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DBA Online Tactics     

The Art of Artillery

By David Kuijt

The Art of Artillery: military history article about artillery and its tactics

Artillery in DBA represents a battery of very long-range battlefield missile shooters -- anything from onagers and catapults to bombards, organ guns, and ribaulds. It covers the ballistae that were used from the Greeks until the broad use of gunpowder, and the cannons that ended the Hundred Year's War at the battle of Castillion in 1453.

On paper, artillery is the most effective long-range attack available in DBA. In practice, however, artillery is perhaps the hardest element type to use effectively.

Artillery have strong combat factors; +4 against everything. This, and their 500 pace range, make them seem to be a dominating troop type. In battles it never seems to work that way, because artillery has as many restrictions and disadvantages as advantages.

Their ranged fire is admittedly quite effective. But artillery can only fire in the opponent's turn, so you lose half your potential opportunities to pound stuff. Worse still, it can only fire if it did not move in its previous turn. This means that no matter what wonderful firing position you create for your artillery, your opponent will get to move twice before the first time you can fire. Because you cannot fire through or over enemy screening units, your precious firing opportunities may be wasted on skirmishers that artillery cannot kill, or on tough heavy foot who can largely ignore it. Even experienced players may find it tremendously difficult to bring their artillery to bear.

Artillery cannot move into contact with enemy elements. Not a tremendous problem, with strong ranged combat factors and long range. On the other side of the coin, artillery get quick-killed by everything in close combat. Their combat factors are high enough that they can often survive a few rounds of assault by enemy light troops, but sooner or later the guns (ballistae, onagers, whatever) are going to be overrun, and when that happens the gunners surrender or scatter to the hillsides.

Rock, Scissors, Paper

One interesting aspect of DBA is the interaction between different troop types. For example, elephants are devastating against knights; knights in the open will slaughter psiloi; and psiloi are among the most effective troops against elephants. Some element types often contended with another particular type in historical battles -- a classic matchup. Blades against warbands, for example, or knights against light horse.

Artillery has no such classic matchup. There are troop types which it can entirely dominate -- elephants, war wagons, and bows, for example. It also has troop types that it must dread and avoid: blades and spear, or any fast mounted. For most of the rest, success with artillery isn't so much related to who you fight, as to how you fight.

Before looking at how, here is a survey of who; a survey of what affect artillery has on different target types.

Who Artillery Should Fight

Artillery vs. Spear or Blades -- Even with its high combat factor and long range, artillery just isn't going to make much impression on large bodies of formed armoured foot. If your enemy can get into position to advance a force of Spear or Blades towards your artillery, things are not going to go well. You will push them back once or twice, but the artillery aren't going to be happy with the end result. Once the heavy foot get into contact, the battle is usually brief.

The only thing that can make this sort of attack more palatable for an artilleryman is when the enemy spear or blades must force their way through rough going. Artillery has a 25% chance of destroying a unit of spear in rough going in a single shot, and a 47% chance of recoiling them (11% destruction chance on blades in rough; 31% of recoil). The recoils will come often enough to give artillery a number of additional firing chances. Heavy foot should avoid approaching artillery through rough going.

Artillery vs. Warband, Pike, or Auxilia -- These are reasonably good targets for artillery. There is a moderate chance of killing the target element (11%) and a good chance of forcing a recoil (31%). If they get into contact and close combat, the artillery still might drive off its foes several times or even kill them.

The pure math hides as much truth as it reveals -- pike and warband are even more vulnerable to artillery than they seem. They both move slowly and often fight in deep formations; they avoid rough terrain and their systematic, slow movement is fairly easy for the artillery commander to predict. This makes it much easier for the artillery commander to create the long firing lanes that allow artillery to play for as long as possible, and give them the maximum number of firing opportunities.

Auxilia are more dangerous to artillery than warband or pike. Their greater speed allows them to close faster, and be effected less by any recoil results coming in. They can also approach through bad going without danger, whereas warband or pike must avoid bad going if under fire from artillery.

Artillery vs. Knights or Cavalry -- These are also fairly good targets for artillery. There is a moderate chance of killing the target element (11%) and a good chance of forcing a recoil (31%). If they get into contact and close combat, the artillery still might drive off its foes several times or even kill them.

The speed advantage of knights, or even more so with cavalry, means that you won't get a lot of shots. If you can put your opponent into a position where he must delay while in range, or rush to attack before he is ready, you will have a big advantage. If the terrain or tactical situation is such that he can come straight in without delay in a line wide enough to prevent overlap disadvantages, you've got problems.

Artillery vs. Bow -- This is one of the best target choices for an artillery element. Artillery has a 25% chance of destroying a bow unit in ranged fire and a 47% chance of getting a recoil. Even if enemy bow manage to close, their chances are still not good in close combat: the bow only kills the Artillery 17% of the time, and stands the same 25% chance of being destroyed and 47% of recoiling.

Artillery vs. Psiloi -- Artillery can drive off psiloi with a good roll, but cannot kill them. The fight is largely futile on both sides -- Psiloi will not usually be able to fight their way close enough to engage, and if they do will be overlapped, so they are unlikely to kill the artillery. But on the other side, the artillery will be wasting its shots for many turns on a target it cannot hurt.

On the artillery side of this equation, try to shoot at other targets if possible, or have mounted ready to move forward and sweep skirmishers away. Shooting at skirmishers is a waste of time.

Artillery vs. Light Horse -- For the artillery this matchup is similar to fighting psiloi, but slightly more dangerous. The light horse cannot be killed, and they can move into contact (or recover from a flee result) much quicker. Make sure to have elements on both flanks of the artillery to provide overlaps in case the light horse make a mad rush. Without that support the mad rush is an effective technique for the horse commander -- a poor result can be recovered quickly, and it only takes one lucky roll and the artillery is gone.

Artillery vs. Camps -- If you could ever get your artillery into range of the enemy camp, artillery fire would quickly drive off the defenders. Similarly, if you can get your artillery forward far enough that the enemy light horse or psiloi you fire at are within 600 paces of their board edge, you have a huge advantage. Suddenly a "flee" result on enemy skirmishers drives the victim off the board, the same in tactical terms as destroying it.

Needless to say, this doesn't happen very often. But if your opponent wants to play defensive on his half of the board and lets you advance your artillery, by all means, do so.

Artillery vs. Elephants, War Wagons, or Scythed Chariots -- Artillery can quick-kill elephants and war wagons. Both of these troop types create large, relatively immobile targets; concentrations of force where a couple of good shots can be devastating. The ideal target, in other words. Elephants and war wagons are afraid of artillery, and with good reason. Just one element of artillery placed well can dominate the whole battle against an elephant or war-wagon heavy army. In armies that contain them, the elephant or war wagon elements often are the pivotal element in deciding the enemy's strategy, so your artillery will also force the enemy to totally modify his grand tactical plan -- another big plus, even if you never get to blast Jumbo to smithereens.

Scythed chariots are quick-killed by everything, so similarly vulnerable to a ranged attack by artillery.

How Artillery Should Fight

As mentioned earlier, the most important aspect of effective use of artillery is how you use it. Playing with artillery you always need to be thinking two turns ahead. If you change your mind, play by the seat of your pants, and prefer to react to your enemy's moves rather than having a plan and sticking to it, then you probably will have problems using artillery.

On the other hand, if you can plan in advance, use your elements in concert in accord with your plan, and predict or channel the enemy, then artillery might work very well for you. Cautious players like artillery. Reckless players can never seem to make it work right.

Firing Lanes -- The most important aspect of using artillery is creating a good firing lane. Artillery can fire through a zone one element in width on either side of its front, 500 paces deep. But the setup time for artillery means that you've got to pick a place for your artillery, get it there, and then convince the enemy to move through that zone and attack you. Needless to say, that isn't easy.

The perfect placement for artillery depends, naturally enough, upon the position of the enemy army two turns in advance. The enemy army will move in reaction to your army. This means that creating a good firing lane isn't just an issue of positioning your artillery element; it involves putting your whole army into positions so that the enemy must advance into your firing lane. There are two general strategies for this: channelling or enticement.

Channelling -- terrain can be very important. Bad going covered by artillery is very dangerous to enemy heavy foot and is death to enemy mounted. Since your enemy will likely avoid placing troops in bad going near your artillery, such terrain can be an effective way to limit your opponent's movement into predefined zones. You can place your artillery to cover these zones and your army in front of them, giving you a good field of fire.

However, if the enemy has the advantage in rough-terrain troops then attempting to place your artillery in front of bad going can backfire. You will be giving his auxilia and psiloi a zone where they can advance towards your artillery without worrying about interference by your mounted or heavy foot.

Impassable terrain is even more useful for channelling -- not even the enemy auxilia or psiloi will be able to approach your artillery through it. It is also more obvious, however. Even the most dull-witted enemy will see what you are doing, and may decide to avoid the whole problem by refusing to advance into the jaws of your formation.

Enticement is the answer to that dilemma, and also the way to create good firing lanes when you have no good blocking terrain in position to channel the enemy. How do you get the enemy to move into the zone where your artillery is set up to fire? You give him some bait.

The best bait depends upon your army, and your opponent. Some opponents cannot stand to wait, and can't leave a single pip unused -- all you need do against them is just be patient, and they will come. Most players won't put their heads into a vise without a reason to enter, however. This usually means making your army seem vulnerable. It goes without saying that if you take an unassailable position, most players with any brain won't assail it.

As with any trap, it must smell sweet. Your enemy has to think he'll get an advantage by attacking, and hopefully must not think of the trap as being a trap. This is difficult to do, and varies according to the makeup of the two armies involved and the psychology of your foe, so an example will have to suffice to describe one possible such trap.

Facing an enemy with Knights, a Blade/Psiloi army could start with three Psiloi (quick-killed by Knights) in front of the blade, rather than behind. Even with an artillery emplaced on the flank angled in to fire on the oncoming troops, the lure of two or more elements quick-killed could bring the enemy knights to advance into your firing zone. Then hope for at least three pips on your turn, so you can retreat the psiloi through your line (into a supporting position behind your blades) before the knight line makes contact. If the enemy takes the bait he will be in the firing zone, and any of his knight elements that recoil from combat with the blades will be at risk from more fire.

Where Artillery Should Fight

The other major component of setting up a good firing lane is finding a good position from which to fire. This doesn't just mean relative to terrain, as mentioned above in the section on channelling; it also means a good position relative to your army, and to your plan for using the army. There are three general possibilities: defensively on the flanks, defensively in the center of the line, and offensively.

Flanking positions are the most common and useful places for artillery. As mentioned above in the section on channelling, you can use bad going or impassable going to secure the front of a position, which allows you to turn your artillery inward to fire at an angle across your front line. This is wonderful if you can work it.

Without such convenient terrain, artillery is often positioned firing straight out on one flank of a formation. This is still useful if you pin the flank of the artillery on the board edge, a river, or terrain. You will have less likelihood of getting good targets, but it is still a good position. If your enemy does not contest that flank you can advance into an even better angled firing position across your front as described above.

Artillery is not so good at holding an open flank. If you can't block enemy movement with terrain, anything but the slowest foot will stay out of the firing arc of your artillery and sweep to bypass you. Enemy mounted are particularly effective in this role. If you pivot the artillery element you will have lost your chance to fire on the next turn, which means the first shot the artillery will get may be their last, as they are locked in close combat by enemy mounted.

Terrain to focus the enemy movement can be crucial in this situation. Mounted are quick-killed by being beaten when in bad going, and they move slowly there, and the range of artillery is such that enemy mounted will rarely dare go off the good going nearby. Proper use of terrain will channel the enemy in awkward clumps which will require reorganization before they can assault your line. That can give your artillery a number of very good firing opportunities.

Centered in the line of battle is a less common position for artillery. It has some advantages -- for one thing, the artillery can keep up with the heavy foot that often make up such a line. For another, you are guaranteed at least some firing chance, as the center of your line will almost certainly get within 500 paces of the enemy line at some point in the battle.

There are a bunch of disadvantages to a central position, however. For one thing, you can't stop your artillery for firing without stopping your whole line. Pinning the center of your army in one place may be a very bad idea. And although you have put your artillery where it will get some shots, it will most likely get them against the toughest troops your enemy has to offer -- the heavy foot that usually make up the center of your line will likewise usually make up the center of his line.

If your artillery is killed in the center of the line this can be a much worse result than if it dies on a flank. Losing a unit in the center can cause your whole line to fail in a turn or two as the units beside it get flanked and cannot recoil, whereas on the flank you can often pull back and delay, hoping to win elsewhere.

Worst of all, the center is usually where the heaviest engagement comes. Since missile fire in DBA cannot occur if the firer or the target is in close combat or providing an overlap, you will quickly find that a center position for your artillery means that you get only one or two shots as the enemy comes in, and then find yourself in the middle of a melee where you cannot fire and cannot move to contact the enemy.

There are cases where a center position can be useful, but most of them revolve around forcing enemy units vulnerable to artillery to fight where you wish them to. Where you place your artillery will determine where your opponent puts his bows, elephants, and war wagons, and there will be times when you want to force them out on the flanks.

Offensive use of artillery is a matter of timing. As you become more effective in placing your artillery and using it well in concert with your defensive line, you will often find times where your opponent will not attack, and where you must advance to engage him.

If your opponent steadfastly refuses to destroy himself on your wonderful defensive position, attacking with artillery is not impossible. If your enemy has any prime targets for artillery (war wagons, bows, or elephants; double-ranked pikes or warband), you can treat this as the opportunity to gain the matchups you want. The important thing is not to get ahead of yourself, and to remember that artillery is vulnerable for a few turns after moving, and that you must move it as part of a plan that involves your other troops, not by itself.

One of the most effective (and rare) uses of artillery is to bombard a strong defensive position of the enemy. Although it takes time, there is no place he can hide. If you move your army forward carefully you may soon have the joy of watching your artillery bombard his units while he stands in place. Although it won't be quick, eventually artillery can shatter any shieldwall.

Many DBA battles are determined by a fight over control of a single important patch of bad going. These fights are much looser and less organized than fights in good going, often leaving single elements unengaged. Artillery can be quite useful in such fights, assisting your rough-going troops in beating the enemy troops for control of the crucial town or woods. Even a flee result on enemy psiloi (normally not much use for your artillery) can be useful in this case, giving your troops the crucial two or three turns to consolidate their advantage and eliminate other opposition.

Armies with Artillery

The earliest army to allow an artillery element is the Syracusans (#34), starting in 410 BC. I suspect that the inclusion of artillery in the Syracusan army has to do with battles against the Romans, where the war engines designed by Archimedes held off and frustrated a more powerful Roman army for many years.

24 armies have an option of at least one artillery element; one of them (Sung Chinese, #116) can have two, and two of them must have two (Later Ottoman (#160b) and Hussite (#176)).

A very wide range of army types have artillery possibilities. The Early Imperial Romans (#64) are a heavy foot army; the Hundred Year's War English (#168) are built around longbows; there are pike armies like the Later Swiss (#161b) and Low Countries (#163) and a war-wagon army in the Hussites (#176).

A large number of combined-arms armies may have artillery, including the Syracusan (#34), the two armies of Alexander the Great(#36 and #37), Later Macedonian (#49), Late Roman West (#77a), Later Medieval Scandinavians (#131b), and Knights of Saint John on Rhodes (#162b).

Foot armies have no corner on the artillery market. Light horse armies like the Cumans (#130), Mongols (#154), and Ilkhanid (#159a) have artillery; also cavalry armies like the Timurid (#159b) and knight armies like the Medieval French (#170). Even an elephant army in the Khmer or Cham (#110) has artillery.

As the Renaissance foreshadows the first glimmerings of modern warfare in Europe artillery becomes commonplace: French Ordonnance (#178), War of the Roses English (#179), and Burgundian Ordonnance (#180) all have artillery.

Oriental armies with artillery include the Sung Chinese (#116), who are conquered by the Mongols (#154), and eventually succeeded by the Ming Chinese (#174). So every army based in China from 979 AD on has an artillery option.

The author may be contacted at kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu. Please do not use any pictures or text from this page without permission.

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