Tactical Advice for Beginners
The most important lesson that a beginner has to learn is that he should have a plan. Almost any plan is better than no plan at all. A good plan, however, is the first step to victory. It should take into account the layout of the battlefield, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces, and the enemy’s likely actions. If you misjudge, you will find it difficult to change your plan or redeploy, so best get it right first time if possible.
Ask yourself how your army differs from that of the enemy. Who has the best close-combat infantry? If it’s you, plan your attack around them, but if it’s the enemy, you will need to avoid or delay contact with them. Who has the best rough/difficult terrain infantry? If you do, you can use terrain to secure your flanks and create outflanking opportunities. However, if it’s the enemy, you should plan to avoid such terrain. Who has the best cavalry? If you do, you may be able to carry out sweeping maneuvers on his flanks but if he does, or if his army greatly outnumbers yours, you will need to avoid being outflanked yourself.
Does the enemy have any troops that are certain to give you problems? Can you use terrain to hamper them or reduce their impact? Have you enough skirmishers to damage their cohesion before contact?
Does the enemy have elephants? Can you disrupt them or put them to flight with shooting before they contact?
It isn’t always necessary to attack immediately, but if you adopt a defensive position, don’t rely on your opponent attacking where you want him to. Few opponents will cooperate by making a suicidal attack on an impregnable position. If you adopt a rigid defense, a clever opponent will concentrate his main attack on your weakest point while demonstrating against the rest of your battle line to keep it occupied. He may concentrate shooting on part of your line until its cohesion fragments before charging your demoralized troops. A defensive stance followed by a pre-planned counter-attack can be more effective.
It is often effective to attack on one wing while skirmishing or defending on the other. Obviously, the attacking wing should contain heavy troops and the refused wing should contain troops capable of skirmishing or be in a secure defensive position. If your refused wing looks as if it is in danger, do not be tempted to siphon off troops from your attacking wing to bolster it. All this is likely to do is ensure that your main attack peters out.
You should try to keep your plan and your deployment as simple as possible, with most of your troops deployed in battle lines under the control of your commanders. This will prevent the majority of your troops from being overlapped or attacked in flank. You should avoid leaving gaps in your line unless you have supporting units to protect the flanks of your front line units.
If you plan a wide, on-map, outflanking move, this should be led by a commander. Or you might try an off-map flank march, as these can be very effective. The danger is that it may arrive too late or never at all.
Ambushes can also be effective by concealing your intentions from the enemy, but do not be tempted to ambush in every piece of terrain just because you can. Such stratagems should be part of your overall plan. Infantry can ambush in woods and built-up areas, and any troops can ambush out of sight behind the high ground, trees, or built-up areas.
Troops held back behind the front line can act as reserves to plug a hole or exploit an opportunity. A central reserve of good quality mobile troops can be used to achieve a crucial advantage at the point of the decision if employed in the right place at the right time.
An army with a second line as reserves will obviously occupy less frontage than an army deployed in less depth, creating a risk that you might be outflanked. However, the terrain can be used to secure flanks and failing this your flank reserves should be suitably positioned to counter any enemy outflanking maneuver. This flexibility and ability to deal with all eventualities can be contrasted with the rigidity of the army deployed on too wide a front, which has no counter to an enemy breakthrough and will find it difficult to compensate for any deficiencies in its original plan.
One possible exception to the above general rule might be armies largely consisting of horse archers, who cannot expect to win a frontal contest and must therefore attempt to outflank the enemy on one or both flanks. They may still benefit from keeping a strong reserve, and even if this leaves gaps in their line, the enemy will find it difficult to exploit this without breaking up their own formation, which in turn may present opportunities for the horse archers to concentrate their shooting or to attack flanks.
If you have the advantage in light horse and light foot, a good tactic is to rush forward with these on one or both flanks, defeat the opposing skirmishers, then concentrate shooting to erode the cohesion of the heavier troops on the enemy wings. The skirmishers can fall back slowly in front of the enemy, evading if charged. Remember, however, that light foot are vulnerable to mounted troops in the open and may not be able to evade far enough to get away. They may be better able to delay the enemy if deployed in ambush in terrain ready to spring out at the appropriate moment.
Flank attacks, especially by non-skirmishers, can be overwhelming, so you must avoid enemy getting behind the flanks of your units. Conversely, if you can manage to outflank the enemy the battle should be all but won – but remember that the enemy must also be engaged frontally for flank attacks to be deadly.
A commander fighting with a unit will greatly improve the odds in close combat, but there is a risk of losing the commander. On balance, the benefit usually outweighs the risk if the combat is otherwise at least equal, or if the result of the combat is critical. However, once committed, the commander cannot be used to control or rally other units until the close combat is over.