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Tactics: The Point About Pikes

By 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, however. 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 all comers.

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 Army Lists
8 Scots Common (#140)
6 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).
4 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)
2 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.

Last Updated: July 11, 1998

The authors may be contacted at brant@erols.com and kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu. Please do not use any pictures or text from this page without permission.