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DBA Online Tactics     

Using Cavalry

By David Kuijt

Cavalry tactics: military history article. Cavalry tactics against it typical enemies: light horse, war wagon, warband and knights

The description of Cavalry from the DBA rulebook (slightly edited) is as follows: Representing the majority of ancient horsemen, primarily armed with javelins, bows, or other missile weapons but combining these with sword or lance, (and also for convenience light chariots with up to four horses but only two crew). They usually started combat with close range shooting, more intense than that of light horse, using rapid archery or circulating formations to concentrate a mass of missiles in space and time, but charged when that would serve better or to follow up an advantage.

In other words, knights are mounted troops that charged home in a concerted attack attempting to break the enemy by force; light horse are mounted troops that skirmished, irritating and evading until the enemy was vulnerable; and cavalry is just about everything else. Willing to close with the enemy if necessary or advisable (unlike light horse) but attacking with missiles and not a single massive charge.

Thus it isn't surprising that an enormous variety of different troops are classed as cavalry. Cavalry covers Polish strzelcy (mounted crossbow), the elite ghulams or mamluks in various Middle-Eastern armies, turkopoles, hobilars, or mounted sergeants in many European armies, Ottoman sipahis, Byzantine stratiotai, Gallic cavalry in Gallic and Roman armies, and many, many other examples.

In short, cavalry are one of the most common element types in DBA armies. They are also one of the most useful. This essay will cover some of their advantages and vulnerabilities.

Cavalry combines good combat factors (+3 vs. anything) and excellent movement (400 paces). They don't like to fight in bad going, like all mounted troops; other than that they have no special combat vulnerabilities or advantages.

Cavalry vs. Spear or Pike: Cavalry flee if doubled by spear or pike, so they cannot be killed in this fight. At +3 vs. +4, they can't win it either. Well-organized heavy foot with long pointy things are largely immune to cavalry. Cavalry are quite useful in delaying enemy pike or spear, allowing you to concentrate your troops elsewhere. At worst this fight is largely neutral for the cavalry so long as they keep their retreat path open and unhindered. If they get pushed into bad going or near the table edge, they are in trouble.

However, cavalry is much faster than walls of pike and spear. This makes it easy for you to concentrate your troops elsewhere, and hard for your enemy to redeploy. It also makes it very easy for your cavalry to take advantage of any hanging flanks or temporary vulnerabilities.

Cavalry vs. Psiloi: in DBA v1.22 cavalry can quick-kill psiloi in good going; they even have the +3:+2 combat factor advantage. That makes cavalry even better at killing psiloi than knights are, because cavalry are faster and don't have problems with impetuous follow-up moves getting them in trouble. If you get the chance to hit enemy psiloi in the open with your cavalry, sieze it.

In bad going the story is different. Even here, though, cavalry are useful. Cavalry can ZOC enemy psiloi that are in good going, essentially nullifying them. Knights can't do this without danger as the psiloi can use impetuous followups to suck them into the bad going. Light horse have no special killing ability versus psiloi, and only a +2 combat factor, so don't serve nearly as well to ZOC psiloi in bad going as cavalry do.

Cavalry vs. Warband or Auxilia: No quick-kills either way, but with movement advantage and combat factors of +3 vs. +2, cavalry has the advantage in good terrain. Cavalry is faster, allowing it to choose when to attack, create advantages, and disengage if necessary. In good going they will be able to defeat Warband, or Auxilia. Warband can allay this threat a little by back-rank support giving them +3 to +3, but that means that if they do lose a combat and get doubled, they will have two units destroyed rather than a single one. Further, the impetuous nature of Warband means that the Cavalry can pull the Warband out of its line into a double-overlap position with a little effort.

One warning, though - without quick-kills on either side, the combat isn't going to go quickly. Players used to quick results of Knights or Warband combat will not see it here. It may take several turns for the first element to fall, which can be bad if your enemy is pressing hard on the other flank.

Also, this combat is not without risk for the cavalry player. A line of cavalry versus a line of warband or auxilia can expect things to go their way, but bad luck early can be disastrous. The cavalry can still be doubled by a good roll, and if the first unit lost is the cavalry player's, things can turn bad very quickly.

Still, these elements are prime targets for cavalry attack. If you can match your cavalry against enemy auxilia or warband, you should do well.

Cavalry vs. Blades: Blades fight even-up against cavalry: +3 to +3. Since cavalry can disengage from combat with blades if it wants to and Blades cannot, and since cavalry moves twice as fast as Blades, the slight advantage in this combat goes to the mounted troops. Once dice rolling starts, however, the battle can go either way.

Engaging Blades, a cavalry commander should attempt to maximize his advantages of movement. Hit them while they are unorganized. If they are in a good wall, go around them, and force them to turn. You will get to decide when combat occurs, and where. Make the most of those advantages, and cavalry can get a couple of crucial early overlaps.

Cavalry vs. Bow: Of all normal mounted troops (that is, excepting elephants), organized foot bow fear cavalry the most. Bow is +4 to cavalry +3, but bow dies on a recoil when in combat with mounted. Unlike knights (who press the attack too hard, and are shattered if they fail), cavalry are not quick-killed if they lose. So on a given combat with no overlaps, the Bow will die 28% of the time, the cavalry will die 11% of the time, and the cavalry will recoil 47% of the time.

Still, the combat is a bit risky for the cavalry. Not because of the chance of getting killed in close combat, but rather because recoils may allow the Bow to continue with ranged combat (at no risk to it). Concentration of fire with a line of bows can blow huge holes in a cavalry line -- expect some casualties moving in, and have a reserve element ready.

So it isn't an easy combat for the cavalry, but it is still often worthwhile - cavalry has the advantage engaging Bow if they can hit them with a concerted rush.

Cavalry vs. Knights or Camelry: In this matchup cavalry has the short end of the stick. Against knights it is sometimes possible to draw a single enemy unit into a double overlap position, using its impetuousity against it. Cavalry will be able to disengage units on its turn because of their speed advantage, but this doesn't usually make up for the fact that it is +3 to the enemy +4. In general cavalry will lose this fight, although it can usually hold out for some time.

Cavalry vs. Light Horse: Cavalry love to fight light horse. At +3 to +2, with no quick-kill on either side, take this matchup whenever you can get it. Very few things are as effective at killing light horse as cavalry.

Cavalry vs. Artillery: Cavalry are good artillery killers. If you can get this matchup without unfriendly overlaps, take it. Cavalry is also fast enough to get most of the way across the danger zone in one turn. It may take a couple of rushes, but the odds are with the cavalry.

Cavalry vs. War Wagons: Avoid, avoid, avoid. Without a flank attack cavalry will never win this fight, and can be killed even at range by the War Wagon's +4 missile factor. Luckily War Wagons are both rare and hard to maneuver.

Cavalry vs. Elephants: This combat is +3 vs. +5: avoid this as well. If you must fight Elephants, make them do the maneuvering. This will force the enemy to use precious pips on them, hopefully giving you an opportunity elsewhere. Pull back if you are not recoiled; make the enemy commander spend pips to engage. Pull back different distances from the rest of your line, making it even harder for the Elephant to make engagement and using more enemy pips.

What Element Types Are Good Targets For Cavalry?

Light horse, or any foot troops in the open without long pointy spikes. Psiloi, auxilia, warband, artillery.

What Types Are Roughly Even?

bows, blades, spear, pike. Use your maneuver advantage and you should be OK. Spear and pike are neutral -- they have the power, you have the maneuver. In constrained circumstances the spear and pike win; in the open the cavalry can usually negate them or even defeat them.

What Do Cavalry Fear?

Camelry, elephants, knights, and war wagons.

The Moral of the Story:

Cavalry are the good-going jack-of-all-trades of DBA. They have good combat factors and good movement; they aren't quick-killed by anything, and they don't quick-kill anything but foot bows and psiloi. They can serve many roles: primary line of battle, secondary line of battle, fast flankers, or reserve.

Because of their flexibility, the best use for your cavalry is really determined by the makeup of your army. For a foot army they can be used in the role of a mobile reserve force, ready to flank, fill a gap, or respond quickly to an enemy flanking move. In knight-heavy mounted armies they can be used as secondary line-of-battle troups, to extend the line of a mounted knight assault (e.g. Later Polish). In primarily light horse armies (Ghuzz, Lithuanian, Early Ottoman, Pecheneg, Cuman) they form the harder-hitting center of a fluid mounted attack.

Defensively, because of their staying power and lack of special vulnerabilities, you may wish to match up your cavalry against particular enemy troops. Cavalry is much more capable of redeploying to achieve favorable matchups than most troops because of their speed. Whether to assault artillery, screen your blades from enemy Warband, or drive off enemy skirmishers, cavalry are always useful.

Their speed and good combat factors makes them an excellent reserve. They can respond quickly and reach a threatened area in time to do some good. They also have the speed to take advantage of an enemy weakness before it can be reinforced. In either case, the generally good combat strength and lack of particular vulnerabilities makes cavalry effective against unexpected needs, as appropriate for a reserve.

The only thing cavalry really cannot do is fight in bad terrain. Keep them well away from bad going unless you are truly desperate; most infantry will be able to outfight them there. Infantry that has a toe in bad going (but can be attacked without stepping into bad going) can be attacked, but it is risky.

Picking a Cavalry Army

There are a huge array of armies that include at least one cavalry unit; 136 armies in total. It would have been faster to list the armies that did not possess cavalry. The variety is enormous. I haven't bothered to list the 79 armies that have only one or two Cavalry elements.

Note: the counts below ignore light chariot (LCh), even though they use the same combat factors and movement as cavalry. Some armies (notably #21a, #22, #31a, and #45) include significant numbers of cavalry and light chariot both. I chose to ignore the issue of light chariot for these tables.

Max. No. of Cav

Army Lists


Early Rhoxolani Sarmatian (#55a)


Mameluk Egyptian (#158)


Avar (#90), Thematic Byzantine (#99)


Maurikian Byzantine (#91), Ghaznavid (#115)


Mede (#18c), Khazar (#93), Breton (#102b), Nikephorian Byzantine (#117), Early Samurai (#127a), Timurid (#159b), Islamic Persian (#175)


Later Achaemenid Persian (#33), Blemye or Nobades (#63), Early Sassanid (#73a), Later Sassanid (#73b), Medieval Syrian (#139), Post-Mongol Russian (#157)


18 armies: (#30d), Gallic (#35), Three Kingdoms Chinese (#72), Korean (#78), Later Visigothic (#80), Moslem Indian (#83b), Early Byzantine (#86), T'ang & Five Dynasties Chinese (#95), Arab Imperial (#100), Fatimid Egyptian (#118), Seljuq Turk (#124), Early Russian (#129), Ayyubid Egyptian (#143), Khwarizmian (#146), Later Polish (#149), Mongol (#154), Later Ottoman (#160b)


20 armies: Dark Age and Geometric Greek (#17), Kushite Egyptian (#22), Early North Greek (#24c), Early Achaemenid Persian (#28a), Later Achaemenid Persian (#28b), Etruscan (#30b), Han Chinese (#54), Marian Roman (#59), Middle Imperial Roman (#69), Late Roman (West) (#77a), Sub-Roman British (#82), Arab Conquest (#96), Later Frankish (#102a), Russ (#108), Early Polish (#122), Berber (#125), Comnenan Byzantine (#133), Ilkhanid (#159a), Early Ottoman (#160a), Ming Chinese (#174)

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DBA 1.2 Rules Wargames Research Group 1995
DBA 1.22 Rules Phil Barker, Richard Bodley Scott, Sue Laflin Barker 1990-2000