Total War

Faction Spotlight: Why you should play Cao Cao

Content of the article: "Faction Spotlight: Why you should play Cao Cao"

Following u/Iamnothereorthere 's suggestion, I am going to try and do a spotlight on all the faction leaders, briefly touching on what makes them interesting and some of the ways you can get invested playing them. Might as well start with Cao Cao himself since I recently started a new campaign with 'em to try out the changes.

Who am I?
You're the smartest man in the room, that's who. As the 'Hero of Chaos', you start smack dab in the middle of China surrounded by tough opponents… but you know what? You can handle them. You can play them all off of one another and come out on top. You have the devil's own luck and you always gamble big. The good news is that you're counting cards too.

Cao Cao starts with three traits; Suspicious, Ambitious, and Dutiful. Remember that last one, because you're not like the tyrant Dong Zhuo. You're here to bring order to chaos- the opinions of lesser men be damned. Ask not the sparrow how an eagle soars!

So what are my goals?
Cao Cao began as a fugitive, fleeing for his life from the tyrant Dong Zhuo after a failed assassination attempt. His gambles didn't always pay off but he always survived. At the battle of Puyang, Lu Bu tapped his helmet and asked him, "Where is Cao Cao!?" The mighty warrior didn't recognize the very man he was trying to kill. Time and time again, loyal officers like Dian Wei and Cao Ang gave their lives to protect Cao Cao. Though he surmounted against unbelievable odds, it all came at a cost. The bodies piled up at his feet- impeccable warriors, good friends, and sons alike.

Although considered to be the peerless strategist of his age, Cao Cao ultimately failed to unify China, being defeated at the battle of Chi Bi in 208 AD and prolonging the bloodshed for another 70 years. If you can actually unify China, you'll have beaten the man himself and averted this tragic fate. But… if you can save his son Cao Ang from being killed, that just might be good enough too.

How can I play this wily fox?
As of the last update, Cao Cao gets a heavier emphasis on spies. At Second Marquis, you'll get access to 3 of them off the bat. With technologies and ranks, you can amass up to 9 spies towards end-game!

This gives you the opportunity to really make use of the system. Consider your overall strategy as a sort of 'combined arms' approach. Spies, Diplomacy, and Military all mutually reinforcing one another.

Ideally you want turncoats over fresh faces, and remember to check family trees to see if you can snag a dissatisfied relative.

There are two ways to use Proxy Wars. The most obvious is to pit two powerful foes against one another, reducing the chances that one of them will attack you. It can also create ad-hoc allies. Remember people will like you if you're fighting their enemies as well!

The second method is to incite someone to attack a faction that they already want to attack. Someone weak, universally loathed (like Yellow Turbans), or a bitter rival. Why do this? Well, with that glib tongue of yours, they might just pay YOU to instigate this war. Combine this with a gift of gold or some ancillaries and you can even peacefully get territory from this method.

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Cao Cao's unique units are the Tiger & Leopard Cavalry, shock cavalry with decent ranged defense. They are comparable to end-game units and this means that you can have powerful cavalry without a vanguard or commander. I find that Cao Cao naturally gravitates towards the Water side of the tech tree because 1. your unique units cover your cavalry needs, 2. your unique buildings cover your food needs, 3. your central position allows you to make maximum use of spies and trade agreements. As such, I tend to field 'weak core' armies, with strong cavalry and strong ranged complements but a very thin frontline. The key is to devastate the enemy before they get close and then collapse their morale with a charge. Be wary that this composition is vulnerable to powerful heroes and unbreakable units. Which makes… a LOT of sense. Cao Cao regularly defeated armies much larger than his own but really struggled against small and dedicated opponents like Liu Bei.

Who are your officers?
You value talent, no matter where it comes from. You set a high standard but your officers will love you as a result. Many of Cao Cao's people get along EXTREMELY well with one another, with Dutiful being a very common trait.

Lady Bian- former prostitute, future Empress. From what we can tell, Cao Cao and Lady Bian genuinely loved eachother. Make her your heir and court satisfaction will go through the roof. She can also quickly get redeployment costs down, allowing you to cheaply deploy entire stacks across the map in a flash. It's really easy to get 0 cost redeployment as Cao Cao. Having her as an heir also allows another assignment slot fairly on, promoting a wide playstyle with lots of officers.

Cao Ang- your eldest son. By all rights, he should be your heir instead of Cao Pi at the start. He was a treasured son by Cao Cao and he has some really good traits for a generic like -15% retinue upkeep and +4 public order across the board. Alas, he died giving up his horse so Cao Cao could escape the battle of Wancheng. For this reason, CA has instead makes Cao Pi the default heir.

Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan– your cousins. Both have -15% retinue upkeep from their armor so you can have them lead your most elite units. Xiahou Dun also gives his retinue fatigue resistance which is great for cavalry, despite him being a champion. He also ate his own eyeball. Xiahou Yuan was an accomplished archer and he's got above average cunning so he's actually incredibly well suited to leading horse archers or mounted crossbows. The top row of his skill tree will make them decent at charges too.

Dian Wei and Xu Chu– your bodyguards. Dian Wei was recruited after Xiahou Dun discovered him wrestling a tiger in the wilderness and he almost plays more like a commander with his strong buffing abilities. Xu Chu led a band of peasants against yellow turbans and proved his strength by pulling an ox by the tail. Both have easy access to Scare. Xu Chu's armor gives a -15% retinue upkeep discount! Unfortunately he's not AS good at commanding cavalry as Xiahou Dun.

Cao Ren and Yue Jin- your sentinels. They're not the strongest or flashiest of their type, but they get the job done. Historically, Yue Jin was known for being real short and an absolute mad lad charging into battle.

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Xun Yu, Guo Jia, Xun You, Jia Xu- the strategists. Talent attracts talent, as they say. Xun Yu and Guo Jia each have the Brilliant trait, giving +15% ammo to you and -30% ammo to your enemies. None of these characters are guaranteed to come to your side, though they all have a fondness for Cao Cao's faction so be on the lookout to poach them with your spies sowing discontent. Upon his defeat at Chi Bi, Cao Cao is reputed to have said, "If only I had Guo Jia." Alas, the genius strategist died of illness several years prior. If he had lived, he might have been a match for Zhuge Liang.

Some tips
Given that Cao Cao rarely struggles with satisfaction among his historical officers, you can hire any rank 4 character out of the pool (for -1000 gold) and immediately banish them for +1600 gold. In 5 turns, everyone will have forgotten! Capturing Pengcheng's unique building (The Grand Temple of Confucius) also grants +10 satisfaction on top of the +5 you can get from Lady Bian's background and both her and Cao Cao's fantastic authority.

I find Cao Cao ends up with so many officers that you can often deploy them, dismiss their retinues, and have the generals follow behind your main armies reinforcing them at 0 upkeep cost. They are definitely force multipliers and this plays into Cao Cao's historical strength of having an extremely competent corps of leaders. I think just adding 3 generals to an 18-unit army doubles or even triples its effectiveness, depending on who they are. Cao Cao himself is a tremendous force multiplier of other generals with Imperious Presence. Pair him up with two other officers that have 'Unyielding Earth" (+100% Melee Evasion, Unbreakable) and you can have virtually no downtime on that huge bonus to melee evasion.

In the 190 start, your turn 1 fodder is a guy named Yuan Huan. It might be worth trying to capture him alive (don't autoresolve it, just beat him up a little and let him rout) because he has an incredibly useful 'Agricultural Reformer' background. Makes sense since he was one of Cao Cao's architects of the Tuntian system.

If you can get a family member to turncoat, consider that faction as a potential ally based on the ability to Improve Relations without spending credibility. And when they get too big? Instigate a civil war and swoop in to the 'rescue'. Consider any spy that leads an army as a free upkeep retinue that's just waiting for you to spring the trap. Remember that if you have a single general army and get attacked by a full stack- extracting the spy on the eve of battle will turn it into a fair 2v2 fight. Don't forget to build up a surplus of money, Network, and Cover.

Yuan Shu is very susceptible to positive deal Proxy Wars. If your credibility is over 75, consider offering him a proxy war that he wants to fight AND acknowledge his legitimacy. He'll often outright give you territory in exchange. That or huge sums of money.

If you like to heavily invest in Trade Routes like I do, you might occasionally find yourself with an extra slot and no one to trade with. Carefully a select a subordinate (take a good look at their traits), ideally a family member, and make them an administrator of a commandery that is a little underutilized. Grant them independence and voila- you have a new trade partner, less corruption, an autonomous subordinate, and a free administrator slot. I've never had them betray me before, although it will take them several turns to build up their military and court. Until then, protect them as if it was your own territory (because it is!) You'll lose prestige, but the extra gold gained from this partnership can be used to upgrade your cities and gain it back. You can kickstart their military by deploying the administrator with a fully replenished retinue at the moment you turn them into a vassal. They'll separate from your army and go along their merry way.

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In Summary
I like Cao Cao's campaign because it's a challenging start position and there's very rarely a moment of peace. Your vulnerable position beset on all sides often means you're constantly fighting battles where you are outnumbered… but the game throws you incredible tools to meet this challenge. Talented officers flock to your side, your unique units and buildings are exceptionally potent and you have an array of diplomatic options with both spies and your credibility resource. I think his 190 campaign is one of the most demanding in the game right now, moreso than even 'Kill em all!' Yellow Turban starts because it asks you to master pretty much every dimension of Total War: 3K's gameplay- diplomacy, economy, and combat.

Phew… That was… a bit longer than I expected. If you're still here, enjoy this clip of Cao Cao's leadership in the 2010 Three Kingdoms TV show.

Fun fact
Cao Cao was an accomplished poet, as was his third son Cao Zhi (present in the 194 start date).. Cao Zhi wrote the poem that provides the lyrics for the Eight Princes trailer, composing it in eight steps to convince his vengeful brother Cao Pi to spare his life.


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