Total War: Arena - A newb's guide through initial tiers

Published: 15:51, 07 May 2018
Updated: 11:26, 09 May 2018
Poster for a game guide showing three leaders from Total War: Arena
Total War: Arena

You'd think having 10 commanders in one army would spell disaster for any instalment of Total War but it's quite the contrary. Total War: Arena does require some grinding though, so if you're a newcomer, here's some things to keep in mind.

Total War is a franchise that simulates ancient warfare, the kind fought with swords and arrows. Much more than reflexes, Total War Arena rewards clever thinking, patience and planning, not necessarily in that order.

Historical Accuracy and Total War Arena

Think about ancient warfare for a moment. Contrary to popular belief, there are very few examples of every last enemy soldier being slaughtered in a battle. In fact, most were considered won by the time enemy troops were being routed, a term commonly used for scattering the enemy.

Brute forcing your way through enemy infantry is certainly an option in Total War, as it is in real life. However, routing the enemy does the same with less casualties. Instead of killing the enemy, kill their morale and go home with your force intact.

Legendary generals won but more importantly, they won with minimum casualties. They surrounded the enemy, despite numerical disadvantage, like Alexander. They even feigned running, only to spring a trap, like Hannibal. Total War Arena lets you do the same but with Replays. Take that Alex.

AltChar Pictures of modern police routing a medieval army Police routing Monty Python. Hey, it worked.

The Oldest Trick in the Book of War

Surrounding the enemy is the oldest trick in the book for a reason - it's the most efficient one. Its staple variant is called the Hammer and Anvil tactic and here is how to pull it off.

Infantry engage the enemy, stopping them in their tracks (Anvil), while cavalry go around the back and smash into them (Hammer). If you can provide ranged support and additional units on the side, like on the example below, you can obliterate otherwise unbeatable enemies with little to no losses.

This either kills the enemy, their morale or both. Total War Arena plays by the same rules, in that it puts great emphasis on morale of your troops. The lower the morale, the more damage you take.

AltChar A slide depicting the ancient warfare tactic Hammer and Anvil Total War Arena: The good ol' Hammer and Anvil

The Basics of Total War: Arena (Rock, Paper, Scissors principle)

The game uses three types of units - melee, ranged and shock, meaning infantry, anything that kills from distance and cavalry. Each type of unit excels against some, while sucking against others, which is why the devs often refer to the Rock, Paper, Scissors principle.

Javelins are infantry destroyers, so if you see javelins, your infantry should stay away. Unless you have archers, which means javelins better run. Unless they have slingers, then we're back where we started. See where this is going?

Ideally, you want to be where you can make the most damage, i.e. with cavalry you want to find lonesome archers, javelins feed on infantry, pikemen go for cavalry pie and so forth.

Creative Assembly Two elephants crossing the river in Total War: Arena Total War: Arena

Total War Tactics in a Nutshell (TLDR)

If you have more units, surround them. If not, find a place where you can't be surrounded. If your enemy is faster, don't race him. If he's stronger, don't face him.

Don't be afraid to disengage and seek a better fight and always insist on playing to your strength, whatever it may be at that moment. To put it simple - if your odds of winning a battle are low, don't rush into it. Back up instead and wait for your chance to do serious damage.

Most importantly work with your team. Having said that, here are some individual tips.

  • Infantry: Can kill anyone they catch but are vulnerable from the sides and rear. Should stay close to allies, in case javelins appear. Try and prevent the enemy from reaching ranged friendlies if possible. Whenever you see friendly cavalry, provide an Anvil.
  • Cavalry: Hit and run, steer clear of sustained combat. Devours archers, javelins and artillery. Watch out for pikes and don't stay in one place. Hammer and Anvil all day long.
  • Archers: Watch out for cavalry. Great at range on everyone except the heaviest of infantry. Hunt javelins and archers, switch to pikes and phalanx otherwise. Watch out for cavalry - if caught, your round is over. Also, watch out for cavalry. You'll see.
  • Slingers: They're archers without the arch - insane range but can't shoot over obstacles. That means you should always keep to nice flat hunting grounds. Archers are your main food, followed by javelins. The rest is pretty much the same as with archers, albeit they seem a bit tougher in melee. Not enough to be a serious threat though.

Creative Assembly An overhead shot of two armies on opposing river banks in Total War: Arena Total War: Arena

This guide specifically focuses on early tiers, but we will briefly touch upon other unit types, just so as to know what to look out for when you're facing them.

  • Javelins: Infantry destroyers but they need to be close. If you're infantry and have no archer support, back up. If you're cavalry, be advised - these guys are no archers; they'll hit you much harder. If you're an archer - happy hunting.
  • Artillery: If you're cavalry, start hunting, or at least spotting the enemy artillery, so friendly artillery can have a go. If you're infantry or archer, try prayer and positive thinking. Just kidding, run for cover and hope your cavalry knows what it's doing.
  • Elephants: It's best to wait for pikemen/phalanx or javelins but Germanicus with Vengeance will also do in a pinch. Nevertheless, he'll sustain heavy losses. Archers can theoretically do the same as javelins, except they'll need way more time and micro-management. The rest might as well stay away.

Creative Assembly A war elephant fighting infantry in Creative Assembly's Total War: Arena Total War: Arena

Leaders available from the get go are Germanicus, Arminius and Cynane, whose respective flagship units are infantry, cavalry and archers. You are given or will eventually unlock other faction-specific unit types, but these leaders are too good to be used for anything else. 

Creative Assembly Roman leader Germanicus from Total War: Arena Total War: Arena


Roman general Germanicus is an absolute beast with melee infantry and an obvious choice for a new player, since he's well equipped to handle ranged units as well. Whatever blunder you make, you'll stay alive for at least 10 minutes, hopefully learning where you went wrong to begin with.


Germanicus starts off with Charge. All melee infantry units have their variants of this. It is devastating when used correctly. At level III, you're getting Testudo, famous Roman turtling formation. Albeit pretty weak at first, you'll be glad you upgraded it when it renders you immune to arrows at a click of a button.

Creative Assembly Testudo formation from the game Total War: Arena Total War: Arena, Testudo

Real fun with Germanicus starts at level V though, when he unlocks Vengeance. Once activated, the skill gradually increases the unit's melee damage, already starting with a 50 per cent increase.

Vengeance lasts until you're out of combat for more than 10 seconds so if you've picked a fight, don't stop. Note that most players disengage and run once they smell Vengeance.


Roman infantry are beasts but by no means invincible. You have a lot of grinding to do until you've reached Vengeance, but until you do - make sure that you master the basics of Total War: Arena.

Manoeuvre your units so your rear and sides aren't exposed. Those are your only weak spots. Block enemy units, especially cavalry, from reaching your archers and/or javelin men - they will repay you tenfold by keeping enemy ranged units away. 

Once you've unlocked Vengeance, Germanicus becomes a relentless combat machine, so make sure that once you start, you do not stop.

Germanicus' Nemesis: Javelins. Just don't. They can turn your charge into a bloodshed.

USEFUL TIPS: Enemies often save their Charge for running from Vengeance so try to do the same and match their Charge with yours. Vengeance's cooldown is lengthy so make sure you pop it when it matters the most.

Creative Assembly Greek leader Cynane from Creative Assembly's Total War: Arena


Cynane, half-sister of legendary Alexander the Great, is Total War: Arena's resident archer specialist. She excels in speed, hunting units and just raining hell on the enemy in huge bursts.

I strongly advise turning the Auto-Attack option off in the controls menu. Otherwise, your archers will shoot at enemies whenever they can, which means a lot of friendly fire.

Total War Arena's earlier patch severely decreased friendly fire in lower tiers for this reason exactly but nevertheless, it can get pretty severe.


Cynane's Tier I skill is Rapid Advance, very useful when getting into position, as well as plain running. Tier III grants her the Hunt, i.e. seeing a marked enemy despite physical obstacles for a set period of time.

Come Tier V though, Total War: Arena's Cynane becomes a joy to play with and a horror to play against. Her Barrage clouds the skies with arrows to the extent where it gets scary. Naturally, lots to grind until then so here's some tips.

Creative Assembly Archers in a medieval town shooting at the enemy in Total War: Arena Total War:Arena, Archers are OP when supported

Winning With Cynane

Lone wolfing it with archers equals cruising for a bruising. I cannot overstate this - always keep close to friendly forces or you're toast. Scratch your teammate's back and he'll scratch yours.

You have no melee so you need protection and you can't outrun or repel cavalry, your nemesis. Note that one proper cavalry charge can all but end your participation in the round.

Manoeuvre your forces close to allied infantry and whittle down enemies. Your priority are javelins and archers, in that particular order.

Sometimes you may take small risks to get shots in but don't get too crazy. Working together is key here. In fact, this where Total War: Arena truly shines - it feels glorious.

Cynane's Nemesis: Cavalry. An inch in screen real estate too far from allies and cavalry just appears, like a genie from the risk bottle. It's a spirit shattering experience. I hate this game sometimes. I just love it too much to leave.

USEFUL TIPS: Stay close to allies, always. The amount of times I've seen a lonely archer die and proceed to berate everyone else for his foolish lone wolfing is incredible.

AltChar Barbarian leader Arminius from Total War: Arena Total War: Arena


Arminius is a Germanic leader who tricked three Roman legions into their deaths. In Total War: Arena, he starts as an archer's nightmare and gradually evolves into his worst nightmare in the history of nightmares. And archers.

He is a cavalry specialist so you're the air force of the bunch, meaning don't get mixed up with the grunts and stay on the offence.


Arminius' Tier I skill is Momentum, which in practice means keep moving and you'll be keeping your speed bonus. At Tier III, Arminius gets Frenzy, which is a damage boost at the cost of defence. Personally, I haven't used this much against anyone else other than archers, because they're basically useless in melee.

His Tier V skill, however, is the most sneakiest of sneaky sneakiness, because Arminius turns into your allied colour. If it sounds useless, I'll ask you that when you're in the middle of a fight. Besides, unless we're talking heavy Roman cavalry, you're better off staying out of melee.

Creative Assembly Screenshot showing cavalry charging in Total War: Arena Total War: Arena

Many an archer has been over the moon after seeing friendly cavalry rush to his defence, only to realise it wasn't friendly at all. If that's not enough Arminius also gets a hefty speed boost, so get ready to start appearing out of nowhere. 

Winning With Arminius

Entire games can hinge on how cavalry performs so be aware of the immense expectation on you before you choose to prance around doing nothing. Look for artillery and archers, in that order. Every second you stand doing nothing, friendly soldiers die.

Charge, charge and then charge some more. Never stay stationary and always look for hammer and anvil opportunities. Mobility is your deal so if you're useless in a given fight, go elsewhere and help out.

You're not built for melee; you're built for hit and run. So if it looks like you'll have to get stuck in - disengage.

Creative Assembly Side view of cavalry units in Creative Assembly's Total War: Arena Total War: Arena

Having said that, there's always room for creativity. There will be scenarios where you will benefit from fake-charging into enemy troops and backing away in the last instant.

If you have friendly ranged units, or even infantry, making the enemy turn their back means maximum damage. So, the enemy will either get shot in the back or get charged in the back. Or both.

Arminius' Nemesis: Pikes. Stay away from all forms and variants of pikes and, preferably, anything else that will stop you from moving for longer than you can say bye-bye-archers.

USEFUL TIPS: Watch your angles, even when attacking feeble archers. As a last resort, they often turn to melee attacks, if only to block your escape until friendlies arrive. Count on this and plan your escape accordingly. Think twice before rushing into areas hidden by fog of war or by foliage - they often hide ambushes. Also, the fact that you're often the bullet doesn't mean you don't have a gun - help your teammates.

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