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My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

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Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

This choice is mostly on account of its seasonal spirit – the shot was taken on the morning of Christmas Eve in Varkala, Kerala, India in 2012. That morning the beach was full of people, promenading on the sand, enjoying the sea air, and partaking in various religious rites. A local priest had set up a small shrine on the beach, the altar built atop a mound of sand, and some smallish painted idols had been placed nearby. Kerala has a large Christian community, courtesy of Portuguese colonialism, and it was interesting to see how Christmas celebrations were blended with more traditional practises. Some locals made offerings of rice and flowers to the sea, wading in knee-deep, though very few, apart from the local canoe fishermen, went further into the water.

The early crowd can be seen in the background; the stretch of beach on which the man runs was tidally cut off by a cluster of rocks, out of shot, and was near deserted. At 0700 AM, it was already warm and the humid haze can be seen building in the greyish sky. The water was a bath-like 24-25 degrees and remained shallow for almost a hundred metres out to sea.

This young man seemed a rare sight – apart from playing cricket, or the all too common back-breaking physical labour, it isn’t that common to see Indian people exercising in public. He had a real spring in his step and seemed quite delighted with his morning run. Whether he was a local or one of the many tourists who had come to spend Christmas at the sea, I’m not sure, but he certainly offered a celebratory spirit on that jetlagged first morning in India.

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Stunning Pluto, colour enhanced to highlight different terrain and composition.

Like so many people I’ve been completely gripped by the New Horizons mission to Pluto – a gift to humanity that, for the moment, keeps on giving. The exploration of the Pluto system completes the initial reconnaissance of our classical solar system, for we have now visited all the planets (putting aside disputes about Pluto’s status) with probes. Though this process really began in 1961 with the Soviet Venera 1 mission to Venus, the probe lost contact before it made its flyby and thus the first successful visit to another planet came the following year, with Nasa’s Mariner 2, which also went to Venus. From that time forward, a quite staggering number of probes have been sent to explore our  immediate neighbourhood.

Questions are frequently raised about the cost and purpose of space exploration, with a variety of arguments put forward that it is a waste of money. Yet, when we consider the returns from investment in space, scientifically, philosophically and economically, it is clear that such ventures are not only vital to understanding our place in the universe, but also offer many positive outcomes and benefits.

Exploration of the solar system not only fills people with a sense of wonder and excitement, it also reminds us just how unique our own planet is and how utterly inhospitable the rest of the planets are – for Homo Sapiens. Ideally this should inspire us to protect our planet – just as the first photographs of the Earth from space were a huge inspiration to green and global peace movements back in the 1960s. Seen from space, it is completely clear that the Earth is one planet we all must share, not some disparate mosaic of places so different that conflict between us must be inevitable.

The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the solar system, in which our home is a mere one pixel against the immensity of space, showed us once again what a tiny oasis we live on. One pixel, that’s all we have, and we really need to stop trashing the joint.

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Pale Blue Dot – Earth captured by Voyager I – lower middle right of frame

The exploration of space may be carried out by national space agencies, and their flag waving may seem parochial, but that is just a reflection of the immense pride in this huge and noble achievement. Space exploration is for everyone – for all humankind. As the International Space Station has shown, when it comes to space, the scientists and astronauts of different nations cooperate with a warmth and eagerness that is admirable, because they know that their work goes far beyond petty nationalisms. Obviously the space program was born of a kind of international competition, but even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia were working together in space to their mutual benefit, and, arguably, for all our benefits. When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon in 1969, the whole world rejoiced. This was not merely an American achievement, it was arguably the most colossal achievement of the human race’s entire history. A life-form descended from an ape had somehow managed to leave its home-world and travel to another world. Wow.

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Where we live

Our exploration of our solar system and the vastness of space beyond has not only allowed us to throw off mistaken ideas about the place of the Earth in the solar system, it has taught us our address in the universe. We are, at present, mapping the entire sky in an attempt to put together a map of the visible universe.  We now know precisely where we are in the Milky Way Galaxy and where our galaxy lies in relation to other galaxies in our local group. We now know that at the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole – Sagittarius A*, around which our unremarkable but life-giving star orbits, along with anything between 100 and 400 billion other stars.

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Sagittarius A-Star

We know that our own galaxy is but one galaxy among billions of other galaxies whirling, and it seems, accelerating through space. We know that the universe is not some permanent, static thing, but something that was born and has the potential to die, and is, indeed, expanding. We now know the age of the universe (c. 13.82 billion years); we know the age of the sun (c.4.57 billion years) and the planets (Earth, c. 4.54 billion years). Previously our ignorance of these things meant that we were dominated by superstition, with all the calamities and oppression that religion has brought to humanity throughout its long history. I accept that religion has played an important role in the origins of organised human society, yet its rigid, inflexible and wrong-headed ideas which justify intolerance, autocracy, homophobia, misogyny and genocide have no place in the modern world. Understanding the origins of the universe and of our own sun and planets, understanding how the planets and stars move in space and understanding how all this can be attributed purely to the laws of physics is helping us to throw off the shackles of these restrictive and punitive beliefs. Further exploration can only push superstitions about our origins and those of the Earth itself to the margins, and, in the context of the recent barbarism in the name of religion and widespread ignorance that denies the reality of climate change, this can’t happen soon enough.

By no means has all of this been done through space-based probes, but exploration of the universe began, of course, with the human eye and telescopes. In recent decades, however, the ability to deploy telescopes to space has greatly improved our knowledge and vision of the universe. Indeed, since the 1970s, more than eighty probes have been sent into Earth’s orbit and beyond measuring our planet, the solar system, galaxy and wider universe in gamma rays, x-rays, visible and infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.

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Square Kilometre Array – Artist’s impression

The James Webb Space Telescope

The new telescopes being developed for deployment on both Earth and in space, the Square Kilometre Array, the James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the “imaginatively” named Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope to name a few, will allow us, for example, to find planets in neighbouring star systems with an accuracy of which we have only dreamed. This is key information not just for refining our understanding our origins and how unique or typical our planet and planetary system is in space, but also for developing maps of our neighbourhood which may one day be necessary should we ever need to look beyond our solar system for a new home, or indeed, be driven to colonise the other planets in our solar system.

Potentially habitable exoplanets

We can only guess what they look like, but we know they are there

Such distant outcomes seem almost pointlessly farfetched, yet the knowledge and wisdom we gain from this – the insights into questions as fundamental as the prevalence of life in the universe, whether or not we are alone, and whether or not we can one day expand our horizons, come at such a relatively cheap price that it would be foolish not to gain this knowledge. Humans have, after all, always looked beyond the horizon. It’s how we colonised our own world in the first place.

Such high minded motivations aside, there are also huge economic and environmental benefits which derive from space exploration and the space program. Consider all the technological spin-offs that have come from the space industry in the past – it’s a very long list, but here are a few highlights – solar cells, chemical detection devices, scratch resistant plastic, anti-icing systems for aircraft, light-emitting diodes, fire-fighting equipment, water purification, cordless tools, powdered lubricants, air-pollution extraction, freeze-drying, improved heart pumps, robotic artificial limbs, invisible braces, improved insulation materials… Many other technologies which already existed have been refined and improved by scientists working on space programs. Take for example the chemical detection devices used to sniff out gases on other worlds or deep space – these “artificial noses” have a huge range of actual and potential applications on Earth.

Our knowledge of our own planet, particularly with regard to our understanding of the climate, atmosphere, and surface and ocean temperatures has expanded enormously thanks to an ever-growing list of Earth-observation satellites. Such programs as the ESA’s Copernicus Program, which has already launched two of six planned satellites to observe weather, vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas, atmospheric temperatures, will allow us to foresee and predict changes on our own planet and help us to act accordingly. Arguably, such satellites might be considered more vital and practical than those visiting other parts of the solar system, yet even these programs attract similar questions about the value of the investment.

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Serving society indeed. Hear hear!

Rather than raising questions about spending money on science such as this, people should really turn their attention to the million and one other things humanity wastes its money on and question those priorities first. Consider, for example, the billions of dollars given in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries; the tax breaks dolled out to the hugely wealthy and to religious institutions, the opulent waste of our overconsumption, the recent bail-out of banks and the horrifically expensive and destructive wars we fight. Investing just a fraction of this waste in cutting-edge research would advance humanity’s interests enormously and move us into a cleaner, greener future.

As someone who believes in a strong state system where wealth is taxed sufficiently to provide high quality services to the entire population and fund intellectual, artistic and humanitarian endeavours, it goes without saying that the first priority of a government should be bread and butter portfolios such as health and education. Yet, with adequate taxation there should be plenty of money to fund space exploration and space-based research, along with all other viable fields of enquiry. Space exploration is, at the end of the day, not that expensive. The Curiosity rover is a ground-breaking, prestige mission that has put a plutonium-powered, multi-functioning, mobile robotic laboratory on Mars which could potentially continue to explore the red planet for the next fifteen years – and it cost only 2.5 billion dollars. As a lump sum, this may seem a lot of money, but then, consider the fact that stealth bombers cost two billion dollars each and the US has, to our knowledge, built 21 of them. Unlike the Curiosity rover, they are not helping us to consider fundamental questions such as whether or not life may have first originated on Mars.

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Curiosity rover selfie

It must be said that investment in military technological development has also produced a long range of admirably useful and important spin-off technologies. Yet such research could just as easily be conducted with peaceful, civilian purposes as its primary goal, and the cost of military hardware is outrageous to the point of scandalous, when we consider the destructive application of these machines.

Not only does such research benefit us, it makes a net profit. At present, defence spending in the US accounts for 24.5% of total spending, whereas NASA’s budget equates to 0.5%. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo program cost one twentieth of the 2.4 trillion dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Apollo program employed roughly 409,000 people, many of whom gained ground-breaking experience in the development of new skills and technologies, the two wars led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people and practically bankrupted the United States. It may not be an equitable comparison, but it gives a pretty clear sense of where money might be better spent. And consider this – because of the high-end, high-value tech spin-offs that come from NASA and associates, it is estimated that for every $1 invested, between $7 and $14 are generated, which is a pretty neat profit however you look at it.

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Many start-up companies are now working towards developing asteroid mining industries. As difficult as the task might prove to be, the benefits could be incalculable. Asteroids in our neighbourhood contain enormous, untapped deposits of rare and important minerals of which we have but a finite amount on our own planet. Potentially, these minerals can be extracted in space and transported to Earth without destroying our own vital ecosystems. If the industry ever manages to get off the ground, we could one day see an end to mining on Earth and instead gain all our mineral needs from space. What a relief this would be for our fragile environment. Knowing what is out there in the first place allows us to imagine such alternatives.

These are just some of the practical benefits of space exploration, put in harder, economic terms. Yet in truth, the real benefits we gain from this exercise go far beyond anything as tawdry as money. Space exploration is a source of great wonder and inspiration and it is a important way for us to contextualise ourselves and our existence, in the vastly wider and utterly indifferent cosmos. The Cassini probe has been studying and photographing Saturn and its moons since 2004, and has provided us with some of the most breath-taking images of the solar system’s beauty – the tiger stripes of Enceladus, the hydrocarbon lakes on the surface of Titan, the strange blue hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. Space exploration offers immense pleasure through the discovery of beautiful things.

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Beautiful Enceladus could harbour life in its tidally-heated subsurface ocean.

Saturn’s Blue Hexagon was well worth a look

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Hydrocarbon lakes seen in a rare glimpse through the haze of Titan.

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Little Rhea before the immensity of Saturn and its rings in profile

No one expected Pluto to look as beautiful as it does. Even the most enthusiastic planetary scientists would have thought you were smoking crack if you told them they’d find tall mountains of water ice and flowing glaciers of frozen gases on a geologically active world, or a hazy, blue nitrogen sky. The sheer beauty of this distant world has made our lives richer and we can only see these images because we made the effort to go there. I say to anyone who doubts whether or not the small price paid for this mission was worth it to take a really good look at the picture below, in high resolution, on a very wide screen. Science fiction, eat your heart out.

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Pluto, a fantasy wonderland of gloriously active geology.

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Venice Fish Markets, March 8, 2007

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Venice Fish Markets, March 8, 2007

The fish markets in Venice are a busy place in the mornings and offer great people-watching opportunities. Traditional markets nearly always make for potentially excellent subject matter as they not only contain such a variety of objects and colours, but they also often contain some real characters. The markets are open until around five in the afternoon, by which time things have wound down considerably and most of the vendors have either gone, or are busily in the process of packing up. Once the place has been cleared, the cleaners come in to hose it down. Fortunately, the space remains open to the public and one can still wander around after closing time.

The market building, a modestly-sized neo-gothic arcade, roughly five arches wide either side, sits on a bend in the Grand Canal, with another canal to one side, perpendicular to the main artery. It therefore offers quite a wide view from its edges, but the interior space also has a simple attractiveness to it. The red canvas awnings combine beautifully with the blue tarpaulins to create a colourful and vibrant luminosity which reflects in the wet flagstones. It is a very engaging place to visit, open or closed, and is located near to the Rialto. Indeed, it is referred to as the Rialto Market or the Campo della Pescheria.

These two shots constitute a before and after image of the markets. The chap with the cigarette certainly seemed an indomitable character with a lot of flair about him, evidenced through his choice of hat and cigarette holder. Then again, these could equally be seen as practical choices – keeping his hair off the fish and allowing him to hold his cigarette without wetting it, or covering it in squid ink, for that matter.

Three young men, Shekhawati, Rajasthan, India, April 1, 2010

Three young men, Shekhawati, Rajasthan, India, April 1, 2010

This shot was one of many wonderful gifts given to me by Indian people during my first trip to India in 2010. Being generally pretty shy when it comes to strangers, I tend to photograph people furtively, from a distance, rather than shoving my camera in their face. This means that most of the time I get candid shots of people whose attention is elsewhere and not focussed on the camera. For the most part this is great, and I generally prefer candid shots of people doing whatever it is they are doing, yet sometimes the lack of eye-contact deprives the photo of the arresting intimacy that direct portraits can offer. Fortunately, in India, many people ask to have their photo taken, which makes it possible to get some lovely portraits, without any feelings of guilt or, at worst, exploitation.

These three young boys approached me in the  Rajasthani town of Shekhawati, famous for its gorgeously decorated old Havelis – a type of private mansion common in parts of India and Pakistan. They were curious as to where I was from and, as with so many Indians, wanted to know what I thought of India. After a brief exchange, they all requested that I take their photo and quickly arranged themselves in front of the camera. I remember how excited I was at the time, because they were such great subjects with their immaculate, wonderfully styled clothes and their friendly, expressive faces. I wanted nothing more than to take their photo, and yet would likely have been too shy to ask myself.

While all three make engaging subjects, I especially like the fact that the young man to the right of the frame chose to look away at the crucial moment, thus adding an unexpected dynamism to this triple portrait. His cocked leg and crossed arms give him an air of confident nonchalance, which matches his carefree smile. I only wish I had time to ask who their tailor was, in which case I’d have had enough shirts and trousers made to last me a life time. What clothes!

Playing the Western Roman Empire (hereafter WRE) in Total War: Attila can be a pretty tough assignment, and, some would say, nigh impossible. For the most part, everyone is out to get you and they will combine forces to take you down on many fronts. The opponents you will face initially, however, are as nothing compared to what the Huns bring later in the game. So, the one thing you need to bear in mind is that you have until around AD 420 to get your house in order before Attila descends on Europe. This is, in fact, plenty of time. The following strategy guide offers some important tips on how to survive and, indeed, prosper as the Western Empire. For fuller, general coverage, including a greater number of screenshots, see my review of the game.

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Keep the flag flying

The first thing to do is study your empire in some detail. Take a good half hour to go through all your cities and regions and check out the position of your armies and the state of your economy. The WRE begins with 68 regions, many of which are already in a state of rapidly declining order and on the brink of disease, but they also present huge possibilities with regard to economic development.

Initially you need to focus on improving the amount of gold you earn per turn, otherwise, it will soon become impossible to fund armies and pay for vital city improvements. One slightly radical way to do this is to destroy every single religious building in your empire in your first turn, except for the one in Rome itself which is already capable of building priests. This may sound counter-intuitive, but religious buildings cost money to maintain and are not really worth the investment – certainly not in the early stages of the game. The maximum religious penalty in regions in which the dominant religion is not strong – in this case, Latin Christianity – was recently increased to -6 per province, which is wearable, especially as it will take some time for Latin Christianity to decline significantly enough in those regions to give you a real headache. You can far more easily suppress disorder through classical architecture – amphitheatres, theatres etc, which cost food to maintain, not money, and provide far larger bonuses to civil order than religious buildings. In the early game, food is much easier to come by while fertility is high and is the better option as a currency through which to maintain order.

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Roman army in the snow

Demolishing the churches will not only hugely increase money immediately – as demolition puts the value of the buildings in money into your  coffers, but it also removes significant maintenance costs for the buildings. This money could be far better spent maintaining aqueducts and paying for other vital improvements. If you don’t like the idea of demolishing churches, bear in mind that you can always increase your religious output and shift your city-development focus later in the game, but initially it is not a good investment and will hinder more than help.

While on the subject of religion, my very strongest piece of advice when playing the WRE is DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT research ANY of the religious techs. These cause you to forget earlier techs and thus lock out the construction of key infrastructure which is far more valuable, especially where sanitation is concerned. Instead of being able to build amphitheatres and aqueducts, you will have to rely on expensive-to-maintain churches, which provide less happiness and nowhere near enough sanitation. Another problem with the religious sanitation buildings that can be constructed in the capital cities is that their effects are local only, and not shared with the other regions of the province, unlike the aqueducts. Again, this might sound like a radical suggestion, but you can skip these techs altogether and it will not hamper your game, indeed, quite the opposite.

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A long front line – spearmen in the desert

The first time I played the WRE I practically crippled myself by losing the ability to build aqueducts and tier three or four entertainment buildings. On the second run, things went much more smoothly, largely because I still had access to these techs and could build, for example, aqueduct networks will give +16 sanitation and +4 happiness to all regions in a province, but cost only 200 to maintain. On the happiness score, for 100 food, the top tier theatres and circuses are manageable provided you structure the region’s agricultural output to cater for this, offering between + 13 and +17 bonus to happiness. But the top tier religious building in a regional capital – the Patriarchal See, costs 3000 per turn to maintain.

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Overpriced and best demolished…

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A far cheaper way to improve sanitation, not something you can afford to do without

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3000 per turn? Ludicrous

That is not just an outrageous price, it is a total rip-off considering they offer fewer bonuses. Not researching religious techs only means you can’t research more religious texts, and does not interfere with any other lines of research. Plus, you can always go back and research these techs at any stage in the game if you change your mind, though I can’t imagine why anyone would bother. It is, purely and simply, much easier to play without them altogether.

As might be gleaned from the above, Sanitation is a key focus early on in the game. This should be your first priority when it comes to construction. You need to build as many waterworks as possible in your capital cities until every province has healthy sanitation levels. If necessary, break down any military buildings in capitals that lack waterworks – in the early stages, your basic troops types will be sufficient against mostly tier 1 enemies, and you can find enough cheap to maintain barbarian archers, slingers and cavalry to supplement the testudo-capable spearmen, which are the bedrock of the Roman army. The one thing you really might need to build early on is a carpenter in one of your capitals. This will allow you to build onagers, and personally, I think every army should have at least one, as it allows for an immediate assault on a walled city and can be used to destroy forts when an enemy has bunkered down.

2015-07-19_00004

None shall pass

Sanitation issues will kill you early on because disease causes a huge loss of income and punishing happiness penalties, which become cumulatively worse as other cities in the region succumb; disease spreads from city to city and can also be carried by armies. If it gets into your troops, they will suffer attrition for a random number of turns, which can seriously weaken your forces and make them incapable of garrisoning without spreading the disease further. If disease gets out of hand, it can cripple your economy and will hamper your ability to solve the problems, thus creating a vicious circle. It is generally easier to build the major sanitation buildings in your capitals and not worry about fountains and bathhouses in the other towns – these are only really useful where you do not control the capital and, anyway, you will want those slots in the minor towns for food and the like.

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Coastal raid

It is worth mentioning that however hard you try, you will suffer a lot of disease early on. This is because it springs up surprisingly often and then it spreads along roads and trade-routes from city to city, so it gets around.  Don’t be lulled into thinking a 1% chance of disease outbreak means it will not happen. This game seems to make the unluckiest of dice-rolls and those percentages are at best misleading and at worst, completely fictional. Inevitably, you won’t be able to build sanitation buildings quickly enough, so start with your richest provinces to ensure they are safe and sound first. They still might get disease even then, as seasonal penalties such as “Bad Winter” results in +5 squalor, which seems to make cities unreasonably vulnerable to outbreaks. Once you have your sanitation in place, the disease will gradually disappear from your empire except for occasional outbreaks. This will make maintaining happiness and income far easier going forward. Just make sure you pay attention to sanitation levels in each region when building improvements, as you will also need to upgrade your sanitation accordingly.

On the economic front, I would recommend focussing as much as possible on generating money. Thus, you should initially favour economic techs over military. In fact, over the first few turns, it’s a good idea to alternate between the military and economic techs, until the first tiers of each tree is fleshed out. This will both improve your income and also improve the standard of your baseline troops – allowing upgrades of the Limitanei Border Guards to Comitatensis Spears, which will be your key frontline unit throughout most of the game, as well as reducing their maintenance costs.

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Defensive formations are key, especially against cavalry armies. Save your cavalry for flanking attacks and mopping up. Charge, retreat, rinse, repeat

Initially you can probably ignore the siege-related technologies, and, on the economic side, those relating to religion as noted above. After sharing between military and economic techs in the first tier of the technologies, you should primarily focus on economic techs for a good while. The reason is that your unit types will be sufficiently advanced to withstand your enemies for a good twenty-odd years, and later you can begin to research high-level military techs. Roman cavalry is generally not great, and I tend to rely primarily on barbarian mercenaries anyway, so you can ignore developing this line until much later. The key areas of focus really should be – Military techs which improve the baseline infantry troops and reduce maintenance costs, and economic techs which improve tax rate and income from buildings, primarily focussing on animal husbandry.

On the subject of food, it is vital that you don’t neglect to sustain a surplus across your empire. If your total production is negative across all provinces, your armies will all suffer attrition and will not replenish. Also, for each province that is short of food individually, there is a -25% penalty to income, which is hugely significant. It’s a good idea to really stay on top of your food situation. This won’t always be easy, but it’s a key strategic consideration.

2015-07-17_00001

Agriculture

When it comes to food, the Romans are a little hard done by compared to others. Initially, many of your provinces will have wheat farms, as wheat produces by far the most food – when you have a fertility bonus to a region. However, the baseline food production of wheat is the lowest. Cattle Herds and Sheep Pens, on the other hand, produce more baseline food than wheat, but less bonus food, though they also produce more income. What you have to consider is that in AD 400, about twenty turns into the game, the first hit of climate change will happen, reducing each province’s fertility by 1. This means that while, initially, wheat farms will produce a lot of food, their output will gradually decrease and you will eventually have to switch them for cattle and sheep. It might be better to focus on cattle and sheep from the start, because these should still provide enough food for you, but also they produce more much needed income. Once a region reaches zero fertility, you can convert all the wheat to cattle, etc, which will ultimately be less food than when fertility was high, but will likely get you over the line so far as feeding the region is concerned. Food markets in the capital, fishing ports and special resources can supplement food hugely, so bear them in mind. Always bear in mind the food costs of any building you construct in your provincial capitals and, as with sanitation, plan accordingly to get the balance right.

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Worth defending

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Winter in a Roman town

It is also vital to plan how much food you will need going forward, in order that building food-taxing improvements doesn’t suddenly leave your people starving. So, do the maths and plan well. In some provinces you will not be able to maintain a surplus, and it is often a good idea to dedicate one whole province to military improvements, for example, and rely on the overall surplus of food across the board. If, as I would recommend, you ultimately rely on animal husbandry buildings, then it is wise to pair these with tanners and leather-workers in the local industry building tree. These not only produce significant income themselves, but also add an incremental percentage increase to the wealth generated by the cattle, sheep and horse farms.

Another good way to make money early on is to build trade wharfs in every coastal city in which the region can maintain a food surplus without fishing. Trade wharfs are the lowest hanging fruit so far as income is concerned – the tier 2 building produces 900 gold per turn, and they also provide naval garrisons, as do all port-related improvements.

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Trade Ports are a great way to increase income

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Coastal defence against barbarian raid

In all three run-throughs as the WRE, I’ve neglected building industrial improvements in the early game, beyond any of the special resource related improvements, such as gold-mines, marble quarries, lead, iron and the like. This is largely because I prefer to prioritise food, sanitation and happiness improvements first, including garrison encampments, and there is rarely enough space to accommodate any industrial buildings. In an ideal world, industrial development could begin earlier, but being on top of the other areas is more important early on and enough money can be made from food, trade and specialist markets such as wine markets. In the later game, I tend to invest a lot more in industrial buildings.

As to military buildings for constructing more advanced units, again it might seem counter-intuitive to say so, but I rarely build them at all. Indeed, it is possible to dedicate a single region to military buildings for constructing different unit types, and have your armies fan out from there. This is not exactly practical, but in truth the armies already stationed in provinces can definitely make do in the early game with the baseline spear units and barbarian archers and cavalry. I’m a big fan of cavalry and like to have a minimum of four units in each army, which I do my best to keep in reserve until the enemy are engaged along the front line, then use them to flank and charge the rear of enemy infantry, or smash through a bunch of missile units, once they are no longer protected by infantry. Cavalry are also vital for mopping up after a battle. Most enemies use their cavalry suicidally, charging them onto turtled-up spearmen. The remnants can be picked off by your own cavalry, without much harm to them.

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Mercenary Cavalry, taking fire

It is worth mentioning that when you win a battle, be sure to take the time to wipe out as many routing enemy units as possible. This is not necessary if they have no retreat option, but if they can retreat and you let their routing units get away, it means you will have to fight them again. When the white flag is up they cannot harm your units further, so hit the maximum speed button, switch to the strategy map, and chase down as many as possible. It can get a bit tedious, but this is especially important when your own troop numbers are low. Sometimes, you can destroy the entire enemy force in this manner. Just be careful not to shoot your own troops with archers and artillery, or towers, in the process. It is also a good idea, despite the negative effect on experience, to replenish your own troops at the end of a battle with captured enemies. This is a particularly vital way – indeed, the only way – to replenish when in hostile territory, and becomes especially important when you may need to fight again the following turn.

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Very close indeed, thank goodness for that fort…

Moving on to all matters military and strategic, the key thing in defending the WRE is to keep your enemies at the frontier, and limit the number of frontiers you need to defend. Once armies get deep within your empire, it can be difficult to chase them down and this requires moving armies into the interior rather than keeping them at the frontiers where you will need them to keep out the enemies who will pour across the Rhine and Danube.

Your very first move as the WRE should be to take care of the Suebians, who begin inside your borders in Gaul. If you don’t sort them out they will almost certainly attack you within the first few turns, so you might as well confront them on your own terms. You can get three armies there by around the second turn and smash them, wiping them out, at which point you’ll be wanting to hurry those armies back to the frontier.

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Boo-yah

The other possibility is to grant them a region in Gaul / Belgica and leave them in peace. This will likely lead to favourable relations within a few turns, as the gift of a region causes a huge diplomatic boost. Within just a few turns you will be able to trade with them and shortly after, form a defensive alliance. Once they become engaged in fighting the same enemies, the diplomacy system will ensure very positive relations henceforth. They could provide a very useful ally to bolster defences along the Rhine.

The same option is available with the Vandals, who will likely appear inside your borders in Pannonia. Pannonia is a difficult place to defend initially and it makes sense to sacrifice one region to a faction who will, as above, likely become a defensive ally and trade partner within a few turns. This is very helpful on the eastern Danube frontier, which is an area I choose to neglect partly, initially. The reason for this is that my principal concern is to stop everyone who threatens to get deeper into the Empire, where they will be harder to stop. If one or two regions on the Danube fall, it’s not the end of the world, and they are still at the frontier. You can always muster more strength later to take them out.

2015-09-10_00026

Fighting in light forest

In some cases, the loss of a region can prove surprisingly beneficial. I found it very helpful when the Illyrian faction sprang up in the region of Iuvavum. I swiftly subjugated them and, next to the Vandals, had very helpful and willing allies to manage that frontier while I focussed elsewhere. By no means abandon Pannonia, just play a defensive strategy initially, making sure Sirmium does not fall and switching between the frontier towns to support them defensively. It’s possible, but very difficult to do this with one army, but if you build those towns up and increase their garrisons early, they can usually survive the initial assault. Get them to size 2 as early as possible and put a garrison encampment in them. Managed successfully, they will hold off an army with their garrison until relief arrives, especially if you have a defensive ally / puppet state on the same frontier. When those towns reach size 4 and obtain walls, they will be impregnable, except to the Huns, by which stage you should have more armies in the region.

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Gods, help me, I’m surrounded

On the defensive front, you should always avoid auto-resolving defensive battles. The AI is awful at defending towns and if you are at all outnumbered, it will lose the battle for you. It is, however, possible to defend a town against a much larger force, if you defend wisely. This largely depends on the design of the town – some of them are a lot easier to defend, but the basic rule is to hold the centre, keep your units close and block entry to the main capture point. As soon as the enemy general is in range, switch any archers to heavy shot, and, if possible, use their special ability to increase damage. Often, in this way, you can knock off their general early and break morale. Just be careful not to shoot your own defending troops in the back, which can be avoided by ensuring a clear line of sight. The AI is, for the most part, a slogger, and will just drive up against your units. Thus, the comitatenses in defensive testudo formation is the way forward. Often one such unit can hold a narrow passage and see off several entire units.

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Artillery, well placed, are devastating against naval units

2015-07-24_00011

Sally forth when the time is right

Another key strategic aspect is, inevitably, choosing the right technologies in the right order. After filling out the first two tiers in military and civil developments (avoiding, of course, any religious techs), I prioritise anything that increases income or reduces maintenance costs and then go straight for the techs which allow one to build larger-sized towns. Tier IV towns gain walls and more sturdy towers and are far easier to defend, especially as enemies need to siege or bring siege equipment in order to launch an assault. This not only allows the towns to hold off attacks more easily, but again, it buys time to bring up armies when you are overstretched and can’t garrison every town. Ideally, all your cities along your frontiers should hit tier IV before the Huns really kick off in 420. You needn’t worry so much about the regional capitals, as these already start with walls in place, though by no means neglect them – the Huns always bring artillery.

2015-09-06_00017

Another winter campaign

Returning to the subject of finding useful defensive allies, one of the key strategies for defending the WRE is to create as many puppet states as possible in the west. This isn’t always easy to do, especially as you can only subjugate enemies who have one single region, and it is not possible to subjugate hordes, unless they settle in a city. Yet, if you are patient, and have armies stationed along the frontiers ready to roll, you can wait for the right opportunity and attack. This is often best done after having been attacked. If the Franks have a shot at you, and you crush them as you should, send an army straight to their capital in Frisia and hit it while they are licking their wounds and desperately trying to rebuild. You can use similar strategies with the Allemans, for example, and potentially the Saxons etc. Once you subjugate an enemy, they instantly make peace with all your allies and declare war on all your enemies, turning your enemy into an instant ally. This is great for a number of reasons – you have friendly regions across the borders in which you can replenish; they lend battle support and will even attempt to expand by taking your enemies’ territory, and, if nothing else, they take the aggro much of the time, acting as a magnet which draws enemies away from your borders. You will also, within a few turns, be able to establish a trade route for more vital income.

The next most important strategic move – and this is absolutely key in my books – is to defend Britain to the death. Many players recommend abandoning Britain, but this is, without a doubt, the worst possible mistake you can make as the WRE for a whole range of reasons. Indeed, far and away the most sensible strategy is to complete the conquest of the British Isles before anything else. Once you have dealt with the Suebians in the first two or three turns, Britain should be your first real military focus.

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To subjugate or not to subjugate. Best to knock them off altogether.

Build another army there and, if necessary, send one across before the rest of western Europe declares war and attacks you in Gaul, Belgica etc. Hit the Caledonians first with two or three armies and subjugate them swiftly. They will keep the Picts at bay or take the heat, allowing you the chance to send all two or three armies across to smash the Ebdanians. You can subjugate them, but personally, I’d take the territory to avoid ever having to think about it again. Once you have conquered Ireland, march back across into Scotland, smash the Picts and wipe them out. This will alleviate any worries in that entire region. The Caledonians will defend Britain for you pretty much for the rest of the game, and you will only have to keep a smallish army and navy in Camulodunum. The proximity of the cities in Britain means you can cycle your army between those southern cities to respond to any seaborne threat or plug a disorder gap. You will need to invest in improving civil disorder and a good trick is to make a priest in Rome early and send him all the way across. One priest in Britain, moved about strategically, can take care of the whole islands.

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Britain, the way it should be – Roman

The reason Britain is so key to keeping the WRE intact is that it prevents any armies coming down the coast of Gaul while you are busy at the frontier. If Britain falls, for the rest of the game you will have the Ebdanians, Picts and Caledonians sending armies down the west coast of Gaul and into Spain, where you will be forced to keep armies to chase them out. If you stop this happening early, you can get away with keeping no armies in western Gaul whatsoever. It effectively means that there is no frontier in the west, and you have the edge of the map completely secured and protecting your rear, leaving you to focus solely on the Rhine and Danube. Any armies that try to come through that way can be stopped in the English Channel by your fleet in Camulodunum, backed up by your army if necessary. This frees up a huge number of regions that no longer require defending, nor defensive investments. You can keep one army in southern Gaul to take care of Gaul and Spain; quick-marching back and forth to deal with the rebellions that will spring up from public disorder issues. Even if you do lose a region to rebels, they usually just sit there and don’t expand, so can easily be dealt with at a later date. Some, however, will form new factions, and these are best subjugated ASAP as factions which spring up from rebellions are often the most aggressive when it comes to expansion and usually have Roman unit types, which are harder to defeat. If you get the timing right, the entirety of Gaul and Spain can be handled by one army, and all your other armies, with the exception of one in Africa and one in southern Britain (alongside a fleet), can move to the Rhine and Danube. With your initial allocation of 8 armies as a maximum, you will have just enough to stop anything at the border, and just enough to stop any rot spreading inside your borders. More likely, however, you will already be able to field 10 armies by the time you complete the conquest of the British Isles.

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It can get messy in the British Isles, but worth persisting with

Another key strategy is to get as many agents as possible. I also ensure that my agents max up their extort, persuade and oppress ability as much as possible, so I can capture enemy agents and use them myself. If you keep this up you can end up with ridiculous amounts of agents, who can seriously hamper enemies, improve income, spot approaching enemies, increase public order and train your troops. You must also pay attention to the management of your faction. On this score, try to keep your faction strong through marriages and adoptions. It’s also a good idea to get your emperor into the field to increase his influence. This is not only key to maintaining a strong empire, but is a fun way to re-shape history. Who would ever have imagined the emperor Honorius weathering the tide of invasion in the west, overseeing a re-strengthening of the Empire, and then campaigning to recover Egypt from the hands of Ethiopian separatists after the collapse of East Roman power in those provinces?

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Roman reconquest well underway.

The emperor, however, can also be a serious liability. If he develops cruel traits, such as Tyrant, Torturer etc, which cause public order penalties across all regions, sometimes the only thing to do is to get him killed in battle. This needs to be carefully managed, so a whole army isn’t routed, but just wait until the tide is turning in your favour and send him in suicidally while everyone else hangs back. It kinda sucks having to do this – and you must ensure you choose a good heir beforehand – but it can completely transform your fortunes in the game, particularly with public order.

On the subject of public order, you will have to learn to live with rebellion. It will be almost impossible to stop it altogether, and every so often, rebels will spring up and you will have to deal with them. The good thing is that the way disorder works, once a rebel army appears, you can a positive +20 bonus to public order every turn, which represents all the malcontents heading off to join the rebellion, leaving the happy people in the cities. Thus, in effect, the rebel army becomes the manifestation of the unhappiness. Often it can be beneficial to let the army grow for two or even three turns, and sometimes you will have no choice but to do this. This means that when you do wipe them out, you will be left with a much better public order situation, which will buy you enough time to hang on for the next rebellion, or find some other means of improving order. Be warned, however, rebel armies grow by four units a turn, and a twelve unit army might well be enough to sack and capture a city. Most garrisons, even of just 4 units, should be able to hold out anything of 8-strength and under – you just need to turtle up and let them commit suicide against your spearmen and in trying to capture and destroy your arrow towers.

2015-09-08_00004

We should struggle together! We are struggling together!

Strategically, the biggest unknown is Africa, which can go a number of ways. It all hinges on whether or not the Gaetulians, Garamantians or Maurians declare war. This seems to be a huge variable. I’ve had one of them declare war as early as the third turn and as late as some time after AD 420. It might be worthwhile trying to get away with just keeping one army in northern Spain to take care of rebellions, and hope that, should an emergency arise, you can get down there quickly enough to offer relief. I’ve run it this way successfully in the past, though you may have to pull off some pretty epic garrison defence battles and hope, in the case of a defeat, that they only sack you, thus allowing time to get an army down there to overcome them. The African factions are usually relatively easy to defeat as their units are not quite up to the same standard.

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Hot and dry in the summer

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A peaceful moment

Another possible strategy is to build an army early on in Africa and eliminate or subjugate these factions successively. If you’re a good enough general, one twenty-stack army should suffice to subdue the whole region. Judicious use of spies to delay or stop armies over successive turns can allow you to wipe them out in the field, then hit their capitals. Subjugation can eliminate the need for keeping any armies in the region at all, thus turning the presence of these factions into a defensive bonus. I find that at some point in the game they will almost certainly need to be dealt with militarily – exactly when, however, is pretty open. Of course, the longer you avoid war with them altogether is likely better. The Rhine, Danube border and Britain are the real front line initially and having one less army in the north is a significant enough disadvantage to be worth avoiding.

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Winter trees

It will be a long hard road, frustrating and at times tedious, but such a strategy should get you over the line. Save at the start of every turn in case of disasters and be patient. Eventually, though it will seem like an eternity, you will bring order and stability to the western empire and be able to keep just a couple of armies on the Rhine frontier, and shift pretty well everyone else to the east, along the Danube. If you let Pannonia go, which is the one region I’d consider sacrificing, you will now be well placed to take it back. You will need a lot of armies to fight the Huns. Most armies will lose against them in a one-on-one because of the morale penalties the Romans suffer against the Huns, and also because the Hunnic units are hugely overpowered. Try to outnumber them always, or fight defensive battles, using towns or forts where possible.

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Always take artillery to attack a fort. Switch off auto-fire and target the towers. Wait till it all burns down, then attack.

2015-09-11_00006

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When Attila is defeated and finally killed, you have, in effect, won the game. Yet this is by no means the end and I rather love this later phase of the game. Without one monster enemy, it feels more like a traditional Total War game. There isn’t much left to do after this except perhaps recolonise the devastated regions or attempt to rescue the Eastern Empire.

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Rebuilding in the East

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The war never ends. More great battles await with the passing of Attila.

Taking on the Sassanids and reasserting Roman hegemony in the east can be a lot of fun, strategically, and it feels like a more even fight. I’ve made it as far as about 460 in one game, and in truth, I’m not sure how much further it is possible to go. I always imagined that if an end date were set, it would be 476 – the year in which the last Western Emperor was deposed. But, for all I know, it continues even beyond that. I’ve never given much of a stuff about the victory conditions, but prefer to focus instead on my own martial ambitions. By this late stage of the game, it’s really up to your own sense of whimsy as to how long you stick with it. If, however, you follow the advice I’ve given above, you should at least make it this far.

Self-Portrait, All Saints Passage, Cambridge, July 25, 2006

Self-Portrait, All Saints Passage, Cambridge, July 25, 2006

Though it may at first appear otherwise, this is not an elsie but a selfie. If you look closer you’ll see I’m holding the remote control in my left hand, whilst trying to act as candidly as possible. This is perhaps made easier by the addition of the cigarette, one of the occasional smoky treats enjoyed in what was to be my final phase of smoking. I’m sitting in the second-floor window of a house in the very narrow All Saints Passage in Cambridge, England, no doubt wondering what on earth to do with myself.

This photo has always been a personal favourite – it’s the only shot I have of myself in this house, where I lived for just over a month in the long and beautiful English summer of 2006. Having arrived back in Cambridge six weeks earlier, after a two and a half year absence, I relied on the charity of close friends and my old college, rather unexpectedly finding myself co-lecturing a summer school on South African literature, before finally settling into another house for a longer haul. My friend C and I had a lot of fun during this time, and, indeed, in this house, and we still occasionally refer with great affection to “The All-Saints Passage Years”. Though it may seem to be a deliberately placed prop, symbolic of the college context, the cricket bat is entirely accidental.

This low window, with its protective grate, was a splendid place to sit and smoke and watch people walk down the passage. It was a warm summer and I was still running on the energy of having made big decisions – clinging tenuously to a new life in England; or, rather, a nostalgic attempt to recapture the old. As will most such grand projects, it all ended rather disappointingly a couple of years later, but I still recall with great pleasure the intensity of the time and its romance. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff!

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