Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Time Commanders - Resurrected!

The most popular post (over 4 views!) of our humble blog is the one that references War Games on The Telly (nice to see those hours of painting eyeballs is going unappreciated).

So when I saw the series had been revived after a decade, I thought I'd take another look at Time Commanders!

I said TIME, damnit!

The Format

The set-up was remarkably consistent with previous versions, since it basically all revolves around playing Total War (never referred to by name - instead there are some allusions to all this being created specially for you by Auntie Beeb) in a very big room.

The host has changed, and we no longer have either Eddie Mair (now a serious broadcaster) or Richard Hammond (now Sue the Panda in the live-action Jeremy Clarkson Sooty Show). Masterchef's Gregg Wallace has taken the helm, and while that seems an unlikely choice, he does very well, approaching it with the enthusiasm he normally reserves for a high-calorie dessert.

As an added bonus, he has a tendency to shout "You're getting absolutely MULLERED, mate!" at contestants who are struggling to play a popular computer game.

"Napoleon's going to get BATTERED!" (boom-tisch)

They're retained the services of the original military experts: Mike Loades (still boundlessly enthusiastic, although he now uses the contestants for his demonstrations, rather than plastic counters) and Lynette Nusbacher (now a lady, somewhat more earnest, and no longer calling the Roman cavalry 'crap' at every opportunity).

The producer hit on the genius idea of putting the experts on a balcony, so they can look down (in both senses) on the contestants, and they also have to shout at them to be heard. Shouting plays a big part in ramping up the drama here.

As a bonus, we now have an outside team - a crew of rough and tumble weapons experts (in a regular history show, they'd be the ones doing the digging, while Tony Robinson has a cuppa to camera). These maniacs demonstrate the hack, slash and kaboom of the period's weapons, and it's clear why all their segments are on video. Let them in the studio, and they'd have someone's eye out.

The Teams

And now we come to the changes in the contestants - following the very same suggestion that I made FIVE YEARS AGO (don't tell me BBC researchers don't read this blog), they've removed the team-vs-AI mode that was so dull, and gone for direct head-to-head competition.

Instead of one team of four, there are two teams of three (they also did anyway with the fourth member, another of my brilliant suggestions) that each take a side of the battle. The team captain is the overall general, who must issue (i.e. shout) instructions to their two lieutenants. The lieutenants must then speak to the Total War operators (the true heroes of this tale).

So the general is playing a game of Total War by telling someone to tell someone else what to do, against another general doing exactly the same thing. It's a great way to replicate the Fog of War, and an intentionally complicated process, not unlike trying to talk your Dad through updating his antivirus software over the phone.

Both teams have a practice skirmish (i.e. a chance to stuff up live on camera and have Gregg shout at them) against the AI, and then we're off the main battle. This is conducted with both teams in play, partitioned off by a huge computer screen that displays the battlefield from each perspective, which is awesome and I wish I had one.

The improved graphics of Total War over the last ten years, coupled with some suitably dramatic music, really do improve the drama that unfolds, and a good time is had by all.

Episode 1: Zama

Finding good, memorable and engaging contestants must be quite a challenge (ref: Take Me Out), but the producers knocked it out of the park for the first episode. A trio of Glaswegian wrestlers - huge bronzed specimens of masculinity (except for the one who looked like a Chuckle Brother) - versus a team of 'board game enthusiasts'.

And it's difficult to see those last three words without putting them in air quotes. I think we know what demographic we're talking about here.

Whoever wins, only one team is getting lucky at the wrap party.

Sure enough, the Scottish Carthaginians set about their task with characteristic vigour ("Jist gie an' lat at them!") and won their skirmish so convincingly that Gregg barely had time to shout at them.

Playing the Romans was Team Boardgame, and the standout character was the leader - chosen for having the floppiest hair - who barked out orders like a junior officer cadet and insisted on playing the role in the character of a Roman general. However when faced with a real human being (such as a bellowing Gregg Wallace), he tended to go red and talk to his feet.

Truly he represented the dark side of gaming that we all must strive against every day. We loathe him, because we are him, and the narrative of the episode was clearly geared to make you want to see him comprehensively thumped in the main battle, get yelled at by Gregg, and disappear into his own shoes.

(apologies to the actual team captain - who may well be a very nice person and an actual human being - this is all about how it was presented in the edit)

Anyway, the final battle proved to be a catalogue of errors (although they also introduced the option of a 'time out' for each time, so they could reflect on their errors and get shouted at some more). The Carthaginians released their elephants too soon, the Romans faffed about and got their cavalry wiped out by slingers. The whole thing turned into an infantry grind - where both Hannibal and Scipio were killed - and since there's no-one better at that than the Romans, they won the day with about four legionaries left standing.

Victory went to the dice-rollers.

Episode 2: Waterloo

Looking at the contestants for this episode, it seems they were aiming a pattern. One one side were a team of archers (including, in a shock twist, a woman), and so continuing the martial prowess theme. On the other side were a team of ... aquarium workers?

Gregg made a few comments along the lines of 'you could hit them with a fish', but you could tell his heart wasn't it in.

In the skirmish game, Team Poisson were the French, and basically learned that infantry don't enjoy getting shot by cannon. The experts were particularly unhelpful, telling the guys that their manoeuvres were both clever and sure to get their troops massacred.

The Archers were given command of three British regiments and some heavy dragoons (you don't often see that in Ambridge). And while their task seemed easier - form square and chase off the French cavalry - they did it with aplomb. With a diminutive height shared by all of history's great commanders, the team leader created killing zones of musket fire, then drove the cavalry into it.

When it came to the big battle, command and control fell apart somewhat. The French made a huge surge to attack the farmhouse that was the hinge of the British-Dutch and Prussian armies (not a bad idea), which the British countered by sweeping in on the unengaged French left while the Prussians plugged the gap on the right. The British commander, flush with success after the first skirmish, confidently guessed the enemy's movements - although her confidence was thrown when this turned out to be false. Indeed the archer was, at one stage, a-quiver (come on, Gregg, how could you miss that gag?).

In reality, both sides were unable to coordinate their forces, which mean both infantry and artillery were left exposed and the more-responsive cavalry ruled the day. Having superior cavalry, the French were causing mayhem, but unable to follow it up. One of the French subordinates lost faith in his commander and started exceeding his authority (I don't think they intended to mimic Ney and Napoleon, but they did).

In the end, both side just scraped up what resources they had left and it became a final grind. The other French subordinate seemed to have a better handle on the tactical side, and was fighting a desperate last stand that almost prevailed ("La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!") - but ultimately the Allies had just enough left to win, and Boney was killed.

A much better episode this time, although I'm deducting points as they opened the show describing Napoleon's 'Grand Army' when it was clearly the Armée du Nord (and the Grande Armée hadn't been around since 1812). This isn't your poached quail's egg with walnut vinaigrette, Gregg - this matters.

Episode 3: Romans vs Huns

The last of the episodes doubled-down on the martial theme, pitting a trio of kickboxers against a team of 'karate experts' (who were, with all respect, more in the Mr Miyagi style than Bruce Lee). It was to half a dozen blank looks that Gregg announced that they would be re-fighting the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains!

Such historical ambivalence is understandable: while everyone knows about Waterloo (from ABBA), and Zama (from Gladiator - sort of), this decline-era Roman/Hun battle doesn't get much attention.

"My my! At the Catalaunian Plains, the consequences were indecisive!
Oh Yeah!"

They perked up a bit when Attila the Hun was mentioned (and since no-one's ever heard of the Roman commander, Publius Anonymous, you can guess who came out better in the history books).

The practice games were straightforward: the Kickboxers, commanding the Huns, learned Horse Archer 101: you can ride circles around infantry, shooting at them until they are weak enough to get run down. Suspiciously, the team of young lads seemed pretty familiar with how computer simulations work,

The Karate Kids tried out the Roman carroballista, for a similar self-evidentiary lesson: artillery is devastating at range, but very vulnerable. They just about pulled out a win, mostly by forgetting where they'd put their cavalry until the last moment, thereby creating an accidental strategic reserve. They players seemed less au fait with both warfare and computer games (and computers), which didn't bode well.

The high point of this skirmish was Gregg 'discovering' two of the players were related, thereby exclaiming: "You've got a SISTER on the BALLISTA!". I'm not entirely sure this was brand new information, but I'm sure if one of the generals had been a nun, the same gag would have applied.

In the preamble to the big battle, Gregg has developed a set number of questions ("What did you learn?" "Are you confident?") including the bizarre enquiry: "Do you have the right general?". In all three shows, no-one has displayed the necessary heart of stone to boot off one of their friends, and I can't imagine anyone would (although if Team WoffBoot ever represented here, you never know...)

The big battle centred around capturing a hill: the Romans were closer, but had to haul their slow-moving artillery onto it before the Hunnic horsemen got to them. Both sides dawdled somewhat, getting obsessed in a cavalry clash on the wing, but in truth, Attila's Kickboxers had the game well in hand. They were able to coordinate their forces, and manage their chain of command (general does strategy, lieutenants handle tactics), better than any other team in the series. The Karate team, by contrast, had to have it explained to them that the horse symbol on the screen meant 'cavalry'.

Most enlightening was the way both teams used their time outs. The Romans went first, after they'd lost an entire wing of Visigoth allies, and just looked at the two experts with a 'what do we do now?' expression. (I'm not sure how useful these experts are: Nusbacher tends to flow into historical narrative - "Theoderic is being carried off the battlefield on the spears of his Visigoths" - when they're probably looking for something more practical: "right-click on that unit and move it over there").

By contrast, the Kickboxers also called a time out, but completely ignored the experts and used the breather to talk amongst themselves and coordinate their final attack. You couldn't really begrudge them, as it was clear they had a plan and knew what they were doing.

And so the Roman war machines never reached the hill, but were caught by Hunnic cavalry and wiped out, the horse-archers rampaged across the battlefield and the infantry finished off. The poor Karate team got tabled in the biggest win of the series.

Quo Vadis?

Terrific fun - but only three episodes? If the BBC researchers are reading this (and they CLEARLY ARE), my first feedback would be that I'd want more of them. The format has been improved (as has the computer game), there's not a weak link in there, and it makes for a thoroughly entertaining hour.

Something that would be good to see would be a the return of victorious teams, University Challenge style. I think the contestants are intended to approach Total War cold, but don't think a familiarity with the game would be a bad thing if it leads to more interesting battles.

In addition, they could try something other than pitched battles - sieges, amphibious landings etc - I assume Total War accommodates that.

Of course, then there's the ultimate dream that they would recreate Total War: Warhammer. Not sure how they'd get the historical experts to comment on that one, but it would make a cracking Christmas episode.


  1. They could hire us as historical experts, that would work for starters.

    Total War's last historical game, Attila, could definitely handle sieges, naval landings and so on. And with aplomb, it's their best title in my opinion, even though I have a deeply soft spot for TW: Warhammer.

    Shame that they aren't going to do naval combat for that title, apparently, I'd have loved a bit of naval battle with black arks, etc, to mix it up. They also took a lot of the depth out of their siege battles for Warhammer, which in some ways is fair enough - the tabletop wasn't ever a great medium for them either, although I do miss a nice wall assault action myself.

    How do we apply to be contestants, by the way? Do you know?

    1. A new series hasn't been confirmed, but I'll keep a beady eye out.

      The last call asked for team members to "have a good dynamic", which puts us at a disadvantage.

  2. If I might be a massive (and potentially incorrect) pedant, on a very technical level they aren't using total war, but instead a specially made game engine created by Creative Assembly heavily based on Total War.

    1. Very true - TW generally covers a single time period, so they must have done something different to have huns, romans and Napoleonic cavalry in the same engine. I wondered if it was based on their Arena game, which lets you pitch famous units through time against each other (if I understand it right, I never played it)