One of the many advantages of the De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) game system is that the relatively small army size (12 elements with 2-4 figures per element) reduces the cost and painting time associated with fielding an army and allows avid players to start gaming fairly quickly as well as collect a variety of armies in different periods. Everytime I see a movie or read a book on ancient or medieval history, I contemplate fielding a new army. I also constantly peruse the DBA army lists for ideas and am intrigued by armies that I have relatively little knowledge of such as Post Mongol Russians or Warring States Chinese.
As fun as it is to collect colorful armies, one of the most difficult decisions for many new DBA gamers is deciding what army to start with. The place to start is by browsing the DBA rules, which includes an "official" list of 180 armies in both the Ancient and Medieval periods. It can be hard to choose from this wealth of options. Your decision can become even tougher if you are only planning to collect one or two armies due to storage limitations, cost considerations, or conflicting gaming interests.
If you are facing the dilemma of what army to field for your first foray into DBA, this page offers some tips and suggestions on how you might make your decision.
There are any number of reasons to pick a particular DBA army for your own. Here are a few of the more common:
Movies, Literature and Non-Fiction -- Many gamers are inspired by movies or books to pick a particular DBA army. Perhaps you were turned on to the possibility of wargaming by the movie Braveheart (Scots Commons vs. Feudal English), a great work of fiction such as Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scot (Saxons and Norman Crusaders), or even a work of non-fiction such as Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (early Greeks and Spartans against each other and against the Later Achaemenid Persians).
National Heritage and Ancestry -- Another common source of inspiration is national heritage, ethnicity, or ancestry. By picking an army associated with the land of your ancestors, you can enjoy the added element of national pride or familial association in your gaming.
Desire to Win (Killer Armies) -- Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for players to chose armies that they think will be more likely to win with because of their composition. For example, armies with a strong contingent of Knights or Blades are hard to beat when matched up against most historical opponents. Picking a "killer" army can be tricky, however, because all DBA troop types have weaknesses that can be exploited given the right match-ups between armies. More experienced players who have mastered DBA tactics may consider a mixed element army such as the Sea Peoples or Carthaginians to be a "killer" army because of its tactical versatility. However, such armies will rarely fare well for beginners. My advice would be to pick an army you like, not just because you think it will be more likely to win. If a "killer" army is what you want, ask experienced players what their recommendations would be and why.
Entry Into Upcoming Tournaments -- A fair number of DBA armies are chosen in anticipation of an upcoming convention or DBA tournament. Tournaments are often organized around certain historical themes (e.g. "Dark Ages" "Roman Nightmare", etc.) with an official list of armies that are eligible for entry. If you are buying a DBA army and planning to play in a convention tournament, you should check the tournament details for the list of acceptible armies when making your choice.
Complimenting Your Fellow Gamers -- If you have a DBA gaming partner or plan to play with members of your local club, then you might consider choosing an army that compliments those armies already available for gaming. If your club games European Dark Ages armies almost exclusively, it doesn't make much sense to purchase a Spring and Autumn Chinese Army. Similarly, DBA encourages players to "produce armies in opposing pairs or sets rather than fight unhistorical opponents." Thus, if your club or partner has Republican Romans, you might consider buying a Carthaginian army. Similarly, you might choose to match Gallic or German Warbands against Caesar's Legions, Crusaders versus Arabs, etc. You can refer to the DBA army lists, which include both historical opponents for each army and 48 suggested historical campaigns each comprised of six different armies.
Picking Matched Pairs and Historical Opponents-- Unless you have a prepared partner, you might consider going ahead and purchasing a "matched pair" of DBA armies, such as Carthaginian and Roman, Greeks and Persians, Medieval French and English, Normans and Anglo-Saxons, etc. These pairings are generally well-balanced and can provide countless historical scenarios as inspirations for your games.
Tactical Schemes and Personality Types-- It often seems that certain people are drawn by their nature, personality, or experience to specific types of DBA armies. Richard Bodley Scott, one of the creators of the De Bellis Multitudinus rules, refers to this as choosing an army "to suit your temperament and preferred style of play."
To determine the nature of an army, look at how it is composed and what types of elements predominant. Warband and Knight armies emphasize impetuous, charge straight ahead type tactics. Blade armies such as the Marian and Early Imperial Romans thrive on simple linear tactics and are well suited to determined, "slug-it-out" battles. Pike armies such as the later Swiss are also hard to kill and like to get right to the point. Cavalry armies (particularly armies with a high proportion of Light Horse) are highly mobile, which encourages non-linear tactics such as flanking movements. Armies heavy in Psiloi and Auxilia must content themselves with hit and run tactics, taking advantage of their mobility in difficult terrain to win. Armies with a variety of element types such as Carthaginians, require a combined arms approach with each element playing a carefully orchestrated role.
Some armies, such as Early Imperial Roman or French Ordonnance, provide a variety of optional elements which allows you to adjust the composition of your army to different tactical circumstances and opponents. Similarly, Knight-heavy armies which provide a dismounting option (i.e., Knights can become Blades) such as Early Burgundians can take on a markedly different tactical nature from game to game.
It is always fun to experiment with different armies and learn new tactics, but if a particular army or tactical scheme described above appeals to you or you like the ability to tinker with the composition of your army, then you should consider choosing that type of army as your point of entry into DBA.
Uniqueness -- There's something to be said for having an army that no one else has or knows much about. Similarly, you may have a desire to field a particular army because it contains a unique element that makes it stand out from the rest. It might be scythed chariots, elephants, or war wagons, or maybe even just the chance to paint Viking berserkers that appeals to you. Here is a Guide to Unique Troop Elements in DBA to give you some ideas.
Colorfulness and Difficulty of Painting -- Armies with a diversity of troop types provide both gaming variety and color to your table-top. By contrast, nothing is more boring to most gamers than twelve elements of the same type with figures in the same pose and all painted in the same color scheme.
If color is what you want, choose an army that gives you that option. Medieval, Middle-Eastern, and Chinese/Indian armies tend to be colorful. Aztec and Inca warriors in their elaborate headgear are another option. Early Greek shields can add variety and challenge the most adept painter (or you can use shield transfers or decals). Special elements such as elephants, chariots, or war-wagons can also be fun to paint and model. Even building your DBA army's camp element can be fun and provide an outlet for your creativity.
By contrast, if painting is not one of your favorate activities, you should take that into consideration when choosing your army. A Dark Ages period army can be rendered quiet convincingly with just a few basic colors. Or if you want the ultimate in simplicity, consider Early Libyans, 25 lightly armed skirmishers in simple tunics and sandals.
Of course, you can always decide how much detail to add; your Scottish tartans don't need to be done stripe by stripe, your Picts don't have to have celtic designs rendered in blue on their flesh, and your Roman legionary shields don't have to have a thunderbolt design to be attractive and functional.
Versatility of Figures -- With just a few extra elements added or exchanged here and there, many DBA armies can be pressed into service as a different army list, posing a new challenge and adding some variety to your game play. This interchangeability is particularly true for Hoplite Greeks, Romans, and most Medieval armies. A Marian Roman legionary can fairly easily double for an Early or Middle Imperial Legionary (and possibly even earlier or later Roman armies if you're willing to risk the scorn of more exacting opponents). With just a few adjustments, an Early German army could double for Franks, Gauls or any other warband army. Medieval knights in armor and men-at-arms are particularly interchangeable as are Huns, Mongols, and other mounted armies from the Steppes.
When choosing my first DBA army, I looked to my own Scottish ancestory. After consulting the DBA army lists, I was faced with several options--Scots-Irish (#61), Pre-Feudal Scots (#111), Scots Isles and Highlands (#128), and Scots Commons (#140)--and forced to make a further choice. Despite the appeal of Braveheart, I eventually decided to model my army as King MacBeth's (to whom I could trace some family roots and because of the fun Shakespearian literary association), which narrowed my choice to Pre-Feudal Scots.
I am also a sucker for Medieval knights and found the Early Burgundian list to fit the bill. With six knight elements who could dismount to fight on foot, plus pike, long bows, and cross bows, it had just about everything you could want in a Medieval army, plus the Burgundian's St. Andrews Cross, which appealed to my Southern nature. Thus, the paint on my Scots had hardly dried before I was priming my Early Burgundians.
I then talked a good friend into buying his own DBA army so that I would have someone to game with. Unfortunately, I couldn't talk him into buying a historical opponent for my Scots or Burgundians; he had a fixation with Early Imperial Romans. I caught the bug (Legionnaires Disease?) and we decided to purchase an Essex army pack (160 figures) and split it between us so that we could both field Early Imperial armies.
One day, I was exploring the bottom of my games closet when I found a box of almost twenty year old Minifig Sassanid Persian figures that had been given to me as a gift and never reopened after I went off to grad school. With a few select purchases to fill in the gaps (such as an elephant element--it is my own feeling that every ancient gamer should have at least one elephant in the collection), I had my third DBA army. The Sassanids were a historical opponent of the Middle Imperial Romans, and with a little shuffling of elements, I can adapt my Early Imperial Romans as Middles.
Then just before Christmas 1997, I got a copy of Mr. GAJO's list of painted armies/figures available for sale. For those of you who haven't heard of MR. GAJO (a.k.a. George Johnson), he is a gamer in the business of reselling wargaming armies and is well known for his authoritative ratings of paint jobs. On his latest list were several DBA armies, including a Viking army. I had been pondering Vikings as a historical opponent for my Pre-Feudal Scots. Vikings have several advantages. They have 15 historical opponents (one of the most of any DBA army), giving me a wide range of options and people to play against. Second, they are Blade heavy and most adept at straight forward "Let's Get At'em" approach that would not tax my limited tactical ability. Third, they're Vikings, which allows free reign to various forms of good natured barbaric expression at the gaming table. Suffice to say, I ordered it right away, telling myself it was a Christmas present and explaining to my wife that I was paying homage to her Norwegian ancestory, which she accepted with a certain degree of skeptical but good-natured resignation.
That is where my DBA collection currently stands. I am still contemplating my next purchase. Early Greeks perhaps (I am intriqued by the possibility of a play-by-mail Greek City-State campaign with me as the umpire). A warband army (Gallic or Early German) to compliment my Imperial Romans is a good possibility. Perhaps Ancient Spanish and the challenge of mastering rough terrain troops, plus a Sertorian option. More recently, I'm drawn toward the "V"s and am contemplating Visigoths and Vandals.
Having chosen your army, the next step is finding the appropriate figures and basing materials. I will not go into detail on figure manufacturers or basing options here, but invite you to read my Newbies Guide to Buying Wargames Miniatures.
Painting your new army is a subject which could take pages to address in appropriate detail. Instead of trying (and since painting is not one of my strengths), I will refer you to the Miniature Figures Painting Guide and FAQ for tips on painting figures. In addition to selecting the types of paint and painting techniques to use, you also need to know what colors to paint your particular army. Here, some research is in order. In addition to historical sources in your library or bookstore, you can turn to the excellent Men-At-Arms and Osprey Series, which provide color plates of typical soldiers for selected periods. Or you can let television be your inspiration. After all, we all know what a Roman Legionary is supposed to look like from Hollywood epics such as Spartacus and Ben Hur...who needs reality.
Once your figures are painted and sealed with a matte or clear gloss finish, the last step is to put them on bases which represent the elements comprising your DBA army. As specified in the DBA rules, element bases are 40mm wide and 15mm deep for regular foot, 20mm deep for irregular foot, 30mm deep for horses, and 40mm deep for elephants, chariots, and war wagons. There are any number of basing materials which can be used. The two most common basing materials are probably balsa wood cut to size and pre-cut metal movement stands. Metal stands can be used in conjunction with magnetic sheets in the bottom of your carrying case or storage box to help prevent your figures from sliding around when moved and to minimize the potential for damage. Other basing options are available, including plastic, plastic coated metal, and thick card stock.
Figures can be attached to their element bases with almost any adhesive including simple white glue (Elmers), epoxy, goo, superglue or its equivalent, zap-a-gap, etc. If you are concerned about being able to rebase your figures to use with different rule systems in the future, then you should probably use a less permanent glue and/or basing material.
Gamers typically paint their bases an appropriate ground color such as brown or green and many take the additional step of "flocking" the base. This is done by coating the base with adhesive, sprinkling on the appropriate colored turf used by model railroaders until the base is fully covered, and then shaking off the excess. I find white glue works well as an flocking adhesive; I spread it on thinly with an old paint brush and use Woodland Scenics Blended Turf from the model railroad hobby store for flocking.
Once you've chosen your DBA army, purchased the appropriate figures, and painted and based them, then all you need to enjoy your new army is someone to play with, an area to play on, some terrain, your copy of the DBA rules and/or a quick reference sheet, a ruler and a six-side die.
For a gaming area, a piece of green felt or game cloth of the appropriate size thrown over a kitchen table or card table if all you need. Books placed under the cloth can be used to create elevations. Felt of varying colors and shapes can be pressed into service to represent most terrain features (blue for water, dark green for woods, brown for roads and built-up areas, etc.) with only a small investment in time and money. Gravel and large rocks from your yard make excellent "rough" or "impassable" terrain.
If you want a more realistic look, you can build or buy three dimensional terrain (e.g. trees, hills, rough areas, streams, bridges, buildings, etc.), a topic which I will cover in a seperate essay at a later date. You could spend even much more time preparing diaramic quality gaming area than preparing your army, but you don't need to do so in order to enjoy DBA. High quality terrain can be slowly prepared and integrated into your collection.
Finally, the last thing that remains is finding an opponent. Your local gaming club is an obvious source. You can post "opponent wanted" notices in the local gaming or hobby store. DBA is simple enough that non-wargamers can master the rules after a quick demonstration game, so don't rule out friends, spouses and even your children as potential opponents. In a pinch, you can even play a game solitaire. Personally, I have no gaming clubs or stores convenient to my area, so I've recruited friends and co-workers to the hobby.
All the above steps can take days, weeks, or even months to complete, so even DBA is not a viable option for gamers who require the almost immediate gratification that you can get from a board or computer wargame. However, you will find that DBA is one of the quickest and easiest miniature wargaming options available, yet is varied and challenging enough to give you countless hours of enjoyment.
If you have questions about choosing your first DBA army or have suggestions and insights based on your own experience that you'd like to share, drop me a note at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.
Last Updated: July 20, 1998
Comments, suggested additions, and/or critiques welcome. Direct them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.