Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dux Bellorum & Dark Ages Gaming

I’ve been looking for a new set of rules for Dark Ages gaming for quite a while now. I tried Impetvs but the games tend to become a shoving match (given the tactics of the time not surprising really). I like Impetvs for lots of periods, but I didn’t think it works so well  for Dark Ages games so am still on the lookout for a suitable system for the Dark Ages games.

 What about DBA?
I have discounted DBA (or Geometry Wars as I prefer to call it) because the “gaminess” inherent in the rules just annoys the hell out of me these days, I want to play a wargame, not use silly geometry tricks to game the rules. Not only that but I think there are issues with some of the lists in thee Dark Ages period. I really don't like the nAnglDanes Viking amtch u, the Angllo snes get theri butts haned to them most of the time and to my mind the pcking order is: Vikings trump Anglo-Danes, Normans trump Vikings and Anglo-Danes (and everyone else). The Norse Irish simply hide in a wood and watch the others wander past.

DBA works best IMO at double or triples level but even then the silly geometry wars aspect of the game leaves me cold these days and I want more depth and subtlety than it offers. So I can’t see me going back to DBA anytime soon. Actually, while on the subject,of DBA isn’t it about time that they entered the 21st century and actually wrote a modern rule set (i.e easily to understand, simple sentenc strucutres rather than overaly complex, allmot unfathomable complex and compoun sentnece strutures. It as a freggin set of gaming rules, not part of an insurance policy! Here are some more ideas while they are at i: use (gasp) colour photos, decent eye candy and diagrams,  a layout and font size that is actually readable. We are no longer in 1985 you know and times (and wargamers tastes) have moved on as to what we is deemed to be acceptable presentation in a rule set.

So where does that leave me? Hail Caesar or Saga possibly? I am keen to try Hail Caesar at some point (I have the rules, just lack the time) but want something suitable for smaller games and which isn’t too complicated (not that Hail Caesar is) to learn for an 11 year old. In fact if I was to put on a big game then HC would be my first choice.


The guys in CHCH are having a ball playing  Saga and it does look like fun. However, I really, really, really detest single basing. I have absolutely no interest in skirmish style gaming so although Saga seems to be a fun ruleset and is certainly very popular it just isn’t what I’m looking for. I want bases damn it, bases!

 Now, I may sound like I'm being a bit picky, and I am but there is a reason. I want to get my son to get into a bit more gaming so I want rules that are:
1.    Fast play
2.    Fun
3.    Not to rules heavy/ hard to learn
4.    Allow him to learn and develop tactical concepts and ideas.

Hott/DBA worked well when he was younger to help his maths but it’s simply roll one die and move a bit or work out the combat factors- and we played loose with the ZoC/Geometry aspect to keep games fun. But the game isn’t exactly riveting, after one game he’s usually had enough. He, likes his “Boris the Beastman” army and I am keen to get him into some more fantasy type gaming so have for some time now been on the lookout for some suitable rules.

What about War of the Ring? 
I actually bought it hoping Finn might like the game. I’ve tried it a few times but it’s not my cup of tea, a bit easy to abuse and not really the feel I’m after- Finn loves the pictures and eye candy, wasn't so excited by playing the game. The GW rules don’t reflect the books AFAIK. I like the Lord of the Rings and have read the books a dozen or more times but the GW game is too “hero” focussed (I know it was necessary to make the movies interesting/ popular) but the rules produced to GW to my mind bare little resemblance to what I want in a LoTR flavoured set of rules. In the Lord of the Ring trilogy magic is rare and subtle and the books are about ordinary people coping in extraordinary times. The heroes aren’t heroes in the modern action movie sense (despite how many of them turned out on screen). I don’t want larger than life heroes and I don’t want magic being so dominant.    

So, what is this? A rant about rules I don’t like? Maybe, but hopefully its more about why I am dissatisfied with some rules out there and still haven’t fund a ruleset that I think would suit an 11 year old.

I must admit though I’ve been tempted to create War of the Rings inspired Mordor and Isengard forces for either Impetus and Hail Caesar for games vs Finn. I think Hail Caesar would work best in that regard but now I think Dux Bellorum may fit the bill even better- and also be a better fit for Lord of the Rings themed games than the GW War of the Ring rules!

Why Dux Bellorum?

As I said earlier I haven’t really been happy with the way the “Dark Ages” forces work in Impetus or DBA so have discounted both of those and being a single figures based skirmish games Saga has been ruled out too. Lately, I’ve heard a bit about Dux Bellorum. I read a few reviews and was interested enough to order the book from Book Depository.  

It turned up on Friday so I read over the last couple of nights and must say I’m pretty impressed. Armies are about 8-12 bases (so not to big) and I like the concepts such as the leadership dice (LPs) that add a nice tactical decision making aspect to the game. The rules look simple and straight forward and easy to grasp so I really think that they should give a fast fun game with a bit of depth that DBA lacks, so I am quite hopeful Finn will find them more fun.  The rulebook is 64 pages and the rules are written clearly, in easy to follow English- take that DBA!

So what are my thoughts of Dux Bellorum?
 The rules are straight forward and clearly set out. The author adds lots of little “tactical tips” and advice that are enlightening and informative. The diagrams are a little basic but are straightforward the easy to understand. Being an Osprey publication they have lots of art from the various Ospreys sprinkled throughout and some truly gorgeous 28mm eye candy from the likes of James Morris.

The approach of the author agrees with how I prefer to play games. Here are a couple of little gems in Dux Bellorum:

P15: Movement in a miniatures game is an art, not a science: please don’t get into arguments about the odd millimetre here and there, or the exact angle being used. If you’ve playing against an opponent to whom this is important, agree before the game on what is a reasonable amount of “unit wiggle.”

Or on p 31: The close combat rules aren’t intended to be a test of geometry or cunning; I’ve tried to provide guidelines for the most common situations that will arise, so if a situation arises not governed by the rules, the general mantra is:

  •          Roll more rather than less dice
  •         Allow contact between enemies rather than preventing it.

Now those are both suggestions I prefer in my games and seems to me that the second would improve DBA a whole lot too!

Things I like about Dux Bellorum:

1.    Army size
Small forces (8-12 bases), simple rules= fast games & so are good for teaching kids!

2.    It isn’t Herohammer.
I like the fact that generals and their companions (eg Housecarls) are slightly better troops than the rank and file but by no means “uber” troops.

3.    Leadership Points (LPs)
An interesting mechanism. Kind of like “pip” dice in DBA but a lot more useful. You allocate LPs to different commands and they can be used for different things can use LPS to add extra dice in attacks, remove “hits” in combat, move out of turn (kind of like opportunity charges in Impetus) or even to improve results on bravery (morale) tests. How many die to allocate and when to use them adds a tactical decision making mechanism lacking from games such as DBA. Not only that but as you use units you also lose LPs so your ability to influence the battle decreases too.

4.    Movement
It is similar in some ways to the Warmaster/ BP approach. To move unit you need to pass a bravery (leadership) test- on 2d6. You can use the units LP (if any) to reduce your dice roll to possibly mitigate a stuff up. Optional rules allow for blunders or inspired moves so its similar to games like Hail Caesar & Warmaster- test then hopefully move (but your turn doesn't end if you ail to move a unit.

5.    Combat mechanisms
Again nice and simple and straight forward. All bases/stands/ elements/ units/ battlegroups (call them what you will) get so many dice and to hit the enemy need to equal the defenders protection (armour). For instance an ordinary warrior unit would get 5 dice +1 more if they charged. Say they were fighting a shieldwall unit (protection 6), for each 6 they rolled the warriors would score a hit. Each hit damages the unit which is reflected in a reduction to its cohesion score (like VBU in Impetvs)). Most units cohesion rating is between 4-6 (ordinary shieldwall has a 4 so can take 4 hits before being destroyed). The warriors have more attacks but less armour so the two are balanced out somewhat.

So combat is relatively fast and straightforward. Roll dice, see how many hits and reduce opponent’s cohesion. When a unit’s cohesion is reduced to 0 it is destroyed. No armour saves, fire power tests etc. Roll to hit, reduce cohesion. Nice and simple. However, remember those LPs we were talking about earlier. You can use up to 3 of those (assuming a unit has been allocated some LPs) to reduce the number of casualties, so again the players have meaningful choices. Do I use the LPs to move, use them for more dice in attack, keep them for reducing hits, or do I save them for bravery tests for my army? Decisions, decisions… 

However, it will be interesting to see how LPs work out in practice. I and see them making it hard for two shieldwall armies to damage each other, so will probably used the suggestion of only allowing a maximum of 2 LPs be used to present loss of cohesion.

6.    Strategies and Tactics
Another thing I I like are the strategies and tactics special rules. Each army can buy one or more tactics/strategies. These are bought from the points (typically 32 points) allowed for each army. You can buy things like:

Assassination: you try to assassinate the enemy commander before the game. If you succeed (highly unlikely) the opponent loses 3LP for the game as their leader has been killed and replaced, major failure means your enemy gains fame for foiling the attempt and gains +1 LP for the game!

Other rules allow your army to get drunk before the game, or monks improve leadership dice, or you can even have a mob of stampeding sheep to run amok at a critical time in the battle.

These rules are quirky and fun and add another dimension to a pretty straight forward game.

7.    Army Lists
Seem to be clear, are set out easily and allow some flexibility in unit choice.

Things I’m not sure about:
The only thing I’m a bit doubtful about is break test mechanism. When you army takes 50% losses (excluding skirmishers ) each unit on table must pass a morale test or flee. I guess in reality this means only 3-4 tests are needed but I first thought, hmm, more dice rolling. However, on reflection, I’m sure it would work and means your army won’t all run away at once and will start to drift off as some units morale breaks, eventually this trickle becomes a flood and you will lose the game but have a chance to salvage something before it all implodes- actually that is pretty cool really!
 My concern with this system was would it work in larger games (something I immediately thought of doing) but we’ll probably go for multiple armies/commands rather than two large ones in those instances.

Would it work for Lord of the Rings?
I’ve been giving a bit more thought to a Lord of the Rings adaptation. I never really liked Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Gondor. I think he got Rohan pretty much spot on but the full plate armour of Gondor is, as far as I’m concerned, completely out of kilter with the Anglo-Saxon history that inspired/ influenced Tolkien’s works. I understand why Jackson chose the style of armours he did in that from a cinematographic point of view it was it visually easy to distinguish Rohan and Gondor but each time I watch the movies it still strikes me as wrong.

Dux Bellorum is designed for Dark Ages gaming. Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkiens research into Anglo Saxon England, so to me it seems a natural, and logical match up to use it for this genre.

Thinking about the armies I think the following lists will work:

Gondor: Late Roman (but with up to 6 units of warriors allowed)- and use Late Roman figures rather than silly renaissance era wannabes.

Rohan:   Romano-British- with an emphasis on lots of cavalry!

Isengard: Land raiders (can use trolls as Noble riders and wargs as ordinary riders) or possible even Pictish list but allow a second troll- er, I mean noble rider)

 I’ve already come up with a couple of armies to test the rules:

Rohan (using Post Roman Britions)
1          Mounted Companions
1          Noble Riders
3          Ordinary Riders
3          Ordinary Shieldwall
1          Foot Bow
1          Foot Skirmishers

Boris the Beastman Army (adapted from Land Raiders)
1          Boris the Beastman (Mt Companions)
1          Beastman Cataphract Riders)
5          Ogres (Ordinary Warriors)
2          Wargs (War Dogs)

Okay so Boris’s army is more of a generic fantasy army but the same army can be run using GW trolls instead of beastmen and Urak Hai instead of ogres to Middle Earth-ise it. 

I am also keen to use Dux Bellorum  with other historical eras and see it being useful for lists up to 1066 and beyond too. In fact with a little tinkering I see them as being easy to adapt for other eras and will definitely replace DBA for that smaller (8-12 base) category “lighter” game in my gaming stable so can see me breaking my “no more rules mantra”, at least this once. In fact I can’t wait to try them out.

So overall thoughts. It seems simple, fast and fun and I am very, very keen to try it out. 
Now, time to dig out those Westwind Saxons/Visigoths, Post Roman/Arthurian Britons and Welsh I’ve had languishing in my lead pile!



  1. Great comments! I really agree with much of what you've written about the frustrating nature of DBA, and I share the same feeling that Impetus is great for many periods but not the Dark Ages. I've also tended to shy away from single basing, although Saga has broken me of that. For what it's worth, my current thinking is to use Dux Bellorum for larger battles, using movement trays. I've ordered some specially made ones from Warbases to try to pack figures in to a nice shieldwall. I'll put them up on my blog when they arrive.

  2. Cheers Dux

    single basing means taking figures off bases for me and I have no intention of doing that. I was tempted to try Saga with bases instead of individual figures but have decided not to add it to my gaming stable at this stage instead.

    Look forward to seeing how the sabots work out

  3. Hi Craig. VERY INTERESTING. I am a sucker for Dark Ages rules but have managed to not get this, yet.

    Re: Hail Caesar.... I still don't get the point of the game vs the other options out there unless you are a very particular target market. I don't think there need to be 'one rules to rule them all' though so I like the idea of using Impetvs, then something else for Dark Ages much better.

    I'm with you on PJ's version of LOTR. I saw a painted Norman infantryman that someone had done in Gondor Livery and it was about 100 times better than the movie Gondor soldiers. Andy, Jason and I are using some lists I have made for the Hobbit era and find these much better balanced but Dux Bellorum looks like it will be an excellent fit as well.

    1. Cheeers Jamie. That’s what happen when you are at the bach with no internet for a couple of days!

      I want to use HC for multi-player games. I love Imetvs for 1 vs 1 but we feel it falls a bit short in 2-3 per side games as the interactive turn mechanic means that 2-4 players end up having to watch while the others play out their turn, HC would mitigate this so I want to use it for multilayer games. I’ve seen suggesteions for fixing Imetvs when multiplayer such as making one everyone on one side

      But with everyone on one side acting at once but that loses that elegance of the command system and different command choices being made. Having HC and speaking to people using it (eg Martin) am very keen to trr it for multiplayers, but not replace Impetvs for our standard games.

      I think you guys recent limits on characters etc in WoTR are what I’d like but then there are days where you just want to say bring the most badass combo you can think of and then go nuts! As long as everyone is aware of the type of game being played then there is no harm, no foul. But if you bring a fun/quirky list and expect the opponent to have done the same and they’ve gone crazy on characters etc then issues can happen.

      Re Normans- that’s my thoughts too. Norman infantry or late Roman infantry in suitable Gondor livery to represent the drilled forces of Gondor suit my concept better than the PJ interpretation of Gondor.

      You last WoTR game looked great and no doubt you’ll get the rules to that sweet spot for you guys

  4. Just a query, as I don't know much about the rule set: Have you tried Simon McDowell's 'Comitatus' Rules? They seem to be pretty specific to the dawn of the Dark Ages - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say - the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. What I read of them struck me as interesting. The only real reason I didn't follow it up is that I wasn't anticipating at the time getting into new periods...

  5. Hi AP. No, I've not heard of that one, and must admit did lots of internet trolling for info before settling on Dux Bellorum.

  6. Hi Craig,
    I don't think DBA will get into the 21st century even when V3 comes out?
    PB is just stuck in his old ways.

  7. I agree Les. Times have moved on though and the publishing standards are light years ahead of where they were when DBA was first published. Hire a decent graphic artist and actually make an effort to make a pleasing, easy to read rulebook with suitable diagrams and eye candy. Not to much to ask I would have thought. Trying to find rules in a subsection of a long convoluted paragraph was a exercise in futility last week.

    Should 3E ever see the light of day I'll be passing.

  8. Has anyone played the Sam Mustafa rules setts for Napoleonics or 7 Years war? He has in several of his rules setts the Leadership Points mechanism. Does anyone know if the Leadership Points in Dux is similar? Guess I can wait n see as Ive ordered the rules, just cant wait to get them.
    Also anythoughts on expanding the game to other periods?

  9. Also, what miniatures do you all recommend for Arthurian Dark Ages Britain?