The Ballbusch Review: Dux Bellorum

Okay kids, it’s time to face down another Osprey joint, Dux Bellorum.  In case your post-classical Latin is a little
rusty, Dux Bellorum translates into
something like warlord (though, we could debate that), and more on point it was
the first title applied to the pseudo-Historical Arthur.  As you can glean from the title Dux Bellorum (hereafter DB) covers Dark
Age Britain from the collapse of central Roman authority in the beginning of
the 5th Century until the emergence of well-organized, Christian,
Anglo-Saxon states at the beginning of the 9th Century.         

Don’t you just hate it when neighbors drop by unannounced?.  

Author:                Daniel Mersey
Pages:                  64 (Softcover)
Publisher:            Osprey (2012)
Price (2015):       $12.96 (Amazon)

The production value is in keeping with Osprey’s ‘budget’ (my
term) softback range of rules, with several full page illustrations of Dark Age
warriors that besides simply being nice to look at will serve anyone unsure of
how to paint his figures.  A fair number
of miniatures are shown as well, though not an over whelming number.  As a gentleman, Mr. Mersey takes great care
with his photo credits.  So,
manufacturers are always noted—though there is a basis towards Gripping Beast,
which I cannot fault.  Thus, anyone
wondering where to buy Dark Age miniatures will wonder no longer.     
An ‘army’ in DB (one uses the term loosely, British military
at the time were frequently made of only a few hundred fighting men) is made up
of around 10 units with each unit represented by a single base.  DB has no set basing system, but the game
defaults to WRG standard basing.  For
those who don’t know that’s 2-4 figures (depending on unit type) on a 40mm
(15mm) or 60mm (25mm) frontage.  However,
all measurements in DB are done by base width, so as long as both armies are
based in the same manner it truly does not matter.   
Units in DB are defined by a set of statistics: Bravery, Aggression, Protection, and CohesionBravery is the measure on the unit’s
general eagerness to get stuck in; it functions more or less as the morale characteristic
in DB.  Aggression determines the unit’s combat power.  Armor and general defensive capacity is graded
by Protection.  A unit’s cohesion represents how much damage it
can take.  Successful attacks lower Cohesion and when it reaches 0 the unit
is removed from play.     
A turn in DB is divided into four phases: allocation of
leadership points, shooting, movement, and combat.  Each player completes all of his actions
within a given phase before the play moves on to the next phase.  Therefore, neither player has a full turn to
himself per se.  So, rather than Player
A’s 1st turn, it is easier to think of Player A’s movement phase in
turn 1. 
Leadership Points are what makes DB a game about warriors
rather than one of soldiers.  A Leadership Point can be used to temporarily
increase one of a unit’s statistics, cancel a hit, or allow a unit to take
during an opponent’s phase.  The represent
a warlord’s charisma, cunning, and personal gravitas.  They also bring home that the men under his
command, while not lacking in skill, are undisciplined and passionate.  Leadership
must be allocated to units at the start of the turn, and can then be
used by that unit any way the player wishes. 
If a player’s warlord is slain, his army ceases to generate Leadership Points.         

When I play my Saxons their sound track is always provided by Saxon

Shooting is simultaneous. 
Any unit capable of ranged combat simply fires at the closest viable target.  Military archers have to be trained so that
all of a units arrows fall in a pre-designated band at the same time.  The tactical sophistication necessary to do
this was simply beyond the capacity of most of the armies covered by DB.  Therefore, most shooting is limited to harassing
fire from skirmishers and unlikely to accomplish much.       
Movement is staggered based upon unit type with faster units
required to move before slower ones.  So,
player A moves all of the skirmishers he wishes to move, then player B does
likely, followed by player A moving his cavalry, and so on.  A unit will only move if it first passes a Bravery check.  The expectation to this are
more…enthusiastic…fighters who will charge unless restrained.      
Combat is a simple affair. 
An attacking unit rolls a number of dice equal to its aggression.  Any roll that beats its enemy’s protection
score causes a hit.  In theory this means
that a unit could melt from a single round of good die rolls.  But, in practice units can take a good amount
of pounding.   Lots of Leadership Points on a well armored unit
can make for a block that is very difficult to shift. 
Opinionated Commentary!!!!
Despite the fact that DB is a reasonably simple game, it is
a different sort of game.  Most
historical wargames are about armies, or very small skirmish actions.  DB is about battles between semi-professional
warriors motivated mainly by the desire for plunder and driven by a deep-seated heroic ethos.  In that DB does an excellent job capturing of Germanic
and Gaelic Dark Age martial philosophy.  

If you don’t know why she’s here…Shame on you!

While unabashedly focused on ‘Arthurian’ Britain with
modification DB could be used for any period where warfare was characterized by
combat between a noble warrior elite and their immediate retainers.  Obvious examples of similar periods are
Pre-Mongol Japan (though you would need rules for mounted archery duels) and Vedic
India (however elephants might pose a problem). 
If anything I wish the rules went a little further in sketching out how
one might add new types of units. 
However, since the statistics are simple, and special rules all but non-existent
it is fairly easy to get under the hood and tinker.  
There isn’t much of anything I can criticize DB for.  It does something different without doing
anything crazy and the mechanics should feel semi-familiar to any wargamer.  The fact that you can put an army on the
table with only 40ish figures only enhances the appeal for me.  Double so since those same figures can form
the basis of another, larger army for another system.  Alternatively, if you have a couple of Dark
Age armies on your shelf (and if you don’t, why don’t you?) you should be able
to play DB without having to expand you collection.      

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