This week, we’re going to take a break from the more serious topics to look at infantry tactics and compositions in the Total War series, particularly in the light of the recent Total War: Warhammer III, a real-time strategy game set in a late-medieval/early-modern high fantasy setting (the Warhammer setting) and how well (or poorly) some of those tactics correspond to their actual real-world historical counterparts.
In particular, I want to look at how Creative Assembly, the studio behind this series of games, is attempting to create infantry units that occupy a flexible space between ranged and melee combat in an effort to shake up a Total War formula that increasingly is beginning to feel a touch stale. But in the process, as we’ll see, Creative Assembly has essentially given up on modeling how firearm infantry in particular worked on most early modern battlefields and moreover has never actually attempted the most common historical solution to the need for an infantry unit that could engage in both fire (ranged combat) and shock (melee combat), what I’ll call ‘composite’ infantry units.
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(The banner image is a mix of a screenshot from Total War: Warhammer II and, via Wikipedia, a model of a section of pike and shot from the Army Museum in Stockholm.)
What put me in mind of this topic was actually the unique faction quirk for the new human faction in Total War: Warhammer III, Kislev. Kislev’s unique tactical element is that most of their infantry units are ‘hybrid’ units, capable of fighting effectively in both melee and at range. This is unusual in Total War generally: most units that have any kind of ranged attack are lightly armored and poorly armed and thus if forced into a close-combat fight will handle it poorly.
The inspiration here seems to be the historical streltsy, which were, prior to Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725), the standard firearm-infantry of Muscovy/Russia. You can tell this inspiration was on the minds of the developers because the streltsy are just straight up in the game as a unit, called ‘streltsi’ (and I am going to use the spelling difference there to distinguish between historical streltsy and the game’s streltsi).
Of course the game’s streltsi must have a fantastical element and in this case it is their melee weapon. The historical streltsy were primarily arquebusiers (that is, firearm troops) who used a relatively short (usually at or below five feet) polearm, the bardiche, alongside their firearms. This isn’t as radical as it sounds. Early muskets and arquebuses were long and very heavy and so generally used with a fort-rest, essentially a monopod that supported the end of the barrel. The historical streltsy combined that with their bardiche which lacked a halberd’s spear-point and so had a flat space to rest the arquebus. This of course forced significant compromises in the design of the bardiche – thus its short length.
In-game, the streltsi take this up to eleven by combining their bardiche with their arquebus, replacing the rest of the firearm with an axehead. This looks cool, but is, I should note, utterly impractical – it makes a very heavy firearm even heavier (an arquebus, not including shot and powder, might weigh around 5kg, generally heavier than a full length halberd) without the obvious utility of the arquebus-rest (meaning that in a real world scenario, rather than a game, they’d have to carry a fork-rest too). Also it means firing a weapon with a significant kick while resting an axe-blade underneath your shoulder, so if something goes wrong, well, I hope you didn’t need that arm. Of course the actual solution here to combine the two weapons was the bayonet, which arrived in Russia in the early 18th century under Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725), along with lighter muskets that no longer required a firing rest. The bayonet allowed musket-infantry to be their own pikemen thus at last driving the pike from the battlefields of Europe (on pikes, see below).
Creative Assembly took this ‘hybrid’ concept and then applied it to much of Kislev’s infantry roster. ‘Kossars’ are archers who are also halfway decent in melee, ‘Armored Kossars’ are front-line heavy infantry who also carry pistols which they can volley, and the ‘Ice-guard’ are both high-damage archers and high-damage (but fragile) infantry. For most other factions, a ‘switch-hitting’ melee-ranged unit is typically an elite late-game unit (e.g. Sisters of Avalorn, Shades), but chances are any given Kislev army is going to be mostly composed of such units, which as a faction is what makes them unique.
Hybrid Infantry in the Real World
What I find interesting here is that this unit type, ‘hybrid infantry’ – specifically effective, armored hybrid heavy infantry – seems to be increasingly common in Total War games (especially Warhammer), in part because it provides interesting tactical options, but actual historical hybrid infantry of this sort is relatively rare. I should be clear here we are dealing with infantry today – mounted archers (e.g. steppe warriors) often carried contact weapons and shifted between them and bows (carried in bow-cases when not in use). But infantry that was expected in the normal course of battle to both fight at range and also in ‘shock’ (meaning in melee combat), while not unheard of, was relatively rare.
The actual streltsy at best skirt the definition themselves. Streltsy literally means ‘shooter’ in Russian as far as I understand (I do not speak Russian) and the streltsy themselves were actually pretty clearly dedicated firearms troops. They were, for instance, generally unarmored (except for a helmet) in a period where shock cavalry and shock infantry (e.g. pikes) generally still wore at least some armor. And while those bardiches were effective close-combat weapons, the streltsy do not seem to have relied on them to, for instance, ward off cavalry. Instead, streltsy fought from ‘gulyay-gorod‘ (‘walking forts’), which is to say a form of ‘wagon fort’ not too dissimilar to how the Ottomans and Mughals protected there musketeers on the battlefield from fast moving cavalry (but quite dissimilar to the pike-and-shot system of central and western Europe). So while the real streltsy had some shock capability, unlike Kislev’s units in TW: Warhammer, they were unarmored and expected to use field fortifications to keep them out of shock, particularly against enemy cavalry. Attempting to send unarmored streltsy with their short bardiches into a ‘push of pike’ (the collision of two opposing pike squares) would have been a recipe for disaster: these were arquebusiers, first and foremost.
In a sense, streltsy weren’t all that remarkable. Most missile troops on the battlefield carried some kind of ‘backup’ weapon in case they found themselves in close combat. Look at artwork of 16th and 17th century musketeers and you will see that nearly all of them carry a sword, even though their general lack of armor is usually a clear indication that these troops do not expect themselves to be in close-combat. The streltsy weaponized their arquebus rests, which is an interesting innovation, but doesn’t actually give them radically different capabilities from a western musketeer who carries a sword (neither of them would be expected, for instance, to stand up to cavalry). So while the in-game streltsi are true hybrid units – at home in melee or at range – the actual streltsy were dedicated musketeers who carried a bardiche mostly as a backup weapon.
True ‘hybrid’ units of this sort are hard to find, in fact. The Roman heavy infantry carried javelins (the pilum) and later darts (the plumbata), but these were hurled in preparation for a charge and fairly clearly secondary weapons to the legionnaire’s gladius or later spatha. Missile troops of all types generally carried sidearms and we do occasionally see archers in some degree of armor during the Middle Ages, but these were still clearly dedicated missile troops; they carried melee sidearms much the way a tank crew carries pistols, rifles or shotguns: for emergencies when something has gone wrong. Elite Persian infantry, like the Immortals, seem to have been expected to engage in both melee and ranged fighting, but it is hard to conclude they could hold their own against dedicated shock infantry unsupported, given that Persian infantry tended to fare very poorly when in close combat against dedicated shock infantry (e.g. hoplites) and Persian successes (and there were Persian successes) often relied on avoiding head-on-head collisions with more heavily armored hoplites. So we can’t say forms of ‘hybrid’ infantry didn’t exist – they did – but they were less common; far more common were missile infantry that carried backup weapons.
But if true hybrid infantry was relatively rare historically, how might infantry fill this capability gap?
I should be clear I am making this term up (at least as far as I know) to make a contrast between what Total War has, which are single units made up of soldiers with identical equipment loadouts that have a dual function (hybrid infantry) and what it doesn’t have: units composed of two or more different kinds of infantry working in concert as part of a single unit, which I am going to call composite infantry.
This is actually a very old concept. The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC) is one of the earliest states where we have pretty good evidence for how their infantry functioned – there was of course infantry earlier than this, but bronze age royal records from Egypt, Mesopotamia or Anatolia tend to focus on the role of elites who, by the late bronze age, are increasingly on chariots. But for the early iron age Neo-Assyrian empire, the fearsome effectiveness of its regular (probably professional) infantry, especially in sieges, was a key component of its foreign-policy-by-intimidation strategy, so we see a lot more of them.
That infantry was split between archers and spear-and-shield troops, called alternately spearmen (nas asmare) or shield-bearers (sab ariti). In Assyrian artwork, they are almost always shown in matched pairs, each spearman paired off with a single archer, physically shielding the archer from attack while the archer shoots. The spearmen are shown with one-handed thrusting spears (of a fairly typical design: iron blade, around 7 feet long) and a shield, either a smaller round shield or a larger ‘tower’ shield. Assyrian records, meanwhile, reinforce the sense that these troops were paired off, since the number of archers and spearmen typically match perfectly (although the spearmen might have subtypes, particularly the ‘Qurreans’ who may have been a specialist type of spearman recruited from a particular ethnic group; where the Qurreans show up, if you add Qurrean spearmen to Assyrian spearmen, you get the number of archers). From the artwork, these troops seem to have generally worked together, probably lined up in lines (in some cases perhaps several pairs deep).
The tactical value of this kind of composite formation is obvious: the archers can develop fire, while the spearmen provide moving cover (in the form of their shields) and protection against sudden enemy attack by chariot or cavalry with their spears. The formation could also engage in shock combat when necessary; the archers were at least sometimes armored and carried swords for use in close combat and of course could benefit (at least initially) from the shields of the front rank of spearmen.
The result was self-shielding shock-capable foot archer formations. Total War: Warhammer also flirts with this idea with foot archers who have their own shields, but often simply adopts the nonsense solution of having those archers carry their shields on their backs and still gain the benefit of their protection when firing, which is not how shields work (somewhat better are the handful of units that use their shields as a firing rest for crossbows, akin to a medieval pavisse).
We see a more complex version of this kind of composite infantry organization in the armies of the Warring States (476-221 BC) and Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) periods in China. Chinese infantry in this period used a mix of weapons, chiefly swords (used with shields), crossbows and a polearm, the ji which had both a long spearpoint but also a hook and a striking blade. In Total War: Three Kingdoms, which represents the late Han military, these troop-types are represented in distinct units: you have a regiment of ji-polearm armed troops, or a regiment of sword-and-shield troops, or a regiment of crossbowmen, which maneuver separately. So you can have a block of polearms or a block of crossbowmen, but you cannot have a mixed formation of both.
Except that there is a significant amount of evidence suggesting that this is exactly how the armies of the Han Dynasty used these troops! What seems to have been common is that infantry were organized into five-man squads with different weapon-types, which would shift their position based on the enemy’s proximity. So against a cavalry or chariot charge, the ji might take the front rank with heavier crossbows in support, while the sword-armed infantry moved to the back (getting them out of the way of the crossbows while still providing mass to the formation). Of course against infantry or arrow attack, the swordsmen might be moved forward, or the crossbowmen or so on (sometimes there were also spearmen or archers in these squads as well). These squads could then be lined up next to each other to make a larger infantry formation, presenting a solid line to the enemy.
(For more on both of these military systems – as well as more specialist bibliography on them – see Lee, Waging War (2016), 89-99, 137-141)
The Cathay faction of Total War: Warhammer III also models a fantasy version of this system, but like Three Kingdoms doesn’t include them as composite formations, although it does encourage the player to keep contact infantry and missile infantry in close formation (but in separate blocks).
Pike and Shot
This is a particularly acute problem for direct fire missile infantry, which in Total War games generally means firearm infantry. Whereas Total War allows bows and crossbows to fire at high arcs with high effectiveness – which they generally shouldn’t – firearms, in exchange for their higher damage have to fire on flat trajectories and thus need uninterrupted lines of sight, meaning they cannot simply be tucked into the back rank to fire over the front ranks.
Instead most players use some form of a checkerboard formation to combine contact and direct-fire missile infantry (and often archers too). Checkerboard formations were not entirely unknown – the Roman triplex acies is essentially a checkerboard – but they did not work the way that they are used in many Total War games. Whereas in a Total War checkerboard, the ‘lanes’ are used to allow missile units to fire without being on the front rank, the ‘lanes’ of the Roman triplex acies were used for maneuver, particularly for withdrawing the skirmishing screen (the velites) and, if things went badly, the front lines of infantry back behind fresh rear ranks. By contrast, the core use of checkerboards in Total War isn’t lanes to withdraw forward troops, but rather getting enemy units ‘hung up’ on front line formations so that ranged units can fire at them through the gaps, taking advantage of the fact that individuals in a Total War formation cannot push too far from the rest of their unit and so if just a few soldiers get ‘caught’ on the edge of an infantry formation, it will prevent the entire block from just pushing through the gap.
But slow-firing arquebus infantry were exquisitely vulnerable on early-modern battlefields, particularly to cavalry which might cross the entire effective firing range of these weapons so fast the arquebuses might only have one or two shots. One solution we’ve already noted was to put them behind wagons and other moveable barricades – the obstructions would prevent a cavalry charge on the firearms.
For a more mobile option, we can look to the tactical system that emerged in Western and Central Europe during the early modern period: pike and shot. Pike and shot formations often employed a range of soldiers (including swordsmen and halberdiers) but the bulk of these units was made of soldiers with pikes (typically armored with at least a helmet and a cuirass) and soldiers armed with firearms (muskets or arquebuses; typically unarmored with a sword as a backup weapon), that is the ‘shot.’ The concept was deceptively simple: a large square of pikemen created a safe base for the ‘shot’ to fire from. Early on, the ‘shot’ mostly existed to support and screen the pike, with the expectation that the pikes would be the decisive offensive weapon seeing off enemy pikemen in what was termed the ‘push of pike.’ As firearms got better and more importantly firearm drill got better, the pike increasingly became the supporting arm to the shot. The ratios of pike to shot in these units changed accordingly, initially favoring more pikes, later more shot.
And so far this doesn’t sound entirely different from Total War ‘checkerboarding,’ but as always the devil is in the details. Actual cavalry, after all, could have rushed through the gaps of any sort of checkerboard, unlike the cavalry formations of Total War which get ‘stuck’ as described above.1 Indeed, this is why the pike fought in squares: it was assumed the cavalry was mobile enough to strike a group of pikemen from any direction and to whirl around in the empty spaces between pike formations, so a given pike square had to be able to face its weapons out in any direction or, indeed, all directions at once.
Instead, pike and shot were combined into a single unit. The ‘standard’ form of this was the tercio, the Spanish organizational form of pike and shot and one which was imitated by many others. In the early 16th century, the standard organization of a tercio – at least notionally, as these units were almost never at full strength – was 2,400 pikemen and 600 arquebusiers. In battle, the tercio itself was the maneuver unit, moving as a single formation (albeit with changing shape); they were often deployed in threes (thus the name ‘tercio’ meaning ‘a third’) with two positioned forward and the third behind and between, allowing them to support each other. The normal arrangement for a tercio was a ‘bastioned square’ with a ‘sleeve of shot:’ the pikes formed a square at the center, which was surrounded by a thin ‘sleeve’ of muskets, then at each corner of the sleeve there was an additional, smaller square of shot. Placing those secondary squares (the ‘bastions’ – named after the fortification element) on the corner allowed each one a wide potential range of fire and would mean that any enemy approaching the square would be under fire at minimum from one side of the sleeve and two of the bastions.
That said, if drilled properly, the formation could respond dynamically to changing conditions. Shot might be thrown forward to provide volley-fire if there was no imminent threat of an enemy advance, or it might be moved back to shelter behind the square if there was. If cavalry approached, the square might be hollowed and the shot brought inside to protect it from being overrun by cavalry. In the 1600s, against other pike-and-shot formations, it became more common to arrange the formation linearly, with the pike square in the center with a thin sleeve of shot while most of the shot was deployed in two large blocks to its right and left, firing in ‘countermarch’ (each man firing and moving to the rear to reload) in order to bring the full potential firepower of the formation to bear.
Indeed it is worth expanding on that point: volley fire. The great limitation for firearms (and to a lesser extent crossbows) was the combination of frontage and reloading time: the limited frontage of a unit restricted how many men could shoot at once (but too wide a unit was vulnerable and hard to control) and long reload times meant long gaps between shots. The solution was synchronized volley fire allowing part of a unit to be reloading while another part fired. In China, this seems to have been first used with crossbows, but in Europe it really only catches on with muskets – we see early experiments with volley fire in the late 1500s, with the version that ‘catches on’ being proposed by William Louis of Nassau-Dillenburg (1560-1620) to Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625) in 1594; the ‘countermarch’ as it came to be known ends up associated with Maurice. Initially, the formation was six ranks deep but as reloading speed and drill improved, it could be made thinner without a break in firing, eventually leading to 18th century fire-by-rank drills with three ranks (though by this time these were opposed by drills where the first three ranks – the front kneeling, the back slightly offset – would all fire at once but with different sections of the line firing at different times (‘fire-by-platoon’)).
Coming back to Total War, the irony is that while the basic components of pike-and-shot warfare exist in both Empire: Total War and for the Empire faction in Total War: Warhammer, in both games it isn’t really possible to actually do pike-and-shot warfare. Even if an army combines pikes and muskets, the unit sizes make the kind of fine maneuvers required of a pike-and-shot formation impossible and while it is possible to have missile units automatically retreat from contact, it is not possible to have them pointedly retreat into a pike unit (even though in Empire, it was possible to form hollow squares, a formation developed for this very purpose).
Indeed if anything the Total War series has been moving away from the gameplay elements which would be necessary to make representing this kind of synchronized discipline and careful formation fighting possible. While earlier Total War games experimented with synchronized discipline in the form of volley-fire drills (e.g. fire by rank), that feature was essentially abandoned after Total War: Shogun 2‘s Fall of the Samurai DLC in 2012. Instead of firing by rank, musket units in Total War: Warhammer are just permitted to fire through other members of their unit to allow all of the soldiers in a formation – regardless of depth or width – to fire (they cannot fire through other friendly units, however). That’s actually a striking and frustrating simplification: volley fire drills and indeed everything about subsequent linear firearm warfare was focused on efficient ways to allow more men to be actively firing at once; that complexity is simply abandoned in the current generation of Total War games.
Now for fans of the Total War series, it is in some ways not difficult to see why the complexities of composite infantry and synchronized musketry have been abandoned or were never attempted at all: the complex internal movements and maneuvers are finicky and ‘break’ easily. That problem was compounded by the shift from sprites to 3D models: if a pixelated, low-rez sprite needs to skip part of its reloading animation or slide awkwardly into position, most players won’t notice, but if a fully modeled 3D soldier does so, it would look absurd. But then without that ability to ‘fudge’ and without the flexibility of a unit composed of actual humans, getting the complex drill to go off properly ends up being difficult.
Players who played Empire: Total War will know this difficulty well. Fire-by-rank drill ends up being an extremely powerful unit ability, but getting it to ‘go off’ right requires a lot of ‘baby-sitting’ – units have to face just right, be positioned just right and so on. There is nothing so frustrating as watching a 100+ unit of muskets fail to execute its fire-by-rank attack because a handful of fellows on the corner were reloading at the wrong time and for some reason this meant that the whole unit had to stop and wait for them. Meanwhile, fire-by-platoon exists in Empire: Total War but is entirely broken, actually being less effective than fire-by-rank because the game can’t handle reloading by platoons, with the result that each platoon fires one after the other, but everyone waits to start reloading until after the last platoon has fired. Fall of the Samurai brings in ‘kneel-firing’ but it too is finicky and liable not to work except under utterly perfect conditions.
And it seems clear to me that at some point, Creative Assembly simply looked at these complexities and decided they weren’t worth it and abandoned them, much like they largely abandoned naval battles and the more complex trade and economic models of their earlier games. And I think, frankly, that is a shame. It leaves a noticable gap in terms of historical ways of fighting, because ‘composite’ infantry executing synchronized fighting drills were both common, but also tended to be the best and most lethal sorts of infantry in their day: this was the fighting style of the trained, elite professionals.
I also think that it is a challenge Creative Assembly ought to return to. It is by now a commonplace that the Total War franchise has been stuck in something of a rut. Total War: Rome II (2012) and its standalone expansion Attila (2014) both frustrated many fans; Thrones of Britannia (2018), Three Kingdoms (2019) and Troy (2020) all received criticism for having limited unit variety, armies that felt ‘samey’ and for not innovating enough off of the basic formula that, in the purely historical games, Creative Assembly hasn’t really ‘nailed’ since Shogun 2 back in 2010. Total War: Warhammer has avoided this fate in part because the fantasy setting lends itself to a lot of unit variety, but it isn’t hard to see with factions like Kislev and Cathay that the developers are struggling to make factions that play sufficiently differently from one another to keep things interesting (though I’d argue they mostly succeed; TW: Warhammer III would be an excellent addition to the franchise if it weren’t for how much of a slog its primary campaign is; all eyes now turn to the final combined campaign, ‘Immortal Empires’ to arrive some time in the future).
One way then to break up the formula would be to begin experimenting again with trying to get those more complex systems to work. It is really striking looking at the series that Empire: Total War really was the peak of Creative Assembly’s ambition: a global map, naval battles, a complex trade simulation, multiple forms of government, elections and yes – synchronized infantry drill (though not with composite units). Their games sense then have steadily reduced that scope of features, pruning down to a core that works well (you can see that core in particular working well in TW:Warhammer and Three Kingdoms), but lacks variety.
Creative Assembly needs to take risks again, so this is my suggestion: go back to Empire. I’d love to see the series put the resources into tackling the more complex combat of the 1500s and 1600s (Empire originally had a start-date of 1700, so this would be an expansion of scope), incorporating both composite infantry units (that is, the pike-and-shot system) that actually work as composite units with the ability to alter formations as necessary to respond to changing conditions and use synchronized firing drills.
Because to innovate in a franchise like this, Creative Assembly doesn’t need gamey ahistorical gimmicks: there’s plenty enough complexity in actual historical warfare to allow the series to continue moving forward and staying fresh and at the same time, Creative Assembly has the resources to actually tackle these more complex fighting systems at a higher degree of visual fidelity and detail than other, valiant efforts to model the period.
And that’s it for this week, though I should note we’ll be back to Total War not too far in the future to talk about how it (mis)represents the command of pre- and early-modern armies, as a window into looking at how trying to wrangle an army like that on the battlefield actually worked.
- That ‘sticking’ behavior in turn is pretty clearly a necessary response to the inability to make composite infantry formations work in Total War. Without it, it would be casually easy to ‘push’ cavalry through or around blocking infantry to get to enemy ranged units (and indeed, this was obnoxiously easy in some Total War games and is still a problem with ‘monstrous infantry’ in Total War: Warhammer)