Back to the Dark Ages – with DBA 3.0

Joe Collins recently provided a short article for this site covering Dark Age Warfare in DBA 3.0. I am sure that this will be well received and provide some interesting information on how the rules handles warfare in this period. The various photos are of Joe’s 25mm Dark Ages collection. 

The development of the new version of DBA concentrated on several worthy goals. Phil Barker’s foremost was the elimination of geometric ploys and “gamey” tactics. Closely following this was a re-evaluation of fighting in various periods of history and how it is represented in DBA. Years of game play experience had revealed some shortcomings both in the historical feel of some periods as well as the actual game play. The most apparent of these was the Dark Ages.

Under DBA 2.2 most Dark Age battles were simply dull. The lack of troop differentiation, element definitions based on the classical period, and the very scale of the game conspired to produce lopsided and uninteresting games. The most glaring case was the match up of Vikings vs Anglo-Saxons. This rivalry usually featured the all “Blade” Vikings slaughtering the poor all “Spear” Saxons. The Pre-Feudal Scots didn’t fair much better. Their troops rated mainly as either “Warband” or 3Sp (Spear), essentially  they fought in the game just like the Saxons. Further, there was no real difference between Viking raider armies and the later Viking armies built from Norse peoples that settled in Britain. The Normans faired little better. Their large number of knights provided a good striking element against the Vikings. Rear rank support from Ps (Psiloi) given to Sp (Spear) elements however made battles against Saxons very difficult and rather odd. The battles featured weird, deep formations that didn’t look or feel how most view Dark Age battles. Hastings, while arguably a very difficult victory for the Normans, was rendered almost impossible reproduce.


Fortunately DBA 3 offers remedies for these shortcomings.

First, Phil changed the ground and figure scale. While this seems an unimportant change in a 12 element game, many play larger scenario games based on historical battles. With 2.2’s scale of 1000 men per heavy foot element, all but the very largest Dark Ages battles were too small to recreate without drastic rescaling. Even Hastings could be barely be represented as a standard 12 element game. While this is not inherently bad, many battles besides Hasting are standard fare for Dark Age wargamers wanting historical refights.

Second, Phil changed the humble “Spear”. Instead of rear support, “Spear” is now given side support. Spears now receive a single +1 for having any side lined up with a “Blade” element or another “Spear”. This simple change, often referred to as the “shieldwall” rule, radically changes the feel of Dark Age battles. Gone are the odd deep pike phalanx formations to be replaced by more linear walls of shields. Now the Vikings are met with a wall of +5 to +5 combats and this match up is no longer a complete overmatch.

Third, Phil differentiated “Fast” troops from “Solid” formation troops. Now foot elements with 3 figures per base are rated as “Fast”. While moving faster than their solid brethren in close or distance combat vs “Solid” troops, they recoil on ties. This means that Saxons now are not only just +5 vs early Vikings, but the Saxons now recoil the Vikings on ties! Alfred the Great now has a chance to be truly great. The changes also affect the Scots. No longer is the Scot army just a standard “Spear” army. They are now rated as 3Pk (Pike). Fast and fighting in deep formation, they now better represent the savage fast moving army that Saxons feared. The Welsh are now 3Wb (Warband) and the master of quick ambush and sudden moves from rough and difficult terrain. Below, Scots 3Pk (Pike) move quickly forward.


Fourth, Phil updated the army lists and added allies. Now, later Viking armies can be better represented by a 4Bd (Blade) nucleus with a Saxon or Scot ally. Anglo-Saxons now have house guard 4Bd (Blade) elements matching the reading of Egil’s saga and further balancing this period. Normans can now have a large number of dismounted knights as 4Bd (Blade) to better match newer research into Hastings.

Finally, a host of smaller changes have added to the aforementioned. The faster tempo of infantry combat (e.g. Bd and Pk now pursue), the addition of new terrain types, the new game setup parameters, and the expansion of the army lists all work together to produce a more balanced and flavorful game.


I strongly recommend DBA 3 for those interested in Dark Ages combat. A few quick games will show everyone a world of difference. What was once dull and one-sided is now a period of interesting and more even fights.

14 thoughts on “Back to the Dark Ages – with DBA 3.0

  1. An Interesting and informative read thanks! Having not got a copy yet, I’m still pondering DBA3 based on what I’ve read second/third-hand regarding the new rules and army lists. I’m wondering about the Irish (and to a lesser extent the Norse-Irish) armies from the same period. The preponderance of Aux with no differentiation between (S) and O) grades in DBA always presented similar issues as you’ve discussed. Are there any changes to these armies to beef them up a bit too?

  2. Some relief…
    Norse Irish are now allowed up to 4 Bd for “Ostmen” and mercenaries. Against both earlier and later Vikings this is a nice bump in combat power (I think 2 was the max in 2.2.) The Irish upper class warriors as rated as “Solid” Ax. This will help vs early Viking Raider armies in the bad going. In the open, the Irish will still be outmatched. Against later Vikings a couple of small changes come to light. In bad going, the Viking “solid” blade will not be able to “close the door”. They don’t have enough movement. The Irish Ax will of course have that capability. The setup rules give the Irish a better chance of moving to seize important terrain. Finally against later Viking armies, the newer “rough” terrain type will help slow any Viking attack.

    Clontarf is much more interesting. The Rebels will have a heavier Bd army (up to 8 Bd), but 4 of those elements will be allies and can’t move as a group with the Rebels or the other ally. Brian Boru will have 4 Bds and he is rated as a CP (Command Point). This is a new element in 3.0. It represents a fairly immobile commander surrounded by fanatical body guards. It is very difficult to kill (though it can die unexpectedly, much like Boru). So, you have slightly lighter and more nimble force with a strong core against a heavier one that has command difficulties.

    The Dark Ages period still isn’t perfect, but DBA 3 certainly presents a richer experience vs 2.2. The Irish will still face a difficult time against the Vikings. Terrain is still the key to their chance of victory, but the odds are better.

    Joe Collins

    1. There was an interesting article recently in Slingshot, the excellent Journal published by the Society of Ancients, on the background and battle of Clontarf. It included a section on representing it with DBMM. It would be interesting to see this translated to DBA 3.0 where such refights are more achievable to players with limited figure resources.

  3. Joe – many thanks for taking the time to present that detailed analysis – greatly appreciated and much to reflect upon.

    Also interesting to note the Welsh regrade to 3Wb ie. fast warband. As you say the extra grading gives much more flavour. I must admit, considering the Welsh in the dark age period (DBA 2.2 Army III/19a) were already graded warband I’ve personally always wondered if some of the Irish (eg. Nobles) ought to be similarly treated? Many other rules systems do seem to portray at least that part of the Irish forces more in the mould of brittle warband-esque type troops with a “heroic” tradition etc.

    I cannot help feeling the Aux paradigm doesn’t “sit quite right” (to me) for the Irish in this time period and has put them at a serious DBA disadvantage in the past which doesn’t fairly reflect the history. My understanding is that the Irish had some repeated success against the Viking incursions and the extent of the Viking hold on Ireland was far more in “influence” (political and otherwise) than in terms of land – the latter was actually quite limited to relatively small(ish) pockets around the main settlements.

    TWR – with a young family to support I’ve not felt able to justify a subscription to Slingshot over the years but thanks for the heads up on the Clontarf article – I think funds can run to a single issue back copy from the SoA website. Will check it out!

    1. Just by way of a small addendum – I think what I’m driving at is that success for the Irish will still rely heavily on terrain. Whilst we have historic examples such Sulcoit where that was a key factor, I don’t believe success was wholly reliant on that factor – perhaps we can look to Clontarf as a case in point?

    2. MarkW, the article on is “The Battle of Clontarf”, by Mick Hession. It is around 9 1/2 A4 pages in length, including bibliography and notes. It can be found in Slingshot 284.

      The SOA know tends to stock only limited numbers of back issues so if you are thinking of ordering a copy I suggest you do reasonably soon. In more recent issues there is a short series on 1166, but that could be outside your period of interest.

  4. Thanks for the details guys; out here in Japan it’s not a simple case of going along to the club and seeing what the latest iteration of the rules is like! I’ll be ordering a set and seeing what Aaron and i make of it; especially the big-battle variant (which i assume is till in there?)

    1. Suggestions on using the rules in larger games is indeed included in the rule package. I think these larger games will be improved as a result of the larger move distances. I felt the previous move distances restricted the larger game, especially for commands with the lower die scores.

  5. I am constantly looking for the optimum ruleset to recreate 5th and 6th Century British Dark Ages and I had ‘forgotten’ about DBA 3.0

  6. In the end I have written my own set of rules. As you do lol

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