Thursday, October 2, 2014

Isengard, Part III: Strategy and Tactics

Hey Reader!

Today we conclude our three-week series on Isengard, focusing on some tactics and strategies for pairing and using units in an Isengard force.  Over the past two weeks we looked at the hero and warrior choices for Isengard, and today we want to focus on some beneficial pairings for Isengard heroes and warriors when planning out an army.  I'll mention in passing upfront the following:

This post will not say that running Such-and-Such an army build is wrong.

The point of this post is not to criticize how people build their lists.  Do you want to play a fun thematic list that is centered around Sharkey and Worm?  Go for it!  Play the lists that you enjoy playing (and there is a reason for playing with those two heroes, by the by, as we noted in Part I of this series), and if you have heroes you'd like to use but don't know how to make the most of them, feel free to comment below and me and my team at the How will find a way to fit them into an army you like, :)  What this post is intended to show, however, are some of the best pairings for armies and heroes to suit a particular style of gameplay.

To begin, we'll look at some of the common desires of gamers who play Isengard, which will be instructive toward the kinds of lists and deployment/movement tactics we recommend.  All of our advice will end at the point in which the armies come into melee contact (similar to what we did for Rohan, Grey Company, and Shire armies in the past), primarily because so much changes once armies form up into melee combat that it is difficult to give "instruction" once that part occurs.  Instead, we'll talk a lot more about army composition, pairing of warriors with heroes, and some movement and deployment-based tactics to give you an advantage when the swords clash.

Strategy Overview

We made some general observations about Isengard at the start of this series; a few quick notes are worth saying before looking at particular army builds or strategies as a dilution of those thoughts.

1.  Strengths of Isengard: Damage at S4

Isengard is the only civ that has access to not only a lot of Strength 4 damage in melee combat (even among their cheaper models), but also Strength 4 damage options at range (and 24" range at that).  With a blend of crossbows and frontline fighters rocking S4 (and D5+), Isengard has a good chance at doing damage in the early rounds, even before the front lines get into combat.  What is more, Strength 4 brings the uruk advantage to bear against D6 frontlines before the main body engages the enemy, removing a traditional strength of most lists.

The trade-off for Isengard, though, is that is a full-on Strength 4 list is also extremely predictable, as their S4 units are very one-dimensional (crossbows form up 24" away and fire, large bodies of uruk warriors with pike support advance quickly until they slam into enemy formations, etc.), so if your opponent sees an army built on Strength 4, just know that they will be prepared to brace against the attack, because everyone can see it coming.

2.  Weaknesses of Isengard: Magic and Low Courage

Most Isengard heroes have only one Will Point, and most Isengard warriors are Courage 3 (and most heroes are Courage 4 or less).  This means that I have seen a good number of games (most unfortunately - I take no pleasure in seeing this, whether it is my army or my opponent's) where someone will have to spend Might Points to keep their uruk captain on the field due to a low Courage test, and droves of their men flee the field because the player rolls poorly.  Isengard plays well against armies that are about its size that it can chomp down to size quickly (Gondor and Easterlings especially - players using these armies will need to devote a lot of thought to taking down Isengard, as your basic units cost about as much and will get mauled by uruk ranks), and they tend to run into trouble when they are Courage testing or attempting to resist the effects of spells.

Spells especially can be dangerous.  Isengard is one of three civs (in addition to Easterlings and Fiefdoms) that is allowed to pike support (3-deep support) their front lines, which gives them a dice advantage over shielding front ranks of infantry and spear-supported ranks of infantry.  This is a wonderful advantage unless a Nature's Wrath goes off around them and the pikes find themselves unable to support a front rank that is knocked prone by a spell.  Similarly Isengard blocks of infantry are very deadly unless they find themselves hit by a Sorcerous Blast, in which case the close concentration of warriors can prove impractical (if not fatal) to the uruk force.  I've also been the personal recipient of Immobilize and Command spells turning my high-power Strength 5 uruk captains into high-cost pillars all game, so there is a lot of danger to an Isengard army if they are taken apart by magic or consistent Courage tests.

3.  Crisis Scenario: Terror-Based Armies

The major danger to Isengard armies is a terror-based army.  Armies that rely heavily on the Terror special rule force uruks to Courage Test on 3s or 4s (depending on whether they are warriors or captains), and their Dunlending counterparts fare no better.  And while uruks do have options at Courage 5+ warriors (the feral uruk-hai and the berserker), they cost 12-15 points/model, which is a lot of points to put into a few models (and models that have only 1 Wound with no Fate, so archery should be a consideration).  Isengard armies will find themselves stretched thin and impotent when facing terror-based armies, and this is one area that is hard for Isengard armies to improve.

It is possible - Isengard has access to an uruk shaman option (as described in Part I of this series) to help keep your uruks with Courage problems (Dunlendings, you're on your own), and presuming that the opponent does not have good archery or fast attack models to reach the shaman past his detachment of warriors, it serves as a solid strategy for an army build to mitigate the weakness of Isengard.  But as a starting warning to players: be aware that Courage and the lack of Will Points is a serious problem for Isengard, and that you should have in mind ways to mitigate this in whatever army you build.

Strategy and Tactics

When talking about tactics, it is helpful to first start out with what type of army you want to build.  Do you want to build a balanced army that gives solid defense against melee attackers, ranged threats, magic casters, and fast troops?  Do you want an army that sits back and shoots at its enemies before engaging the remnant of the enemy army in close combat?  Do you want a force that heavily focuses on Strength or Defense (a "hard list," to tie back to a past post on army building) over and against magic and support-related functions?  Do you value an army that throws everything into damage in melee combat and ignores the ranged component?  I've seen armies that have embraced each of these philosophies and they have done well because the commander using them had a good idea of what he wanted his army to do, and he built it to do that.

Once you have an idea for the kind of army you want to build, this can help us in finding a strategy that will help you to reach those ends.  Below are five common strategies for deployment and movement tied to some of these philosophies, coupled with some ideas on which armies to run with them to use them most effectively.

1.  The Bull Rush

Most people are going to say, "Everyone does this: you run your uruks up, don't stop, and just plow into the enemy formation(s).  So why are we spending time in an already long tactics post talking about this?"  I bring it up here because, frankly, I've seen a lot of people do it poorly.  Most bull rushes look like this:

Uruk scouts with two ranks of Easterling pikes as stand-ins for uruk pikes.
I use them because I don't like the heavy uruks and will never buy them.
Seems decent enough, right?  Swords/shields up front, pikes behind, maybe some small flanker groups to the side, but on the whole it's just a massive phalanx charging forward.  The problem?  If the archers kill off the swordsmen in the front, what happens to the pikes?  Well, they're left without someone to spear support, and they're susceptible to getting shot up as well (not to mention uruk pikes can't shield, so if you get stuck in a disadvantageous fight you have to fight it out).  Consider the following as a different deployment option:

Oh: welcome to my office, by the way; I badly needed to clean
up my desk, so thank you for giving me an excuse, :P
What this does is gives some grace room to the front ranks, acknowledging that some wounds are going to happen in the Shoot Phase as you approach, and plans ahead to keep the pike support safe and to ensure a proper frontline when melee comes.

This raises the question, though: "What happens if your opponent's archery game is off and there are few/no wounds scored?  Haven't I just kept my spear support from doing its job, as they are not in base contact with the front ranks?"  I suppose so - if you don't maneuver your army correctly.  When approaching the enemy's main formation, instead of just charging in, employ a "fan" tactic, where the second rank peels off to the sides like a Japanese fan, extending you front ranks and opening up space for your spears to move up:

This not only keeps a strong frontline facing your opponent, but also creates a defensive line of control zones to protect your spear support from being engaged.  It may not work against cavalry (10" is a lot of movement), but it does help to keep formations from ploughing into (and trapping) your main body of soldiers.  And if your frontline is charged by your opponent, just pull up the infantry on the flanks, sling them around the edges of your frontline, and move up your spears.

Now what happens if you're charged by an army that overwhelms your frontline and starts going after your second/third rank?  That is to say, a situation like this:

Presuming you didn't fan out before hitting 6" (which I always recommend by the by), just modify the block to focus its firepower on the "wings" of your opponent's attack rather than his "center" line, first by moving your spear support as far as you can into attack position:

By taking four of the pikes out of formation and using them to trap the horsemen and engage guys in the right flank this opened a hole for the swordsmen in the second rank to peel out of formation and come around the side to help in combats.  Then you simply slide some of the pikes over to fill in where the swordsmen were, and you suddenly have spear support for your front ranks while also getting the vast majority of your troops into combats that are favorable for you.

In terms of unit choices, a Bull Rush works best with fast units, which means heroes like the Uruk Drummer and Mauhur will be good choices, especially if you run both of these guys with a number of uruk scouts upgraded to marauders (as they'll have 11" move when not charging and an 8" move when charging.  But the aim of the Bull Rush is pretty straightforward: close distance quickly, and do so on your own terms.  One of the ways to redirect fire away from the main block is to provide a different unit selection to redirect fire somewhere else, whether that's a body of warg riders coming up fast on the edge that will gain the charge bonus (plus D4 for the warg, so an easier target for archery than D5+), or a ballista providing cover fire for cheap.

2.  The Siege Assault

This formation plays toward the style of people who like to sit in the back and shoot at stuff.  I don't like this strategy, personally, but I've seen it used well in some of the games I've played (I once played a devastating game against Tiberius where he used a Siege Assault against my Bull was gross, but tons of fun).  The idea behind the Siege Assault strategy is to slowly advance your main infantry body while raining down damage on your opponent with archery to whittle down their forces.  So optimally it would look something like this:

Naturally you don't have to use a scout force to run this strategy, though I personally prefer it 1) because I love scouts, and 2) because they are cheaper than their D6 counterparts, and this means that the money you save you can put into archery options without sacrificing F4 or D5 in close combat when the enemy finally catches you.

For archery options you have a wide variety with Isengard.  Some will say go for the S4 crossbows (11 pts/model) often taken alongside Vrasku (because a 3+ Shoot with two shots at S4 is really nice), some will opt instead for dirt cheap volley teams (50 pts for a 10-man ruffian group that has S2 bows at 24" with a 4+ Shoot - can't argue with that), while some will go for ballistas (65 pts or more for long range, high-Strength firepower).  This means that unlike most civs, you actually get a choice in what kind of damage you want to do, at what Strength, and at what cost in regards to points.

Like all of my recommends on archery, I'll point you to my tactics post on Grey Company - archery commanders should keep two things in mind: weakening enemy elements and firing lanes .  The aim of any archery detachment is not to completely obliterate a given element of the enemy army - it is to weaken it so as to be palatable (and beatable) by the countering melee element of your army.  This is both more realistic in its demands on archery (which usually misses half the time and wounds on less than half of its hits, based on the math) and a better use for your points (as melee warriors who do nothing for a good portion of the game are wasted points).

How you whittle down an opponent's element is assisted by the concept of firing lanes.  If a map is wide open, archery loses its direction and "punch" because an enemy can spread out and the impact of a given hailstorm loses its psychological effect.  Consider the following:

Doesn't look like too much, right?  So the orc player keeps doing what he's doing, accepting those casualties as being inevitable to archery.  But if we use terrain to create a firing lane:

...Even if we score the exact same number of hits, the damage looks greater because it is having more effect on a given element of the enemy army.  Suddenly the orc player needs to consider the question, "Do I have enough to take them on as-is?  Do I need to expend more resources on this part of the field, and will miscalculating in the planning portion of the game cause me to lose this entire body of soldiers and cost me the game?"  In this case, it would take him an entire turn to just reinforce the left detachment, causing you to get in an extra round of archery, so reinforcing this group is unlikely, though charging as-is is also not convenient to him.

Forcing your opponent to ask these important questions - especially in the turn or two immediately before melee combat - will cause your opponent to either hesitate or act brashly, helping you to gain the upper hand.  Firing lanes help to do this, and if you use a ballista...

...The Principle of Compound Interest, :)  A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case it is 250 repetitions of "Please use firing lanes."

As opposed to the Bull Rush (which centers on damage output in Turns 4-9 when melee ensues), the Siege Assault strategy focuses damage into Turns 1-4, hoping to weaken enemy formations before they arrive.  The next strategy attempts to get the best of both worlds.

3.  The Phalanx

Phalanxes are a natural approach for Isengard, Eastern Kingdoms, and Fiefdoms, primarily due to their access to pikes.  Isengard lacks the shield bonus of the Easterlings and the banner bonus of Fiefdoms, but it gains the bonus of Strength 4 and a slightly cheaper cost per model, which is a bonus worth remembering.  A phalanx combines the firepower and attack strategy of a Bull Rush but relies on a more defensive formation that weakens the enemy formation before it hits the large block of infantry at the end of the tunnel.  A phalanx may look something like this:

As you'll notice, a phalanx places its melee firepower in a concentrated block for compact melee damage (and the ability to spread out if desired), and would likely be most effective when accompanied by solid melee heroes like Lurtz (for offense/defense capability), a Bunker Captain (uruk captain with heavy armor and a shield for F5 D7 staying power), Mauhur (for high number of attacks at S5), Thrydan Wolfsbane (for anti-hero damage), and the like.

On the wings, you'll want support elements to both weaken the opponent's elements and funnel them toward the phalanx.  Whether this involves warg riders with throwing spears, pockets of uruk archers that double as solid swordsmen with F4 S4 firepower, you can pick and choose.  Lots of options for customization here.  Just remember: you want to make sure that once you've weakened your opponent's force that you bring them in to a convenient position that makes the most of your melee firepower - don't spread out too thin, and don't let your outer elements get cut off from your main phalanx.

4.  The Flying Columns Formation

I mentioned this one in both my discussion on Rohan and Grey Company, but this formation is one of the oldest in the books, dating back to the Israelites claiming the land in the Book of Joshua.  The idea behind the Flying Columns is pretty straightforward: the center force takes the beating of the enemy advance, as the elements to the side (the columns) sweep in to engage the enemy in the center:

Pretty simple; in may respects it is similar to the Phalanx strategy, only that instead of the center block being purely defensive a Flying Columns can be employed as either a defensive or offensive strategy.  It is recommended that you have highly mobile units in the columns (so as to prevent your opponent from simply rushing them and beating up a smaller portion of your army with their entire force), so a Flying Columns would work best with a Marauder/Warg Rider column, though I've used uruk scouts and ferals for this element of the strategy and they work just fine.

The other nice thing about the Flying Columns is that almost any hero will work well in this setup: you can run any style of uruk hero, Saruman, a Dunlending of some stripe, and they'll have a place in this strategy, either at hammering home against an enemy or helping the center block brace for impact.

Addenda: How to Fight Heroes

Have you ever faced an army that is "hero heavy" and designed to use heroes to kill warriors?  I've faced it several times (Tiberius is on a hero kick right now), and what I've discovered that is that a typical Isengard army is actually not well-built to take on heroes, especially if they are D7.  The funny thing is that, if the list is built properly, Isengard can actually do a phenomenal job of taking on heroes - we just need to build the list correctly.  What follows in this section of the post is not so much a "fifth strategy" so much as a thought on how to build lists to counter heavy hero armies, especially since Forces of Good (generally) get better heroes than Forces of Evil.

For starters, three things are common for heroes: high Fight Value (compared to warriors), D6+ with multiple wounds, and Strength 4 (for the vast majority of heroes).  This means that if we choose models that play well against D6, solid FV, and S4, we can conserve our points for high-budget items that neutralize heroes and wound them well.  Consider the following list:

Warband 1
-Saruman the Colorful: 170 pts
-8 Uruk Scouts with shields: 72 pts
-4 Orc Warriors with 2H weapons: 24 pts

Warband 2
-Thrydan Wolfsbane: 85 pts
-8 Uruk Scouts with shields: 72 pts

Warband 3
-Lurtz: 60 pts
-8 Uruk Scouts with shields: 72 pts
-4 Feral Uruk-Hai: 48 pts

TOTAL: 35 models, 603 pts, 9 Might

With this style build you get the Immobilize spell (handy for neutralizing the high stats of a hero), the Sorcerous Blast spell (for keeping grunts away from their captain and knocking over the hero), 24 frontline warriors in the uruk scouts (for keeping off enemy warriors and giving you some F4 S4 killing power to bear against their men), 4 2Hers (for wounding D7s on 5s and D5s on 4s), 4 ferals (for killing off warriors with multiple attacks, plus charging terror guys), a shielding captain (in Lurtz) who gets 3 Might, and a 2H option that does multiple wounds with each successful wound.

And the nice thing about this build for the list is that everyone in this list can fight a hero, and most of them do it very well.  At the same time it's also still competitive from a model count perspective, gets you 3 of the most expensive heroes Isengard can field, and gives you a lot of options for attack.  Naturally someone could make a number of edits to this list, but in regards to optimizing points this list does it decently well (depending on whether people want archery, don't want magic, etc.).


As we conclude this series on Isengard, first and foremost, thank you to our loyal readership for making it through three. Massive. Posts! :D  You guys are the best, and I hope that this will be helpful for you all as you play with Isengard.  It's a truly wonderful civ - one that I'm glad I invested in early, and I hope to flesh out more of my ranks with more soldiers from it in the future.

Over the next few weeks as we prepare for the tournament I'm hoping to get in more games with my Angmar army, help a number of my friends test out their lists and get used to how they roll, and do some terrain updates on my Dunharrow map that I'm working on (who knows; it may even make a showing at the tournament, :) ).  Until then, you know where to find me,

Watching the stars,


"Firenze!  What are you doing?  You have a human on your back!  Have you no shame?  Are you a common mule?" ~ Bane, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

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