DBA 3 – Improving the Simulation – Some Comments

Joe Collins has highlighted a number of problems with DBA 3.0 and suggested ways to address these problems. Collin’s was part of the group that developed DBA 3.0 so he is both a fan and on the inside team. I really like Collin’s attempt to tackle some big problems with DBA. It would be great if more people did this, starting with Phil Barker. Unfortunately, Collin’s particular suggestions mostly leave the problems unsolved. I do like his solution for Bow but even that needs more.

Auxilia is still a problem

I have a lot of Auxilia. For some reason DBA categorises many Spanish troops as Auxilia. And Auxilia is used to represent many troops that fought in the main battle line for example the Iberians at Cannae. But in DBA Auxilia lose quickly to Spear and very quickly to Blades or mounted. DBA 3.0 made solid foot slightly more resilient to mounted but reduced their effectiveness against Blade (impetus), Spear (side support and impetus) and Psiloi. So Cannae is going to be pretty miserable for the Carthaginians.

BBDBA Iberian Scutarii
BBDBA Iberian Scutarii

The only answer is to hide the Iberians in difficult terrain. Unfortunately the change to Psiloi in DBA 3.0, no corner to corner overlap, really hurts as difficult terrain was the only place that Auxilia were useful in DBA. Now they don’t even have that.

Collins suggests the solution is to give Auxilia a longer recoil from Pike and Blade, thus allowing them to break off. Personally I don’t think that solution fixes Cannae. The legionnaires are still going to cut through the Iberians without a pause. And it leaves the Auxilia impotent in difficult terrain against Psiloi.

Pike is still a problem

In DBA Pike has a weak combat factor in one rank and has to be two ranks deep to fight historical foes. That means pike has a short frontage. Historically the non-pike opponents would also go deep to give them a chance to face the pikes. DBA does not encourage this. Blades and Spears will stay wide and overlap the Pikes. Hoplites will beat Phalangites in DBA. And Roman legionnaires well … as Collins points out “Under DBA 3, Later Macedonian vs Early Imperial Roman is a slaughter” (p. 5).

Collins suggests the solution is to allow ‘Solid’ Pike to recoil non-Pike opponents if the melee totals are equal. He argues that this will make a single rank of Pikes more viable.

BBDBA Seluecid Pikes
BBDBA Seluecid Pikes

I can see the merit here. Pike blocks were steam rollers and this rule gives them some steam. But I do think the tweak misses the point. DBA needs to reflect historical practice where non-Pikes troops facing Pikes would go deep. In other words, all troops should get an advantage for being deep but Pikes should still be stronger.

And I completely disagree that Collin’s tweak makes single rank Pikes a real choice. They’ll get slaughtered.

Bow problem is partially solved

Collins points out that DBA Blades home in on Bow because they are an easy kill. This lead to the common DBA tactic of ‘dancing bows’ with wings of Bow skirmishing away from the enemy or hiding in woods. DBA 3 tried to address some of the problems. Bows got a longer range and Blades defend against shooting with a 4 not a 5. In melee Bows get side support from Blades (think Hundred Years War English) but lost their ability to kill knights on contact. As Collins points out these “improvements” still leave French knights rolling over English archers.

BBDBA Hundred Years War English Archers
BBDBA Hundred Years War English Archers

Collins goes on to say (p. 7) …

My goal was to reconcile the different opinions on troop interactions put forth with writing from original sources with dBA terms. Something seemed to be missing. In the historical writing and original sources, I found a number of accounts of mounted knights charging bowmen (and failing to close, or being destroyed, or heroically breaking through). I found a number of descriptions of knights and men at arms clashing both on foot and mounted. I found descriptions [of] Pike formations struggling mightily against bow fire to engage the men at arms in front of them. I found descriptions of bow fire fights where groups of bowmen engaged one another. I found descriptions of bowmen, out of arrows, forced (or perhaps eager) to charge men at arms and engage them with axe and hammer. Something however was still largely missing. I found few accounts of the most common DBA tactic … dismounted men-at-arms/Blades and other heavy infantry engaging and destroying bowmen.

Collins concludes “Quite simply put, infantry didn’t often close to engage in combat with bow armed opponents because they didn’t want to do so” (p. 8).

Collins suggests a controversial solution in DBA: foot that moves, individually or as a group, into frontal contact with Bow requires an extra Pip.

I think this is genius. Really genius.

But not enough.

I have often struggled with how to simulate the Battle of Taginae (552 AD) and Battle of Casilinum (554 AD). In both battles Narses deployed his troops in a crescent shape with close fighting infantry in the centre, with archers on each side of them, and cavalry beyond. In both battles the archers shot up the charging barbarians and funnelled them into the solid infantry of the centre. That isn’t possible in any wargaming rules I know.

Collin’s suggestion works for Casilinum, where it was Frankish infantry that attacked. But it would not help with Taginae where it was Gothic cavalry charging. But, in reality, the same thing happened.

So the tweak to DBA needs to go further. Perhaps make units contacting bowmen take the extra PIP, but for every single element or column, whether foot or mounted. Columns can charge Bowmen together but other groups cannot. Now that is a big change.


Collins, J. (2019, May/June). DBA 3 – Improving the Simulation. Slingshot, 324, 2-9.

30 thoughts on “DBA 3 – Improving the Simulation – Some Comments”

  1. While some hope for DBA 3+, Barker’s age and health suggest 3.0 is the last edition. It seems that house rules are the way to go to balance specific periods. I have been introducing my group to DBA 3.0 but have trouble finding out the rules that apply in mid-game frustrating. Such a simple game has so many wrinkles. Is that rule something left over from 2.2 or is it 3.0? Later this year we may try Basic Impetus 2nd edition. Although translated from Italian, it is easier to read than DBA.

    • Yes. DBA, whatever the version, is not written so well. Mind you, writing clear rules is, as I’m discovering, hard.

      Good luck with Impetus. Personally I love the bases and I don’t like the rules. And I struggled to understand the Impetus troop types.

      I have tried a bunch of rules for Ancients and Dark Ages, but end up going back to DBA.

  2. Part of the problem with Impetus trop types is they are translated from Italian, so heavy cavalry = CP = cavalerie pesante, heavy infantry = FP = fanteria pesante, etc. It is difficult. There’s very little of the rock/paper/scissors of DBA.

  3. Thanks for the comments I was hopeful that DBA plays better, it is better but again the “cheese” of wargamers wanting to win can ruin any system, but the points you have made are very valid. I think that a Lost Battles movement grid may be the answer for tactical geometrical cheese moves. Thanks again for your comments over winter I plan to get DBA 3 back on the table!

  4. A good analysis and thanks for posting. I have given up on Version 3. None of what I found problematic 2.2 was fixed (much of which you covered above) and the added complexity defeated one of the chief attractions of the game.
    I do however enjoy the occasional game of Hordes of the Things with my nephews using historical armies. We allow Heroes, Paladins, Sneakers, Magicians, Clerics and even Gods to spice things up. Games are all set in the late republican or end of empire periods. Some day I hope to cover 100 Years War using HoTT.

    • I’m also a big fan of HoTT. I feel, somehow, that it is a better simulation of ancient and medieval warfare than DBA. I’ve never quite figured out why. Perhaps because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. All our Dark Age games are HoTT. And it gives the guys the option to field Dark Age fantastical elements if they have a fancy. Personally I always play my Arthurian Welsh as straight historical. Well, as historical as we can get for that period.

      • I find a lot of ancients sets fall down in their depiction of light troops and/or skirmishers. I’ve never played a set of rules that let me use e.g. velites in a way that felt ‘right’. I feel one simplification HOTT accidentally gets right is that it simply disregards skirmishers except where they form ambushing units (lurkers). As much as I love messing around with psiloi in DBA, I feel like the way forward for ancients gaming might be to turn skirmish lines into effect counters, or abstract them in some other way, rather than depicting them in essentially the same way as hoplites or hastati. Realistically as a general of a Polybian Roman army, surely you would not really consider Velites at all once battle is joined? Should they not be used as ‘support’ factors against shooting, maybe elephants, rather than maneuvered and battled with as discrete units?

    • Have a look at my Arthurian HoTT posts.

      In terms of DBA troop types we field Spear, Hordes, Bow, Cavalry and Knights. For my Arthurian Welsh I have Spear, Cavalry and Knights. Chris’s Picts have Spear, Hordes, Bow (Crossbow) and Cavalry.

      In terms of HoTT troop types I stick to the ones that can be historical: Heroes, Clerics, Lurkers, Sneakers, Beasts, Behemoth, Paladins, and Strongholds. My Arthurian Welsh have Heroes, Clerics, and a religious Stronghold with 1000 praying monks. All very period.

      I allow my buddies the truly fantastic elements: Magicians, Dragons, Gods and Goddesses, and Flyers. I avoid putting them on table myself although that doesn’t stop me buying them. For example, I’ve got a Celtic goddess named after my daughter (Dana) and I rather like my colour coded Welsh (Red) and Saxon (White) dragons. Chris likes fielding the Morrigan. Actually Chris likes fielding everything.

    • I have. Simon lives near me and I played a couple of games when To the Strongest was in development.

      Simon’s games look amazing e.g. Zama.

  5. Hi Also got fed up with DBA3 did lots of other sets, now stay with ARMATI 2 and use intro , so a bit bigger than dba armies game still in about 1 hour ish and great fun

  6. “I would like to see more differentiation of troop types in Impetus.”

    With Impetus, the variation lies in the factor rather than in the name. The system is astoundingly flexible in that it allows you to raise or lower combat factors easily. But then we have had that conversation already. 😉

    • Hi John. Yes, we have had that conversation before. 🙂

      I agree Impetus does everything through the factors and so has a lot of flexibility.

      My point is that, given the troop types have overlapping ranges of factors, there is little differentiation between the troop types. For example, take a Medium Cavalry unit and tweak the factors so it is exactly like Heavy Cavalry … what was the point is saying it was Medium Cavalry in the first place? In reality it was a unit with a bunch of factors and no real troop type. My personal belief is that troop types should be more significant, somehow.

  7. It would be difficult to do this without adding more classifications. The US DBA group have done this in their Triumph rules, which I have not played so cannot comment. Herve does a little better with AdlG but there is still no ideal solution without writing a different set of rules for specific periods. But then that adds even more complications. Good luck with the tinkering. You have found some excellent solutions so far – and I have no doubt that more are still to come.

  8. Steve – A good analysis of some problems with DBA 3.0 with sensible solutions offered. Let me add one more – in my eyes the biggest! The way DBA 3.0 restricts LH armies and makes them static.

    Sure DBA 3.0 gives LH lots of booms like 20BW command radius, rear support and 2nd and 3rd moves. But without PIPs they can’t use them and a highly mobile LH army is equally likely to roll 1 for PIPs and stand still as the static Hussites. Nothing is more frustrating when playing LH than working round the flanks to get into a perfect position only to roll low for PIPs for a couple of rounds while your pony’s legs turn to lead and your horsemen, happy in using their initiative 20BW from the commander loose their minds. This leaves your LH pinned to the edge of the table by less mobile forces and unable to act like the horsemen that they are.

    The solution, extensively play tested by members of the “Fanaticus” forum is that moving an element or group made up of entirely LH costs 1/2 PIP. This makes LH far more manoeuvrable and more potent – but not excessively so.

  9. Have you considered using Oathmark? There are enough human troop types to cover most historical armies and stats for other creatures could fit some of the more rare historical units. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile but never got around to trying it out. I should note that Oathmark has been the holy grail for me of fantasy miniature wargaming. Nothing else even comes close, so I figure why not use it for historicals. Like I said, almost all the historical units are included.

  10. Hi all ! May I suggest to try Triumph! An Evolution of DBA that, seems to me, to solve many of the problems of DBA.
    Sorry for my bad english.

    • We tried Triumph. It is a better written set of rules. But I’m not convinced it eliminates DBAs problems and, from my perspective, it introduces new problems, problems which I find completely unacceptable.

  11. I don’t quite understand why Sp get a CF 4 +1 with side support and Pike only a 3. They are both 8 ranks deep. Sp have a larger shield, but pike outreach them and have the first 5 ranks of pike points beyond the first rank. So all things considered I don’t see why a Spear should outclass a single element of Pike. Pike are more than capable at fighting 8 ranks deep and did, make then a CF of 4 or 3 + 1 for side support and 6 if 2 ranks deep. At least you have the option whilst at the same time allowing you to stop the ridiculous outflanking you get every game.

  12. Interesting, and I agree with your bugbears – though another of mine is that fast troops, introduced from DBM without the CF and shooting penalties, are overpowered (and make Auxiilia even less useful).
    On Bw, I think I would be enough to say that any move in a Bw element’s TZ be by single element moves.
    I think Ax and Ps could be given the option to repulse between 80p and a full move from any combat they did not win. Or simply allow any Ax in the lists to be alternatively deployed as BdF…
    I like your Pk points particularly. I’d been inclined to treat them always as a permanent double base (but still count as 1 for list purposes.) But the depth point is a good one with wider application. Depth and width should be a meaningful decision point. Perhaps -1 for any close foot or mounted element without a friendly element within a BW of its rear and facing the same or opposite direction.


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