Suspiciously Small Army

"Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance."
Chorus, Henry V, lampshading this trope and at the same time making it Older Than Steam.

Armies in video games and animation in general don't just get the size of their individual soldiers wrong. Due to gameplay and graphical limitations, particularly graphical limitations, armies tend to be a lot smaller than they would have been in real life. An army that would have numbered in the tens of thousands will number a few hundred or at most a thousand men, and that's for a very big battle.

Its worth noting that the notion of a 1:1 correspondence between army size and depiction is something of an innovation in itself and represents a considerable advancement in graphical technology. (The single classic wargame counter represents a unit that might have any number of men in it.) In Tabletop Games involving miniatures, one miniature is often a "stand-in" for a whole bunch of guys. The same factor often contributes to computer games, with one guy or a small group of guys standing in for a much larger force, as the trope quote will indicate.

It is not just animated media that fall victim to this trope. You think it's expensive making a graphical engine that can run a battle of 10,000 people? Try paying 10,000 actors. As a result, film and TV can fall victim to this as well. Thanks to CGI technology, this trope is considerably less frequent.

See also: Units Not to Scale, Oddly Small Organization. Contrast Million Mook March.

Examples

Comic Books
  • Transformers does this in a big way. Even when robots are fighting for the fate of the universe, or the very fabric of space and time, it's rare to see more than a few dozen fighters involved in any battle. Granted they're on a different planet with only a handful of fighters on each side. The battles on Cybertron are much bigger.

Film
  • The Big Red One rarely had more than a half-dozen men on screen at any one time.
  • The epic biographical film Patton, featuring some of the fulcrum battles of America's campaign in Europe, was filmed with about a dozen tanks (M47 and M48 Pattons, at that) and the same two Heinkel bombers over and over again. The equipment, along with the extras, came from the Spanish Army, which made quite a bit of money renting itself out to filmmakers during the 1950's and 1960's.
  • In Alatriste, the Spanish defeat at Rocroi is reduced to a pitiful skirmish with barely a couple dozen soldiers on each side.
  • Gladiator has an in-universe example when the Colosseum stages a historical reenactment of the Battle of Zama with a few dozen men.
  • Parodied in Meet the Spartans, where the Spartan force sent to Hold the Line against the Persians was about a dozen men. However, the Persians also suffered from this, at least until Xerxes turned on his CGI army, scaring the Spartans. The ending, once again parodying 300, shows the full Spartan army... also as CGI.
  • The Star Wars Original Trilogy falls sometimes victim to this due to its own budget and technical limits. A prime example would be both the Rebel and Imperial fleets in Return of the Jedi (although hundreds of Imperial ships are shown staying out of it in the background). The advent and advancement of realistic CGI in the intervening years negated this problem for the Prequel Trilogy.

Live-Action TV
  • In the Sharpe series, the units involved in the battles tend to be rather small. Works fine when depicting small-unit actions in Spain, breaks down miserably when trying to depict the battle of Waterloo.
  • The Romulan's invasion force in Star Trek TNG. You can imagine the planning meeting - "So that's invading Vulcan, occupying the planet and fending off a probable Federation counter attack. Two thousand men should be plenty"
    • To be fair, Romulans likely tried to carry out "Bay of the Pigs"-style invasion, with force being there just to convince and support anyone who'd be likely to want to reunite Vulcans with their long-separated Romulan relatives. After all, any kind of the open invasion would mean a war with United Federation of Planets, which itself has at very least a parity with, if not a slight advantage over, the Romulans in terms of military power; a very-likely involvement of the Klingon Empire, itself at most marginally weaker than the Federation would have meant a sure disaster for the Romulans
    • The average Federation starship has a crew in excess of 200 people working in a three or four shift rotation; every other race crews similarly sized ships with between 15-40 people, apparently with each crew member being on duty around the clock, most of them don't even seem to have a medic aboard. The standard explanation is that the alien craft are stripped-down warships with much fewer amenities, and don't need the huge scientific and maintenance crew that a Federation ship would carry- just a pilot, a commander, an engineer, a gunner and some grunts. Even so, modern US Navy nuclear submarines, which aren't exactly known for wasting space, require a crew of 14 officers, 18 senior noncoms and 89 enlisted working on a three-shift rotation, and a starship would probably need at least that many, if only to carry out basic maintenance and prevent everyone keeling over with exhaustion. A Klingon crew especially seems to consist of about four or five officers making up the bridge crew, a cook, and a handful of enlisted to perform repairs and occasionally kill things.
  • The producers of Game of Thrones obviously didn't have enough money to film a mass battle scene of any kind, and barely had enough actors to let the Lannister camp look somewhat occupied. The audience does not get to see much of the first season's "huge battle," because the perspective character is knocked unconscious almost immediately. In the books, he was conscious, and the narration describes the battle in great detail - but a novelist doesn't need to hire actors.
    • It's even more noticeable with the Dothraki horde of a dozen... um "40,000" Dothraki, to the point that one has to assume the most important members of it ride some considerable distance away from the rest.
    • George Martin even lampshades in his blog, since he is writing the script for the episode depicting the Battle of Blackwater. He complains about the author making the battle too large a scale than the budget available.
    • Oddly inverted with the Unsullied army in full ranks: there are supposed to be 8000 of them but there are least 3 times that in some shots.
  • One episode of Xena: Warrior Princess features the Roman invasion of Britain (well a bit of New Zealand that slightly resembles Britain) by an army that struggles to make it into double figures.
  • The 4077 in M*A*S*H, A real MASH unit had, on average, around 200 personnel, including at least 10 medical officers (including a dentist and an anesthesiologist), 12 nurses, 89 enlisted soldiers of assorted medical and non-medical specialties, one Medical Service Corps (MSC) officer, one Warrant Officer and other commissioned officers of assorted specialties. The 4077 had, at most, 70 personnel, an administrative staff consisting of just the CO and his clerk (who doubles as a stretcher-bearer and orderly), four doctors including the CO (it was five in season one, but Spearchucker Jones was written out without explanation, or a replacement), a dentist (Painless Pole) who was Put on a Bus in the season one finale, and an anesthesiologist (Ugly John) who also disappears without explanation or replacement). After Ugly John's disappearance, regular nurses not trained for it administer the anesthetic, something that isn't even done today. note 
    • As well as that, one episode revealed that the three non-CO doctors, the head nurse and the chaplain also pull double duty commanding vital support functions like sanitation and the mess tent
  • Deadliest Warrior: Whenever the match-up is between specific strategists known for leading armies of thousands or hundreds of thousands, they give them a half dozen men each and match them up with their personal weapons. Both squads are invariably wiped out leaving it a personal 1-on-1 fight. They may also off-handedly mention early on the real size of a certain force or army only to still end up with 6 guys on screen facing off against 6 other guys, even though in Real Life one side might have an enormous numerical advantage (e.g. in the match-up of the French Musketeers vs. Ming Warriors, the Musketeers prevail in a 6v6 fight despite the previously-mentioned numerical disparity of a few hundred vs. a million).
  • The Finnish 19th century period piece Hovimäki has a scene where Major Lindhof inspects his troops. There are a total of four shown onscreen.

Tabletop Games
  • BattleTech is somewhat (in)famous for the size of the forces that are regularly deployed to invade, seize, and pacify entire planets in the fiction. Attempts at justification tend to present the vast majority of said planets as Planetvilles; once the attackers have taken the capital and attached spaceport, it's relatively rare for them to also have to worry about being attacked by forces initially stationed somewhere else on the same world (there usually aren't any) and civilian uprisings either don't occur at all or else inevitably fail when attempted.
  • The background writers of Warhammer 40K are notorious for underestimating the number of soldiers it would take to win a war. Examples include:
    • The Salonika Crusade, which consists of half a million men. A crusade is only invoked when multiple star systems need to be invaded.
    • The 23rd Bruttiam Regiment consists of 600 men (with almost no vehicles), and is expected to protect an entire star system of at least two planets.
    • Space Marine chapters have only around 1000 marines each, but they are still sometimes depicted as conquering entire planets by themselves.

Theatre

Video Games
  • Despite being one of the most realistic representations of battlefield tactics in the gaming industry, Total War does this, at least in the earlier games. A units standard size in Rome is between 40 and 60 men, and even at the huge unit size of 240 men, armies can't exceed 4,800 men. The actual Roman army, meanwhile, could deploy many tens of thousands of soldiers in single battles. Naturally this is due to graphical limitations, a 10,000-man army would break all but the most advanced computers. Every faction bringing that many or more to the field would make the game impossible to run.
    • It's possible to bring that many units onto the field, but you won't be able to command them all. It just requires shoe-horning several 4,800-strong groups into the same corner. It also winds up being a very short battle.
    • Rome used 80-man units ("centuries") in real life, and 4,800 men is the low-end size of a Roman legion. Of course, most major battles in Roman history involved several; for instance, Julius Caesar commanded twelve legions at the battle of Alesia (which was an under-powered force for the task). At its height the army contained around fifty legions, plus at least as many auxiliaries and cavalry units, but obviously never all deployed at once.
    • The Total War Shogun 2 engine can handle up to 56,000 units on screen at any one time, while looking jaw-droppingly beautiful at the same time.
  • The Advance Wars series is very guilty of this. No more than 50 units under your control ever; note, however, that every unit in the Advance Wars games, except for Megatanks/Wartanks, is a literal unit composed of no fewer than 10 of whatever you're specifically talking about (though even their battle sprites usually only show 5 soldiers/vehicles).
  • Fire Emblem takes this Up to Eleven. The Arbitrary Headcount Limit is, on a huge map, around 20 people. Averted in 7, where outside of the prologue and one battle, both against a single province in a confederation (that even with all members united, is one of the weakest countries in the world militarily), you never control or fight an “army,” just a band of soldiers on an expedition while clashing with a cult and and an assassin league. Justified in 9 & 10 (the player is said to be controlling a vanguard when the plot has the player's units allied with an army.) 4, while not having a headcap, is the most egregious because of its map size, with single units taking entire regions.
  • Age of Wonders has a maximum of nine units per hex, and each unit on the battle screen is merely 1 person. This leads to battles over large cities being fought between armies of around 20-30 people.
    • The third game cut it down to six units, though at the same time it changed most regular units to squads of 10 or more people, resulting in somewhat more realistic fights.
  • In the original StarCraft, Terran campaign mission 9, Tassadar's entire Protoss fleet apparently consists of a couple of bases with dozens of zealots and dragoons. Adressing the huge numbers of units you can control in StarCraft, Warcraft III introduced a maximum number of units you can build that is very low compared to other similar games at the time. You can only supply a maximum of 90 food units (100 in the expansion) for your army, and the most basic combat unit takes up 2 food units and every worker 1. More advanced units can even take up as much as 5 or 7 food units. Combined with the fact that larger armies reduce the amount of gold coming from your mines, this encourages a much faster style of playing the game instead of holing up in your base until you have a massive army. At the same time, the purge of Stratholm and the siege of Dalaran are done by only 20-something attackers. This is at least partially intentional, as the developers wanted players to focus more on micromanaging individual fighters than on guiding large forces. Earlier builds of the game, which were much more RPG than the final game was, had even smaller forces.
  • Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Other than yourself, every battle you participate in is fought with just 16 troops a side! Somehow, this is still enough to make the battles feel dangerous and full of hundreds of soldiers. Might have something to do with AIs respawning and you dying every 10 seconds. Averted somewhat in XL mode, at least in comparison to the other game modes. There are more units in XL- 64 units a side.
  • Castles II: Siege & Conquest did this at the presentation level, as “zooming” in or out would use the exact same scenery and troop graphics, but portray clustered soldiers and large background features as single troops and more compact landscape.
  • Defense Of The Ancients with its three lanes of five melee mooks and one ranged mook each, which could increase to two ranged mooks and one siege unit.
  • In Patapon 1 and 2, the eye count of a patapon army is below 20. In Patapon 3, the army is reduced to 4 warriors and a flag carrier.
  • This is averted somewhat in Civilization V, in which each infantry unit consists of several individuals. However, the one-unit-per-hex limitation still results in large battles featuring a few dozen soldiers at most.
  • In Makai Kingdom, Zetta's plan to rebuild his powerbase requires him to conquer several entire Netherworlds, using his army of mooks since he can't fight on his own. You can only have eight characters in play on any given map, and you're unlikely to have more than a few dozen in total. Yes, they may be four-digit levels and extremely powerful with proper work (fifth-tier infantry are titled "One man army" and "One woman army" respectively) but eight people make for a very restrained army.
  • Shattered Union has players reunite USA with max of 42 units. They are, however, explicitly battalions and divisions of units represented by a single one on the screen. 42 battalions to a combat front isn't that bad, especially since you'd likely be working with relatively low budgets.
  • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the PC can recruit soldiers to hold of an invading daedric horde that is about to burrow through from Oblivion and destroy a city. If you do all the necessary sidequests, you wind up with about a dozen mediocre soldiers to fight an equivalent number of monsters.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, Ramza's crew is described occasionally as an army. There's at most 20-ish people in it, and only five of them are ever fighting at a given time. The developers at least explain this away by having the big war and its battles take place away from Ramza's adventures. Being the direct predecessor, Tactics Ogre commits the same sin, though at least allows for twice as many units to be deployed. Still it presents its tiny skirmishes of two dozen soldiers as being key dramatic battles in a massive war.
  • Ogre Battle has a limit of 100 individuals in the entire revolutionary army (which is trying to capitulate a continet-wide empire), and no more than ten units of five troops on the field at any given time. Major battles deciding the fates of entire provinces take place between two five-soldier units, and end when the enemy leader dies.
  • Ace Of Spades also suffers from this quite badly on some of the larger maps, including the default semi-randomly generated one that's supplied with the game. A 64-player server limit is said to be in the works, however.
  • Brothers in Arms: Re-enacts Cole's charge from the D-Day campaign with 1 Colonel, 1 Sergeant and 6 Paratroopers. In real life the position they had to attack was assaulted with 200 men.
  • ARMA Armed Assault 2 averts this trope to an extent, allowing you to simulate battalion-sized meeting engagements between Cold War-era armies… if your PC can handle this without melting your motherboard. The end results, however are well worth it.
  • Justified in Valkyria Chronicles, where the largest number of people the player can command at any given moment is two tanks and eight infantry. You are in charge of a Squad not an Army and what you really accomplish is putting holes in the enemy forces than fighting armies off. Further justified in that the battle zone is a small country being invaded by one of two large forces at war over resources and leverage.
  • The old DOS strategy game Sun Tzu's War Academy, this is played with. The game limits the number of icons which represent groups of units on the screen at any given time. You can pick how many troops you have in each sprite. You could use this limitation to your advantage by creating a bunch of very weak units thus forcing the AI into using less groups of troops - which could be to your advantage, depending on the level.
  • Radiant Historia even during the biggest battles you'll never see more then a dozen or so soldiers. Even more egregious, at one point you're told that 2,000 enemy troops are bearing down on your base. When you reach the field of battle, you might see 25.
  • In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the cap on the number of soldiers you can have is 99, which is about two to four platoons. The amount of soldiers you send on missions is 6, at most. Yet the organisation is tasked with stopping an entire global invasion. Justified in that X-COM is not really for fighting the war, but winning it; the whole point of the organisation is learning and developing ways to fight the aliens, securing key objectives, and subverting the alien's offensives and plans, leaving the real heavy lifting to the traditional military forces. The original X-COM was actually a bit more realistic in this regard. You started out with the ability to send up to fourteen soldiers on a mission, and researching a late-game ship design boosted this to 26.
  • In Fable III when the player is tasked with overthrowing their brother, the King of Albion, the entire military of Albion never send more than ten mooks at a time to defend their own capital city.
  • The Battle for Middle-Earth has about ten soldiers per unit, and you can field maybe twenty individual units, for a total army size of a few hundred guys. The sequel majorly ups the number of soldiers in each infantry unit, but not to the point where even a battle in which both players have hit the Arbitrary Headcount Limit and fielded nothing but infantry will have more than maybe a few thousand troops between them.
  • Like its source material, the MechWarrior series depicts suspiciously small armies of BattleMechs conquering entire planets. In Mechwarrior 3, you are tasked with overthrowing planetary defenders (of which less than a dozen are ever on screen at once) with just three lancemates and a Mobile Field Base. Averted in Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries; while you are limited to 8 battlemechs at once, you are a Private Military Contractor and are generally tasked to just ruin someone's day by blowing up their stuff, no planetary conquering here.

Real Life
  • Fidel Castro almost always had only 200-300 in his revolutionary band, and in most battles against Batista's army, which numbered 37,000 strong with tanks and aircraft, he won almost every battle. Note that unlike many tropes like this, this was not mainly an example of a Badass Army but instead a remarkable example of two forces with almost no appreciation for sound military tactics or strategy blundering all over each other, which Castro won against amazing odds by being slightly smarter and vastly more able to inspire loyalty and dedication.
  • Plutarch claims that, when Tigranes the Great, the king of Armenia, saw the invasion force led by Roman General Lucullus, said "too many to be an embassy, too few to be an army." However, the Romans crushed Tigranes' armies and conquered his kingdom. The veracity of the quote, it should be noted, is doubted but the its existence does make the trope Older Than Feudalism
  • Justified with the Sapri Expedition, an attempt to topple the Kingdom of Two Sicilies during the Wars of Italian Independence made by an 'army' of twenty-five against one of a hundred thousands: they weren't trying to conquer the place, just to start an insurrection near the capital of Naples that would then do most of the job. This ended in an Epic Fail: seeing the pro-Italian unification patriots coming to trying and starting an insurrection, the government warned the people of the coming bandits who had just staged a mass break-out from the jail of Ponza (true: the patriots, aiming to increase their numbers and recover some weapons, attacked Ponza, stole the weapons and tried to free only the political prisoners, but ended up taking with them also the many common criminals imprisoned there), and sit there watching the Angry Mob that killed many of the patriots and criminals and captured and delivered to the police the survivors.
    • Justified also with the next attempt, as again the idea was to start an insurrection. This time, however, the patriots were smarter: there were a thousand of them (still not many against the Sicilian army, but better), everyone had a gun, they stayed clear of jails, they landed in Sicily proper (as opposed to Naples, that, while the capital, was on continental Italy) where the government wasn't popular at the best of time and in a moment in which the population was even more rebellious than usual, and were led by goddamn' Giuseppe Garibaldi, the most popular Italian of his time and the one man who could have actually start the insurrection in Naples itself by simply showing up and saying "Let's revolt". Garibaldi's small army quickly swelled up thanks to locals and defectors from the Sicilian Army joining him, and the attempt succeeded.