- "The stakes are high; battle is imminent."
The show offered contestants a chance to reenact historical battles in an attempt to do better than the original combatants. The teams of four were divided into two groups: the Generals, who had an overview of the battlefield and directed overall strategy, and the Lieutenants (later called Captains), who were in charge of the army itself.
Playing a video game by committee is about as hard as you'd expect. Throughout the show's two seasons, only half of the episodes ended with the players victorious, and in many cases the teams were outright slaughtered. Indeed, part of the show's appeal is watching just how spectacularly the teams can fail.
During the episodes, a pair of military historians (Aryeh Nusbacher and, on a rotating basis, Mike Loades, Saul David, Mark Urban or Adrian Goldsworthy) watch over the battle commenting on the team's tactics, as well as discussing facts about the real battle, including the military culture and weapons of the sides involved. At the end of every episode, they then discuss what the team did right, what they did wrong, and show how the real battle went.
If one thing's certain from this show's run, it's that the most unlikely people to lose a battle will lose—and the most unlikely winners can win.
In July 2016, Creative Assembly shared a call by the BBC for participants in a revived series, through the Total War Facebook page. The third series began airing on 12 December 2016, now presented by Gregg Wallace, with Lynette (formerly Aryeh) Nusbacher and Mike Loades reprising their roles as historical experts. Unlike the first two series, the third did not focus solely on classical antiquity, with one episode being given over to the Battle of Waterloo. More significantly, rather than a single team of four taking on the enemy, now two teams of three players take on each other to see who is the superior commander.
This show provides examples of:
- Alternate History: Quite a few outcomes result in this, such as the Romans winning the Battle of Teutoberg Forest.
- Army of Thieves and Whores: The players command the army of Spartacus at the Battle of the Silarus River.
- Artificial Stupidity: Averted. The show does not use Rome: Total War's AI, or indeed even any of the single player campaign missions. Rather, Time Commanders uses custom-made maps with technicians controlling the enemy forces, acting out what the opponents would have actually done in Real Life.
- Rome: Total War players have pointed out a number of telltale signs that the game AI is not in control, including cases where the game AI consistently behaves stupidly, yet the enemy in Time Commanders reacts wisely (such as the Germans pulling back forces getting attacked by ranged units during the Battle of Teutoberg Forest).
- Awesome, but Impractical: The generals were granted access to an overhead projection of the battlefield, along with a number of blocks to represent armies. Naturally, about half way though the battle the location of the blocks bore absolutely no resemblance to what was actually happening in game. Later episodes got rid of the blocks entirely and simply gave the generals a normal minimap.
- The Testudo formation is a famous Roman tactic, meant to prevent attacks from archers. Attempting to fight an actual battle in that formation, treating it like it's some kind of impenetrable shield? It goes as well as you'd think...
- Badass Family: The Eagers family, who fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge. They not only proved quite eager, they thoroughly curb-stomped the Norse.
- Badass Preacher: The team of vicars selected for the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, after the initial skirmish, were well organized, motivated, and worked as a team. They're one of the teams who not only won their battle, but won a battle that was historically a massacre for their side!
- The Big Board: A large screen in front of the players provided a view of various parts of the battlefield, along with a bar to show how they were doing; one too many times, though, the generals would ignore this and focus instead on the PC monitors intended for their lieutenants/captains.
- British Brevity: Lasted for a grand total of two seasons, the second being half the length of the first. A third season was eventually made, but it was just three episodes long.
- Catchphrase: "The stakes are high; battle is imminent."
- Curb-Stomp Battle: More often than not, the players were on the receiving end of this, but there were notable (and awesome) exceptions. Exactly half of the show's episodes ended in a defeat for the players.
- In the revival series, the first two battles (Zama and Waterloo) were much closer than they had been in real life, but the third episode (the Battle of Chalons) was an absolute massacre as Atilla's Huns ran roughshod over the disorganised and confused Romans.
- Decapitated Army: Often averted with a vengeance; during the Battle of Watling Street the team put in a massive amount of effort towards hunting down and killing Boudicca and her two daughters while the rest of their army got massacred by the Britons, only for the commentators to lambast them for thinking that killing a single woman and two teenage girls would change the course of a battle where their men are dying in the hundreds.
- Averted on the player's side; during the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great is killed, the camera showing said death in great detail with various angles and slo-mo. Despite this, the team controlling the Macedonian force still won.
- Played straight in the episode where they refought the Battle of Leuctra; when the massively-outnumbered team crush the elite Spartan troops, the Spartiates, and slay their king Cleombrotus, the bulk of the enemy army (allied troops recruited from Spartan vassal states) simply turn and march off the field without fighting, abandoning their masters and giving the team the victory.
- Dissonant Serenity: During the episode featuring the Battle of Gaugamela, the players get Alexander the Great killed. The historical experts calmly discuss how dying could be considered a bit of minor inconvenience to Alexander and his plan to conquer the Persian Empire.
- Fake Difficulty: The teams do not control their forces directly, instead giving orders to the controllers who input the commands into the simulation. Not only does this muddy the communication further (as orders have to come from the general to the lieutenants/captains before being relayed again to the controllers until they finally reach the troops), the troops will only react as fast as the controllers can issue commands to them, often resulting in orders not being enacted until it's too late.
- Frontline General: Hilariously played straight in the Waterloo episode: After losing most of their army to the vicious French cavalry attacks, the British players decided to send in The Duke of Wellington himself to fight, along with his personal guards. Topping it off, it worked.
- Geo Effects: This might well be a Deconstruction. More than one team failed miserably because their generals were convinced that taking and holding the high ground on any battlefield would translate to an automatic victory, regardless of their army's composition or the enemy's. As the historians point out, the high ground of a battlefield is important, not always as ground to be defended but as ground to be denied to the enemy.
- Aryeh Nusbacher called out several generals for having a Perverse Sexual Lust for hills that ultimately got their forces slaughtered.
- Played straight, however in the battle of Watling Street, where the team inadvisably moved off their well-protected defensive position on the high ground, getting their team utterly massacred by Boudicca's screaming horde of Britons.
- Idiot Houdini: Not all the teams who won did so out of superior strategies and teamwork. Some of the teams (like the one who fought in the Cynocephalae episode) pulled through with bumbling tactics that got lucky.
- Idiot Volleyball
- I Have the High Ground: See Geo Effects. Special mention goes to the team at the Battle of Telamon, who held the high ground so ferociously, they were surrounded by their Roman opponents and obliterated.
- I Know Mortal Kombat: Usually averted; for most of the series, the producers explicitly avoided letting people with previous gaming experience on the show. However, in the Battle of Troy, the show did get a group of gamers, including some who claimed to play strategy games. They barely pulled a Pyrrhic Victory out of the fight, with little of their own force remaining.
- This has been inverted as well; some episodes had teams of military men or people with military experience playing the game.
- In the first season, a team of instructors from the Bristol Army Cadet Force took command for the Battle of Chalons. They were utterly defeated.
- In the second season, actual officers from the British Army and Royal Air Force comprised the team playing the Battle of Hydaspes River. All four not only had plenty of modern military experience, but were learned in battles of the ancient world. They still got crushed.
- The first episode of the third season saw a team of strategy board gamers take on a team of amateur pro wrestlers in the Battle of Zama. This time, the gamers destroyed their opponents, although with slightly more difficulty than in the historical battle.
- This has been inverted as well; some episodes had teams of military men or people with military experience playing the game.
- Large Ham: Aryeh Nusbacher and (especially) Mike Loades can get particularly enthusiastic as commentators. In the second season, Mike Loades even gets to provide demonstrations for the viewers at home of how the weapons of a given episode's battle were used.
Eddie Mair: Sometimes Aryeh gets quite animated while doing this. People have been on crutches for weeks!
- Aryeh's hamminess is best seen in the "Post-Mortem" phase of the show where the historians demonstrate on the tactical board how the battle of the episode went in history. In the Leuctra episode, Eddie Mair advised the team to stand back.
- The Millstone: Some of the teams that failed often had someone (or multiple people) playing this role. Chances are, if you're facepalming during an episode, it was due to one or more Millstones in the team.
- Mutual Kill: During the Battle of Zama in the first episode of Season 3, Hannibal charged himself and his force of bodyguards directly into Scipio and his own force of bodyguards. Scipio fell in the melee, but Hannibal followed shortly afterwards.
- Oh, Crap!: Richard Hammond gets a good one in during the Battle of the Hydaspes River, when the Indian Army's elephants are about to plow into the rear of the team's Macedonian Phalanxes.
- One Steve Limit: Two of the gamers on the team during the Battle of Troy were actually named Steve, thus the host had to use a nickname for one and the last name of the other Steve to aid in clear communication.
- The Pollyanna: Chris Starbuck, one of the generals during the Battle of Chalons. Among other things, after getting his team's army utterly annihilated, he quipped "Well, we came in second!"
- Poor Communication Kills: The lieutenants tended to misinterpret, argue with or completely ignore their orders... which is damn close to Truth in Television for many ancient armies.
- Product Placement: Averted due to the BBC's policies. The Creative Assembly were credited with making the "Battle Engine", but no reference to the Total War series was ever made. In addition, the first season aired a year before Rome: Total War was actually released.
- Pyrrhic Victory: In addition to the battle of Troy, the battle of the Silarus River ends with Aryeh Nusbacher criticising the team, stating that despite winning a battle that their side was historically massacred in, they lost too much of their force to be able to sustain the rest of the campaign.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: As the historians discuss at one point, many of the teams fall prey to "cultural preconceptions" about how ancient battles "should" work—either from basing their expectations and tactics on movies (like Ben-Hur), or trying to apply modern (or pre-modern) tactics to ancient warfare (see Geo Effects above).
- Red Alert: Taken Up to Eleven. The start of the skirmish, the end of the skirmish, the start of the battle, the start of the pause, the end of the pause, "Victory Imminent/Defeat Imminent", and the end of the battle would all be signalled by a massive siren and flashing lights.
- Sitting Duck: Quite often, the team's troops. It was not uncommon for one unit of soldiers to get forgotten about, and then stand motionless as the enemy charged them.
- The Starscream: The Lieutenants and Captains, being in command of the
technicians controlling thearmy itself, would often take over and head off by themselves, completely ignoring the generals. Sometimes, especially in teams that were Idiot Houdinis, a Starscream Captain or Lieutenant sometimes doubled as the one to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
- Taking You with Me: As their forces routed and the enemy began to surround them, some players would hurl their remaining units at the AI general in an attempt to bring them down. It didn't help.
- Transgender: Aryeh Nusbacher came back as Lynette Nusbacher for the revival series.