Total War Battle Guide For Beginners Part One: The Basics

It’s time for Total War boot camp.

Total War Arena
, the first free-to-play instalment of Creative Assembly’s historical grand tactical strategy series, is coming to Steam soon. If you’re anything like I was (am?), you’ve dived into the drawn in by its historical background and tactical possibilities, only to find yourself overwhelmed when you realize that you actually don’t know anything about ancient warfare.

If you’re brand new to Total War, consider this first part of this guide your orientation session where we’ll lay down some basic principles. We won’t be going too deep into particulars of battlefield tactics, but we do hope to provide a brief overview of how militaries functioned in antiquity and, by extension, in the Total War series.

1. You need a balance of quantity and quality
The general rule in ancient warfare is the larger army wins. Most wars were won and lost on attrition, so the strategy was to try and overpower the enemy by cramming as many bodies on the battlefield as possible.

This is a very, very loose heuristic, not gospel. There are many famous instances of armies completely annihilating much larger forces (we’ll actually be looking at one in a later part!), but these typically hinged on unique circumstances such as geographic advantage, tactical superiority, or just plain luck. At the end of the day, if you still have soldiers left who can fight and they don’t, guess who’s going to win?

Total War

Believe it or not, I’m going to lose this battle. Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage, the enemy’s units are much better than mine.

The caveat is that this isn’t ALL a numbers game. Army composition and morale are huge factors as well (as we’ll dive into in the next section!). For example, an army of 500 may seem to have a clear advantage over an enemy force of just 100 troops, but if your 500 units are all archers and the enemy is fielding 100 cavalry, you’re going to be unpleasantly surprised at how quickly you’ll be seeing a “Defeat” screen.

Which brings us to the next point…

2. Know what each unit does
Knowing the differences between the units available to you is essential, as each has advantages and disadvantages. Don’t just cram your army full of as many units as you can – whenever possible, you want to field a force that will give you a direct tactical advantage over the army you’re going to be facing.

Infantry are the workhorse of most European armies, and footsoldiers will likely form the bulk of your force (unless you’re a Hun, but we’ll get to that later). Infantry come in a variety of flavors, and their function and importance will change based on your objective, the enemy force, and the battlefield itself:

A fancy word for “archers,” these are any troops who fight by throwing or shooting things at people. The primary role of these troops is to thin the ranks before committing your forces to hand-to-hand combat. They will be among the least resilient of any unit on the field, so don’t expect them to last long in a direct engagement with heavy infantry (or, god help you, cavalry).

Light/Medium/Heavy Infantry
Think of your footsoldiers like the offensive line in a football team. Their job is to “pin” enemy forces by engaging them in a melee, enabling your cavalry or other infantry to swing around behind and flank, or cutting off your opponent’s advance. Heavy units are a good go-to for meatgrinder situations, such as storming a settlement’s walls, as they excel at chewing up softer soldiers. Lighter units are good for flanking around engaged enemies thanks to their faster speed. If you’re the type of general who values efficiency over empathy you can also put them in your front ranks to soak up enemy arrowfire or take the brunt of an infantry charge. Just be prepared to write a few hundred letters to grieving widows.

Pikes and Spears
Pikes do almost exactly one thing: Stop cavalry. Since pikes are pointy sticks that are very, very long, they’re great at halting cavalry charges or even counterattacking heavy cav units. Any cavalry unit that charges head-on into a line of pikes is going to result in a huge increase in business at the local glue factories, so a common strategy is to keep pikemen stationed near vulnerable skirmishers or flanking a contingent of footmen as a defensive measure rather than using them as an assault force.

Total War Formation

A basic European battle formation: Light infantry in the front, heavy infantry supporting the rear, spears offering defensive support on the flank, and cavalry off to the side.

Mounted units possess two huge advantages: speed and sheer stopping power. Cavalry are the “all-star” units of most armies. You likely won’t have a lot of cav (they’re expensive to recruit and maintain), but the units you do field will be important.

Heavy cavalry
Heavy mounted units are a hammer you use to smash a hole in the enemy’s line. In fact, one of the most common battlefield tactics is the “hammer and anvil.” This involves engaging the enemy infantry from the front while the cavalry swings around from the back and “smashes” the enemy against the “anvil.” Formed cavalry charges can do immense damage to both a unit’s health and its morale, but heavy cav generally don’t do too well in sustained melee fighting. Hence the “hammer” reference – smash them into an enemy line, then withdraw and smash them again (a process known as “cycle charging”).

Light cavalry
Light cavalry don’t have the sheer brick shit-house stopping power of a heavy mounted charge, but their versatility is beneficial to resourceful generals. The main skill boasted by light cav is speed, so they’re good “swing” units – you can send them where they’re most needed (just be careful not to run them too much or else they’ll tire out). These units can also play useful tactical roles, such as luring enemy heavy cavalry units into chasing them into a spear wall. Adroit generals can also use light cavalry as a mobile strike force, sending them to engage artillery units behind enemy lines and just basically making things more difficult for the other army.

Missile cavalry
Horse archers and mounted javelins are similar to your light cav set to permanent “keepaway” mode. Missile cav is great for luring enemy units away from the safety of formation since they can advance quickly, fire off a few volleys, and retreat at a safe distance. And unlike foot archers, missile cav units can fire while moving. They fare better in melee than their unhorsed counterparts, but your strategy still shouldn’t revolve around your mounted archers in direct enemy engagements.

2a. A note on cavalry
This all comes with a huge asterisk. The fine print is that this is all standard to Western European battlefield tactics – what we’d think of as “medieval” armies. Civilizations such as the Huns fielded armies that were more or less exclusively composed of mounted units. One of the main reasons the Mongols were so effective in their conquest is that their cavalry-centric armies were so tactically baffling to their opponents that nobody could figure out how to fight them.

While “standard” formations and tactics adhere to more conventional army compositions, typically featuring a relatively small number of cavalry units, the sky is pretty much the limit.

Total War Hound Charge

If you don’t support your skirmishers with infantry, they’ll be susceptible to devastating charges from the front.

3. Also know what each unit doesn’t do
Knowing unit weaknesses will help you better defeat enemy units and protect your own. There are a few “hard counters” that, while more “strong suggestion” than “rule written in stone,” are still worth knowing.

Cavalry: Cavalry may seem like invincible wunderunits, but keep them away from spears, which do bonus damage against cavalry. If you have to engage enemy spearmen with your cav, attack the flank or rear – avoid a frontal assault at all costs.

Skirmishers: Knocking a line of archers into the air with a well-formed cavalry charge is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have, but it also bears an important lesson: Mounted units literally trample over archers. Some more advanced units can deploy palisade barriers, but if you’re relying on that to save your archers from a cav charge, you can already consider the unit lost.

Spears: Spearmen aren’t generally as hearty as heavy infantry units. While not quite as hard a counter as the above two, heavy footman will generally chew through spearmen in a direct confrontation. You’ll likely need pikes in your army, but don’t use them as a main assault force, and definitely don’t try and storm any enemy walls with them.

4. You don’t need to kill them all
Believe it or not, battles aren’t really about killing the enemy – they’re about getting rid of your enemy. While that can (and often does) coincide with excessive murder, if you can get them to simply give up and run away, so much the better.

If you can erode a unit’s morale enough, it will turn and flee, saving lives, energy, and time. Lower-tier units have less morale than more advanced “professional” soldiers, so while you may have a vast numerical advantage, a peasant band fighting a unit of dismounted knights will rout every time. Other things that will take a sledgehammer to your morale are the death of a general, or your army getting flanked or suffering a cavalry charge (hey, you’d shit your pants too if a band of mounted knights with lances smashed into your rear).

Battles are as much about controlling morale as they are about killing. An important unit breaking and fleeing a key strategic spot at just the wrong time can be the difference between an easy victory and a crushing defeat. But keep in mind that goes for your enemy as well.

Phew. Still with us? Good. Understanding the basic components of your army is the first step to using it effectively. In the next part, we’ll be diving into that manliest of medieval endeavours: pitched battle.