Guard Mode: The Art of Fighting in Formation

On the Org, the user SFraser published a guide concerning the use of guard mode. In my opinion, it’s one of the best analysis of the influence of a somehow “hidden” mechanism in the game, which is unit formation and cohesion, that every online player should be aware of. It is worth reposting the guide as a whole, with some comments.


“A disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building material is a house”

The first lesson taught and learned when playing Total War games is that you do not engage a phalanx from the front. Much like the rules of the film “Fight Club” the second lesson is that you do not engage a phalanx from the front, and the third lesson is that you engage a phalanx from the flanks or the rear. Even the most average of infantry armoured in little more than paper with the skill and morale of a small child can, when equipped with shield and pike and arranged into a solid and organised formation, become a weapon of infantry annihilation.

While it is true that much of their fighting strength comes straight from their incredibly long sarissa which prevents opponents from getting close enough to attack and kill these soldiers, it is equally true that a man with a sarissa on his own in a loose formation and in a disorganised state is a man waiting to be put out of his misery. The sarissa is as much a weapon of utter uselessness and hindrance as it is a weapon of invulnerability. The key to the immense frontal strength of this unit and style of combat is the organisation and cohesion of the formation wielding the tools. Without the immense organisation, cohesion, training, shape and spacing of the formation of this unit, a unit of sarissa wielding infantry would be the single worst unit in the entire battlefield.

However when four units are arranged in a tidy square around the flag, or placed at strategic chokepoints inside a city, the most basic of phalanx units becomes the nemesis of entire armies. The tightness and organisation of the formation, the mass and immovability of the formation, and the length of the weaponry wielded turn the unit into a wall. The enemy cannot disrupt the formation, cannot easily isolate and kill individual men, and likely dies long before he gets into thrust range for his sword.

On the battlefield the unit is not so safe from danger and it’s flanks are a constant concern. This is where the weakness of the weaponry shows its true colours when the unit is surrounded, but when multiple units wielding the sarissa surround an opponent you see unmatched devastation of the opponent.

It is easy to get drawn into seeing only the weaponry of this immense unit. It is easy to only consider the strengths and weaknesses of the sarissa itself, but the phalanx unit is so much more than the sarissa. It’s strength comes not from the weaponry it wields, but how it wields it. How a unit employs it’s strengths and defends it’s weaknesses and behaves as a formation is at least as important as it’s strengths and weaknesses if not more so. It is the mass of the unit, the spacing of the unit, the training of the unit and how the commander orders and uses the unit that turns a unit of sarissa wielding soldiers from a bunch of men carrying unwieldy and long pikes into a devastating and decisive battlefield formation.

A glaring example: Hoplitai Haploi

Hoplitai Haploi, or “Hopeless Hoplitai” as I used to call them are a sterling example of the power of formation and training and organisation. Poor soldiers with limited capability to kill opponents or even fight against them man for man, they are nevertheless superior to most levies due to the simple fact that their forward facing defensive abilities are magnified by their equipment and organisation and formation and mass. Poor soldiers with a big shield, spear, and arranged in close and tight order. They are capable of standing against and defending against units many times their individual martial prowess because of the combined function of their equipment and formation organisation. They will not last long when defending against heavy opponents, but they will last longer than almost every other unit with similar attack and defence stats, purely because of their strength as a unit.

The strength of a unit

The strength of a unit is far more than their attacking and defensive statistics. Attacking and defensive statistics define what is necessary to kill an opponent in terms of sheer man per man combat. Different angles of attack carry different requirements to kill an opponent, and this is what makes unitary strength or formation strength so absolutely key. Attacking or fighting an opponent from the front gives the maximum defensive strength to the opponent and carries the maximum risk of retaliatory death. Attacking from the flanks gives reduced defensive strength to the opponent, allowing an easier kill. Attacking from the rear usually gives the maximum opportunity to kill an opponent.

Obviously then you want the opponent to attack you from the front, while you get behind the opponent and attack him from the least defended angles. That is a rather basic lesson/tactic in Total War but it is one that is generally viewed in terms of entire units, i.e. avoiding frontal combat with an entire unit, flanking entire units, getting behind entire units. Something very rarely discussed yet absolutely vital is the ability to disrupt units, get into the heart of units, and attack units from the front that causes them to become disrupted and disorganised and present opportunities to kill opponents from within the unit.

This is the heart and soul of the Strength of a Unit. The purely offensive unit is unanimously widely spaced for maximum ability to penetrate and flank opponents while the purely defensive unit is unanimously narrowly spaced to minimise the opportunity for the opponent to penetrate and flank large numbers of individuals. This issue of spacing enables or denies the ability for units to get into space and surround individuals, but it is only one of the issues involved in Unit Strength. The other issue is Unit Mass which is the direct ability to physically shift opponents or prevent opponents from shifting you. Widely space, high Mass attackers can charge an opponent, disrupt their cohesion and infiltrate the formation, and flank the entire formation at the same time. Tight spaced, high mass units deny the opportunity to infiltrate the formation and also present a barrier against disruption of cohesion which would otherwise present internal flanks for attack.

The third element is training, which defines how well tight ranks line up and present minimal angles of attack. Highly trained units present an extremely cohesive front line to the opponent. Untrained units can be tight yet have limited cohesion for the presentation of the front, allowing opponents to attack the flanks of soldiers despite the tightness of the formation. So while attack value + lethality of weapon defines the ability to kill an opponent, while the various defence values define the ability to defend attacks from various directions, it is the combination of Formation Spacing, Training and Mass that defines the ability to produce or eliminate combat from angles other than head on man to man. These attributes in a unit more than almost all other statistics and attributes define the actual capabilities and performance of a unit as a formation.

The cohesion and training of a formation of course works both ways. A high spaced, low training melee unit will spread out, get into gaps in the opponents formation, draw opponents out and generally attempt to exploit individual martial prowess against the opponent and disrupt his formation. This in turn presents opportunities for the opponent to strike from multiple angles and at weak spots in the defence of the unit, thereby increasing the risk of death to the opponent unit. This is very often off-set by high armour values, or at least the “elite” units you are looking for to fulfil this role should ideally have significant armour values to produce an all round measure of defence from multiple angles. By contrast a very tightly spaced, highly trained unit will not only present limited opportunities to attack soldiers from defensively weak angles, but will also present the opponent with a wall of weaponry and the opponent will have to attack from the direction they are likely to be struck back.

The influence of formation on shock infantry

Two excellent examples of genuine “shock” infantry. Note the relatively high mass for disrupting opponent formations, the high charge, the high attack value and high lethality of the unit. These units are designed to inflict maximum casualties on the charge, maximum casualties in melee, and to disrupt the opponents formation and disturb their lines and cohesion when charging or fighting. Most important however is the very high spacing of these units, the relatively low training and the high armour values. These are “disorganised” units intended to spread out and seek kills while encouraging the opponent to get sucked into a disorganised melee fight where these two units’ high and omni-directional defensive capabilities and immense lethality should hugely magnify their killing abilities when the opponent is lured into fighting in their disorganised, uncohesive and man-to-man style. When used appropriately, with guard mode off and either frontally assaulting low lethality defensive formations or flanking concentrations of the enemies most powerful infantry, these units are not merely butchers but battle turners capable of rolling over a low lethality defensive formation or rolling up the line of an assault concentration. If the enemy force turns to face these units, or is reinforced by a limited capability reserve, those units find themselves locked into disorganised close combat with units that absolutely thrive and excel at that style of combat. If the enemy reinforces with a highly organised concentration of significantly lethal units, then our shock infantry will be destroyed with speed.

The importance of cohesion for offensive units

For inbetween the spearwall and shock infantry lies a range of infantry types that are essentially a fusion of the two, combining the defensive strength of formation cohesion of the spearwall style unit with the offensive capabilities of the shock sword infantry, in greater or lesser degrees. These units are very often “mistaken” for pure shock infantry due again to the weaponry wielded and the widespread existence of pure spear wielding units in the game, but the truth is very different. While undoubtedly wielding weaponry of less defensive strength than their spear armed counterparts, these units combine spacing, training, mass and defensive statistic strength with the ability to inflict high casualties while defending, inflict severe casualties when attacking, and fight defensively and offensively with immense cohesion and formation organisation at all times, which magnifies their capabilities. Understanding that statistics tell at most only half the story, and understanding the immense tactical flexibility offered by these units makes them the central point for almost every army they are a part of. My two personal favourites follow:

These two units are obviously towards the upper end of the spectrum of their unit type but are none the less cheap enough and arrive early enough to be considered as line troops or “medium infantry” in terms of pre-defined “eliteness”. The Milnaht description “…capable of standing against slightly heavier warriors” is an understatement par excellence. Carefully commanded a few of these units are capable of standing against entire armies.

It is a mistake to see the weapon type, charge bonuses, attack and defence skill and view these units as effective melee combat units. While they are most certainly effective melee combat units, these units are absolutely defined by their formation strength and every other statistic or attribute simply adds personality and individuality to what are, in my opinion, the definitive units of heavy infantry. Both units have very tight spacing, extremely high training, and high mass. This means that both units fight as a dense and organised block of infantry that is difficult to disrupt, difficult to penetrate, difficult to isolate individual soldiers, and fights in such a way that presentation of maximum combat strength to all opponents is the style, purpose and defining element of both units.

The Milnaht by comparison to the Principes would seem to concede defensive strength, but this is an illusion as the Milnaht fight in formation that is much more dense and compact to the Principes, presenting more men, swords and shields to the opponent. When the Milnaht soldier is knocked back by a charge, his neighbour is much closer to deliver the telling flank attack, and the Milnaht carry swords that are close to double the lethality of the Principe. The cause/concession is that the Milnaht lack armour while the Principes have very high armour values, meaning that the Principes are in fact more adept at disorganised combat due to the omni-directional nature of the highest defensive statistic.

It is perhaps surprising to consider that the Milnaht are in fact slightly superior to the Principes in frontal combat (due to weapon lethality), while the Principes are superior to the Milnaht in disorganised or penetrative melee combat, however both units are by far at their best when employed as defensive units, when fighting to the immense strengths of their formation rather than their attack and defense statistics. This undoubtedly goes against the grain of much of the “lore” or combat trends of combat in these forums, particularly the Celtic “Barbarian” fighting lore and trends. It is a common statement in these forums that when playing a Celtic faction “see charge bonus 8 = CHAAAARGE!!”. While I will not deny the charge bonus and kill capability of Celtic units when charging, I wish to put to bed the conception that they are charge and melee combatants and instead show that they are in fact defensive units par excellence with flexibility and options and combat abilities for the commander to exploit and use at his discretion. And a unit of Milnaht has these options not only in abundance, but with immense strength of execution. They can defend, kill, charge, and fight offensively in equal measure with significant capability, due to the combination of their combat statistics and formation cohesion.

The art of fighting in formation

There is no “right way” to play this game, no real “ideal composition” and “best tactics”. There is only instead good tactical play, intelligent usage of troops, and the understanding, creation and employment of options. My experience in playing EB has lead me to view the usage of guard mode as a significant and key element of battlefield tactics and commander flexibility, precisely because fighting in guard mode is the art of fighting in formation, and formation is a vital and fundamental component of the strength or weakness of every single unit. I am possibly one of a great minority of Celtic faction commanders that enters a battle with 90% of his forces on guard mode, yet my experience with guard mode means whenever I come to play a new faction, one of the major issues is whether or not I can recruit Milnaht. I’m sure you are thinking “he cares about whether he can recruit a 162 man unit of swordsmen with 11 attack and 22 defence? WTF?” but it is precisely because of the formation strength of the Milnaht unit that I absolutely love to employ them in my armies, and feel significantly weaker whenever I cannot employ them or something like them as my infantry.

So what is it that Guard Mode does? Well I have heard many rumours of this and that statistic swapping and stat bonuses or losses, but these are not what is important in my opinion. What I consider important is the following.

  1. Units in Guard Mode do not break formation to attack units.
  2. Units in Guard Mode hold position when engaged.
  3. Units in Guard Mode crucially attempt to maintain formation.
  4. Units in Guard Mode crucially attempt to maintain their cohesion.
  5. Units in Guard Mode crucially attempt to maintain a front facing line.
  6. Units in Guard Mode attempt to present the centre and front of their formation to the bulk of the enemy.
  7. Units in Guard Mode without attack orders do not lose stamina/become fatigued.

What happens in Guard Mode is the unit will always attempt to maintain their formation and cohesion and position while presenting the maximum point of the units strength (the centre of the front) to the opponents greatest mass or number. When attacking under guard mode the unit will attempt to advance from the centre, attacking the opponents greatest concentration, while maintaining formation. When defending the unit will attempt to retreat under pressure as the centre is pushed back and the rest of the unit maintains cohesion with the soldiers being driven backwards.

Under both conditions maximum forward facing strength is presented to the opponents maximum concentration of force, while the formation is maintained. Guard Mode is the instruction to maintain maximum possible formation strength when attacking or defending, and not present maximum casuality inflicting unit arrangement.

In my opinion the distinction between the two is crucial, and a vital tactical issue. While guard mode is a defensive instruction, an instruction to maximise defensive capability and efficiency through presenting the cohesive front of the unit to the opponent, it is also an instruction that maximises combat efficiency for this very reason, it minimises casualties while presenting maximum weaponry to the maximum point of the opponents threat. When a phalanx, or a unit of Milnaht defends a narrow street in a city and is set to guard mode, you see the awesome impact of both the unit and the instruction at work when the flanks are defended. The cohesion of the unit presents a near insurmountable barrier to the offensive effectiveness of the opponent and the capability of the unit is magnified to extraordinary levels. By contrast a unit of Eiras or Kluddargos, despite their superior offensive and defensive statistics, would simply melt away even when parked in a narrow street and set to guard mode. Despite the outer flanks of the unit being protected, the cohesion of the unit is minimal and the opponent can simply wander through the formation en-masse and attack the defensively weak angles of the unit in numbers and without fear of reprisal.

Four units of Milnaht arranged in a square near the flag or at key chokepoints in a city can not only prevent breakthroughs and encirclements but slaughter large number of opponents and even entire armies. The astute commander must therefore be aware that the same style of combat on the battlefield, with intelligent tactical employment, can produce similar results. This is why this post is worth writing in my opinion, understanding formation cohesion and the astute usage of guard mode is perhaps the most integral component of gameplay necessary for the development of superior battlefield tactics. Usage of guard mode in conjunction with army layout and organisation is one of the most crucial elements in tactics in R:TW and EB. If you do not understand the merits and potency and potential, you are missing out on a significant aspect of the game.

I am sure we have all played around with Pezhetairoi arranged in squares or pentagons or hexagons etc. and seen the significant combat ability of those units in those formations, but without realising that the weaponry is only the weapon and far from the true strength of the formation. The strength of the formation resides within the cohesion of the unit, it’s spacing and training and mass, and so a unit of Milnaht for example is the unarmoured, sword wielding version of the phalanx. That is it’s true greatest strength, and when employed with knowledge and understanding of that strength, rather than simply appealing to it’s charge bonus and conception of the unit as a maniacal melee unit, it’s combat effectiveness is multiplied far beyond it’s basic combat statistics.

There are a lot of “tricks” to fighting in guard mode, and several gameplay issues to be aware of that make certain elements of guard mode combat more difficult to control than they should be.

Guard Mode Tricks

Feel free to chip in with your own.

The most significant issue with “guard mode” is that the unit at all times has an “idea” of what is the front and what is not and so when moving and fighting under guard mode it is easy to find the unit engaged from the flank or the rear even when you think you have ordered the unit to attack from the front. The most important thing here is to realise that you are going to experience some casualties while you sort out the mess, but that it can be sorted out with relative ease so long as you do not panic.

  1. Turn on guard mode to see where the unit itself thinks its “front” is.
  2. Realise that units that are moving under guard mode will stop to engage the enemy and stop the whole formation.
  3. Understand that a flank attack is almost always superior in defensive terms than being attacked from the rear.
  4. Understand that in EB soldiers do not die fast.
  5. Understand that if you retreat, the opponent is going to focus on the guys left behind and caught up in melee and not advance like water into the spaces you leave.
  6. Understand that under significant pressure with significant failure of cohesion, attempts at manoeuvres will cause routes.

When caught with your pants down and your behind presented to the opponent, turn on guard mode to see where the “front” is and then look for the shortest manoeuvre to place your flank to the enemy with guard mode off, then front to the enemy and so on. You need to employ a multi turn strategy of redrawing your formation slightly more beneficially and then engaging and then redrawing and then engaging until you manage to get the units “front” facing the enemy. At this point you draw your desired width/depth. It is vital to realise that the weaker your unit is compared to the opponent, the faster you must draw and then engage and the more you must do it to avoid significant casualties. Wait until the “front” is properly engaged with the enemy before turning guard mode on.

Next “trick”:

While there is a several second delay between ordering a “stop” and units engaging defensively, the benefits usually outweight the negatives unless the unit is already carrying out complex manoeuvres or has been caught in a compromising situation. If the situation looks unresolvable then engage in offensive melee. If it looks resolvable then do not panic and try to resolve it as above. The benefits are almost always worth it.

Next “trick”:

Learn to rush units behind an opponent unit and double click when inches away from the target. Attempting to attack through a friendly unit will simply cause your units to halt and waste energy from the rear. Attempting to run behind the opponent will run your unit through the friendly unit, disrupt their cohesion, and still allow you a charge bonus when you double click to engage. This is the perfect time to tell the already engaged unit to halt and defend with guard mode on. The already engaged unit will cease expending stamina, will fall back when attacked, and the charging unit will push the opponent back. This is the essence of the Hastati-Principe cycle of combat, tell your Principes to run behind the opponent, then charge the opponent when enough Principes pass through the Hastati.

Next “trick”:

When surrounding an opponent, always use guard mode and regularly charge. This will not only minimise your casualties but will ensure that as opponent numbers dwindle, entire units of friendly forces will charge en-mass at the opponent to fill up the space left behind. Well timed charge orders for guard mode units will see a cascade of high cohesion units frontally charging the opponent regularly, while presenting minimum opportunity for the opponent to get any kills. This is particularly useful against units like Gaesatae.

Next “trick”:

Understand the nature of formation rotation when attacking in guard mode or defending in guard mode. If the opponent attempts to flank your line and you attack them with a unit under guard mode at the last second, that unit will slowly lose men on it outside flank while slowly rotating to face the opponent head on. As soldiers on the flank die, your unit will rotate and apply pressure to the opponents opposite flank. Once the rotation and flank versus flank combat reaches about 30 to 45 degrees, you have the perfect opportunity to charge some lethal shock infantry at the opponents inside flank, at the gap opened up between your pressured unit and the rest of your line. If a route does not happen instantly, you will destroy the now isolated unit eventually and magnify your numerical superiority down one flank which will turn into a carpet route.

There are a lot of “tricks” to fighting in guard mode, and several gameplay issues to be aware of that make certain elements of guard mode combat more difficult to control than they should be.

Likewise with guard mode you can design for numerical inferiority down one flank, and wait for gaps to open up in your own line for the decisive charge of key shock infantry units.

Do not, if you can ever help it, actually place shock infantry units in a position to attack the outside flanks of the opponent. You wish to break the weak points of their attacking line, not expose your own troops to javelins or cavalry or the charge of reserve units.

Next “trick”:

It’s not really a trick per say, but understanding when and where to turn guard mode “off” for a loss of cohesion but more offensive power is one of the most significant skills you can learn in the game. The well timed release of the fighting prowess of a unit of Milnaht at a key section of the battle line is an awesome weapon. Especially when it is combined to a perfectly judged and timed tactical charge.

Final comments (and some additions)

This is a very interesting guide because its main point of discussion has a huge relevance in most infantry fights. It’s not uncommon to see lines of armoured spearmen, or infantry of equivalent quality, in guard mode to hold the centre of an army. However, while Hoplitai are well suited for the role, Thureophoroi (or their Punic counterpart, the ‘Hanatim Libim) do not perform as well in the same conditions, even if the stats are quite similar. The reason for this lies in the fundamental differences outlined in the guide: Hoplitai have high mass and are tightly spaced, while Thureophoroi offer a more loosely formed and easily disrupted line because of their low mass and high spacing. As a result, Hoplitai form a compact and impenetrable wall of shields and spears, while the gaps between individual Thureophoroi are weaknesses ready to be exploited by assaulting units. Look at the following pictures: which formation looks more easily to disrupt?

However, keeping the Thureophoroi in guard mode is not a terrible sin: even if they aren’t ideal for holding the centre, and more apt to a “heavy skirmishing” role, the use of guard mode can be situational but useful. On the other hand, some units are all but wasted when kept in guard mode. “Shock” units should rarely be kept in guard mode, because this does more harm than good.

Shipri Tukul are fairly mediocre fighters, effective only in big numbers, but this is not the point. The defensive stance proper of guard mode has no synergy with their equipment, weaponry and formation. High armour, ap secondary weapon (although with crappy 8 attack), relatively loose spacing: lots of hints suggest an aggressive use of this unit.

The second example can get even worse. The Dorkei Hatqapa Iberim is the epitome of the “shock” unit type, with their high armour, impressive stats, loose spacing (note that the Heimstatt unit cards are a bit outdated, since the side spacing in the online multiplayer EDU is actually 1.2 metres) and ap weapons. Keeping this unit, which will likely be on your flanks, in guard mode will prevent the men in the unit from enveloping the enemy and actively pushing the opposing formation.
You can see the effects of a bad use of guard mode for the two aforementioned units in this video from minute 18:50 onwards and in this video from minute 9:17 onwards, respectively.

Something that the guide doesn’t mention is the need of keeping the flanks safe when using tightly packed guard mode units. Imagine a scenario of two opposite infantry lines in front of each other; it is always worth remembering that, if the deployment conditions are the same for both lines (equal number of units in the line; for each unit, same amount of men; same amount of rows and columns in each unit as well), the faction which has more tightly packed men is more efficient in a defensive stance, because of the higher number of men per square metre, but at the same time runs the risk of being encircled because its soldiers occupy less space. For this reason guard mode needs to be used carefully coupled with loosely spaced infantry blocks on the flanks, to prevent flank attacks that are particularly efficient in breaking guard mode units. The Koinon Hellenon has a nice way to accomplish this: by fielding standard Hoplitai in the centre and protecting their flanks with Syrakosioi Hoplitai, that have a wider spacing, a wise Koinon Hellenon commander can hinder the capability of his opponent to envelop his line. Throwing in the mix also Pezoi Brettioi and Hastati Samnitici as medium and heavy swordsmen happens also to favour the roleplaying of a local Greco-Italic power.

Some final remarks about the “tricks”. Most of them have limited use in multiplayer, since they’re either heavy on micromanagement or rely excessively on your opponent overlooking that stage of the battle (or both). The last trick, however, is crucial: knowing when to use guard mode to “stall” a specific sector, and when to turn it off when things came under control again and you’re ready to push again, is a rare ability that requires a lot of knowledge of the “flow” of the battle. Something worth noticing is that the multiplayer EDU has introduced much higher charge values for some units, so a more active use of the charge is to be taken into consideration.

I hope this guide can be useful to catch the key points of one of the most overlooked aspects of the game. If you have any comments, please feel free to share.