There ain’t much we love more in gaming than lining up together against an AI in a strategy game. With Empire:Total War we have the opportunity to wage some of the largest simulated battles ever seen, fielding armies of over a thousand soldiers each.
We decided to employ a tactic that we used constantly in Dawn of War 2, in which one of us would commandeer the hard hitting fast attack melee units, and the other would take ranged choices as backup. We wondered, out of morbid curiosity, whether or not the same strategy was feasible with two thousand men instead of twelve. There was only one way to find out. Our victims? The French.
Time to crush.
LUDO – I was to be the anvil. It would be my job to soak up the brunt of the enemy force, holding the foe in place for the hammer to strike. Taking the British as my army was an easy choice. As an army the British are predisposed to sitting about a mile away from their foe drinking tea and letting off the occasional cannon. Their only melee unit is a rag tag cluster of drunk peasants with pikes, the rest of them are eagle eyed sharpshooters with a lust for French blood.
My first selection is a core force of four Elite Guard units within which my general would be hidden, his job for the battle would be to adjust his monocle a lot and thoughtfully mutter to himself over a smoking pipe. As long as he was doing that and not, say, running screaming into the middle of the enemy lines he would stay alive. His moral boosting presence would hold my men together in the face of greater numbers. My second core unit is a boatload of Greenjackets – snipers with skirmishing and light infantry abilities with immense range and a bad attitude, they were to be my front line. In the small gaps between the units I would arrange my pukkel guns, repeat firing musket cannons, the closest thing in the game to a machine gun. A couple of cannons behind the front line and I was ready.
DANTE – As the hammer of our tactic it’s important that I hit fast and hard, largely in melee. As a result I pick the Indian Maratha Confederacy, the only playable army to boast melee infantry to any real degree. I pick two units of Sikh Warriors and two units of Hindu Warriors, the latter hit harder but the former will stand their ground more in a fight. I also pick up a formidable four units of Siphai cavalry, the hardest hitting lancers in the game. The only missile units I grab are two units of Camel Gunners allowing me to harass the enemy, pick off undefended artillery and panic their cavalry. My final points go on my not so secret weapon, two units of veteran War Elephants, ready to strike terror into the hearts of Frenchmen everywhere.
For my deployment I eschewed the traditional long line as I lacked any ranged units to hold it, instead I squashed my units into a tight spacing close to Ludo, hoping to lure the French into attacking him instead. My elephants were too the fore, ready to absorb enemy fire and protect the rest of the army. My camels and general deployed to the rear, ready to trot across when battle began and re-enforce Ludo’s already formidably gun line. Sandwiched between the two were my four units of lancers, arranged in diamond formation, ready to hit the flanks of the enemy hard. Finally my infantry deploy hidden in a nearby forest, ready to dash out with a surprise attack when the time is right.
LUDO – They say first impressions are important. My greenjackets were inclined to agree. in huge single rank lines they surround the forward quarters of my force, and as one they lay down a vast wall of stakes. Behind this they crouched and sighted, waiting for the enemy to come into view. The enemy is out of range of pretty much anything to begin with, but soon enough their forces crossed the tree line and my cannons let off the first of many shots. I’ve loaded them with a special infantry-killing kind of cannonball which shatters in midair, dissolving into a cloud of devastating shrapnel. whenever it hits it blasts a hole in an enemy unit. Aside from that my men mill about and chat about the weather while I zoom in and look at my units’ musicians and their comedy outfits.
DANTE – With next to no ranged units in my army it’s a quiet start. My general and camels tuck in behind Ludo’s line. The camels have more range than the average gunner, allowing them to fire over the top of regular infantry. I debate sending them off to harass the French in the early stages, but as this usually ends in glorious suicide for my units I decide to hold them back for now and pick off vulnerable artillery later.
One of the French generals takes his escort right the way across the battlefield, riding in front of the French lines dramatically, then they comes to rest on an exposed hilltop on the far side of the fight. A unit of lancers gallops over and butchers them to a man. First blood! My clever tactic of not wandering my general into a suicidal position is paying off!
LUDO – Watching the french emerge from the forest was an interesting exprience. My thoughts evolved as so:
Pah, look at them in their poncy whiter-than-white whites, we shall rout them to a man!
Wow, there’s rather a lot of them aren’t there?
Um, cannons? C-could you possibly fire a bit faster?
Oh lord we’re going to die.
I breathed into a paper bag for a minute and turned the camera away. It’s okay. Everything is fine. Whatever they’ve got we have two metre tall ton-heavy monsters, lots of them. It’s then that their artillery, in a remarkable feat of accuracy (or perhaps luck) put a three-man wide hole in my ranks, narrowly missing my general. All I can do is stand still and camp behind the stake line and wait.
Finally, the french come within range of my Greenjackets, and smoke begins to fill the air. a few Frenchmen collapse, flailing. This is about to get serious.
DANTE – My oh so sneaky deployment strategy seems to have paid off, as the French troops on my side swing around and approach Ludo’s openly fortified position. I desperately try to hold my nerve as they saunter a few feet from my elephants, charging too early would give the game away. Thankfully my men are aware of this and stand around nonchalantly as if to say “War Elephants? No, never heard of them, oh those? Nah, those are Peace Elephants”.
Somehow it’s working though, the French close all the way into the firing lines of Ludo’s troops, they settle into position for a meat grinder of a fight, using their superior numbers to attain victory by attrition. But I’m not about to let them have a chance at that, because it’s time to cry havoc, and let slip the elephants of war!
LUDO – We’ve reached critical mass. Everyone is in shooting range of everyone else. There’s not a drop of blood to be seen in Empire’s battle engine, but that doesn’t stop these shootouts from being utterly brutal affairs. The musket fire is thunderous and amid the smoke men collapse into twitching heaps.
I’ve reloaded my cannons with a whole new kind of shot. Now they just fire hideous volleys of shrapnel straight from the barrel, becoming the equivalent of a 24 pound shotgun. The French march forwards regardless, accepting a reduced firing rate to get within charging range. Standing as they are in front of my short range artillery is faily suicidal, so hand to hand violence is a valid strategy for them. So desperate are they to escape the glare of my gunline a unit of horses charges head on into my stakes in an effort to take out my central artillery cluster. About 40% of them are impaled, but enough make it through to occupy my artillery crew – a worthwhile sacrifice to silence my cannons. My unshakable Elite Guards barely acknowledge the horse charge, calmly they reload their weapons and take aim at the french infantry line.
Boom. Half a white-shirted rank falls. A kind of stalemate has been reached, now it’s up to Dante to put the French on the back foot
DANTE – Ludo is in trouble, the entire French force is grinding towards him and some of their elite cavalry have just made a kamikaze charge into his artillery. I move my general, who is standing right behind the cannon, forwards, and the sheer sight of his mighty elephant mounted guard is enough for the cavalry, already heavily reduced by the stakes, to back off for a second. My cavalry on the flank finish off the enemy general and fly head around behind enemy lines to take out those pesky French guns, they manage to take out two of the four cannon before being swallowed up by a mass of French horsemen.
Meanwhile, I activate my reserves. The elephants have punched a hole in the right hand side of the French formation, scattering several units before getting bogged down in a brutal fight with some line infantry, I intend to use this gap to flank their army.
My three remaining cavalry diamonds carefully skirt around the stakes and slam in the flanks of the French lines. These men are already dealing with massed fire from the front and the crashing impact of the charge is more than they can handle. Several units scatter on impact, one of my Siphai units is so effective it careers straight through the lines and ends up the far side of Ludo’s army, I send them down the flank to hit one of the remaining artillery emplacements, but they’re blocked off by another cavalry unit and forced to flee.
Seeing their comrades break and run, the remaining attacking units fall back also, whoops of celebrations are heard throughout our armies… then we notice the hilltop, where a second wave approaches, containing most of the opposing cavalry. The fleeing forces rally around their fellows.
This battle is not yet over.
LUDO – Being confronted by an unusual demonstration of French resolve warranted some differing tactics. Dante’s attack had been devastating, many had died on both sides but where Dante’s fast melee-experienced units had regrouped the French had lost their formation entirely, most notably their width.
I began moving my men past the stakes at a quick pace. Having not moved a single step in the entire battle my troops were energised and moved fast. The French meanwhile had either faced a long march or wasted energy and men in their initial charge. With the general dead their morale would be shaky which meant I could be more audacious with my men. In wide skirmish formation I sent my Greenjackets towards one of the remaining units of French artillery. My guards moved in a wide arc, lining up on the left flank, ready to unleash hell.
DANTE – Ludo is forming the ‘horseshoe of death’ a potent Empire tactic that involves encircling the enemy so that you can cover him with multiple fire arcs. The French left flank is hit hard by this, and I use the diversion to sent my camels down the left hand side to secure the final cannon. The French gunners look somewhat surprised to be attacked by camel riding desert nomads on the rolling hills of Provence, I can’t think why.
While our left flank is strong it is Ludo’s right, the join between our armies, that is under heavy attack, Ludo’s battalions are buckling under the strain and my cavalry units are two tired and depleted to land charges effectively. One unit of elephants has routed, the other is bogged down fighting a mass of French infantry. For all our bravery this day could well be lost.
At this point, I remember I have four units of infantry hiding in the woods.
After Ludo has finished calling me rude names I send them flying forwards, no tactical subtlety here, just vast numbers and the all important advantage of surprise. They charge outwards, crashing into the French flank. They try desperately to hold, if they fall the rest of their army will topple like dominos, if not, then we are surely lost.
We watch with baited breath…
Moments later all that is left on the battlefield is a few thinned out units of Guards, some scattered greenjackets, some knackered camels and four huge and basically undented units of Sikh and Hindu warriors.
In the distance a few drained French stragglers flee the battlefield. I watch their unit flags flicker from the French tricolour to the white of surrender – it’s hard to tell the difference.
I pan slowly across the battlefield. Everything is quiet now. All that remains are the hundreds and hundreds of bodies and animal corpses left to decompose in the midday sun.
The battle is won. But at what cost?
Man vs Horse out.