Stand and Deliver! The Use of Archers in WAB!

More than a few novice wargamers have looked across the game table and despaired when seeing the massed archery formations of an opponent.  A recent email to the podcast included ‘I dont’ know how many archers to take in my Roman army.  I tried putting two groups in but they don’t seem to work at protecting my flanks and people just move right up to them and wipe them out.’  The email went on to explain that he rarely has any success with the tactics he uses for archers.  He also states that he thinks archers should perform better and be more inclined to ‘shoot an enemy off the table once in awhile.’   Twenty years ago I would have shared similar thoughts regarding wargaming vs. history (or my media inspired view of history).  Perhaps many of us had watched one too many Robin Hood movies growing up and thought that every arrow (or other missile) fired in the direction of the enemy was going to lead to a casualty.  In the mechanics of wargaming, much as it was on the ancient battlefield this concept is largely false.  The use of mass formations of archers combined with the use of armor and shields made archery a tactical consideration and only rarely (very rarely) a decisive one.

This leads us to an important question; how deadly is bow-fire?  From a statistical viewpoint it can become very easy to analyze.  If an BS3 archer fires a bow at long range at a T3 model with a 5+ Armor Save, there is a 1/9 chance of a casualty result.  This ratio is hardly in the spirit of Robin Hood or William Tell.  While firing at short range may improve this result to 1/6, this does not take into account movement or skirmish modifiers which also commonly come into play.  So why do wargamers fear the bow?  I think the fear arises out of the anomaly, not the average.  While a unit of 10 bowmen firing at short range a 6 man cavalry unit will on average cause one casualty, it is that more rare occurrence of the removal of 2 or 3 models and the subsequent failed panic test that becomes etched deeply in the memory. This is were the clinical statistician freaks out (who expected the predetermined 1 casualty result) and the typical wargamer singing praises to the dice-gods (and begins to refer to his archers as VIPs or otherwise a good-luck unit).

Now do not start to think that I am down on the use of missile weapons or that I do not think of them as an important part of a solid, well-rounded army.  Quite the opposite, I think the use of combined fire from missile troops can be instrumental to victory and force your opponent to close or move in response, I just want to point out to some newer players that the WAB game mechanics, much like historical battles were rarely won by the use of the bow alone.  It was a combined arms approach that won the day!