in his travelogue A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes a stopover at an inn along the Danube, en route to Istanbul in the winter of 1933. He falls into conversation there--as Paddy is wont to do--about regional history with a local polymath. For Fermor's benefit, the older man sketches ancient civilization out on the back of his copy of the Neue Freie Presse--the Marcomanni tribe here, the Quadi there--little circles of semi-permanent existence alongside the Danube's sinuous line. "And suddenly, at last something happens," exclaims the polymath, invoking Attila and his horde with a slash of graphite through the Viennese classifieds. "Everything starts changing place at full speed! Chaos!"

The sudden flurry of activity is a welcome change of pace to Fermor, a 20th-century student with wanderlust. Probably less so to the Quadi and the Marcomanni. But someone playing Total War: Attila has more in common with the former--there's no fun in watching civilizations, to hear Paddy put it, "float about as lonely as clouds, expanding across the map as imperceptibly as damp or mildew." And so in that limited sense, the Huns are a welcome arrival to Total War's late antiquity. Finally, something to upend the dreary peace!

Total War Attila is centered on its turn-based Grand Campaign, a broad representation of the military situation Europe found itself in around 400 A.D. The Roman Empire is in its death throes, bloated and harried even after being cleaved into Eastern and Western halves. To the north and northeast, perennial all-barbarian first-teamers the Vandals and Visigoths flee from the Huns' onslaught--straight into Roman territory. To the east, the comparatively recumbent Sassanians lie within striking distance of Constantinopolis. A litany of small but active tribes occupy the interstitial spaces, cannibalizing each other and nipping impishly at the heels of the larger factions. All eyes are drawn to the eastern steppes, however, when Attila enters the world stage, providing a not-so-subtle cue to start getting your affairs in order.

Lest there be any confusion about the stakes, Total War: Attila's cutscenes and campaign descriptions regularly invoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But Death himself can be slow coming, depending on your chosen faction--Attila still has to grow up before the gears of the Hunnic war machine really start to turn, so it can be some time before he makes his presence known to those in the far corners of the map. In the meantime, Famine proves to be a more immediate concern, as does Disease, both of which need to be mitigated through the construction of relevant buildings in one's home cities. A waterworks system, for example, confers sanitation +2, public order +1, while a sheep pen does as much for statistics like food surplus and wealth.

War, for his part, is an old hand by now. The series' battle engine is set in its ways; save a few new wrinkles in the siege system or the way fire spreads, it's mostly content to demonstrate mastery of those skills it already possessed. As opposed to the turn-by-turn politicizing, battles take place in real time, across fields or along castle ramparts, between collected armies that are, if not a one-to-one representation of the thousands of soldiers present, close enough in abstraction to dissuade you from counting. Your units engage the enemy's automatically when the two collide, leaving you to concern yourself with formations.