Using Terrain to Your Advantage

Being a forum for the free exchange of ideas, tactical ploys, solutions for problematic situations, and discussions of our generals' approaches to the art of strateegery.

Bongiorno a tutti. - Come stai?

For those of you who've read two columns back and said - "OK, I wanted to know about terrain, but this is all about deployment. When is this fella going to get around to talking about terrain?" Well, your ship has come in, mi amici.

Ecco - that said - I hope that our seven deployment tips were helpful. If they weren't, my friend John Bianchi should be the person you tell about it. I don't like to hear complaints, but he does.

I'm having a little expresso this morning, because of last night, if you get my meaning. No Grappa for me today, of that I can assure you, so don't offer me any.

And now - If Jacoppo will be kind enough to apply his deft assassin's fingers to my aching skull - I will give you my humble thoughts on...


How many times have you had a chariot flee into difficult terrain and explode? Or had a battle end before a unit of heavy infantry, stuck slogging its way through a wood, ever made it into combat? Or had your missile troops deployed with nothing to shoot at but the side of a forest? If any of these things or other similar annoyances has plagued you, you know what the Count likes to call the "pain of terrain".

Conversely, if you've ever had your flanks protected by a swamp or by woods, or had a nice ridge to hold in a defensive battle, or if you been screened from a storm of arrows by a nice long hedge, then, whether you knew it or not, terrain had been your ally.

It is dangerous to take terrain for granted. It can help you as much as hurt you, and you need to take time to think about that when choosing your ground.

For many of us, using terrain properly is a missing piece in our game. We may not think of it except during that period where we place terrain pieces out on the tabletop, and then, not again until late in the game when we're wondering why a unit of our knights that was supposed to hit the enemy flank is mired in a swamp. We may also think like the many generals who view terrain as a negative. They view it as a series of hurdles. They feel it takes away movement opportunities and creates problems.

You need to think about it differently.

Here are some ways to look at terrain - and practical applications as well.

"There are properties through which country and ground influence military activity, namely as an obstacle to approach, as an obstacle to extensive view, and as protection against the effect of firearms."

Terrain as Protection.

Karl von Clauswitz wrote that at its most basic, terrain has properties that you can exploit to your advantage; it also has properties that can be turned against you.

If you keep impassible or difficult terrain on your flanks or at your front, the enemy cannot approach you from there.

If you keep woods or hedges and walls between you and your opponent, you screen your troops from view - the enemy cannot charge them.

If you keep woods or other terrain that blocks line of sight between you and the enemy - they cannot target you or shoot you there.

If you possess a force of infantry, your flanks need to be secured; terrain can be used to keep enemy units away from the vulnerable part of your line. If you field a force of elites, or even any army with fifty or less troopers (Ahhh! - you should be ashamed of yourself! - Eh! Stop! I refuse to pass judgment.), then you really need to exploit terrain as you would a skirmish screen, since any losses you suffer are hard to soak up.

A High Elf cavalry general knows how effective his troops can be once they get into charge range. He also knows how vulnerable they are until they've successfully made that charge. Getting across the field is where your force is most at risk from shooting or countermoves.

Using disposable screens of light cavalry may help, but it is a costly luxury. Using terrain to get there has two advantages: it is - unlike the light cavalry - unbreakable. It is also FREE.

"Let my army be the trees, and the rocks, and the birds in the air..."

Terrain as a Part of Your Army

Charlemagne - who didn't do so badly - knew the value of using the ground.

Terrain is actually the one thing in your arsenal that you can count on, the constant upon which you can depend. It can be a great equalizer, allowing a weak army to defeat a strong one. It gives you protection, it supports your movement, and it acts as a bulwark for your vulnerable flanks. It has gotten to the point that the only kind of battlefield I truly dread is a featureless one, with no breaks or respites, no anchors, no buffers, no protection. Unless I'm fielding nothing but horse; then I have what I need.

Look at this battle for the most basic successful use of terrain as a component of the victorious general's army. The Black Prince may remember The Condotta dei Bianchi used terrain in this way the last time we faced each other:

The army at the top outnumbers the one at the bottom. There are many more knights than infantry or archers. In addition, an individual knight outclasses a single infantryman or archer. So it is perhaps surprising that the army on the bottom wins the battle decisively and completely.

However, if you think of the woods at either flank as units - the victory becomes more understandable.

The woods act like unbreakable troops, anchoring the Plantagent flanks and slowing the enemy down to the point where he must avoid them altogether or be effectively removed from the battle. They act like roadblocks, channeling the knights' charge down to a narrow frontage, so that only two or three companies can actually engage the infantry line at one time. Those are better odds for the defenders, with the archers and spearmen now actually outnumbering the knights that can reach them at any one time. When you can get two units onto one enemy unit, this is known as local superiority.

The trees have achieved this for you. And, again, they cost you nothing.

And don't forget - the longer this battle went on, the more the freshly ploughed fields turned to a sucking mud - difficult or even very difficult terrain. This means it took longer for d'Albret's men to make it into combat - more time under the deadly hail of English arrows. It also made it harder to react to enveloping moves made by the archers once the two bodies of men at arms become engaged.

Again, the terrain was the factor that made this possible.

"Know the other, know yourself, and the victory will not be at risk; know the ground, know the natural conditions, and the victory can be total."

Using Terrain that Supports You

This proverb reminds us of something we all tend to forget. Legions of Dwarves can't cross through woods without getting horribly bogged down, but Wood Elf armies thrive on forested terrain. Empire armies making use of war machines and missile troops will do well on broken, difficult terrain with varied elevations and impassable areas, but Skaven will only get slowed down in such situations, perhaps fatally so.

As a commander, you have to know what your force is capable of, and what it needs to be victorious. You need to pick ground that will play to your strengths. The terrain must not challenge your generalship, but should rather support it. Picking bad ground before you issue an order or move a unit can be the end of the battle right there.

Look at this battle; almost the same forces face each other as in the previous one, but the terrain it was fought on made it come out completely differently:

Alencon is confronted with a battleline of spears and archers supported by knights - virtually the same kind of force that that d'Albret faced at Agincourt. Despite the recent memory of that slaughter, Alencon's cavalry captains - La Hire and Poton d'Xaintrailles do not hesitate to charge in, head on. They do this because the advantages for the French here are obvious: no terrain to restrict their movement, no woods for the English to anchor their flanks or limit the number of French that can make it into combat, and - thanks to the impetuosity of the charge - no time for the English to prepare defenses or meet emergencies.

At Patay, Alencon's force hit the front and flanks of the English position and destroyed them totally in perhaps less than one hour. Flat, featureless terrain made that possible. Alencon and his captains knew enough to choose this place to press their attack on the retiring English. They understood what kind of terrain the troops they had needed to get the job done. They also understood that the English forces were caught out with no protective terrain and no chance to plant defensive stakes, as they had done at Agincourt.

A Wood Elf general with a small force of five or six infantry regiments does not face a Brettonian general on open ground; the mobility and striking power of the Brettonian means that he will choose where and when to attack. The Brettonians can take the elves apart piecemeal because the Wood Elf general has chosen ground that favors his enemy.

A Brettonian general with lances and supporting infantry does not face a Wood Elf general in heavily wooded terrain; the quality of the Elven troops, coupled with protection from the terrain, ensures that the Brettonian will be bogged down in grinding combats if he does not break the elves on the charge. The Elves can hold their own and eventually break the Brettonians because the knights have chosen to attack the enemy where they are strongest.

Know your army, know your opponent's army, and pick terrain that helps you beat him.

"Encountering steep river gorges, natural wells, box canyons, dense thickets, quagmires or natural defiles, quit such places in haste. Do not approach them. In keeping our distance from them, we can maneuver the enemy near to them. In keeping them to our front, we can maneuver the enemy to have them at his back."

Avoiding Bad Terrain

Sun Tzu repeats the above quoted admonishment so many times in his short text that it actually might be called "The Art of Which Types of Terrain to Avoid..."

His message is clear; these types of terrain will take you out of the fight and open you to annihilation. He also points out that it is from these types of terrain that traps and ambushes will be sprung.

My adopted countryman Ser Giovanni Hawkwood made bad terrain work for him over and over again. At Castagnaro, he uses it in many ways, actually. It's his use of a wood and a drainage ditch that I find most useful to illustrate this point.

The Veronese attack, and faced with archers and light infantry, press home their attack to the ditch. Many of Hawkwood's troopers flee into the woods, where he has deployed a large, unseen body of heavy infantry. The Veronese - unsuspecting - follow. Hung up in the ditch and stuck in the woods, the Veronese lose both their cohesion and the ability to move. It is at this moment Hawkwood launches his cavalry - previously screened by the woods, up the riverbank. They pass the Veronese left flank, turn left and now attack the rear of the Veronese line, which collapses and flees, pursued by Hawkwood's fresh cavalry. It is an almost total, decisive victory.

Hawkwood is a master of the ambush. He pulls the enemy into terrible terrain - then he uses it to transfix them like a spear does a wild boar. While the enemy remains immobile, Hawkwood uses his horse to deliver the killing blow.

And this was Hawkwood's moonlighting gig. His day job was extorting protection money from the Florentines. How I admire him...

This is a way for you to use terrain as well. If you can pull something this complicated off against an opponent, undying glory will be yours. However, you're more likely to simply draw the enemy into bad terrain. Flee from a combat with shooters and you may draw your pursuer into terrain he won't escape from until after the battle. Fight a chariot combat with your back to a wood, and if the chariot is unable to avoid pursuit, he may be destroyed. Draw the enemy toward you with difficult terrain to your front, and when you beat the enemy, he will become mired in the difficult terrain when he flees; your skirmishers can deal with him then.

Hawkwood's example is also a cautionary reminder to stay off the bad terrain. Many generals, myself included, cannot seem to resist the siren call of rotten terrain, begging you to enter and just try to move through it. You know you can! Go ahead! Go into the woods to get that wizard, you'll be out again in no time at all...yep, no problem at all...

Stay off the bad terrain.

"The ground is the unnoticed ally, the unexpected auxiliary, the found shield, the screen to be exploited, the tool waiting to be picked up and used to your advantage. You choose your allies, your troopers, your shield, and your tools wisely; be no less discerning when choosing your ground..."

And In Conclusion...

I wonder which sage of antiquity said that? Ok, I admit it was me.

We've looked at different ways to view terrain, and different ways to use it, though there are many, many more than we have space to discuss. I hope you come away from this with one simple thought:

Terrain is less a problem than an opportunity.

You choose the best available ground to benefit you. You make the best use of it you can as a means of channeling the fighting, supporting your army's way of operating, and screening and protecting your troops.

It can also be used more aggressively to destroy or catch fleeing or pursuing units, hang up and stop enemy flanking forces, and holding enemy units in place.

You must make the terrain your ally; if you fail to, it will be your enemy.

Oh, sta bene - that's quotable too. Io sono un acuto ragazzo, no?

Ciao bambini, e buona sera...

~ Count Federigo da Montefeltro
Duke of Urbino, KG,
Order of the Golden Fleece, etc. etc. ~


Created by: ZiggyQubert. Last Modification: Sunday 25 of January, 2009 01:28:31 PM EST by ZiggyQubert.

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