Review of wargaming rules; De Bellis Antiquitas Second Edition

And now for something completely different…

So far my reviews   have concentrated on roleplaying products,but back in the seventies I actually entered the hobby as a young but enthusiastic historical wargamer. I played 25mm Napoleonics, 15mm Dark Ages, 20mm WW2 and 1/3000 scale naval battles and 1/300 scale microtank battles. In short, my wargaming experience was extensive and varied.

The roleplaying hobby was born out of wargaming, via the publication of TSR of Chainmail, which became eventually via a fantasy supplement Dungeons and Dragons. Yet surprisingly few contemporary roleplayers seem to have come from the world of miniatures wargames – my recent ‘how did you get in to roleplaying?’ poll showed it is a distinct minority these days. The old school wargamers turned roleplayers reckon we can tell who was a wargamer first, but it would be a shame not to try and reverse the tredn, and for a few roleplayers to try wargaming.

One of the biggest problems facing anyone interested in wargaming is assembling an army. Firstly however you need to choose your rules,and one of the most popular today, with base sizes shared with many other sets of rules, is De Bellis Antiquitatis, known as DBA for short.

The rules are very short – 10 pages in total of actual playing rules, with only two charts and one set of factors which are referred to once the game starts. This simplicity is actually their beauty – it allows you to concentrate on generalship rather than esoteric factor calculation, or extensive morale rules. However the real beauty of DBA is that an army is always 12 bases, each of which has two or three figures on it – the extremes are one figure for a chariot, up to maybe 7 for a Horde. Armies therefore require about 50 models, which in 15mm scale mean you can comfortably amass two armies for under $30, in lead figures! Even 25mm figures are affordable,and the rules cover 5mm, 15mm and 20/25mmm figure scales with equal ease. You can easily dispense with minatures altogether, and simply cut cardboard based tothe shapes required. For my playtest I bought, based and painted two armies of the period of the Chariot era, (total cost from Essex Miniatures including postage and packing £16.50), and painted and based them.

Terrain was improvised with a cloth, books and a hastily built but attractive cardboard town, and some simple marshes, rivers and roads made from cardboard and felt tips. When I have time I will develop the terrain and make it attractive rather than functional! 🙂

OK, the next great thing about the rules – the playing area. the game in 15mmm plays on a 2′ square area (600mm), and in 25mm on a 3′ square area (900mm square). Average move distances are 2″ for infantry off road (or 5cm if using metric) and 3″ for light troops (75mm) and a speedy 4″ (10cm) for light chariots going at full whack! The nice thing here is that the playing area is small enough, and the armies ditto, for almost anyone to find space to play. I played on one end of my coffee table, the remaining two thirds of which was strewn with rpg stuff! 🙂

Next up – because you are moving just 12 bases, the games zips along. There are no fiddly tiny tactical manouvres, as units can change facing etc, to respond. The central idea of the game is that command and control of ancient units was limited, and that basically all armies troops are pretty similar, but the army varies by composition and generalship. Each bound (turn) the player rolls a D6, and has that many pips. Moving a unit, or a group of units in base to base contact, costs one pip from his available supply. I was sceptical about this at first, but in fact it lead to some very exciting situations – Canaanite Chariots bearing down on my troops,and me with no idea if my general would get orders to them in time to retreat across the river and gain a defensive advantage! (In fact I rolled a 5, and got my infantry across, but it turned out the river was so shallow based on the river depth roll it gave me no tactical advantage, and meanwhile my light troops were overwhelmed by the Canaanites and slaughtered in a marsh which dominated the centre of the battlefield – but that is another story!)

The rules are slightly complicated by the fact that if your general is over 6″ away and out of site, or over 12″ away, then you must pay two ‘pip’ off your available moves to move that unit. There are rules which cover effects of terrain, useful tactics like placing Psiloi (skirmishers) in support of Auxilia (regular infantry), the adverse effects of Elephants on cavalry, Scythed Chariots, Light Chariots, Heavy Chariots (inferior to Light Chariots in my opinion), Field Artillery, Knights, varying shades of Cavalry, Camels, and loads of different types of infantry. Understanding their historical battlefield role and playing to their strengths is the key to victory – however despite a good knowledge of Ancient Warfare, my infantry army were defeated twice running by Lloyd’s Caananites.

Anyway,I have probably give you enough information to decide if you like the idea of trying a fast play (under an hour) set of miniature wargames rules which cover the period 3000BC – 1500AD, from the Dawn of History to the Renaissance. You really should play with two armies who faced each other historically, and each of the army lists has details on historical allies and enemies. The lists are also divided into five main periods, as follows –

Section One – The Chariot Era 3000BC to 500BC – 63 armies,including well knoiwn ones like the Etruscan League, Canaanites, Philistines, Hitties, Kushites, several Egyptian armies, but also more obscure ones like the Melukhkhan Indian, Later Amorites, and the Zagros and Anatolian Highlanders!

Section Two – The Classical Period, 500 BC to 476AD -84 army lists-includes usual suspects like various Greek and Roman armies, but also rareities like Ariarthid Kappadokian and Turcilingi or even Hasmonean Jewish armies, plus many from Asia, Africa and the Orient.

Section Three – The Early Medieval Period 476 to 1071AD covering all the main Dark Age cultures, and many relatively obscure ones – the list staggered me with their completeness. 79 army lists.

Section Four – The High Medieval Period rounds off the selection – covering 1071 to 1500AD with 84 lists. I have already stressed the completeness enough methinks.

The rules also include an excellent set of simple campaign rules, which I have not yet had a chance to try out, for campaigns with several players 4-8 would seem to be optimum to me, and loads of six player campaigns are suggested – sixty historical campaigns in total, each one just outlining which of the lists each player uses. Bearing in mind the rules would work just as well, but less attractively, with cardboard counters cut to th base sizes, and you could for six quid spend a happy weekend refighting almost any Ancient or Medieval campaign. The rules end with guidelines for larger battles with more units or sub-commanders.

The overall playtest was superb – despite my loss on both occasions, I thoroughly enjoyed both games, and spent a goodly while bemoaning my stupid tactical errors. The element of skill against chance seems at the moment much higher that in any other wargame sminiatures rules I have so far played under (about twenty sets, over a twenty five year period). There is a Fantasy version of the rules, Hordes of the Things, which I intend to review soon assuming time permits. For substance i give the rules a thoroughly merited 5, or 10 out of 10 for content, coverage and playability.

However… I was tempted to give the rules a one for style. Wargames rules are rarely well written – or rather they are well written, in the way a washing machines manual is well written. They set out to clearly and functionally state the rules, with no roo for ambiguity. The prose is technical, clipped, precise. All of this is true of these rules. They have a fairly jolly introduction, and some good writing. The lists and rules are fairly clear. So why a 2 for style, and my thoughts of a 1? Because the errata sheet which came with the rules took over forty minutes to transcribe in to the main rules. There are hardly any mistakes – most are minor changes in wording just to clarify the rules, and to close potential loopholes. These rules are used in Wargaming Championships and competitions, and there can be no ambiguity – unlike an rpg, there is rarely a referee to settle disputes. The result was rulebook was glossed with dozens of tiny carefully handwritten notes by yours truly, as I slowly incorporated all the errata. Whatever nice things I might have said about the rules clarity, simplicity and unambigous wording were lost in the fact I ended up with each page dotted with neat crossing outs, substitutions and marginalia. The result is probably much clearer, but revisions at this level require a new edition not really an extensive errata.

Despite this damning criticism, I loved these rules. A superb introduction to miniatures wargaming for anyone, and very highly recommended! Now if only I had held that hill, instead of falling back my archers to the cover of the warbands, and had rushed my general across, the Canaanite Chariots would have been on bad going and… Sorry -it really is that absorbing a game! 🙂

cj, 2004

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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