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This is a basic guide to the units of Shogun 2, since the encyclopedia doesn't do a very good job of telling you much about their abilities. If any Mods like this, please sticky it.
Yari Ashigaru - Peasants with spears. high body count, low skill, but VERY useful in stopping charges. any charges that don't involve explosives anyway. The key to that is an ability called Spear Wall. It'll typically kill between 30-50% of a Cav unit in the charge, and lose less than 10% in response. Sound like a good trade?? Thought it might.
Bow Ashigaru - Peasants with bows. These units fill the same basic role as bow Samurai which lead to a debate about which is better. If you want more bodies and slower, less accurate fire, then use them as they are much cheaper than the bow Samurai. Caught in field defense they can erect defensive screens. These won't stop archers, but may be useful against matchlock units and force a charge to break up and go around. If you want them to survive the battle, they might be worth looking into. Have to space them manually though, as the screens won't link together from one unit to the next to form a wall.
Bow Samurai - Same role as the bow ashigaru, but more accurate and faster rate of fire per man. also better melee skills, as in can defeat Yari Ashigaru in melee or hold their ground against Yari Samurai but I still wouldn't let them take a cav charge if you want to keep them. Oh, and Fire arrows... :cool:
Yari Samurai - Probably my least favorite Samurai, an anti cavalry unit without a spear wall. They can do the job quite well, however. Rapid Advance ability can give you that added bit of speed needed to shore up a position held by a wavering unit when your general can't rally, or to hold a gate taken by Kisho ninja under stealth
Naginata Samurai - More effective melee warriors than Yari, but they lose some punch in the charge. Arguably the most flexible Samurai unit
Katana Samurai - ok, if these guys need an explanation... Anyway, point them at the enemy, get in close and let them go to work. Few other units can stand up to them in melee.
No-Dachi Samurai - Not a defensive unit, but exceptional at inflicting maximum punishment in minimum time. the Banzai ability accentuates this nicely, use just before charging. be wary of archers, as they have almost no armor. High risk, high reward kind of unit. Use them well and they'll be almost unstoppable, use them poorly... well you get the idea.
Fire Bomb Throwers - Don't know if these guys get a lot of use, but they are useful in some common situations. They can damage castle walls, or blow gates open. However they are also useful in breaking up an infantry charge and causing devastating losses in the process. Just remember to pull them back after the bombing and DON'T let them fire at will afterward, they WILL BLOW UP YOUR OWN PEOPLE.
Mangonels - Man do I like these things, they're relatively accurate given what they're throwing and you don't actually have to hit the enemy to cause morale loss. Down sides are slow movement in the campaign map and limited ammo. When they hit a unit you can be looking at between 3 or 4 losses upward to 30-40 depending on where you hit. Worth looking into if you haven't yet.
Rocket arquebus - A cross between throwers and mangonels, still a longer reach than archers, and mobile, something the mangonels can't say. don't have a lot of experience with these yet.
Kisho Ninja - Think Katana Samurai combined with firebomb throwers, and you get the basic idea. They can go man to man with Katana Samurai or potentially unit to unit if the bombs do enough damage, which they can. Best used in ambush or by activating their stealth ability to capture a gate for units with more numbers to come in unimpeded. Stealth ability lasts about 10 seconds and makes them almost completely invisible.
Monk Units - They're variations of the Naginata and bow units listed above. weaker armor, but better melee skills. So shoot them with arrows (or keep them out of arrow fire if you're using them)
Yari Cavalry - Charge, pull away, charge again. Works best from a flank or the rear.
Katana Cavalry - Charge and hold in melee, but avoid yari infantry. Awesome for making archers an afterthought, or hammering samurai infantry tied up in melee with lesser troops (ashigaru)
Bow Cavalry - More mobile archers, and more expensive. also even fewer in number than the bow samurai... Not my favorite units.
Matchlock units - haven't struck me as terribly effective, too weak a range to combat archers, let them waste their fire on an Ashigaru units and charge them with Cavalry. How to use them? I'd say defensively with bamboo barricades to stop enemies from closing to melee.