Vampire Counts are a major faction released with the first Total Warhammer game in 2016 which you will need to play them in Total Warhammer 2 and have one DLC pack The Grim and the Grave. This critique will point out things that I like and dislike about the Vampire Counts design mainly focussed on singleplayer mode but also in multiplayer mode. I tried to keep this focussed mainly on critique but I did let a number of suggestions and wishes slip in.
Each province has a pool of dead units that any undead army can instantly recruit, large battles taking place in a province will increase the number of units which can be recruited, units recruited this way always start with no experience. Experience is a weird mechanic for the undead, what exactly is it they are gaining when they rank up? Are the unfeeling and unthinking undead minions somehow learning something? That does not sit right with me, something that makes a lot more sense is them gaining better equipment as they liberate slain enemies of better weapons and armour, but that raises the question of why newly slain warriors would be raised without their better equipment? Perhaps part of post battle income is looting the dead and therefore undead raised from recent battles would no longer have the equipment they carried in life. One thing that is a bit odd is that higher level Vampire Counts units can be recruited after a battle where only basic empire units and zombies took part, I think this is more of a feature than a bug and would not want which units died to decide which units can be raised from the dead in that region, despite that making more sense I think it also makes some sense that death attracts death and you would naturally find all manner of undead attracted to the site of a major battle, even if it was just between swordsmen and zombies.
Binding, Crumbling and The Dead Rise Again
All Vampire Counts units are fearless and never rout, instead, they will take damage when morale is low and crumble into dust when the army suffers army losses. Perhaps to compensate for units with low leadership being destroyed rather than fleeing the battlefield some destroyed units are brought back to life with very little health remaining after a Vampire Counts army wins a fight in campaign mode, although it is somewhat redundant because of the Raise Dead mechanic. In WHFB (Warhammer Fantasy Battle) 5th edition ghouls, bats and vampires were able to rout since the ghouls and bats were living creatures and vampires were in control of themselves and therefore had survival instincts similar to living creatures. In 6th edition, vampires lost the ability and in 7th edition ghouls and bats became undead rather than living servants of the dead. What every Vampire Counts unit being undead leads to in campaign mode is that you cannot defeat the same army twice to gain extra experience or beat an army once every turn to continually get experience from that army, this along with rebellions with Vampire Counts units spawning with weaker than average units makes them a quick thing to beat with little reward.
In WHFB Vampire Counts armies suffered greatly if they lost their general that was supposed to hold the army together but they also ignored losses suffered outside of melee entirely, in Total Warhammer 2 Vampire Counts do not suffer any greater penalty from losing their general than all the living armies do and have an additional leg up in terms of not suffering any penalty if all their units are currently crumbling, while if every unit is fleeing from any other army then that army will instantly suffer army losses. This strength and the lack of the WHFB weakness of having a heavy reliance on their general has been part of what has made Vampire Counts an easy campaign army and a dominating MP (multi-player) faction at times, the weakness of not having shooting units and not being especially resistant to shooting has been mitigated by a roster with options for destroying shooting units and magic for healing casualties caused by it.
Vampire Counts characters and certain buildings spread vampiric corruption, whether this represents how many vampires are in the settlement, the adoption of Gothic architecture, the spread of other diseases or the presence of necromantic power is nebulous. High vampiric corruption leads to the regular rebellions of the province being replaced with vampiric rebellions and the land will look like a dark wasteland. Vampire Counts factions have an easier time maintaining control of provinces with high vampiric corruption and non-vampire factions have a harder time maintaining control in provinces with high vampiric corruption and vice versa. Vampire Counts lords and Vampire heroes can learn to spread vampiric corruption and one of the Vampire Counts buildings and certain landmarks can also aid in the spread of vampiric corruption. One cool idea I spotted in a mod is making it so that battles that take place in places with high vampiric corruption take place at night. Vampiric corruption is all well and good but some things that are lacking in this department is making friends by spreading the blood kiss to influential nobles in rival factions and establishing hidden vampiric lairs. The Vampire's ability to assault buildings is mostly useless, one thing that would be neat to see is having it replaced by a gain influence ability against settlements, this could increase rather than decrease relations with that factions, this is also a change that I would like to see for the High Elves Noble hero gain influence action.
Vampire Counts Commandments
Repress Mortals increases control over the province, this is pretty cool and makes thematic sense, scare the daylight out of the mortals to get them to fall in line. Foster Terror increases Growth and Vampiric Corruption, I do not love the name, I think it is meant to inspire the idea of spreading the gift of undeath by fostering vampirism but the name is not a perfect fit and the tooltip image does not fit this theme at all. Harvest Corpses increases taxes and Evocation of Nagash increases local recruitment capacity and recruit rank.
The one thing that is missing here is something that improves your whole empire, if you have a province you have good control over but that isn't a place where you recruit armies or make a lot of money or want to invest a lot of money into then none of the commandments will provide much value, Evocation of Nagash could really use some kind of bonus to the Raise Dead mechanic and perhaps Harvest Corpses should be split into two effects, in the same way as the High Elves Tribute to the Phoenix King Commandment such that it provides both a small buff to the local province and the empire as a whole. Additional movement speed for Vampire Counts units in highly corrupted areas could have been an option, but it is not something I feel I am missing all the time.
Rites, Bloodlines and Blood Kisses
Vampire Counts do not have rites, I think most rites are implemented okay, but it is not a favourite mechanic of mine and I do not believe Vampire Counts are missing the mechanic.
In campaign mode assassinating heroes, taking vassals and defeating enemy faction rulers grants blood kisses, all five bloodlines from 5th/6th edition WHFB are represented in this system. It is possible to recruit up to three Lords from each bloodline with the first one costing 3, the next costing 6 and the final costing 12, this incentivises building a collection of vampire lords with different bloodlines which is very cool. Blood kisses is the only unique faction currency I like, it could be replaced easily enough with Rites or with a number of different Vampire buildings, but unlike some other faction currencies I do not feel like this currency is merely window dressing.
In addition to unlocking Lords that start with the immortality campaign effect, additional effects are granted to the entire faction. Lahmians reduce hero upkeep, reduce vigour loss and increase campaign line of sight. Von Carsteins increase casualty replenishment rate and give access to a single unit of Sylvanian Crossbowmen, increase public order and give access to a single unit of Sylvanian Handgunners. Blood Dragons increase weapon strength for cavalry, increase unit experience for all units and gives immunity to untainted attrition. Necrarchs increase research rate, starting winds of magic and reduce upkeep for all units. Strigois increase ambush success chance, vampiric corruption and reduce public order penalty due to presence or lack of corruption.
The number of flavour wins here can be measured in tonnes and lots of harkening to old Vampire Counts lore can be found, I want to point out how a legendary Blood Dragon drank the blood of a dragon and permanently sated his thirst being represented here as no untainted attrition because a lack of blood-drinking establishments not being a worry after you have recruited your third Blood Dragons Bloodline Lord. There only big failure here is the availability of Strigoi to vampires of other bloodlines when in the lore the Strigoi are shunned by all the rest of vampire kind, making them unique to factions led by a Necromancer would be a flavour win. It would be cool if Archers, Crossbowmen, Handgunners and Free Company units could be freely recruited and a single unit of Huntsmen was available in the same way that a single unit of Handgunners currently are, at least for the Von Carstein faction. Another small win would be giving a single unit of Sartosa Free Company (renamed to Strigany Free Company) after recruiting a Strigoi Bloodline Lord to represent the humans of old Strigoi still loyal to their vampiric masters.
Another missed opportunity is not stacking the Bloodline Lords with LLs (Legendary Lords) in addition to having zero bloodline heroes, it seems the only vampire heroes are Lahmians (or is it Von Carstein I cannot tell). Having access to recruiting regular vampires and Strigoi Ghoul Kings actually makes this system feel less special, getting rid of these generic Lords would make every new Vampire Lord recruit feel special and give the Master Necromancer a larger role to fill in the kind of huge Vampire Counts Lord roster. I am not sure about how balanced the system is, the Necrarch buffs seem better than the alternatives and on higher difficulties, the Von Carstein bonus to public order has a relatively large impact while on lower difficulties it seems less important, balance issues caused by the way difficulty is implemented in campaign mode is something I will come back to.
Vampire Counts technology is split into four necromantic books, this is thematically amazing. Master of the Putrid Horde removes Zombie upkeep and is the second biggest blunder in Vampire Counts technology, this is extremely overpowered compared to most other technology upgrades and it would have been more thematic to reduce or recruit cost instead to make zombies the unit you recruit shortly before an engagement and then get rid of when they are no longer needed.
Defiler of Ancient Barrows is on a whole other level though, it completely breaks the balance of the game if you recruit lots of skeletons because it saves you thousands or potentially tens of thousands of funds every turn. Low vampiric corruption ceases to be a problem when you can have an army with 19 skeleton units permanently stationed in every provincial capital, recruiting a stack of Graveguard becomes a joke when you could recruit four stacks of Skeletons or if you are playing on lower difficulties and don't have to worry as much about supply lines you can effectively trade a single army of Graveguard with an infinite production of Skeleton armies.
Vampire Counts find desert, jungle, temperate and wasteland climates favourable, they find frozen, mountain, temperate island and savannah climates unpleasant and the rest uninhabitable. The Barrow Legion finds mountains favourable and jungles unfavourable. I really like sub-factions having different climate preferences, but because 4/5 of the Vampire Counts share more or less the same starting location there is little room to give it to more factions than the Barrow Legion. I do not think it makes a lot of sense why Vampires do not all prefer living in underground mountain complexes, from WHFB lore we know that Lahmians do, I think it's mostly a balancing mechanic, mostly it just makes the Empire rather than the Dwarfs the easiest target at the start of the game but that could be achieved through other means. The Barrow Legion should perhaps have chaotic wasteland as favourable, Kemmler has sworn fealty to chaos after all and Krell was an ancient champion of chaos. I have a feeling the CA developers did not read Game of Thrones or watch 30 Days of Night before they decided the undead dislike the frozen climate.
The Barrow Legion is led by Heinrich Kemmler his starting province is Blackstone Post in the Northern Grey Mountains between the Empire and Bretonnia, I love having different starting positions and this is an interesting one. The faction effects are a total failure, Kemmler has had a lot of trouble with various Necromancers and now he is suddenly best friends with all of them? I think having Krell as a summon is amazing, I do not think characters like this would fit as legendary heroes like Kroak because they should always be operating along with their companion. If anyone other than a Blood Dragon LL should have a bonus to Grave Guard and Black Knights it would have to be Kemmler, not Mannfred Von Carstein's faction.
I wrote about my thoughts Kemmler before Vlad because I think it's a shame that the Von Carstein faction has two LLs, Isabella Von Carstein should have just been a summon in my opinion. I do not know why Isabella gets a bonus for having a court of vampires, she is not Lahmian, I do not think Vlad having the siege attacker attribute makes sense either. I would prefer if Vlad was the sole ruler of the Von Carstein faction, Isabella a summon like Krell but with an ability to buff Vlad and Vlad had a bonus to the raise dead mechanic and relations with Empire factions to represent him allying with the living or raising them if they don't comply.
Sylvania can be led by either Mannfred or Helman Ghorst, regardless their starting province is Castle Drakenhof in Eastern Sylvania. Before Vlad came into the game it made sense that Mannfred was in control of Drakenhof, I think he should be shipped off to take control of the Necrarch Brotherhood in the Southlands to represent Mannfred's time as an acolyte while he was waiting for Vlad and Konrad to die so he could take control of Sylvania and the Empire. With this I would also give Mannfred some more fitting abilities rather than buffs to Grave Guard and Black Knights. Then Ghorst and Vlad could switch positions and Ghorst could be easy to confederate for Vlad. Ghorst's ability to summon a Wight King seems like a cheap attempt at being Kemmler.
Lords, Heroes and Skills
I think the Vampire Counts roster would be cleaner and the campaign mode experience better with the removal of the generic Vampire Lord and the Ghoul King. I think Vampire Counts mount options are pretty cool, it is missing a few things from WHFB, manticores, abyssal terrors (basically frankenstein's manticore) and dread abyssals, the only one of those I really think would be nice to have is manticores as a Master Necromancer mount replacement for the basic corpse cart for campaign mode to make them a bit more of a combat threat if you manage to level them up. Either a manticore or a chaos dragon mount for Kemmler in late game would be neat and a Coven Throne mount for Lahmian lords would be amazing.
The blue line is not very interesting at the end, but Children of the Night is cool and thematic. The Necrarch skill is a name fail because not just anyone can be a Necrarch, it should be Student of the Necrarch or Acolyte of Somewhere or Someone important. Sieges are getting reworked for Total Warhammer 3 and good riddance, but Eternal Warden is impressively bad, not even the AI is patient enough to starve someone out of a castle when they can storm it on the turn they attack with a single monster or unit of monstrous infantry.
The red line seems fine, Call of the Night does not seem to provide nearly enough buffs to keep BATS AND WOLVES in any army past turn 20 though and that's too bad. The problem of this effect not being great is compounded with a lack of strong technology buffs for these units, although Master of the Swarm might get close if not for the aforementioned imbalance of skeleton technology.
Vampire magic is a bit of a mess, especially in campaign, healing and AOE effects are too powerful and putting additional skill points into gaze of Nagash would ideally have a larger effect than putting additional points into wind of death. The spell selection for the lore of necromancy is good and all the spells seem cool to some extent, with the exception of curse of years which seems to have relatively little impact, maybe a ridiculously long duration would make it feel more impactful. Spirit Leech is the first spell in the Lore of Death and it is massively impacted by unit sizes, why single-target damage spells do not scale based on the chosen unit size is a mystery to me, I still remember my very first Total Warhammer 1 campaign that I easily beat by spamming Spirit Leech using small unit sizes because that was all my graphics card could handle without installing drivers, something I thought was a small optional upgrade at the time.
The Master Necromancer Thrall Master ability makes him the best recruiter you for most units and this is wonderfully thematic in my opinion, I love levelling up a Master Necromancer for a bit before sending him to permanently perform recruiting duty such that he eventually gets the recruiter trait and becomes even better at his job. Dark Pact should perhaps be limited to Kemmler or his faction only, I don't know what darker gods Necromancers and Vampires make pacts with, I believe they either serve themselves, a greater vampire or the great necromancer Nagash, even Kemmler was an agent of Nagash in some way despite making a pact with the darker gods.
Von Carstein bloodline lords having beast magic makes some sense, but it does not for Necrarchs where having it is kind of a nuisance since it doesn't fit with how I want to play my Necrarch bloodline lords. Strigoi bloodline lords having death magic makes no sense, perhaps they should have beast magic instead. If one was concerned with giving each Vampire clan a splash of a different lore Von Carsteins could get a few lore of heavens spells like wind blast and curse of the midnight wind instead of beast magic and then they could have flock of doom instead of storm of night as a skill ability. Shadow magic perfectly fits Lahmians. Von Carstein LLs should have the same spells and abilities that Von Carstein bloodline lords get.
All the changes bloodline lords get to their respective combat trees as well as their new unique skills are wins in my book, not so much balanced but they give strong incentives to have varied armies, something that Vampire Counts really need a boost in, especially because of...
Units and Regiments of Renown
This is a difficult subject because of how the difficulty settings impact the viability of units, ideally, units would be equally viable at different settings of campaign and battle difficulty not to mention unit size, but the short version is that different campaign settings throw off balance massively. Unit ranks seem overcosted in MP if you compare rank 9 units with their RoR counterparts, this probably also means that high ranking units in campaign are overvalued when it comes to balance of power and auto-resolve. Some heroes in campaign mode are way easier to spam than others, this is fair enough, but I do not know why it needs to be so much more expensive to get 3 Banshees compared to 3 Necromancers, perhabs the buildings that grant additional hero slots at level 4/5 should grant two slots while those that grant a slot at level 1-3 should only grant 1 hero slot.
The roster feels pretty complete with the exception of bloodline heroes and perhaps an extra LL or two. The issue with losing a general not hurting enough for Vampire Counts could be assuaged by lowering the Leadership of some of the basic troops like Skeletons and Zombies, although looking at the numbers they are already among the lowest in the game.
The vengeful spirits building chain (Spirit Well and Font of Nightmares) does not need to exist, the cemetery and binding circle building chains can hold 15 units spread across 5 stages with 3 units unlocked at each stage. The Terrorgheist Lair could be an upgrade for the forest chain. This extreme degree of splitting units into their own tiny chains makes it hard to make varied armies and forces campaigns into playing into one or two units, further reinforced by lord and faction effects and the red skills line.
If Black Knights do not require an additional building then neither should Graveguard. Corpse Carts really should not need any other buildings either, they are simple constructions, maybe the upgraded versions should require a Balefire Brazier and Lodestone of Darkness for the one with brazier and lodestone respectively, but not an Ancient Armoury or Reliquary. An interesting idea might be to remove Necromancers from the boneyard line and have corpse carts be recruited here instead, this would make sense since the corpse carts need a mass grave to fill their cart.
The ossuary is unusual in that it provides Growth and a permanent benefit, this I really like because I do not like demolishing Growth buildings after my provinces finish ranking up, with Vampire Counts I do not have to. Awakened Battlefield is not worth a second glance as far as I am aware, I have no idea why it exists beyond further increasing the garrison in a city after building the Garrison building, it is also a bit weird that this is a building when battlefields can already be awakened by the raise dead mechanic if anything I could see the vengeful spirits building chain taking over the role of harassing enemy armies such that they lose Movement. I think the whole garrison army system is missed opportunity, it would be really cool if it was further influenced by the buildings in the settlement, some landmarks like the Lost Necropolis of Mourkain already offers a bonus to your garrison, this could be expanded to every building and landmark in the game. That way you could have a difference between a settlement with a Repression, Wild Game and Patrol building from a settlement with a Woodlands, Forest and Boneyard building in terms of a battle to conquer the settlement, the settlement itself could provide a hero levelled based on the level of the settlement such that no garrison is led by a group of skeletons.
The special building in Nagashizzar is almost impossible to build before the end of the campaign, even if you rush it you will have almost no time left by the time it is finished because it is hidden far away from anything you probably want to be doing, like taking over The Empire. That or it should provide an even greater buff such that you get rewarded with something fun for going out of your way to take over Nagashizzar. For The Barrow Legion, it is a little more inviting since they are a little better at setting up shop in the surrounding mountains, the problem with that is that he is even further away. If the Silver Host, Strygos Empire or Necrarch Brotherhood became playable then building Nagashizzar up to level 5 would be a lot more feasible in less than 100 turns.