I noted above that I’ve NEVER had any mercenary get to Level 11. That has now changed with my current build, which has 3 people at Level 11 and a full band who all have at least 8 perks and level-ups. To achieve this, I guess I “sold out” (or at least the local armourers all sold out – of heavy armour). Basically, if you take everyone through the utility tree to take Brawny and Weaponmaster from tier 2, they can all be decked from head to toe in heavy armour and carry a heavy shield, and still have a max fatigue of around 80 or more (which, thanks to Weaponmaster, will not get eaten into too much).
Here is my first ever merc to reach Level 11 – a baby-faced assassin in all his war-glory:
Since shields are (a) useful to start with and (b) look cool, I decided to choose some perks to make use of them and gave all melee fighters Shield Bash instead of Quick Hands. I haven’t missed Quick Hands much, since they only ever really change items to replace a smashed shield, and then they can just form a shield wall (only 1 fatigue point more than they recover each turn) and wait patiently for the next turn while their enemies wear themselves out. Also, Shield Bash (especially combined with Pathfinder) is excellent for controlling the “line of scrimmage”, and later on (combined with Weaponmaster) it costs only 12 fatigue points to use (and has a +25% chance to hit) and can wear your enemies down and/or put them in perilous positions.
After gaining the energy-efficient tier 2 utility perks, I started giving everyone defensive perks (Colossus and Battle Forged for all, and then Dodge for the pikemen/crossbowmen who also had Quick Hands, and Deflect for the melee fighters whose precious looted shields were being imperilled by orcish axes). Since I have one Captain who I’ve also made an Inspiring Presence, I’ve started giving people Hold Out from tier 2 of the defence tree, so that all skills are +10 to start each battle. It’s only at this point (everyone in heavy armour, with high max fatigue, starting at confident morale and getting to tier 2 on the defence tree) that I’m starting to regret not being able to make use of Nimble against a background of Dodge and Hold Out. Still, most of my level-ups offered only +1 melee defence anyway, so that it probably wouldn’t have worked … plus, I wouldn’t want to part with my expanding collection of precious looted shields with (e.g.) +27 melee defence or +31 ranged defence (hence Deflect). With Weaponmaster and Brawny, you can form a shield wall on a regular basis and at least double those defence bonuses.
As more large one-handed axes are looted in battle, I’ve started arming melee fighters with these and giving them the Crusher perk. With the ability to smash shields in a single strike, melee skill isn’t an amazing priority, since the hit chance will always be at least okay against a shieldless enemy, and there’s always a spear or sword in reserve. Level-ups can instead be focussed on hit points, max fatigue and resolve and/or defence skills.