Warhammer’s Wood Elves are experimental and tricksy

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.

After playing through Total War: Warhammer’s [official site] Realm of the Wood Elves expansion, I reckon that sounds pretty accurate.

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.

Total War: Warhammer – Realm of the Wood Elves is out now on Steam. It costs £13.99 and requires the base game.

23 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    sicanshu says:

    The elfshot myth, or: what happens when a lie gets out of hand. “It burns when you pee? Must be those damn elves again, sweetheart.”

  2. plsgodontvisitheforums says:

    Good article and fun read! Pretty bold expansion, really adding some much needed diversity to the relatively short melee focused battles that tend to happen in TW:WH.

  3. magogjack says:

    Is it just me or does it feel like Amplitude single-handedly made both Civilization and Total War better; like much better?

  4. stringerdell says:

    Fantastic game. going to wait until theres some sort of bundle or goty edition and get these new factions

  5. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    So it’s a faction I can’t play, then. Might be neat having them around, but anything requiring more precision than an Orc charge is just completely beyond me.

    • mark.barbara says:

      Lost my first 8 in a row with them. They are… not a great pick for players that struggle with handling several things at once. I might eventually get there.

      • Ace Rimmer says:

        I played Wood Elves (poorly) in regular old W:FB, so naturally this interests me, but that’s exactly why I don’t get on with RTS: Multi-tasking, keeping an eye on four corners of the battle at once, being quick on the mouse and keys. Give me something turn-based where I’ll have time to jump to the wrong part of the battlefield seven or eight times, and we can talk.

    • A Wanderer says:

      That’s kinda my problem with every total war game ever, in fact. I don’t want to micro-manage all my units. I don’t want to tell them whant they could have done themselves and I end up forgetting stupid things. I dream of a strategy game were you would be a real general, not a hivemind controlling all of the units at once. I would really like to be able to say things like “The first cavalry division will flank the enemy while the heavy infantery pins them down, and I keep the second cavalry division in reserve just in case” and then see how the battle unfolds. You know, like what generals really do.

      • Meatpopsicle says:

        You’d need a really strong Ai to act as the others steps in the chain of command to be able to fulfil that roll. The reason micro is a thing in strategy games is because most of the time your units are brain dead.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        You might want to try Ultimate General Gettysburg or the sequel that’s currently in beta, UG Civil War.

      • LexW1 says:

        Sadly, in reality, in pre-modern wars, being able to micro-manage your units was often the trait that separated a good leader from a great one.

        It was Caesar’s key trait, for example. He was not a good strategist, as his expedition to/invasion of Britain shows. He didn’t plan, he didn’t always have what he needed (very unlike some leaders in history), but on the battlefield, he personally directed his troops in such a way that ensured his victory.

        As you go through history you see a lot of leaders who are on the battlefield and capable and modifying a plan (civilizations often have elaborate signalling mechanisms to do this) as they go, rather than just “sticking to the plan”, and they tend to win more.

        All that said I do think there would be some charm in a pre-battle orders-only game, maybe with you able to directly control your own one unit. Of course the nice thing about TW:W is that with a lot of the factions you don’t need to heavily micro-manage them, so I feel like one faction that is ALL ABOUT the micro is probably completely fine (what with pause and slow-mo and so on).

      • baidi says:

        That’s actually the reason I like Total War games. I spam the “pause” function hard. Playing on the highest difficulties you can’t issue orders when paused, but I’m too casual to push myself to play at that level. Usually after two hours of intense strategy and twists and turns I’m surprised to learn that the actual battle duration was only 15 minutes. It’s RTSs of the Warcraft mold that do my head in, building and fighting and clicking and jumping and boosting and counter-boosting and recruiting and harvesting and fixing. It’s all too much. Pausing every 15 seconds in a TW battle to spend 2 minutes thinking about what the hell can be done in the next 90 seconds about that flagging left flank is just my cup of tea…

  6. Senethro says:

    Ah, but do they call anyone lumberfoots?

  7. barelyhomosapien says:

    Ugh, I wanted to like them I really did. But they do not fit how I play in the slightest. It feels like they struggle to put out enough damage to offset the squishiness!

  8. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    I got chlamydia from Elfshot.

  9. SaintAn says:

    Would explain why I’m not an adventurer anymore. Or ever was. Damn Elves, go back to your midsummer night dreams and quit ruining my life!

    • Pogs says:

      I used to be an adventure too, then I took an Elfshot to the knee

      (sorry to all, had to be done…)

  10. Wings says:

    I’m kinda scared for my first run with these guys when I get home. I can micro my casters and my cav, a bit of troop movement to get them flanks, but… basically none of my 20 units can stay stuck in?

    • Meatpopsicle says:

      Thats not 100% true. There are some hardier units that can withstand a melee. But they’re not, hand to hand gods.

      • Wings says:

        It’s true.I did better than I expected. I wasn’t able to be complacent with my front line, but they didn’t vanish either.

  11. ItAintNecessarilySo says:

    Just finished my first campaign and once they get rolling they get Good! The micro intensity forces me to play on half speed half the battle, but that’s ok.
    But why o why these, supposedly eternal living, elves decide to die to the first squiggly little creature that can raise a sharp fork against them is beyond me.

  12. klops says:

    The elves must suck in the control of the AI, I suppose?

    • Griidi says:

      If you autoresolve a battle, then yes, very much so. Had 3 units of the dragons, some cavalry and eagles vs Dwarves with Artillery. The bot just let the artillery rip the melee and archers apart. Didn’t bother to send anyone to disrupt them. Even if you got 2 relatively good full armies vs a dwarven one, you’re still gonna get screwed.