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De Bellis Antiquitatus

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TITLE: De Bellis Antiquitatus (DBA)WRG-DBA

AUTHORS: Phil Barker, Richard Bodley Scott and Sue Laflin

PUBLISHER: Wargames Research Group.

PUBLICATION DATE:  1990(Version 1.0), 1995(1.1), 2001 (2.0), 2004 (2.2)


This unofficial group supports DBA and a variety of variants. They are a friendly group and there’s a lot of information about miniatures and history, worth a look even if you don’t play DBA. There are battle scenarios, simple campaign rules and photos of the armies of members, including a few of mine.

PRICE: $18.00 (in 2008)

REVIEWED BY: Vincent Tsao, a DBA fan (but not a fanatic).

PERIOD COVERED: Biblical through late Medieval (1500 AD)

THE BOOK: 36 pages, soft cover, A4 page folded in half. It has a little color on the cover.

SCOPE: Each side consists of an army of indeterminate size.

ARMY SIZE: Each army has 12 elements (bases). Elements may have anywhere from 2 to 4 figures, so an army will have 24 – 48 figures. A few armies may have some horde elements of 6-8 figures each and so might have even more. Armies also often deploy a thirteenth element of camp followers, which is confined to defending the camp. The numbers apply to 15mm or larger figures.

Players using smaller figures can use these numbers on smaller bases, though most cram lots of figures onto bases designed for 15mm figures. Some cram up to 48 or more 6mm figures on bases for 25mm figures. Using Warmaster style basing could see up to 120 10mm figures in a Hoplite army. The number of figures per base is not counted for the rules and merely serves as an easy way to recognize the troop type.

BASE UNIT: Each element is a separate unit.


  • Ground scale: at 15mm inch = 100 paces. At 25mm 40mm = 100 paces.
  • Time scale: not specified:
  • Figure/Base Ratio: varies wildly. A stand may represent a few hundred, up to 1,500 or more. The armies could stand in for Dark Age forces of a couple thousand each up to classical battles of 20-30,000 each.
  • Recommended Figure size: 15mm or 25mm, but other sizes are easily used.
  • Table Size: 2 X 2 for 15mm, 3 X 3 feet for larger though many use larger sized tables. I do.
  • Game Length: 15-45 minutes, though a really slow player can drag this out. Set up and take down is fast too.

BASING SIZES. Bases are the de-facto period standard set by Phil Barker’s WRG Ancients rules, which ran to 7 editions before being bought and converted to the Warrior rules. 15mm and smaller are on 40mm wide bases, with depth varying from 15, 20, 30 or 40mm. 25mm and larger are mounted on 60mm wide bases with depths of 20, 30, 40 and more if the model needs it. The suggested number of figures per stand is 2 for skirmishers (called psiloi) and light horse, 3 for most cavalry and various types of infantry, 4 for most heavy infantry and some heavy cavalry such as cataphracts. You are free to ignore these since your figures may not fit on the bases or you can’t afford that many. The great majority of other rules for this period use these sizes, so re-basing won’t be necessary to play them.

TURN SEQUENCE: IGO-UGO. The attacker moves first and then resolves all combat. Each side checks to see if they have broken. Then the defender does the same. Ranged and close combat are resolved at the same time, using basically the same method.

Roles are determined by a pre-game die roll. Each side rolls a die and adds their army’s aggression factor. The high scorer attacks. The defender sets up the terrain from the list allowed their terrain type. The attacker then selects a table edge they wish to use and roll a die. They have a 50/50 chance of getting the desired edge, with a 1/6 chance at each of the remaining three edges. The defender deploys first, followed by the attacker. The defender has the option to switch 4 elements around in a limited fashion after seeing the attacker’s deployment. The attacker takes the first move.

GAME MECHANICS: The game uses only six-sided dice. One is rolled at the start of a turn to show how many pips that side has for the turn. Each pip may be used to move a single element or a group. Single elements may move in almost any fashion as long as they don’t exceed movement allowance. Groups are highly restricted. They may move straight forward or wheel in good going. Withdrawals must be by single element. First time players often roll a 6 for pips and split the army into as many groups, threatening the enemy everywhere. Then they roll a 1 next time and discover that only a small part of the force can move. It pays to keep the army massed in a few large groups.

Elements may be moved from 200 (heavy infantry) to 500 paces (light horse) per turn. Light horse can make second and third moves in a turn if they stay beyond a base-width of enemy elements and have enough pips. Barbarian warband infantry may make a second move if it means charging into contact and they have enough pips. Otherwise most troops are restricted to a single move per turn.

Troops are divided into a types based on tactical doctrine. There are foot skirmishers (annoyingly named psiloi after the ancient Greek term), auxilia (medium foot useful in rough terrain, called bad going), spears, pikes, blades, warband, bows, war wagons and artillery. Mounted troops include light horse, cavalry (and light chariots), knights (and heavy chariots), camel mounted troops, elephants and scythed chariots.  Last is the camp follower element that is used to guard the camp if one of the 12 elements is not so used. I may have forgotten one or two types.

Combat is fought element by element with each side rolling a die, adding their factors and comparing scores. Each troop type has a factor against foot and another against mounted. There is a small list of tactical factors that may modify your scores, such as additional enemy elements, being uphill, etc. Doubling your opponent’s score usually kills the element, Beating the score by less usually pushes it back (if it cannot retreat it is killed). But there are exceptions, called quick kills by DBA gamers. For example, warbands quick kill spears, pikes or blades. Psiloi quick kill elephants. Bows quick kill knights who just charged them frontally, but are quick killed by any mounted in contact. Knight vs. bow fights always quickens the pulse, since one or the other is going to die. Sometimes elements flee – do an about face and make a full move away from the enemy.

The essence of the game is getting favorable match-ups vs. your opponent. Just as important is managing your pips. A plan that requires few pips is a good one.

The game is decided when an army breaks, usually by losing 4 elements. A looted camp counts as 2 elements lost. If your general’s element is lost that’s often the game. Even if you manage to stay in the game after losing the general you suffer pip penalties that ham-string your army.

ARMY LISTS/SCENARIOS: There are no scenarios in the rules, but the game is usually played with the impromptu set up. There are loads of army lists, related to the DBM army lists books. The army lists run from Ancient Sumerians on up to Late Medieval Burgundians and Swiss. The lists include many arcane and little known nations. All these armies are shoe-horned into the troop types available. So Roman legionaries and Viking Bondi alike are rated as blades.  The DBA Resource Page above has a number of scenarios.

REVIEWER’S COMMENTS: The battle rules are extremely concise, fitting in 8 pages. The complaints about Phil barker’s writing are legion. For those who have trouble with it, there is the much longer unofficial guide complete with photos and diagrams here http://www.wadbag.com/DBAGuide/ .

Jokes have been made about the 8 page rule book that needs 70+ pages of explanation. I think the unofficial guide is great for new players, even for experienced ones. Once you’ve read it the original rulebook will suffice. Don’t look for GW graphics or anything remotely like that. There is a drawing on the cover and one page of diagrams. You will still need the rule book for the army lists – and the campaign system should you be so inclined. Folks refer to his writing as Barkerese. While his writing is sometimes difficult to follow, the rules system is ingenious. It’s worth the initial fuss. DBA set the bar for fast play rules, though Barker has since returned to the dark side with more complex rules.

PLAYER’S COMMENTS: The game plays quickly. This is indeed the whole point of the game. Consider it the fast food of wargames. Sometimes a burger and fries is just what I want, and so is DBA. Most of the games have some period flavor and often teach tactical lessons. Of course, with the small number of elements and the opposed die-roll combat system, some times your knights get murdered in open ground by light infantry. I suppose that’s what Maxentius thought happened at Milvian Bridge, just before he drowned in the Tiber.

I won’t make the argument that the game is very historical. It varies wildly by period and match-up of enemies. Sometimes it gives a pretty close simulation of the actual armies and other times can be pretty much a fantasy game. Rome vs. Celts works fairly well, as it should. These rules started as extremely fast-play game of Rome vs. Celts. The Roman blades have a factor of 5 against the Celtic warband 3, but are quick-killed by the weaker Celts. It makes for an exciting contest. On the other hand, heavy infantry banging away at each other often sees groups shoving back and forth for a long time. You won’t see the rapid collapses of actual hoplite battles.

Light horse armies are pretty wimpy. It’s hard to see how the Mongol Conquest army or Attila’s Huns conquered anything. They float like butterflies and sting like them too. But they are a lot of fun to play. You can drive your opponent to distraction with the fast moving light horse, just before they put your lights out. Every now and then they get so confused you manage to win.

The pip system rewards those who take the initiative. Good players can use a few pips and force their enemy to use more responding. It is rare to see that staple of many of other rules, both sides’ strong wings swinging around like doors. If you don’t give attention to a collapsing flank you may lose that much sooner. And leaving your camp unguarded has a penalty too. Some players remark that low pip rolls lead you to make the sort of errors you swear never to make.

Folks remark that DBA looks like a couple of skirmish lines. Well, you never have more than 48 figures on the table per side but it does produce a short and fun game. DBA fans can sample a large number of periods for a small investment in money and painting time. Losing a game you invested 30 minutes in hurts a lot less than spending all night losing. You can usually play a bunch of games in an evening.

There’s a lot of abstraction. Light horse quick kill knights. It is presumed the knights charged the evading light horse, pursued too far and were cut down. If that’s too much abstraction, stay away from these rules. If on the other hand you rather like the tense balance between factor 4 knights and factor 2 light horse that results, then DBA is the game for you.

I’ve been gaming since the mid 60’s. In that time I’ve been in a near-fantasy ancient campaign that faded away, a two year campaign of the American Revolution and one of Napoleon’s 1814 campaign. All involved more work than pleasure. I can’t count the number of DBA campaigns we have played and finished over the years. A little bit of work provided a lot of fun, mostly snake-pit diplomacy spiced with short, sharp battles.

Like fast food, it can leave you wanting something more substantial and formal. Staying in period means you have to beef up that DBA army, since most other games require more figures. You probably won’t have to remount the figures since this basing system is the de-facto standard. And when you lack the time and will to play that meatier set of rules DBA is always patiently waiting for you to come back and play. There is a larger version of DBA called Big-battle DBA or BBDBA. It’s basically three DBA armies per side and gives a slightly more textured, complicated and longer game. The rules for this are included in the rule book. It’s OK by me though some swear by it. Based on my reading of the Fanaticus Forum on the DBA Resource Page, even the fanatics are friendly folks. There are people who pore through the rules looking for ways to exploit the Barkerese, sometimes for tournament advantage, sometimes for the pleasure of finding a truly arcane interpretation alone, like Talmudic scholars.

I’ve thrown DBA over a couple times. When I came back after a couple years it didn’t ask me where I’d been or what other rules were played. It just let me play some fast, furious and fun games again. It’s rather tasty too, like a good burger and fries.

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