Saturday, February 14, 2015

RETROSPECTIVE - DBA

So far, I’ve presented the Retrospectives in a rough chronological order based on when I first played the featured game. While discussing the Complete Brigadier last week, I mentioned how that game led to a new story in my wargaming career. Today I would like to leap ahead a bit and tell that story – the story of my involvement with De Bellis Antiquitatis (aka DBA).

DBA cover from edition 1.1
Now, my main gaming interest at the time was horse & musket, though the campaigns of Rome intrigued me. This interest led me to picking up Tactica; unfortunately the size of the armies put me off. One day in the early 90s I read a review in a wargames magazine about a new, innovative set of rules called De Bellis Antiquitatis. Most sets of rules at the time used several bases of figures (with 3-4 figures per base) to represent a single unit. DBA used 1 base per unit with a set number of 12 units per army. Thus, an army would comprise of fewer than 50 figures. That’s an army that even my slow painting could tackle! The game was compact, requiring only a 2’ x 2’ space. Finally, the rules were very simple – opposing units rolled a die and added a few modifiers with the loser either being eliminated or forced to retreat. This simplicity led to short games of under an hour. Despite being simple the game required sophisticated tactical play. Units were categorized into various types (spears, cavalry, warbands, etc.) each of which had strengths and weaknesses versus other types. The key was to create favorable match-ups for your attacks.

All these innovative elements appealed to me so I ordered a copy. When I got it, I was very pleased with the results. I began building armies in 6mm (using half size bases). I had enough stands to field 2 Roman armies in addition to Carthaginians and Gauls. I never managed to build Greeks but with imaginative substitution (pila-armed Romans stood in as Hellenistic phalanxes) I could also field Successor armies. Following a trip to Ireland, I started painting medieval Irish, Vikings, and Normans.

Shortly after DBA was published, fans of the game began modifying it for other eras. After I found a horse & musket variant, Eighteenth Century Prussians and Austrians, American Civil War Yanks and Rebs, and Victorian British and Pathans all battled on my tabletop using DBA-esque rules.

Alas, they only held my attention for so long. Problems cropped up. The system worked great for armies with disparate troops types (it is especially good at recreating Roman vs. barbarian battles, which is not surprising considering its origin as rules for battles between Romans and Gauls) but it tended to lapse into stalemate when the armies were of similar make-up. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, the combat system just did not feel right to me for combat with muskets. I began searching for alternatives and have since adopted other mechanisms.

Nevertheless, DBA gave me many enjoyable hours of gaming. It inspired me to paint up armies for a wide variety of eras. It also influenced my designs when I tried my hand at creating my own rules. For many years, I used its activation system (activate a number of units or groups of units equal to the roll of a single die – a simple system that still created some fog of war). The latest version of my medieval rules uses an opposed roll system, which I first found in DBA. Finally, it introduced (at least to me) a design philosophy that I still embrace: small armies + compact battlefields + simple rules allowing for quick games.= awesome fun.

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