Choosing a good DBM army for competitions

David Davidson, Peninsula Wargames Group [Cape Town, South Africa]

Introduction

Many beginners are drawn to ancient wargaming by the fascination of re-enacting Ancient battles, and often start with one of the famous armies of antiquity; often a Roman army, or Alexander's Macedonians. However, using the Wargames Research Group's De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM) rule set, they often become frustrated by the performance of their new armies in open competitions, since on the DBM wargaming table, these armies are often only a pale shadow of their historical self. This article speculates as to what constitutes a good DBM competition army - clearly, it isn't definitive, or otherwise I would always win, wouldn't I!?

This article assumes that you want an army that is at least competent for open-period competitions, such as the World Individuals. (Many UK competitions split the entries by period, giving armies with a decent historical record a reasonable chance, but competitions in other parts of the world, with a smaller number of gamers, are usually all-period affairs).

I have identified several points that I personally find crucial for army performance, and will discuss each one in turn. The article concludes with some suggestions for armies that are known to perform well; armies that one should avoid in competitions; and finally, some lesser known armies that might have potential.

Historical period

At the outset, it's worth commenting that one's choice of historical period isn't crucial for a good open-period competition army - indeed, some very good competition armies come from obscure periods of ancient history. At the risk of generalising, Book 1 (Chariot period) armies are perhaps a little more challenging for the beginner, since they rarely have much in the way of light horse.

Command structure: regular vs. irregular

One of the issues that beginners agonize over is whether to go for a regular or an irregular army. It's difficult to give a conclusive recommendation on this point. It's also linked to the issue of army size. At 450 AP, the extra manoeuvrability conferred by the regular command structure more than compensates for the slightly reduced size of the armies; by 500AP, even unusually small regular armies can start filling the table from side to side. At 400AP, the cost of the regular command structure becomes proportionately greater, and one might expect irregular armies to become attractive. (For example, three regular knight generals cost close on 100AP!) However, one can offer quite compelling opposing arguments. At 400AP, one's flanks tend to be more open, and a regular army can refuse a flank rather more easily than an irregular one. Furthermore, regular armies are more difficult to pin down and annihilate when things are going against them - although in DBM, pulling most classes of troops out of combat is difficult. I don't have experience with 350 or 300AP armies - I suspect that irregular armies may really come into their own here.

Perhaps more important than whether the army's command structure is regular or irregular is to use the strong and weak points of what you have correctly. For regular armies, the regular C-in-C should be well out of harm's way, and only committed if the benefits are potentially overwhelming. (The tactical advice given in the DBM rules [p.26]: "You should not be excessively concerned to keep generals out of close combat. Their elements are hard to kill and hard to withstand, so leading from the front can be valuable." must have led many a novice DBM-er to ruin!) Knight generals have become especially vulnerable since most regular knights were forced to follow up from DBM 2.0 on. This is possibly why many of the classical armies perform very erratically under DBM - early Roman infantry generals in (anachronistic) combat against medieval knights have an unhistorically short lifespan; Macedonian and successor generals - usually graded as Kn(F) - are very vulnerable indeed to bow-fire and combat in the enemy bound. Anyone attempting to emulate Alexander the Great's style of leading from the front is likely to rue it quickly - as I did on numerous occasions, before I adopted my current style of leading from the back! (Historically this is not inaccurate: Alexander was in great personal danger during several battles due to this style of leadership.)

Impetuous irregular generals are major hazard - to themselves, more often than not! A Kn(S) general is difficult to stop when in formation, but relatively easy to expose, and cunning opponents will do their best to pull such generals out of formation. With (especially) irregular armies, having a general in combat poses further PIP problems, since all moves for his command cost double PIPs. (Under Version 3.0, the cheesy trick of PIP-draining generals by having an element in side contact with them has been stopped). Irregular generals make particularly attractive targets, since the probability of demoralization of the command following their loss is much higher than with regular generals, where any one good PIP roll will save the command (assuming that the C-in-C is still present!)

Also relevant to this debate is the troop types in the armies. Cavalry/light horse armies can operate very successfully with an irregular command structure, and indeed there is little to choose between regular and irregular cavalry and light horse (indeed, the latter are identically costed). The extra AP's freed up often permit irregular cavalry armies to outnumber their regular opponents; some of the most successful cavalry armies used recently in South Africa (Sassanid, Central Asian Turkish) are irregular. However, irregular armies with impetuous troops (irregular Kn, Wb) generally remain a disaster waiting for a suitable (low) die roll to happen!

Something-for-nothing troops

A widely used DBM competition-winning tactic is the use of dismounting troops. One pays nothing extra for these troops, but in many cases, you get the best of both worlds; for instance, knights who dismount as superior blade or spear are almost invulnerable to all comers, whereas both knights and blades on their own have a variety of sudden-death enemies. DBM Version 3.0 has made dismounting more expensive, so this may become less significant.

Other troops in this category are rear-support psiloi. This explains why the later Roman armies, which permit many of these, are far more popular at competitions than the earlier Roman armies, even though historically the late Republican and early Imperial armies were very effective armies of conquest. Again, many DBM generals have been underwhelmed by the classical Roman armies for this very reason.

The effect of superiority

The general consensus up to now is that superior troops have offered better performance than one has paid for, and this is why many DBM "killer armies" have been based around a core of superior troops. Up to Version 2.1, the reason simply is that to double (and thus usually kill) superior troops in combat requires scoring two, not one, more than would be required to kill their ordinary compatriots, and we won't even discuss inferior troops! Particularly good value for money troops are Irr Ax(S) - their irregular nature is hardly ever noticed, and Irr Cv(S), where again they are for most intents and purposes as good as their regular counterparts. Irr Ax(S) are 20% cheaper and Irr Cv(S) 10% cheaper than their regular equivalents.

A very important note here: DBM version 3.0 has changed the rules for superior troops, with the stated intention of reducing the effects of grading, so superiority may become less significant as a battle-winner in the future.

Synergy

Synergy describes the "sum is great than the parts" effect produced by certain combinations of troop types. A good example is an army such as Later Hungarian, widely recognized as a very effective army. Most light horse armies lack striking power, but can skirmish almost indefinitely; by contrast, knight armies have plenty of striking power but often have to cope with exposed flanks, rendering them accident-prone. The Later Hungarian offers an unusual combination of very good light horse and plenty of controllable, regular knights, including a couple of superior ones. Recognising such synergistic combinations is a skill that takes a while to develop.

Combined arms versus single-strategy armies

Some very effective armies rely simply on an overwhelming number of one or two powerful troop types. Early Samurai is essentially a massive superior bow army, and Classical Indian is similar, but with the addition of elephants (and the possibility of some knights - heavy chariots). Both are highly unmanoeuvrable, and are vulnerable to good foot armies, but are almost guaranteed death to mounted armies that try to engage them frontally.

Combined arms forces have the advantage of having something of everything, and thus not being especially vulnerable to any army, but their drawback is that they may not have enough of anything to be particularly dangerous either! The Macedonian and Successor armies often fall into this category; the Selucid army is especially appealing as a combined arms force, but one needs skill and practice (and some good PIP rolls) to properly combine all the different troop types. The Ottoman Turks can be a very effective combined-arms force; although basically a cavalry army, the Janissaries - Bw(S) - or a Serbian ally - Kn(S) - offer something different to the usual cavalry army. Various Chinese armies also offer interesting combinations of good mounted troops - Cv(S), often with rear-rank Cv(O) - and solid foot - often Sp with Ps support.

Unusual troop-types

DBM armies go through fashions: three years back, no-one played in South Africa played double-based bow, and cataphracts - Kn(X) - were hardly ever seen. At present (mid-2000) both are in fashion, due primarily to rule changes. (Under 2.1, bow were slowed from 150 to 100p, and compulsorily double-based bow became somewhat cheaper; Kn(X) do not follow up unlike almost all other knights from Version 2.0 on. Ongoing rule changes now make double-based bow less attractive again....) If one can identify very unusual troops - or at least little-used troops - you may find your opponent doesn't know what to do with them. (Quick example: WITHOUT looking at the rules - do YOU know what El(X) rate as for shooting, combat and movement?) The problem with this is that these troops quickly become rather better known, and at a competition news of an unusual army spreads like wildfire, with everyone studying the rules at the breaks between games to see how to defeat this previously little-seen troop type. These armies also often have all sorts of other deficiencies which the allure of the weird troop-types initially hides. An excellent example of a "gimmick" army of this nature is the Khmer, with El(X).

Allies

In many armies, the allies make the army. (They can also unmake the army - I had a particularly trying time with Serbian allies in my Ottoman army, who were unreliable three times in a row when I was first using them, a probability of less than 0.5%!) The recently adopted BHGS competition format, permitting two army lists from the same period, makes this even more crucial, since the right ally will add significant capabilities to your army when needed, but can be dropped against an unsuitable opponent (or another ally substituted!) Some armies offer a veritable cornucopia of allies; others very little indeed.

Terrain

The DBM terrain rules have been one of the most contentious parts of the rule set; for quite some time, IWF competitions (BHSG, SAWU etc) used pre-set terrain, and it was only from DBM Version 2.0 on that competitions used the DBM terrain rules as in the rulebook. Now the BHGS has introduced some amendments for competition play (which are not supported by the WRG), thus the competition and DBM terrain rules are diverging again. Continual changes to the terrain rules can temporarily advantage some armies, but given the state of flux of this aspect of DBM and associated competition rules, it would be unwise to build up an army specifically designed to exploit terrain.

Some armies for consideration

With all the above in mind, here is a list of some armies which at present (400AP, DBM Ver 2.1) have performed well at competitions, either for me or other gamers. It certainly isn't complete, or even comprehensive, but hopefully will be of some use to beginners with a competitive urge. All except Bk 1 are from the 2nd edition lists.

One caveat is that Book 1 is presently under revision; a few armies in especially Bk2 fared badly in the 2nd edition lists.

Some armies to rather avoid as far as open competitions go:

"Dogmeat" would be ungenerous as a term for these armies, which against historical opponents generally offer a well balanced game, but the following well-known armies are almost guaranteed to perform disappointingly in an open competition (i.e. all periods):

This doesn't mean one shouldn't have such armies; indeed, games against their historical opponents can be great fun and very tense. But don't be suprised in a competition when a medieval knight army rides right over your fast or ordinary warband, or a mounted army simply sidesteps your legionaries.

Some less well-known armies that might offer potential:

The following are armies that I haven't seen in action (or at least not recently), but are a little different and might work:

You can't win them all!

No matter how inspired your choice of army, no matter how good the synergy afforded by some particularly outrageous and unlikely troop types, no matter how optimised your choice of terrain for your army, sooner or later your army will meet something it can't beat, and should preferably stay far away from! In such a case, trying to avoid overwhelming defeat by skirmishing and slowing down the attack is your only realistic option. (This shouldn't be considered as endorsing slow play in any way; what I mean is that you shouldn't rush in to attack when the odds are weighted against you, and you would be far better off defending!) Normally high-risk strategems such as flank marches can be useful in such situations - it's one way to hide your vulnerable troops, and just maybe your opponent's baggage will be vulnerably placed on a flank....

Conclusions

In conclusion, it's an unfortunate fact of DBM that many of the most well-known and effective historical armies aren't very good bets for DBM all-period competitions. Against their historical opponents, you will get a good game (this has always been a strong point of DBM), but don't expect your Ancient British army to survive a fair fight in the open against a Medieval French army! You will also need to constantly monitor rule changes - the really good international players tailor their armies to specifically exploit the latest rule amendments and list changes. Here the best advice is to forget about history and concentrate on the gaming aspects of DBM!

Acknowledgements

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in South African Wargamer, March 2000, No.24, entitled "Choosing a DBM army".