This page assumes that the reader has read GettingStarted and is familiar with the WesnothManual. It assumes you have played enough games to be familiar with the system, and know how to push units around, and are now looking for insight in how to outthink the AI or a human opponent. Some tactics are only useful in specific circumstances and would be foolish at other times. Pick and choose those that fit your particular style. Do you overwhelm your opponent with sheer numbers, or a few well-chosen high-level units? Do you prefer to "roleplay" one race? Do you want to play many scenarios, or replay one over and over until you achieve the perfect game?
Strategy Before Tactics
Tactics relate to move-by-move decisions relating to the units on the map. When tactics are not related to a sound strategy, they may be sometimes overcome by a weaker or less tactically advanced force which is better able to craft such a strategy.
In general, before you begin a scenario or battle, you should survey the map. The following considerations are important:
- Areas where your forces can/cannot move quickly
- Areas where your forces have defensive advantages
- Areas where your opponents' forces can/cannot move quickly
- Areas where your opponent has a defensive advantage.
- Size of the map (larger maps stress scouting and mobility while smaller maps stress close fighting more.
Often maps will have areas where opposing forces will have to cross slow terrain (such as a river) and be vulnerable except for small channels (such as a bridge or a ford), Because it is difficult to mount an attack across these choke points, they can be controlled with fewer units while the rest of the army is elsewhere. Once you have a full flow plan relating to where you want to hold the enemy and where you want to overrun, you can proceed to the next step.
Broad Opening Strategy Categories
Depending on the size of the map, the distance between you and your nearest opponent, and mobility considerations you may want to decide to open make your initial opening stress a specific competency of your force. In general these can be divided into the following categories:
- Scouting Game. In this case, one recruits a large number of scouts in order to control as many villages as possible as soon as possible. This works best in large maps where the distance to the nearest opponent is quite large. Scout games tend to end up being large army games where all sides amass substantial numbers of units.
- Formation Game. In this case one recruits slower moving heavier fighters followed by more mobile forces. The goal here is to have a line which can withstand an initial attack solidly and then have other, swifter forces enter the battle to overrun the enemy. For example, a line of spearmen could have horsemen behind them, so that the horsemen get to attack enemy troops which have already been wounded in the fight with the front-line. This is a specialized form of leap-frogging (see below) where the relief troops actually expect to break through the opponent's line. This is most effective on small maps or where the distance to the nearest opponent is small.
- Vanguard Game. This strategy is somewhere between the above strategies. In this case, heavy, fast moving troops are recruited first (for example a combination of knights and horsemen or dragoons and cavalry). These forces advance rapidly and then hold an area long enough for heavier infantry to arrive. The original vanguard can then retreat to heal if necessary. This is most effective on mid size maps.
From Sun Tzu to "Shock and Awe", military writers have stressed that one must not enter into a conflict unless substantially stronger than your enemy. In Wesnoth, this means
- more units
- better (stronger, higher level) units, and
- superior healing ability in your second line.
In general, a good rule to follow is 3-1. If you can fight with three times the power, you can overrun your opponent quickly. A smaller numerical advantage can allow you to create focused points where that ratio exists.
Napoleon was especially skilled at manoeuvring his forces so as to gain an advantage even when outnumbered. By attacking his enemy in the centre, he broke their lines and divided the enemy forces in two. Then, a small detachment fortified their position and held off one flank, while Napoleon's main force attacked the now outnumbered other half. After reducing the first half, the main force would rejoin the flank-holders and destroy the remaining half. (This strategy is known as "defeat in detail".)
To implement this in Wesnoth, leave a few units with many hit points in favourable terrain on one flank, while the majority of your force attacks on a different front. For example, two red and one white mage, or three paladins. By combining healers and the healing effect of villages, a small force can hold off superior numbers for a very long time.
You can misdirect the AI (and a surprising number of human opponents) by sending a few units towards an objective like an enemy leader, village, or bridge. They will overreact and position their units badly. Similarly, you can send fast units behind the enemy lines to capture villages. Do not attempt to hold them; instead move onto the next while the enemy diverts front line troops or reinforcements. Flying units are particularly adept at this since they ignore terrain. Sometimes a feint can turn into your main offensive as well, if the enemy calls a bluff and ignores your feinting units.
Against human opponents, remember to guard against this kind of tactic. If you see an enemy mounting an attack that doesn't seem to make sense, then it's likely to be a diversion. This doesn't mean that you should ignore it, however - instead, try to counter and contain the attacking force until your opponent's plan becomes clearer, but do not use your entire army - you might wipe out several enemy units, but that won't help you if another detachment corners your leader without support.
Bounding (or leap frog)
Every strategist throughout history warns to "keep a reserve". In Wesnoth, this means that you must not attack with all your units. Instead, hold back units to exploit holes caused by your initial attacks. Or, you might need to move a fresh unit with many hit points to the front line so they can 'take a beating' and hold your lines.
In modern times, the "reserve" concept has been expanded as follows. Divide your main force into two groups, and attack with the first while holding the second back. When the first group is chewed up, withdraw it to healers or villages, while you attack with the second group. This approach allows you to distribute experience more evenly among your units, particularly useful in a longer campaign. However, if you need the higher-level units, selecting which units deliver a fatal blow levels units faster. This way, you are less likely to lose units with higher exp, resulting in more units succeeding in levelling up.
Do not use high level units, and definitely not your commander, to guard the healers or villages, as the enemy might focus on them instead, and attack the wounded seeking aid.
Sometimes, if it is a favourable time of day, you can quickly achieve victory with an all-out assault. If the enemy is clearly weaker than you, or the conditions are right, this can be an effective strategy. Most of the time, however, commanders are advised to use other, more elegant strategies.
Small and strong
Develop a small core group of high level units. Recall a strike force for one or two turns, then move off in a tight pack. Most should be level 2, with a few level 3 units to hold the flanks or commit in the 2-3 most decisive rounds. With this strategy, you'll need fewer villages to provide income, and thus be less distracted with acquiring them.
Remember to recruit level 1 units to absorb the enemy's first attacks, as well as for feints and holding unimportant villages. Allow those that survive to finish off dying enemy units to replace any of your core group that make the final sacrifice. In other words, since some of your levelled units are expected to die, you need to level up new units to replace them.
Advanceable vs Non-advanceable Units
In general you want as much experience to go to advanceable units as possible. However, units which are no longer capable of advancing further can be of great help in specific circumstances including:
- Holding strategic terrain while the bulk of the army is elsewhere.
- Softening up opponents before they can be taken out by other, advanceable forces.
- Skirmisher units, advancible or not, are extremely useful for attacking choke points because they can help break up an opposing army quickly.
- Rescuing vulnerable but important troops (shamans, white mages, etc) from overwhelming opposition.
Hit Point Conservation
Hit points are a unit's only non-renewable resource. Choose the attack which causes your unit the least damage, not deals out the most to the enemy. For example, assume you are attacking a unit that does 6-3 close combat, and has no range attack. Your unit has a 4-4 close combat and a 3-3 range attack. Consider the tactical situation carefully. Do you need to kill the unit this turn? Is it on a village or next to a healer? Do not automatically accept the computer's recommendation (it is simply the attack likely to do the most damage, regardless of how much you take!).
Remember, when a unit levels up, it regenerates its full HP allowance and heals.
Finally, attacking an enemy leader, especially in a castle, is an expensive proposition, even if you use magical attacks. Expect to lose units while wearing down its hit points.
Using the Level-Up
When mopping up at the end of a scenario, try to balance the experience so that several units are close to their next level. It is better to start the next scenario with lower-level units that are about to level than with those same units at a higher level. This way, you save 1 gold for every turn between recalling a unit and when it levels up. You can also use these units (along with some level-1 fodder) as the first assault with the promise that they will regenerate full hit points and become stronger attackers when they do level-up. Using the power of the level-up to its full potential can significantly improve your odds of finishing scenarios quickly and without having any units die.
All units, even those at their max level, heal now when they reach their full experience. However, an At Max Level Advancement (AMLA) usually only provides +3 hitpoints and a heal; not nearly as useful as a regular level up. This is why it is usually better to give experience to your lower-level units.
The Spearhead Principle - a dangerous gamble
A blunt stick is unlikely to penetrate any defense whatsoever - its power is spread across too wide an area. But a sharpened spear can break through defences far more easily, because its energy is all focused onto a single point. This also applies on a strategic level - in most, though not all, circumstances, it is more useful to inflict massive damage on a small part of the enemy line, rather than spreading your forces thinly to attack every point at once.
This can take much more planning than is immediately obvious - study the battlefield and the enemy's deployment well before attempting a 'spearhead' maneuver. Then, when the light is about to become favourable for you (or bad for your enemy, if your troops are neutral), attack fast, moving as many hard-hitting troops as possible into the smallest possible area (this is a variation on Napoleon's 'defeat in detail' strategy, outlined above). Look carefully at the terrain, and decide on an area to focus on.
If you have the manpower, you should try to surround this entire area with light, fast, expendable troops - they don't need to fight, but you should try to have a complete Zone-of-Control net around your chosen theater of battle. Your objective is then very simple - you are attempting to wipe out every enemy unit in that area, before the light changes. Do not let any enemy escape, they will heal in a village and come back into the fight. When the light starts to change, or earlier if you have already broken the enemy, move your entire force together (except for the scouts), along the enemy line to destroy one flank of their army. Use your scouts to harass and contain units on the other flank, try to keep them in one place until your main force can reach them and overwhelm them.
With sound tactics and moderate luck, you should now have destroyed most of the enemy force, with few losses of your own. Several units are likely to advance while doing this - these troops, and any that are close to advancing, should then be used to hunt down and kill the enemy leader and whatever forces he or she has left.
Be aware, however, that this is a risky strategy - if you are unlucky, poorly-prepared, or your enemy mounts a strong counterattack, it is likely that your troops will be bogged down and slowly wiped out - or, even worse, confined by scouts, while your enemy's main force simply marches around them to kill your leader. This kind of tactic can win you a game in a few turns - but it can lose it just as easily, if not executed well.
|"Thieves are deft of foot, and elusive, making them difficult to hit. Being skilled at backstabbing, thieves do double damage when attacking an enemy that has an ally of the thief on its opposite side. Being of chaotic disposition, thieves fight better at night than during the day."|
Assassins, Nightgaunts, Rogues, Shadows and Thieves can backstab. A Thief costs 13 gold and has base attack of 4-3. But with a backstab, it does an impressive 8-3, the equivalent of most Level 2 units. Backstabbing at night with a Strong Thief does 12-3. After 24 Experience Points, they level up to a Rogue doing 6-3 base...
You don't have to attack with another unit to get the backstab bonus -- there just needs to be a unit on the opposite side of the enemy. The ally can even move after the backstab, if it didn't use up its moves by moving into the enemy's Zone of Control this turn. Thieves work well in pairs against weak or unsupported units. They can surround a unit and attack it turn after turn.
It's often effective to use units with backstab in pairs, so that each provides the bonus to the other. This is especially effective with Shadows, due to their good movement rate. Keep one or two such pairs around your flanks to ambush lone scouts and village-stealers.
Shamans, being slow, weak, and of limited firepower, need to be used carefully, but don't dismiss their offensive ability. Their Slow attack can cripple strong enemy units by effectively halving their damage.
Of course this tactic is even more useful for your higher-level units: Druids, Shydes, the Sorceress line, and Goblin Pillagers, because they can more reliably slow the enemy unit and are more likely to survive a counterattack (especially from additional unslowed units).
You can also keep a unit that slows the enemy in your attack force, to slow down a wounded enemy unit that wishes to escape, or to cripple their attacks at the beginning of your attack, then proceed to use fighters that will take less damage from the halved attacks.
Healing and Curing
Move your healers in pairs so that you retain the freedom to use them in combat when appropriate without having to retire to a village afterward. Remember the difference between healing and curing, put your better healers where they will be more needed.
Don't forget that with a Curing unit nearby, you needn't fear poison. An assassin's darts are only a serious threat if they can poison an unsupported unit. Your Druid or White Mage will cure the poison before it has time to work, (However, they cannot remove damage from a unit on the same turn they cure poison from that unit). and they can cure poison from every adjacent unit - irrespective of damage they have to heal.
When using poisonous units (Ghouls, Orcish Assassins, Assassins), your goal should be to distribute their poison attack among as many units as possible, rather than concentrating on a single enemy. Units that are already poisoned should be a low priority for your other units' attacks as well, unless they can score a kill.
Don't underestimate the usage of poison against regenerating units, or units in a village or next to a curer. While the healing will remove the poison, it does so in lieu of healing hit points. Repeated poisonings can prevent these (often tough or hard-to-hit) units from recovering while your other units whittle them down.
Against units with high defense or high evasion, poison can help a lot to weaken them, since you just have to hit them once, then they will take damage (until healed) every turn, no matter how many times you hit them or how much damage they take from your attacks. After they are weak, just a lucky hit could kill them.
It also helps if lawful units are poisoned at the end of an attack during the night by chaotic units. It is risky to chase chaotic units with poisoned lawful units during the day, which could force them to retire and lose their chance to attack during their most favorable time of the day.
When a unit's attack is listed as "swarm", the number of attacks per round is based on its current fraction of maximum health. That is to say, if a unit with swarm is at 3/4 health, it will only do 3/4 of its maximum attacks. This does not affect the damage of each attack.
If you are the owner of such a unit then keeping it in good health should be your top priority. If you are facing a swarmer, the best idea is to poison it and then avoid it as they are usually high level monsters. As of 1.1.1 using "slow" on these units is very effective as it halves their movement speed, making avoiding them while the poison works easier. Once they are at low health, move in for the kill.
(From the manual - Henkutsu_tama)
Remember that your commander may recruit units when standing on any Keep tile, not only the one you start on. If you have two enemies, where one is some distance beyond the other (like in 'The Siege of Elensefar'), you recruit enough units to take out the first enemy Commander (and possibly hold off the second enemy's front troops), then you move onto the slain Commander's Keep, and recruit the units you need to take out the remaining opposition. This saves you money in the long run, and keeps your Commander closer to the action so he may level up sooner.
If there are several enemies with significant difference in their strength of arms, first concentrate on the weakest, or else the one with the highest income potential. Move your Commander along with your troops, and after you have wiped this enemy out, use their Castle as your new base. This has the added benefit of protecting your Commander, often a target of enemy troops, so you don't need to recruit units only for protecting him, while your main force is engaged somewhere else. In the end, this will save you lots of gold. Such tactics are essential on maps with many opponents, for example against the AI on multiplayer map 'Dwarven Doors'.
Plan placement of units
Place recruited and recalled units manually. Choose the best castle tile for a unit to be placed by clicking on the tile before recruiting or recalling. This way you can often capture villages a turn earlier, or move units to critical map squares before your opponent.
For maps with narrow passages leading out of the castle (like Bay of Pearls or some of the random underground maps in Heir to the Throne), recruit or recall pairs of slow and fast units. Both units in such a pair will then be able to use their maximum movement without impeding each other. So recruit an Elvish Fighter together with a Horseman, or even an Elvish Fighter with an Elvish Archer.
- Some units, such as Orcish Grunts or Horseman, have no ranged attack. Take advantage of this by using units that are skilled in both melee and ranged, such as Elvish Rangers, so that your opponent will be helpless when you are attacking, and you will not be at a disadvantage when you defend. The same goes for units with no melee attack, such as Dark Adepts.
- When a battle is raging, use fast-moving units (your scouts) to distract the enemy by sneaking past enemy troops and conquering enemy villages, cutting off their gold supply or sometimes forcing them to split up their armies.
- If a battle occurs at a river or some other narrow pass, it can be beneficial to use skirmishing units such as Duelists to easily cross the river and surround your opponent or use airborne units like Gryphons to use the river squares without being at a great disadvantage.
- If you need to cross a large body of shallow water, mountains, cave floor, or other difficult terrain, use units whose moves are divisible by their movement on such terrain so moves don't go to waste. For example, if a unit takes three moves to get through one water tile, make sure it has three, six, or nine movement. Recalling 'quick' units can help ensure you've chosen the right ones. If you recall a unit with five movement points, they will only be able to move one hex per turn in terrain that requires three movement points, while a similar unit with six movement points can move two hexes per turn.
- Units such as Elvish Fighters that are cheap to produce in mass and that have both decent melee and ranged attacks can often be good for holding your front lines, since they will cause harm to their opponents no matter what they are. A front line of horsemen, on the other hand, is not good for holding a position, for they are costly, fall quickly to enemy archers, and probably will never be able to strike back.
Know the Battlefield
Reconnaissance - Know the Map
While attack is influenced by the time of day, defense is affected by terrain. First find all the castles and note the different kinds of terrain immediately surrounding them. If you're playing under Shroud, send out two or three scouts to locate the castles. This is also often worth it on Fog of War, because you learn what faction your enemy is (if you don't know already) and how defended their castle is. Expect to recruit more when they die. The knowledge they provide is worth more than their cost.
Survey - Know the Terrain
Take an overall look at the size of each terrain type and note which are the most important. This affects what units to select and their overall effectiveness. Then examine whether the main terrain is evenly distributed, scattered, or in a few large areas. Note what terrain you want to avoid and why. Mountains and deep water are bad for all but a few unit types. These act as walls which the opponents can use to trap you: of course, you can do likewise to your opponents. If you have saved some of your starting gold, you can also decide which units will be better for reinforcements based off a more common terrain.
Transport - Know the Pathways
Try to link advantageous terrain areas together in your mind from where your units are (your castle at start of play) to opposing and friendly castles. Use villages scattered between you and the target to influence the route to take, especially if you can't recruit any healing units. Decide which terrain is most favourable for your units and less favourable for the enemy. If your goal is to reach an object or hex, then do the same for that.
If one route proves difficult, switch to another. Get to know which routes work best for different units and locate meeting places to regroup units. Try to keep the opponents guessing what you're going to do next. By using several adjacent routes to a target, the opponents will have a tougher time stopping your advance. In some cases it is easier to send a main group directly towards the target and use fast units to circle around behind.
Features - Know the Traps
Note carefully where favourable terrain on either side of unfavourable reach their closest point. These are defense positions for you to ambush approaching opponents (with or without a thief) and provide protection for friendly units. Sometimes the terrain forms passages for units to pass through quickly. Check whether it takes fewer turns to move around slow terrain than through it. In slow terrain, it is tougher to encircle units and immobilise them, so drive them toward better suited terrain (using ZoC, see elsewhere) and encircle there.
Distance - Watch the Time
Use caution when setting up your front line and advancing immediately, as often the time of day will be exactly in its least advantageous point right when you meet your enemies. If you wait a few turns just passing the time by capturing nearby villages and meet the enemy at First Watch/Dawn, respectively, you can cut down the majority of the enemy's army before they can do anything about it. Also, if you find yourself in a evenly matched or losing position during your worst part of the day it can be ideal to fall back to villages or simply hold tight without attacking the enemy, as you want the battle to progress as slowly as possible during this part of the day. (Note: If you have units that can attack at no risk [mages to trolls, for example] don't waste their actions, keep on fighting no matter what.)
Intelligence (part one) - Know your Enemy
Remember to check the hit points, movement and attacks of all enemies, before rushing into combat. It's also a good idea to check the description of each new type of enemy unit, before attacking. Some units have unusual resistances, defense values or movement costs - do not assume that every unit is exactly what it looks like. This is particularly important if you are facing enemies of several different races, the classic example being Drakes and Saurians - Drakes are very tough, but have poor defense and are vulnerable to cold and piercing weapons, so you might reasonably recruit an army of archers and cold-using magicians, with a few high-powered attacks. But Saurians are much faster and very fragile, with excellent defense in almost any terrain - so you might find yourself wishing for fast cavalry to pursue them, and units with a high number of attacks to guarantee at least a few hits. The same applies to any other enemy - make sure you know exactly what you're dealing with, before entering battle.
Intelligence (part two) - Know Yourself
Always be aware of what forces are available to you. Whenever you gain the ability to recruit a new unit, read the description and look carefully at its stats. If you find yourself using only two or three types of units (a perfectly good strategy, if it works), it is easy to forget that there are others available to you. When you meet an enemy which your existing troops are poorly-equipped to fight, you should (almost) always have something that will be effective - the key is to know what, and to use it at the right time and in the right way. An extension of this, is to become familiar with the individual units that you have recruited (especially in a campaign) - the system of traits means that there can be a lot of variation, even between units of the same type and these different units should be assigned different roles. Strong, resilient units are good for front-line fighting or defending strongpoints, while quick units are better used as scouts or to outflank the enemy (especially quick mounted troops, since most units will not be able to force them into a fight). Intelligent units should be sent wherever they are needed, but it is often best to keep them away from heavy fighting (firstly, because they need less experience to advance, which means they do not need to kill as many enemies, and second, because they give you a better chance of getting a higher level unit - but only if they survive.)
Zone of Control (ZoC)
The Zone Of Control allows you to build artificial barriers at will. With it, you can reduce the likelyhood that a weaker, injured unit will be killed, by reducing the number or kind of enemies that can reach it. It is hard to measure who has Movement Control because it depends on where the units are positioned more than how many there are. Although this is a tactical device, it is more strategically significant than tactical because Zone of Control applies before and after encounters, rather than during. Establishing and maintaining good Zones of Control gives you better mobility and control over most other aspects of the game, even against stronger units less well positioned.
Your units influence space beyond the hex they're standing on. The total area of influence includes the hexes adjacent to the units and this is the Zone Of Control. When strong opposing units approach your weaker ones, pay particular attention to the ZoC and terrain types. Combine the ZoC of your units to form a solid barrier. Your goal is to rearrange your units such that the opponent's attack occurs where your units are well positioned defensively and at the worst time of day for opposing units. Check that none of your units can be attacked by more than two enemy units and that no enemy unit can pass between them. In this case, you spread your units out, extending your ZoC and forcing the enemy to select one or more targets.
In most cases, the opponent will target one unit. You should ensure that each of your units is within the ZoC of at least two others. So when the enemy hits one unit, you can close in (encircle, encircle...) until reinforcements arrive. It is often as important to hold a ZoC as it is a village or passage.
While ZoC isn't very important against slow moving units, it is very effective against fast ones, such as horsemen, bats, ghosts, and wolf riders. The approach to handling these is assign two or three of your fastest units, target one long range opposing unit and spread yours out defensively between its target (usually villages) and itself in a semi-circle or line. Move these units toward the enemy so that it has increasingly less space to move. When it is within your ZoC, encircle and kill. Move on to the next long range unit and repeat.
After the first round (when everyone has recruited), all the units are grouped, so try to create a ZoC against all of the long range units as quickly as you can. In this way you can prevent them from spreading out, while you systematically encircle and kill each one. Since the opponent won't have occupied enough villages, there is a good chance all you'll have left are short range units to deal with.
Under FoW and Shroud, it is impossible to know what the opponent has recruited, but it is good practice to check your ZoC around your villages so you are not surprised by a sudden invasion. Early on, long range units are used to occupy villages, so the sooner you engage them, the less villages they can possess. Creating a ZoC quickly around unoccupied villages allows you to possess them at your leisure and keep them.
Another use in ZoC is deciding when and where battles will be fought. If the opponent moves into your ZoC, but positioned near unfavourable attack terrain, you have several choices. Either attack anyway, which is mostly bad, wait for the opponent to attack on its next turn, which gives it the choice of target, or move your units out of its ZoC to favourable terrain. You can check how far forward the units can move and place guard units to maintain your ZoC and centralise the others behind and protecting the guards. This forces the opponent to commit and gives you time to prepare a tactical counter-attack. Keep your guards guarding! If the ZoC crumbles your units will be overwhelmed.
The ZoC is effective when wounded units need to pass through hostile areas. Rather than closing in, form a large circle around the wounded presenting a much wider perimeter. This makes it harder for opposing units to attack all yours and allows you to keep healthy units within the ZoC and leap-frog when needed.
On approaching an opponent's castle, ZoC can be critical to your success. In some scenarios events are triggered when you occupy hexes directly next to a castle hex. Make sure the approaching units keep their distance from the castle, but within their ZoC. When assembled, move directly on to the castle.
For skirmishing units who ignore ZoC, you have little choice but to build a solid wall of units. Alternatively, you may make a ZoC to block the typical units and prepare a welcoming party for the skirmishers.
In a campaign scenario, where the objective is to move a unit to a certain point on the map (often specified by a signpost) you can use more unimportant units and ZoC by placing them a space or two away from your leader and a space apart from each other, since in battle units can quite suddenly die, and you don't want that one to be your leader.
The encircling tactic by two units is very powerful, particularly against long range units. By placing two units on either side, you limit the opposing unit to 1 hex move in any direction. When the unit sidesteps in the following turn, you can re-encircle. This means you can hold the unit until reinforcements arrive and then adopt a leap-frog approach against very strong units.
Sometimes the battle doesn't go your way. Either you battle to the last unit, or retreat. The purpose of retreating is to regroup your units more effectively and give them time to heal. Retreating can be organised with a reverse leap-frog approach, where you give ground, encouraging the opponent to push forward. Now your healers are in front and moving toward better terrain where you can make a final stand.
Being prepared for, and knowing when to retreat, is also important. Too often a player tries to retreat, but has no reinforcements to halt the retreat. Try to leave a "safe zone" on a flank, protected by ZoC, where you can pull back.
The real problem with retreating is putting distance between your units and the opponents. If they can move faster than yours, you may have to setup a ZoC to last long enough for you to get your slow units to safety. Invisibility units are the best because they cannot be seen and will take the opponent valuable turns to find them. Once the group is safe, they can slip away unnoticed. Sometimes sending out a unit or two as a kamikaze works to slow them down - if the exp they gain matters less to them than saving more of your units does to you.
Day-night cycle retreat
Usually on a 1vs1 map there is some space between your villages and your opponents villages. Depending on the map and speed of your units, the distance is 1-2 turns.
The idea of retreating starts with your own attack. You are stronger during your preferred time of day, so you march forward and your opponent retreats (lets take aside the matchups where both factions have the same preferences).
As drakes, you normally start marching at dawn. You move into the free area, your enemies retreat. First day is the critical turn. Ideally you should be able to attack the enemy's villages now. Maybe your party is not complete because of some slower units and you are therefore not strong enough yet (that is what your opponent hopes for and will try to arrange). If so, you've only got one turn for your attack, else it is two turns. At dusk you pull back your units.
Starting from the enemies villages, he will need at least one turn (dusk) to cross the free area, maybe two until he can start his attack. Nevertheless you might have to decide if you keep the village or let him take it for one or two turns. It usually depends on how sure you can be that the unit holding the village will survive. If the enemy's got magic, chances are normally low. In that case you should leave the village open, otherwise your unit will die without having an advantage.
However, if you play this a little smart, it will only be one village in question and only for one or at most two turns. Remember, that 1 turn costs you a net loss of 4 gold per lost village (2 less for you and 2 more for your enemy). But 4 gold is a lot less than a lost unit.
When dawn comes, you get the village back. If the enemy is stupid enough to stay you will crush him into pieces during the day cycles.
Even if you don't want to attack it is essential to occupy the space between villages in order to delay the enemy when his preferred time comes.
Edit: I agree with villages costing you 4 gold in the case where you are under the upkeep limit(you have fewer units than villages) once that limit is exceeded this becomes 6 gold per turn (3 more for you and 3 less for your opponents) since every village controlled reduces your upkeep by 1.