Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life, featuring small skirmishes and big battles from many historical periods (and some in the mythic past or the far future too). The focus is on battle reports using a wide variety of rules, with the occasional rules review, book review and odd musing about the gaming and history. Most of the battles use 6mm-sized figures and vehicles, but occasionally 15mm and 28mm figures appear too.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Battle of Flodden (I) - The DBA Refight


Another cover with Peter Gilder's Napoleonics on them.  Never gets boring.  I wonder if he was the single biggest influence in the history of wargaming on how 'premium' games should look?  Anyway, I digress!

Miniature Wargames 41 carried a scenario written by terrain-maestro Ian Weekley about the Battle of Flodden, in which a large Scottish Army under James was defeated by an English army as it was returning North towards Scotland.  Usually Ian Weekley tied his articles in to some element of terrain making, but not this time.  He had however visit the battlefield, which inspired the article.  I too have visited it, and somewhat later, it has inspired me to give it a go too...

The Forces:

This battle marked both the end and beginning of an era: the end of an era, as Scottish pikemen with their King at their head attacked the English army made up of bill and bow, with the nobility dismounting and fighting amongst them; but also the beginning of an era, as artillery played its part on the battlefield, particularly on the English side.
For this refight, I used armies based upon the relevant DBA lists (which do extend just far enough to cover this battle):

Scots Common Army: 12 x Pk (including the general's element), 1 x 3Bw, 3 x 5Hd, 1 x LH

The army list recommends Artillery rather than Light Horse.  Artillery was definitely present on the Scots' side, but appeared to have been entirely ineffective, so I chose the non-list LH element for the Borderers, who definitely were present.  But one alternative would be to lose one of the other elements and use an artillery element instead.  If this is chosen, consider giving it a -1 modifier to reflect its inadequacy.

English Tudor  (Wars of the Roses) Army: 6 x 4Bd, 1 x LH, 4 x 4Lb, 2 x Art
One 4Bd element and one 4Lb element are off-table with Stanley; they can enter the board (paying normal points cost) on the English or either of the flanking edges on any English turn, subject to the player rolling 4-6 on a D6.  

The terrain was simple but important.  There was barely a stream between the two hills, but the ground around it was very waterlogged and boggy. This counts as 'Rough Ground' in DBA, and the stream does count as an obstacle to movement. Also the ground is considered to be sloping all the way from the stream to the hills, which have to be imagined as continuously sloping all the way up to the edge of the board - i.e. units may get the 'uphill' bonus even if they are apparently on the flat bit between the marked marshy area and the physical hill models.  Hope that makes sense!

 The Set-Up:

The armies face off against each other.  The Scots are on Branxton Hill to the South (top) whilst the English defend Piper's Hill to the North (bottom)

The Scottish pikemen in four groups, with its auxiliaries and archers to the right (left) and Borderers to the left (right)

The English in roughly two equal groups, with their artillery in the centre and their own Border Horse in the rear.  The English commander (the Earl of Surrey) is nearby, deciding where to dismount and join the fray...

The view up Branxton Stead, showing the marshy ground between the two sides.

The Battle:
English artillery fire tells early, disrupting the King's advance (top)...

The Scots struggle through the marshy ground, harassed by the English guns

Progress is painfully slow from the slowness of the ground and the effect of the fire

A wider view

With feet muddy but spirits undaunted, the leading Scottish pikemen (led by Crawford) advance up the slope towards the English billmen and bowmen; note that one of the Scottish pike blocks (centre-top) has lost heavily from the cannon fire whilst traversing the boggy ground

A wider view
And the pikemen hit home!

Half of the King's men (under Errol) get up the slope, whilst the King, whose standard has attracted far more than its share of cannonballs, is still trying to get through the bottom of the marshy ground

Taking the initiative, the English men-at-arms on the Right push back the Scottish pikemen down the slope, pursuing them

The rest of the English line follow up, to maintain its cohesion

Surrey withdraws his men-at-arms to form a reserve, whilst the militia billmen and bowmen contest the slopes with the second Scottish pike block

The English billmen try and envelop the advancing Scottish pikemen (left) whilst the fierce struggle rages...

Whilst the Scottish Right has failed to break through the English Left, and is now being swarmed around.

Scottish pikemen are going down fast now, but their supports are struggling to get to their aid fast enough, delayed by archery and mud

The Scottish archers rush forward (left) with sword and dagger to try and help their struggling comrades, but the King and his men are still just short of the combat

Both sides on the English Right are fighting hard - can the Scots second pike block (centre-right) punch through the English line?

...but their comrades are being driven remorselessly back

The Scottish Right is in all kinds of trouble, just as the King arrives!

The Scottish archers are being attacked in the flank by the English billmen (centre-left)

The struggle on the English Right continues unabated...

Until suddenly, one of the pike blocks begins to collapse!

The Scottish archers are massacred by the English

The position at the end of the battle, as the Scots became demoralized and retreated.

Game Notes: A reasonably faithful recreation of the actual battle, although Stanley stubbornly refused to arrive!  This bad luck was replicated by the Scots' pikemen, who could just never seem to win a crucial throw, or generate enough PIPs when they needed them.  The English artillery was very useful to them, destroying one Pike element but just as importantly, disrupting the Scottish advance and causing it to become prohibitively expensive in PIPs to maintain, so the Scottish attack became disjointed and was defeated in detail.  The terrain rules seemed to model the effects of the ground on the day reasonably well.

On the other hand, with good-quality close combat troops (which 'Blades' and supported 'Pike' are), I do get the feeling sometimes that I am rolling a couple of dice every turn just waiting for a result skewed enough to really make something happen.  It is quite bizarre, but there gets to be a point where there is almost a Nash equilibrium where it isn't obvious that either side can improve its position, so you just have to wait out and let the dice decide.  This is probably where DBA fails slightly against more traditional 'attritional' rules, since even if the two elements involved are in stalemate, they should become less effective relative to all the other units in the game.  On the other hand, not sure how often that would make much of a difference overall.  

Figures by Baccus 6mm.


  1. I like your observations on the way the DB* combat engine starts to fall over in situations where two relatively strong units are butting heads.

    When DBM was introduced to our gaming circles it was very eye opening. It was radically removed from the then common systems that used figures vs combat factors plus/minus an average dice to try and get x causalities per figure to force a reaction test... and is it really time to start packing up? We only got 3 turns in!!!

    Then after a few years of playing the questions started to kick in on exactly what was happening under the hood and why. It struck me that Mr Barker (I have that name correct, right??) wanted a simple game and said well Blades are better than Spear, so Blades can be +5 and Spear +4 and then completely forgot how a 2D6 bell curve actually works.

    I mean on the plus side the DB engine allowed relatively quick games that were reasonably easy to teach new players, but on the other hand the tactics encouraged were those that let you win the game, not those that historical commanders used.

    Still, each to their own and if you are enjoying your game then you are probably doing it right :)

    Thanks for the blog post :D

    1. Many thanks Mudcrab. I think I have a few more thoughts on this, but I am still knocking them into perhaps a fuller reply in a few days, or maybe a separate post. I don't think that Phil Barker forget how the probabilities worked though, I am reasonably convinced that this is *exactly* what he intended (I think the bits he hadn't worked through to the nth degree were the geometric exploits in earlier editions of DBA). DBA creates an entirely different experience by removing most processology, so when two optimally-configured forces of similar size meet, perhaps the most accurate simulation is just to chuck dice until they force a situation change...don't know. It is very different from almost everything we would normally think of as important in a strategy game, of course, where players can nearly always do something.

  2. Not familiar with the history here. Was there no scouting done to inform the Scots about the marsh they'd have to cross? Seems a bad choice unless they were pressed for some reason to attack as opposed to waiting on top of their own hill, letting the English tire and become disorganized crossing the marsh and then meeting them head on with fresh pike armed units

    1. It is a complicated story, but the really easy version is that the Scots had hoped/expected to be fighting in the other direction. King James had wanted the English to attack Flodden Hill, which is a really difficult position; so the English commander conducted a risky march around the Scottish army to get on its line of communication and force it to attack him. Success justifies all but it really was quite a risky strategy, if only that the move simultaneously put the Scottish army astride the English line of retreat too.
      Thinking on it, the visuals of my 'marshes' might give too strong an impression of the ground: it is basically a stream with some wet boggy field around it and then a gentle-ish rise; so certainly defensible but not perhaps as horrible as might be imagined. The rules used didn't make the obstacle too bad but the look of the tabletop terrain might give that impression.

    2. Just for clarity, Flodden hill itself is to the South of where the Scots started; Branxton hill is to the north of where the Scots started. The English Army had (naturally) approached from the South, then its flank march placed it to the North.