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In ancient warfare, or indeed modern warfare before the advent of accurate rifles, armies generally kept in some kind of formation during pitched battles. There were exceptions where all-out charges were culturally favored over ordered shield walls, such as the Gauls of Roman times (and even then, there is evidence that they still had at least some basic sense of organization for battle purposes), but otherwise most armies of the Iron Age, like Greeks, Romans, Persians, Phoenicians, Celtiberians, Indians, Chinese, generally any spearmen on any battlefield, and any modern European army, all stayed as a block of troops and worked together in a distinct formation.

There are good reasons for this. For organized armies like Greek phalanx or Roman legionaries, the equipment works best (if at all) if used in specific formation. Even in less-organized armies, most people carried some kind of shield and would probably have stuck to their ranks launching projectiles and bashing against enemy shields at close range. Running headlong into battle with no care about who is next to you is thought to have been rare because the odds of receiving a fatal injury doing so are high. There is no trauma care and there are no antibiotics.

That's Real Life. Fiction is different. This trope describes situations where you see armies fighting out of formation which should be in a distinct formation.

That said, some things you'd expect to be unrealistic, like having soldiers wielding different weapons from each other in the same group of soldiers, aren't necessarily wrong; towards the end of Medieval warfare, knights generally fought with the support of several warriors of lower status armed with weapons, and fought in smaller units. And as soldiers were often required to arm themselves, those of lower status would often have to bring whatever they could to hit the enemy with. The warfare during The Wars of the Roses is an example. Generally though, warriors of different social standings fought separately from their colleagues.

Even cavalry, who you wouldn't think of as having a formation, can fall victim to this. For example, Alexander's cavalry would have often charged home in the wedge formation.

A big exception is once battle is joined. The most disciplined forces, like Roman and Greek soldiers, would try to maintain formation under all circumstances, and pike and spear walls would likewise attempt to maintain the integrity of their formation. But war is war, and at some point the formation is going to dissolve or at least weaken. So if there's heavy melee fighting going on, it's acceptable to see soldiers duelling it out as individuals. Expect to see historians face-palming if phalangites are charging in with swords mid-melee, however. Same goes for Roman legionaries willingly coming out of their famous shield wall.

A subtrope of Hollywood Tactics.

There are as many variations of this trope as there are armies. Please do some research before adding examples of this trope.


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    Comic Books 
  • In both the comic and animated versions of Asterix, the Romans use tightly packed, highly disciplined formations — initially (unless the writers decide to have them form a silly shape as a joke). Unfortunately for them, the magic potion gives the Gauls enough power to smash through the formations and then crush the legions in the chaotic melee that follows.
  • Alix Senator: When outnumbered by Spartan rebels, Alix's Roman soldiers are able to use their superior formation and tactics to outmaneuver the attackers before routing them.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Played straight in Braveheart. The Scots fought as disciplined pike formations, it was their lack of armour and cavalry which made them so vulnerable to the longbow. (And what wasn't in those days if not in plate armor?) They would not have charged wildly into battle, but advanced in disciplined rows in order to push back cavalry and infantry with massed ranks. The Scots didn't win the battles where they managed to close for battle with the individually more skilled English knights for no reason. So it inadvertently shows the effects of not fighting in formation. We're supposed to believe the Scots "won" at Stirling because the few dozen guys still standing at the end are Scottish — even though losing as many soldiers as they did would be a catastrophe. This is not yet the era of levée en masse or attrition warfare.
  • The Lord of the Rings:
    • Only somewhat averted in the movie — most battles quickly devolve into total chaos but the most disciplined soldiers on both sides do keep formation at least when taking an enemy charge (most notably elves in the prologue, and the uruk hai taking the reinforcements' charge at Helm's Deep).
    • The battle in which Sauron was originally defeated shows his orcs as a disorganised mob, the idea being that Sauron learnt from his defeat and realized he needed a more disciplined army to win. In The Return of the King the orc army uses formations and is shown acting under the control of officers. Gothmog in particular is good at forming an organized attack, opening with an artillery barrage to soften the defenses, aerial superiority in the Nazgul to neutralize the enemy artillery in short order, bringing up heavy siege equipment to breach the gate and towers to swarm the walls, forming a new line to meet a cavalry charge on his right flank, and calling in Haradrim reinforcements to meet the enemy cavalry while tactically retreating his orcs until Rohan's forces could be defeated. The only reason he lost the battle was an undead ghost army that he couldn't have reasonably seen coming.
    • Massed cavalry charges are a peculiarly Mannish phenomenon — namely Dúnedain and Rohirrim — and massed cavalry charges tend to appear only in the Third Age. The Silmarillion does not mention a single Elvish cavalry unit, not to speak about charges — Elves always tend to fight as infantry. It is appropriate to think that Men are far more formidable as enemies to Orcs as heavy cavalry than Elves — even the Noldor — as infantry. This does not stop the second The Battle for Middle-earth game from having units of Rivendell Uhlans, which serve as the Elves' light cavalry.
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies plays with it. The Dwarves fight in a disciplined shieldwall, and the most elite Orc units are similarly disciplined. However, the human force is an untrained militia and acts like it, and the mass of the Orc army is a disorganized mob. The Wood Elves are a weird mix in that they keep a parade ground formation until actual battle, at which point they fight as individuals and actually disrupt their allies' lines by doing so. Though this may have been intentional, with Elves Versus Dwarves being in full force in this series. In the extended edition, a brief scene where battle is joined between the Elves and Dwarves prior to Azog showing up is depicted. In that fight, the Elves use a shieldwall as a sort of ramp that the Dwarves ride over, disguising their second rank which is set up specifically to allow cavalry through and surround them.
  • In 300, the Spartans alternate between fighting in formation and fighting out of formation; notably, while fighting the first Persian waves they fight in a tight phalanx formation, and break once they've killed the majority of the Persian troops to charge into them. Later when the Persian cavalry arrives, the Spartans adopt a tight arrow-shaped formation. The Spartans have some trouble fighting the Immortals later on until they manage to form up into a phalanx when the Arcadians distract the Immortals, and they also use a shieldwall when fighting the Persian elephants. The only times the Spartans are shown taking losses are when they fight outside of formation, such as initially against the Immortals, when the grenadiers attack, and when a few Spartans range out ahead of the rest of the formation and get hit by cavalry. And, of course, its possible that they never actually broke ranks at all, and it was just a tactic by the Unreliable Narrator to make the deaths look more heroic.
  • Averted in Troy, in the Battle by the gates the Greeks charge at the Trojans in a mass and we see a frantic Odysseus shouting at the men to get into lines, to no avail and we see them forced back with ease by the Trojans, who stand with shields linked in clear formations. This is likely down to command breakdown, with the forces of multiple kingdoms dragged to Troy by Menelaus with no central control.
  • Gladiator:
    • In the opening battle scene against the Germanic barbarians, the Roman legions advance in a decent formation -if a bit crooked due to rough terrain- until the German horde smashes into them. When that happens they immediately break up into a swirling melee. Although they win the battle, the scene does (perhaps unintentionally) illustrate the reason formations were so necessary to the Romans in the first place- in the morass of single combats that followed, the huge Germanic chieftain is almost unstoppable until he's brought down by sheer weight of numbers, demonstrative of the manner in which the powerful but undisciplined barbarians made war. There is a reason why the Romans had a (paraphrased) saying: "The Gauls will break in five minutes against a Legion shieldwall, but that wall needs to hold against the Gauls for five minutes."
    • Inverted later on in the movie, when a bunch of gladiators form a defensive circle to avoid being slaughtered by chariots. The inversion is Justified though, because the fight was set up to invoke this trope, but Maximus with the help of other gladiators who were former soldiers and therefore had Legion training is able to turn things around.
  • In Robin Hood (2010), you see a line of defenders form a spear wall behind their gate. when the enemy horses drive through...they're gone. in other battles, you see French soldiers make a few thin lines, but they dissolve before the enemy is within striking distance at no provocation. So, there were formations, but they never got used.
  • In Warcraft (2016), most of attacks humans suffer are surprise ones, so most of the time, there are no formations to speak of. Subverted when Callan manages to organize his men into a small testudo (Roman tortoise), which proves highly effective against larger and stronger orcs.

  • Discussed in The Stormlight Archive.
    • In the battle scene early on, which is a border skirmish between one of the Alethi highprinces and a rival highprince from a neighboring kingdom, both sides' troops are largely undisciplined spearmen, and when the battle is joined it becomes a chaotic melee where the battle mostly consists of small groups of soldiers are fighting at random. The only spear unit that fights effectively is Kaladin's platoon, who maintain a tight, wedge-shaped formation that easily drives back anyone attacking them.
    • Later on, during the battles on the Shattered Plains, formations of professional soldiers are shown in direct contrast to the undisciplined border skirmishes. Alethi soldiers fight in close, cooperative formation to defeat the Parshendi, who are a force of extremely mobile heavy infantry able to leap across the chasms and are much stronger and tougher than human soldiers. Only by maintaining their disciplined formations are the Alethi able to match them, and late in the book, when an Alethi force has to desperately charge into and push through a massed Parshendi force to reach the only safe bridge off a plateau, they suffer tremendous losses due to the breakdown of their formations.
    • The Parshendi themselves are noted as not using formations and instead fighting in large groups divided into "warpairs" of two Parshendi fighting together. They're able to make this work through their aforementioned speed and strength, coupled with the fact that the Parshendi are inhumanly well-coordinated due to how they communicate purpose, intent, and emotion through a series of universal "songs." And then in Words of Radiance, the Parshendi do start using formations when they begin manifesting their "stormform" bodies and become Voidbringers, and use them to channel lightning and begin creating Everstorms.
  • Mostly averted in The Warlord Chronicles, a realistic telling of Arthurian Legend from the point of view of a warrior who starts off as an ordinary spearman and later becomes one of Arthur's lieutenants. Fighting in a shield wall and the need to keep it tight are discussed at length, as are the consequences when formation isn't kept or a group of soldiers get cut off from the shield wall. However there are a few occasions where a maddened charge that completely breaks formation destroys the opponent's shield wall, and there are groups like the Blackshields, (a group of Irish berserkers and raiders) whose strategy consists entirely of charging at opponents while screaming at the top of their lungs and slaughtering anyone who stands in their way. As the Blackshields are ancient Celts, that's simply Truth in Television. It's also worth noting that in the first book the narrator admits afterward that he spiced up the story because the Queen that he's telling it to expects Rule of Drama to be in effect, and that there's no way that particular battle would have happened as he originally told it.
  • Discussed in the Belisarius Series. In several instances the enemy cannot keep a formation(because they are ill-trained, and in both Constantinople and Alexandria they are rioting thugs under enemy pay). However the Romans, being Romans definitely keep formation.
  • Discussed in the Codex Alera series. Tavi, who is a skilled and experienced swordsman, is baffled at the brutal and simplistic fighting style that the Aleran Legions use while training to go under cover as a Legion officer. Maximus, who is training him, explains that Tavi was taught as a spy and agent of the crown, and learned how to fight as a single combatant or with a small group in close quarters or street fighting, and how formation fighting as part of a large unit is a completely different monster. Maximus has to teach him how to use a shield and sword as part of a battle line, where he must always use his shield to support his fellow soldiers, and how the ugly and basic stabs and cuts with a short sword are best employed in a battle line. Throughout the series, this training proves true: Aleran soldiers fighting in shield walls prove to be immensely tough and difficult to break, even against enemies like the Canim (massive, super-strong wolfmen) or the Vord (a Horde of Alien Locusts).
  • Deconstructed in The Faith And The Fallen. Initially wars are fought exactly like in the movies: two groups of swordsmen rush at each other and then soldiers fight one-on-one until one side is all killed or gives up, and martial philosophy is focussed exclusively on individual prowess rather than tactics or discipline. The Big Bad invents the shield wall and this simple innovation allows him to damn near Take Over the World, with his small, disciplined army fighting off nominally much more powerful forces. The Hero has to adopt the formation himself to win the Final Battle, along with a few other novel ideas of his own like archers.
  • Parodied in Jingo where Sergeant Colon reminisces about how during his time in the army his commander would have them form up into literally arrow shaped formations whenever they advanced, because that's how his military books and diagrams represented units advancing. He then explains that it didn't actually matter because neither side actually held formation once the battle was joined.
  • One of the many issues newly-defrosted Human Popsicle John Geary has with The Lost Fleet's "tactics". Once he brings them round to the Good Old Ways, they swiftly become a force to be reckoned with. Of course, as soon as he brings the fleet back to The Alliance, he is called a liar for claiming that he fought and won all those battles, as his relatively light losses "prove" that he hasn't fought a "true battle". Averted with the Bear-Cows, whose historical films show ranks of disciplined pikemen defeating hordes of enemies rather than singular heroes doing the same. This is because of their herd mentality, where individual lives don't matter.
  • Discussed and deconstructed a couple of times in Ranger's Apprentice. Erak and Halt both note that the reason the Temujai are almost guaranteed to crush the Skandians is that they are extremely coordinated, whereas the Skandians fight only as individuals—indeed, the only reason they end up winning is by catching the Temujai by surprise with unexpected unity and utilizing some trained archers. Later on in the series it's shown that a large and disciplined army, even if the soldiers themselves are individually poor warriors, is far superior than one made up of a few highly-trained swordsmen in both morale and effectiveness.
  • Played with in Temeraire. Dragon formations are an integral part of aerial warfare, particularly in protecting tactically vital fire-breathers or acid-spitters. The Prussians in particular are legendary for their highly disciplined aerial formations. However, the Prussians are defeated when Napoleon abandons formation fighting, disrupting the heavyweight Prussian dragons with a Zerg Rush of lighter and faster dragons and allowing his forces to isolate, board, and capture them all within minutes.
  • Subverted in Wulfrik, where the Norscans do use formations during a siege despite being one of the more iconic "rush in and kill everything that moves" factions, chiefly a Shieldwall while advancing under a hail of gunfire and arrows. Of course, realism doesn't really stand up when you have sorcerers able to melt soldiers from beyond arrow distance, living flamethrowers, and a chief able to taunt the enemy cavalry into attacking him alone and unsupported.
  • Bazil Broketail: This trope is both played straight and averted in the series — interestingly, usually with a Surprisingly Realistic Outcome. One of the main reasons why Argonath legions are such a Badass Army is that they are well trained and disciplined, usually making good use of formations in battle. On the other hand, when members of the opposing force attack in a disorderly mass, it almost always leads to them getting curb-stomped.
  • Ender's Game takes the position that formations are obsolete and useless, their main advantage being that keeping everyone in one group makes it easier for the commander to keep track of their people and give orders while making them big fat targets. Ender's brilliance is supposedly shown by his rejecting the paradigm of four formations in favor of reorganizing his company into ten bands of skirmishers. But then, the Battle School treats combat exercises like a sporting league rather than as a way to teach what works in battle, what doesn't, and why, so misunderstandings about the purpose of formations is hardly the worst error it makes about military life.
  • Zig-zagged in The Machineries of Empire, in which massed formations remain key to warfare even though fighting is done with guns and spaceships... because the Geometric Magic of the setting means that arranging your troops/ships in various patterns allows them to deploy esoteric weapons or defenses, rather than any of the conventional types or benefits of formations.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Much is made of the Unsullied's discipline and ability to maintain formation no matter what, and how this has lead them to achieve victory over much more powerful forces.
    • The Battle of the Bastards pits Jon Snow's army of mostly Wildlings against Ramsay Bolton's professional infantry. The Wildlings do a cinematic full-frontal charge and smash into the Bolton shieldwall. The Bolton formation bends, then rallies, encircles and starts to systematically massacre them: stab, step forwards, stab, step forwards, etc. Jon was pretty much doomed until the Knights of the Vale rode in and attacked the Boltons from behind.
    • When the Dothraki attack the rearguard of the Lannister forces, Jaime hurriedly tries to form them into a shieldwall, but the Dothraki are too fast and smash into them while they are still forming up. This sends the infantrymen scattering, allowing the Dothraki to ride them down.
  • Rome:
    • Averted. Caesar's legions are shown forming a testudo (turtle, wall of shields) and rotating their troops in a disciplined way (the rotation keeps the soldier at the front of the line fresh and it provides more incentive for the foremost soldier to fight well, as he knows that if he can hold out for thirty seconds, he will be relieved and sent to safety at the back of the formation). Legionnaire Titus Pullo leaves the formation and is punished for that.
    • Played with later at the battle of Philippi. Both sides start in organized formations but the battle later degenerates into a massive confused brawl. We can later see that Octavian and Anthony's forces have the clear upper hand when significant numbers have reformed into tight formation to advance toward the command position of Brutus and Cassius.
  • A weird example with Spartacus: War of the Damned. On the one hand, both the Gladiators and the Romans typically fight their battles against each other in 300-esque one on one duels, with the Romans naturally getting slaughtered. One the other hand, every time the Romans DO fight in a tight formation (like in the finale) they utterly curbstomp the gladiators. So possibly deconstructed?
  • Vikings often features armies fighting in formation, but sometimes not:
    • In the first season, a relatively small Viking raiding party is attacked by numerically superior Saxon force. The Vikings draw up into a shield wall while the Saxons charge en masse and get slaughtered. The Saxon commanders' comments imply they've never encountered a shield wall before.
    • In the massive battles of the fifth season, no army fights in formation. The battlefields are large melees where everyone is surrounded by enemies. Furthermore, no one is wearing uniforms, so it's anyone's guess as to how they distinguish friend from foe.
  • Combat in The Last Kingdom that isn't a duel between individual fighters invariably has at least one side, and usually both, forming a shieldwall.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons' 3rd Edition and greater provide rules that can grant bonuses for fighting in formation. Reach weapons and tower shields allow groups to combine the high armor class of the front ranks with attacks from the back ranks. Numerous feats and abilities also grant bonuses for fighting beside comrades. However, fighting in tight clusters also makes you vulnerable to area-of-effect spells - the old Heroes of Battle supplement points out that due to the ubiquity of such spells, smart warfare in a magical setting is going to more closely resemble modern tactics utilizing cover, loose formations, camouflage, etc.
  • Kings of War averts this trope and forces units to rank up, much like classic Warhammer, and stay in formation.
  • Warhammer:
    • Gigantically averted in Warhammer Fantasy as a whole. The majority of units fight in formation, hence why the models come with square bases, so they can more easily fit together. This gives units a bonus when resolving a round of close combat, based on just how many rows of lads are backing up the guys in the front rank. Generals thus have to decide whether it's more important to have a wide, shallow formation that can do a lot of fighting at once but is more likely to break against opposition, or a denser block that can't engage as many foes at once but can last longer in a protracted fight. This also makes maneuvering a big part of the game, since one formation of troops can't just casually march through another, even if they're friendlies.
    • Units with the Skirmisher rule, typically ranged units or raiders, fight in looser formations, more akin to how Warhammer 40,000 units have to keep their models within a few inches of each other. While this means Skirmishers don't get the rank bonuses to close combat, they can move about much more easily compared to units in a proper formation, which have to sacrifice inches of movement to wheel around, or spend a Movement Phase turning to face a new direction.
    • The Empire also has special rules reflecting their mastery of a variation of the tercio formation that characterized continental European warfare throughout the 16th century. The Detachment rules mean that a main unit of Empire soldiers, typically spearmen or halberdiers, can be supported by smaller units ranging from musketmen to archers to swordsmen. If a ranged supporting unit is charged by the enemy, the shooters can flee and lead the foe into the waiting weapons of their "parent" unit, or if the parent unit is charged, ranged units can hit the enemy with missile fire at point-blank range. Supporting close combat units, meanwhile, can either counter-charge or launch a supporting charge, attacking the flanks of whatever enemy their parent unit is fighting.
    • Warhammer: Age of Sigmar doesn't bother with formations, and is intended as a more casual "skirmish-level" game rather than a tactical wargame.
  • The Vampire: The Requiem sourcebook Requiem For Rome contains the Merit "Fighting Style: Formation Tactics", indicating that the character has trained in the tactics of the Roman army. Each level of the Merit grants an additional maneuver, each of which gains bonus die for each other soldier fighting in the formation (to a maximum of +5 - for comparison, the average human's dice pool for most actions is four). A group of legionnaires with proper training are devastating.

    Video Games 
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, this is a major case of Gameplay and Story Segregation. In-game, no attention is paid at all to formation. NPCs will run straight at the nearest enemy with no real regard for tactics. However, tactics and formations are frequently mentioned in-universe. For example, these are one of the greatest strengths of the Imperial Legion. While individually, Imperial soldiers are not on the level of the warriors of other races like the Nords and Redguards, their use of formations like the shield wall and a focus on collective martial prowess have allowed them to forge three empires which have spanned most or all of Tamriel at different points in history.
    • Somewhat justified, in that confrontations the player finds themselves in are, at most, them and an AI buddy versus a few enemies. And that the existence of a wide variety of magic would likely force armies to rely on less rigid and basic formations, much like modern firearms did in Real Life. Though none of this explains why those low man skirmishes consistent entirely of the two sides flailing at each other with no regard for cover or flanking or the like.
  • Thoroughly averted in Total War, which demonstrates why this is a bad idea. You see you get several units who stay true to this trope... and they tend to get massacred horribly in melee. Equally going into scatter formation and then charging is a good way of getting your soldiers killed off. Generally, units that were in formation are and units that shouldn't be in formation aren't.
    • However, urban combat turns your nice, neat formations into a chaotic mess, especially if you're ordering more than one unit down a street at the same time. In that case, your soldiers turn into a tightly-packed mass of swords, spears, and other pointy and/or bladey instruments of death. This can be both good and bad; bad because your troops are mixed and you've got archers with daggers fighting alongside heavily-armored knights, and good because you can pack more pointy and bladey into an area and meatgrind enemy troops under a morass of troops. Just hope the enemy doesn't have catapults or cannons.
    • Formation can become critical depending on the situation; many units are able to adopt special formations as needed. Most well-trained spear units, for example, can form up into a sciltrom, which is essentially a spearwall circle, which is utterly devastating against cavalry and will let the infantry hold out better against enemy infantry, at the penalty of very slow movement, very small coverage, and low offensive ability. Pike units can form spearwalls, which cannot charge but when are set up can obliterate charging cavalry and hold off assaulting infantry, and press shorter-ranged enemy infantry back. Certain heavy infantry units can form shieldwalls, which can charge and break through enemy infantry formations. Many heavy cavalry can form into wedge formations, letting them charge straight through enemy infantry or cavalry groups and split them apart. Line infantry can fix bayonets and form square to guard against cavalry.
    • Even units that can keep their own formation may invoke this trope on the rest of the army. All you need to know is the unit attribute is called "May charge without orders".
    • This trope was a major bug at release for Total War: Rome II, all units instantly broke formation as soon as battle was joined.
    • The trope is played both ways in An Egyptian In Scotland, the prequel to the famous narrative Let's Play A Scotsman in Egypt. An exiled Egyptian prince and his soldiers who've washed up in Caledonia bring their Greek phalanx tactics to bear against the locals, who have rather less military discipline, and discover to their cost that a large band of lightly-armoured skirmishers have an advantage in speed and flexibility over a tight formation of hoplites; the Caledonians pay dearly for the victory, but they can absorb those losses far more easily than The Remnant can withstand their own. They learn from the setback and adjust their tactics to compensate, inventing the hinged phalanx in the process.
    • The Warhammer games feature the formations still, which interacts oddly with the superhuman abilities. Individual heroes and even dragons are at a disadvantage vs formations, but because Friendly Fireproof is not in effect, non-large single units do a good job holding melee groups in place while archers and artillery fire. Being only one out of many makes it far less likely they will be hit, and even if they get clipped it will still be far less than what the enemy would do without the damage.
  • Played with in Dragon Age: Origins during the battles at Ostagar and later Denerim. In the Ostagar battle, the Ferelden troops charge the darkspawn (who have no formation at all beyond being a simple wave) in a rough line and meet them outside the fortress walls. Also, Loghain's troops are shown to be gathered in a sensible, if very thick and deep, formation. The battle devolves into an uncontrolled melee as it progresses, but this is partially because Loghain betrays the king and retreats, leaving the king's army to be slaughtered. Later, in Denerim, when Arl Eamon's troops charge the darkspawn, the initial charge is shown as a block of soldiers advancing in a tight formation when they hit the darkspawn lines. Weapons are also notably very mixed in the Ferelden army, with sword-and-shield and two-handed weapons troops mixed together, though it is implied this is because Ferelden's army isn't the most cohesive (and possibly quickly conscripted). We do see single-weapon formations a few times in the game, most notably Loghain's army and the Cousland troops in the Human Noble origin.
    • The mix of weapons is actually justified in-universe - soldiers had to supply their own weapons or buy one from the quartermaster. Either way, many would have different types of equipment.
  • Averted in Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark with the Elistraeeite drow, who fight in small similarly-equipped units and stick to regimented formations before the Duregar Zerg Rush turns the battle into a chaotic melee.
  • Averted in Overlord II with the Glorious Empire. The player character is a roughly nine-foot-tall monster of a man in diabolic armor that wields equally huge and evil weapons, throws magic around with his free hand, and commands an army of psychotic gibbering minions. Needless to say, when catching small groups and individuals, the results are usually (and hilariously) one sided. Then the soldiers get into formations: shield-bearers are nigh invulnerable and cannot be individually targeted, and archers fire in uniform volleys that will devastate your horde. That is, until you make them break formation by killing their commander, siccing the wolf-riders on them, or lob a few catapult boulders/bombs their way...
  • Averted and played straight on Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, where many enemy armies come in formation and try to stay on it (as much as the game design lets them), but you still see enemies scattered around like in the rest of the series.
    • For the player in every game, defying this trope is key to surviving the harder difficulties with minimal casualties. Fire Emblem is a strategy game, after all.
  • Averted in the second and third Age of Empires games, where several formations with different uses are available. Units will adhere to these formations to the best of their ability, ordered appropriately (strong melee in front, weak ranged in back, etc), until they engage the enemy. Played straight in the first game, before they had the things we take for granted today, like decent pathfinding and good mass-unit controls.
    • A staggered formation was virtually king in the second game however since it allowed you to take less area of effect damage from siege weapons with virtually no real issues (as attacking-moving melee units would have them break formation to go toward the closest target which will stop enemies from slipping by to the best of their ability regardless of how close the formation was before). In the third game, other formations became more useful - a packed line formation could be better for musketeers attacking cavalry in the third game due to being more able to use their hand-to-hand attacks easier when the cavalry close in which are superior against them as opposed to shooting. Still, the light infantry of the game tend to be always pitiful in melee compared to firing from afar, meaning a spread formation remained the only logical thing to use for them to reduce area of effect damage and causing less ranged units to be forced to use melee against a unit next to them from being more spread out — especially since everything was Friendly Fireproof, even firing into a melee.
  • In Guild Wars, everyone seems to fight in small, loosely-formed squads. Since due to area-of-effect magic most players deliberately avoid standing too close together, this may be justified
  • Guild Wars 2 needs formations for the World vs World-fights (a real-time strategy and tower defense mix for a MMORPG). Since most forces are defined by random players, they tend to follow this trope. However there are basic formations where the tougher classes stick close to the team leader and the ranged fighters form a semi circle around and barraging constantly onto the leader's position. This is made possible with an easily spot-able standard hovering above the leader.
  • In Dwarf Fortress, a melee dwarf will charge an enemy as soon as it gets close enough. Situations this leads to: lone charges on enemies large enough to use a dwarf for a football, ignoring sniper-class bowmen in favour of their unthreatening bodyguards, ignoring specific kill orders in favour of the closest opponent, and never ever retreating (or even following a 'move' order) as long as there's something to attack. Ranged dwarves who've run out of ammo consider themselves to be melee dwarves, which tends to end badly if you haven't got the resources to give them proper armour. Really, the best you can do is station the lot of them around a corner somewhere and wait for enemies to walk into the mobile meatgrinder. On the plus side, the enemy AI isn't any smarter and can easily be led into ambushes.
  • Averted in Warhammer: Dark Omen: Regiments move and fight in formation and a tight one defends better against charges while a loose one is better for ranged fire. If a unit routs, it loses its cohesion for a while and it's an easy target.
  • The Battle for Middle-earth had numerous formations to be used in the game, depending on the unit. Some were only capable of an effect-less loose formation, but numerous real formations such as wedges and shield walls could be used on other units.
    • The Battle for Middle-Earth II did a fifty/fifty with the ability to make units go into aggressive, battle and defensive stances - doing the effects of increasing damage and reducing armor and making the unit's behavior aggressively pursue enemies, neutral and making unit's behavior chase for a short time, decreasing damage and increasing armor and making the unit's behavior only responding to being attacked. While the stances loosely mimicked different formations' effects for units, stances didn't actually change units' formation. Shield wall and porcupine formations did make an appearance as the other only possible optional formations for a few units to take - two for the former, one for the latter.
  • Multiplayer in Mount & Blade zigzags the trope, since every soldier in the field is generally a human player. If the players manage to create formations and organize their combat, they vastly improve their chances of success. Enemy cavalry is going to pick an unorganised pack of warriors apart, but a formation with spears at the ready, watching each others' backs, is much more fearsome.
    • The single-player tends to avert this trope, insofar as an organized army will be much more effective than a disorganized one; being able to throw up a shield wall quickly is the mark of a skilled commander. The Rhodoks, with their huge shields, seem to be specifically intended for Roman-style battle lines.
  • Averted in Pharaoh, where military units have two formations: A shoulder-to-shoulder line that makes them more resistant to melee (but arrows do more damage), or a spread-out formation that takes less damage from arrows but more from melee. The remake removed this in favor of a simpler approach where number of soldiers, equipment and towers in the city are added up to a number, and the bigger number wins.
  • As far as strike-craft in the Homeworld 'verse are concerned, flying in formation is mandatory in order to maximize their Zerg Rush potential. Frigates may or may not be put in a line (or wall) of battle, and capital ships should not, due to their slow turning and acceleration. Multibeam Frigates from Cataclysm stand out specifically because they always break formation and swarm enemy ships to exploit their Multi-Directional Barrage gimmick.
  • Empire Earth has formations, but they're more useful to line up units before the battle begins, and are a nightmare when dealing with large numbers of units, as they stack up into several smaller formations, meaning one formation will end up fighting outnumbered while the others are too far to react to the enemy's presence.
    • The second game adds specific formations for land (phalanx, staggered or double lines, and wedge) and sea units (lines are used for broadsides, crescents to gang up on an enemy), and like the first game, having too many units will cause them to split up and spread out, turning what should have been a steamroll into a piecemeal defeat (centering the attack order on an invulnerable target like a resource or the edge of the map, alleviates the issue somewhat as it causes the units to cluster around it).
      • The expansion gives the Zulu civ an exclusive "Horns of the Impi" formation, essentially the crescent formation on land that also gives its heavy infantry a damage boost while using it.
  • Assassin's Creed: Odyssey: Because of engine limitations, no one uses formations. Even the prologue battle, where you play as Leonidas, is a massive melee without any formations. Greeks in general were famous for their strong formations, and Spartans never broke.
  • Tyranny: The Disfavoured are renown in-universe for their use of phalanx warfare, presenting an unbreakable shield wall that tires out the enemy through sheer grinding attrition. In-game they fight much the same way as all other factions by attacking head-on individually.
  • In Battle Brothers, keeping your mercenaries in a formation is essential to victory, as your men getting surrounded will quickly get them killed. This is especially useful when you have shields, as they allow your frontline fighters to form a shield wall, which boosts defense for both themselves and for adjacent allies who are also forming a shield wall. A disciplined formation is actually the best way to win against far less disciplined and haphazard opponents like barbarians and undead.
  • Imperivm has your units march in formation when attached to a hero but as soon as they meet an enemy in combat they devolve into a mob.

    Real Life 
  • Winning or losing a real-life battle before the 20th century was almost always a matter of breaking the enemy's formation. In ancient battles around 5% of the army on both sides would typically be killed or wounded before a formation broke, while the side who broke and ran first would lose 20-30% of their troops afterwards as the victorious side pursued and cut them down from behind. Cavalry was very useful for this purpose. No matter how barbarous a group was they would always have a formation (even the Vikings), because without a formation you would be cut to pieces.
  • Any people that didn't fight in a formation would learn to do so upon encountering an army who did, one way or the other. They would either copy the enemy's tactics on their own, the better to resist them, or be conquered and added to their foe's army.
  • Getting the enemy to break formation was often an important part of real historic battles. One good example are the pike and shot formations used by European armies around 1600. Blocks of a few hundred to several thousand soldiers strong, about half pikemen and half musketeers, were formidable walking fortresses. When two of these formations came toe to toe with each other they would enter the "push of pike", a giant armed rugby scrum in which the frontlines of one formation would eventually break and fall over, leaving their comrades to scatter in disarray, chased by anything the enemy could field. To give their own forces the best chance in these engagements, commanders would try to destabilize the opposing formations before the push. This involved letting the musketeers in these formations fire at the incoming enemy, but also cavalry charges, attacks by skirmishers (more musketeers) and artillery barrages. The main formations couldn't just give quick chase to these attackers, as that would mean breaking formation and getting slaughtered. So additional cavalry, artillery and skirmisher units were deployed to hinder the opposing ones.
  • One of the strengths of the Roman Army was their uncanny ability to break enemy formations while keeping theirs. The best examples are the use of the pilum (a shield-piercing javelin that bends after impact to prevent the enemy from taking it out of the shield during the battle, Roman soldiers carried two) and their tactic against a phalanx: the pila were thrown seconds before meeting the enemy infantry, suddenly disorganizing their formation due the rain of javelins that pierce shields and either unbalance them or kill the wielder and not giving them time to get back in formation before melee starts, and their tactic against the phalanx was to deploy part of the troops in their own shield wall to pin the phalanx down and have the rest (cavalry if the enemy didn't have it to guard their flanks, infantry if they had) flank the enemy and start chopping until they broke formation.
  • A pretty good example of why formations are so pivotal in battles would be how The Napoleonic Wars were fought. In the 1700-1800's, the bulk of a European (or Europeanized) army was made up of musket-wielding infantrymen, usually organized into "line" infantry regiments of about 1000-1600 men (usually less, due to casualties and disease). The biggest threats to an infantryman on the battlefield came from enemy infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and an infantry regiment had separate formations to deal with each; therefore, infantry were rigorously trained and drilled to quickly switch between them, as taking too long could prove disastrous. Conversely, using them effectively could swing the balance of a battle. The most common formations were:
    • Line: Two-three men deep, dozens or hundreds of men long.
      • Good For: Facing infantry (most guns exposed per square yard), facing artillery (cannonballs can hit a few men at best, and are usually less accurate in general given the difficulty of hitting such a thin target).
      • Bad For: Facing cavalry (horses would plow through infantry in line like a bowling ball through pins, and it would only get messier once the swords come out), moving around quickly (it's cumbersome to swing a line of men around, especially in combat, and the formation could easily come apart).
    • Square: Regiment is in two/three ranks in a hollow square formation facing outwards, men in front kneeling with their bayonet-tipped muskets pointed diagonally up.
      • Good For: Facing cavalry (horses, being sensible creatures, will refuse to charge into a mass of gleaming metal spikes; as nearly all cavalry of the time carried melee weapons, that meant a square was invulnerable to cavalry so long as it held formation).
      • Bad For: Facing infantry (it's a big stationary target that can only have a fourth of its guns facing an enemy), facing artillery (a well-placed cannonball could cause a lot of damage, and a square being large and stationary meant artillery had a much easier time hitting it), moving around at all (it was possible to move in square, but only extremely well-trained infantry could do it, and that slowly).
    • Column: Ten or twenty men across, many more ranks deep in a large rectangular mass.
      • Good For: Moving a lot of infantry around fast (men often find it hard to stop or slow down when there's 20 guys behind him wondering what the holdup is), breaking a wavering enemy (a huge mass of men moving quickly towards them was often the signal for enemy infantry to leg it), facing cavalry (deployed easily into square).
      • Bad For: Facing unbroken infantry in line (the column quickly becomes a deathtrap, as a well-disciplined enemy would pour fire into a column at a far faster rate than the column could return it), facing artillery (a single cannon hit could cause dozens of casualties, especially when in canister range).
  • Large-scale air combat tends to undergo a decay, where units will start out moving and attacking as squadrons, then later as flights, then wing pairs, and finally as single aircraft. Because of their high speed, as aircraft maneuver to avoid threats and seize opportunities they tend to move apart even when it's not desired. In the most extreme example, many pilots in World War 2 commented on the phenomenon of downing or escaping an enemy with whom they had been absorbed and abruptly realizing that where they had started as part of a large formation, there were now no other aircraft in sight; their individual combat had moved far enough away they were alone.
    • During World War II, bombers breaking formation faced almost certain destruction, as bomber formations were designed so that bombers in same formation protected others in the same formation (and whole formations protected other formations). A single bomber out of formation, on the other hand, could be chased down and destroyed. It was a bad idea for fighters to stick too closely to a formation, on the other hand. Early on, Allied fighters suffered because they were trained to fight in tight V formations of three fighters each ("vics" or "vees"), since it was difficult to keep the formation up in high speed maneuvers and pilots were distracted by trying to fight while maintaining formation. The German schwarm or "four finger" formationnote , adaptations of which were adopted by everyone in a few years, offered the advantage of not being so strict - rather than a tight formation of three, pilots flew in a looser formation of 2+2, which allowed the formation to split and reform, and gave each pilot a partner to watch their back.
    • One particularly notable formation, the Beam Defense Formation, also known as the Thach Weave, was explicitly meant for its participants to use it mid-Dogfight. By having the F4F Wildcats using this formation repeatedly "weave" would allow each fighter to cover each other, gunning down any enemy that happened to be behind them, generally the A6M Zero, which, in a one-on-one dogfight, proved the Wildcat's superior, but in a battle of endurance and formation, lacked the resilience of the American plane.
  • Combat in fest-style games which use weapons can vary wildly. In general the more they resemble historical combat, the more likely they are to have stand-up line fights. Because magic and powerful monsters might exist and might be capable of trivially disrupting formations and causing unwanted (and unsafe) crushes, the more high fantasy or futuristic a game becomes, the more likely it is to avert this.
  • The top of the page contains a necessary simplification. Modern weapons are so accurate and fire so quickly that the old standbys like lines and squares simply don't work. However, that doesn't mean that modern soldiers run about willy-nilly. A modern squad or platoon of soldiers has a very complex shape designed such that when maneuvering, the unit's weapons provide it with excellent security in each direction and the unit can reform when it must "react to contact." When approaching an objective, facing obstacles, crossing dangerously open ground, or otherwise encountering anything suspicious, a well-trained unit has a pre-planned response. Since these formations are complex, evolve slowly, and generally would be boring to watch, don't expect them to show up on camera, aside from some close-quarters battle drills like room-clearing.