Cavalry Operations

by Terikel Grayhair


In ancient times, the main mode of transportation was by means of the human foot. Almost everybody walked everywhere. Goods we transported by men carrying goods, or by ship over water, or by mule, or by carts pulled by either mules or oxen.

This was standard, because horses were relatively uncommon and expensive. Horses with the strength, speed, agility and above all temperament to become warhorses were rarer still. Thus armies, like most of society, were composed primarily of foot soldiers who were common, easy to train, and relatively inexpensive to equip. And therefore, most generals became quite skilled in the use of infantry tactics.

Horseborne warriors became an integral part of armies during Roman times. They were not the dominant arm of decision they came to be in the Middle Ages, mainly because ancient societies lacked the technology to bring the horseman to prominence. There were no stirrups to aid the warrior in retaining his place in the saddle, and the saddle itself lacked the saddle tree so necessary for the use of stirrups. These advances would come later, and raise the cavalryman from a skirmisher and scout to a main arm of decision.

In our virtual world, horses for war are easy to acquire- we simply build a stable in a city and command it to produce cavalry. And it does so, as long as you have the denarii and the population. They are more expensive than infantry to both raise and maintain, and contain fewer men than infantry, but that is only proper given the historical context.

This mini-course will attempt to teach you the basics of understanding cavalry warfare and help you make your cavalry the arm of decision we all want it to be.

Cavalry is divided into four groups for this course- light, heavy, missile, and other. Each group will have its own discourse and pointers. Each has its own strengths, its own weaknesses, and its own means of gaining you the victory.

Yet each group has some similarities and commonalities as well. These are listed here:

    Cavalry as a whole is best used moving. One of the properties of cavalry that makes it such a devastating force is the Charge Bonus- when in formation and ordered to charge a foe, the horsemen gain an initial bonus of 7 to their attack. This bonus equates to the physical impact a half a ton of rampaging horseflesh can have on a human standing before it, as well as the psychological impact of such a monstrous beast bearing down on one.

    Standing cavalry is nothing more than very tall infantry - poor infantry at that. Do not ever let your cavalry be caught napping when a hostile force is closing in on it, unless you wish to sacrifice it.

    Horses and spears do not mix. Horses tend to die like flies upon long pointy iron-headed objects, either from the front, or from the rear. When charging, the horsemen often penetrate through the entire enemy formation, then wheel about to continue the carnage. If they charge a phalanx from the rear, the wheeling would bring your cavalry back through the front of the spearwall- killing the horses. Thus phalanxes are best charged from the flank. Charging unengaged spearmen from the front can also be suicidal for horses as the Charge Bonus can be reflected back upon the cavalry, as explained below.

    Horses and chariots do not mix at all. The blades of a chariot chop deep into the legs of the horse. A horse without legs is dead. A cavalryman without his horse is dead. Letting your cavalry get engaged with active opposing chariots is suicide for the cavalry.

Light Cavalry

What we call light cavalry are the nimble and agile little horses that are built for speed and carrying light loads over long distances at high speed. These horses are ridden by men with little or no armor, and wield swords instead of spears as their main weapon.

They are not suited for bloody melee. Their small, nimble little beasts are perfectly suited to running down fleeing foes, or luring formations of enemy forces away from the group where they can be isolated and destroyed by other forces. But their lack of any real armor (a mere three points in most cases) makes them extremely vulnerable.

Being relatively unarmored is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, their lack of sturdy armor makes them vulnerable in combat. On the other hand, using them against troops armed with armor-piercing weapons effectively negates the added benefits of those troops- for there is little armor to pierce.

Light Cavalry is as fast and fleet on the battlefield as it is weak in combat. Charging spears or heavy infantry is tantamount to suicide, yet charging skirmishers and other missile troops in skirmish mode is a good use- the skirmishers flee to maintain distance, but the cavalry is fast enough to keep the pressure on- effectively removing the enemy skirmishers from the order of battle and preserving your main force from the deadly showers.

Light cavalry are also excellent scouts- they are fast enough to discover an ambush and flee before being caught in it.

They can fight in melee, and charge if there is no other choice, but remember that light cavalry is built for speed and endurance, not power and battle- they have half the armor and morale of their heavier cousins. Use them in ways which emphasize their strengths and mask their weaknesses- such as charge, pull back, regroup, charge again, or to circle behind an enemy army to destroy its artillery or missile troops.

In the early game, the only cavalry you can recruit is light cavalry. You are forced to use light cavalry as you would heavy cavalry later on if you wish to use any cavalry at all besides your generals (the only heavy cavalry you get in the early game), but if you remember their limitations and use them wisely, they will serve you well.

Heavy Cavalry

These are the Clydesdales and magnificent beasts we come to expect from horsemen. This is the hammer of hammer-and-anvil tactics. They are your heavy-hitters, your mobile sledgehammer, your destroyer of forces. Used wisely, they can shatter the enemy, drive it before you, and let you hear the lamentations of the women. Below is an example of the power of cavalry used correctly.

Heavy Cavalry is at its best in the charge wielding lances or spears- most hitting for a respectable fifteen points (or more) upon impact. Spears and lances are excellent weapons for the initial charge- they penetrate deeply and can often impale several men at once. But after the initial charge, lances and spears are either discarded or set aside and hand-held steel drawn forth to continue the battle, dealing death at eight or nine points. It is at this point the good general should think about pulling back to regroup and charge again, for in common melee, the horseman is often no better than the men he is battling, only taller, fewer, more expensive, and his charge bonus has evaporated. This process of charging, withdrawing, reforming, and charging again is called cycle-charging, and each iteration restores the vaunted Charge Bonus which makes cavalry so effective.

Beware of charging spearmen from the front who are not already engaged! The spearmen will brace their spears against the ground awaiting your charge, though this is assumed and not displayed upon the screen. This bracing of spears will reflect your cavalry's Charge Bonus back upon the cavalry. Think about it- your charge bonus is the representation of the horse's mass impacting upon a man. If that man has his spear braced for the impact- the Charge Bonus becomes the impact of your horse's mass against the spear.

Heavy cavalry is slower than Light cavalry because it carries about double armor. Some units, like the Cataphracts, are armored to the extreme with six times the armor factor of Light Cavalry. This increased armor makes them last longer in combat than the unarmored Light Cavalry, for after their initial charge, they must be suited to stand and fight, which they can and do adequately- having also double the morale of their lighter cousins. It is also interesting to note that the secondary weapon of most cataphracts- the mace- inflicts a point more damage than the primary weapon. It can be argued that the Cataphract is the only true cavalry that can engage in sustained melee and still come out on top.

One outstanding tactic with heavy cavalry are to destroy the opposing cavalry and form up on the flank of the foe, allowing for charge distance. Then unleash them upon the flank of an engaged foe and watch the enemy evaporate.

Another tactic is the Batavian Crescent. It can be used against infantry armies quite effectively. This is an all-cavalry half-stack or more, or a full stack of more than half cavalry. The wings are deployed forward of the main body, and the entire army advances upon the foe. Units that break away or peel off from the foe are then engaged by the wings (when too far to be immediately supported by the main force) in groups of no less than three- one to charge directly into the foe or bait it while the other two circle to a flank and crush it. Then resume position.

If no units peel off or the main army advances into the Crescent, spring the trap. The wings charge forward while the center remains in place or falls back, depending on the situation. Depending upon the enemy disposition and/or player, his army will lose cohesion at this point since yours surrounds his. Use hammer and anvil tactics on loose ends, tightening your noose and causing routs until the entire army is pressed in upon itself and hammered into oblivion. This tactic combines cycle-charging with maneuver, and can be quite effective in the hands of a good cavalry commander.

Never attack a foe to his front; always hit from the side or rear. The Batavian Crescent is potent in the hands of a good general because its formation causes the enemy to open at least one flank to your forces.

Another good use of heavy cavalry is bandit-hunting, for those of you who hate rebels. It may be an idea to have a garrison of three heavy cavalry per city in large, slow-to-travel-through regions like Germania, Illyria, Gaul, and Scythia. Any rebels who pop up are easily handled by this garrison within a turn or two, using the Batavian Crescent tactics. If low on generals, this may cause a Man of the Hour to appear, as cavalry units are usually half that of infantry units and the computer's judge classifies victories by ratio of men involved, body-counts, and casualties.

Missile Cavalry

Missile cavalry is little more than light cavalry who can throw things. This sounds disdainful of the lowly Horse Archer or Militia Cavalry, but it is simply a statement of fact. Another simple fact is that an army of these projectile-throwing light cavalry can ruin your opponent's whole day when used properly, or tear apart a stack of Praetorians, or easily destroy the hoplites of Greece without losing a single rider.

It's all in the tactics.

Missile cavalry is just that- cavalry that throws things. This gives them a stand-off range outside the reach of spears and swords. There are only two threats to a mobile missile cavalry unit- another missile cavalry unit, and the longer reach of foot-archer units. When led by a foolish general, there is another danger- that of being penned against the border of the battlefield with nowhere to run. Trapped, missile cavalry stands little chance in melee.

But free to roam and shoot at will, they are feet-footed warriors who harvest death among their foes at little risk to their own hides.

Avoid the melee at all costs. Most missile cavalry has very little armor or defensive skill, making them exceedingly vulnerable to infantry. Like all cavalry, they are vulnerable to chariots as well.

The Scythian Horse Ride of SubRosa is a wonderful tactic when employing Horse Archers. Bait an enemy unit to chase yours- using a general as bait, by example. Lead the chase counter-clockwise around several of your own stationary Horse Archers and watch as the chasing enemy sheds its dead like leaves from an autumn tree until it is either no more, or breaks from the losses.

The Little Big Horn is another well-used Horse Archer tactic. Draw your enemy onto the center of a large field, then surround him with your Horse Archers. Have your HA's fire into the right flank or rear of the units opposite them, thereby maximizing the number of casualties inflicted due to the negation of the shield and defensive skill bonuses. Any unit attempting to leave the entrapment isolates itself and can be fired upon from many angles. Use heavy cavalry or infantry to mop up the rest, or wait until all units are broken and sweep up with your Horse Archers.

Missile Cavalry make wonderful bait for instigating the enemy to make a precipitous attack. Nothing is as frustrating to a man in the ranks than being pelted with lethal missiles while being forced to stand and take it. The urge to strike back at tormentors is very strong- and if the unit being pelted is undisciplined or impetuous, it may ignore its orders to hold the line and advance to crush its tormentor. Thus Missile Cavalry can lure units from a strong position in order to allow other units to crush them where they are not so strong.

They also make magnificent assassins, especially javelin-throwing cavalry. Their javelins are armor-piercing, which discounts half of the armor factor of the target. Used in groups against enemy generals, they can often remove that powerful commander from the enemy warhost, and thereby grant you the victory before the main event even begins. If the battle is already joined, then by using a modified Scythian Horse Ride against the general can likewise remove him from the order of battle- one unit baits the general to the attack while the others fall in behind and to the general's flank, pelting him with their missiles into his unshielded side and bare back. They can also be used effectively to cancel an enemy's elephants, or chariots, or other important unit.

As mentioned before, missile cavalry is light cavalry that can throw things. When it is out of ammunition, you have two options. One- use them as if they were light cavalry. Two- withdraw from the battlefield. You may lose the battle doing this, but it will be giving your opponent a Pyrrhic victory where he commands the field and broken remnants of his army, while your total costs for this horrid defeat were the expense of replacing some arrows, which are free in RTW. Repeat again the following turn, until the enemy either withdraws or is destroyed. The end result is what you wish- your army intact, the opponent's destroyed.

Other Cavalry

Horses were not the only beasts used in war. Camels and elephants were also used extensively, and are represented in the game in units as well. Camel cavalry is very much like regular horse cavalry with one exception- the beasts have a combat bonus when facing horse cavalry in melee. This is due to the inherent dislike horses have for being near camels. This gives the camel an advantage against horse cavalry.

Elephants are very slow, but like the juggernaut, are hard to stop. They can knock down wooden walls and splinter open wooden gates. The can trample foes by the dozens and rampage through an enemy warhost as if the men were armed with toothpicks. But elephants are also risky to use- they can be panicked and go amok among your own troops, or can be taken down by skirmishers and velites in open order. Fire arrows- especially when fired in swarms from more than one archer unit- can cause them to panic within minutes. You can kill your own rampaging elephants immediately by clicking the Kill icon on the unit card to prevent amok elephants from killing too many of your own men. This will kill every elephant in your unit, so use it only as a last resort- it is better to pull your troops away from rampaging elephants and maybe they will return to your control later or after the battle. If you kill them, they are gone from your roster after the battle, never to return unless recruited again.

Use elephants with caution. They are wonderful at destroying things- including your own troops if they run amok. Mixed with your own horse cavalry, however, they are a potent force.

Not all horses were ridden into combat. Some pulled battle wagons, which we call chariots. In history, only eastern chariots had bladed hubs- there is yet no archeological evidence unearthed anywhere that confirms bladed hubs adorned Celtic chariots. Yet in the game, all chariots, including the British, have these deadly ornaments.

Chariots come in two sorts- heavy combat chariots, and light missile chariots. Heavy combat chariots are designed to sweep along a battle line and carve men from their formation. This they do well. Charging spearwalls, however, will kill them instantly like all cavalry- the grounded spears kill the engine (horses) which renders the chariot immobile.

A stopped chariot is a dead chariot, to quote Gaius Colinius. This is maxim for all charioteers. Spearwalls stop chariots, and so do swarms of infantry. Peasants are a cheap unit well-suited to this role- swamp the chariots bringing them to a halt, while heavy infantry close in and chop the chariot to pieces.

In the same vein, a moving chariot is a deadly weapon. They can mow down ranks of skirmishers or archers, and slice ranks from the flanks and rear of heavy formations. Keep them moving, and they will do wonders. A tip on doing this is to click on the chariot unit, then choose a piece of open ground on the other side of the unit you wish to slice and dice- then double click on that open ground. The chariots will charge through whatever is in their path on the way to that piece of ground, rendering those units julienne.

Beware the Seleucid chariot, those of you who wish to slice and dice foes with scythed chariots. This vehicle was specifically designed to mow down ranks of foes, but is drawn by fiery-tempered warhorses who care not whether they strike down friend or foe. They can go amok, and when they do, the damage they cause affects friend and foe alike- you can end up killing your own general if he is too near a chariot unit running amok.

You are now briefed on your units, their strengths, abilities, and weaknesses. Use them wisely, and they shall win you battles. Win battles with a mostly cavalry army, and you have a good chance of picking up the auspicious and desired trait of Cavalry Commander. Good luck, Horse Lord!