To capture the bandits, capture their leader.
Usually in warfare, the commander stays back and is protected by his army, making him a rather difficult target. That being said, the army you're up against might be overwhelmingly huge, exceptionally skilled in combat, or even Nigh-Invulnerable. Thus, despite the difficulty, it might be better to try to take out the commander, in hopes of not having to fight the army itself. Especially if the commander has the ability to turn mooks more dangerous.
Finding him usually isn't too hard — just look for the guy with the huge Chest of Medals, the most Bling of War or the most conspicuous uniform. He may also be the biggest. The enemy may make things even easier for you by putting its commander in the front, possibly even with a bad formation protecting him.
Be warned, however, that the commander might be expecting this and may be way scarier than any of his soldiers, especially if his army uses Klingon Promotion or he is a Colonel Badass or Four-Star Badass! A Despair Gambit might be helpful in this case.
Use of this strategy rests on the hope that the enemy is a Keystone Army and the commander its Achilles' Heel. When successful, it usually results in a Decapitated Army, and even if it doesn't, the confusion and delays while the enemy reestablishes the Chain of Command can result in exploitable opportunities. Sometimes, however, it results in an Evil Power Vacuum instead, which may actually make the situation worse.
This doesn't only apply to armies. Whenever a species with a Hive Mind is led by a Hive Queen or some similar central location for the mind, destroying it will often lead to the whole army either shutting down or being thrown into aimless, bestial chaos.
This is often effective for The Minion Master and Mook Commander. Draw Aggro is a useful way to defy this, as long as it's not the leader drawing the enemy attention.
Also see Achilles' Heel. Subtrope of Flaw Exploitation. Is an Instant-Win Condition in some examples. Smart commanders may employ a Decoy Leader; a savvy army will clear away as many bandits as possible and wait for a clear and close enough path before targeting the ringleader (in which case, the Second Stratagem may be used first). Compare Shoot the Medic First, when the healer is first to get targeted, and Shoot the Mage First, when the powerful wizard gets hit first.
- During his battle with the Holy Iron Chain Knights in Berserk, Guts heads straight for the leader, Farnese, instead of continuing to fight Azan, the badass among their ranks. Unfortunately for Guts, he is so messed up from his earlier clash and the entire battle with Rosine from the previous arc that Farnese, despite having no experience in battle at all (and with a little help from her subordinate Serpico), is able to subdue and capture him.
- Kingdom: The standard Modus Operandi for just about every general.
- One Piece:
- In the Alabasta Arc, specifically in the Alabasta civil war, our heroes have deemed that the situation is too far gone to be resolved by purely peaceful means. Luffy deduces that there's only one other way to solve the conflict: Beat Crocodile, the guy behind it all. His crew was initially surprised about Luffy's plan but it works in the end.
- This is often Luffy's strategy: Rush in first to find the one behind the conflict and/or the strongest person on the enemy side and then beat them up. This often conflicts with the rest of the crew's plans, even when they try to account for it.
- During the Marineford War, Kizaru determined that the best way to keep the casualties low was to take out Whitebeard early on. However, his attack is blocked by Marco.
- This is the modus operandi for Capone "Gang" Bege. He only targets the leaders of enemy factions and afterwards sits back and watches as the remaining forces fight amongst themselves for control. In the Whole Cake Island arc, he's planning an assassination attempt on his boss, the pirate emperor Big Mom.
- Momonosuke and the Nine Red Scabbards quickly realize that, even though on paper Orochi is the one holding Kaido's leash as Shogun of Wano, the truth is that Wano will never be free as long as Kaido still stands; as such, they plan the Onigashima Raid around the goal of taking Kaido's head rather than Orochi's. Kaido, being of the same mind, promptly removes Orochi when the latter is no longer a concern to his plans and declares that he will move his base of operations to the Flower Capital. The Raid begins shortly after, with the Scabbards ignoring Kaido's right-hand men and making a beeline for the Emperor in a surprise attack.
- CP0 observe the battle and agree that it won't matter how many of Kaido's subordinates the alliance takes down as long as Kaido and his officers are able to continue fighting.
- When it turns out that Orochi survived being decapitated (thanks to his Devil Fruit power), the Scabbards decapitate him again almost as an afterthought, before walking away and stating that they "don't have the time to waste on him".
- In The Rose of Versailles this is done by the Swiss troops helping the defense of the Bastille: having noticed the Parisians didn't start using their cannons until a group of mutinous French Guards had joined them they quickly identified and shot their commander, Oscar (who was wearing a rather cospicuous uniform) to demoralize them. It worked, and the cannons stopped firing... Just long enough for the mortally wounded Oscar to demand her men why the hell they were around her rather than manning their guns and telling sergeant Hulin (in the manga)/Alain to take over and lead the bombardment.
- Vinland Saga:
- Askeladd makes use of this tactic by having main character Thorfinn assassinate opposing commanders during battles. This tactic is a win-win scenario for Askeladd; Thorfinn lives to accomplish great feats on the battlefield to win the right to challenge Askeladd to an honorable duel, where he hopes to defeat Askeladd as revenge for Askeladd killing his father years earlier. So for Askeladd, sending Thorfinn on these nigh suicidal missions will either remove a vital part of the opposition or Thorfinn will get himself killed trying and thus no longer be Askeladd's problem.
- In the second arc, Thorgil realizes that Canute set up his family to become Outlaws, he utilizes this tactic against Canute and his forces. Thorgil realizes perfectly well that the force of peasant farmers and a handful of down and out mercenaries his family assembles are no match for Canute's elite personal warriors and the mighty Jomvikings, but they can act as The Bait while Thorgil sneaks around to attack Canute, who now has just a few guards defending him, at the same time. It almost works; Canute only lives due to having taking multiple levels in badass since the first arc, and Canute buys just enough time for his other men to come to his aid.
- In Fairy Tail, Natsu and Happy attempt to go directly after Emporer Spriggan AKA The Black Wizard Zeref Dragneel during the war with the Alvarez Empire, but Happy forces Natsu to retreat.
- This is the whole objective in Chess, via taking out the enemy king. Taking out the enemy pieces doesn't matter, although it makes life easier on you.
- Magic: The Gathering:
- Built into the game. You cannot command your creatures to attack your opponent's creatures at all. Instead, you can only attack your opponent (or planeswalkers) directly. Your opponent then has the choice to use their creatures to block your attack. Numerous methods exist to help you ensure that your creatures' attacks hit your opponent without being blocked by the enemy creatures. Even just for keyword examples alone, there is flying, landwalk, intimidate, trample, shadow, unblockable, and protection. And keywords are hardly the only options.
- On the creature level, this is the counter to so-called "tribal" decks — the "Lords" (creatures that give a boost to all friendly creatures of a given type, so-called because they used to have the type "Lord") provide stat boosts, cost breaks, special abilities, or some combination of the above to their allies. Eliminating them produces a meaningful reduction to the power of the remaining enemy creatures.
- Crosses over with Keystone Army with token-generating creatures. In many cases, such as Master of Waves, the tokens disappear when the generating creature is destroyed, so it is most advantageous to go for the creature rather than pick off its tokens.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! has some monster cards that have the ability to attack the player directly. Most of them have the ATK that are less than 1000, but with the right combination, their attacks can be increased to more than 2000. Since the player starts out with 8000 life points, it's not possible to take him out in a single hit. As such using this strategy requires either having multiple direct-player-attack monsters in your deck, or supporting monsters and spell cards that can keep them alive for multiple turns.
- Ghost Rider 2099: In the 2019 reboot, Zero decides that D/Monix probably has several gangs and the like on their payroll, so they'll just keep sending people until he gets captured. Therefore, he decides to "cut the head off the snake" and goes straight to D/Monix's headquarters, killing his father (who ordered his execution) and everyone involved in the decision to kill him.
- In the Judge Dredd Apocalypse War story arc, the East Meg One war marshal, "Mad Dog" Kazan, provides the page quote. Ironically, he falls victim to this himself.
- Legion of Super-Heroes: In The Earthwar Saga, when the Khund fleet is approaching Earth, Superboy, Element Lad, Sun Boy and Colossal Boy storm the Khund's citadel and crush their leader Garlak, but it is all for nothing since the Khunds will not surrender.
- In Along Came a Spider Clan Nova Cat are following a prophecy that states a legend must die so they specifically seek out enemy commanders of note to kill.
- Deconstructed in The Night Unfurls, because merely taking out the enemy leader is not guaranteed to achieve the "instant win" condition.
- Kyril and the Black Dogs make use of this tactic during the assault of the Black Fortress — defeat and capture the Dark Queen Olga to end the Forever War. They do succeed, but then the leader of the Black Dogs, Vault, decides to betray the country that hired them. Taking advantage of the resources and the Decapitated Army of the Black Fortress, the Black Dogs start another war.
- In the remastered version alters the above scenario, where Vault gets killed before he can put his plan into motion. However, several characters (Kyril, Boris, The Rat, etc.) are skeptical towards the prospect of the war ending. Meanwhile, from how Morgan is assured of Vault's popularity amongst the nobility, as well as how The Omniscient Council of Vagueness notes that "the war's end means more opportunities", the story is cynical about the notion that Vault's death would put a halt to the Black Dogs' conquest.
- Another instance is during Chapter 4 of the remastered version, where Kyril intends to strike directly at the orc chieftain of an encampment, while the others would "strike hard and fast" after the deed is done. Ideally, none of the greenskins escape and the Black Dogs would not be bogged down when the enemy sounds the alarm. In practice, Kyril does curb-stomp the chieftain, temporarily silencing the battlefield, but he later observes that the enemy forces have yet to dwindle, even fighting back fanatically. Evidently, the tactic does not go as planned.
- Splint: When Cadoc's surrounded by Orc hunters in Chapter 32, Rukhash recalls a lesson her grandfather Geth taught her when he killed a dangerous snake by cutting its head. She applies that lesson by recognizing Barmund as the leader and shooting him, which leads to disarray with everyone but Dellon.
Geth: Cut the head and the body dies too. This is as true of snakes as it is of men, and groups of men. Kill the head and the rest follow, scattered like frightened rats.
- Jeremiah Cross explains why this happens to Crocodile in This Bites! to Zoro and Nami. Crocodile's ego lead him to build Baroque Works entirely around his leadership. There was no structure in place to run the organization should he be taken out of the picture.
- In The Weaver Option, Warmaster Trevayne notes that the Sons of Horus will always start an assault with a decapitation strike. While this can be devastating if successful, the fact that he knows exactly what they're targeting makes countering them much easier.
- In The Avengers (2012), Tony Stark invokes this in his "it's all on you" speech to Loki, making it clear that even if the Chitauri are too much for the Avengers to beat, Loki won't be there to see it because they'll all be coming for him. While it doesn't work out exactly like that, as they beat the army first, with Loki's personal defeat being incidental (and hilarious), they do all come for him at the end.
- In Cleopatra Mark Anthony attempts this in the final sea battle against Octavian. He sails his ship right at Octavian's flagship because even if he loses the battle, killing Octavian will still win him the war. It fails because Octavian is not actually on his flagship and is instead on another ship away from the fighting.
- In Dracula Untold, Vlad tries to invoke this and the Decapitated Army trope during the attack on the monastery, picking out Mehmed's signature golden armour. Unfortunately, Mehmed, not being stupid, had anticipated this and left a decoy — in fact, the entire army was a decoy, while a small strike-force of Janissaries sneaked into the monastery while Vlad was distracted. He even uses Vlad's tendency to this against him again, to lure him into a trap that nearly kills him.
- In the last scene of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, the war between Freedonia and Sylvania has come into the bunker where Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is hiding out with his cronies. When Sylvanian troops break in, they are each bopped on the head, while Firefly keeps track by sliding over a metal disc on a wire for each one. When Ambassador Trentino appears and is bopped over the head, Firefly announces, "Trentino? That's game!" and slides over all the discs, indicating that Freedonia has just won the war. Making this the first time a war has been won by capturing an ambassador.
- Enemy at the Gates has a political officer hiding in a fountain with Vasily Zaitsev and about to shoot at a Nazi command team in an area the Nazis believe to be clear. As his spectacles are broken, he then turns to ask Zaitsev if he is able to shoot. Zaitsev modestly admits that he can, takes the rifle... and takes aim directly at the Nazi commander as he is about to have a shower.
- Discussed in Forrest Gump when Lt. Dan orders Forrest to never salute him due to the risk of Viet Cong snipers. This concern is real and led to officers no longer wearing rank on their helmets, see Real Life below.
Lt. Dan: Put your hands down! Do not salute me; there are goddamn snipers all over this area who'd love to grease an officer.
- The Patriot: This is a Discussed Trope. Col. Benjamin Martin intentionally targets British officers first in his irregular guerrilla campaigns to sow confusion among the British regulars. He discusses it with his opponent General Cornwallis during a neutral meeting, with the latter calling it uncalled for. Martin questions what would be an "acceptable" level of hostile intent during warfare, and Cornwallis' states his concern is to maintain order and prevent atrocities committed by leaderless armies. Martin refuses to change his tactic as long as other British officers like Col. Tavington engage in pointless brutalities that violate the Laws and Customs of Warfare, and Cornwallis concedes the point.
- Star Wars:
- When the Jedi are not leading from the back, or a Frontline General, they engage in this type of mission. General Grievous also likes to do this against Jedi.
- Averted in Revenge of the Sith. The Separatist army keeps fighting after General Grievous is killed, and the rest of their leadership is taken out after the army has surrendered.
- This is what the machines tried to do in the Terminator films, using Time Travel. First they tried to take out John Connor's mother so he wouldn't even be born. Then they sent a better Terminator to take out a teenage John Connor. Having failed to locate Connor in the third movie, they decide to go second best and kill those people who will grow up to be his officers, but gladly switch back to Connor when he turns up again.
- This is discussed in War Horse:
Lt. Waverly: (admiring himself in the mirror) Silk lining. I quite like it.
Capt Nicholls: I'm not sure it's going to make a lot of difference to the Germans.
Waverly: Oh, I don't know about that. Think about it. You're a Boche, just working out which of two chaps to shoot and you thought — "Good Lord — one of them really is wearing a very stylish cap indeed!" You might shoot the other one instead.
Capt Nicholls: Or, alternatively, think — "I fancy that cap" and kill you first of all.
- In 1632, the American sniper, using modern weapons, uses this strategy to great effect against the armies of the aforementioned time period (whose commanders like to wear flashy hats and such) since said commanders stay out of musket but NOT modern sniper rifle range.
- Cyrus attempts to win the decisive battle this way in Anabasis. Unfortunately, his best troops, the Greek 10000, don't join the assault, preferring a defensive fight. Cyrus leads his bodyguard and friends in attack instead — and when they are slaughtered, the Greek mercenaries get to face the entire Persian army on their own.
- During the Battle for Graza in book five of Arcia Chronicles, Alexander's army is betrayed, so he gathers the remaining loyal cavalry and orders a Self-Destructive Charge against the enemy commander Pierre Tartue's position. He doesn't make it all the way there (though his best friend saves him from certain death), but he gets close enough for Pierre to literally need a new pair of pants afterwards.
- The Bear and the Dragon. Played straight. A Russian recon unit is shadowing the invading Chinese spearhead in the major war between the two powers, China having invaded Russia. One of the men with the Russians is a legendary sniper from World War II, whose skills are undiminished, and who refuses to be evacuated without fighting to protect his country. As the Russians prepare their counterattack against the Chinese (who have been advancing without opposition in order to lull them into a false sense of security), the unit is watching the advance team, which have stopped for some unknown reason. The only officer targets the sniper sees are lieutenants, and he considers them not worth killing, because there's so many of them. Then a command vehicle appears, and a Major and Colonel dismount. The sniper prepares to shoot the Colonel, until they notice that the command vehicle is holding a General (unbeknownst to them, the General in charge of the entire invasion force, who went to the front to show off his manhood and bravery). The captain of the recon unit asks if the sniper has ever killed a general before, to which the sniper says no, as he lines up the shot...The invasion falls apart for a variety of reasons afterwards, but the loss of the general officer (and in fact, most of the command structure between the various divisions from precision artillery and helicopter strikes) definitely contributes to the loss of coherence among the Chinese invaders.
- Accidentally done by Ciaphas Cain when leading a column of refugees towards Imperial lines and deciding to punch through the last ork line. He had no idea that was where the warboss was and ended up running into him. The warboss attacked first, preventing his nobs from joining in, and after Cain kills Korbul the nobs start fighting among each other to decide who the new warboss is.
- In the Codex Alera books, because the Vord are a Keystone Army accomplishing this is the only hope the Alerans have to win. Unfortunately for them, their commander is aware of this and refuses to show up on the battlefield unless victory is already overwhelmingly likely.
- The Crimson Shadow: Luthien has his archers target all cyclopian officers when their army besieges Caer MacDonald, as cyclopians are fairly stupid and fall apart without leadership. The officers are the few smarter ones, and so this works very well.
- Discussed but eventually subverted in Cryptonomicon.
[In a banzai charge] "You kill the one with the sword first.""Ah, because the one with the sword is the officer?""No, because he's a madman with a sword running at you and hollering."
- The Eagle Has Landed, and the film based on it, feature a Nazi attempt to capture Winston Churchill. The trope isn't played totally straight as it's mostly to be a propaganda coup; Britain is far too deeply involved in the war for the loss of any one man to change things drastically.
- In Ender's Game, Mazer Rackham reveals this is how he defeated the Formic Navy, by deducing which ship had their queen (after deducing that they even have queens). Once he destroyed it, the entire fleet became inert. Unfortunately, the Formics learn from this and try to bait Ender in his first battle into trying the same strategy, by putting their ships in a sphere formation with an expendable decoy as the "leader" in the center. Ender doesn't fall for it. Then at the climax of the book, Ender orders his fleet to charge straight in and fire their mass disintegrator weapons at the Formic homeworld, causing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom that kills all the queens there, taking out all the species under their control.
- The last part, though, is not meant to win the war. Ender thinks that it's a training simulation but is so tired by the near-constant simulations that all he wants is to quit, so he purposely does something so horrible (i.e. sacrifice the human fleet to destroy an entire planet of sentient beings) that he assumes he will be kicked out of the program. Instead, this is exactly what Mazer was hoping for.
- In Grent's Fall, this is attempted to ease pressure on General Cromwell. Reginald Halifax is taken out, but by then it was too late. It's also attempted by Warren Stanley. King Osbert kills him right away.
- Halo: The Fall of Reach: After 27 years of losing the war against the Covenant, the UNSC plans an operation to kidnap a Covenant Prophet in hopes of forcing a truce. The operation is interrupted by the Fall of Reach, but fortunately backstabbing politics within the Covenant end up killing off the Prophets for them in the actual Halo games.
- At the climax of Kushiel's Dart Isidore d'Aiglemort leads his army on a cavalry charge against the Skaldi, aiming to get to Waldemar Selig and kill him. They end up in a Mutual Kill.
- High School D×D: This is a valid strategy in Ratings Games; given the strong Chess Motif, simply sniping the enemy King right out of the gate is a sound way to end a match quickly. That said, certain formats keep the King off the field until a certain point to prevent this. It comes up particularly often with the protagonists, going both ways. Issei is worth all 8 of Rias's pawns, meaning she has an extra very powerful fighter she can send at the enemy King, especially since getting close will typically allow him to Promote and fight even harder. On the other hand, this leaves her with an almost 2:1 manpower disadvantage and a lack of defensive bodies to keep herself protected.
- In The Lost Regiment, the Merki Horde uses this during fights with other hordes. A whole umen (10,000 mounted warriors) is dedicated to seeking out and killing the enemy Qar Qarth (chief of the horde), hoping to disrupt the morale. It's specifically mentioned that, during the Battle of Orki, both the Tugars and the Merki tied their slain Qar Qarths to their horses in order to keep the warriors from finding out the truth (also, the death of a Qar Qarth must be followed by a 30-day mourning period). During the retreat of the Republic from the Merki onslaught, Keane convinces a former Merki slave, who was actually sent to kill him, to kill the Merki Qar Qarth instead with a newly-developed sniper rifle. This gives the escapees an extra month to prepare, while the Merki mourn their fallen leader. It also eventually results in the Merki Horde splitting in three, being much less of a threat after that.
- In Mockingjay, there is a battle training simulation that simulates what happens if the enemy shoots the commander, so as to make this less of an issue if it happened.
- A Practical Guide to Evil: As armies are often led by powerful Named, killing the commander can cause the flow of the entire battle to turn. This worked especially well against the Praesi Legions of Terror of old, before the Amadeus implemented reforms: since the armies were only hold together through fear for the leading Black Knight or Dread Emperor and didn't have effective command structures otherwise, killing the commander essentialy won the battle and was thus a prime goal for any hero.
- Discussed in Protector of the Small, with the differing battle philosophies of "kill the troops first because they're the ones doing the actual fighting" and "kill the officers because they're leading and thinking." Kel and Dom, themselves officers, favor this trope.
- In the first Redwall novel, Constance the badger tries to end the siege of Redwall Abbey by sniping enemy commander Cluny the Scourge. It fails due to a rather accidental Decoy Leader situation. Later on, when Cluny falls in battle, the enemy army falls into disarray, and many of the invaders surrender immediately.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, a lot of battle strategies among the warring claimants to the throne involve capturing or killing important commanders on the other side(s) as well as taking a side "out of the race" by killing their leader. Near the end of the Battle in the Whispering Wood, Jaime Lannister, realizing his army has lost, rallies his strongest soldiers and charges towards Robb Stark in an attempt to bring the war to an end.
- It's mentioned in The Stormlight Archive that a sensible army will almost always try to kill the Shardbearer first both because he's easily more dangerous than a thousand regular troops and because if you take a Shardbearer down, you can capture his Shards and turn them against the enemy. It helps that Shards obviously have to be in battle to be any use, so the Shardbearer will always be where you can send more troops at him.
- Happens twice in The War of the Ancients trilogy (set in the World of Warcraft verse). Lord Kur'talos Ravencrest leads the forces of La Résistance against the Burning Legion 10,000 years before the events of the game. During a battle, however, an assassin sent by Queen Azshara's Number Two manages to get close and stab Ravencrest in the back of the neck. Command passes to the incompetent Lord Desdel Stareye, who gets killed in battle through his own stupidity. Command finally passes to a commoner named Jarod Shadowsong, who proves himself to be an excellent commander, ultimately leading La Résistance to victory, and earns the respect of the noble-born.
- The Wheel of Time:
- In the Last Battle, Graendal almost single-handedly stymies the armies of the Light this way. Rather than kill the commanders, she infiltrates their dreams beforehand and affects them with subtle Compulsions to misuse their troops in small ways that would add up to disaster.
- The good guys also try this, with various heroes attempting to kill Demandred and decapitate the Shadow's army. Because Demandred is one of the greatest warriors and channelers to ever live, this doesn't work out so well. Lan finally manages it, at great cost.
- Attila: Both Emperor Theodosius of the Eastern Empire and Flavius Aetius hatch together different schemes to assassinate Attila so they won't have to fight his army in the field. Theodosius' attempt fails miserably when Attila takes down his assassin's direct attempt on his life, but Aetius' more insidious plot by sending a Love-Interest Traitor after Attila ultimately ends in the death of the Hunnic King.
- Game of Thrones:
- The assassinations of Renly Baratheon and Robb Stark prove this tactic need not be limited to the battlefield. However, while in Renly's case his remaining forces joined his older brother without a fight, Robb's forces were slaughtered alongside him in the same back-stab.
- In Season 7, Jaime Lannister tries to kill Daenerys Targaryen in a straight charge during the Field of Fire. Unfortunately for Jaime, there's also a black dragon's head between him and her, fanged mouth agape, and a bright orange glow at the back of Drogon's throat...
- In Season 8, Arya manages to sneak up on and kill the Night King with a dragonglass dagger, which causes his army to instantly collapse as all the other White Walkers, and by proxy, the Wights, were spawned from him.
- House of the Dragon: In "Second of His Name", Daemon Targaryen keeps wishing to do this, but the Crabfeeder is too smart to fall for it… though once Daemon separates from his dragon, pulls an I Surrender, Suckers, and starts carving a path towards him, he finally commits most of his men to a counterattack against Daemon instead of hiding on the caves… which allows Laenor's plan to work, as he uses Seasmoke to destroy the Crabfeeder's forces, allowing Daemon to catch up to the Crabfeeder as well.
- Discussed by President Bartlett, Leo, and Adm. Fitzwallace in Season 3 of The West Wing. A foreign government minister has confirmed ties to planning terrorist attacks, and Fitzwallace has a plan to target that person directly and covertly. Bartlett is against it for legal, moral and ethical reasons. Ultimately he decides to authorize the mission.
- In The Book of Mormon, Captain Teancum manages to bring an end to a destructive war with the Lamanites by sneaking into their commander's tent and assassinating him in his sleep. Then he wins the next war the same way, although he's captured and killed the second time.
- This is such a common tactic in BattleTech that it has a specific name - Head-Hunting. While the prevalance of the Frontline General makes it easier in smaller-unit battles, there were specific 'Mech and Powered Armor designs aimed at slipping behind enemy lines and destroying command centers and mobile headquarters to throw enemy armies into disarray.
- The fallout of this trope is directly responsible for the ascension of Hanse Davion to the throne of the Federated Suns. His older brother, First Prince Ian Davion, directly led a counter-attack during the Third Battle of Mallory's World, but in spite of being an excellent Mechwarrior and piloting an Atlas besides, he was identified and killed in single combat by Yorinaga Kurita. Ironically, House Kurita won the battle but ultimately lost the war. The news of the Prince's death on Mallory's World almost turned the campaign into a rout, but Hanse Davion revealed himself to be a far more clever and capable leader than his late brother, and managed to keep his realm steady against the subsequent Kuritan threat for decades.
- This is also standard operating policy for the Clans — not because it's sound battlefield doctrine, but because defeating high-ranked enemy officers is bound to win them more honor among their peers.
- An accidental case lead to the Kentares Massacre and Draconis Combine losing the First Succession War. Coordinator Minoru was overseeing the campaign on Kentares but was wearing a standard DCMS Colonel's uniform. Latha Pischel, a Davion Sharpshooter saw a Colonel out in the open and took the shot, not realizing who he had just killed. The Coordinator's son was already mad and went even madder with grief and ordered the entire Planet massacred by hand. Over 50 million people were killed either by katana or small arms. Comstar personnel on the ground broke their organizations rules for neutrality and smuggled out video of the mass executions, resulting in massive demoralization for the DMCS, and provoking Davion from wavering and ready to break to a highly motivated force who refused to let that happen to the rest of the Federated Suns.
- Dungeons & Dragons
- The 1st Edition supplement Unearthed Arcana describes how, in battle, cavaliers automatically charge toward and attack enemy leaders in an attempt to gain glory by defeating them. The charge is made at full speed, regardless of army cohesion, intervening friendly troops, or any other consideration.
- A hive mother's telepathic control is usually the only thing keeping its enthralled beholders' hatred for each other under control. If she's killed, her minions will instantly turn on each other or disperse.
- In the Iron Kingdoms wargames (WARMACHINE and HORDES), killing the enemy warcaster or warlock is usually an Instant-Win Condition regardless of the scenario being played. The common term for this kind of victory is "Caster Kill."
- In one Paranoia module, The Computer anticipates this trope and arranges for a decoy. As usual, it Didn't Think This Through:
Green-clearance Team Leader: All right, men, let's go!Bystander: (eyeing "Blue"-clearance Executive Officer) Hey, why are you letting him order you around?"Blue"-clearance Executive Officer: Hey, yeah! *BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM* All right, men, let's go!
- Warhammer 40,000:
- The Tyranids use synapse creatures as commanders, who relay the Hive Mind's orders to each individual 'nid in range. Taking out a synapse creature (which can best be summed up as "shoot the big ones") causes momentary confusion amid the 'nids until another synapse creature gets in range.
- On the other hand, sometimes confusion is "Mill around a bit in front of their guns", sometimes confusion is "Go to ground until the loud noises stop", and sometimes confusion is "RIP! TEAR! KILL!". Luckily, it's usually a combination of all three, so you can thank the Emperor that at least the enemy isn't coordinated anymore. Also, if a big enough synapse creature dies, or even a Hive ship, then some of the Tyranids may die outright from the psychic feedback.
- This is standard operating procedure when dealing with an Ork "Waaagh!" A Waaagh (combination mass migration, holy war, and pub crawl) only comes together when a Warboss is strong and charismatic enough, and killing him all but ensures that the inevitable squabble for leadership among his subordinates fractures the Waaagh. Of course, since a Warboss is a 12-foot-tall mountain of muscle with stunning anger management issues, this is easier said than done. Da Orks themselves will also often try this on their enemies, as 1) any Warboss worth his salt would relish the chance to pit himself against his opposing counterpart, and 2) if he wins, it lets him pilfer his enemy's nice hat.
- Tau armies suffer severe morale penalties if their Ethereal leader is slain. A blurb in an Imperial Guard codex credits a Ratling sniper named Magogg with assuring one Imperial victory when he blew an Ethereal's head off. In the lore, however, this is a risky move; the army might suffer morale issues and effectively disintegrate, or they may get angry and decide to bring out the BIGGER guns, which turns them into an Advancing Wall of Doom, only with ranged firepower that makes your armor feel like cardboard.
- Horus Lupercal's favored strategic approach, both before and after the Heresy, was raiding enemy headquarters to kill their leaders. It informed his decisions to attack Terra directly and to lure the Emperor aboard his flagship.
- Notably failed when Guilliman killed Alpharius; the Alpha Legion held together and managed to drive off the Ultramarines. This may have been because of their decentralized command structure, or because "Alpharius" was really a mere Alpha Legionnaire in disguise or replaced or succeeded by his secret twin brother Omegon. The Horus Heresy series reveals that this was indeed a body double, and the real Alpharius was actually killed by Rogal Dorn during the Siege of Terra, leaving Omegon to inherit the command.
- The Tyranid special character known as the Deathleaper pulled a variation on this: It was in charge of killing the cardinal leading the defense of an Imperial world, but killing him would only strengthen the resolve of the defenders. So instead its started ambushing and butchering the cardinal's guards instead, spraying the man with their blood. The cardinal's mind snapped soon after, demoralizing the defenders and making them easy prey for the 'nids.
- The Tyranids use synapse creatures as commanders, who relay the Hive Mind's orders to each individual 'nid in range. Taking out a synapse creature (which can best be summed up as "shoot the big ones") causes momentary confusion amid the 'nids until another synapse creature gets in range.
- The Advance Wars series provides a variation: achieving victory in a mission by capturing the enemy HQ is basically this trope.
- Killing the opponent's king unit in Regicide mode in Age of Empires II gives you instant victory, regardless of how many other units and resources the other player still has. Of course, losing your king will do the same to you. In several campaign scenarios, the objective is killing one particular enemy commander or destroying one enemy building too.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2:
- The Allied campaign culminates in the Allies doing this on a national scale — want to end the war without having the slog all the way to Moscow like last time? Use one of your new upgraded Chronospheres (set up in the right location) to transport an entire army directly to Moscow and capture the Kremlin before reinforcements arrive or the Soviet premier gets away.
- Subverted in the Soviet campaign, however. The first mission requires destroying the Pentagon, but the Allied war effort obviously continues, so presumably the generals got out in time. A later mission requires capturing and mind-controlling the U.S. President, but even that doesn't stop Allied hold-outs from continuing the fight to the bitter end.
- In Dawn of War II, this is represented by having the Tyranids start attacking each other.
- The "Assassination" victory condition in Dawn of War: as soon as the enemy hero dies, they lose. Some A.I.s make an effort to keep their commanders alive, others... don't.
- Downplayed in the Dynasty Warriors series and spinoffs. It's possible on some maps to rush the enemy commander and get an instant win, but often events block your path. However, individual soldiers are almost irrelevant; you finish the map much more quickly if you jump from general to general as fast as you can.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, Vulpes Inculta's backstory has him winning a victory for Caesar's Legion against a hostile tribe by charging through a hole in their defences and capturing their chieftain. Caesar is so impressed by Vulpes' cunning and tactical knowledge that he spares him from execution (the standard punishment for legion soldiers who disobey orders) and instead has him transferred to the Frumentarii, Caesar's network of spies.
- This is a tactic in several battles in Final Fantasy VI, notably any battle involving switching between multiple parties to prevent an enemy advance and Cyan's defense of Doma Castle.
- Final Fantasy Tactics: In the "Defeat [Insert Name Here]" missions, your designated assassination target is always a unique unit that is always at least implied to be the squad commander.
- Zig-Zagged in the Fire Emblem series. Sometimes missions can be won instantly by killing the enemy commander as soon as possible, other times you have to kill every enemy soldier regardless.
- Further zig-zagged in that, even in missions where this will achieve victory, it's not always the ideal solution. Since most Fire Emblem games have a limited number of enemies to fight, and thus experience to earn, winning an early battle in ten turns by killing the enemy commander may cost you the war when you reach a later level and your units have not earned enough XP to gain a vital promotion. A lot of the planning involved in low-turncount play is trying to get in as much combat as possible while rushing to fight the commander, so that your troops can hit vital benchmarks later on.
- Played Straight in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, in that enemy troops will always attack Marth if they can, since his death is a Game Over. However, this can be exploited as Marth can thus Draw Aggro, saving that 1HP healer one step away from dying because the enemy MUST go and attack Marth above all else.
- In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, during the defense of Garreg Mach after the Time Skip, the enemy commander will charge toward Byleth near the end of the map, hoping to take down Byleth in a last-ditch attempt to seize victory.
- On the Verdant Wind route of Three Houses, during Chapter 19, Claude will advise Byleth to take down the two enemy commanders- Hubert and the Death Knight- at the same time, lest enemy reinforcements overwhelm the protagonists, and Seteth gives similar advice in Silver Snow(in which the battle takes place in Chapter 18). Unlike the Azure Moon route, the protagonists are infiltrating the Imperial capital of Enbarr rather than invading it with an army. Since it's relatively late in the game, it's up to the player whether to take the advice or try to get as much experience as possible.
- In Fire Emblem Engage, during the Fell Xenologue campaign, Chapter 3 has Alear, along with the twins Nel and Nil and the Four Winds encounter the armies of the alternate Elusia and Solm, headed by their respective queens, fighting. Nel, who's used to employing stealth and running from fights she can't win, proposes using the chaos of battle to attack the enemy queens and reclaim their Emblem bracelets, since both forces are numerically superior to the heroes by themselves.
- Most Covenant Grunt squads are led by a lone Elite or Brute; killing said leader will usually cause the Grunts to temporarily panic and run away. Post-Halo 3, though, it might have the opposite effect of their Grunts going suicide bomber.
- Much of Halo 2's first half is spent hunting down one of the Covenant's Hierarchs, the Prophet of Regret. While his death doesn't have any direct effect on the Covenant military, it does start a chain of events which result in the Covenant falling into civil war.
- Recurring both ways in the original Homeworld: the enemy, be they the Taiidan Imperial fleet, the Turanic Raiders, or the Kadeshi, goes straight for the player's Mothership, while in two battles against the Taiidan the enemy carrier, serving as flagship, must be taken out as quickly as possible to prevent it from escaping and bringing home news of your fleet's existence and thus causing the enemy to hunt you down with their full force.
- The final mission has a more usual take on the trope, as the Taiidan Imperial Guard will jump in multiple waves until the Imperial Mothership, carrying the Taiidan Emperor, is destroyed, causing the immediate intervention of the Galactic Council on your side and, as detailed in the following games, the breakdown of the Empire, hence why the Taiidan Rebels go straight for him as soon as they jump in. In the meantime, however, the Taiidan Emperor has telepatically knocked out your commander, making much harder for the player to command their fleet.
- Downplayed in MechWarrior Living Legends. The aptly named "Master And Commander", an Atlas assault battlemech variant is designed for the Frontline General, and therefore a prime target, as the M&C carries advanced Target Spotter gear for friendly artillery and cruise missiles, a powerful Enemy-Detecting Radar, electronic countermeasures, long-range bombardment weaponry, and some of the heaviest armor in the game. Killing an M&C Atlas will significantly cripple an enemy's informational flow and blind their artillery support, but their other combatants will be very pissed and avenge their commander.
- In Nexus Clash, it's almost always a better idea to kill an enemy summoner and let their Keystone Army fall then to fight the army itself.
- Ogre Battle: The series makes this a way to shorten the battles via creating a Decapitated Army. Useful for ending annoying scenarios but losing items you could get via annihilating units (but doing said thing deals with the Chaos Frame, or Karma Meter if you want to see it that way.)
- Tactics Ogre: Makes this trope the only way you or the enemy operates (especially in the Chaos Route Rime Battle where the Commander and a guest are in the middle of the heat and the army has to play Catch up, a really bad moment if the player has made said unit a Squishy Wizard).
- In Overlord II, the Empire phalanxes (phalanges?) are typically accompanied by a Centurion. Killing the centurion makes it much easier to defeat them; without killing him a group of fifty fully armed browns will lose nearly thirty of its members before breaking the phalanx and causing the soldiers to scatter.
- Pirates of the Caribbean Online has a few enemy types that will group up under one single, commander-type enemy. Attacking any individual other than the commander will cause the commander to notice and will draw aggro from the entire group to you. Defeating the commander first, however, will prevent this, allowing you to battle each enemy one-on-one.
- It's the only way to win in Planetary Annihilation; losing your Commander unit is the only defeat condition as in-game the Commander is telling all the other units of the army what to do.
- In the original Shining Force, enemy priority 1A is Straight for the Commander as his death is an instant battle loss for the player. If he is out of reach, Shoot the Mage First or Shoot the Medic First is the second priority.
- Sniper Elite III: Enemy officers make regular soldiers more observant. This is a stealth game, so getting the officers out of the way (ideally in a discreet manner) is a help.
- In Sunrider Mask of Arcadius, Kayto Shields wins the Battle of Far Port by gunning straight for the flagship of PACT admiral Veniczar Cullen, whose plan to catch the much-smaller Alliance fleet in a pincer attack left him vulnerable to a head-on assault. In a more general sense, several missions will end in a victory if you destroy the enemy commander instead of wiping out all opposition, though surviving enemy units will only yield half as much money as they would if you had destroyed them.
- Played straight in Supreme Commander The default victory condition in multiplayer is assassination, where to win one must kill the enemy Armored Command Unit. This is no small feat considering that the Commander usually has a full-out army and/or base protecting him, not to mention the fact that he's one of the most powerful units in the game. Some players might try to send a group of high-damage units on a suicide run to snipe the enemy commander, or if one player is too reckless with using his commander as a combat unit then they could find a surprise waiting for them.
- When the victory condition isn't assassination, this trope may become inverted as one player suicides his commander into the enemy army/base so the nuclear warhead within takes out as much stuff as possible.
- A viable tactic in the Total War series. Killing the enemy general will shake the morale of the entire enemy force. Low morale units may rout and this can trigger a chain reaction of the entire force fleeing.
- The original Shogun: Total War even has a special unit of battlefield ninjas, who aren't strong in a stand-up fight, but are stealthy, allowing them to get behind the enemy lines and attack the general.
- It becomes a lot easier in Empire and Napoleon with the right use of artillery. However, killing a general while the enemy is too far away can result in the moral rebuilding by the time they enter the musket range.
- Even more viable when fighting against Vampire Count armies in Total War: Warhammer, as they use large masses of undead who are fearless, tireless and can take a beating. Kill the commanders animating them, however, and the entire force will crumble to dust in the span of seconds.
- Tyrant 2011: Some cards have a skill called fear, which means it ignores the opposing assault and attacks the commander directly. Some of the top decks use this and works because every battle pits 2 keystone armies against each other.
- This is a viable tactic in the Uncharted Waters series: rushing for the enemy flagship and taking it out (with cannons or by boarding) is an instant-win condition, which helps preserve own forces and the cargo carried by other enemy ships (on the downside, you get less XP). In the second game, you can additionally challenge the enemy captain to a Combat by Champion by boarding his flagship with your own.
- Warcraft II has this be a Subverted Trope — the Orcish Horde's leader, Orgrim Doomhammer killed the leader of the Alliance of Lordaeron, Anduin Lothar, during the final battle (originally, Doomhammer especially performed this by ambushing him specifically, though this was Retconned to be a more nebulous situation). Instead of his death demoralizing his troops, Lothar's lieutenant Turalyon took up the man's sword and rallied the Alliance into a battle-equivalent of Roaring Rampage of Revenge which ended the war right there.
- In WarCraft III, the hero class is essentially the in-game commander. However, this trope's tactic is usually not a good idea — even the weaker heroes are generally fairly difficult to take down unless you can surround them, and while you're trying to focus on them, the other team can be wiping out your army. That being said, if the opportunity to take out a hero quickly presents itself, successfully doing so severely weakens the other team, as well as denying experience to that hero.
- Standard policy in Warframe. On assassination missions, most players will avoid or blast past the Mooks to go straight for the boss. This is because the loot which Randomly Drops from the boss is invariably more desirable than what comes from even a hundred grunts, and players are impatient things.
- A valid tactic in Warlords Battlecry 3 is to go straight for the commander — since he's the initial builder unit and able to capture resource sites, taking him out will seriously hamper the enemy activities, possibly even crippling the AI side completely, if they have no alternative builders or heroes. Just watch out, some heroes fully enforce Rank Scales with Asskicking and can kill the hell out of that initial fighting force if not properly built and managed.
- In Wolfenstein: The New Order, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the German commanders can call for reinforcements if they're alerted to your presence; taking them out unseen is the best tactic, and without reinforcements to call in, the enemies in certain sections will also be far easier to deal with.
- Erfworld has this in spades thanks to its TBS Mechanics Verse premise. Taking out the enemy ruler will end their entire side unless there is an heir (and heirs are very costly to pop or designate). This tactic is attempted against Gobwin Knob in Book 1 and Jetstone in Book 2, though it fails for different reasons. It's successfully used against Haffaton in Book 0.
- Is also a valid tactic against lower-ranking commanders (warlords and the Chief Warlord) since they give a bonus to all units lead by them, in the case of the Chief Warlord they also give an additional bonus to all units of the side and yet another to all units in the same hex.
- In No Need for Bushido, part of Yukizane's backstory involves ending a war by engaging the enemy commander in a one-on-one battle... in a game of chess.
- In the Season 1 finale of Ben 10: Alien Force, the heroes, failing to stop the Highbreed invasion, end up using their portails to reach the Highbreed Supreme himself. Played with in that they don't end up killing him, but rather finding a peaceful solution to end the conflict.
- In the first battle for Earth in Exosquad, the Able Squad is able to turn the tide of battle in Terran favor by assaulting the enemy flagship, buying the Terran fleet time to escape the massacre more or less intact.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars:
- "Storm Over Ryloth": After the first attempt to break the Separatist blockade over Ryloth costs Anakin most of his fleet, his second attempt consists of sacrificing an entire (damaged and empty) cruiser to ram the Separatist command cruiser by pretending to surrender in order to take out the commanders of the fleet and leave them directionless when Ahsoka arrives with the Resolute.
- "The Deserter": It's implied the commando droids who snipe Rex, thus putting him mostly out of action for the rest of the episode, choose him as a target because his Non-Uniform Uniform made his status as an officer, and thus the one in charge of the patrol, obvious.