I'm currently running an exalted 2e campaign, and the party (three solars and one lunar) got beaten horribly by a single infernal who wasn't much more powerful than any single one of the PCs. This happened for two reasons:
- The party had to separate to find him. There were several possible paths in the catacombs, and they weren't sure which one he'd gone down. That would have been fine, if the guy who found him didn't immediately charge in all by his lonesome, when the villain was trapped in a corner with nowhere to run.
- Between Mind-Hand Manipulation and Dragon's Lair Obtenebration, the party really couldn't do much with a direct assault, but kept throwing themselves at it as the rest of the party trickled in to join the fight. Holy magic was the only thing that worked, and it worked very well, but only one person was using it. The others were blindly punching, with no party cohesion, and refused to withdraw and regroup as they got wounded one by one.
I didn't kill any of them, because his goal wasn't to kill any of them, but given their choices in that encounter, I wouldn't have felt all that bad about offing one of them. I even resorted to telling them, mid-combat, point blank, that retreat was an option and they could regroup. They did not.
The dawn caste in the group was pretty sour about it, out of character, because he couldn't solve the problem by running screaming at it, fists first. Everyone else seemed mostly okay with the outcome, but the plans they were talking about basically amounted to trying to fight him head on again. Even assuming they win, they'll never figure out why he was even there in the first place if they just snap his neck and toss him in a sewer as they're wont to do.
How can I get the party to try to figure something out instead of just trying to punch the problem away?
You could say to your players, "Y'know, in this campaign, not all problems can be solved by punching them. And some problems that could be solved by punching could be better solved by not punching, or by punching with strategy instead of with no real plan. What I mean to say is, punching things in the head is a good solution to a lot of problems, but it's not universal. That's the kind of campaign I'm running, here. I probably should have mentioned that earlier."
This method of conveying your point has the advantages of being A) accurate, B) clear, and C) Not taking long.
In my experience, the best way to tell your players about out-of-character and meta-game expectations is to tell them. It's a better way to avoid misunderstandings than subtle hints and in-game encouragement.