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So You Want to Play Total War: How to Fight a Battle

I talked previously about how war is politics by another means, and that it is more important to have a good economy than be a superior general in the battlefield. That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a good general, as a few crushing defeats can put the fate of your rising empire at risk. This primer should help you with the more fundamental battle strategies of Total War.

The Building Blocks of War

In order to deploy your troops in the most effective way, you kind of need to know what they are, what they do, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. This following list will be extensive, but if you want to learn more about how to array your units, just keep scrolling.


Infantry is the backbone of any army (unless you’re the Huns). They are the units that hold the line against the enemy. When your infantry breaks, your army breaks. That being said, there are tons of variety when it comes to infantry and it’s very important to know how to use those pieces. I’m going to stay general here, like the previous post, and try not to drop down to a specific level. Within each game there are tons of exceptions to these rules, but if you are paying attention to the unit’s stats, the you should be able to spot the exceptions.

A) Spears are a necessary component to you army. They’re excellent anti-cavalry defense, and usually have a special ability that allows them to withstand charges of both swords and cavalry units. Generally speaking, spears are not usually the heavy infantry backbone of your army (although there are plenty of exceptions … looking at you Hoplites). Generally I like to  place spearmen on my flanks. This allows me to scramble them to defend against flanking cavalry, and I love using spears to envelope enemy melee units. I’ll talk more about that later. Even within spears there is a wide variety. They usually come in light, medium, and heavy armored flavors, some have bigger, heavier spears that do more damage, and then you have your halberdiers, pikemen, and polearms, each one dealing differing levels of damage and conferring different special abilities.

B) Swords are my second favorite unit type in the game. They form the core of my armies, and literally comprise the center of my battle formations. Sword units are a jack-of-all-trades type unit. They don’t particularly get any bonuses against other units, but they don’t really suffer any penalties against others. They sometimes are better against spearmen than spearmen, but that’s generally because sword units have greater morale and/or armor, although the Sword Heerban and Naked Swords units come to mind as exceptions. Though, if not paired with spears, or out in the open, can be mowed down by cavalry.

C) Skirmishers are usually a form of light infantry that carries ranged projectiles like javelins. They’re fast, and great for hitting enemies from behind where their armor is weaker. That’s right, infantry unit’s armor is typically weaker in the back for units that carry shields. It also lowers their morale. Skirmishers are cheap, disposable units. I typically don’t use them after the early game because ranged cavalry are a better choice overall.

D) Archers and Crossbowmen are the best ranged units in the game. They have the best range and have powerful attacks. That being said, their attacks usually don’t ignore armor. Additionally, archers always have a firing arch, and crossbowmen generally do as well. This varies depending on the game. Like skirmishers, if you move them behind shielded units they will do more damage.

E) Gunpowder infantry are a great leveler. If you’re going up against a faction with heavy armor, gunpowder units change the game. Their damage ignores armor. That being said, they require line of sight, which means they can be limited on total number of shots before they have to be pulled behind your line.


Cavalry, personally, is my favorite unit type in the game. They’re the unit you’re most likely to micro in battle, and the most likely to make the difference in the field. Simply put, cavalry make the difference between victory and defeat.

A) Light Cavalry a designed for scouting out enemy positions, making quick flanking attacks, running down routing enemies, or going after fast ranged cavalry.

B) Medium cavalry do better damage and are more protected than light cavalry, but aren’t going to be best suited for pursuing fast enemies.

C) Heavy cavalry could perform a bunch of different roles depending on the game. In most games they’re shock cavalry, meaning they do a ton of charging damage. Charging damage is damage that’s created when your unit slams into another unit while running. It negates armor and is most effective when hitting a unit from behind or from the side. Shock cavalry generally doesn’t fair well in melee, so pull them out of melee and run them at the enemy again. Warhammer, however, introduces us to anti-infantry and anti-cavalry types. These are usually heavy cavalry that can engage with melee, and do better damage against either infantry or cavalry types. These you can leave in melee.

D) Ranged, Gunpowder and Skirmisher cavalry function the same as their infantry counterparts. After I gain heavy cavalry in the late game I start using ranged cavalry as my primary light cavalry for the purposes of chasing routing enemies and harassing enemy ranged cavalry.

Siege Engines

Siege engines are fantastic to have, depending on the type of enemy you’re fighting. I usually like to keep some in my army, but it depends on what I’m fighting. For instance, if I’m having to deal with a ton of stacks from my enemies, then I want anti-infantry siege weapons like mortars. If I’m needing to launch a lightning campaign into enemy territory, I go with weapons that take out walls, that way I’m not having to wait multiple turns to build siege towers and battering rams.

In Warhammer, there’s an even wider variety of siege weapons to chose from. Read the descriptions and pick from there.

What Should My Army Look Like

When you’re constructing a stack, I tend to follow this general rule, until I find it doesn’t work, depending on the game/faction/enemies. In a 20 unit army i have: 1 general, 4 swords, 4 spears, 3 ranged infantry, 4 heavy cavalry, 2 light cavalry, 2 siege engines. In Warhammer I substitute a heavy cavalry for a spellcaster.

On the battlefield, I usually arrange my swords in the middle, spears on the side, ranged infantry on the flanks, siege engines behind my center, and cavalry tucked in behind my line on the flanks. Formations aren’t nearly as important though, because once the battle starts they’ll devolve pretty quickly as the enemy will try to flank you.

Next time we will be talking about how to launch a campaign into enemy territory.

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