The Roles of Units

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The Roles of Units

Post by kjn »

The Roles of Units

Wesnoth has a huge amount of units, but most of them fill a limited number of roles. The coupling between roles and units is rather loose, in that a single unit can often fill several different roles, and often at different times during a scenario as well; this is especially true of high-level units in a lower-level environment. Depending on the scenario and the enemy, one also sometimes finds that one has to switch roles around between units. One might also lack access to one or more roles, forcing one to make do without or have less suited units fill that role. Or one uses a playstyle which makes less use of some of the roles.

Generally speaking, the stronger the unit is associated with a role, the easier it often is to use. Very specialised units or units that lack clear specialisation are often viewed as being poor value.

This discussion focuses on readily recruitable units, ie L0 and L1. L2 is only discussed as they give access to new roles not otherwise available to the faction.

The four groups I classify here are battleline, reserve, scout, and support. Note that this is a classification, and thus by nature arbitrary. This goes for the entire set of groupings, and doubly so for the their names (labels). If it helps you to reason on the game of Wesnoth, go ahead and use it; otherwise feel free to discard or modify it.


The main job of the battleline units is to protect other units. They do this by controlling the movement of the enemy's units and absorbing their attacks.

Good battleline units should be relatively plentiful (ie not too expensive), be able to absorb lots of attacks, and give retaliation damage. Most battleline units are melee oriented, and many lack a ranged attack entirely. Being able to do both melee and ranged attacks is a big plus, since it allows them to always do some retaliation damage no matter how they are attacked, and possibly make a safe attack on their own turn.

A battle between two battlelines is a pure battle of attrition: making the enemy lose relative amounts of HP faster than you yourself lose yours.

Battleline units can work in three different ways: by numbers, by resistances (reducing damage), or regeneration (constantly replenishing hit points). I view the latter two types as defensive battleline units, and the first as offensive battleline units, but the lines can be vague. Battleline units that can do a safe ranged attack can often act defensively as well, with the goal of conserving their hit points rather than inflict the maximum damage on the enemy units.

(It is quite possible that the most important part of assessing how a specific unit fits in the battleline is to look at the other units of the faction, but that also makes analysis much more complex. But remember that the factors I outline in the offensive-defensive split might be too simplistic; in fact I strongly suspect it is.)

I view the tank as a specific sub-role of the battleline, a unit to be used where the battleline is one or at most two units long, or in critical positions (eg exposed to three rather than two hexes). Strong repulsion is very valuable in a tank.

The battleline units can often deliver the majority of the damage during a game, but it will likely be very diffuse: spread out over a lot of enemy units and over large parts of the game. They also tend to do a lot of their damage as retaliation.


The job of the reserve is to destroy enemy units. Depending on the situation, their targets might be key units in the enemy battleline, the enemy vanguard, or an enemy penetration.

They have a focus on damage-per-hex rather than hit points-per-hex, and are thus often relatively fragile. High reliability in attacks is very valuable, via Marksman or magical attacks. Since they pick their fights, they are very focused on either range or melee attacks.

Since the reserve usually is small in number and often is acting in reaction, high mobility is desirable.

Exploitation is a specialised form of reserve, striking past the enemy lines to destroy newly exposed units. Examples of such targets would be support and reserve units or already damaged units. Exploitation requires high mobility, which also leads to them being useful against lone enemy units or in a scouting role. They can also act as regular reserve units.


I put all these roles together, because they are mobility-focused.

In its purest sense, scouting units are only used to claim villages, expose the map, and reduce the fog. That means that their value very much depends not only on the map but also on the settings for the scenario.

Harassment is about making parts of the map unsafe for the enemy, so they cannot leave units alone or unsupported (eg for healing or village-grabbing). Harassment units can often fill parts of the exploitation role, though they will have to be very careful in their target selection. A unit with the skirmishing ability makes for a superb harasser - their simple presence will often shape a lot of the enemy's posture and formation.

Skirmishing is the last role here, and is not tied to the skirmishing ability (I wish I had a better name). Skirmishing includes actively tying up enemy units by combat, away from the main front, or before the main fronts engage.

The differences between the three roles are quite fluid.


This is a diverse group, but I divide it into three main groups: general, offensive, and defensive support. Common for all of them is that it is not about destroying enemy units directly, and that mobility is very helpful.

General support: Leadership and Illuminate. Increase the damage from friendly units, and possibly lessen the damage from enemy units. Since these abilities can help several units per turn, units with these abilities should preferably be as mobile as possible.

Offensive support: Slow and Poison. Both works as attacks against a single unit and cripples it. Poison will relatively quickly force an enemy unit to seek healing. Slow can either be used as the setup for several friendly units to attack an enemy unit that otherwise would retaliate too strongly, or to simply fix the enemy unit in place while your other units fight different enemy units.

Defensive support: Healing and Cure. This is simply keeping your own units in the fight.

Unit defensive strategies and the roles

The game has five different defensive strategies for units, but two of them (not being there and repulsion) are situationally dependant. That leaves the following three:

Evasion: High defense values helps to avoid being hit and damaged. The upside is that hit points are preserved, but evasion-focused units tend to have few hit points and be vulnerable to common damage types. This means it fits poorly with the battleline, which above all is about reliability.

Hit points: The most reliable means of absorbing attacks, and the one most battleline units primarily use. On the other hand, hit points take a long time to replenish since they are recovered at a fixed rate, and only under specific cirumstances.

Resistance: By lessening the damage from successful attacks, this is more reliable than evasion, and at the same time helps to preserve hit points. The main drawback is that an attacker can choose attacks that bypasses resistances. One reason why the Ghost is such an effective harassment unit is that it is the only resistance-focused scouting unit (most other are evasion-based), that also has a way to replenish hit points in battle.

Analysing units and factions


When viewed through the above categorisation, archers fall somewhat through the cracks. Since most battleline units are melee oriented, they should be reserve units, but for most factions mages (or their equivalents) are more reliable damage dealers. Pierce is also one of the more resisted damage types.

In the battleline, they suffer from less HP and less total damage output than their melee alternatives. The main exception is the Dwarvish Thunderer, which has equivalent resistances to other L1 dwarves and does 6-2 melee damage. The Elvish Archer is also an exception in forests, due to their 70% defense. Their greater ability to serve in the battleline means they can be used in greater numbers, compensating for their lesser per-unit reliability in the reserve role.

Knalgan Alliance

The Dwarvish Guardsman is the type example of a defensive resistance-oriented battleline unit, though relatively expensive. The Dwarvish Fighter is a very good offensive battleline unit. The Dwarvish Thunderer can serve both as a reserve and a battleline unit but is not specialised for any of the roles.

However, the other units are less clear in their roles. The Thief and the Ulfserker can serve in the reserve role, but only in limited circumstances. The Poacher is too weak in the battleline and lacks the raw damage output for the reserve role. The Thug is a serviceable battleline unit, but with no special qualities. The Footpad can serve as a scouting and harassing unit, but has limited mobility for the role in open terrain. The Gryphon is a very high-end scouting unit, coming close to an exploitation role.

Support units are lacking, and with limited reserve the Knalgan will have to rely on their excellent battleline.

In damage, blade dominates, but they also have very good access to impact, and good access to pierce.


The Loyalists have a good and versatile battleline unit in the spearman, and the only L1 exploitation unit in the Horseman. They also have access to L1 reserve units in the Mage. However, their scouting/skirmishing units are all relatively expensive and on the high end, and their access to support units is poor.

The Heavy Infantryman merits closer discussion. It should be an offensive battleline unit, but its slow relative speed makes it more suited to a defensive role. But there its lack of ranged retaliation, uneven resistances, and relative lack of hit points coupled with high cost hurt it.

The main strength of the Loyalists lie in their reserve units.

In damage pierce dominates, but they also have good access to blade, some access to impact, and their primary reserve unit uses fire.


The Northerners are another battleline-oriented faction, focusing on numbers and melee. The Goblin spearman can serve both defensive and offensive purposes in the battleline in a supporting role. The troll whelp is an excellent defensive battleline unit, though with limited mobility. The archer and grunt are likely to serve as the main damage dealers in the battleline.

The Wolf Rider is another high-end scouting unit, that can evolve to both exploitation and support roles.

However, they lack a true reserve unit. In support, they have ready access to Poison via the Assassin, which fits with the attrition theme of their style.

In damage blade dominates, but they have ready access to pierce, impact, and fire as well.


The Rebels have a basic offensive battleline unit in the Elvish fighter, and a high-end defensive battleline unit in the Wose, though the relation is a little blurred since the figher can make ranged attacks and the Wose cannot. The Elvish Archer can serve in the reserve role, but can also serve as a battleline unit in favourable terrain (ie forests).

Again, the scouting unit is rather high-end, and is capable of filling holes in the battleline, especially in forests.

The Mage is a good reserve unit, but they lack an exploitation unit. However, the Rebels real strength lie in their support, since they have access to both defensive (healing) and offensive (slow) support from the Elvish Shaman. With L2 they have access to Leadership and Cure as well, and excellent reserve units in the Sorceress line and the Marksman.

In damage blade and pierce dominates, with some access to impact.


The Undead have several different styles of battleline units, and the best selection of scouting units in the game.

Skeletons, Walking Corpses, and Ghouls are all good battleline units. Walking Corpses are similar to Goblins in bolstering the battleline. They are less effective as damage dealers, but has the advantage of gaining new units in the field. Skeleton are the basic unit, helped with good resistances against most other battleline weapons. Ghouls are straddling the line of being a support unit, but its great repulsion value due to poison, and good resistances, means it can serve in a limited tank role.

The Dark Adept is probably the most specialised reserve unit in the game.

A real strength of the Undead are in their scouting units. The Vampire Bat is the only true scouting unit in the game, and the Ghost is a very good harassment unit.

In damage, blade dominates, but they also have access to pierce, cold, arcane, and impact in their starting units.


I sadly have too little knowledge of this faction to properly analyse it.
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Re: The Roles of Units

Post by Gyra_Solune »

A pretty good analysis on the whole!

I can understand how it's tough to classify the Drakes really thoroughly in this - they have a fairly unique playstyle hinging on a very tricky and expensive battleline but very very strong reserve and good skirmishing capability. Khalifate is similar, but with the skirmishing emphasized due to their fast, cheap, and dual-ranged main unit.

A minor note: Knalgan Alliance does not get the Thug. There wouldn't be much of a point, really - the only thing that makes the Thug special is that it's the only basic, cheap infantry unit in the game with a primary Impact attack...which the Dwarvish Fighter has as a serviceable backup anyway. All it would really do for the faction is to make it a bit stronger against Undead which isn't really desirable.
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Re: The Roles of Units

Post by kjn »


Yeah, I skipped the Khalifate entirely since I've never encountered any of their units. And the Drakes are a poor fit to this model, which I guess is a good thing. Having a single all-encompassing model to analyse by would make for boring play and intellectual stagnation.

Thanks for the correction about the Thug - I followed the wiki, which appears to be outdated there.
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Re: The Roles of Units

Post by Gyra_Solune »

Thinking on it a little more, I have a bit of a clearer conception of how to describe those two in this model.

Basically, it can be said that those four areas are the primary 'statistics' of a faction - you ideally want all of these to balance out to the same total. As you said, Knalgan Alliance has a very very strong battle-line, easily the strongest in the game - but their other three areas are weak to make up for it, with a modest offensive reserve, scouting options that are either subpar or extremely expensive, and no support to speak of excepting a level 3 Thief. Loyalists are close but a little more balanced, Northerners are overall balanced on all sides of the spectrum, Rebels have a somewhat weaker battleline in exchange for very strong support, and Undead have a very strong reserve in exchange for a little less of everything else.

In that sense then, I would say Drakes have lower than average battleline, but decent support, strong mobility, and hard-hitting reserve, while Khalifate has the lowest battleline and reserve of all but makes up for it with excellent mobility and arguably the best support unit in the game.

In greater detail, the primary unit of the Drakes is their Fighter - a faster than normal infantry with decent ranged coverage and a lot of power. However, it also sums up the weaknesses of the faction handily - their resilience relies both on HP and resistances while heavily sacrificing evasion, meaning that while they excel at catching the unprepared, a well-placed offensive against them not only sloughs off their HP rapidly, but keeps it in that state for a long time. They're also rather expensive. A Drake Fighter can't stick around and hold a line, it has to go in, do some damage, and retreat - but they can do this very well, due to their high movement and flying capacity. On paper, the Clasher looks like a strong battle-line unit, and it can indeed serve defensive purposes and tie people up, but given that it totally lacks a ranged attack and is very costly to boot, it can't hold up against reserves for long. I'd actually classify it and the Burner as reserves more than anything, given their exceptional damage output, and say that instead of a battle-line, Drakes defend other units via skirmishing and tying up threats to their reserve elsewhere. The Glider is really good at this too, and is possibly the best unit in the game at pursuit with its marksman ranged attack, excellent for difficult to hit mobility units like Bats and Footpads. The Saurians define this further - the Skirmisher can be seen as an alternative 'normal' infantry to the Fighter, and it of course excels at breaking through lines or moving around them, while the Augur is a decent support unit that shores up reserves' HP nicely and can help them on the offense with their magic.

On the other hand, the primary unit of the Khalifate is the Jundi, a rather interesting approach. It too is very quick and handles rough terrain and sand with ease. However, it sacrifices a lot of raw power in exchange for versatility and ease of use in the form of it having a roughly even range to its melee. It's an excellent skirmishing unit that pester almost everything thrown at it, and has some handy resistances to keep it alive, but it struggles with a main offensive...and there's not really a good main offensive to back it up. The Rami is a companion to the Jundi, with a strong ranged attack on a fast unit, and is best served in my experience not as a reserve, necessarily, but as a mobile archer that also skirmishes along with the Jundi, especially against exposed melee units.

The Arif LOOKS a lot like a strong battleline/reserve unit, much in the vein of the Clasher, but it is very expensive and does somewhat low damage - its primary value comes in its unique marksman melee attack, making it a somewhat unique example of a dedicated counter-reserve unit, specialized in doing a lot of damage to exposed but fortified ranged units. The Khaiyal is a better reserve on the whole, but is very much held back by its prohibitive cost. Things get interesting with the Hakim - the only level 1 unit in the game to provide +8 healing, functionally giving every unit around it Regenerates. It's a very very good support unit and one that has a lot of application - it helps out if you need to go on the defensive for a bit, or is very useful behind the uniquely melee-oriented reserve, or can travel farther afield and serve as a healing point for Jundis and Ramis where a village isn't available. It's very handy and one of the biggest assets the Khalifate has. The Falcon's a solid scouting unit, almost identical to the Vampire Bat, but instead of that handy draining, it gets an interesting asset - a Charge attack, though a rather weak one. It's tough to use this effectively, but I like to treat them as guided missiles - disposable one-shot affairs that can rapidly swarm a powerful enemy and quickly cut down its HP so slower units can catch up and finish it off. Lastly there's the Naffat - another sort of dual-ranged unit, but one that's too costly and squishy to serve the same all honesty it more or less exists to face Undead or other units that otherwise resist a very Pierce-based attack set.

This is a very handy way to quickly describe factions I've found, applying well to almost any faction. A favorite of mine, the Windsong, can easily be described as an even more extreme Khalifate, with almost no battle-line to speak of, and an even worse reserve damage capacity, but with potent support and most critically, the best mobility you can possibly imagine, with the unique asset of a cheap, level 0 teleport unit. Another faction I play a lot, the Black Tide thingy made up of every not-previously-used unit, is a little weird - I'd say it's average across the board, though it struggles with reserve due a critical lack of a standard ranged unit, as all of its ranged capacity is water-bound, and it has access to a decent scouting unit that can also poison along with a solid tanky wall in the Ogre - but I'd classify its primary unit as the Orcish Leader which uniquely does a bit of everything, with the most powerful base damage available at level 1 for reserve, a load of HP and dual-ranged capacity for battle-line, leadership (not really as useful at level 1 though it can be used to shore up ranged offense, since there's a level 0 ranged unit there) for support, and, to a lesser extent, somewhat high mobility to boot, with useful 6 MP stacked on top of the very versatile orcish moveset. Of course it comes at a cost, being extremely expensive at 20 gold, and requiring more XP to level up than any unit in the game, and it definitely ends up more valuable as support than anything else.
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Re: The Roles of Units

Post by ForPeace »

Hi kjn,

I enjoyed reading this article. However, from my side it seems you've played mostly singleplayer (Saurians have their own faction? No, Saurians count in Drakes) so I have some remarks being rather an MP player.

In general, although most of the units do fit your division, in some playstyles (mostly rushes) you can't really put them in one or another group. Such are for instance HODOR (aka outlaw) rush or Saurian rush. There are also some add-ons (I'd especially mark PYRA here) which allow you to develop bizarre but interesting compostitions of units, which will no way fit these groups.

I am starting with group called "Battleline". These are the units you usually have the most - they both deal much melee damage and have high hitpoints value - so that you need them both to attack and defend. That being said, when you are starting a MP game, you usually recruit many spearmen, elvish fighters, grunts to defend from a chaotic rush (really, if you don't do it, defending from e. g. grunt rush would be hard) and/or to cover your more vulnerable and important units (mages, orcish assasins, archers, etc.).

"Reserve" in my opinion isn't just about dealing most damage but getting the enemies out of good terrain. So that I'd count here also orcish assasins, which are really useful for orcs when it comes to fight rebels or knalgans.

About the archers: I don't usually recruit many of them, unless my opponent is drakes. Drakes have low terrain defense so you don't really need mages (you shouldn't even go with them considering their fire attacks) and drakes are vulnerable to pierce attacks. Archers are also sometimes useful at defense thanks to their higher than mages resilience and the fact that enemies you fight stand on bad terrain, but still I'd prefer "battleline" units here.
The Rebels have a basic offensive battleline unit in the Elvish fighter, and a high-end defensive battleline unit in the Wose
Maybe it will surprise you, but Wose is a unit focusing rather on dealing damage than on defense, even though it is slow and rather resilient. It has one of the highest dmg-per-hex of lvl1 Wesnoth units which is also increased by lawful bonus. I prefer using fighters at defense - they don't have ToD penalty during the night and they are cheap (read: numerous) as well.

There are three factions which don't fit your categorisation and I also think that is the reason why they are harder to play than the rest: Knalgan Alliance, Undead and Drakes. All these three factions have unique playstyles and I guess including some of these units to the groups is a bit misunderstanding.

Nice text anyway, you can always learn something new and how the other players see the game. Although I disagree with some parts of it, I think you did a good job writing this text. Thank you.
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Re: The Roles of Units

Post by kjn »

Thanks for the additions and corrections!

Yes, it's correct that I come from an SP focus. And this is not meant as a "guide" on how to play; it's rather a model to help one think and talk about Wesnoth. I'm glad it seems to work on its intended purpose here.

@Gyra_Solune: Nice analysis (that I have no way to assess, really, but it looks solid). The one thing I'd quibble with is the view of the Clasher and Burner. One thing I view as important for reserve units is to not only have high damage potential, but being reliable damage dealers. Without magical attacks or marksman that's hard to do. (Yes, I am aware that this goes against my thoughts on the Horseman, but the Horseman has excellent mobility so it can pick its targets, it does obscene amounts of damage, and has the Mage as a partner.)

But perhaps one focus when describing the Drakes being on their mobility, that they use a highly mobile and fluid battleline instead of a more static and linear one?


Interesting that you consider the role of the reserve more to force the enemy units from good ground than killing enemy units. It maybe even implies a different type of play than my model assumes.

You're quite likely correct in your analysis of the Wose compared to the Elvish Fighter; I likely put too much focus on the regeneration of the Wose. Perhaps the Heavy Infantryman is a better analogue to the Wose than the Troll Whelp is? After all, both have high cost, very strong attacks and very uneven resistances.

I'm not sure my model explains why the Knalgans can be harder to play. Rather, I'd expect the opposite given the single-minded focus on the battleline. Yes, that they have a hard time dislodging enemies from good ground is one big issue, but I think their limited (but reliable) mobility might be a bigger reason. One needs to plan more on where to put units, because once they're somewhere they have a hard time getting anywhere else.

For the Undead, I think it's simply due to their very specialised units. This means that if you lack the proper counter to an enemy play, you're like screwed. But their units still fit rather nicely into the framework.

Last, the Drakes. This is entirely dry theorising, but I believe the reason they can be hard to play is the opposite of the Knalgans. They rely on being mobile all the time, which in a way makes the positional game even more challenging.
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