Newbie's Guide to
DBA Strategy

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The following are some tips, learned the hard way, to increasing your odds of success in miniatures wargaming using the De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) rules. They are not absolute guarantees of victory, but are designed to maximize your chances of success in this game system.

1. FOCUS ON THE OBJECTIVE

To win in DBA, the objective is to either kill four enemy elements or the enemy's General element while suffering fewer losses. This basic rule dictates the fundamental strategic truth of DBA, you can win by targeting the enemy's four weakest or more exposed units and killing them while trying to avoid the enemy's stronger or more numerous units. Or you can go right for the jugular (i.e. the General's element) and win it with one favorable match-up. If you keep your eye on this objective and focus on attacking those enemy elements which provide the most favorable match-ups, you are more likely to win.

You will know you have focused on the objective when you learn to formulate a plan of battle at the deployment stage of a game.  A battle plan identifies the elements you expect to kill based on your opponent's deployments, the elements you plan to use to kill them with, and the route of movement or method you will use to produce that match-up (factoring in how you will use terrain, how you will conceal your intentions from your foe, and how you will keep the enemy away from your own weaknesses).  As the actual game unfolds, it is likely you will have to adapt or even abandon your plan, but starting with clear objectives and a plan for achieving them will give you a leg up over most opponents.

2. ARMY SELECTION

Although DBA's 12 element game system assumes a certain degree of balance, not all DBA armies are created equal. Some armies require certain terrain advantages to fight well (e.g. , Early Libyan or Ancient Spanish). Others contain a variety of troop types and rely on more sophisticated "combined arms" approach (e.g., Carthaginians or Macedonians). For a new DBA player, it may be easier and more productive (in terms of winning) to field an army which is comprised of no more than two predominant element types. Having an army built on a specific tactical scheme such as the spear wall, with psiloi support, a pike block or impetuous warband greatly simplifies the demands of managing the battle. And of course, if you pick an army comprised largely of the most powerful elements (e.g. Knights and/or Blades), your odds will be that much better.

Remember, however, that certain army match-ups and terrain set-ups can turn a strong army into a dangerously vulnerable one. See Item 7 for clues on killer match-ups and then research the DBA army lists accordingly.

3. TERRAIN PLACEMENT

Historically, terrain plays a key role in determining the outcome of a battle. In real life, terrain is used to set ambushes and to conceal troop movements from view. Terrain can be used to protect flanks. High ground offers a defensive advantage. Troops that operate in close formation on foot or mounted will be placed at a disadvantage when maneuvering through rough terrain that slows their movement or disrupts their formations.

While terrain effects are represented in DBA, generally, DBA uses a terrain placement system that encourages a certain degree of balance in placement of the terrain and makes no provision for concealed movement or ambush. Also, since DBA favors the aggressor, a strategy of relying on terrain advantages to support a static defense is not likely to result in many victories.

However, terrain can contribute to your victory if used properly. Here are some tips:

  • By focusing key terrain in the center of the playing area, you can create strategic advantages that will be relevant regardless of which board edge you wind up with. If your army relies on rough terrain troops such as Auxilia or Psiloi, place rough terrain near the center of the playing area where you hope to meet the enemy. Terrain in the center of the board can also channel your opponents advance and possibly even create breaks in his line.
  • If you have an army which relies on good terrain, place a minimum of terrain in the avenues of attack.
  • Put terrain near the side edges of the playing area to help anchor and protect your flanks.
  • Put terrain along the base line in a good location to help protect your camp.

It is definitely possible to use too much terrain, the wrong types of terrain, and/or to deploy terrain that is larger than necessary.  A few key pieces in the right locations and of the right size can help channel or hinder the enemy's movements while giving you a mobility advantage. 

4. INITIAL DEPLOYMENT

DBA armies, like their historical counterparts, are fairly unwieldy things to realign once deployed. The use of a six-sided die to limit movement PIPS per turn and the restriction on group moves to the rear means that armies tend to move forward toward the enemy in groups. Thus, initial deployment of troops can play a key roll in determining what types of match-ups will result between opposing elements. Some match-ups are more favorable than others (see item 7 below). By allowing the last player to deploy (the attacker) to also have the first move, DBA also reinforces the value of a good initial deployment.

The defending player can minimize the attacker's advantage to a certain extent, however, by keeping his elements in a compact, ambiguous formation that allows realignment with modest movement PIPs into a formation that better matches up with the enemy's.

The defender also has the option of swapping two pairs of elements after the attacker has completed deployment.  Although intended to level out the deployment process between attacker and defender, the swap can put the defender in an strong position to become the active "attacker" if done effectively.

5. MOVEMENT

Movement is very important in DBA....troops that can move faster than their opponents can usually be used to threaten flanks, seize key terrain, and generally throw off the enemy's plans.  Movement is also critical to obtain favorable match-ups or correct mismatch problems that occur during deployment or during the course of the battle.  Movement is also critical to achieving the local superiority described below (see Item 6).

Movement in DBA is dependent on the availability of PIPs.  Complex strategies that require independent movement of several elements are subject to the whim of the number of PIPs scored on the movement dice in a given turn. Pip management.is a critical skill of DBA generals; the general who can execute a battle plan with the fewest number of pips usually has a decided advantage during the critical phases of the game.

Some aspects of pip management include:

  • focus your strategy as much as possible on group movements, so that all your troops will arrive where you want them, when you want them there.
  • don't commit to a battleplan or deployment that will put key elements of your army out of the general's command/control range.
  • move troops whenever possible through bad going in single element wide columns, and then deploy to line, instead of paying pips to move each element individually.
  • don't waste pips moving troops to new facings if an enemy attack on that element will produce the desired facing anyway.

6. ATTACK VS. DEFENSE

DBA seems to favor aggressive, attacking strategies. While terrain can offer defensive advantages, if you are defending a hill or stream bank or if you have rough terrain troops such as Psiloi or Auxilia, as a general rule, you will not win often in DBA if you rely on the static defense. Remember that your opponent only needs to kill four of your elements to win. If you elect to wait and receive an attack and divide your forces to take advantage of favorable terrain, your opponent will be able to target your weak points and mass troops to obtain favorable match-ups.

Another truth of DBA, as in real life battles, is that military advantage lies in the ability to bring superior numbers against an isolated group of the enemy.  In DBA, this translates into overlap modifiers and quick kills by flank overlap.  But with equal armies (12 elements apiece), having an advantage in one sector of the battlefield means you are at a disadvantage in another.  How you manage this is critical.   The key is to formulate an aggressive battle plan that allows you to win, and not lose.  In other words, concentrating part of your army in superior numbers on your foe, while at the same time keeping the outnumbered portion of your army out of harms way as much as possible.  Even better, use the outnumbered part of your army in creative ways with minimal pips to slow down and drain the pips of your opponent without bringing them to battle, so that your opponent has difficulty reinforcing the threatened part of his army.

7. KILLER MATCH-UPS

DBA can be compared to a game of paper, scissors, rock in that the right match-up between different types of troop elements is more likely to result in a kill (as opposed to a recoil or flee result) if you win the dice roll. Good DBA players know these match-ups and plan for them. Examples of key Killer match-ups are:

  • Psiloi, Auxilia and Light Horse kills Elephants
  • Elephants, Scythed Chariots and Light Horse kills Knights
  • Scythed Chariots (in good going) and Warband kills Blades
  • Knights kill Auxilia, Spear, Pike, Psiloi, and Warband in good going.

Some elements are especially hard to beat because of their positive modifiers (especially Blades at +5 vs. foot and Elephants or War Wagons at +5 vs. mounted). A quick kill with these, however, requires doubling the enemy's modified dice roll.

8. WATCH YOUR FLANKS

The DBA player is often torn between the options of using certain troop types in support of front line elements (to get additional bonuses) or putting those elements into the main line to obtain maximum frontage and minimize the odds of being out-flanked. Pike elements supported by a second rank of pike elements receive a +3 modifier in combat. Similarly, Spear or Warband elements get a +1 modifier if supported by a similar element. However, shortening your line by one or more elements can expose your line's flank (or even rear) to a -1 per overlap modifier. Once a flank element is destroyed or is recoiled, your whole line can be attacked piecemeal with a negative overlap modifier.

So what is the best approach? If your foe is extending to reach your flanks, the odds favor extending your line, all others factors being equal, unless you have two or more Pike elements. If you have Pike, then consider supporting your lead Pike element(s) and using them as a battering ram to rapidly attack the enemy head-on and win the game before your own flanks can be exploited.

You might also consider supporting your General's element if it happens to be Spear or Warband, just because destruction of the General's element can produce quick victory and it will need every advantage it can get.

9. PROTECT YOUR GENERAL AND PROTECT YOUR CAMP

Loss of a General's element ends the game if you have also lost more elements than the enemy. That makes the General's element a prime target. With it's +1 modifier and as one-twelfth of your army, it is difficult not to put your General's element in combat. To maximize the odds, however, make sure that the General's element is supported if possible and/or that the General is not posted with an element type that creates a "quick-kill" opportunity for the enemy.

Loss of a camp to an occupying enemy element counts as a loss of two elements, plus the loss of any defending element and/or camp followers that were defending the camp. In a game where killing four elements wins, the camp is a plum target. Make sure to place your camp behind protective terrain and/or the bulk of your army, so that fast-moving enemy Light Horse or Psiloi elements don't tip the balance of the game with an end run into your rear.

If fast moving enemy elements have an unobstructed path to your camp, then the best defense is probably a good offense. See if you can win the game with four kills before your camp falls.

10. THE DICE

Roll sixes whenever possible. A steady dose of sixes will correct most tactical mistakes in DBA.


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Last Updated: 18 August 2015

Questions, comments, suggestions welcome.
Send them to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.