Principles of Warfighting and the Five Levels of Strategy

By TacCovert4

What are the Five Levels of Strategy? And how do they apply to a game such as Rome: Total War? To answer that, strategy, from the Greek strategos, is too broad to define as a single term, instead it must be broken down to be understood fully and applied. Strategy covers everything from single man on man to nation versus nation. By subdividing it into five levels, we can understand each level separately, and learn how they interrelate with each other. In this essay, we will explore both the five levels of strategy and the nine principles of warfighting, how they relate, and how they apply to Rome: Total War, and its expansions and mods.

  • Technical
  • Tactical
  • Operational
  • Theater
  • Grand Strategy

The most simplified level of strategy is the technical level. It is simply defined as one weapon system against another. It is here that many discussions on RTW units stop. Attack, Defense, and Charge are all part of the technical level. The probability of a kill at the technical level can help a general decide what units to recruit and utilize at other levels. For example, in a fight, a Companion Cavalryman from Macedon will kill a Scythian Horse Archer, as long as it can catch it. In response a HA can fire arrows with a probability of killing the Companion, provided he still has arrows, and can outrun the companion in a straight race. However, for our purposes, the HA must engage at some point, which almost certainly guarantees his destruction. Many times technical superiority is convincing enough to preclude exploration at other levels, which can culminate in disastrous results. Although one weapon system may be superior, it must be studied in the less than laboratory conditions of battle.

Following on the heels of the technical is the tactical level of strategy. It is here that units are first combined with each other to form a battle force, or army. Here we explore how other units complement each other, and how they function within the battlefield. In our scenario, the Companions are augmented by a balanced force of Royal Pikemen and Archers, the Horse Archers with Axemen and Barbarian Cavalry. Again, in this scenario, which is admittedly unrealistic, the Macedonian force has the distinct advantage of Companions, better than either cavalry unit, Archers, better than the horse archers in firepower and number, and the pikemen, which should easily destroy the axemen or horsemen. However, the Scythian General can use his more fluid force to flank the pikes with either cavalry or axes, attack the archers with arrows or cavalry, and engage his Companions with axes, cavalry and archery. This combined arms approach allows for results far above those established between the units in the technical level. Also, the speed of movement for a unit factors in to a greater degree.

In the operational level, the final that can be utilized on the battle map, the phrase 'economy of force' comes into play. No longer is it a simple slugging match between units or even small elements of combined arms. Now it is a full scale battle between armies. Here what is known as 'Battle Tactics' can make the difference. But we also have to remember relative cost. Remember our hypothetical scenario? Although our Scythian army is weaker than our Macedonian one, it is also much cheaper. To have equal sized armies, the Macedonian Commander will have to field a much more expensive army, one heavy in infantry (the cheap force for Macedon). In response, the Scythian general can field nearly all horse archers, which can easily be retrained or replaced, and light or heavy cavalry. While death incarnate to horses, Macedonian infantry is ineffective against Horse Archers, which can outrun them. Only archers are effective, but these are difficult to acquire, and can be killed in turn by mass volleys from the horse archers. In response, the Macedonian force will sustain horrendous casualties to the galloping horse archers, while the Scythians will sustain relatively light casualties, and none if archers are not present. Now the situation is reversed. Because of battle tactics and economy of force, the Scythian General can inflict casualties all out of proportion to the costs of the units in the army.

The Theater level, or the level where the strategic map is encountered the first time, is where we leave the stylized battles on wide open flat fields between forces. While, for our purposes, force costs will remain the same. Here terrain, and its effects on movement, play a pivotal role. Also is the availability of resupply. A force close to friendly lines can absorb casualties much better than one on a mission of deep strike. A city under siege can be relieved by an army immediately, or can hold out, anticipating an enemy assault. An army can choose to stop on a hill or in the forest, or can be caught near the coast. Navies can affect the ability of an army to be moved, or resupplied. This is where a sound strategy must be based. What cities must be taken, how will they be taken, and how will the army react to an unforeseen event. These must all be brought into consideration when formulating a theater strategy. In our hypothetical situation, the Macedonians can hide behind their walls, confident that should the Scythians assault, they can be brought to grips and destroyed by superior melee forces. In turn the Scythians can refuse to assault, forcing the garrison to sally against an ameboa-like force of horse archers. The Macedonians can end each army on a hill overlooking the Scythian force, inviting battle where the superior horse archers lose the advantage of range to Macedonian missile units. Either force can choose to lie in ambush or fight in the forest, where they can hide units in tactical and operational level ambushes. Here the General has to choose which areas to attack, which to defend, and which to block against enemy incursions. Often a General’s grand strategy will determine which of these he commits to.

Our final level of strategy is sometimes not called a level at all, since it is between entire nations, instead of units in battle. Grand Strategy, as it applies to RTW is the manipulation of economic, diplomatic, and military solutions to accomplish final objectives. Since the final objectives are well defined by the game, the general has a base for creating the necessary plan for carrying out those objectives. Which units can be bought, which buildings can be built, what is the cashflow, and what is the potential for attacking my neighbor, are all valid questions when developing a grand strategy. If your denarii is consistently low, you must figure either ways to increase the flow of money, or you must carefully pick units that will give you the maximum economy of force. The ability to quickly swell an army with mercenaries depends on the amount of ready cash. Although our hypothetical Macedonians cannot beat our hypothetical Scythians in operational battle, and must resort to theater strategies to win, the ability of the Macedonian territories to field armies is much higher, while the Scythians are limited by both type and number of units, due to their bad economy and small town size. The neighbors of each also determine their abilities. Macedon sits near Rome, Pontus, and Greece, all with large population centers. Scythia sits near the Germans, Thracians and Dacians, all barbarian civilizations with small populations. Because of the difference in city size, Macedon can field both larger and more diverse armies, while for a long time Scythia will be saddled with only a handful of unit types. Therefore while economy of force is a buzzword with the Scythians, it is not as necessary for the Macedonians, because Macedon can afford to replace losses at a higher rate.


The Senate, Diplomats, Spies, and Assassins do not fall under any of the five levels of strategy. Instead they apply to all of them. The Senate can determine both theater and grand strategy for any civilization it contacts through its influence of the other Roman factions. Diplomats can buy off armies, or obtain valuable treaties, making them assets to be used at the grand strategic level, or the theater level when possible. Spies can locate weakly garrisoned cities at the theater level, and tour the enemy's countryside ahead of your armies, allowing your to determine your maneuvers in advance of your arrival. Assassins can kill enemy leaders, decapitating him on the theater level, and potentially crippling his armies on the operational level. They can also destroy or disrupt buildings, resulting in possible changes to the enemy's grand strategy. These non-strategies can have a decided impact on the purely military/economic portions of strategy.

Strategy on every level is important, for it allows a mission to be accomplished. By breaking down your moves within the game into the five levels, you can fully understand why certain things happen, and how to make events occur in your favor. Luck is less of a factor when a sound strategy is being implemented.

The Nine Principles of Warfare

Mass: A general must put more mass in an attack at a point than an enemy. He must concentrate at the decisive time and place.

Objective: Direct all operations toward a defined and attainable objective. In short, if your final objective is Rome, do not make that your defined and attainable objective from the outset. Pick transient objectives such as destroying a particular army or taking a particular town as your defined and attainable objective.

Offensive: Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Initiative is simply the feeling that your side is winning and can therefore continue attacking. When a general perceives that the initiative is lost, he begins to react to the enemy's movements, not act against them. As long as you have that ethereal thing called the initiative, you will be able to determine the speed and direction of an operation.

Surprise: Strike the enemy where he is unprepared. This does not mean just on the campaign map, where you take an indirect route to an objective, avoiding his strength. This is also tactical ambushes, Operational maneuvers, and last second changes in battle tactics to throw your enemy off his guard and secure the initiative.

Economy of Force: Allocate the minimum essential power to the taking of an objective. In other words, do not throw away your soldiers in an offensive against an enemy where the gain does not justify the cost. Sometimes it may be necessary to withdraw from or refuse battle because of an enemy localized strength. Even if you can take the enemy force confronting you, remember that unless you can accomplish your initial objective for the move in the first place, the battle is a waste of lives.

Maneuver: Place the enemy at a disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Remove his base of support, surround him, cut him off, then destroy him. Strike deep into his territory where he least expects it, then withdraw to a prepared position, drawing his armies into a battle of your choosing. This is the tenet of maneuver. Make the enemy do what you want by the way you handle your own troops.

Unity of Command: This principle always exists in the Campaign as a faction is controlled by a single player. In multiplayer, one of the Generals on each side should be designated overall commander and should assign objectives and coodinate his subordinates.

Security: Never permit the enemy to have an unexpected advantage. This means anticipating flank attacks and ambushes in the battle, and anticipating deep strikes and special moves, such as spies and assassins in the campaign.

Simplicity: Do not overburden yourself with complicated schemes. Too complex a scheme will translate into one that is impossible to effectively implement. Keep the plan simple enough to be used, while including all the elements necessary for victory.

In conclusion, I hope this essay has given you a better understanding of the basic principles of war and the levels of strategic thought. May you learn something here that will translate into success on the field. If you would like to learn more, visit your local library or bookstore. There are many titles on strategy, from eastern to modern western strategic thought. Only by understanding the past can we shape the future.