Some thoughts on De Bellis Solitarius


I’m currently doing the groundwork for a solo DBA campaign set in the Dark Ages and provisionally titled ‘Mighty Albion’. As part of the preparation I’ve played a few solo DBA games using the De Bellis Solitarius rules variant written by Chad La Mons. Although this is a generally excellent variant, some aspects have proved a little problematic in the games I’ve played. This has led me to think about making some changes for the purposes of the campaign:

1. Deployment

As written, this is quite rigid. For example, all of the NPG’s (Non-Player General’s) elements are grouped according to their type (e.g. all Spears will be grouped together). This fails to allow for mixing missile troops and other foot, or for mixing horse and foot. The deployment table also throws up, occasionally, some quite bizarre set-ups. So as an alternative, for each of the NPG armies in the campaign I intend to map out four ‘typical’ formations; then, prior to deployment, throw a D6. If the result is a one or two, I will consult the DBS rulesheet, throw again, and proceed as per the original rules. However if the throw is a three, four, five or six, I will set out the NPG army as per the equivalently numbered ‘typical’ formation.

2.  The Tactical Engine

While this is quite powerful as written, it does throw up some odd results from time to time. The NPG may fail to make an ‘obvious’ move, because of the constraints placed on him by the battleplan generator; or he may become excessively (and unrealistically) static and defensive after sustaining a couple of losses. These criticisms are partly dealt with by Chad’s caveat towards the end of his document, where he writes: ‘Exercise your best tactical judgement while at the same time remaining within the parameters of the NPG’s mood… It might be helpful at this point to view the NPG as your Commander, issuing out orders that you must manifest as best as you see fit.’

Despite this caveat, using the rules as written I’ve found that there will still be points where you think to yourself: ‘Hmmm, the NPG is committed to a defensive strategy, but in fact if he chose this moment to move his whole line into contact with my disordered one he would most likely win the game.’ It seems to me that in these circumstances – and equally for example where it would be madness to attack, or alternatively to not move that single element into a potentially game-winning flanking support position against my general – there needs to be a mechanism for varying the strictures of the DBS tactical engine.

To reflect this, I intend to try the following rules variant. Faced with the sort of quandary described above, rather than automatically implement the course of action prescribed by the DBS tactical engine, instead use percentage dice to determine the NPG’s actions based on the probability of how a competent player/general would act in the circumstances. For example, if a general assault rather than a defensive realignment might win the game for the NPG at a pivotal point in the battle, you might allocate a 75% probability to this assault occuring and a 25% probability to the NPG sticking to his defensive approach. Use this mechanism no more than three times per game. I’m hoping that this option, used sparingly, won’t break the tactical engine but will instead add to the enjoyment and realism of the game, and provide me with a greater challenge!

The Moyry Pass

Hugh O'Neill

In the year 1600, as Lord Mountjoy succeeded the Earl of Essex as viceroy of Ireland, Hugh O’Neill was at the height of his power. He had given the English a bloody nose at Clontibret (1595) and The Yellow Ford (1598), and had successfully prevented the enemy from encroaching into his earlship of Tyrone. His first confrontation with Mountjoy, the man who was eventually to prove his match, occurred in the autumn of that year when the English leader attempted to force the Moyry Pass, the difficult and well-defended gateway to Ulster. The succeeding battle – ‘one of the greatest fights that hath been seen in Ireland’ – provides excellent material for a solo scenario. For a full account of the battle see G.A. Hayes-McCoy’s comprehensive ‘Irish Battles – A Military History Of Ireland’. You can also read a brief account of the battle on Wikipedia.

The battlefield should be set out along roughly the following lines (click on image for a full size version):

Moyry Pass

As you can see, the battlefield is effectively divided into three distinct zones. In the centre, the pass is blocked by three barriers, “long traverses with huge and high flankers of great stones, mingled with turf and staked on both sides with palisadoes wattled” (Fynes Moryson, Mountjoy’s secretary). Plashed barriers separated the central highway from the rough rising ground on either side.

As a solo scenario, you take the side of the English commander, who must force the Irish from two of the three zones in order to win the day. The English forces consisted of 3,000 foot – a mix of pike and shot, some of largely untried quality – and 300 horse. The number of Irish troops is unknown, but for the purposes of this scenario we should assume that they significantly outnumber the English; as a rough guideline allow them at least 50% greater strength. The Irish appear to have fought well and to have had both high morale and a high degree of mobility, and it is likely that they would have been armed similarly to the English (though perhaps with a greater preponderance of calivers over pikes). The actual number of figures or elements used should be tailored to your preferred ruleset in order to give both sides a chance of winning the battle.

The following scenario notes apply:

A. Initial disposition of Irish troops unknown. As the English commander you can see that some troops are manning the first barricade, and there appear to be some troops on both sides of the pass along the rising ground. Lay your plans and deploy your troops.

B. Dice for Irish dispositions once your troops have begun their advance into the pass. Note that you cannot re-allocate or shuffle your infantry once you have seen the Irish dispositions, but must continue with your initial plan of attack. You can however freely move your cavalry to whichever side of the battlefield you wish at any time. Throw a D6 to determine the Irish dispositions:

1,2: One third of all troops placed in each of the 3 combat zones (left, right and centre)

3,4: Half of all troops placed in the pass itself, remainder divided equally between flanks

5: Irish centre and Irish left strongly manned, Irish right screened only

6: Irish centre and Irish right strongly manned, Irish left screened only

C. The English will fight at a combat disadvantage of minus one on the flanks of rough, rising ground, and will suffer a movement penalty on that terrain of minus 25%.

D. The Irish behind the barricades count as being in soft cover.

E. Irish casualties: eliminated or routing elements have a chance of rallying and reappearing along the Irish baseline, in the sector of the battlefield from which they fled. Throw a D6 at the start of the Irish turn to determine this for each such element, a throw of 5 or 6 meaning that they have successfully rallied.

F. Irish at the barriers: any elements pushed back from the barriers will automatically retreat to the next barrier to their rear. They will do this successfully unless their retreat is physically blocked by an English unit.

G. Any Irish shot along the rough ground will attempt to enfilade the advancing English in the pass unless they are attacked to their own front.

H. Irish troops on the rough ground attacked to their front will attempt to close with the English if they outnumber them by a factor of 3:2 or better. Otherwise they will engage the English in a fire-fight whilst slowly falling back to avoid contact. They will however hold their ground at all costs if they have fallen back to the line of the last barricade in the pass.

I. As the English commander you must attack the barriers in the pass with a minimum of one quarter of your force, though these troops may be used to hold or pin the Irish at their barrier(s) rather than attempt to actually storm them.

J. To reiterate, you win if you succeed in pushing the Irish off the field in any two sectors of the terrain; should this happen the Irish will have lost their overall advantage and will melt into the hills. Any other result means that the Irish have won.

Good luck and happy gaming!