The DBA Resource Page

Variant Rules

Ancient to Medieval Highland "Scots"

By Roy Beers

The superb body of information on the Picts and Dalriads in the list essays, and the links provided with them, got me thinking about early "Scottish" warfare (and particularly in the Highlands) and the kind of warfare it is meant to simulate. Common themes throughout the period are cattle reiving raids, Norse-style ship raids, ambuscades and surprises of all kinds. A classic Medieval example would be the battle between Robert the Bruce and his Highland allies against opposing Highlanders at the Pass of Brander - where an ambushing force was itself ambushed by troops sent to outflank it from higher ground.

In mountain warfare the native clans knew their own territory and its myriad corries and tracks intimately, and would take full advantage of local conditions like heavy mist to maneouvre themselves into the best position for attack. For example, in the 15th century, we find an Isles host under Angus Og defeating the Duke of Atholl's cavalry by retiring across a stream and waiting on a slope as the mounted men flounder through the water, before "doing a Bannockburn" by attacking the now disordered cavalry and driving them off - not the tactics of an insensate mob of warband!

In DBA terms, the Auxilia or Warband classifications in particular seems to mean the main body of warriors are either mountain skirmishers or "typical" Celtic warband, whose main tactic is a screaming charge at the enemy. It occurs to me that if you look at the behaviour of medieval Highlanders (who to a fair extent follow Pictish and Dalriadic military tradition) a more interesting approach is possible - by fielding elements which can be Ax and Wb in the same battle.

To cut a long story short I suggest a "clansman" variant rule which allows wily old clan chiefs the chance to order their followers to switch tactics in certain circumstances. You could, for example, imagine a body of warriors making a fighting retreat up a mountainside as Ax then, at the chief's order, regrouping as Wb before charging back down again. Or a Wb in danger of being flanked or isolated might switch to Ax in order to melt away into the woods. The variant would be along the following lines:

  • A Wb element which has not so far been in enemy contact and which is 200 or more from any enemy can be exchanged for an Ax element at the cost of +1 pip (per element involved). It cannot subsequently revert to Wb during the same battle.

  • An Ax element which is more than 200 from any enemy can be exchanged for a Wb element at the cost of +1 pip (per element involved): it may subsequently revert to Ax in the same way but as it does so flees 600p; thereafter it remains Ax for the remainder of the battle.

With only 12 elements in play these rules aren't much of an extra complication (although it might help to number elements on the reverse of the base to be completely sure about who has changed tactics).

As a further consideration it could be ruled that troops which always act as Ax or Wb - for example Irish auxiliaries and Galwegian warbands, respectively - can't use this option. The net result gives the home team a "local knowledge and cunning" advantage when it's fighting on home ground - and, I think, makes battles between, say, Dalriads and Picts more interesting. In a campaign game you might rule that only the side which is fighting on its home ground has this option, and that the attackers must choose their permanent Ax/Wb options before the battle begins.

Probably the same logic could be applied to quite different armies and periods - for example the mountain-fighting Lusitani of Viriatus' campaigns against the Romans. Here again we see plenty of evidence of troops which display all the standard Ax-like tactics but mix it, Celtic-style, with a ferocious mass charge at what they hope will be the decisive moment of the battle.

To offset this new built-in advantage you might, for Scottish Highlands warfare, add a random behaviour factor to simulate tactical circumstances that are right outside the control of the nominal commander. Clan alliances were not easy to control or coordinate, with the various factions remembering old grudges, vying for a share of the loot, squabbling over the right to hold the position of honour on the right - and so on! So to simulate idiosyncratic clan behaviour, agree that on a pip score of "1", the commander rolls an additional die and consults the following table:

1 Roll once for each element in turn, except for the command element and elements in ongoing combat, in an order chosen by the opposing side: on a score of "1" the nominated ("hot") element leaves the field, either because it suspects treachery or because it's in high dudgeon (etc etc)
2,3 The "hot" element refuses to move at all. It remains in position, shouting imprecations and waving its weapons, until an enemy element shoots at it or initiates contact.
4,5 The "hot" element flees 600 if it is in ongoing combat; otherwise recoils.
6 The "hot" element is out for blood and moves by the minimum distance and turns necessary to initiate contact: this continues each turn until it contacts or its contacted by an enemy, or is forced to recoil by shooting.

Cattle Raids

Finally, since so much "local" warfare in the Highlands revolved around cattle raids (which could be quite large scale) why not stage a scenario in which one side is attempting to intercept the other driving home its stolen booty?

The first side to deploy is the intercepting force, and it begins with all of its elements in a one element-wide column. The reivers deploy likewise, with the rear of the column in contact with any part of the opposing baseline. The reiver player subtracts from his army any three elements of his choice and replaces them with cattle bases. Cattle bases move as Cv but have a tactical factor of only +1, and are "destroyed" on any losing combat score; but in the reiver's own turn can be converted to SC (that almost never fielded DBA troop type) at the cost of +1 pip per element. (So in desperate extremis you can try driving your stolen cattle straight at the enemy - as Rob Roy MacGregor reputedly did in the 18th century against pursuing redcoats!)

Each cattle element successfully moved over the opposite baseline by the reiver gives him a victory point; each cattle element "destroyed" (more likely recaptured) by the interceptor gives his army a victory point.

Other Variants

There are probably other variants which could easily be added to give local flavour to Highland and other broadly similar games (for example steal the Lurkers rule from HOTT and allow any but Bd elements to become ambushers, which can deploy on the flank of an enemy element which enters bad going at a cost of +1 pip) - any other ideas?

Gamer Feedback

Philip Woutat: I agree with Mr. Beers's suggestions regarding Scottish clansmen (presumably DBA v1.2 #111 Pre-Feudal Scots and #128 Scots Isles & Highlands, and possibly #67 Caledonian or Pictish) being somewhat flexible with respect to Aux/Wb classification. They seem to be sufficiently restrictive as to not be overly flexible and prone to throwing armies out of balance, and yet add some interesting options in line with (at least what I understand to be) their historical behavior. Certainly such troops were used to fighting in other than level, firm terrain, and the Auxilia terrain benefit (or lack of penalty) is appropriate in this case. The charging behavior typical of Warbands is appropriate to these armies as well. Barring giving Wb the same freedom in difficult going that Aux have, this seems like a good compromise.

In a related vein (e.g. #67 Caledonian or Pictish, and #111 Pre-Feudal Scots), should troops classed as Aux in DBA (armed with spear and shield, and able to receive up to two ranks of rear support from other Aux(X) in DBM) qualify for the "+1" rear rank support that Sp do? Similarly, should they qualify for Ps support as Sp and Bd do, since Aux(X) can get support from a third rank of bow-armed Ps? I would like to suggest they should, but I have not had a chance to play-test the ideas.

I would like to expand on Mr. Beers suggestion of importing the HotTs troop type of Lurkers to such games as ambushers. He suggests any but Bd elements could be Lurkers/Ambushers; I would like to suggest that mounted troops would not have the stealth or the capability in bad going to qualify as Ambushers (which perhaps Mr. Beers took as a given). Certainly Ps and Aux would qualify; Pk should not (typically being close order troops, which have difficulty in rough ground or woody vegetation), nor should Art. My first inclination is that Wb should qualify, though with a penalty for fighting in bad going, perhaps they would best be used charging OUT of concealing terrain at a targeted element (useful in conjunction with the v2.0 double Wb move into combat). Similarly, I could see Bw, Lb, and Cb elements qualifying, and most likely used to attack OUT of concealing terrain. I would like to hear some discussion of this from better historians and more experienced players than myself, though, along with more discussion as to whether or not Bd and Sp units should or should not qualify.

Ambushing troops would use their standard combat factors and movement rates for their type, along with the standard terrain adjustments. Combat results would also be as listed in the DBA rules, with the exception that units forced to flee or recoil flee into the bad going from whence they came, and are then removed from the board, reappearing again as per the standard HotTs rules for Lurkers.

Tim Donovan: I agree that there are problems with the Warband classification in terms of many of the Celtic warriors of the British Isles. The Welsh and Scots Irish also fall squarely into this category with DBM constantly changing their classfication of these troops. It is simply that they can, as has been illustrated, adapt to the tactical situation at hand and fight as either impetuous warband or fleet-footed auxilia. I think that DBM best handles them as Wb(F) with the fast classification allowing extra movement, no penalty in the rough, but they are inferior in combat in that when their total is less than the enemy the subtract 1 greatly increasing the chance of them being doubled.

For a quick, dirty, and simple DBA fix I would simply classify the clansmen in DBA 1.2 as WB(F) and play them as vs Foot +3 Mounted +2, movement 300 paces, no -2 in rough, but they never recieve rear support due to a more open formation and "celtic" reliance on individual combat. For 2.0 I guess it will be the same.

| Top of Page | Rules Variants | Resources |

Last Updated: Feb. 22, 2001

Comments, suggested additions, and/or critiques welcome. Direct them to Chris Brantley at