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Suspiciously Small Army

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

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

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

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

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


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Macross Delta: Even for a mercenary group, Chaos' Ragna branch is absolutely tiny, especially compared to the more advanced and sophisticated SMS branch we saw in Macross Frontier. They operate out of a single warship, on a single planet, with a few squads of new-model fighters. Their pilots have to pull double duty for ground combat and infiltration when the need arises, and the singers also provide tactical support and maintenance. Thanks to the current war, they are low on funds and support from the UN and make do with what they have.

    Comic Books 
  • Transformers does this in a big way. Even when robots are fighting for the fate of the universe, or the very fabric of space and time, it's rare to see more than a few dozen fighters involved in any battle. Much of this owes to the franchise being Merchandise-Driven—if there's a half-dozen toys on the shelves, there will be a half-dozen characters in the show. Some stories attempt to avert this through "army-builders" (making toys of generic trooper characters) or recasting C-List Fodder as part of the background legions, but the most common conclusion is that the Cybertronian race as a whole is just abnormally small.

  • The Big Red One rarely had more than a half-dozen men on screen at any one time.
  • The epic biographical film Patton, featuring some of the fulcrum battles of America's campaign in Europe, was filmed with about a dozen tanks (M47 and M48 Pattons, at that) and the same two Heinkel bombers over and over again. The equipment, along with the extras, came from the Spanish Army, which made quite a bit of money renting itself out to filmmakers during the 1950's and 1960's.
  • To Hell and Back (1955), based on the memoirs of Audie Murphy, suffers from this throughout. In particular, the Battle of Anzio is fought between a few dozen extras a side, creating a front line no more than fifty meters long, and the action near Holzwihr (for which Murphy received the Medal of Honor) the number of Germans isn't anywhere near the entire infantry company Murphy fought off.
  • In Alatriste, the Spanish defeat at Rocroi is reduced to a pitiful skirmish with barely a couple dozen soldiers on each side.
  • Parodied in Meet the Spartans, where the Spartan force sent to Hold the Line against the Persians was about a dozen men. However, the Persians also suffered from this, at least until Xerxes turned on his CGI army, scaring the Spartans. The ending, once again parodying 300, shows the full Spartan army... also as CGI.
  • Star Wars often falls victim to this, due to Scifi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale, budget and technical limits, and simple genre conventions that require invividual losses and victories to make a difference in battles.
    • A prime example would be both the Rebel and Imperial fleets in Return of the Jedi (although hundreds of Imperial ships are shown staying out of the fight in the background). The advent and advancement of realistic CGI in the intervening years mitigated this problem for the Prequel Trilogy, where some planetary battles do appear truly massive, despite it being stated the clone army, meant to fight across a whole galaxy, only numbered in the single-millions.
    • Very noticeable with the Resistance in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which is substantially smaller than the Rebel Alliance ever was, because it is a volunteer force that's largely underfunded. The latter film actually makes this explicit- the Resistance consists of less than four hundred people. By the end of the movie they barely break double digits.
    Mr. Plinkett: The First Order comes off as comically powerful, with unlimited resources. It kinda makes you wonder: why are they even bothering chasing down an elderly lady and her friends, who only have three spaceships? The fuck are they gonna do?
  • An In-Universe version in Gladiator when the announcer at the Colosseum introduces THE BARBARIAN HORDE! which consists of just over a dozen gladiators dressed up like Carthaginian mercenaries.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a pretty consistent problem with scale, especially noticeable in certain films:
    • Thor: Ragnarok has the "mighty" army of Asgard trying to take on Hela, only to all get slaughtered. There were no more than a few hundred of them in total (though this may be justified in the fact that Asgardians are notoriously long-lived, difficult to kill, and have weapon technology so advanced that it may as well be magic to the lower realms; in any case, it doesn't help them against good ol' 5.56mm rounds from "Tex-Ass" at the end of the film). Yet after Hela kills these few hundred, not only is Asgard nearly out of soldiers (only a few are visible in the final battle, and they're clearly second-stringers) but it is bereft almost entirely of healthy males of fighting age, as every shot of the Asgardian civilian population afterwards shows nothing but women, children, elderly, and teenagers, with the occasional young man mixed in. This almost constitutes a retcon of the previous films, since the crowd scenes in Thor and Thor: The Dark World clearly depicted Asgard as having a much larger population (and army) than Ragnarok shows, even if it still was pretty small. Loki later reveals that only 9,719 Asgardians died when their planet exploded, which whe combined with the small amount of the survivors puts their total population not much over 10,000 at their peak.
    • The Avengers (2012): No more than a few hundred Chitauri are ever visible on-screen in total, even after Loki orders them to "send the rest." Even when we get a look at their home dimension with the rest of the invasion force, we only see eight additional Leviathans, a few dozen space speeders similar in speed and armament to WW-2 prop planes, and a mothership that is not particularly huge and couldn't possibly hold more than tens of thousands of additional troops at most. This makes their desire to conquer an entire planet with hundreds of millions of soldiers quite questionable, and calls into question the capabilities of the worlds that they were already stated to have conquered (one is shown in Infinity War). Justified by the Other and Loki being ill-informed of Earth's capabilities and small armies being the norm in the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's civilizations, such as the aforementioned Asgardians. They still did manage to lay waste to enough of New York City for Wilson Fisk to turn a profit on reconstruction contracts, which is a small victory.
    • Avengers: Infinity War continues this trend with the "climactic" final battle between Thanos's Outriders and the army of Wakanda. The VFX team has stated that a total of 10,000 Outriders were present; note that the Outriders are super-strong but borderline non-sapient berserkers that die to pistol bullets and have no strategy other than running straight at their enemies. They're up against an even smaller number of Wakandans (the VFX team said 500) guarding the MacGuffin, who are all standing out in the open equipped with spears and no artillery, armored vehicles, or aircraft; the Outriders ultimately beat them before Thor arrives. The result is that the titular Infinity War for the fate of the universe comes down to a few thousand combatants charging at each other across an open field. Thanos's only forces in the film besides those few thousand Outriders are a four-member Quirky Mini Boss Squad. While that's going on, another battle for the fate of the universe is being fought between Thanos and six other people, all but one or two of whom are street-level heroes.note 
    • Black Panther (2018) had a similar issue, with the assembled forces of the Border Tribe and the Jabari Tribe, plus the entirety of Wakanda's air force, being small enough to fit on a couple acres of land. Possibly justified by the fact that Wakanda isn't a particularly large or densely-populated country, and pretty insular on top, and therefore lacks either the human resources or the need for more than a few thousand soldiers and border guards each. Infinity War even doubles down on this when Okoye confirms that the Border Tribe's military was more or less wiped out in this film ("And the border tribe?" "Those who are left"), so that really was all they had.

  • Bored of the Rings:
    The glorious army that drew up before the Black Gate numbered somewhat less than the original thousands. It numbered seven, to be exact, and might have been less had not seven merinos finally bolted for freedom out from under their riders.
  • Parodied in Discworld, Lancre's army consists entirely of Shawn Ogg, and a Troll named Big Jim Beef who guards the only passable route into the country. They are both largely ceremonial as Lancre has both incredibly inhospitable geography that makes invasion almost impossible, and nothing worth invading them for anyway.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium featured fairly tiny armies all throughout the Third Age. For example, the Battle of the Hornburg/Helm's Deep was only 3,000 Rohirrim (completely mundane early medieval cavalry), with a handful of Ents, vs 10,000 Orcs/Uruk-hai (sub-human infantry). Not only was this an existential battle for the second largest realm of Men, but Christopher Tolkien commented in Morgoth's Ring that it was probably the largest military deployment in Rohan's history. Most battles in the age were significantly smaller than this; another narratively-relevant example was the Battle of the Five Armies, which had less than 2,000 Elves, Men, and Dwarves backed up by a single large bear and "hundreds" of eagles (most of which are around the size of large dogs and all of which are vulnerable to shepherds with bows) defeating a not-incomprehensibly-larger number of sub-human goblins bagged up by giant bats and wargs (large semi-sapient wolves) and setting the Northern Orcs/goblins back centuries. Keep in mind both battles decided the fate of significant parts of a continent. Even the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the largest battle of the age-ending War of the Ring, taking place at the heart of the largest realm of the Free Peoples, so large that just one of the armies involved was supposed to have exceeded anything assembled since the Second Age, had the coalition of Men mustering not much more than 10,000 troops; the forces of Sauron were (vaguely) greater in number (the cavalry alone were suggested to number around 18,000, and this was an auxiliary force), but not enough to instantly win or anything. This would imply a battle on the overall scale of, say, Tours, or Stamford Bridge, or Iconium. Part of this is Tolkien knowingly basing his Constructed World on Europe in the early Middle Ages and knowing how small armies of that era were (see below), but even then, it's a bit extreme. In-universe it's justified as the Third Age being essentially a six-thousand year post-apocalypse compared to earlier ones.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Sharpe series, the units involved in the battles tend to be rather small. This isn't a big issue when Sharpe and his riflemen are on some cloak-and-dagger mission, but in large set-piece battles that historically involved tens of thousands of men on each side (such as Talavera, Salamanca, and especially Waterloo) it's underwhelming. When you know from the books that a French "column" was a brick of soldiers forty or eighty files wide, the sight of fifteen extras in three files is ridiculous, no matter how enthusiastically they chant "Vive l'empereur!"
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • The Romulan invasion force Sela commands. You can imagine the planning meeting - "So that's invading Vulcan, occupying the planet and fending off a probable Federation counter attack. Two thousand men should be plenty."
    • The average Federation starship has a crew in excess of 200 people working in a three or four-shift rotation; every other race crews similarly sized ships with between 15-40 people, apparently with each crew member being on duty around the clock, most of them don't even seem to have a medic aboard. The standard explanation is that the alien craft are stripped-down warships with much fewer amenities, and don't need the huge scientific and maintenance crew that a Federation ship would carry- just a pilot, a commander, an engineer, a gunner and some grunts. Even so, modern US Navy nuclear submarines, which aren't exactly known for wasting space, require a crew of 14 officers, 18 senior noncoms and 89 enlisted working on a three-shift rotation, and a starship would probably need at least that many, if only to carry out basic maintenance and prevent everyone keeling over with exhaustion. A Klingon crew especially seems to consist of about four or five officers making up the bridge crew, a cook, and a handful of enlisted to perform repairs and occasionally kill things.
    • Stated fleet sizes are unusually small. When the Borg are attacking Earth directly in "The Best of Both Worlds", the best that Starfleet can muster in defense given days of warning is 40 ships at Wolf 359. In "Redemption Part 2", Starfleet deploys less than 20 ships to enforce a critical blockade on the Klingon-Romulan border. In "Descent Part 1", in response to another Borg attack that could spell the end of their civilization (and again, given days of warning), the Federation fields 15 ships. Picard is given command of a major task force of 3 ships. In "All Good Things", the movement of 30 Romulan warbirds puts the entire Federation on high alert, and they respond by deploying 15 more ships to the Neutral Zone. Given that the Federation is said in other sources to have about two hundred planets, this would imply something like one ship per world at best. And note that none of these are particularly huge (their ships vary from ~200 to ~700 meters in length and are pretty thinly built), and most of them are not even dedicated warships. No wonder the Enterprise is always "the only available ship in the sector"! This is justified by the Federation being a demiltiarized, peacetime society; the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians on the other hand are explicitly races of conquerors, yet their standing navies are consistently treated as equal to or smaller than to Starfleet.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine averts this in both dialogue and visuals, with individual battles involving fleets of hundreds of ships. Near the end of the Dominion War, it's also stated that with 1,500 ships, the Klingons alone would be outnumbered 20:1 against the Dominion-Cardassian-Breen alliance, implying the latter had in the range of 30,000 ships (albeit most of them were ~100 meter Jem'Hadar bugs), implying the Federation-Klingon-Romulan had at least close to 10,000 in total, as a few Jem'Hadar bugs are considered a good match for the Federation's stronger vessels. Going by both visuals and dialogue, the sudden jump in fleet sizes from low hundreds to high thousands has two causes. One, increased war production following the crises in TNG and early DS9, which was kicked up to total war production when the Dominion War began proper. Two, the Federation (and implicitly others) were just putting phaser banks and photon torpedo launchers on anything that could fly regardless of how old or unsuited for combat they were. Less going from 200 Abrams tanks to 2,000 Abrams tanks in a few years, and more going from 200 Abrams tanks to 600 Abrams tanks supplemented by 1,400 pick-up trucks with machine guns and rocket launchers bolted on them.
  • Star Trek: Voyager.
    • In "Deadlock", Voyager is boarded by over 300 soldiers from a Vidiian warship. We never see more than three at a time, due to the extensive make-up required for the Body Horror species.
    • In "Basics," the ship's entire crew is left to wander the surface of a planet. At least one wide shot reveals that there's only about 30 extras playing the crew instead of the 140-odd there should be.
  • The producers of Game of Thrones obviously didn't have enough money to film a mass battle scene of any kind, and barely had enough actors to let the Lannister camp look somewhat occupied. The audience does not get to see much of the first season's "huge battle," because the perspective character is knocked unconscious almost immediately. In the books, he was conscious, and the narration describes the battle in great detail - but a novelist doesn't need to hire actors.
    • It's even more noticeable with the Dothraki horde of a dozen... um "40,000" Dothraki, to the point that one has to assume the most important members of it ride some considerable distance away from the rest.
    • George Martin even lampshades in his blog, since he is writing the script for the episode depicting the Battle of Blackwater. He complains about the author making the battle too large a scale than the budget available.
    • Oddly inverted with the Unsullied army in full ranks: there are supposed to be 8,000 of them but there are least 3 times that in some shots.
    • From the second season on the show had a noticeably larger effects and extras budget, so this gradually goes away. For instance, we see a Dothraki horde in season 6 which is much more convincingly a force of thousands even though it's supposed to be a fraction the size of the one from the first season.
  • One episode of Xena: Warrior Princess features the Roman invasion of Britain (well a bit of New Zealand that slightly resembles Britain) by an army that struggles to make it into double figures.
  • The 4077 in M*A*S*H. A real MASH unit had, on average, around 200 personnel, including at least 10 medical officers (including a dentist and an anesthesiologist), 12 nurses, 89 enlisted soldiers of assorted medical and non-medical specialties, one Medical Service Corps (MSC) officer, one Warrant Officer and other commissioned officers of assorted specialties. The 4077 had, at most, 70 personnel, an administrative staff consisting of just the CO and his clerk (who doubles as a stretcher-bearer and orderly), four doctors including the CO (it was five in season one, but Spearchucker Jones was written out without explanation, or a replacement), a dentist (Painless Pole) who was Put on a Bus in the season one finale, and an anesthesiologist (Ugly John) who also disappears without explanation or replacement. After Ugly John's disappearance, regular nurses not trained for it administer the anesthetic, something that isn't even done today. note 
    • As well as that, one episode revealed that the three non-CO doctors, the head nurse and the chaplain also pull double duty commanding vital support functions like sanitation and the mess tent
  • Deadliest Warrior: Whenever the match-up is between specific strategists known for leading armies of thousands or hundreds of thousands, they give them a half dozen men each and match them up with their personal weapons. Both squads are invariably wiped out leaving it a personal 1-on-1 fight. They may also off-handedly mention early on the real size of a certain force or army only to still end up with 6 guys on screen facing off against 6 other guys, even though in Real Life one side might have an enormous numerical advantage (e.g. in the match-up of the French Musketeers vs. Ming Warriors, the Musketeers prevail in a 6v6 fight despite the previously-mentioned numerical disparity of a few hundred vs. a million).
  • The Finnish 19th century period piece Hovimäki has a scene where Major Lindhof inspects his troops. There are a total of four shown onscreen.
  • In Legends of Tomorrow, the episodes showing Savage's army in the future are limited to about a dozen guys at most, which is probably the only reason why a mish-mash of superheroes and Badass Normals is able to take them down instead of being wiped out in a massed laser barrage. Savage's army is supposed to be overrunning the entire world at this point. Also, in Season 2, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu can barely scrape together a few dozen samurai (and only samurai, no lower-ranking ashigaru at all) to wipe out a small village. How is he supposed to keep all of Japan in line? Then there's the American Civil War, where we see a few dozen Confederate and Union soldiers deciding the fate of the country. Obviously, the show doesn't have much of a budget, and most of that is being used on CGI.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Miriel's military campaign in Middle-earth numbers only 500 men.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech is somewhat (in)famous for the size of the forces that are regularly deployed to invade, seize, and pacify entire planets in the fiction. Attempts at justification tend to present the vast majority of said planets as Planetvilles; Most Battlemech groups are deployed in the form of a Decapitation Strike, focusing their efforts on the planet's top of the command chain, as once the attackers have taken the capital and attached spaceport, it's relatively rare for them to also have to worry about being attacked by forces initially stationed somewhere else on the same world (there usually aren't any) and civilian uprisings either don't occur at all or else inevitably fail when attempted. Various history-changing battles like the Battle of Tukayyid and Operation Bulldog had thousands of vehicles in combat, but the wargame usually limits itself to about a dozen combatants because it turns into a slow, confusing fustercluck with more without the use of computer aid.
  • The background writers of Warhammer 40,000 are notorious for underestimating the number of soldiers it would take to win a war. Examples include:
    • The Salonika Crusade, which consists of half a million men. A crusade is only invoked when multiple star systems need to be invaded.
    • The 23rd Bruttiam Regiment consists of 600 men (with almost no vehicles), and is expected to protect an entire star system of at least two planets.
    • Space Marine chapters have a maximum of 1000 marines each, and most of their deployments are company sized at best, but they are still sometimes depicted as conquering entire planets by themselves... but in their case, it's more intentional. Writers more concerned with plausibility usually have Space Marines work as auxiliary units to navy fleets and guard armies, advising generals or sending out small strike teams to disrupt enemy leadership. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is not unlike the difference in role, and frequently portrayal, between Royal Marines (Games Workshop is UK-based) and US Marines...
  • Warhammer goes to some lengths to justify this trope, especially in the earlier editions. The 5e and 6e core rulebooks state that one model of basic troops represents roughly 10 troops of the same type in-universe (large models like dragons and giants implicitly only represent one), and give distance and time scales consistent with that figure (1 inch = 10 yards, 1 turn = 1 hour), complete with lines noting that units of 10 models clearly maneuver as if they were much larger formations (because they represent 100+ men) and that real battles are punctuated with long periods of waiting. The fluff, for its part, consistently throws out army figures in-line with the setting's scale and tech level (a Fictional Earth whose civilizations generally vary from medieval to early modern), with most battles taking place between forces in the hundreds to low thousands. A force in the thousands is considered quite large, a force in the tens of thousands is equivalent to the entire muster of a mid-sized state, and a force in the hundreds of thousands is able to threaten a great power or an entire continent. Expansion packs depicting loreful battles that explicitly involved more troops than would be reasonably present in a tabletop game (even with the 1=10 scale applied) have their own workarounds. The most common is dividing said battles into multiple scenarios, with the justification that each scenario was simply a part of the larger engagement. Another is to give one or both sides the ability to respawn slain units to represent more troops being shuffled on to the field, especially if the in-universe environment has a logical bottleneck limiting how many troops can be deployed at a time (e.g. mountain passes).


    Video Games 
  • Ace Of Spades also suffers from this quite badly on some of the larger maps, including the default semi-randomly generated one that's supplied with the game. A 64-player server limit is said to be in the works, however.
  • ARMA Armed Assault 2 averts this trope to an extent, allowing you to simulate battalion-sized meeting engagements between Cold War-era armies... if your PC can handle this without melting your motherboard. The end results, however are well worth it.
  • The Advance Wars series plays with this. On the overworld, no more than 50 units per army but on the battle screen, it can be anywhere from 5 to 10 separate members of that 1 unit (so that 50 units per army is really 250 to 500 members)
  • Age of Wonders has a maximum of nine units per hex, and each unit on the battle screen is merely 1 person. This leads to battles over large cities being fought between armies of around 20-30 people.
    • The third game cut it down to six units, though at the same time it changed most regular units to squads of 10 or more people, resulting in somewhat more realistic fights.
  • The Battle for Middle-earth has about ten soldiers per unit, and you can field maybe twenty individual units, for a total army size of a few hundred guys. The sequel majorly ups the number of soldiers in each infantry unit, but not to the point where even a battle in which both players have hit the Arbitrary Headcount Limit and fielded nothing but infantry will have more than maybe a few thousand troops between them. This can be rather unusual in the campaign mode, which features battles like the Hornburg and the Pelennor Fields—going by the books, the former had an army of around 3000 battling an army of over 10,000, and the latter had 18,000 Haradrim troops being employed as an auxiliary force by Mordor. Yet the campaign missions will feature only a few hundred of either.
  • Battletech follows on its namesake's tradition, with your mercenary group never deploying more than a single lance (A group of fourMechWarriors and their respective BattleMechs) against their targets. This can be changed with mods, however.
  • Battle Zone 1998 has small armies which is partly justified by the 1960s interplanetary war being in space waged with powerful alien technology with small numbers of soldiers to maintain the coverup, though the battles seen in-game are significantly smaller than those implied in Grizzly One's Captain's Log. The largest battle has about a dozen Hover Tank combatants, whereas Grizzly One mentions that hundreds of NSDF personnel died in the first engagement with CCA walkers. The sequel significantly increases the maximum amount of units on the field (up to 120 per player), though in practice engagements aren't that much larger.
  • Blizzard Entertainment games:
    • In the original StarCraft, Terran campaign mission 9, Tassadar's entire Protoss fleet apparently consists of a couple of bases with dozens of zealots and dragoons.
    • Warcraft III introduced a maximum number of units you can build that is very low compared to other similar games at the time. You can only supply a maximum of 90 food units (100 in the expansion) for your army, and the most basic combat unit takes up 2 Food units and every worker 1. More advanced units can even take up as much as 5 or 7 Food units. Combined with the fact that larger armies reduce the amount of gold coming from your mines, this encourages a much faster style of playing the game instead of holing up in your base until you have a massive army. At the same time, the purge of Stratholm and the siege of Dalaran are done by only 20-something attackers. This is at least partially intentional, as the developers wanted players to focus more on micromanaging individual fighters than on guiding large forces. Earlier builds of the game, which were much more RPG than the final game was, had even smaller forces.
  • Brothers in Arms: Re-enacts Cole's charge from the D-Day campaign with 1 Colonel, 1 Sergeant and 6 Paratroopers. In real life the position they had to attack was assaulted with 200 men.
  • Castles II: Siege & Conquest did this at the presentation level, as "zooming" in or out would use the exact same scenery and troop graphics, but portray clustered soldiers and large background features as single troops and more compact landscape.
  • This is averted somewhat in Civilization V, in which each infantry unit consists of several individuals. However, the one-unit-per-hex limitation still results in large battles featuring a few dozen soldiers at most.
  • Defense of the Ancients with its three lanes of five melee mooks and one ranged mook each, which could increase to two ranged mooks and one siege unit.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Done throughout the series, going hand-in-hand with Space Compression. To note:
    • In Morrowind, the entire island of Vvardenfell seems to be held by about three-dozen Imperial Legionnaires spread out over about a half-dozen forts and a couple of small Imperial villages. The Dunmeri Great Houses provide City Guards for the remaining settlements, with the largest cities still containing only a dozen or so.
    • In Oblivion, the PC can recruit soldiers to hold off an invading Daedric horde that is about to burrow through from Oblivion and destroy a city. If you do all the necessary sidequests, you wind up with about a dozen mediocre soldiers to fight an equivalent number of monsters.
    • Skyrim follows suit with the Civil War questline. Depending on which side you support, Ulfric/Tullius delivers his epic speech about the fate of Skyrim at the gates of Solitude/Windhelm, while he is attended usually by the Dragonborn and half-a-dozen random soldiers.
  • In Fable III when the player is tasked with overthrowing their brother, the King of Albion, the entire military of Albion never send more than ten mooks at a time to defend their own capital city.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, Ramza's crew is described occasionally as an army. There's at most 20-ish people in it, and only five of them are ever fighting at a given time. The developers at least explain this away by having the big war and its battles take place away from Ramza's adventures. Being the direct predecessor, Tactics Ogre commits the same sin, though at least allows for twice as many units to be deployed. Still it presents its tiny skirmishes of two dozen soldiers as being key dramatic battles in a massive war.
  • Fire Emblem: Its average Arbitrary Headcount Limit on a large map is around 20 people.
    • Some of the games, such as Path of Radiance, Blazing Blade and Fire Emblem: Awakening, justify this by having the player either control only a small group, or the vanguard of an actual army, with said army doing its own share of fighting offscreen.
    • Genealogy of the Holy War, while not having a headcap, is the most egregious because of its map size, with single units taking entire regions.
    • Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia also has a bad case. Alm is supposed to be leading an army in a war, while Celica is only taking a few friends and mercenaries on a quest. As far as gameplay goes, their forces are the same size. Alm is even shown leading a huge force in cutscenes, but as soon as battle starts it's only a couple dozen of units.
    • Fire Emblem: Three Houses zig-zags this trope. On one hand there's the addition of battalions, squadrons of soldiers that can be equipped to a playable character. They provide stat bonuses to the host unit and can execute Gambits, special maneuvers where the entire squad attack the enemy. The majority of combat, however, remains one-on-one, with the troops fleeing as soon as the unit leading them falls. On the other hand it's the installment in which the player controls by far the smallest army, since by default (unless players go out of their way to recruit all the other students and faculty staff) you get 10-12 playable units depending on the route chosen. On the Crimson Flower route, Edelgard says that you are in command of the Black Eagle Strike Force, an elite strike force that spearheads the Empire's ofensive.
  • Game of Thrones (Telltale) never features more than two dozen combatants, neither on screen nor in dialogue. Just to demonstrate, no more than twenty Whitehill soldiers are needed to occupy the Forrester's residence of Ironrath. And it takes even fewer Glenmore soldiers to reconquer it. It's justified though in that not only are the Houses Forrester, Whitehill and Glenmore miniscule noble estates under the banners of much more prominent families like Stark and Bolton, but also that many of their 'forces' have either gone off to war, deserted, been slain or taken captive during the very recent Northern Rebellion.
  • In Makai Kingdom, Zetta's plan to rebuild his powerbase requires him to conquer several entire Netherworlds, using his army of mooks since he can't fight on his own. You can only have eight characters in play on any given map, and you're unlikely to have more than a few dozen in total. Yes, they may be four-digit levels and extremely powerful with proper work (fifth-tier infantry are titled "One man army" and "One woman army" respectively) but eight people make for a very restrained army.
  • Like its source material, the MechWarrior series depicts suspiciously small armies of BattleMechs conquering entire planets. In Mechwarrior 3, you are tasked with overthrowing planetary defenders (of which less than a dozen are ever on screen at once) with just three lancemates and a Mobile Field Base. Averted in Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries; while you are limited to 8 battlemechs at once, you are a Private Military Contractor and are generally tasked to just ruin someone's day by blowing up their stuff, no planetary conquering here.
  • Ogre Battle has a limit of 100 individuals in the entire revolutionary army (which is trying to capitulate a continet-wide empire), and no more than ten units of five troops on the field at any given time. Major battles deciding the fates of entire provinces take place between two five-soldier units, and end when the enemy leader dies.
  • In Patapon 1 and 2, the eye count of a patapon army is below 20. In Patapon 3, the army is reduced to 4 warriors and a flag carrier.
  • Radiant Historia even during the biggest battles you'll never see more then a dozen or so soldiers. Even more egregious, at one point you're told that 2,000 enemy troops are bearing down on your base. When you reach the field of battle, you might see 25.
  • Shattered Union has players reunite USA with max of 42 units. They are, however, explicitly battalions and divisions of units represented by a single one on the screen. 42 battalions to a combat front isn't that bad, especially since you'd likely be working with relatively low budgets.
  • Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Other than yourself, every battle you participate in is fought with just 16 troops a side! Somehow, this is still enough to make the battles feel dangerous and full of hundreds of soldiers. Might have something to do with AIs respawning and you dying every 10 seconds. The PS2 and Xbox versions of the game have a max reinforcement count of 1000, i.e., the game ends when one side loses 500 guys, which takes less time than you'd think. Averted somewhat in XL mode, at least in comparison to the other game modes. There are more units in XL- 64 units a side.
  • Star Wars: Squadrons does this with the squadrons in question. In Star Wars Legends, a "squadron" of spacecraft consisted of twelve ships of the same make, usually organized into three "flights" of four spacecraft. The "squadrons" in this game consist of four ships of any type and a support craft like a U-Wing or TIE Reaper, and said squadrons are the only starfighters their side deploys in a given battle. Which leads to the absurdity of an Imperial II-class Star Destroyer, which can canonically carry 72 fighters, launching five ships during an assault.
  • In Stronghold Kingdoms, players can only recruit up to 500 military units per village. Non-combat units take up a chunk of that limit, meaning a village can have a much smaller army than anticipated.
  • The old DOS strategy game Sun Tzu's War Academy, this is played with. The game limits the number of icons which represent groups of units on the screen at any given time. You can pick how many troops you have in each sprite. You could use this limitation to your advantage by creating a bunch of very weak units thus forcing the AI into using less groups of troops - which could be to your advantage, depending on the level.
  • Despite being one of the most realistic representations of battlefield tactics in the gaming industry, Total War does this, at least in the earlier games. A units standard size in Rome is between 40 and 60 men, and even at the huge unit size of 240 men, armies can't exceed 4,800 men. The actual Roman army, meanwhile, could deploy many tens of thousands of soldiers in single battles. Naturally this is due to graphical limitations, a 10,000-man army would break all but the most advanced computers. Every faction bringing that many or more to the field would make the game impossible to run.
    • It's possible to bring that many units onto the field, but you won't be able to command them all. It just requires shoe-horning several 4,800-strong groups into the same corner. It also winds up being a very short battle.
    • This is averted in the Medieval 2 expansions, at max unit scale. The number of troops per unit is kept, but the scale of the map has been downsized to cover a smaller area, e.g. the British Isles, the Levant, or Northeastern Europe. As a result, the new army sizes do match pretty closely with historical ones. For example, the various Crusader factions in the the Levantine Crusades campaign can, with some effort, gather ten or so stacks across their territory to get ~30,000-40,000 total troops (and a decent bit more counting replacements that replenish units soon after battles), which matches modern estimates of total Crusader strength during any of the Crusades covered in the game's timeline. As another example, it's fairly easy to build a single army stack with over 3,000 men as the Teutonic Order in the Baltic Crusades campaign; this was actually at the upper limit of what the historical Teutonic Order could field for an expeditionary campaign during the campaign's early timeline, as shown by the Battle of Lake Peipus.
    • Rome used 80-man units ("centuries") in real life, and 4,800 men is the low-end size of a Roman legion. Of course, most major battles in Roman history involved several; for instance, Julius Caesar commanded twelve legions at the battle of Alesia (which was an under-powered force for the task). At its height the army contained around fifty legions, plus at least as many auxiliaries and cavalry units, but obviously never all deployed at once.
    • Potentially not the case in Total War: Shogun 2; the engine can handle up to 56,000 troops on screen at any one time, while looking jaw-droppingly beautiful at the same time. Moreover, like in the Medieval 2 examples above, the overall size of the armies is perfectly appropriate for the campaign's scale (restricted to Japan alone, while the other games' maps cover areas larger than Europe). However despite its capabilities, the system still restricts the player to twenty units in a single army and forty on each side of a battle. If more than forty units have been brought they come in as existing units are wiped out or flee.
    • Total War: Warhammer specifically implies unit compression by a factor of ten, i.e. ten soldiers exist in "reality" for every one in-game. The units are referred to several times as a regiments, and at max scale (for the Empire) vary from 45-60 (for heavy cavalry and artillery) to 90 (for missile infantry) to 120 (for melee infantry).note  450-600 for cavalry and 900-1,200 for infantry are in fact the sizes of preindustrial European regiments. With one unit slot being taken up by a Lord, this places a typical human army in the Warhammer games around 1,500-2,000 men, and 15-20,000 was around the max sustainable size of a single field formation in the era Warhammer draws from (much more than that and they can't live off the land, at least until said land becomes massively more wealthy in the 19th century).
  • Justified in Tyranny, where expensive, hard-to-work bronze and similarly Bronze Age populations means most nations have a small, elite army and occasionally a powerful mage as their entire armed forces. The armies of Kyros conquered the world by averting this with iron. It is heavy and inferior to bronze (steel has not yet been invented), but cheap and so easily mass-produced (at least for those who have the knowledge to create and work it) that Kyros' legions can simply overrun any resistance.
  • In Valkyria Chronicles, the largest number of people the player can command at any given moment is two tanks and eight infantry. Arbitrary Headcount Limit aside, this is somewhat justified by the player being in charge of only Squad 7, a small militia unit of about sixty-strong at most that focuses more on being a vanguard and specialized strike force, with the rest of the fighting done by other Gallian troops off-screen. A similar justification is in play for Valkyria Chronicles III's limit of nine units max at any given moment, due to the player controlling only a small black-ops squad of about two dozen members at most.
    • Valkyria Chronicles II only allows six units on the field at once, with the main squad itself numbering only thirty-five-strong at most. In this case, the small scale is justified by the main cast being military cadets who are fighting against rebels instead of an entire empire's army.
    • Justified again in Valkyria Chronicles 4 as the player controls a Ranger squad, who are a defined as a smaller detachment who independently focus on key objectives. During The War Sequence early on, the more numerous regular forces are represented by allied units.
  • In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the cap on the number of soldiers you can fit in your barracks is 99, which is about two to four platoons. Your strike teams consist of four soldiers by default, and with the right upgrades you can increase this to a whopping six. And apparently you have a single Skyranger transport, because if the aliens attack multiple sites simultaneously, you get the Sadistic Choice of deciding which to respond to instead of sending teams to all three. This is justified to an extent in that XCOM isn't supposed to fight the war, but win it; the whole point of the organisation is learning and developing ways to fight the aliens, securing key objectives, and subverting the alien's offensives and plans, leaving the real heavy lifting to the traditional military forces. The original X-COM was actually a bit more realistic in this regard, since you started out with the ability to send up to 14 soldiers on a mission, and researching a late-game ship design boosted this to 26.
  • Justified in the Homeworld series for all the factions, in that they either have a small population or enough committments they can't spare more than two or three dozen ships for any given battle. Plus in the original game the Kushan select a path to Hiigara specifically to avoid any large concentration of enemy ships, so at any encounter the Taiidan Empire only has small fleets.

    Real Life 
  • Fidel Castro almost always had only 200-300 in his revolutionary band, and in most battles against Batista's army, which numbered 37,000 strong with tanks, artillery, and aircraft, he won almost every battle. Note that unlike many tropes like this, this was not mainly an example of a Badass Army but instead a remarkable example of two forces with almost no appreciation for sound military tactics or strategy blundering all over each other, which Castro won against amazing odds by being slightly smarter and vastly more able to inspire loyalty and dedication. In fact, Batista's troops often either didn't fight or were literally unable to due to lack of supplies.note  The often forgotten Escambray rebellion against Castro's rule later was in fact much larger than Castro's own "revolution" (heck, even the exile rebels at the Bay of Pigs were a larger group), but since the Communist dictatorship wasn't as incompetent as Batista's (and Castro was supported to the hilt by the Soviets while the Americans left Batista out to dry), that rebellion was steadily crushed over the years and faded into historical obscurity.
  • Francisco Pizarro, a minor Spanish noble and conquistador, essentially conquered the entire Inca Empire (a Bronze Age polity of 10 million people and 2 million square miles) with 168 men.
  • Portuguese "armies" of a few hundred men - consisting mostly of light infantry marines emptied from the ships - routinely accomplished insane feats throughout Asia in the 16th century facing Indian and Indonesian armies in the tens of thousands. And unlike the Incas, the Indians and Indonesians had cannons, cavalry, and iron/steel weapons. Just a few examples.
  • A single platoon-sized unit of 62 French Foreign Legionaries with little more than rifles essentially held up the entire main Mexican army at the Battle of Camarón, inflicting ten times their own losses, even though the Mexicans had thousands of troops with artillery and cavalry.
  • During the German-Italian invasion of Yugoslavia in World War 2, the capital city and its garrison of tens of thousands of heavily armed men were essentially captured by a scouting party of six Germans. To quote Wikipedia: "On April 11, a German Officer, Fritz Klingenberg with 5 men, moved into Belgrade to reconnoitre the city. However, after some scattered combat with Yugoslav troops, they entered the centre of the city, whereupon they bluffed about their size and incoming threats of bombardment. The city, represented by the Mayor, surrendered to them at 18:45 hours on the 12 of February."
  • Plutarch claims that when Tigranes the Great, the king of Armenia, saw the invasion force led by Roman General Lucullus, said "too many to be an embassy, too few to be an army." However, the Romans crushed Tigranes' armies and conquered his kingdom. The veracity of the quote, it should be noted, is doubted but its existence does make the trope Older Than Feudalism.
  • The Sapri Expedition, an attempt to topple the Kingdom of Two Sicilies during the Wars of Italian Independence made by an "army" of twenty-five: they weren't trying to conquer the place, just starting an insurrection near the capital of Naples that would then do most of the job. This ended in an Epic Fail: seeing the pro-Italian unification patriots coming to try and starting an insurrection, the government warned the people of the coming bandits who had just staged a mass breakout from the jail of Ponza and sat there watching the Angry Mob that killed many of the patriots and criminals and captured and delivered the survivors to the police.
  • In the next Sapri Expedition, the idea was to start an insurrection. This time, there were a thousand of them, which was still far smaller than the Neapolitan army of 50,000. Led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the small army quickly swelled up thanks to locals and defectors from the Sicilian Army, and the attempt succeeded. The Sicilians in fact hardly fought him at all.
  • The Great Heathen Army, a Danish Viking force that invaded England and conquered half of it in the second half of the 9th century, was of an uncertain size, but modern estimates suggest that it was at most a few thousand men, and at the lowest no more than one thousand men. Tiny armies like this were common in the Early Middle Ages due to the lack of a centralized logistical system for supporting the larger armies that were common in Antiquity and the Late Medieval period onward.
  • The High Middle Ages were also somewhat like this. The French under Duke William of Normandy conquered all of England with only 8,000 men, and the Kingdom of England was estimated to have only been able to field 14,000 well-equipped troops across the entirety of the country,note  or 1% of its then-population of 1.5 million. When considering that, 1,000 years earlier, the Romans needed 30,000 men (four legions plus auxiliaries) to conquer what would later become England, and that 400 years later, more than 50,000 English troops would fight at the Battle of Towton, the armies involved were quite tiny indeed. This was a large part of why Europe became so fractured and decentralized in this time; every petty lord could afford a castle or fortify their city to at least some degree, but the large well-drilled and well-supplied armies needed to take them just didn't exist anymore.
  • The American filibuster William Walker invaded Baja California and Sonora with 45 mercenaries and managed to capture La Paz, though he only briefly held it. He later invaded Nicaragua with 60 mercenaries and 110 Nicaraguan locals and succeeded in conquering the nation. He installed himself as president and ruled it for less than a year before surrounding nations united to drive him out.