One of my favourite bits of British folklore is the concept of the Elfshot. There’s a theory that Anglo-Saxons believed invisible Elves shot people with arrows, and that these attacks were the source of various maladies. Imagine it: a wee creature that just hangs around, waiting to give you arthritis or a weird rash at the end of an arrow. They were sneaky pests and pointy-eared irritants.
While the previous faction, the Beastmen, stomp about, headbutting and smashing their way through the forests, their fey neighbours slip between trees and shadows, striking at the unaware with poisonous arrows before melting back into the foliage or moving onto their next target. They are sly and deadly, but also incredibly demanding.
I am not a bold Total War player. I only truly feel confident when I start a battle from a position of strength, when that little bar confirms that I’m the favourite. Sure, I’ll be the underdog if I have to be, but that fear of failure is always nipping at my heels. Playing the Wood Elves has made my heels very sore.
Warhammer’s forest-dwelling warriors, led by their hunky, horny god Orion, are defined by their greatest weakness: a strong breeze will knock them over. They probably have hollow bones, like birds. In a game where giants, dragons and explosives routinely appear on the battlefield, this is something of a liability. Charging cavalry and artillery cause them to crumble with distressing speed, and a numbers advantage can easily be lost early in a battle. Not that such an advantage is likely, though, as Elven units tend to be limited in numbers. Drawn out fights are just as bad, with the Elves simply not having the sustainability of the other factions. Even the large units, the humongous, lumbering Treemen, can be easily felled with the right weapon, namely fire.
This vulnerability makes these archers and tree-cuddlers a challenging faction to get to grips with. Creative Assembly have added a lot of new layers to the traditional Total War rock, paper, scissors formula with Warhammer, and with the Elves the vestiges of the old system are further obfuscated under stealth, hit-and-run tactics and Elven magic. The learning curve is a little more challenging in comparison to the other factions, ultimately because there’s a bit more to worry about.
Making up for their squishiness is the fact that the faction is rich in lovely, deadly archers and preternaturally nimble warriors. And they’re fast – experts at closing gaps or giving enemies the runaround. Taking advantage of this is a matter of picking your moments and striking with the precision of a magical arrow. Their fragility belies the huge amounts of damage they can inflict, particularly when launching an assault from the forests they love to hide in. Elven archers can also attack while moving, an ability that can really turn the tide of a battle as they drag enemies on an exhausting chase, all the while filling them with holes.
It can be tempting to rely on these incredibly powerful ranged units, but depending too much on them comes with some serious risks. In my first big battle against the Beastmen, a full stack plus reinforcements, I lost a lot of infantry early on thanks to artillery strikes – a painful reminder of the importance of sneaking some cavalry through the trees to tackle such threats – so by the final moments of the battle, I was down to just my archers. They’d been cleaning up by taking out enemies from a bluff, keeping their lovely golden locks out of the mud and blood, but had to give up the position when the Beastmen came around the sides. At first, they held them off, but then tragedy struck when they ran out of arrows. I’d been foolishly depending on a finite resource. In that final scrap, the archers performed admirably, ditching their bows for swords and slicing off more than a few beef steaks. Elven archers are not too shabby when it comes to melee, it turns out. Without support, however, they eventually fell to the onslaught of hairy cowmen.
While archers make up some of the most dangerous units, the Wood Elves have a surprisingly diverse roster. There’s the standard Elven spear unit, the Eternal Guard, who can put up a solid defense against large enemies who might otherwise crush the soft-skinned Elves, and the slippery Wildwood Rangers, who are adept at hunting down those same giant units with their armour-piercing weapons. The faction is also blessed with a few solid cavalry options. Along with the bow-wielding Glade Riders are the Wild Riders, most deadly when charging out of forests and crushing surprised foes, and the elite Sisters of the Thorn, magical cavalry that boasts exceptional speed.
Elves aren’t the only members of the army – the forest itself lends some assistance in the form of the aforementioned Treemen and their smaller counterparts, the Tree Kin and the Dryads. The latter is a damage-dealing unit, while the other two are heavily armoured, monstrous creatures that can withstand otherwise devastating charges. Like all monstrous units, they smash and crush their way through battlefields creating satisfying disarray wherever they go. These creatures are pretty slow, but they’re bolstered by some avian pals: the Hawk Riders and ferocious Great Eagles, striking at range and up close, respectively. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the pièce de résistance: a great big bloody dragon sporting a fancy pair of antlers. Not only does it look very spiffy, it spews poison across a broad area, making lots of enemies rather under the weather.
They’re all key components in potential traps. Spry elves draw enemies in, then monstrous units acting like doors close and trap them, and when they’re all in place the archers and eagles strike with a rain of arrows, feathers and claws. It can all fall apart spectacularly, of course, like all best laid plans, but on those glorious occasions where everything goes off without a hitch, it’s like watching some obliterating, elemental force at work.
Setting up these ambushes, baiting foes, striking and then retreating – the one thing all these tactics have in common is the necessity of micromanagement. You might be used to giving some units a bit of freedom, just letting them get on with things, but you need to be more on top of things when leading the Elves. It can be stressful, and it’s very easy to lose control of a brawl, but the battles are significantly more engaging thanks to all the extra demands. It can be a bit dispiriting too, however, as you watch yet another army having a great deal of success using numbers and brute force, while you work hard for every inch gained.
The Wood Elves momentum and necessary aggression on the battlefield is in stark contrast to their campaign style. In both the grand campaign and the new story campaign, The Season of Revelation, they must protect and upgrade a unique wonder called the Oak of Ages. Upgrading it to tier five initiates a massive battle between the Wood Elves and the forces of Chaos, and victory triggers a campaign win. If the Oak of Ages is conquered at any time, however, that’s it for the Elves. They’re done for.
Protecting and growing the tree is their unique victory condition, a reprieve from plainer objectives of the other factions, and its influence is felt throughout the campaign thanks to the introduction of a new currency, amber. It’s used to upgrade the tree, and forces you to immediately set priorities and wrestle with important decisions about the faction’s direction. See, amber can be used for more than just making the oak big and strong; it’s used to purchase certain units, depending on which Wood Elf leader you pick, and some particularly powerful upgrades locked away in the research menu cost amber as well. They’re all equally worth investing in, all competing for attention.
Then there’s the method of getting more amber. You can get one amber for creating a military alliance, and that’s certainly a good route to take when you’re interacting with other Elves, but you can get two amber for conquering a settlement, at greater risk. The former path adds a much needed incentive to use the easy to overlook diplomacy system, while the latter is seductive, but can trick you into spreading yourself too thin. And that’s a major danger for the Wood Elves.
This is where I start to become more ambivalent about the Oak of Ages. All it takes is for one army to sneak through your defenses and assault the tree and boom, you lose the campaign. One mistake and that’s you done. It does, thankfully, have a decent garrison, but properly protecting it still requires an army. So that’s another group of units, costing cash, doing bugger all. The need to protect this place eclipses everything else, and though you can choose to expand and conquer settlements, turning them into very limited outposts, or unite the disparate Elven groups into one single faction, it’s always leading to one thing: making sure the tree remains standing.
In the story campaign, this is even more clear, as the Elves must protect the heart of their empire from constant Human and Beastmen attacks. It’s a less empowering campaign than the earlier Beastmen one, which was a story of conquest and destruction. The Season of Revelation is more about dealing with waves and preparing for the next attack. Its differences make it diverting, but waiting for enemies to strike while you grow a tree doesn’t make for the most compelling scenario.
As a faction, however, the Wood Elves are a worthy addition to Total War: Warhammer’s burgeoning list of fantastical armies. Distinct and terribly tricky, they make the game feel new again, while forcing half-arsed commanders like myself to up our game. There’s also an air of experimentation about them, evidence that Creative Assembly are still willing to make risky factions that not everyone is going to gel with. Like reality TV contestants, Wood Elves aren’t here to make friends. They just want to stick arrows in people.