Saturday, June 26, 2010

De Bellis Velitum

Last night, John Kennedy and I played a few trial games of De Bellis Velitum (DBV), Phil Barker's never-published set of ancients skirmish rules. He wrote a draft of them in 1991 to go along with De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA), his quick-play ancients miniatures rules. Although he never published them, he has made them available online as an HTML page.

I've been intrigued by these rules for a long time. I copied the text from the web page and put it into Adobe InDesign for formatting. I planned to simply format the text into a booklet that I could print out and play with. However, the project sat for several years until just last week when I revived it and completed the formatting (along with minimal changes) and printed a copy to play with.

I only have 16 figures painted and mounted at this point. Several years back I started another project using Foundry's exquisite World of the Greeks figures. These figures, sculpted by Steve Saleh, are some of the best that Foundry has ever produced. I have a lot of them, but not enough for a conventional army. I had planned on doing a grid-based wargame using them (and still may) on singly-mounted on 30mm x 30mm bases. I got the first 16 done and based with another 24 or so partially painted. Fortunately, I painted all the light troops first, so we had a true skirmishing force—although the rules allow for heavier troops.

Peltasts fight it out in hand-to-hand combat

The forces we played with were a single sub-unit each. I just divided what I had and produced two equal forces of four peltasts and four slingers each. John had set up the tables at The Panzer Depot for a Flames of War tournament, so we just used terrain that was there (albeit more suitable for WW2 than for ancient skirmish).

It took three games to really get the feel of the rules. By game three we were not only playing correctly, but exercising a little more finesse in how we used our troops. We had to flip through the rules on several occasions and there were a lot of "Aha!" moments when we discovered how we were misplaying something. There were also several "hmmm" moments as we pondered the turgid, labored, nearly impenetrable writing of Phil Barker, esq.

Slingers open fire

DBV uses similar mechanisms to DBA, but with some significant departures. As in DBA, troop types are genericized into a few main categories: knights, cavalry, blades, spearmen, peltasts, shooters, skirmishers. (The rules also mention elephants and chariots, but there seems to be a lack of any specific mechanisms for using them.) As in DBA, you roll a pip die for each sub-unit and you move troops singly or in groups with varying pip costs per type of move. Unlike DBA, shooting costs pips. Figures can aid in shooting and in hand-to-hand combat. Although each sub-unit, and the force as a whole, has a leader, there is no command radius. Leaders get a +1 in combat and are also a liability in that, when they die, your sub-unit becomes demoralized and all combats have a -4 modifier for your troops. It sucks to lose the leader.

The combat outcomes are less of a rock-paper-scissors arrangement than in DBA. Results are based solely on the degree of difference in the die rolls. There are no quick-kills. The greatest degree of difference, 5 or more, results in the loser fleeing, while lesser differences might mean recoil, disablement, or the big sleep. Disablement is interesting in that the figures are removed from play, but not dead unless your side loses the game, in which case they are considered to be chased down and dispatched to the Elysian Fields by the victors. If you win, you don't count your disabled losses as lost.

Face-off and missile exchange before the clash

John took a dislike to the regimented feel of figures required to be in base-to-base side contact in order to form groups. He thought it was too much like DBA and less like a skirmish game. I didn't share his disapprobation. The skirmish games I've played also use base to base contact to indicate groups or figures who are supporting each other in combat.

At first (because we were playing it wrong) we thought that it cost too many pips to do anything, but once we corrected ourselves, the pip costs seemed reasonable. I like that you can't do everything in a bound and some bounds you can do very little. It makes for a better ebb and flow of initiative.

The games played well, despite our initial confusion. Victory went to whoever killed or disabled four opposing figures, and it took a while of shooting, moving, and fighting to achieve that. Like DBA, a game might end right away or become an interesting chess match, depending on the players, terrain, and troop types engaged. The one heroic figure—every game needs a hero—was my naked guy with a rock. He survived every game, faced off superior forces, and even killed a peltast in hand-to-hand combat, no mean feat for someone who's bollocks naked and armed only with a rock.

Don't mess with naked guy with a rock

I've read other criticisms online about DBV that I don't see as valid after having played it. The criticism that it's not bloody enough isn't true. There's no wholesale slaughter of wee tin men, but you lose figures quickly enough. Another criticism about "zone of control" for light horse doesn't really make sense. The rule forbids any troop to cross in front of an enemy figure within that figure's move distance. Light horse move 20 paces (20 cm) and so exert a fairly long no-crossing zone. That works for me. The rules seems intended to keep players from ignoring enemy in front of them. I've played too many skirmish games where players can move their troops around higgledy-piggledy with no regard for the threat from an enemy.

After our initial playtest, I feel pretty good about proceeding with the project. I've got a lot more Greek figures to paint so we'll have some different troop types in our next game like Spartan and Athenian hoplites, cavalry, and buck-nekkid javelin-throwers (to complement the buck-nekkid slingers I already have). I've also got several packs of Steve Saleh's excellent Foundry Thracians

My dilemma now is how to proceed with basing them. The figures we used last night are on 30mm x 30mm bases. I planned to use 30mm x 40mm deep for the foot because I want a larger base. Phil's rules call for 20mm x 30mm, which is just enough to accommodate the figures footprint, but not the "overhang" of arms and weapons. Even 30mm x 30mm left the peltast's spears poking out fore and aft, which made it awkward to line them up in column (required for making march moves). Now, after beginning to base figures on the 30mm x 40mm bases, I'm worring that there's too much base. I think that after completing the base with all its flocking and such that they'll look good. Otherwise, I'll have to pry 20+ figures off the 30mm x 40mm Litko bases and redo them. I hate rebasing—but I'll have to do it for the 30mm x 30mm guys if I stick with 30mm x 40mm as planned. What to do?

I'm also planning an English-language version of the rules. The Barkerese is just too opaque in some places and can benefit from simplification and clarity. Those long, turgid, unpunctuated sentences enumerating several conditions would do better as bulleted lists. I'll also do a quick cheat-sheet to prevent having to flip through the rules time and again. 

Another need is to flesh out some home rules for elephants and chariots. In DBA, elephants are their own entity while chariots can be either knights or cavalry, depending on the type of chariot. I think I can do the same for chariots in DBV, but the larger base is problematic (as it is for elephants). The 60mm frontage means that two foot or horse figures can be in frontal contact, plus an overlap on either or both sides. That's very un-DBx and if you apply a -1 for each figure beyond the first in hand-to-hand combat with you, an elephant or chariot could be swarmed and start combat with a -3. But maybe that's not a bad thing...

I think the rules promise to be fun and will reward further devotion. I look forward to painting more figures and expanding the theatre of war from ancient Greece to the Punic Wars. Also, Steve Saleh has a new company called Gorgon Studios. So far he's done Spartans (which will augment his already excellent figures done for Foundry) and early Etruscans, which look very nice. I assume these fit well with the big 28s he did for Foundry. I hope he does early Romans and other Italian states as well.


  1. nice i like the figures. please take a look at my blog and i would like your opinion or any advise.


  2. Very interesting, have had the rules on my hard drive for about four years, will be very interested in your plain English version.

    Good luck with the job hunting
    All the best


  3. This write up is very helpful - thanks. I've been a long time DBA player and accidental found DBV today. The appeal to me is that I have a lot of random 25mm figures that will never make an army, not even a DBA one, but could do quite nicely for DBV.