100 Unorthodox Strategies

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100 Unorthodox Strategies (Pai-chan Ch’i Lüeh), by Liu Po-wen or Liu Chi, was a popular strategy book in 1500s China. It essentially a Cliff’s Notes version of the Seven Military Classics:

Since these seven books comprised the core of Chinese battle doctrine, they were the basis for the Ming Dynasty civil service exams required for admission to officer candidate school. This page is a gloss-of-a-gloss, listing the core concepts for quick reference. English translations of the 100 Unorthodox Strategies are now available in print for those who want the additional commentary and historical examples.

100 Unorthodox Strategies
# Title Explanation
1 Estimates You must know what you’re up against to make a strategy. The first order of business is always assessing the enemy’s alliances, short-term and long-term goals, terrain features, strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, ability, unit size, and supply cache.
2 Plans
  • Instead of attacking enemies, ruin their plans.
  • It is best to prevent enemies from ever wanting to fight, through intimidation, awe, economic superiority, or surpassing virtue.
3 Spies Using spies is the most crucial aspect of planning. Without determining the enemy’s numbers, condition, abilities, etc., you can’t plan for the right things.
4 Elite Forces Vanguards must consist of the fiercest troops, to strengthen the resolve and mitigate the enemy’s awesomeness for the less-skilled inexperienced “clean-up crew” which follows.
5 The Infantry
  • Infantry is uniquely capable of operating in mountains, ravines, forests, and wetlands. Infantry can exploit these terrain features as natural ramparts to defend against chariots and cavalry.
  • Infantry can operate on broad, level, open terrain, provided that they establish a perimeter of ramparts, trenches, caltrops, etc.
  • Infantry is best used in wedge formations and amoeba-like enveloping pincer maneuvers.
  • Infantry should not chase after retreating enemies; cavalry is better suited for high-speed clean-up tasks.
6 The Cavalry Cavalry requires broad, level, open terrain to operate. They cannot operate in mountains, ravines, forests, wetlands, or bodies of water.
7 Amphibious Strategies
  • Being upstream offers the same advantage as being uphill.
  • Do not enter the water to attack river-fording enemies, since you will also be at a disadvantage.
  • Attack as enemies emerge from a river, making it a bottleneck.
8 Chariots Land-based vehicles require broad, level, open terrain. They cannot operate in mountains, ravines, forests, wetlands, or bodies of water.
9 Trust People will only fight and die for an absolutely trustworthy leader.
10 Instructions Sending untrained people into battle is the same as abandoning them. Even the simplest training of responding to the most basic marching orders (e.g., advance, retreat, halt, hold) is 10:1 force multiplier.
11 Large Numbers Numerically superior forces are an advantage, but only when they:
  • Unflinchingly respond to commands (especially to advance and halt).
  • Operate over large open terrain (to avoid forming useless bunches).
  • Utilize enveloping tactics.
  • Are not hampered by logistics and supply issues.
  • Do not overextend and/or spread out to thin, like in Risk.
12 Small Numbers Use guerrilla tactics to overcome numerically superior enemies (i.e., night raids, ambushes, and intercepting them at bottlenecks).
13 Love People will only fight and die for those who they truly care about.
14 Awe People will only fight and die for those who inspire awe, which is a 40/40/20 combination of reverence, admiration, and fear.
15 Rewards
  • Rewards can make subordinates prioritize your urgent concerns, since personal gain appeals to everyone.
  • People are most committed to causes which they directly benefit from.
  • Reward returns the will-to-live to despondent people, who must be alive to enjoy their rewards.
  • Only publicly-issued, merit-based rewards are effective motivators.
16 Punishments
  • Threats and/or fear are often necessary to goad others into fighting.
  • The mutual accountability which emerges between group members trying to avoid punishments creates group solidarity.
  • Punishments must be prompt, impartial, and consistent to ensure that unsupervised subordinates still follow their orders.
  • Punishments must be proportionate to the infraction. While the “broken windows” approach of severely punishing small infractions to prevent large infractions works, the resentment it creates is counterproductive.
17 The Host Fighting on your home turf is actually a disadvantage; it splits your forces’ energy between saving their homes, and destroying the enemy
18 The Guest Fighting on enemy turf is advantageous, since you will always be in desperate “back-to-the-wall” situations against a dispersed enemy.
19 The Strong Feign fear and weakness to lure enemies into fighting your stronger and/or numerically superior forces by throwing off their assessments.
20 The Weak Deceive a stronger and/or numerically superior enemy by exaggerating the size and power of your forces, to throw off their assessments
21 Arrogance
  • Treat exceedingly strong enemies whom you cannot certainly defeat with excessive obedience, humility and servitude. This fosters arrogance; an engineered character flaw to exploit later.
  • Strong enemies should be handled politically, rather than militarily.
  • Leaders must strive to balance confidence and pride, so they avoid hubris without repressing their potential.
22 Alliances
  • Bribe your enemy’s neighbors to secure a position for pincer attacks.
  • If you cannot thwart the enemy’s plans, disrupt their alliances.
    • Since most plans involve conspiracies and team-ups, the enemy’s power is limited when they can’t draw upon the strength of others.
23 Disposition Coax a numerically superior enemy into spreading out too thin, like in “Risk.” Breaking a large powerful force into many small forces spread over a large area negates their numerical advantage on a local scale.
24 Strategic Power
  • All tactics should focus on creating positional advantages.
  • Create strategic power by imposing constraints on your enemies. Capitalize on the momentum these create to attack the enemy’s weak points.
25 Daylight In daylight, always set up extra tents, pennants, and equipment to exaggerate your numbers and deceive spies.
26 Night Deceive spies at night by setting extra campfires and sending false communications and signals to non-existent forces to exaggerate your numbers and conceal your true location.
27 Preparation Preparation is the key to avoiding defeat. However, the level of paranoia needed to guarantee safety inevitably leads to fatigue and burnout, which creates laxity and openings. Focus on minimizing exposure and being aware of your weaknesses, since neither of these can be truly eliminated.
28 Provisions
  • Standoffs are won by whoever is the best-supplied.
  • Hungry, sick, wounded enemies without ammo or fuel are easily defeated.
  • Defend your supply lines at all costs.
  • Over-extended units need more time, and risk, to resupply.
  • Devote your most elite troops to destroying or disrupting the enemy’s supply chain.
29 Local Guides The local people must be consulted when devising strategies, because their life experience makes them experts on the local terrain features.
30 Knowledge Preparation means manipulating the enemy into fighting on your terms, at a time and place which you choose.
31 Observers “Forewarned is forearmed.” Forward observers, reconnaissance patrols, scouts, lookouts, and guard posts are critical to cope with the constantly-changing conditions of a dynamic battlefield environment.
32 Marshes
  • Avoid marshes or wetlands. If unavoidable, pass through quickly.
    • The soft, muddy ground impedes mobility, creating a bottleneck.
    • Enemies can divert dams, rivers, and streams can be to flood wetlands, and drown your immobilized forces.
  • If you must make camp, seek high ground a circular perimeter, to allow for drainage and defense from all directions.
33 Contentious Terrain
  • Rush into battlefields to secure the strategically-valuable locations.
  • Do not attack an enemy which has claimed strategically-valuable locations. Instead, wait for the situation to change.
34 Advantageous Terrain
  • Few armies are strong enough to overcome disadvantageous terrain.
  • Knowledge of terrain features and their exploitation is 50% of victory.
  • Total victory is impossible without exploiting terrain.
35 Mountains Mountains offer height and cover advantages, but make resupply difficult.
36 Valleys Valleys can be advantageous terrain, if they are fortified to keep enemies from using them as pinch points.
37 Offense Only attack when the enemy has a known exploitable weakness which you are capable of destroying with absolute certainty.
38 Defense Don’t attack if you don’t have what it takes to win. Instead, use this time to reinforce your defenses, and wait for a better opportunity.
39 Initiative Immediately attack enemies upon their arrival, before they have time to organize or fortify their position.
40 Response Delay conflict until the enemy’s spirit wanes and their discipline laxes.
41 The Unorthodox Attack in unexpected ways, when and where enemies are least prepared. Scholars overthink this technique; usually it’s a pincer attack.
42 The Orthodox Direct conventional conflict is a weapon-of-last-resort, reserved for use against enemies which cannot be confused, deceived, or cut off from reinforcements or resupply.
43 The Vacuous Conceal any gaps in your power or defense, to prevent the enemy from attacking your real weaknesses.
44 The Substantial Enemies with substantial strategic power will not move or attack recklessly, so brace yourself for their inevitable onslaught.
45 Recklessness Attacking without preparing a strategy based on a detailed analysis of the enemy guarantees defeat.
46 Weightiness (Gravitas) Prevent manipulation by never moving or maneuvering unless it clearly offers a real advantage
47 Profit The profit motive can be exploited to bait traps, lure enemies into ambushes, or deceive covetous enemies into other reckless actions.
48 Harm
  • Set up ambushes to prevent enemy raids and impede advancement.
  • The enemy will follow whatever path has no ambushes, so the ambushes can be used to indirectly control the enemy’s movements.
49 Security A highly-motivated far-traveling enemy wants to fight upon arriving. Instead, reinforce your defenses and secure your position to deny that fight and drag the conflict out into a siege, which depletes the enemy’s supplies and morale.
50 Danger People must expect to die in dangerous situations, because anything else results in a half-hearted effort that leads to both death and defeat. Ironically, only those who accept death get to live to see victory.
51 Fighting to the Death
  • Desperate situations produce maximum effort from subordinates.
  • If your troops are doubtful, confused, and disobedient, place them in actual confrontations and “burn the ships,” to give them perspective, and no recourse but to get their acts together.
    • Note that there are numerous historical examples of this stratagem failing.
52 Seeking Life Worrying about escaping and living after the battle weakens your resolve. If you have made proper assessments and troop deployments, then victory is certain and there is nothing to fear.
53 The Hungry Devote a portion of your troops to plundering. Consume the enemy’s provisions instead of your own to weaken them and make resupplying easier.
54 The Sated Far-traveling enemies have strained supply chains, so intercept the enemy’s resupply efforts with unorthodox troops.
55 Fatigue
  • Compel others to act, instead of being compelled.
  • It is critical to secure advantageous positions, because the enemy will tire themselves out scrambling to compensate.
56 Ease Relaxing after a victory gives enemies a chance to regroup and attack.
57 Victory Do not relax after victories, or act as though you were victorious; this opens yourself to attack.
58 Defeat Instead of dwelling on defeat, look for the advantages which the new situation brings (i.e., regroup and attack when they are celebration.)
59 Advancing Quickly, brutally attack enemy weaknesses/openings as soon as they appear.
60 Retreating Retreat from numerically superior enemies if you have less strength and unfavorable positions. You cannot win a no-win scenario.
61 Provocation A far-away enemy’s provocation is to manipulate you into advancing, and wearing yourselves out before the fight from the traveling.
62 Compulsion Render enemies powerless by forcing them to unwillingly act when unprepared.
63 The Distant Before attacking distant targets, show the enemy that you are planning to attack something nearby. The enemy will muster their troops in the wrong location, augmenting your true attack, which comes as a surprise.
64 The Nearby Before attacking nearby targets, show the enemy that you are going far away. Ideally, move in different directions and converge upon the enemy, who either falls for the pincer, or sends a raiding party after your smaller group, who can lead them into a trap.
65 Rivers Deploying forces too close to a riverbank makes enemies suspicious about fording there. If the enemy is fording, then attack them right at the bank.
66 Fire Attacks Set fires, and attack while the enemy is distracted with firefighting.
67 Slowness Attacking fortified cities is the worst of all strategies, which is only to be used when there is no alternative. Instead, cut off their supply lines and rescuers.
68 Quickness Supplies and other external aid must be quickly intercepted and assaulted.

Fortifications may stop your attacks, but can’t stop the defender’s despair.

69 Order Do not attack well-ordered, well-organized enemies; wait for them to change.
70 Disorder Attack disordered, poorly-organized enemies; they are unable to resist.
71 Segmenting Segment numerically-superior forces into smaller fighting groups to let the rear guard perform flank and maneuver rather than be stuck behind the vanguard.
  • With a 5:1 advantage, employ a 60/40 orthodox/unorthodox attack mixture.
  • With a 3:1 advantage, employ a 66/33 orthodox/unorthodox attack mixture.
72 Uniting
  • Segmented forces cannot be thinly spread out, like in the board game “Risk.”
  • Defeat numerically-superior thinly-spread enemies by attacking from multiple directions. This prevents their concentration into a credible fighting force.
73 Anger Anger alone is what convinces others to kill.
74 Spirit Music “pumps-up” soldiers, unleashing their potential.

People cannot remain “pumped-up”; this diminishes over time and distance.

75 Retreats If the enemy retreats for no apparent reason, send elite troops to investigate;

this may bait a trap. Validly-retreating enemies are desperate and fight with an increased ferocity.

76 Pursuits Do not pursue organized retreats; they are often ruses, and they can still fight; their desperation may lead them to fight with increased ferocity. A disorganized, chaotic enemy retreat should be pursued and destroyed.
77 Refusing Battle Do not fight stronger, numerically-superior enemies with intact supply lines. Instead, use this time to reinforce your position and augment your defense.
78 Inevitable Combat Indirectly attack fortified enemies by attacking their home base, supply lines, etc., to lure them out of their fort to launch a rescue mission.
79 Avoidance The weak must avoid fighting strong, highly-motivated enemies.

Instead, the weak should wait until the strong are fatigued before attacking.

80 Sieges Always give enemies a way out. This demoralizes them, because the thought of escaping will replace the desire for an all-out fights-to-finish. The enemy will escape, but they’ll escape on your terms, and this can be used to set up traps.
81 Utterances State false intentions, coaxing the enemy to move their defense to places you had no intention of attacking. “Speak about the East, but strike to the West.”
82 Peace Negotiations Peace negotiations can be used as a distraction to drops an enemy’s guard.

Anyone seeking an unconditional peace is just setting up a stratagem.

83 Enduring Attacks If you are surrounded, escape is impossible. Instead, attack outward in all directions, in a gapless uniformly-expanding circle.
84 Surrenders Treat an enemy’s surrender like an attack; it’s likely a ruse, so have your spies and intelligence operation independently verify their claim. Never let your guard down, and never stop fortifying.
85 The Heavens Immoral/incompetent/arrogant leaders who fail to respond to civil crises and hardships will lose their followers, and are thus doomed to fail.
86 The Human Commanders must solely rely upon reason, ignoring omens and soothsayers. Boldly squash superstitions or rumors before they destroy morale.
87 The Difficult Leaders must equally endure their subordinate’s hardships to preserve morale. Leaders must be part of the situation to make real-time corrections.
88 The Easy Concentrate on easy victories, targeting weak spots away from main forces.
89 Bait
  • Create an appearance of weakness before an attack, to misdirect enemies.
  • Tactical blunders and equipment losses maybe planned to compel actions.
90 Estrangement Attack when there is discord among enemy leadership, or between enemy leaders and their forces. If there is no discord, have your spies create some.
91 Doubt
  • Create the appearance of larger forces to intimidate your enemy.
  • Give the enemy a false impression of where you will attack to set up pincers.
    • “Prepare the enemy to set up in the east, then attack from the west.”
  • Construct a small fortress before retreating; so your pursuers will garrison your worthless fortress and think its a victory, rather than pursue you.
92 The Impoverished Slowly pursue retreating, numerically-inferior armies to grind them down and prevent them from making desperate last stands.
93 Wind Every plan and strategy is weather-dependent. Plans must be expedited or delayed to exploit the advantages/disadvantages of changing weather conditions.
94 Snow The misery of prolonged rain, snow, or cold destroys morale.

Thus, attacking right after a period of adverse weather confers an advantage.

95 Nurturing Spirit Evaluate the morale of your defeated forces. If their fighting spirit is broken, then your top priority is restoring morale before you re-engaging the enemy.
96 Fear
  • Single out and make examples out of individual cowards to maintain order.
  • If your entire force is afraid, reassure their safety, and show how they’ll profit.
97 Letters Cut your forces off from outside communications. Messages from home will distract for forces from the task at hand. “Dear John” letters destroy morale.
98 Change
  • Responding to change is the essence of strategy. This requires an ironclad knowledge of history and of what your forces capabilities.
  • Only attack when enemies are caught up in exploitable moments of change.
99 Enthralled with Warfare
  • Victory is easy to obtain, but difficult to maintain.
  • Over-reliance on combat wears you and your forces down, weakening you over time. Thus, you must avoid conflict, unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • Needless battles doom you eventually; your number will come up. someday
100 Forgetting Warfare Maintain every aspect of military preparation in peacetime, to maintain readiness for defending against unanticipated future attacks.