By Bob Beattie (

Accepted for publication by The Courier, Jan. 2000

(© Robert Beattie, 1999)


This article is about how to expand the 90's most popular rules, DBA, into a full-fledged war game by increasing the number of figures to make a big battle version.



I would like to thank Mike Demana, Ken Blackley, Steve Goode, David Kuijt, and John Garvey for sharing their ideas to make this article possible. If I have used something from anyone else but did not give you a citation, thanks too. I have gotten much excellent DBA info off the net and it is difficult to remember everyone.


Since I became involved in organized wargaming in the late 1960's I have limited myself to focusing on only one rule set at a time. First it was Column, Line, and Square (CLS); then, in the late 70's, I took up The Sword and the Flame (TSATF), and lastly, since 1991 I have been playing De Bellis Antiquatis (DBA). I should say that I added De Bellis Renationis (DBR) in 1995.

What do all of these rules have in common besides nice acronyms? They are all relatively simple and can be easily modified for other sizes, eras, and milieus than intended by the author. I have used both CLS and TSATF to play ancients games and I have played Northwest Frontier games with DBA. I once referred to TSATF as a "tool kit" for creating scenarios. (By the way, with the release of the 20th anniversary edition of TSATF, I have added back in some Victorian Era Colonial gaming.)

It can also be said of DBA that it provides such a tool kit. It can be used for games in milieu other than the ancient/medieval era, for games with variations from the basic rules, and for games with armies larger than those suggested in the book. The English glossies have run articles on using DBA for pike and shot, 7 Years War, Napoleonics, Crimean War, ACW, Victorian colonial, and even the world wars.

In this article I will discuss the latter point mentioned above: how to play DBA with armies larger than the 12 elements. For such big games I have coined the term "Big Battle DBA" (BBDBA). BBDBA can be done by increasing the number of elements and by also adding additional rules to enhance the playability of games with more elements. DBA has been the most popular game of the 1990's and is being revised to take us into the aughts. The following suggestions should still be valid with a new edition.

Armies in the Basic Game

The Basic Game of DBA is played on a square board; 2 foot square for 15mm or smaller figures and 4 foot square for larger ones. Each player has an "army" of 12 elements. An element is a flat rectangle, made of thin material such as cardboard, metal, or wood with some toy soldiers on it. People can even play without the figures; using cardboard counters to learn the system or try out a new army. These elements are sometimes called "stands", or bases or by some, trays (a term used originally by Joe Morschauser in his seminal work: How to Play War Games in Miniature) The width of each element is determined by the figure size: 40mm for 15mm and 60mm for 25mm. The depth is determined by troop type: blades and spears in 15mm, for example, are 15mm deep, light troops 20mm deep, most mounted 30mm, and elephants/artillery/war wagons 40mm. Blades in 25mm are 20mm deep, lights are 30, and mounted are 40mm.

The armies are expressed as a mix of elements based on the typical historical army of the time. DBA 1.1 has 220 armies, Version 2.0 (projected for early 2000) will be close to twice that number. In Version 1.1, an example of a simple army is early Sparta, No. 24b, 700BC-450BC: 11 spear elements and a choice of another spear or a skirmishing infantry element (called Psiloi, Ps). The shorthand representation of this is: 11x4Sp, 1x4Sp or 2Ps. The number proceeding the "x" is the number of elements and the next number is the number of toy soldiers/figures on the element. So this army has 46 or 48 figures. A more complex army is represented by the Numidian, No. 53, 215BC-25AD which is 4 Light Horse (LH), 4 Psiloi, another Light Horse or an Elephant, another Light Horse or a Cavalry (Cv) element, and lastly, two more elements from among Light Horse, light infantry (Auxilia, Aux) and/or Blades (Bd). In shorthand this is 4x2LH, 4x2Ps, 1x2LH or El, 1x2LH or 3Cv, 2x 2LH or 4Aux or 4Bd. Thus a simple army could be 4 Psiloi and 8 light horse (24 figures) or if one wanted to stay with just the minimum LH: 4 Ps, 4LH, 1 elephant, 1 Cavalry, 1 Auxila and 1 Blade (29 figures counting elephant as only 1). A very complex army is the Chinese Border Nomad, No. 62, 450BC-1218AD: 2x3Cav, 5x2LH, 1x3Aux+1x3Aux or 2Ps+3x2Ps or 5x2LH. Some armies are allowed to start with certain mounted elements on foot for the whole game. The Early Samurai, 127a, 900AD-1300AD, for example, get 6 cavalry, any number of which can be deployed dismounted as Bows or Blades so: 6x3Cv/4Bw or 3Bd, 6x3Aux. They might be used as 2 Cav, 2 Bd, and 2 Bw plus the 6 Aux.

A note of clarification here, when the army list shows a configuration of Number of Elements times One type or Another type, the player can pick from both types up to the maximum allowed. For example, " 3 x 3Wb or 3 Aux" can be taken as either all 3 Wb, or 2 Wb and 1 Aux or 1 Wb and 2 Aux or all 3 Aux. If the list is be restrictive, then the notation would have been "3x 3Wb or 3x 3 Aux".

Thus the armies that can be used in the game are varied across time and within each option. Part of the fun of the game is selecting an army that suits the user's personality and picking the options within the army that do likewise. The 12 element armies are used in tournaments and friendly standard games.

Historical Regular Games

There is a limit, however, to creating historical scenarios and recreating historical battles when using just the 12 elements. This can be done but the games become very abstract. At the U.S. summer national convention - Historicon- I have put on tournaments consisting of matched pairs of armies from historical battles and eras. In 1999, I did a medieval battle that was a recreation of the Battle of Ankara (Angora) between the army Tamberlane (Timurids - No. 159b) and the Later Ottomans (No. 160b) in 1402. The Timurids army is a descendant of the Mongol army and so has a heavy cavalry component. It was coming from a recent victory in India so added elephants. The components are as follows: 6 Cv, 2 LH, 1 El, 2 Bw, and 1 Ps. The Ottoman army had been on the march for some time and did not have all its artillery train so I changed the list to exchange one Art to a Ps. The full list is: 5 Cv, 2 LH, 2 Bw, 1 Kn, 1 Art, and 1 Ps. I have also done other historical 12 element army games such as Hydaspes, Lake Trasimeno, 217BC, Later Ottomans against the Later Hungarians in a siege relief scenario, Later Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks in the Battle of Asruf, and Magnesia to name a few.

Our local club has enjoyed an evening of one-on-one games with 12 elements set around an historical era. Recently we did a "First Man in Rome" series in which one group of players had Marian Roman armies and played in turn German, Pontic, and Numidian opponents. The DBA rule book has campaign rules and a list of quite a few army combinations for historical campaigns. While tournaments and club engagements are fun, most clubs like to play team games, usually historically based.

Big Battle Games

One way to arrive at a team situation is to use more elements. This is the simplest way to achieve BBDBA. Mike Demana of Ohio has suggested some ways of doing this.

1. Double, triple, etc. the element distribution in a current DBA army list. (e.g., a 36 element Big Battle DBA Arab Conquest Army would be comprised of 9 x Cav, 6 x Light Horse, 18 x Warband, 3 x Bow/Psiloi).

2. Add historically appropriate armies as "allies" to an approved DBA army. (e.g., Early Spartan army fighting with an Early Hoplite Greek ally army)

3. Use a mutually agreed upon points system to field both an approved DBA core army and additional elements. A 200 point game will average approximately 24 elements, a 300 point game will average approximately 36 elements.

4. Use a historical scenario, determining the number and type of elements according to the actual order of battle based on a fixed scale (e.g. 1element = 1000 men).

5. Agreement of the parties or by specification of a game umpire.

6. Any combination of the above.

If just using multiple armies, Mike says that , one 12 element commands/armies should be designed as the principal or core force, whose commander also serves as the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C). Other commands are then designated by the scenario, umpire, or players as either "subordinate" or "ally" under the command of their own General. Subordinate commands are typically of the same nationality/origin s of the principal command and enjoy greater cohesion and loyalty as a result. Allied commands are typically armies of different nationality/origin who have joined forces to honor an obligation or treaty, to achieve common goals or resist a common foe, or as mercenaries.

One interesting alternative to just using multiple 12 element armies as an entity by each player is to create special commands. The elements can be regrouped between commands prior to the game. Mike suggests, for example, all mounted troops can be collected in one command. All light troops (psiloi or auxilia) can be collected in one command. Certain close order troops (pike, spear, or blade) of the same type can be collected in one command. All elephant, war wagons and/or artillery can be collected in one command. When reorganizing an army, however, all generals should end up with an approximately equal number of elements in their commands. My own gaming group usually creates wings or battles. One player has all the cavalry, or there are two wings of such. Heavy troops occupy the center, with light troops to cover the front. There might be 1 or 2 such commands. Sometimes, a reserve force is used, under the commander-in-chief and perhaps a smaller number of elements.

Steven Goode of Pennsylvania offers some suggestions for doing Mike’s first suggestion, the simple increase of the number of "armies" in a game. He uses mostly "double DBA", played on a 3'x2' board. The armies are each 2 12-element armies (each with its own subgeneral) plus one more stand representing the C-in-C, or 25 elements in all. The normal command radius applies except that the C-in-C can be used as a general for troops of either or both sub-armies. That is, an element within 1,200p of the C-in-C but more than 1,200p from its own general is still OK. In regular DBA if an element is outside of 1,200 paces or 600 paces and also behind a hill, town, or wood, the element will need an extra pip to move. Steve uses a special deployment rule - both sides dice, and the high scorer places 6 elements, then the other side places 6, then the first side, etc until both armies are deployed. The army which had to deploy the first 6 elements gets to move first.

A good example of Mike’s second suggestion is how our local gaming group - Ann Arbor Area (mostly) Historical Miniatures Gaming Group - has played the Battle of Beneventum. This was the last battle between the Romans and Pyrrhus of Eprios. We do this as a triple DBA game, three armies to a side. The Romans (three of army number 46b) are two foot commands and a mounted command plus a reserve. The Greek army has a flank (but on the table) marching group plus a pike command. These are made up from two standard Pyrrhic armies (No. 43) plus an allied command made up of Samnites (No. 30c). If there are more players available then we would use 4 Roman vs. 2 Pyhrric and 2 Samnite armies.

My own group also does Mike’s fourth suggestion. One of our very first DBA games, after a few one-on-one situations was based on the large scale game scenario included in the first edition of DBA and subsequently left out of 1.1. As this is now out of print, I quote it in its entirety:

As an extreme example, probably history's largest battle, and certainly the largest of which there is a detailed troop list, was that between Alexander and Darius at Gaugamela near Arbela in 331 BC. Armies for these with one element representing 500 open, 1000 loose or 1500 close formed troops, but neglecting the hordes of Persian levy infantry that took no part in the battle are:

Alexander: 2 3Kn (Companion), 2 3Cv (Thessalian), 2 3Cv (Greek/Mercenary), 1 2LH (Prodromoi), 1 2LH (Paeonian), 1 2LH (Odrysian), 3 4Aux (Hypaspists), 12 4Pk (Phalanx), 2 2Ps (Archers), 4 2Ps (Agrianians and Thracians), 6 4Sp (Greek), 2 4Aux (peltasts), 2 3Aux (Thracians).

Total = 40 elements.

Darius: 4 SCh, 26 3Cv, 12 2LH, 2 4Sp (Greek), 1 4Bw (Guard), 3 4Ax (Kardakes), 1 3Ax (Carian), 2 3Bw (Mardian), 1 El.

Total = 52 elements.

DBA First Edition

Using this same system of elements to men our group played out all of Alexander’s major battles. Hydaspes was the last in the series. This game proved so exciting that I put it on in 15mm at the Cold Wars convention in 1994, the first BBDBA at a national convention. I later ran the same game but with 25mm figures, in 1996, as part of the "Parent and Child" game series I have done at Historicons. Children make the decisions and parents help move the figures. The games in the series are based on battles involving parents and children. The Indian commander, Poros, had a son commanding his advance guard. DBA is such a simple game that the kids easily picked it up. This year I did Hydaspes again at a Michigan convention. This time I added a twist to increase the visual appeal of the game. I did what I call "Double" Big Battle DBA. All foot and horse elements were double based. That is, I temporarily glued the foot and horse elements to double deep pieces of card board to give a much denser look to the battle field. Elephants and chariots were kept as single ranks. The only rule modification was to make recoils a rank deep instead of a full double element back.

For those gamers who do not want to work out figure to element ratios, Peter Sides has published three little books with scenarios, two of the ancient era and one of medieval times. The first ancients book has 39 scenarios and the second has 40, together covering 1479BC to 636AD. The medieval volume has 40 battles from 732 to 1485AD. There are a number of typos (including misspelling the "Antiquitatis " in one of the introductions) and some questionable troop ratios but nevertheless these are a very useful resource. If our group does not have a chance to do research on a battle or we need a fill-in game, we turn to Sides’ book for an easy setup.

Some players have a fondness for a specific historical pair or particular historical era. John Garvey of Australia, for example has special rules for his Norse-Irish vs. Viking games.

Each army is 2 times a normal DBA army. There is only one camp per side and two generals. One is the C-in-C with a 1,200p command range; the other a sub-general with a 600p command range. There are no commands, that is no specific elements assigned to one general or the other. One PIP dice is thrown. Each general can move for free, either by himself or in a group. Elements must be within the command range of either general or they suffer the usual PIP penalty. Lost C-in-C counts as 4 elements and a lost Sub-General counts as 2 elements. Lost camp counts as 4 elements. The army is shaken at when it has lost 6 elements. When army is shaken, each element gets -1 Combat Factor (CF). When army is shaken, at the beginning of each friendly bound, the PIP dice must be greater than or equal the number of elements (or equivalent) over 6 lost, e.g., if you have lost 8 elements, you must throw a 2 or more. If you have lost 12 elements you must throw a 6. If you have lost 13 elements you have lost the game. Special rule for Vikings: 16 blade elements are deemed "Hird" and have CF vs. foot of 4 (instead of the usual 5). Other than that, normal rules for DBA apply.

Ken Blackley of Canada is focused on the medieval period (especially what he calls "The One True Army" that we know better as Burgundian Ordonnance.) He has attempted to apply Mike Demana's third suggestion - a points system to his Medieval Big Battle games.

He suggests in his Web Site

a better alternative to just multiplying the DBA army lists "is to choose armies based on the DBM army list books, observing all maximums and minimums and correct AP costs, and then organize it into commands as in DBM. You can create, for example, a 350 AP DBM army but then use it to play Big-Battle DBA. "

He notes that this points systems has problems as it will costs different points for, say, a Reg Kn(S) than a Irreg Kn(I), yet both will be played as Kn under DBA. However, if using historical opponents, points costs should be close enough on both sides to give a well-balanced game.

He further suggests yet another alternative is to use maximums and minimums as outlined in the DBM army lists, but use the following point cost per element:

Knights - 12

Cavalry - 8

Light Horse - 5

Spears - 5

Pikes - 4

Blades - 7

Warband - 5

Auxilia - 4

Bowmen - 5

Longbows - 7 (in DBA rules these are same type as Bowmen)

Psiloi - 2

Artillery - 8

War Wagons - 10

Hordes - 1 (not an element type in DBA)

Superior elements add +1

Inferior troops subtract -1

Add +20 if the element is the C-in-C's or a sub general.

Add +10 if the element is an ally-general.

Add +1 for mounted infantry.

He notes that this point system will not work for non-Big Battle DBA games, where pikes receive +3 for rear support from a single supporting rank of pike. See his site for how the various point options fit into the rules. I should say here that the authors of DBA discourage using points and do not suggest numbers, nor is there any universally accepted point system.

David Kuijt is another active DBA player who has developed some very useful ideas for BBDBA. One set is for what he calls Double DBA that uses just two regular DBA armies per side with no other game modifications. He also has very extensive suggestions for doing games with larger armies including many additional rules.. Both of these can be found on his web site.

Besides increasing the number of elements to create Big Battle DBA, players can make additional modifications.


Other BBDBA Modifications

Once a player has decided to do a Big Battle DBA a few other changes are necessary. First the playing area should be increased. Some folks are even now lobbying the authors to increase the board size for a 12 element army regular game, suggesting that the 2x2 foot or 4x4 foot board is too small to allow adequate flanking movements. So you might consider playing regular size DBA armies on bigger boards.

As I mentioned, the standard DBA area is 24 inch square for 15mm figures and a 48 inches square for 25mm. For Big Battle DBA, Mike Demana suggests that players maintain a depth of 24 inches, but add 12 inches of width for every 12 elements added per side. For example, battles involving 24 elements a side would be played on a board 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep with 15mm figures or 5 feet wide and 4 feet deep for battles involving 25mm figures. The 15mm board with 36 elements aside would be expanded to 4 feet wide by 2 feet deep.

My group has played Benevenetum on a 12 foot by 6 foot table to allow for space to recreate Pyrrhus' night flank march. Increased depth is useful if players want to permit reserves or some maneuver prior to the battle lines hitting each other.

Besides changing the playing area, some players prefer a modified deployment when playing BBDBA. In a scenario game, the placement of the elements is determined by the historical referent or by the game master. If the game is to be one without a historical basis then something other than the DBA deployment will be needed. The current rules call for each player to roll a die, the low scorer will set up the terrain on the board, within certain parameters, the other player will roll for which side he gets and then sets up his troops. Then the low scorer will set up troops and take the first move. This will not work with a rectangular playing area and is not really fair to the player setting up first. Version 2.0 will have a fairer set up mechanism, perhaps allowing the player setting up first to move first. I have advocated letting one player setup the terrain but then let the other player just pick which edge he wants.

Mike Demana, again, has a suggestion for deployment. He would have all players throw a die. The low scorer chooses and places terrain according to the normal rules and then divides the two opposing base lines into three equal sections, numbered 1-3 and 4-6. The highest scorer then dices for his base line section and deploys his troops. The highest scorer's allies/subordinates then go in order of their initiative roll to deploy troops either behind a friendly deployed command or in a base line section either to the immediate left or right of friendly deployed troops. Once all troops and allies of the highest scorer are deployed, then the process is repeated for the lowest scorer and his allies/subordinates on the opposite base edge.

Taking a suggestion from DBM, a flank march is an interesting addition. Either commander-in-chief may elect to send one of his subordinate commanders on a flanking march. These troops are not deployed on the table, but are held in reserve until their specified time of arrival. The flank edge and the turn on which the flanking command is expected to arrive should be recorded secretly by the commanding general in writing, during initial deployment. The specified turn of arrival may be turn six or any later turn, but not earlier. When the specified turn is reached, the commanding general must roll 1d6 to determine whether the flank march arrives as planned. If the result is 1-3, the flank unit arrives as expected and may deploy. If the result is 4-6, the flank unit is delayed by an additional turn. The same check should be made each successive turn until the flank command successfully makes its appearance. Commands entering the gaming area via flank march may deploy within a 6 inch radius of the mid-point of the flank edge, but not within the immediate zone of control or recoil of any enemy element.

If the opposing commanders-in-chief have both designated subordinate commands for a flank march by the same flank, then the command which arrives first will deploy normally. The opposing flank command will counter-march, arriving at the nearest friendly base edge section no sooner than 5 turns after the first flank command successfully deploys. On the fifth turn, one 1d6 to determine if the returning unit has arrived. If the result is 1-3, the flank unit arrives and may deploy. If the result is 4-6, the returning unit is delayed by an additional turn. This rule is adopted rather than fighting secondary battles between flanking forces who may meet off-board. However, setting up an additional gaming area and have the flank marchers enter into a combat of their own is also a possibility. David Kuijt has a good discussion of march moves on his BBDBA site; elements moving extra distance under certain circumstances, but all on the gaming table.

Another consideration for BBDBA is how to allocate movement points. In regular DBA, the player rolls a die and can move as many elements or groups as the number that shows on the die. Roll a 6, move 6 elements. With more elements on the table, a single die presents a hardship. Peter Sides suggests that certain generals should get an extra automatic point. If the larger army is broken into commands, then each command can have its own die. Taking another suggestion from DBM, allow regular armies to share the dice by having the C-in-C throw all dice and allocating to commands as he wishes . Irregular armies would require each commander to throw his own die. Both DBM and DBR allow the C-in-C or each general, and the group he is in, to move for free. When our group first began playing BBDBA, before DBM with its multiple d6 option, we gave the C-in-C a number of different sided dice; d6, d4, d8, d10, etc. The Commander rolled all of the dice and allocated them to each commander. The total of all dice was equal to having a d6 for every 12 elements but gave some more randomness to the throw.

Lastly, BBDBA needs a method of conclusion. A game of regular DBA ends when one player has lost 4 elements and more than the opponent; or has lost a general and more elements. For the bigger game a simple extrapolation to 1/3 of the army lost might be done. This is what we did in our large Hydaspes game. In scenario games, specific game conditions can determine victory. Yet again, drawing from DBM/DBR, commands can be broken when they reach a certain threshold. The command need not be lost from the table (and thus giving its commander nothing to do for the rest of the night) but can be forced to make a fighting withdrawal or fight at reduced strength.

Big Battle DBA is an excellent way to fight large historical battles or multi-player hypothetical engagements. The DBA rules are a simple but elegant set for ancient through medieval wargames. The simplicity allow many players to engage in a large battle with little argument and finish in a reasonable time. So, think BIG next time you think DBA and roll 6's.


Reference and links

Peter Sides,

Ancient Historical Battles, 1479 BC - 378AD

1992 ISBN 1874351007

Ancient Historical Battles Vol 2, 406BC - 636AD

1995 ISBN 1874351112

Medieval Historical Battles, 732 - 1485

March 1993, ISBN

These are published by and available from Gosling Press, UK 35 Cross Street, Upton Pontefract WF9 1EU U.K.

Also available from Cavalier Books a good source of DBA info, a must for every player my site, see battle pictures and DBA page Ken Blackley's page DBA for other times and places Dave Kuijt's site with Double DBA and BBDBA a list of useful links