The Romano-British army was a Land Raider force lead by Cynddylan Emperor Of All Powys (not just some of Powys, ALL of Powys), and comprised of his Mounted Companions and four warbands of Noble Riders; the remaining army points were used to boost Cynddylan’s Leadership to a massive 9 points meaning that this was a small but very well motivated force.
Up against them were Osric’s Mercians, a Saxon Shieldwall army (most armies have a choice of fielding a Shieldwall or Warrior army, depending on the period and the player’s interpretation of how these armies really fought). There was nothing fancy about Osric’s force: his Foot Companions, two Noble Shieldwall warbands and five Ordinary Shieldwalls; Osric also had two warbands of Foot Skirmishers armed with bows. Although Osric had a numerical advantage, his Leadership was not boosted beyond the basic value of 6, meaning that Cynddylan would be able to outsmart the Saxons tactically throughout the game.
Above: Osric's Saxons
Briton and Saxon met in a narrow pass, with hills and woods on either side; a good point for a local Saxon force to block off a mounted raiding party. The Saxons deployed simply: one long battleline with one Noble and all of the Ordinary Shieldwalls present (mixing both is an effective tactic, Ordinary units becoming braver when the professionals are with them). The Saxon Skirmishers were up the hill on the left flank, and Osric’s Companions and one of the Noble Shieldwall units sat back in reserve.
The Britons advanced down the valley, and the engagement started with Riders attacking both ends of the Saxon line at once; the Saxon Skirmishers had not got into a position to use their bows yet, and the Britons’ advantage in leadership points saw a few hits inflicted and both Saxon wings falling back. (Leadership points get used for a variety of actions, from boosting fighting ability or blocking hits, to making your units more likely to move.)
Over the next couple of turns, the battle rattled on along both flanks, the Saxon centre held, and the remaining British horsemen sat back – by attacking piecemeal, Cynddylan could use more of his Leadership points in concentrated areas. Noble Rider versus Shieldwall is an interesting match up in Dux Bellorum – the Riders attack with a decent number of dice, but the Shieldwalls are well protected (only being hit on a roll of 6); at the same time, Shieldwalls are not good on the attack, so although Riders are easier to score hits against, the Shieldwall rolls fewer dice to achieve those hits with. This is where Leadership points come into play in a big way – the Saxons can use them to boost their number of attacks, and the Britons can use them to cancel hits … or make even more attacks whilst remaining vulnerable. The cannier player will fare better in this game-within-a-game.
Above: Cynddylan's early successes
Anyway, back to the battle…
Cynddylan committed his own Companions to the battle at this point, charging forward into the Saxon centre. With 9 Leadership points, having three warbands in combat maximised the use of these (each warband may be allocated a maximum of three Leadership points each turn). The Saxons had 6 Leadership points, and chose to split these between all of the units contacted by the Riders, so that no part of the line was too weak. Throughout the battle so far, Osric stood back, waiting for a chance to bring his own Companions into battle: Foot Companions are the Chuck Norris of Dux Bellorum, dishing out damage and absorbing loads too. It’s not unusual to see a game end with the rest of an army routed or dead and the Companions surrounded but still strong. That’s how I’ve often imagined a Dark Ages battle to have been.
Above: Action on the Saxon left flank
On the Saxon left, the Skirmishers were shooting arrows from the cover of rocky ground, but with little effect. The Saxon Noble Shieldwall in reserve moved up to the left end of the line to support one of the Shieldwalls that was on the point of breaking. Over a few turns, the Britons gradually ground down the Saxon defence, with their superior number of Leadership points making more of a difference than the Saxon numerical advantage. (It’s a fine line in Dux Bellorum, some battles have gone the way of the larger force, some in favour of the force with better Leadership – this suggests that the balance is about right, although it does take experience to get your leadership point usage bang on).
In one dramatic turn, both Saxon flanks collapsed, and the centre buckled as fresh warband of British Riders came into the battleline. The last of the British Riders headed uphill and routed both of the Skirmisher units, who had little impact on the game (they rolled a lot of 1s and 2s, but in general Skirmishers are weak in Dux Bellorum – I don’t imagine that many Dark Ages battle were won by the power of Skirmishers).
Gaps started to appear in the Saxon line, and as casualties begin to mount and warbands are removed, a player’s Leadership points decrease. This means that once your army starts to lose, the battle slips away from you unless you act quickly. Osric didn’t. His Companions had stood passively behind the main battleline, and as the two warbands on the Saxon right were both destroyed in consecutive turns, Osric bagan to move his troops to protect that flank. It was too late, however, as the Saxon centre also finally collapsed. The Saxons entered their final turn with 1 Leadership left against the Britons’ untouched 9 Leadership, so with the extra dice boost this gave Cynddylan, the Saxons suffered a pretty comprehensive defeat with only the Companions and one of the Noble Shieldwalls holding their ground on the battlefield. Dux Bellorum games do invariably end in quite a bloody way, with one side almost destroyed; for me, this doesn’t mean that all of the units that have been removed have been wiped out, they’ve simply had enough and leg it back home. Cohesion is as much a warbands’ will to fight as it is a numerical assessment.
Above: The Saxons' main problem: clear gems are their Leadership Points, red are the Britons'. Oh dear.
It was a close run thing though. Cynddlyan had discreetly removed himself from the main fight, as his Companions had fought hard but had been reduced to 1 point of Cohesion (units break when they fall to 0). Three other Noble Rider units also sat at 1 point of Cohesion, with only the warband who had engaged the Skirmishers maintaining any decent level of Cohesion.
Looking at the battlefield at the end of the game, Cynddylan probably did earn his poem; shame it’s not survived in a modern, written form … one of the surviving historical poems about him ends rather less well for the warlord of Powys.
The game took around 10 turns – typically I forgot to keep track of this – and lasted for about an hour, perhaps a little more. The game was played on a table surface roughly 3x3ft and units were based on 6cm wide frontages, which allowed for only limited manoeuvring (and couldn’t be much further removed from last weekend’s game of Hail Caesar!). Unlike its predecessor Glutter of Ravens: Warfare in the Age of Arthur, Dux Bellorum requires much less bookkeeping, so ticks along nicely once you know the basics. This was a cagey affair, and as usual the winning side had a lot of units only 1 point away from breaking – if the Saxons had held for another turn, it might all have been different.
I won’t tell you which army I led, but let’s just say that Osric won’t be making another appearance on my side of the table at any point soon.
All figures used in this game were painted by chum