General Strategy for Newbies to Total War Games

By Gaius Colinius.

I spent a frustrating morning watching my dad play M2TW a few weekends ago.

He had never played a Total War game before and was having terrible trouble with the battles. I watched him:

  • Charge cavalry headlong into pikemen.
  • Leave archers be run down by enemy cavalry while heavy infantry were immediately adjacent.
  • Watched town militia get slaughtered in a vain assault on dismounted knights.

Therefore I'm writing this guide for my dad but also for people who have never played a Total War game before and lose huge numbers of soldiers in what should be straight-forward battles.

This is purely for campaign battles on open fields but you need to know these basics before you play multiplayer. Mebertus has written an excellent guide for sieges if that's what you need help with.

There are a number of steps you need the break the battle down into before you begin:

  1. Basics
  2. Planning
  3. Initial unit/formation setup
  4. Early to middle to end battle stages

1. Basics

There is a large element of paper/scissors/stone to Total War games which anybody new to the games needs to become familiar with very quickly. They go as follows:

  • Cavalry charging spear units head on = dead cavalry
  • Unarmoured slow unit [spear militia] = vunerable to missile fire
  • Heavy infantry toe to toe with light infantry = dead light infantry
  • Melee units chasing missile cavalry = exhausted units
  • Cavalry vs unprotected missile infantry = routed missile infantry
  • One routing unit in melee mosh pit = possible chain reaction of routing units
  • Tired units = less effective units & more likely to rout
  • Dead general = massive morale blow to all those troops
  • Attack units from side or behind [flanking] = higher chance of success

Flanking is the most important part of the game. If you can do it successfully, you will be able to defeat larger & "superior-on-paper" armies.

See the last page of the Faust Faction and Unit Stat Table by Brandybarrel for details on why flanking is so important. For the unit shown, the defence at the rear is nearly one third of defence at the front. Defence from the side is also high.

You can beat inferior units in head-to-head conflicts but it's messy and with a little thought, you can get them to rout much quicker by also attacking them in the rear. Using this method, you can use two inferior units to rout a single superior unit.

My dad does dumb stuff like attacking melee units with two units and both are attacking head on. This negates your advantage of numbers. Surround the enemy and you can defeat even superior units.

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2. Planning

There's nothing worse than watching my dad accept a battle without even looking at the forces arrayed against him. It takes only two seconds to right click on the enemy general/captain portraits to see what the enemy unit disposition is and how it compares to yours. There may be more than one army so click on them all.

Things to look for are:

  • Does the enemy general have a lot of stars?
  • Does the enemy have well balanced armies or armies composed of mainly one unit type?
  • How many cavalry units do they have and are they better/more numerous than yours?
  • How many spear/pike units does your enemy have?
  • How many heavy infantry units do they have and are they better/more numerous than yours?
  • Does the enemy have horse archers?
  • If two or more enemy armies combine, will they end up with a more dangerous army?

The critical questions are:

  • Does the enemy general have a lot of stars?
  • Does the enemy have more or better cavalry than you?
  • Does the enemy have a lot of spearmen?

Enemy general has a lot of stars

This is a toughie. It won't make their general smarter but it will increase the morale of his troops and make them much harder to rout. Chivalry will increase this. If his dread is high, your own troops will lose morale.

Computer has a lot of spearmen

Computer controlled factions in M2TW have a tendency to pack a lot of spear men and even low level spearmen will cause heavy casualties if you rush them with cavalry so you need to plan your battle so that the cavalry are kept alive until you really need them.

Have you got missile units? Then use them to thin out the ranks of spearmen.

No missile units? Then use infantry to meet them head on.

There's no point in planning to attack marching or waiting spear units in the flanks with cavalry unless you have lots of units to overwhelm them quickly because they will turn and stick your knights on their spears.

Have you an all cavalry army? This is going to be interesting. Take out their supporting troops first and leave the spearmen till last.

Computer has a lot of cavalry

It's rare enough that the enemy will have a superior cavalry arm to you but if they do, the last thing you do is engage them right away. You need to use your supporting infantry to help you out.

The only time I've come across enemy all-cavalry armies is when my own troops defected because I didn't put a general with them so it is quite rare it happens in the campaign.

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3. Initial unit/formation setup

Okay so you've gone through the enemy unit roster as well as your own. Now is the time to put that information to use. Depending on your own unit roster, there are a number of variations you can use but I will use the tried & tested Melee/Missile/Cavalry line of battle for this guide.

Assuming that you have a balanced army with melee infantry, missile infantry and cavalry, the simplest is to line up melee infantry at the front with missile infantry behind them and cavalry either one the wings or behind the missile infantry. It is very simple but it is also very effective. Put your melee infantry on "guard mode" to stop them running around the field and turn off your missile "auto-fire option" for your archers.

The reason for this is that you don't want arrows being fired at an enemy unit when your own units are at risk of being hit. Keep a little bit of room between the infantry and archer line too to prevent "friendly fire".

Then your cavalry are held in reserve to flank the appropriate units and roll the entire enemy line up. Don't be afraid to stretch out your better infantry units so they cover a wider stretch of your line. Keep the poorer quality infantry units bunched up as they will take more losses.

The initial setup will look like this:

A Basic Formation.

The advantage of this formation is that it's easy to setup and maintain in a defensive position. As you become more experienced, you can try out more complex formations of the same troops.

Always try to position your troops on a hill. It will dramatically increase their performance and missile fire range.

If you are low in cavalry or have none at all then you will have to improvise somewhat. Missile infantry can be used to flank enemy units. They are not as effective as cavalry or melee infantry but every bit helps and you might be in a desperate situation. Just remember to "alt-right-click" to use their melee attack if they are not out of ammo.

This is only one type of formation and there are plenty of others but if you're getting into the game, it is a good one to start with and learn the basics of the game.

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4. Early to middle to end battle stages

Now that your units are setup, you can begin the battle. You are either on attack or defence. For newcomers, defence is easier and is recommended until you get the hang of things.

It's very simple really. The enemy will march towards you and your archers will have them in range. You've turned off auto-fire so you will need to order them to attack specific units. Archer fire works best when it is concentrated. Use it to decimate unarmoured units like spear militia or if you have time, concentrate fire on their general. The general is armoured so he'll absorb more arrows but horses make fine big targets. If you can take out their general before the melee begins, you have scored a huge morale blow over the enemy.

Make sure to switch the archers to a different target when the original target gets close to your own lines. You don't want to hit your own troops!

I prefer flaming arrows as it hits the enemy morale more. Normal arrows are supposed to get more casualties but I've never seen this to be honest.

Another tip is not to destroy a melee infantry unit to the last man. It's a waste of arrows and the computer rearranges it's troops to compensate.

The enemy will then engage your melee infantry. Once the melee stage of the battle has occurred you are now in the mid stage of the battle. You need to start moving your cavalry into position while watching for any potential flanking moves by your opponent. If they are attempting a flank, you will have to counter or else you could lose your entire army.

On attack it works slightly differently.

You march your troops towards the enemy. Keep them in formation. Don't be afraid to move someplace other than right in front of them to utilise high ground or other natural advantages. They will turn to face you anyway. When your archers get within range, stop all your troops. Let them fire off a few volleys. If the enemy move to attack... well and good, if they don't you can thin them out somewhat before the melee engagement. Once your archers are out of ammo or the enemy move you need to attack their infantry units. Try not to leave too many gaps in your line or let yourself be flanked. If you have no choice, leave small gaps in the middle of your line rather than allow any enemy sneak around your flanks.

When you are carrying out a flanking move yourself, you have two options:

  • Hammer & Anvil [Single envelopment flank move].
  • Double envelopment flank move.

Hammer & Anvil

Setup for the Hammer and
Anvil Strategy.
Execution of the Hammer and
Anvil Strategy.

It's quite straight-forward. Send your cavalry around one flank and take care not to entangle them with engaged melee units. You don't want to get into the fight just yet.

Next you work your way around the back of the enemy melee infantry, take out any missile/artillery units and attack a single engaged enemy melee infantry unit engaged to one of yours. Pick a weak one at the end of the line because that unit routing will cause adjacent units to lose morale. Pause the game and select each individual cavalry unit and order them to attack individually. Ordering them to attack while grouped can cause problems as they tend to select their own targets. Once that targeted unit routs, you can attack the next enemy unit in the line and so on. This is what is called "rolling up the enemy line" and is very satisfying to pull off.

Double envelopment flank move

This is equally viable but just requires a little more work. It means sending cavalry around both flanks. It would be more flexible if the enemy pulls off something unexpected and ensures that both flanks are secure.

Personally I prefer the single flank envelopment as you get huge concentration of numbers and the speed of cavalry means that you can usually recover from any "surprises" in time.

Ending the battle

Okay you have routed the enemy melee infantry and hopefully their cavalry too. Now is the time for the mopping up operation. Capturing routing units can be a valuable earner if finances are tight and it helps gain experience, especially for cavalry units. Chase down all the units you can. Be careful with still intact routing units and decimate them first. They could easily reform and you don't want that to happen. You've an empire to be conquering and wasting time with reforming units won't help that!

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