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Is it Better to Attack or Defend?

Is it Better to Attack or Defend?
Strategy, Real-world example

Article Rating:::: 24 Ratings :::: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Throughout history, various military strategists in different cultures have noticed an unusual phenomenon: in battle the side that was on the defensive won in the end. Why should this be the case? Does this apply to Risk as well? Based on history, is it truly better to defend rather than attack? How about the other famous aphorism that “Attack is the best defence”? Aren’t these contradictory?

To answer these questions we need to look at attack and defence in more detail and examine the human psychology that dictates certain behaviours that will eventually lead to one choice or the other.

Attack and defence are like two sides of a coin. They each have advantages and disadvantages. Like many questions examining two possible solutions, you may have to use one or the other in specific situations as the ultimate choice. However, the general question remains as to which method is the preferred default choice.

Many battles in history are won by the defender. Examples are, the Battle of Austerlitz, Persian invasion of the Greeks in the battle of Thermopylae, countless examples in the era of Warring States in China and so on. On further examination, there were several reasons for the defenders’ advantage:

  1. When an aggressor goes on to attack, there are no more surprises left. The attack has happened and the defender can clearly see the attacker’s strategy, and respond accordingly. For example, in Risk, once a player has attacked another continent, he has made it obvious that he is interested in that continent. Now it is no longer a surprise, everyone can see his strategy.
  2. If the defender can withstand the initial onslaught, the defender can turn the tables and exploit the aggressor’s weakness. Attacking uses a lot of resources and as a result an attacker is extremely vulnerable immediately after the attack. It requires more armies, resources and energy to take land than to hold it. In short, the defenders can counter attack.
  3. An attacker makes enemies. A defender is a victim in the eyes of the world. When it comes to diplomacy, the defender will have an easier time to get others joining him to defend against the ‘evil empire’ than for the attacker to create a ‘coalition of the willing’.

Ancient military strategists, upon examining the historic battles, developed the art of counterattack. The idea was to actively bait the enemy to attack and make the first move, only to end up weaker by spending a lot of their resources and then taking advantage of this weakness to overwhelm them by a counterattack. The art of counterattack was refined by theorist such as Sun Tzu and later practiced to perfection by leaders such as Philip of Macedon.

Counterattack can be classified as the origin of the modern strategy as it is a first attempt in winning using an indirect approach. The introduction of counterattack was a major breakthrough. Now you no longer had to be brutal, big and resourceful. You just had to be patient, calculating, deceptive, subtle and always with an end in mind.

Counterattack relies extensively on human psychology. We are inherently impatient. We are also explorers, want to expand and want to win. As a result, we find it hard to wait and we like to take the initiate and go for the ‘kill’. This impatience can come at a cost. Rather than thinking everything through, we tend to get carried away by the excitement and want to charge as soon as possible. This phenomenon is not limited only to battles, it can be observed in any competitive environment.

At this point, you may wonder about the benefits of direct attack. Is there really no benefit there? As stated before, there are times that attack may prove to be the best approach. Let’s examine the advantages of an attack:

  1. An attacker has the initiative. Others will have to respond to his first move and so he can force an issue on others. For example, capturing a strategic position may force the other players to come in to defend it. As an attacker, you have forced your enemies to make a move which might be quite beneficial to you in your grand strategy.
  2. Risk captures the element of surprise in attacks by assigning a slight advantage in dice calculation for the attacker. In other words, all things being equal, an attacker has a higher chance of winning in battles than a defender (purely based on probability). In the context of the game, this is useful as it encourages players to attack so the game becomes more entertaining. It means that if you are completely sure that two sets of armies are going to collide, you might as well make the attack as you have a slight chance in army calculations and may end up in a better position afterwards.
  3. An attacker can eliminate a player or his presence in part of a world for a number of advantages:
    • The eliminated player hands over the remaining resources such as cards in Risk to the attacker.
    • The player who is cut off from one side of the world will no longer be a threat however aggressive. He can only influence matters indirectly through diplomacy. Cutting the access of another player to your part of the world is indeed a critical strategy in Risk.
  4. An attacker is scary and looks aggressive. Other players think twice before attacking such a player as they don’t want the potential revenge.

These advantages should always be considered when making decisions. However, a grand rule in Risk or in fact in any competitive environment is preservation of resources. If you don’t attack, you can simply watch others kill each other off and then seize the opportunity to collect the prize, be it resources, stronghold or simple expansion. In short, counterattack, is still a much better approach than always-attack.

To master the counterattack strategy, you need to master yourself. You need to know your values and your mission. You need to know exactly what you want to get and you also need to know exactly what your enemies want to get. Once you learn patience, you suddenly end up with more options. Rather than being worried about were to make a move, or attack here and there, you focus on saving you resources and wait until you can take advantage of someone’s weakness. Opportunities will arise and since you have waited and saved your resources, you will be able to exploit them to the maximum.

The key to a successful counterattack is to stay calm and collected while your opponent gets exhausted and irritated. Counterattack is particularly useful against random players who tend to pick a fight just for the pleasure of it. They are usually weak and don’t understand the implications of their moves. A decisive counterattack on their weakness can destroy them quite quickly.

Bait your enemies into a rash attack which can end up in disaster. Now they have only themselves to blame and you can take advantage of their disorientation. You can win the battle of appearance and the battle for resources. Very few strategies provide such flexibility, power and usability.

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Great Alan   By Great Alan @ Wednesday, February 25, 2009 12:46 PM
Thank you for Ehsan's another wonderful article.Your view about attack,defense and counter-attack is excellent,showing that you have seized the "key of great strategy".

Let me add more then.Attack and defense is not dull and simpily divided,they're actually combined into one in military and can perform the various change.When you attack someone,you have to add the element of "defense" to deal with his possible counter-attack;When you're defending,you can attack your rival to make your defense much easier.Hence,the best attack or defense is combine them flexibly.

Let me give some historical examples about some outstanding military operation:

1.Strategically attack,tactically defend --- Napoleon's brilliant movement of Ulm and Austerlitz Campaign:

In 1805,Austria and Russia(and later Prussia) organized the coalition to against the Napoleonic France.Facing this tremendous threat,Napoleon decided to adopt the initiative action.

He swiftly led 160,000 troops thrust into Southern Germany,near the Austrian western border.At there,he quickly besieged 50,000 strong Austrian vanguard under General Mack at Ulm.Instead of the directly bloody attack,he chose to starve the defender,guarding every possible supply route around Danube River to Ulm.This forced Mack to surrender without any breakthrough's attempt.

Soon he marched to capture the defenseless Vienna,sending cavalry to chase 38,000 Russian vanguard(though escaped).Hence,the main Russian Army massed together with the remaining Austrian Army,totally 86,000 troops(While Napoleon had only 73,000 in the region).Much worse was Prussia had declared war to France already,Napoleon had to defeat the Russo-Austrian Army quickly or was doomed.

Therefore,Napoleon decided to using every method(such as pretended retreat,show cowardice in negotiation) to lure his rivals falling into his well-planned trap.Finally,the Russo-Austrian Army was destroyed disastrously.The anti-French Coalition quickly made peace with Napoleon,thus Napoleon started to become the "lord of Europe".

From this example,it clearly show that even when you're attacking,your troops is standing in the emeny's domains,you can still fight like defense.The history had told us defense have more chance to victory than attack.

2.Strategically defend,tactically attack --- Frederick's manuever against three empires

If what situation Napoleon faced at 1805 can be called "dangerous".Then what Frederick was facing in 1756 was the "nearly desperated position".Almost all of his strong neighbour,France,Austria and Russia combined against his little kingdom of Prussia together!Only Britain was his side.But the Britain didn't have strong land force to supporting him at the European continent.Few weak German states at the west seemed like no match to the powerful France.Could Frederick counter all of them?

However,Frederick understood that he can take the initiative since three countries was unable to attack him at the same time.He quickly mobilized the main force to assault Austria first,attempted to forcing Austria make peace with him before dealing with Russia and France.He overcame the Austrian at Prague(capital of Bohemia),but then defeated and counter-attacked by Austria in 1757.While France and Russia was coming to "cornered him".

Even so,Frederick still restored the aggressive operation,understood that only attack and defeated them one by one can relieve his dire situation.He swiftly led only 20,000 troops to the west,shattered the French Army that outnumbered him 2:1 at Rossbach by his cunning ambuscade in 1758.And then quickly turned back to the east and defeated the Austrian Army at Leuthen decisively,largely improved his situation.

At 1759,he suffered the terrible defeat at Kunersdorf under the Russo-Austrian troops' co-operation.But his rivals' never work well to the last.Thus Frederick was able to breathe and survived in such situation.He resisted the anti-Prussia coalition stubbornly to the last.At 1763,Russia left the war since the new monarch ascended.Austria realized that he can't win.Therefore,Prussia managed to gain the peace finally at 1763,ending the "Seven Years' War".

As you observed,strategic defense is not the purely defense.Specially you're facing the superior force which can overwhelm you by number,you can't just sit and wait him to destroy you.There're only one way to defeat him:Fast-strike,shatter his force at once.

Ehsan Honary   By Ehsan Honary @ Wednesday, February 25, 2009 8:25 PM
Thanks Alan. Great addition. I liked the historical accounts. Very useful.

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I am a board game and Risk game enthusiast. I like thinking and talking about strategy in games which has led me to the creation of this website. Although Risk is a classic, I feel one can never get tired of playing this game. Read about what I think of the game and I am always eager to know what you think.

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