Tabletop Review: DBA 3.0

Posted on by 0 comment

I’m taking a minute today to break from my normal posting topics (literature and all things writing) to discuss my other hobby: tabletop war games.

I started playing when I was about ten years old, when my dad and I would make up nonsense rules for army men in the sandbox in my backyard. It wasn’t until I was about twelve, when my uncle David came down from New Hampshire for a visit, that I was exposed to organized rules for the first time. That was my earliest exposure to DBA.

DBA stands for De Bellis Antiquitatis (Of the Wars of Antiquity), and, as you might guess from its translated title, is a game that covers ancients (starting with Sumeria) through the medieval period (ending around 1550 AD). That means no muskets, tanks, Molotov cocktails, or machine guns. I’ve never much cared for Renaissance or Modern era history (you’ll never catch me playing a World War II game like Flames of War for instance), so it seemed like I had found a good rule set to suit my interests.

The game is designed in a pretty elegant way. All armies are limited to twelve stands (called elements in the rules). They each have one general, and the troop makeup is fixed for each army. For instance, if you wanted to take a Later Crusader army (covering the end of the disastrous Second Crusade through the end), you would take one knight general, two knights, five spear, three bow, and you have the final option of taking EITHER one knight OR one cavalry.

Every element type fights identically as well; a Spartan spear element fights in the exact same way as a Feudal English spear, despite existing eons apart from one another. This is something that is a pretty novel concept; if you’ve ever played most tabletop games, you’ll find that there are significant differences between elements; they have separate armor factors, different morale factors, things like that. Phil Barker, the creator of the rules, only has two combat factors for each element type: how they fight versus infantry, and how they fight versus mounted. And the highest modified factor you can possible get is +9 (which is a supported pike who is the commander in chief of a Big Battle army that uses its one-time +1 against a mounted enemy). That’s it.

Because the factors are relatively low, it means that you only need a single die to play the game. If you’ve ever played a game like Warhammer, you know the pains and sufferings of rolling handfuls of dice to decide a combat. In DBA, you roll one D6 to modify your combat performance. Typically, if your modified roll doubles that of your opponent, that means you’ve killed his element. When you kill one-third of your opponent’s army (which means four elements in a standard game), you win the game.

There are a lot of nuances to DBA that I’ve picked up since I began going to conventions and playing in tournaments at when I was 14. Probably the best thing about it, though, is that the game can be played, start to finish, in less than an hour. It is a fast-play, tournament style system, and I’ve loved it for over a decade.

Now, up until this past Cold Wars a couple of weeks ago, we had been playing DBA version 2.2. Sometime about five years ago, Phil Barker announced that he was going to release DBA 3.0, which promised to fix some of the issues of the old version. After years of playtesting, research, and tweaks, Mr. Barker published 3.0 late last year. My dad and I picked up a copy at Fall-In in November.

Now, my dad and I were skeptics, for a host of reasons. We had tried some of the beta versions that had been released, and found them… well, let’s say “troubling.” We knew that we loved DBA 2.2, and were resistant to change– and 3.0 has some big changes.

However, we reasoned that Phil Barker wouldn’t release crappy rules, and that we wouldn’t know how they were until we played the game a few times. At Cold Wars, we had the chance to play a few rounds of 3.0 in a little tournament, and I have some thoughts.

If you’re unfamiliar with DBA 2.2, then I’m sorry, but things are going to get technical with some of the comparisons between the two versions, and there’s little I can do to resolve that for you. I recommend playing the game yourself if you can, because it’s well worth the investment if you like gaming.


The Good

There were some changes that I really liked in 3.0, and genuinely prefer over 2.2.

The first of these is the new terrain deployment rules. Rather than picking a bunch of terrain pieces and setting them out however you feel, Mr. Barker added a degree of randomness to it. The board is divided into imaginary numbered quarters. For each piece of terrain you want to place, you roll a die. If you roll a 1-4, that piece of terrain is placed in the corresponding quarter. If you roll a five, you get to place it anywhere. If you roll a six, your opponent gets to place it anywhere. If there is nowhere within a rolled quarter to legally place a piece of terrain, it cannot be placed.

This is a big change from 2.2. One of the most frustrating things about playing in a 2.2 tournament is that there is always that ONE GUY who decides to clutter the entire board with terrain pieces, even if his army doesn’t do particularly well in the bad going. As a result, the whole game slows way down, because of movement penalties and pip management. Tournaments are timed, usually to one-hour rounds, and if you play against this terrain-happy guy, you might not finish. I’ve only ever had one drawn game in the hundreds I’ve played in tournaments, and it was because I played against a gentleman who deployed five massive pieces of bad going all across the board, despite the two of us having knight armies.

Now, in 3.0, it is very, very unlikely (but still possible) for someone to clutter a board with bad going. They can still put out some terrain to keep things interesting, but they won’t be able to force a draw before the game even begins. It is an elegant solution to the problem, and I applaud it.

Further, it’s pretty darned historical. Most ancient battles were fought on, you know, battlefields. Sometimes you’d have patches of woods or important hills that figured into things, but you’d be hard pressed to find an example of a pitched battle that took place entirely in a friggin’ marsh.

Second, in a somewhat adjacent change, I like that the invader gets to choose his side without dicing for the board edgeIn 2.2, the defender sets terrain, and the invader picks his edge by assigning dice rolls to each– one side would be one, another two, a third three, and the last would get four, five and six. This let you weight your favored side, but still had an element of randomness to it.

3.0 eliminates the die roll, but replaces it with two new restrictions: the invader must pick a side that has a road going to or from it, and cannot pick a side opposite a waterway. This means that, as defender, you can force your opponent to pick one of two sides, if you so choose (and if you can put down a road). However, this also takes away the idea of an invading player getting totally screwed by the terrain thanks to a single bad die roll. (It has cost me the game a few times).

It also just makes sense; invading armies wouldn’t engage in unfavorable terrain unless they were forced to. Just because they’re attacking doesn’t mean that they can’t scout ahead and find a good place to meet the enemy. The road restriction also make sense; naturally, an invading army would want to take advantage of their enemy’s roads, if at all possible. The waterway restriction makes less sense in historical terms to me– why couldn’t an army invade from inland and force the enemy’s back against the sea? However, as a game concept, I can forgive it, I suppose, and it’s hardly a major complaint.

Third, I like some of the element changes. In 2.2, blade elements were either based as 3 or 4 blade (meaning three or four figures on the stand), and it didn’t matter whether you selected either one, because there was no difference. Now, however, 3 Blade is “Fast” Blade, and 4 Blade is “Solid” Blade. Fast blade moves 50% faster, but solid blade wins on ties against knights (actually destroying them) and fast foot, making them significantly more durable.

This additional flavor adds some complexity to the game to be sure, but is simple enough to remember, and I’m for it.

The conforming rules are an interesting fix, as well. In 2.2, by cocking your elements a certain way, it was possible to prevent opposing elements from making contact. By deliberately overlapping corners, you could make a line of blade impossible to attack, if you so chose. In order to overcome this, you would have to start at the very end of the line, and individually hit each one on the flank, greatly slowing down any attempts at breaking that line.

Obviously, this wasn’t intended in the rules, and was a side effect of the geometric nature of DBA, so Mr. Barker fixed it pretty well in 3.0. Now, elements conform. If, say, my opponent tried to form a “V” with two blade, and I contacted the two points at the outside with a group of three spear, the two blade must either voluntarily conform to the spear, or fight as if overlapped.

This is a very clever fix, and while the method of overlapping corners was usually considered unsporting enough to deter potential abusers, it’s a nice preventative measure.

Finally, the quality of the rule book itself is an excellent change. My battered copies of DBA 2.2 were a softcover thing held together by staples and the wishes and dreams of children everywhere. 3.0 is presented in a wonderful hardcover that should stand up to the standard abuses and malfeasances of tabletop gaming.

Further, it finally contains… drum roll please… DIAGRAMS! Pages and pages of diagrams that actually demonstrate what is intended by the text! Example after example is rendered in perfectly readable pictur– I mean, diagrams.

But, most interestingly for me, the lists for each army now have blurbs. In 2.2, the lists were an austere and sparse affair. Now, however, there are details given for each one, such as important battles and leaders, rundowns of typical arms and armor for many of the elements, and, finally sources for his research.

Concerning the sourcing, however, I found some… well, some methods that gave me pause. Many of the sources cited are perfectly reputable, but… I mean, can you base an entire army list off of a single source? Moreover, a single source during a period in which there are ample sources, primary and secondary? (I didn’t see any primary sources in the lists, which makes the historian in me cringe). I’m not doubting that Mr. Barker knows his stuff, but few of these lists would make it past a 100-level history course if submitted for a grade. It’s a minor complaint, but as someone who loves history enough to spend four years getting a degree in the field, it’s one that is important to me.

Which brings us to…


Side support is a funky change. In DBA 2.2, the only type of positive support for your elements that you can get were from rear support, from psiloi (if blade, spear or auxilia) or from identical elements (if warband, pikes, or spear). In 3.0, psiloi support is removed, and replaced with side-support for solid spear and solid bow. The idea was, I think, to encourage players to use psiloi more like the skirmishers that they were intended to represent rather than keeping them permanently behind the battle line.

My Samanid army only had three spears, so I was only able to judge based on that interaction, but I’m not sure about this change. It seems to be one of those things that people will love or despise, and I can’t make my mind up about it just yet. It deserves a mention here, however, as it is one of the more controversial additions to 3.0.

Light horse now get rear support. I mean, okay? So a block of light horse can fight as well as cavalry. But considering that there are new conforming rules in 3.0, and light horse can still move basically wherever they want if you have enough pips, it seems like light horse can become something altogether different than intended.

For reference, Light horse can move three times if you have three pips, and they move four base widths. Converted to imperial measurements, that means they can move a total of 18.9 inches. The recommended board size is 24 inches. That gives it just under a 34-inch hypotenuse, which means that a light horse column can move ludicrously fast, and travel literally from one corner to the other in less than two bounds. True, they can’t close, but they can pin a couple of elements really easily if they feel like it, and with the rear support, they are far more of a threat than they used to be.

That said, it still only fights at a +3, so it’s not like an elephant can swarm your flank, but the difference between a +3 and a +2 is monumental in terms of survivability. A +2 is easily doubled by most elements; a cavalry stand, for example, kills it at a 3-1 dice roll. A +3, however, would take a 5-1 dice roll by that same cavalry.

Whether this is a good change or not is up to each player. I see it as good and bad; good, because it makes armies like the Mongols more playable, and bad because it adds further advantages to an element that already had one in blistering speed.


The Bad

Some changes I think are pretty darn cool; others I could take or leave. These, however, I really, really dislike.

First, there is the most commonly cited complaint with DBA 3.0: the increased movement distances.

In 2.2, blade, for example, moved two inches. In 3.0, solid blade moves 80 millimeters (two base-widths), which translates to 3.15 inches. That’s over a 50% increase. But, to make matters more complicated, there is fast blade, which moves 120 millimeters (3 base-widths), which translates to 4.72 inches. Remember that light horse I was telling you about? In 2.2, it used to move 5 inches. Fast blade now moves almost as fast as the fastest element in the game.

One of the core concepts of DBA is a maneuver called “closing the door.” Ordinarily, except for certain element matchups, in order to kill an enemy, you would need to double it in combat. However, if you move a second element such that its front edge is perfectly flush with the enemy element’s side edge (and the front corners of each stand are touching), then all you would need to do to kill that element is beat it, not double it.

Now, because the bases for DBA are 40 millimeters across, in order to successfully move an element of blade into closing the door on an enemy that is in close combat with the element to its side, it would need to move across the hypotenuse of the right triangle that is formed. That hypotenuse is 56.57 millimeters, or 2.2 inches. That would mean that it would not be able to make the move ordinarily, except the rules specifically state that an element can make this move regardless of tactical movement distances.

In 3.0, however, not only does that not matter even a little bit, it’s straight-up bananas. An element of fast blade can close the door on any recoiled element in the game, be they blade, elephants, chariots, knights, whatever. The farthest would be something mounted that recoils the maximum distance, 40 millimeters. The fast blade only has to move 89 millimeters to close the door, and they can move 120. They can do it without breaking a sweat.

Further complicating matters is that the proportional distances between elements have changed radically. Cavalry used to move four inches to heavy foot’s two. Now, fast blade, fast bow, and fast pike are all just a little slower than cavalry, and, worse, light horse. Knights move the same distance as fast infantry.

And you know what element is most screwed by this change? Auxilia. Auxilia used to be the element that sacrificed a little durability and strength for extra utility and speed. Now, all you trade are a couple of “wins on a tie”, and you get yourself a massive speed increase.

I can’t really think of any reason not to take fast elements over solid ones, and in many cases you’re given the option between the two. Fast pike is an exceptionally dangerous example, as they are a devastating +6/+5 when supported, move 120 millimeters, and are only quick-killed by knights and scythed chariots. They can punch holes and effectively swarm enemy lines with relative ease now, and there is little that even traditionally speedy elements like cavalry and light horse can do to stop them now.

Compounding this problem is the new deployment rules. In 2.2, you deployed within six inches from your rear, and three inches from either flank. That gave a minimum distance of twelve inches between the two enemy lines, if you were playing on a 24-inch board (which is standard in 2.2, though many preferred to play on 30-inch boards).

In 3.0, however, players deploy a minimum of 3 base-widths from the battlefield center line, and all troops must be 4 base-widths from either flank, except auxilia, cavalry, light horse, psiloi, camelry, and mounted infantry, which can be within 2 base-widths from either board edge. 

This is a strange mix of both incessantly restrictive and ludicrously freeing. If you have an army like, say, Later Crusaders, that means that you cannot deploy in a line wider than seven elements, meaning that at least five elements must be stuck in columns somewhere. If you have Mongols or some similarly fast-troop army, you can have a nice line eleven elements wide.

The truly troubling part of this isn’t just that you must deploy in a shortened line– something I often do regardless, but not having the option is awfully annoying– it’s that you will often start within 6 base-widths of your opponent. With the blistering speed of most elements in 3.0, you’re probably going to be in contact within two bounds, three max.

This leaves little to no time for maneuvering. In 2.2, the most fun I ever had was with heavy cavalry armies facing off, each trying to sweep and wheel to gain an advantage over the other. That is largely gone in 3.0; I don’t see any way for that to even happen. If you’re within six base-widths of the enemy, and they move first, a single wheel can bring your elements within your opponent’s zone of control (or threat zone, as nobody but Phil Barker calls it).

I do not want to speak for Mr. Barker, but it appears as though he doesn’t believe ancient armies shifted much before closing. I mean, this isn’t true. There are many accounts of such events. Just look at any of the Roman infantry tactic articles out there, or, better yet, read Caesar’s Legion, a great accounting of the history of Julius Caesar’s infamous Tenth Legion.

To make matters even further muddled, Zone of Control (or Threat Zone) now penetrates through elements. Mr. Barker was notoriously reticent to declare exactly what a zone of control is in DBA 2.2 and early versions, leaving many different interpretations to come around. There was the “Flashlight” interpretation, which says that the zone of control is blocked by intervening elements, but continues around edges if they are not perfectly aligned— much like shining a flashlight through the a doorway. More popular was “Rolling Carpet” interpretation, which states that the zone of control stops when it hits an enemy element. I don’t know where carpet comes into the metaphor, but that’s what it’s called.

In 3.0, the Zone of Control just continues for forty millimeters straight out, because it removes any mention of intervening elements. Which changes the interaction between a lot of different elements– in fact, it changes nearly the whole game.

Take, for example, the warband element. Warband’s claim to fame is that it can quick-kill heavy foot (such as spear, blade, and pike), but fights at just a +3. However, to mitigate this, warband receives rear support from warband, making it a +4 against those types. Now, warband is still fairly brittle against a blade line, which fights at a +5. One recoil is all it takes to make the fight a relatively easy +5/+3 for the blade. Warband is either going to win big or lose big against a blade line, and it really seems to be almost a toss-up.

Anyway, say that the blade line kills an element in the middle, leaving a nice big gap. In 2.2, the warband player could decide to swing a rear-supporting warband into that hole, sacrificing the support, but preventing the dreaded closing of the door. In 3.0, that is no longer an option, as the supporting warband is in the threat zone of the blade, even after a recoil. (They would be at exactly 40 millimeters, which is still considered inside the zone of control).

This is a fairly radical change, and I’m not sure why it’s there. I can only presume it was designed to further help prevent shifting, assuming it is what was intended.


3.0 seems intent on solving problems that I didn’t think existed; issues like unfinished games (which happen rarely, and always with the same players involved), and overuse of shifting lines (which was part of the fun). Perhaps it was intended to prevent corner-sitting, which involved deploying all the way in the corner of the board, and not moving the entire battle. I’ve only ever really seen that done in Big Battle, a triple-sized variant of DBA, and that was usually only to protect one flank.


Despite some of the negatives of 3.0– and they are significant– the game is still fun. I think that a few tweaks can really make it an excellent game again, one that feels more like 2.2 and not something else altogether.

I think that some of these tweaks should be adjusting the movement distances of the elements to slow them the heck down, adjusting the deployment zone slightly so that you can’t start practically in contact with your enemy’s camp, and implementing something to mitigate the zone of control. If those changes are made– and believe me, those are significant, but not massive changes– I think that this could become a brilliant game once more. As it stands, the movement distances, ZoC, and heinously restrictive deployment will prevent me from playing this version much at home, if at all, but I will always play whatever DBA is offered at conventions, regardless of version.

I earnestly hope that Mr. Barker will consider putting out DBA 3.1, and further consider making some of these changes, as I am definitely not the only one who has these concerns.

The truth of the matter is that DBA 3.0 is a game that is, you know, fineIf I had never played DBA 2.2, I might even fall in love with it. However, 3.0 is such a divergence from 2.2 that it no longer even feels like DBA. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; new games are fun. But it’s called DBA. And I think it should play like DBA. Because if the intent was to make a different game, then I think he should have made a different game.

These are my thoughts on the matter. None of this is meant to disrespect anyone involved with 3.0; it is an honest opinion from my experiences with the game thus far. If anyone has any dissenting opinions, or can point out where I’m just plain wrong, I invite you to leave a comment. I’d be happy to hear opposing views.


Leave a Reply