The Point About Pikes
Chris Brantley and David Kuijt
The point about pikes is precisely the point. The stickly truth is that a
solid wall of leveled pikes provides quite an
unattractive target for the shorter armed crowd and can quickly puncture
any myths of the superiority of cavalry.
Next to archery and other missile weapons, pikes are the next best thing
for dealing death at a distance.
DBA describes pikes as close formation infantry fighting with pikes or
long spears wielded in both hands. Their longer weapons (10-20 feet long)
make them superior to DBA Spears in holding off mounted troops and capable
of rolling over most foot when massed in deep formations. Their weakness
was the inflexibility of their formation, which make movement difficult
especially in rough terrain. Any break in their solid array of pike points
created gaps that could be exploited. Moreover, the flanks of the compact
pike phalanx were especially vulnerable and therefore pikes were reliant
on other troops for their protection. Since both hands were required to
present the pike, pikemen did not enjoy shields for protection and seldom
wore significant body army. Thus, when their formation broke, it was
typically every man for himself, with most casualties being inflicted
in the pursuit.
Historically, there are quite a number of practitioners of the pike.
The Macedonians with their pike phalanxes conquered the known world
under Alexander the Great, but used their pikes in an effective combined
arms approach that relied heavily on the horsepower of Alexander's
Companion cavalry. Their tactics were imitated (but not quite as
successfully) by the various Macedonian successors and the Hellenistic
Greeks. The Scots employed long spears to help counter their vulnerability
to English knights, winning great victories at Stirling Bridge and
Bannockburn. The immobility of their pike blocks put the Scots at notable
disadvantage when the English were wise enough to employ longbowmen and
missile troops in combination with their Knights, as at Falkirk. Finally,
the later Swiss and the lowland Flemish trained their pike to serve as a
fast attack force that proved reasonably successful in making their point.
Later, as the late Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, Pike was
increasingly used for defensive purposes to keep horse at bay and
provide cover for the musketeers who were ushering in the Age of Gunpowder.
The rules description holds that Pike were more effective than Spear at
holding off mounted foes. That is only true for deep formations,
DBA gives both single ranked Pike and Spear the same +4 versus mounted.
Moreover, Pike is less effective than Spear against foot (i.e., Pike's
+3 versus Spear's +4). They can be quick-killed by Knights in good going
or by Warband in any terrain. Finally, the difficulty of maneveuring a
pike formation is not really reflected in the DBA rules, which give Pike
the same 200p movement rate off-road as Blades, Spear or Warband. It can
be argued that since Pike is most effectively used in groups,
the maneuverability limitations of DBA groups adequately represents
the difficulties faced by Pike.
Pike have no quick kill capability, which is probably accurate. However,
Pike do have one great gift which makes a quick-kill largely unnecessary.
When arrayed in double ranks (i.e. "supported") Pike fight at +6 versus
foot and +7 versus mounted. This huge combat factor makes them devastating
opponents if you have to face their front.
The Classic Match-up: Pikes vs. Blades
It's hard to say exactly what the classical match-up is for Pikes. They
have no quick kill capability, which usually signals clear tactical
superiority over some other troop type. Generally, they do well against
From a purely historical perspective, some would vote for Pikes vs.
Pikes, the phalanx battles of Alexander's Successors, or perhaps Landsknecht
against Swiss at the end of the Middle Ages. Others might suggest Pikes vs.
Knights, as the Swiss proved they could destroy the heavily-armored
cavalry of Europe. In my own imagination, however, it has to be Pikes
vs. Blades...the tactical challenge of the long arm versus the short arm
(not that short arm).
Imagine the Polybian Roman Legionary in his maniple surveying the
leveled points of a Macedonian successor pike phalanx as it approaches
at a steady pace. First he casts his pila in hopes of causing
disorganization in the close-order ranks. Then, with gladius in
hand, he takes the pike points on his shield and attempts to lop
off the heads of the probing shafts. Once past the head of the
first pike, he must avoid the points of the second, third and fourth
ranks of leveled pikes, all of which are poking and prodding for some
point of vulnerability. It takes a brave and well-disciplined soldier
to come to grips against a foe whose weapon has a longer reach.
Fortunately for Rome, the republican Roman Legionary, properly led,
could claim these virtues.
How well then does Blade stand up to Pike in DBA? Unsupported
Pike cannot kill Blades unassisted and will only force a recoil 17%
of the time. A push results 11% of the time. Pike will recoil 55%
of the time and risks death of the 17% of the time.
Supported Pike versus Blade is pretty much a stand-off. Pike will
kill Blade 1 in 36 chances (3%) and Blade can't kill supported Pike
unassisted. Blade will recoil 55% compared to 28% for Pike. A push
results in 14% of encounters. Thus, while supported Pike and Blades
will push each other about 97% of the time in face to face combat,
they must generally look to their flanks for decisive results.
Pike vs. Spear -- You might think that single-ranked
Spear would be at a disadvantage to single-ranked Pike, but maybe not
given the Spear's shield and superior body armor. Apparently that is
the case in DBA, where unsupported Pike recoils before Spear 50% of the
time and is killed 8% of the time. A push results 14% of the time while
Pike can force Spear to recoil only 28% of the time and cannot kill Spear
unassisted. With a second rank in support, the balance tips to Pike, which
will kill Spear 11% of the time and force it to recoil 61% of the time.
A push results 11% of the time, and Pike is forced back 17% of the time,
but can't be killed by Spear unaided.
When the Spear is also supported by a back rank, the results are
exactly that of the fight against Blades described above. A stand-off
where a lot of pushing goes on, but no decisive result occurs.
Pike vs. Warband -- Because of Warband's
quick-kill capability, Pike must be especially cautious of Warband.
In a single rank, Pike is killed by Warband 42% of the time, but cannot
be forced to recoil. A push results 17% of the time. Warband will recoil
36% of the time and die impaled on the Pikes 5% of the time. The story is
somewhat different if Pikes are supported. They will kill Warband 25% of
the time and force it to recoil 59% of the time. A push will result 3
chances in 36 (8%) and Warband can also kill Pike 8% of the time.
Double-ranked Warband are particularly dangerous to Pike, naturally
enough. Single-ranked Pike is killed by double-ranked Warband 58% of
the time, and cannot kill the Warband. Double-ranked Pike will kill
double-ranked Warband 11% of the time and force it to recoil 61% of the
time; a push results 11% of the time and the double-ranked Pike will
die 17% of the time. A very risky venture for the Pike.
Pike vs. Auxilia -- Single-ranked Pike and
Auxilia are a perfectly even match-up in good terrain in DBA. Both will
kill each other 36% percent of the time and force a recoil 5%. A push
results 18% of the time. The tactical advantage is in the Auxilia's
favor, however, as its greater speed means that (given sufficient pips
for its commander) it can withdraw out of an untenable situation when
fighting Pike. The Pike unit has no such option.
Auxilia has little chance against supported Pikes unless fighting
in rough terrain, and are better employed like Alexander's Hypaspists
in probing the flanks of the Pike phalanx. Supported Pikes kill
Auxilia 25% of the time and force its recoil 59%. A push results
8% of the time. The Pike will only recoil 8% of the time and cannot
be killed without assistance.
In rough terrain (bad going) the whole equation flips. Back-rank
support is impossible in bad going, and Pikes are subject to a -2 combat
factor in addition. This makes them +1 vs. the Auxilia's +3, which gives
the Auxilia a 33% chance of killing the Pike and a 40% chance of recoiling
it. There is an 11% of a Push and only 16% of the Auxilia being forced
into a recoil.
Pike vs. Bow -- Despite their lack of protective
shields and body army, Pikes in DBA will generally prevail over Bow if
they can come to grips, but that in and of itself can be a difficult task.
In close combat, single-ranked Pike will kill Bow 17% of the time and
force it to recoil 44%, with a push resulting 14% of the time. Bow will
kill Pike only 3% of the time and cause a recoil 22%. Thus, Pike have
almost 2-1 odds of prevailing against Bow in single ranks.
In double ranks, the disparity is even more significant but also more
difficult to achieve. Pike is not allowed to apply the second-rank support
bonus the turn it moves into contact with Bows. Therefore, if the initial
result of close combat is anything other than a Push, the +3 for support
will not come into play the subsequent bound. If by some chance the +3
support bonus comes into play, Pike will kill Bow 42% of the time and
cause it to recoil 50% of the time. A push will occur 2 chances in 36
(5%), while Bow can only hope to cause Pike to recoil 1 chance in 36 (3%)
and cannot kill it unaided.
Of course, Bow can take advantage of their Distance Shooting capability
and 300 pace movement rate to deal death at a distance on Pike, who are not
allowed to count a second rank in support during Distance Shooting. The
odds are the same as single-ranked close combat, however, which means
that Pike suffers only a 3% chance of death and should eventually reach
close quarters barring bad die rolls.
What does all of this mean in practice? Bow can fight pike (either
single-ranked or double-ranked!) fairly even-up in the short run.
Once the pikes close to melee they will usually only get a single
phase of combat - there's a 66% chance that one of the two engaged
units will recoil, and pikes won't have the back-rank support on any
turn where they move into contact with a bow unit. On any recoil (for either
side) the next turn will likely be missile fire again. Also, the Bow is
faster than the Pike and may (given sufficient pips) withdraw out of melee
and shoot missile fire again.
This makes a Bow unit handled with care an excellent delaying or
distracting force against a single or double
stand of Pikes for a number of turns. In the long run, however,
the odds are with the Pikes.
When facing Bows it is better for the Pike player to single-rank his
Pikes. Deep formations just make it easy for the Bow player to outflank
him, or delay many of his units with just a few, and the deep formations
don't give much combat advantage.
Pikes vs. Psiloi -- in good going Psiloi are a major
irritant to Pikes. The Psiloi can't be killed, and they prevent the Pikes
from closing with something else, something that they might be able to kill.
It doesn't take too long for the Pikes to push Psiloi out
of the way if you can get your Pikes in contact, though -- doubled Pike
gets a Flee result on Psiloi 42% of the time, and it will take a couple of
turns for the enemy to bring them back to irritate your Pikes some more.
Psiloi in the rough are a real threat to Pikes. The Psiloi still can't be
killed, and the Pikes lose any benefit of back-rank support and suffer -2
combat factor in bad going to boot. A single Psiloi will have a 25%
chance of killing a Pike unit in bad going, and no chance of dying itself.
Pike vs. Knights -- In single ranks Pikes are quite
vulnerable to Knights. The Pike will kill a Knight 11% of the time and
forcing them to recoil 47% of the time. A push results 14% of the time
and Knights can kill Pike 28% of the time if they are in good going.
The pikes have the advantage when double-ranked, but it is a dangerous
situation. Supported Pikes will kill Knights 33% of the time and force
them to recoil 58% of the time. A push occurs 2 chances in 36. Knights
will only kill Pikes 3% of the time (1 chance in 36). If the Pikes get
exposed or overlapped the odds start shifting
towards the Knights with their quick-kill. With a double overlap a
charge of Knights will have a 17% chance of killing double-ranked pike,
and a 17% chance of dying himself. But if the Knight wins two units are
slain, not just one! A careful Pikes player will not give any Knights
the opportunity for the glory of destroying a double-ranked set of Pikes
- Pikes are powerful, but don't send them into a double-overlap situation
against Knights if you can avoid it.
Pike vs. Cavalry - Since Cavalry lacks a quick-kill
capability against Pikes, they are even less effective than Knights.
Cavalry is killed in 11% of encounters with a single rank of Pike and
recoils in 47%. A push results 14% of the time and Pike will recoil
28% of the time, but can't be killed without assistance. Against
supported Pike, Cavalry dies in 33% of the encounters and recoils in
58%, with a push result 5% of the time and only 1 chance in 36 of
forcing the Pike to recoil.
Pike vs. Light Horse - Light Horse are the best
skirmishers against Pike, as they cannot be killed. They may suffer
a Flee result, but they'll never die. Better still, after a Flee
they can run back into the Face of a Pike block, interfering with
its movement. Light Horse are excellent at this sort of delaying
tactic, while the battle is won elsewhere. Light Horse are also
effective at running around enemy Pike and getting at their flanks,
picking off the back rank and forcing it to turn and engage. Nobody
will be killed in this sort of attack, but it can allow a stronger
element to attack the front of a pike block with some success after
the back rank is engaged.
What Else Do Pikes Fear?
Elephants, War Wagons, Scythed Chariots and Artillery can all kill Pikes
with good die rolls, but will lose consistently against supported Pikes.
Compare their potential of success against Pikes to that of Spears above.
Don't advance your Pikes under Artillery if you can avoid it -- if you are
going to be under fire for more than three or four turns, you're likely to
get some of your men killed in the constant bombardment.
Psiloi can scarcely cause Pike the slightest apprehension in good going,
but can be a major irritant in good going by delaying two Pike elements at
the cost of one Psiloi element, thus allowing your opponent a free element
to maneuver on your flanks. They can also pose a threat in rough terrain or
if allowed to maneuver on the phalanx's flank.
Perhaps the greatest fear for a player employing supported Pikes is a
quick-kill or doubling death result, since both the lead and supporting
Pike element are eliminated.
The Morale of the Story:
If you really want to stick it to your opponent, put your Pikes in double
ranks, protect their flanks, and advance them like modern tanks against
some solid target. If in single ranks, try to stay away from Knights and
Warband who can quick kill your Pikes (although you will have relatively
little to fear from them if you are in double ranks). Keep your Pikes
out of rough terrain, where double-ranking is not allowed. And mind your
match-ups. If the likely outcome is in doubt, avoid the match-up since
you can't afford to lose two elements in one fell swoop and you don't want
to waste your time and most effective "killer" chasing elusive skirmishers.
It is a major mistake for a Pike player
to let a single enemy unit occupy a double-rank of his Pikes without a
good chance of catching and killing it. This is why Pikes should fight
single-ranked against Psiloi, Light
Horse, and Bow. A double-ranked pair of Pikes is a killer unit. But if you
don't put them up against something they can kill, you stand a good chance
of losing the battle elsewhere.
Picking a Pike Army
There are Pike options in just about every historical period from the
Bronze Age through late Medieval, except for the so-called Dark Ages. Pikes
seem predominant in the Macedonian and Successor era, but are also common in
the Middle Ages. Geographically, Pikes represent a western way of war and
are not found further east than the Bactrian & Indo-Greeks.
|Max. No. of Pikes
||Scots Common (#140)
||Sumerian & Akkadian (#1), Antigonid 6 (#38a), Macedonian Early Successor (#40), Early Ptolemiac (42a), Later Ptolemaic (#42b), Hellenistic Greek (#47), Later Swiss (#161b), Low Countries (#163).
|| Myceanean & Minoan (#10), Alexandrian Macedonian (#36), Alexandrian Imperial (#37), Eumenid (#38b), Lysimachid (#39), Early Seleucid (#41a), Later Seleucid (#41b), Pyrrhic (#43), Later Macedonian (#49), Bactrian & Indo-Greek (#50), Pontic (#58), Later Medieval Scandinavian (#131b), Later Imperialists (#167)
||Early Syrian (#4b), Italian Condotta (#169), Early Burdundian (#173), French Ordonnance (#178), Burgundian Ordonnance (#180)
Did you notice that DBA Pikes almost invariably come in even numbers. A subtle reminder to double rank your Pikes perhaps? I think you've gotten the point.
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