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Mark Lewis
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This is a review of Dux Bellorum (full title Dux Bellorum Arthurian Wargame Rules AD 367-793), which is a set of wargames rules covering the early dark ages in Britain (the Arthurian period). They are written by Dan Mersey and produced by Osprey, and come as a 64 page paperback. The RRP is £12 GBP but they are available on Amazon for around £9. GBP

Dux Bellorum is designed to represent relatively large scale battles for this period, with a standard sized army consisting of around 10 units, each of which represents about 50 men. Each unit consists of a base with figures attached (or multiple bases arranged in a fixed formation). All units should be equal frontage, but there are no other basing requirements. Ranges for movement and missile weapons are expressed in terms of base widths, so the rules scale easily for different figure scales and unit sizes. There is no figure removal – instead losses are marked (for example with a small dice) and when they reach a certain level the unit is removed.

The rules consist of the actual core rules, which are relatively short, at 31 pages, and 6 pages of special rules which may be taken as extras for certain armies (for example War Dogs, Ambush, Monks, Levy Troops, Chariots). There are extensive army lists (9 pages), covering all of the armies that fought in this period in Britain. For each army a list of the available troop types is given, along with the numbers that may be taken, plus the special rules available to that army. Then there is a section on scenarios, with suggestions for different types of game that can be played in addition to the straightforward pitched battle.

The rules themselves are well written, with mechanics clearly explained and no obvious holes or ambiguities. It is a relatively simple game and can be picked up quickly after reading the rules once. There are only a few different troops types, and each unit is defined by five main stats – bravery, movement, aggression (no. of dice rolled in combat), protection (target number for enemy units attack dice) and cohesion (number of hits required to destroy the unit). These can be quickly memorised for the main troop types. There are hardly any special rules for weapons, troop types etc. Armies mainly consist of ordinary foot troops, which fall into two main types – Shieldwall (A 3, Prot 6, Coh 4) and Warriors (A 5, Prot 5 and Coh 5). There are also cavalry (known as riders), plus foot and mounted skirmishers. Shieldwall, warriors and riders can be upgraded to nobles, improving their bravery and fighting stats. Some other less common troops such as Cataphracts and foot archers are only available to a few armies. Each army has one unit of Companions, which includes the general, and may be Foot (Shieldwall or Warriors) or Mounted. The foot troops in each army are normally the same type (although some armies may include allies of a different type) so an army will normally be either a Shieldwall army or a Warrior army.

Before the game, an initiative roll is made to determine which player is the Aggressor. The other player is termed the Repellor, which seems an unusual choice of terminology. Different armies have modifiers to this roll, which determines who act first in each phase of the game.
There is a very basic system for terrain set-up, which basically gives the Repellor the choice of terrain, then the Aggressor chooses sides. I would prefer something a bit more involved, and with less player choice.

Command and Control is handled through the requirement for a unit or group to pass a bravery test in order to move, and through Leadership Points (LPs). LPs are one of the key features of the game, and add a resource management element. Each army has 6 or more LPs to allocate each turn. They can be used for a variety of actions – making a unit more likely to move, interrupting the enemy movement to move a unit out of sequence, adding a dice in combat or cancelling a hit in combat. One LP is lost for each unit lost, and no LPs may be used if the General / Companion unit has been lost.
The turn sequence is interactive, rather than IGOUGO. In each phase, each player carries out his actions for that phase. The sequence is :
1) Allocate LPs to units or groups – players takes turns placing LPs until all are allocated
2) Shooting – all units are with missile weapons may shoot if bow armed foot shoot, they may not then move in the same turn.
3) Movement – split into three separate phases – skirmishers, mounted, then foot. The aggressor moves first in each phase.
4) Combat – all units in contact with enemy units fight.

In the movement phase, each unit or group must pass a bravery test to move, by rolling equal to or below its bravery (7 for normal troops, giving just over 50% chance of moving). If the unit fails it may adjust this roll downwards by spending LPs (if it has them allocated to it). The main exception to this is that Warriors do not need to roll if they will contact enemy – in fact they will automatically charge the nearest enemy in range unless they take a bravery test and fail. Unless moving as a group, the unit may move freely in any direction, just measuring the furthest moving front corner.
When units contact the enemy, there is no conforming – they just stay in the position they contacted them at, which may be with just a front corner in contact. Although this means you avoid the problems with conforming that happen in some rules, it creates problems of its own – it looks very strange to have units contacting at angles, and it means you can deliberately position your unit in contact at an angle to make it more difficult for the opponent to get into a flank charge position.

A unit may spend an LP to interrupt the enemy movement – for example a unit may move out of change range before being charged, or charge the enemy first to get a combat bonus. This can be cancelled by the original unit spending an LP.

Combat is pretty straightforward – in each combat, each player (starting with the Aggressor) declares which unit is attacking which, and which units, if any, are supporting. Each unit may only attack or support, and each enemy unit may only be attacked once, so in a multi-unit combat there is often some choice about which units attack. If any LPs are to be used, this is also declared. Each player rolls a base number of dice equal to the Aggression of the attacking unit. The number of dice may be modified according to a short list of situational modifiers, for example plus one dice for initiating contact. The target number (to score a hit) is the enemy units Protection value. Dice are rolled and results applied simultaneously. If any hits are suffered, these may be cancelled if the unit has LPs remaining. Otherwise they are recorded, and when the number of hits reacher the units Cohesion value, it is removed from the table as routed. If the loser (if any) does not rout it must fall back a half base width.

There are army level morale rules (at 50% casualties there is a bravery test for every unit, and they rout if they fail), and at 75% casualties the army breaks. These levels both seem rather high to me.

There are no other explicit morale rules, although morale at a unit level is incorporated into combat resolution. There is no rallying from hits, units routing do not affect other units, and the generals unit has no impact on the game other than being the best unit in combat, and the loss of all LPs if the Companion unit is lost.

The game plays in about one to two hours for a standard sized game.

So that's an outline of the mechanics covered, and it all sounds pretty good so far, so what's not to like ? Unfortunately, quite a lot. The game has quite a few flaws in my opinion, ranging from relatively minor niggles to some significant problems with things not feeling right – so much so that I would almost go so far to say the game is broken as it stands. We have played the rules about 4 or 5 times now, mainly with Late Romans (Shieldwall) facing Picts or Irish (both Warriors). The same problems have occurred every game, and unless we start to incorporate some house rules to fix them, I don't think I will be playing many more games.

So what are the problems, and how do I think they can be fixed ?

First off is the skirmisher issue. This is something that has been brought up a few times on the rules forum on Boardgamesgeek (which is where the author seems to prefer to address rules questions about the game). Because skirmishers move first, and cannot shoot until the start of the next turn, they generally get charged and killed before getting a chance to shoot. For example, javelin range is the same as the movement range for foot, at 2 Base Widths. So if you put your javelinmen into range of enemy foot, they can then charge you in their movement phase, and your javelinmen will die. There is no explicit procedure for evading – the only way you can evade from a charge is to interrupt the charging units movement, but since skirmishers move first, this is not possible. In fact, skirmishers are the one troop type that cannot evade. For example, if your non-skirmisher bowmen are charged by enemy cavalry, they can expend an LP to move first and retreat out of charge range (as non-skirmisher foot normally move after cavalry). In our games we have found skirmishers to be a liability – the best use for them seems to be to wait until units are engaged in melee, then attack the engaged enemy with missiles (which you can do at no penalty, which seems strange when each unit is only supposed to represent 50 combatants).

Another (relatively minor) problem relating to the turn sequence relates to the fact that you get a one dice "charge bonus" in combat, but you don't get this if you have moved and the enemy then contact you in the same turn. So with Cataphracts vs Warriors (both movement 3 BW), it will always be the Warriors who charge the Cataphracts (as cavalry move before foot). My understanding of ancient and medieval warfare is that foot should stand to receive the charge of cavalry, and if warband types charged cataphracts, the cataphracts would countercharge and be at a significant advantage.

My suggested fix for the skirmisher problem (which also fixes the second problem) is to reverse the movement order, so that foot move first, then mounted, then skirmishers. This allows the faster and more flexible troops to move last and react to the slower moving troops. It also allows skirmishers to move into a position where they can shoot (at the start of the following turn) without being immediately charged and destroyed.

The next problem relates to the use of LPs. I like the idea of LPs because they add a resource management element and, in theory, add some interesting decisions to the game. However, in practice, once combat has started there is virtually no choice about how you apply LPs – the only sensible use for them is to cancel hits. This is clear from looking at a standard combat situation – Shieldwall vs Warriors. The Shieldwall rolls 3 dice, needing 5s to hit, so will score one hit on average. The warriors roll 5 dice, needing 6s, so will also score about one hit on average. If you use an LP to provide an extra combat dice, this will give you a 33% (for shieldwall) or 17% (for warriors) chance of an extra hit. Or you can use it to guarantee cancelling a hit. The choice is obvious. We play with the optional rule that you can only use one LP to cancel a hit for each unit, but even so, if you provide an LP to every unit that is fighting, they are not particularly likely to suffer hits. This can lead to long drawn out combats – in most of our games, the two generals have engaged in combat on the second turn, and remained fighting each other for the whole game.
There is a ludicrous passage in the rules where it says you might want to try holding back LPs to cancel hits, and that players often forget to do this. What ?!! It is immediately clear to anyone with a basic grasp of probability that the only sensible use of LPs is to cancel hits. Okay, you might occasionally assign LPs to a unit to get it to move before being hit in the flank, or to charge an enemy in the flank, but the trouble is, in such an important situation the other player will just assign an equal number of LPs to his unit to stop you interrupting.

My fix would be to give two extra attack dice for each LP used in attack, and/or make it that LPs used to cancel hits do not do so automatically – maybe a bravery test is required to cancel each hit.

The potential for drawn out combats means that a shieldwall vs shieldwall game (which would be a typical dark ages battle, certainly for the latter part of the period covered) would be a particularly unattractive proposition. In combat both sides would roll 3 dice, needing 6s to hit, and normally each cancelling one hit. Such a combat would likely go on for a long time with little damage suffered. The author actually suggests you avoid this type of match-up, but that rules out a lot of potential games.

The way Warriors work is another area that some may see as a problem. A Warrior unit must charge the nearest enemy in its charge arc unless it fails a bravery test. But if it fails this test, it cannot then do anything else. So even if you have a unit of cataphracts waiting to charge you in the rear, the fact that there is a unit of skirmisher javelinmen in front means you cannot turn to face the bigger threat.

My fix would be to allow an uncontrolled charge to be cancelled by spending an LP – then the unit would be free to move elsewhere (on passing its bravery test to move).

The main problems though, and the ones that really feel wrong to me, revolve around multi-unit combat. Firstly, each extra unit in contact with the enemy only adds one extra dice. So if two units of warriors are in contact with a unit of shieldwall, the warriors get 6 dice instead of 5. As these dice need 6s to hit, it hardly increases the likelihood of scoring a hit. But if 100 men faced 50 men in isolation, all pretty evenly matched, I would expect the 100 to win very quickly. In these rules putting extra units into combat against one enemy unit hardly makes any difference. We have had Cataphracts with three units of enemy Warriors in contact, including a flank attack, and the Cataphracts go for two or three turns without taking a hit. Also in this situation the Cataphracts can fight back fully effectively against the enemy unit of their choice. So they inflict more damage than they suffer, even when isolated and outnumbered three-to-one ! In this situation, the Cataphracts will, on average,suffer about one hit every two turns (assuming they use a single LP to cancel a hit each turn), so that would mean they would last for eight turns !

My fix would be that units should lose combat dice for extra enemy units in contact, and also their Protection level should drop if they are contacted in the flank or rear.

The biggest problem is closely connected, and it is that it is often actually worse to fight the enemy unit with two units rather than one. And not just because you could use the second unit elsewhere – you are actually more likely to lose in the combat if you fight with two units against one. This relates to the use of LPs. As outlined above, LPs, which are always in short supply once combat has started, are primarily useful for cancelling hits, thus keeping your units alive in melee. The problem is that if you have two units in contact with one enemy unit, then you need to give them an LP each if you want to cancel a hit, as otherwise the other player will choose to attack the unit without an LP. And if you are the aggressor, you have to declare how you will use the LPs first, so if you want to cancel hits, one LP will be wasted. And given that the extra unit only gives you one extra dice in combat, it is normally better to only contact the enemy with one unit (unless you can get a flank attack). It sounds hard to believe that one unit is better than two equal units in combat, so I did a spreadsheet simulation of a combat situation – two units of shieldwall vs one unit of shieldwall, each side having one LP to use in the combat. I ran the simulation 1000 times, and the single unit routed both enemy units 54% of the time, with the two units only winning 33% of the time. I allowed the combat to go on for up to twenty turns, and 11% of the time the combat was not resolved, which supports the point I made earlier about shieldwall vs shieldwall battles.

So there it is, and that turned out a lot longer than I expected. The game certainly has some good points, and the games have been enjoyable enough, but to me there are too many things about it that don't feel right.
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Kent Reuber
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Just a comment. In the Dux Bellorum FAQ/Errata from March 2013, the author now allows javelin-armed men to move and shoot:

"Page 23: Missile fire
Change line 2-3 to read ‘Units may not move and shoot unless Foot armed with javelins, or Mounted with bows or javelins...’. This means that Bows (on foot) cannot move and shoot."
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Murray Fish
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They explained everything in detail and at great length. After they finished I sat, despondent, contemplating a bleak and empty future. "I’m glad you’re depressed" said one. "It means you’ve understood the situation.”
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Interesting review - thanks for posting.

I bought this a while ago but am yet to play as they arrived about the same time my second born did. One day, though, i do hope to try them out.

Where is the errata available on the web?
 
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Kent Reuber
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muzfish4 wrote:
Where is the errata available on the web?


It's on the files section of the games BGG page:

http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/88789/dux-bellorum-faq-err...
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Mark Lewis
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kentreuber wrote:
Just a comment. In the Dux Bellorum FAQ/Errata from March 2013, the author now allows javelin-armed men to move and shoot:

"Page 23: Missile fire
Change line 2-3 to read ‘Units may not move and shoot unless Foot armed with javelins, or Mounted with bows or javelins...’. This means that Bows (on foot) cannot move and shoot."


Yes, but that doesn't affect my points about them. It means they can move if they have shot earlier in the turn. But they still have to move before other troops, who can then charge them before they get to shoot.
 
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Dan
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Hi Mark,

Thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed review: I’m sorry to hear that the game isn't working for you. If you can, do rate the game here on BGG as low ratings are just as valued as high ones and I strongly believe that people pay attention to the scores people give the games they’ve played. I’ve noted down some short responses below, which you might find helpful (or not).

Skirmishers are dealt with in detail elsewhere on BGG; all I’ll say here is that they do work as I intended, which is not as a classic skirmisher.

For movement, you can move out of sequence by using LPs. Most Riders are protected from Foot by being able to sit outside of charge range and move in when they wish to. Cataphracts are an exception here, but I want them to feel clunky to move and manoeuvre on the battlefield in comparison to other Riders.

For LPs in combat, I wanted to keep the rules pretty streamlined for this new concept. I’ve still not played against someone who dumps all of their LPs on defence, or received overwhelming feedback about that from the majority of players, but I can see why that would become boring very quickly. If everyone is playing defensively, use the optional rule to reduce the number of LPs that can be used in defence, or tweak it further so that 2 LP block 1 hit, or limit the number of LPs that a player can use in defence each turn.

Support in close combat was tricky to develop to reflect what I wanted to model: increasing the effectiveness of units in support overbalanced combat in my view. Trying out other methods early in development, I found that players would spend ages trying to loop around the opposing army’s flank or go for 2 v 1 match ups at the expense of anything else, and the game became one of manoeuvre rather than conflict. That wasn’t what my take on Dark Ages warfare was, and it led to players rolling up each other’s armies from opposing ends of a line rather than meeting head on (which is what I wanted to show). In terms of design and trying to represent the period, I felt that outnumbering might not have been so significant in warfare in this period compared to some others: my conclusion was that a smaller number of warriors did a greater amount of the fighting, so numbers piling into combat were perhaps not as significant as in better drilled warfare. From memory, one the of the games I’ve played where flanking/outnumbering becomes very important is Armati, so if you’ve not tried that game out before that might better reflect the style of game you’re after?

Your conclusion on the outnumbered unit winning more often than their opponents isn’t something I’ve seen before, and is interesting. I’ve not noticed this happening so frequently and this wasn’t something noted during the playtesting, but if that’s the statistic, there we have it. I do want close combat to be dangerous for all units involved, but obviously not weighted in favour of the outnumbered unit. That’s something for me to ponder.

It sounds as though you’re finding your own tweaks to the bits you don't like, and I do encourage anyone to modify the rules to suit their own tastes; I consciously tried not to churn out a set of rules using the same old ideas as I’d seen in scores of rules before, so some of the concepts sit outside the norm. I also don't fool myself into thinking that I’ve developed a set of rules that suit all players’ needs, but the rules do reflect how I want my Dark Ages battles to play out.

Cheers,

Dan
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Peter Clarke
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Dan,

Your explanation about the wish to avoid battles won and lost on the flanks is interesting and quite reasonable.

I wonder if part of the (perceived?) issue around outnumbered units might be solved if the outnumbered player is required to combat the main attacking unit, rather than being able to choose which unit to target. This would mean that the outnumbering player gains some benefit(they can optimise their use of LPs) while not giving them any overwhelming advantage; while the outnumbered unit can no longer pick on the more vulnerable of its attackers.

I can't think of an unintended consequences... but then I've only played a few games.

Peter
 
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Mark Lewis
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peter_c wrote:
This would mean that the outnumbering player gains some benefit..... while not giving them any overwhelming advantage


Personally I think that if you outnumber the enemy 2 to 1 in an isolated combat (with pretty even troops), then there should be an overwhelming advantage.

I think the current mechanics actually encourage you to try to manoeuvre for flank attacks, as it is so difficult to get a decisive result frontally, even when you outnumber the opponent.

As an example, in our first game I faced my opponents mounted companions with my mounted companions and a unit of cataphracts. I thought I would soon be able to defeat his companions with the two-to-one advantage in similar troops, so I charged them both in frontally (which would seem to be the "realistic" thing to do). However, the three units were then tied up in a combat which lasted pretty much the whole game - so I had wasted one of my best units which would have been much more useful elswhere. What I should have done (and what I would do now) is only engage the enemy companions with one unit, and manoeuvre the other unit into a flank attack position.

What I am going to try next time I face warriors with shieldwall, is leaving big gaps in my shieldwall line so that the enemy warriors engage each of my shieldwall units with two units of warriors, leaving the rest of my army free to manoeuvre into position for flank attacks.
This should not be feasible historically, as the two-to-one advantages should mean the the warriors quickly punch through my line, but in these rules, warriors vs shieldwall with a two-to-one advantage is likely to last many turns, giving plenty of time to set up the flank attacks.
We'll see how it turns out.
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John Kelly
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Very intelligent analysis by Mr Lewis. I will say the game is fun.
We limit the # of LP's that can be used to cancel hits.

If 2 units are attacking 1 then allow a LP to be assigned to the 2 units with specifying which one it will be used on.

Doing the 2 things above is a big help.

I like the alternative sequence of play (Foot, Cavalry, Skirmishers) & will have to try that.

John Kelly
 
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Sounds a bit like you don't like defensive players, but actually a defensive strategy is as legitimate as any other and adds to the variety of the game.

Historically a tightly packed, badly outnumbered force adopting a shieldwall strategy might well last a long time against a looser, less well organised attacking force and I don't see a problem with that personally.

As for using the LPs defensively such a game would be about attrition, taking off a morale point here and there where you can until you eventually reach a tipping point.

You could also try lateral strategies like sending a unit of cavalry to take out some of your opponent's weaker troops on the fringes to deprive him of LPs.

I would suggest a game where both armies were entirely composed of shieldwall would be very rare. There would be other action happening elsewhere the result of which would affect the shieldwall battle.

With regard to the cataphracts they were hard to kill in real life, that is why the ancients went to so much trouble to cover them in armour, but there is only one unit allowed per army (if it's Roman). They are also expensive in points so an army that doesn't have them will have more to spend elsewhere. I don't see a problem with some units being very good - we're not playing checkers here ;-).

 
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peter_c wrote:
) while not giving them any overwhelming advantage; while the outnumbered unit can no longer pick on the more vulnerable of its attackers.


Peter


I don't personally see a problem with the outnumbered unit doing that. It's just a tactic like any other. And of course while he is attacking the more vulnerable unit, the stronger one is getting load of free potshots at him. I hate being attacked by 2 units as I know that one of them can sit there and whittle me down for free. Also, if the defender does use 3 LPs there it probably means he will be shortchanged in other areas.

If one did adjust this part of the rules a preferred one for me would be what I accidentally played in my first game - that each attacking unit rolls to hit rather than being forced to support. That for me would be more organic, less bitty and feel less like the rules were being artificially forced.
 
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Also, yes, it does usually make sense to use the LPs for defence and that is what I usually do.

However, there are times when you are forced to consider taking a gamble and splurging them on attack, for example if there is a powerful enemy unit that is almost dead and you want to finish off or alternatively to stop reaching your line. It is the success of your judgement calls in making these that is the key to some of the game.

With regard to skirmishers, if they are used in the way suggested in the Rules Thread they can also work to lessen the impact of LPs. Because they can shoot at units already in combat they can be very useful in soaking up LPs if used correctly.

That it's how I see things, anyway!
 
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