Q&A: What You Can Learn From Weapon Triangles

Hello, I could have sworn you’ve answered this already, but I can’t find the post, so I’m asking anyway. Is there any validity to the weapons triangle from Fire Emblem? Swords have advantage against Axes, Axes have advantage against Lances, Lances have advantage against Swords. I understand that reach is very important so Lances “beating” Swords makes sense, but I feel like the other two are arbitrary.

I know we’ve touched on this in the past, but it’s probably been years. The answer is, “kinda, sorta, not exactly.” These kinds of simple triangles tend to be more about gameplay, and less about reality.

There are specific weapon priorities. A classic example is polearms offering an extremely effective counter to cavalry. Historically, cavalry dominated forces frequently had serious difficulty when fighting against foes who prioritized spears as their main infantry units. Similarly, cavalry are extremely effective against most melee infantry. So we have two parts of a triangle… except, it doesn’t really close. Sword infantry doesn’t dominate polearm infantry. You can bring archers into the mix, and they will be more effective against unshielded infantry than shielded infantry. Your sword infantry are likely to be using shields, while your spear users are less likely to be doing so (though, this isn’t always going to be the case.) So, you start to have a four sided priority “triangle.” Except it doesn’t work that way, because your shielded infantry is going to get stuck in the tarpit of frontline melee, so, if the archers are significantly behind the lines, they’re more vulnerable to skirmishing cavalry, not the infantry they’re less effective against.

Oh, right, and those spear infantry that are so effective against cavalry? The best tool to deal with them is, ironically, cavalry. Get the polearm fighters tied up in melee with friendly infantry, then get your skirmishing cavalry around behind them, and charge into their rear. (This is why protecting your flanks and keeping skirmishers from getting behind your front lines is so important. Once you have skirmishers, especially fast moving ones, loose behind the lines, it’s over.)

If the above borders on impenetrable, that’s why many games use much simpler triangles. It’s not replicating reality, but it is replicating the concept that certain kinds of units serve different functions, and a battlefield is about getting different units to operate in tandem with each other.

A famous quote from Sid Meier holds that, games are about making a series of interesting choices. That’s the point of the triangle. It’s turning strategy into a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Without any kind of priority, it’s very easy to create mono-unit forces that will steamroll anything in their path. Ironically, some of Sid Meier’s Civilization series are guilty of this. But, I’m also specifically remembering the armies of six Terminator squads, with Assault Cannons in one of the Dawn of War expansions. (I don’t remember which one had no recruitment limits, it’s not Dark Crusade.)

Introducing priority systems (even if they’re a natural interaction of unit stats) can go a long way towards forcing players to make “an interesting decision,” when assembling their army. It’s not enough to just load up on super heavy infantry, or cavalry, and roll the map without a second thought. Now you need to consider what enemies you’re going to face, and set up your army accordingly.

The irony is that, Sid Meier’s advice works for writing. Stories are a series of interesting choices made by your characters. The idea of a triangle is simple, but it’s also good advice for building your characters, if your character excels against one kind of foe, it stands to reason there are other threats out there they’re unprepared for. If your character is some kind of hotshot cavalry officer, putting them in a jungle fight would be an absolute nightmare. If your character is an archer, putting them in an overrun fortress, fighting to escape in close quarters, really plays against their strengths.

Triangles may be simple, but they are an abstract concept you can adapt for your writing.

-Starke

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