyway, unless you really need to save on upkeep costs.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Mannfred von Carstein is notoriously powerful, being the only lord in the game with full access to two lores of magic. That alone would probably be enough, but he’s also good in melee and can even get himself a zombie dragon. But I have to give it to my man Vlad von Carstein instead, who doesn’t have any mount options but does give his entire army vanguard deployment. What’s that? You’re saying such a thing basically mitigates the Vampire Counts’ biggest weakness? Also he’s a monster in melee and has regeneration? Sure, why not? His faction even gets access to Vampire heroes early, which means you’ll have access to multiple lores of magic without much difficulty.
Official Scientific Ranking: From a purely campaign perspective, the Vampires have a rough early game until they can get consistent access to more than just disposable skeletons and zombies, but once they get that corruption ball a-rolling they can have a frightening amount of momentum. It's also never not satisfying to basically wipe the entire enemy front line with a single casting of Winds of Death.
Lore: The Dawi are some fantasy-ass fantasy dwarves. Have you seen a Dwarf? Yeah. They’re like that. Mountains, stone, general friendliness towards Humans and antipathy towards Elves and Greenskins. You get it. For the Karaz Ankor!
Campaign Mechanics: The long memories of the Dawi mean every slight and injustice is remembered and collected in their book of grudges. If you avenge the grudge, you’ll get rewarded but if you let it linger you’ll start to accrue fairly serious penalties. As a result, Dwarfs are heavily incentivized to capture what they can actually hold, lest your public order go in the toilet over some unfulfilled grudges. In an update to their Mortal Empires campaign, Dwarfs also got access to the rune forge, which lets them craft and recycle magic items for lords and heroes, which is both a really neat mechanic, and also perhaps the least amount of “reworking” any of the old world factions who’ve got one have received… especially since it’s just the Tomb Kings’ Mortuary Cult with a slightly different flavor. Not going to complain too much though.
Army Roster: In what will surprise absolutely no one, the Dwarfs are a highly defensive, slow faction with a lot of armor, leadership, and melee defense, backed up by powerful ranged and artillery units, in case it wasn’t obvious that you’ll want them to come to you. I mean, hell, you can equip some of their ranged and skirmish units with two-handed weapons so they can still be dangerous when the enemy closes that distance. They’re the only faction in the game with no access to any of the winds of magic and one of the few with no cavalry, but they compensate with universal magic resistance, their own unique rune magic and a handful of infantry units who are… slightly faster. They have a fairly defined playstyle, to say the least.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Because of their lack of mounts and magic, all of the Dwarf LLs are stuck on the ground and all of them fill a similar role in combat (which is to say they’re very, very good infantry lords who can take and deal a lot of punishment.) So their biggest differentiator is their campaign starts and bonuses. With that in mind, I’m partial to Ungrim Ironfist, the Slayer King of Kharak Kadrin. Lords who hyper-focus on a single kind of niche unit (slayers being meant to blow up enemy monsters and, if something else takes the charge, cavalry) are maybe not the most effective choice when you’re dealing with a wide variety of foes. On the other hand you can do stupid shit like field an entire frontline of cheaper, slightly more effective slayers very early in the game and charge that line of shirtless dwarfs into goblins, so who’s really to say?
Official Scientific Ranking: Dwarfs are fun because half their playstyle involves sitting back and blowing up the enemy frontline before they can get close enough to cause problems (and then hold the line forever when they do show up) something that’s quite effective against their main foe, the Greenskins, but especially effective against another slow faction like Chaos. Where they falter for me mostly has to do with how limited that playstyle can feel at times, especially compared to some of the other defensively-oriented factions in the game.
Lore: If Brettonia is literally just over-the-top Fantasy France, then The Empire is over-the-top Fantasy Holy Roman Empire (There’s also Kislev, who are over-the-top Fantasy Tsarist Russia, but they’re probably not going to be a distinct faction until the third game.) Like its historical inspiration, the Empire is a fractious collection of squabbling principalities only loosely organized under one banner. Unlike the actual Holy Roman Empire, however, their proclivity for witch hunting is actually justified, given the sheer number of unholy things that want to conquer, corrupt, or destroy them.
Campaign Mechanics: The Empire’s Mortal Empires campaign was recently reworked alongside The Hunter and the Beast DLC, and it’s probably the most involved of any of the Old World factions as a result. Since the goal of an imperial campaign is to unite all of the provinces under one banner, any aspiring Karl Franz has to juggle their imperial prestige and influence (gained by winning battles and various “crisis” events) with the loyalty of various Elector Counts. Get it to 10 and they’ll offer to confederate, but leave it too low and they might eventually rebel. Of course, it’s not a terrible idea to let a particularly troublesome province rebel, since you won’t get a prestige penalty for declaring war on them. Once you have control of a province, you can appoint your own Elector Count from among your lords, which gives them a handful of passive bonuses and access to unique versions of Empire troops who are very powerful. Why yes, I would like greatswords who don’t rout and increase the leadership of nearby troops.
Of course, that’s back in the homeland. In the jungles of Lustria, Markus Wulfhart, Huntsmarshal of the Empire has a much harder time of things, having to fulfill the Emperor’s Mandate (weirdly enough? That mandate is “Imperialism”) while also weathering the wrath of the local populace and courting the favor of Elector Counts in order to obtain much needed high-tier troops and supplies. As he was added in a Total Warhammer II DLC, Wulfhart is the only Empire lord playable in the Eye of the Vortex campaign, and his more customized, distinctive campaign is reflective of Creative Assembly’s shift in design philosophies from the first game to the second. Starting from this part of the list, there’s definitely a concerted effort to offer a very different campaign experience between different Legendary Lords, in the form of starting location (who you’re spending your time fighting against and allying with, basically) and subfaction specific mechanics, such as Wulfhart not having access to higher-tier Empire units and buildings until he reaches a specific level of mandate. I’m probably only going to lightly touch on most of these, but it’s one of the biggest reasons I think the second game’s factions are more interesting than the first.
Army Roster: The Empire has a large, varied roster capable of dealing with any given situation, or at least that’s how they pitch it to you. They’ve got average, unspectacular low and high-tier infantry, decent ranged and skirmish options, and good-to-great cavalry (if not anywhere as dominant as Brettonia) “Jack of all Trades, Master of None,” right? So… here’s the thing. The Empire arguably have the best artillery in the game, at least up there with the Dwarfs and Vampire Coast. While their basic mortars aren’t particularly impressive for anything other than chipping away at unarmored infantry, once you get to Helstorm Rocket Batteries, Volley Guns, and Steam Tanks it’s a different story entirely. Oh, and also they have access to pretty much every generic lore of magic in the game via their various Battle Wizard heroes, in case you needed extra ranged power, healing, buffs, or debuffs depending on your army composition.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Now, sure, you might accuse me of being a contrarian hipster for saying this, but I’m partial to my man Volkmar the Grim, Grand Theoginist of Sigmar and possessor of a mighty mustache. Karl Franz might be the emperor, with bonuses that benefit a broad swathe of armies, but Volkmar’s focus is on flagellants. Like Ungrim Ironfist, he buffs the shit out of a circumstantial unit (flagellants, with their unbreakable leadership, no armor, and high damage output, are mostly meant to flank, delay, or disrupt the enemy) to the point where they become viable as a core part of his army. In combat, he’s basically a super-powered Arch Lector, with access to all the battle prayers of Sigmar (a bunch of area-of-effect buffs that don’t require the winds of magic) and a special War Altar mount that lets him run around like a chariot, causing terror and getting to cast Banishment for free. How can you really argue with that?
Official Scientific Ranking: The Empire aren’t necessarily amazing at anything (well, anything that doesn’t involve blowing up AI armies who sometimes struggle with siege units.) without support, but the fact that they can kind of do everything means they’re a lot of fun to mess around with. They’ve definitely received the most love of any of the Old World factions, but also they’d probably be this high up because they have damn steam tanks.
6. Tomb Kings
Lore: The once great kingdom of Nekehara ruled the sands, in a very “Old Kingdom Ancient Egypt” sort of way, before they were betrayed by the first necromancer Nagash and cursed with eternal unlife. Now they seek to reclaim their long-lost glory, as only a faction consisting of Totalitarian Mummies is capable of doing. It involves building a lot of pyramids. One of the DLC factions for Total War: Warhammer II.
Campaign Mechanics: Unlike the four main factions of the Eye of the Vortex campaign, the Tomb Kings have no need to conduct rituals or defend those sites against the forces of Chaos. Their Vortex campaign is instead something of a scavenger hunt for the lost books of Nagash. These books are held either by neutral armies or in specific settlements, but you don’t need to get all of them to win. This allows for a certain amount of picking and choosing, and it’s an entirely viable strategy to send one particularly powerful army around the world while the rest of your forces play defense. It’s honestly a little closer to something like a Heroes of Might and Magic campaign than something fully Total War, so of course it warranted mention.
The Tomb Kings have the most unique army recruitment mechanics in the game, paying zero recruitment or upkeep in exchange for being severely capped on the number of armies and (non-skeleton) units they can field at any given time. You can recruit more armies by researching (increasingly expensive) technologies, while unit caps are increased by the number of buildings you own. That means a universally rough early game, but a mid-late game that can snowball to the point of absurdity once you control enough territory. Wanna field a giant doomstack of chariots like a dingus? You can certainly do that. Well, assuming you can build enough chariot buildings to do that, since the underside of free units is that the Tomb King economy is extremely shit. I hope you have trading partners or enemy cities to sack!
Army Roster: Like the Vampire Counts, the Tomb Kings’ basic skeletal infantry aren’t good for much more than getting in the way, and even their advanced infantry aren’t going to win a ton of fights on their own. However, whereas the Vampires have great magic and spooky monsters, the Tomb Kings have actual ranged capability and powerful constructs for every occasion (also, tbh, their exclusive Lore of Nekehara is sort of eh) Back up skeletons with Ushabti, tear through enemy lines with a giant-ass scorpion golem, or have their Hierotitan shoot giant lasers because Warhammer Fantasy is good. Sure, they can’t sustain themselves on demand in the same way the Vampires can, but their Realm of Souls mechanic passively regenerates their entire army once they’ve lost enough troops, which means less micromanagement for everyone involved.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Arkhan the Black, Liche King second only to Nagash himself, is unsurprisingly despised by the rest of the Tomb Kings for the whole “Undead” thing. He starts either campaign surrounded by a bunch of things who hate him, with a massive diplomatic penalty towards other Tomb Kings, but a bonus with the (distant) Vampire Counts. To compensate, he has exclusive access to a handful of Vampire Count units (Crypt Ghouls, Fell Bats, Direwolves, and Hexwraiths) which give him an early advantage when his enemies are still fielding skeleton warriors and Brettonian peasant infantry. He’s also a solid melee/caster hybrid with the Lore of Death and a faction-wide bonus to Winds of Magic on top of that.
Official Scientific Ranking: I like the Tomb Kings a lot, but their early game is a universal uphill climb regardless of which lord you pick to start with. They’re similar to the Vampire Counts but with actual ranged options (but worse magic), and it’s a fun change of pace to focus on bolstering their armies with scary Anubis statues and “Necropolis Knights riding constructs that resemble cobras.” That said, removed from their specific campaign mechanics, I’m not sure if I’d like them as much, and in the hypothetical scenario where I get way into competitive multiplayer (which is not likely to happen any time soon) they’re definitely not my first or second choice.
5. High Elves
Lore: I can appreciate any fantasy lore where Elves are always some level of asshole, and the Asur very much fall into the High Elven tradition of long-lived arrogance. Their home continent of Ulthuan is even modeled after classical descriptions of Atlantis, in case you didn’t get the whole “People who have been around for too long and claim to represent some long-lost golden age” thing. Admittedly, they’ve been trying to save the world from the forces of Chaos for longer than those upstart humans have been crawling in the dirt, so they do have good intentions at heart, even if they’re going to sort of be dicks about it.
Campaign Mechanics: Being long-lived and having a lot of free time on their hands means the High Elf nobility loves themselves some decadent court intrigue, and they’re quite good at it too. All High Elf factions have access to an “Influence” resource (usually gained through quests and various random events) which they can spend to meddle around with diplomatic relationships (the Empire has a limited form of this post-rework, but it only applies to their own factions) With sufficient influence, you can befriend a formerly neutral faction, trick two third parties into going to war, or keep someone off your back long enough to deal with more immediate threats. It’s definitely cheesable if you accrue enough of it, but the same can be said for like half the campaign mechanics in this game.
The Asur (and the other two Elf factions) are also capable of drawing the Sword of Khaine from its shrine located at the north end of Ulthuan. In the lore, the sword was a legendary weapon of great power that also eventually drove the Elf King Aenarion to madness, even as he used it to save the world from Chaos. Indeed, the longer you hold onto it, the more powerful it becomes… at the cost of severe public order, diplomatic, and even upkeep penalties. While other factions can steal the sword if they defeat its wielder, at some point they too will succumb to the dark whispers. Basically, it’s the kind of thing that can absolutely, single-handedly turn the tide in a lot of battles, but can also tank an entire campaign if the player holds onto it for too long.
Army Roster: So, you know how The Empire meant to be the “Jack of All-Trades” army? The High Elves say “Nah bro” to that. Or rather, if the Empire is okay-to-good at almost everything with great artillery, then the Asur are good-to-great at almost everything with a single, okay artillery piece. Good infantry, solid cavalry, great archers and mages, even a couple of phoenixes and dragons in case you wanted some air superiority on top of everything else. As it to emphasize this further, most of their units have the “Martial Prowess” ability, which increases their effectiveness when they enter the battle at full strength. So… what’s the catch? That prowess doesn’t come cheap, and most of their units tend to be squishier than average. While you can eventually overcome the former in campaign somewhat thanks to the great High Elf economy, in the more strict environment of competitive multiplayer it’s generally accepted that Elf armies are going to be outnumbered more often than not.
Favorite Legendary Lord: Tyrion is so, so obviously meant to be the go-to choice for someone’s first campaign, it’s not even funny. Dude has one of the easiest starting locations in either campaign, with upkeep discounts for basic HE infantry and a giant-ass flaming sword capable of mowing through infantry and enemy lords alike. So, obviously, he’s boring. If you want an actual interesting Ulthuan campaign, pick Allarielle, the Everqueen (she has some unique mechanics and penalties based on how much of the continent is occupied by non-Asur factions.) Tyrion’s squishy nerd brother Teclis offers a much more difficult start, being the requisite High Elf entrant into the jungle-shrouded blender of Lustria (on the other hand? One of the best mages in the game) so he’s more fun. But you know who’s the most fun? Alith Anar, the Shadow King of Nagarythe spends his time taking the fight directly to the Dark Elves, with a much sneakier, ambush heavy playstyle (and the ability to take assassination contracts for money and influence) He’s also a sniping skirmish lord with roughly the range of a howitzer who can create a illusory double of himself, which is a great way to lure the AI around even if a canny human player might notice said double doesn’t inflict damage.
Official Scientific Ranking: The High Elves are startlingly effective at what they do, which is pretty much everything, which makes them a lot of fun to play. They’re clearly meant as the ideal starting faction for players still learning the game, for as much as I think a potential newbie would be fine starting with almost anyone who isn’t too gimmicky or difficult.
And... only one more to go! This, perhaps unsurprisingly, got a lot longer than I thought it was going to. Here's Part 3.