Total War Battle Guide For Beginners Part Two: Going To War

total war napoleon
If you’ve been keeping up with Part One of this guide, you should have a keen grasp of the basics of battling in
Total War games. You’ve got the building blocks, and now it’s time to take those building blocks and use them to construct a giant hammer. A hammer you will use to smash your enemies on the battlefield.

Battles in Total War come in two main varieties: Pitched battle and settlement assaults. Each is different enough that it requires its own strategies, tactics, and special considerations. First, we’ll be taking a look at pitched battles – what they are, how to approach them, and, hopefully, how to smash your enemy.

1. Know your objective

Unlike battles in games like Civilization, the goal of pitched battle in Total War isn’t just to eliminate every last enemy soldier. There will always be an objective you’re trying to accomplish – in pitched battle, that objective is usually to rout the enemy army. Knowing this objective is key, and it means that you need to be strategic about your army placement and composition. Having a big army is good, but having a well composed army is better almost every time. The main thing to keep in mind is:

Every unit you field should have a job.

total war units

If you just blob a bunch of units together, you’re going to be in a world of hurt when you come face to face with your opponent’s well-disciplined force. Of course, as we climb down onto the back of the next turtle in the pile, this means that you should have a basic idea of your tactical goal before entering a fight. Are you going to try and outflank your opponent with your cavalry? Is your aim to commit the bulk of your enemy’s force into a protracted melee, giving your superior footmen a chance to do some damage? The answers to these questions will inform your army composition, and without considering them, you’re cutting your chances of victory down tremendously.

One final note: Pre-battle planning really can’t be stressed enough. As Sun Tzu said, “If you know yourself and you know your enemy, you need not fear the result of 100 battles.” The rule of Total War is that you should Always Be Gathering Intelligence. Don’t just scope out the size of an enemy force, since that’s not always indicative of the challenge it will present. If you can use a spy or a scout to see what units compose the enemy army, you can tailor your force to be a perfect counter. If you see, for example, that your opponent’s force heavy on archers and skirmisher units, you can start recruiting a bunch of cavalry units to run them down; massing a huge force of infantrymen will result in your army being thoroughly pincushioned. In contrast, if you’re facing a cav-heavy force, do everything you can to mitigate that advantage – stuff your ranks with spears, pikes, war dogs, and other cav-counter units.

The strength of the formation forms the backbone of a professional army.
The strength of the formation forms the backbone of a professional army.

2. Get to know your formations

This aint Starcraft. You can’t just throw a blob of units at the enemy and hope for the best. How your soldiers are arrayed can be just as important as how many units you have. Let’s look at spearmen as an example.

Spears are great for stopping cavalry charges, but even as a hard counter to mounted units the efficacy of your spearmen comes with some caveats. One of the more important things is the balance between covering a wide area with your battle lines and strengthening your units enough that they won’t be susceptible to a strong charge: If you stretch your line as far as possible, spreading your spears and pikes out into single-rank formation, you may cover a huge part of the field, but the tradeoff is your paper-thin line will likely shatter after just one cav charge. On the flip side, the default “square” formation is great for reinforcing your front ranks with soldiers from the rear, more or less preventing mounted charges from punching through, but the open area on either side can leave you open to a flanking maneuver.

Similarly, while cav charges may be your weapon of choice for breaking up enemy infantry, not all charges are created equal. For example, if you charge head-on into a line of soldiers (an “unformed charge,” for those of you who were wondering), you’ll do some damage, yes, and you may even chip away at the line itself. But while the width of a battle line is a good thing for infantrymen, it can spell doom for cavalry. Think basic physics – the smaller the area over which force is exerted, the greater the force you can bring to bear; likewise, a larger overall area of impact spreads the force out, basically resulting in a much weaker charge overall. Even worse, the flanks of your cavalry unit can get “tangled up” in enemy infantry, making it difficult to extract after your charge, and allowing your enemy precious seconds it can use to hack away at your horses.

The terrain can prove advantageous or disastrous depending on how you use it.
The terrain can prove advantageous or disastrous depending on how you use it.

3. Use your terrain

Remember that scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith where Obi-Wan boasts to Anakin that “he has the high ground?” Well you should know that it’s wise to listen to a Jedi about such things. Maps in Total War aren’t static – terrain differences can play a huge role in your success.

Scan the battlefield before you begin. If you’re positioned on or near a hill, that makes a great place to beeline for. Hills are excellent defensible positions: Your skirmishers will have a longer range, and enemy infantry will have to run uphill to get at you, which will tire them out significantly (you know the old colloquialism “uphill battle?” Yeah. That.). Hills also help if you’re attacking – charging down a hill will give your heavy infantry much more momentum and can result in a devastating charge.

If you’re on the bottom of a hill looking up, take an alternate route. Charging uphill is almost always disastrous, so you should start looking for flanking opportunities, or consider using light cav to try and lure units away to engage you directly.

There are of course other sneaky things you can do with terrain. For example, if your enemy’s line is bordered on one side by a river, you’ve got a built-in anvil you can use to hammer them against. Forests are great for stashing units out of sight to plan an ambush – in fact many units get an ambush bonus when hidden in the woods.

4. Understanding morale

In Part One of this guide we talked about how you don’t have to kill all of the enemies, it can often be enough to just get them to run away. This is where morale comes in – perhaps one of the most important battlefield stats to be aware of.

Morale is something of an uberstat that is influenced by a bunch of other factors – attack, defense, experience, weather, even special abilities can all influence morale. Some lower-tier militia units will start with a low base morale, while professional soldiers and mercenaries tend to be harder nuts to crack. A unit’s morale will lower as it takes damage or tires out. Conversely, the more damage you can do to an enemy unit, the quicker its morale will drop – this makes units like berzerkers, which have insanely high melee attack but almost no armor, great “shock troops” – they likely won’t hold up in sustained combat, but they’re great for crashing into a wavering enemy line and tipping them over the edge and forcing a rout.

Generals have a huge impact on overall army morale. Keeping your general nearby will give a constant morale boost to all troops in close proximity. On the flip side, a general being killed can shatter the morale of an entire army. You can use this to your advantage – many combatants like to take out the enemy general as soon as is feasible – but be careful that t doesn’t happen to you as well.

This has significant implications for your deployment. Keep in mind that lower morale units will likely break much earlier, so either don’t put them in a position that you absolutely need to be held down, or at least ensure they have support from a nearby general – otherwise you’ll end up with a hole in your line, at which point you may as well hand your keys over to your enemy.

One final note on morale: While each unit has its own levels of morale, every soldier affects the army as a whole. If you mount a successful cav charge into the flank of a melee unit and cause it to rout, there’s a good chance that panic will spread to the unit on its other flank, dropping its morale as well and possibly even causing them to flee. The Holy Grail of pitched battles is to use this to maximum advantage, “rolling up” the enemy battle line in a mass rout.

Always attack your enemies at their weakest point.
Always attack your enemies at their weakest point.

5. Flank!

Warfare 101 can be summed up in one word: Flank. Attacking your enemies from the front may work in your favor, especially if your units outclass those of your opponent, but the results will likely be costly. Why rush your troops straight on to the point of enemy swords (or worse, spears) when you can smash your enemy in their unprotected side or rear?

Flanking your enemy has two major advantages. First, you’ll inflict some significant damage since you’re hitting your opponent where they’re unprotected. Second, and more important, a cavalry charge or flanking maneuver directed toward your opponent’s side or rear will wreak utter havoc on their morale. In fact, in some cases, a well-formed cavalry charge into an opponent’s rear can be enough to shatter the unit outright.

The majority of tactics in Total War battles – indeed, in warfare in general – revolve around positioning your army, or a portion of it, in such a way as to be able to flank the enemy. Just watch out, as your opponent will likely be trying to do the same thing.

Note that there are a couple of ways to stymie your opponent’s flanking efforts. The wider your battle line is, the wider around your army your enemy will have to swing to flank you. Just be careful – width often comes at the expense of depth, and spreading your line too thin can be disastrous.

Another common tactic is to employ a “rear guard.” These are troops that you keep in reserve behind your main line. Reserves can be sent to plug holes as the battle wears on, but they’re also great for discouraging flanking maneuvers – your rear guard can charge in and outflank the flankers.


Putting it all together

A pitched battle seems like one of the most chaotic things you can think of, but in reality it’s a lot like chess – moving pieces around to control space, cutting off your enemy, and attacking where they’re weakest. Knowing the principles is one thing, but putting it all together in practice can be another. So let’s look to a real-world example of one of the most deftly-orchestrated pitched-battle strategy in history: Hannibal Barca at the battle of Cannae.

Hannibal was a Carthaginian general most famous for obliterating a Roman force almost twice the size of his own at Cannae. Through careful consideration of strengths and weaknesses on both sides, not to mention clever use of space and strong cavalry superiority, Hannibal and his 45,000 soldiers were able to completely encircle and then demolish the 79,000 Roman soldiers. Take a peek!

Now that you’ve learned how to smash your enemy on the battlefield, join us next time where we bring the fight home and discuss sieges.