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DBA Online Tactics     

Much Ado About Knights

By Chris Brantley

Military history background of knights as applied to DBA historical miniature ruleset

Mounted warriers who are apt to charge "at first instance without shooting" with the intention of "destroying enemy as much by weight and impetus as their weapons." That defines Knights in DBA; a definition which encompasses everything from the ancient Sarmatian cataphract and Alexander the Great's Companion Cavalry to the arch-typical medieval "tin-can" knight. For convenience, the Knights category also includes Heavy Chariots.

Knights are a much feared element in DBA, largely more for their large number of quick kill opportunities than their actual +3 vs. foot/+4 vs. mounted modifier in Close Combat. With a favorable result (i.e., a modified Close Combat die roll higher than their foeman) in good terrain, Knights destroy Artillery, Auxilia, Bows, Pikes, Psiloi, Scythed Chariots, Spear, and Warband. Their 300P movement rate in good going makes them slower than other mounted troops; they can just keep pace with Auxilia or Psiloi moving off-road; but still more mobility than the more heavily armed foot elements. They are classed as "impetuous" troops, meaning they must follow-up a victory by moving forward one base width into the area vacated by the enemy they have destroyed or forced to recoil or flee.

According to DBA authors Phil Barker et. al. , Knights and their valuable horse flesh were subject to being shot down by massed bows and their charge could be brought up short by a solid array of spear or pike points. Knights, however, were likely to ride down other foot and get the better of normal cavalry. Light Horse that could skirmish and retire was another type of threat to Knights, who could drive off the elusive Light Horse temporary but only at risk of becoming isolated and breaking their army's battle formation. Knights, or more particularly their horses, had the common aversion to Elephants and had trouble evading the dangerous Scythed Chariots.

Are Knights as effective in DBA as they are usually perceived to be? Maybe and maybe not. The Knight's quick kill capabilties certainly creates a potential for decisive combats, but their relatively low Close Combat modifers make it surprisingly difficult for them to win against "regular" foot. Let's examine the likely results of typical match-ups:

Knights vs. Auxilia, Psiloi or Warband

In good terrain, Knights with their +3 versus foot will destroy Auxilia, Psiloi or Warband at +2 versus mounted on impact 58% of the time and risk destruction only 3% of the time. These foot troops will be able to force Knights to recoil 25% of the time and will hold their ground 14% of the time. Obviously, a quite effective match-up for Knights. The foot, however, can significantly lower the odds of their destruction by moving into rougher terrain, since quick kills become recoil results. Moreover, in rough terrain, Knights are destroyed rather than recoiling if they lose.

Knights vs. Spears or Pikes

Knights who charge home versus a wall of spears or pikes court death 11% of the time and will recoil 47% of the time. They will break through and ride down the foot 28% of the time and are locked in a melee push 14% of the time. Thus, Knights fail of their purpose 72% of the time.

Moreover, if the Spear or Pikes are able to support their line with a second element of the same, the odds shift dramatically. Against supported Spear, Knights are destroyed 17% of the time and recoil 55% of the time, while breaking through only 17% of the time. Knights are most likely to be skewered by supported Pikes, risking destruction 33% of the time and recoiling 58% of the time against a minuscule 3% chance of breaking through.

Knights vs. Blades

Although capable of forming a solid "shield wall", Blades are unable to project a threatening array of spear or pike points and thus fall into that category of foot that DBA suggests is likely to be ridden down by Knights. However, this is not the case.

Knights and Blades have an equal 6% chance of being destroyed on contact and both share a 36% chance of recoiling, with 16% of the encounters resulting in a non-committal push. This is because no quick kill capability is provided for Knights versus Blades and because Knights +3 Close Combat modifer versus foot is matched by Blades +3 modifier versus mounted.

The mismatch between Knights and Blades is one of the real abberrations of DBA and is often chalked off to Phil Barker's preference for Roman Blade armies, perhaps unfairly so, since apparently this "error" was caught and corrected in the De Bellis Multitudinus rules.

Knights vs. Other Mounted

Against the heavier weight and impetus of Knights, regular Cavalry can do little but hope to slow them down. Knights cannot be destroyed by Cavalry under normal circumstances and will only recoil 28% of the time. Cavalry recoils 47% of the time and risks destruction 11% of the time, with the balance of encounters resulting in a neutral push.

And what of skirmishing Light Horse, which DBA classifies as a "greater danger" to Knights? Light Horse does have a quick kill capability against Knights, although with a +2 Close Combat modifier against mounted compared to +4 for Knights, the odds of Light Horse winning the conflict in normal circumstances are not overwhelming. Knights risk destruction 25% of the time and cannot be forced to recoil, while Light Horse recoil 47% of the time and are destroyed by Knights 17% of the time with the balance of encounters resulting in a push. Because they only risk destruction 1 roll in 6, however, Light Horse can make life miserable for Knights even by recoiling, because they force the impetuous Knights to break formation in pursuit and expose themselves to potentially dangerous overlaps.

The Classic Match-up: Knights vs. Bows

You need only think of the flower of French knighthood charging to destruction against the efficient English longbowman at Crecy to appreciate this classic DBA match-up. Horses were particularly vulnerable to the arrows and quarrels of missile-armed troops at a distance, but the lightly armed Bows were no match for the ferocious Knights in close combat.

Talk about your decisive match-ups. If Knights at +3 versus foot engage in Close Combat with Bow at +4 versus mounted, the odds are high that one or the other will be destroyed. In close combat, Knights are shot down 58% of the time, Bows are ridden down 28% of the time and a push results only 14% of the time. No namby-pamby recoil results here.

If subjected to Distant Shooting by Bows, Knights are destroyed 11% of the time and forced to recoil 44% of the time before they can even come to gripes with their foe.

What Else Do Knights Fear?

Even more so than a rain of arrows or an array of wicked pike points, Knights must fear the lumbering Elephant. With a +5 versus mounted and a quick kill capability against Knights, Elephants will destroy Knights 58% of the time, recoil from them only 28% of the time, and cannot be destroyed in normal circumstances.

Scythed Chariots fight at even odds with Knights; both are +4 versus mounted and both are subject to quick kills. But since Chariots lose all ties, they are destroyed 58% of the time, to a 42% attrition rate for Knights.

War Wagons are largely impervious to Knights with their +5 versus mounted and no quick-kill risk. In fact, Knights can't kill War Wagons unaided and can't force them to recoil, but risk destruction 6% of the time if for some reason they try.

Finally, a mention about Artillery. At +4 in close combat, Artillery poses a not inconsiderable threat to Knights, but is subject to immediate destruction if it loses Close Combat. Artillery will kill Knights 8% of the time and force a recoil 50% of the time. Knights will crush Artillery 28% of the time.

The Morale of the Story:

Stay away from Bow, Elephants, Scythed Chariots and supported Pike or Spear whenever possible. Attacking War-Wagons is a futile proposition. Attempt to ride down Auxilia, Psiloi and Warband by choice, but stay out of rough terrain. If you are a gambler, Blades are a tempting target if you need to kill an element quickly to win the game, but the odds are even and you will have to trust to your luck with the die or arrange for support from an overlapping element. You have little to fear from other mounted troops and don't let the quick kill capability of Light Horse discourage you from charging home since the odds are greatly in your favor.

In sum, Knights are a powerful element in DBA, but the reality doesn't seem to match up well with the perception of their dominance on the table top. Knights face long odds against regular troops in most match-ups and their chances for quick kills are frequently slim. So why so much ado about Knights?

Well there is always Knight's historical reputation which colors many gamer's expectations. My own theory, however, relates to size. Quite simply, a Knight element usually carries the greatest mass of any DBA element (with the possible exception for Elephants and Warwagons) and with their lances or spears, they are also usually the tallest DBA element. They are visually imposing on the game table as in real life and hence likely to cause apprehension in a foe, in the same way that the British Napoleonic commander of the "Thin Red Line" must always feel some degree of apprehension when a French cuirassier or lancer regiment comes charging down upon his formed square, or the modern infantry platoon leader feels uneasy when in close proximity to enemy tanks despite the wide array of effective anti-tank weapons at his disposal.

A Note on Dismounting

Several of the DBA army lists provide the ability to dismount your Knights to fight on foot as Blades. This is an interesting option which lends considerable flexibility to your army and game tactics; but has been the subject of some debate among ancient/medieval gamers

Critics site numerous historical case studies where aristocratic Knights refused orders to fight on foot like "common soldiers" or who fought on foot only due to necessity occasioned by the attrition of their horses. Others respond by pointing to the successful defense by dismounted English knights at Agincourt and other examples.

Another aspect of the debate is whether Knights should be allowed to dismount during the course of a battle at some point before coming to grips with the enemy or only prior to the battle, which is the subject of some unofficial variant rules.

Whatever the historical merits, the DBA rules are clear. If your army provides the option of dismounting a knight element (e.g. any element labeled as "3Kn/4Bd"), then that element can be deployed as either at the start of the battle and remains that way for the duration. No rules are provided for dismounting or mounting during battle.

Picking a Knight Army

If you enjoy the Knight life, here are several DBA army lists you may wish to consider. Several of the armies allow you to dismount Knights as Blades and/or allow a choice of Knights or other elements. I have not listed armies with fewer than 3 Knight elements, although there are quite a few, including the armies of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Knights of St. Johns on Rhodes and Cyprus, and the English Army of the Wars of the Roses.

Max. No. of Knights Army Lists
12 Siracae, Iazyges and Later Rhoxolani Sarmatian (#55c) and African Vandals (#84)
7 Norman (#102c)
6 Parthian (#51), Italian Ostrogoth (#88), Later Frankish (#102a), Feudal French (#137), Early Crusader (#128), Romanian Frankish (#152), Italian Condotta (#169), Medieval French (#170), and Early Burgundian (#173)
5 French Ordonnance (#178)
4 Sarmatian (#55a), Bosphoran (#55b), Palmyran (#76), Gepid/Lombard (#85), Georgian (#121), Papal Italian (#126), Anglo-Norman (#134), Sicilian (#135), Early Imperialist (#136), Later Crusader (#141), Later Serbian (#142b), Feudal English (#145), Later Polish (#149), Teutonic Order (#151), Navarrese (#156), and Burgundian Ordonnance (#180).
3 Early & Later Seleucid (#41a/b), Early Both or Vandals (#70), Feudal Spanish (#104), Communal Italian (#123), Cilician Armenian (#132), Early Serbian (#142a), Later Bulgar (#147), Later Hungarian (#166), Later Imperial (#167), 100 Years War English (#168), Medieval Spanish (#171), and Free Company (#172).

If you like the "shock" tactics of Knights, but want something a bit different or perhaps more "ancient", then you might try these Heavy Chariot armies:

Max. No. of Hvy. Ch. Army Lists
3 Sumerian and Akkadian (#1), Hittites (#9), Early Assyrian (#12), Chou/Spring and Autumn Chinese (#16b), Warring States/Ch'in Chinese (#16c), New Babylonian (#18a) and Later Hebrew (#19)
2 Later Canaanite/Urgaritic or Syrians (#15b), Early Indians (#21a) and New Assyrian's (#23)
1 Early Syrian (#4b), and Saitic Egyptian (#29)

And with that, I bid you a good Knight.

My math is always suspect and I may well have missed a key point here or there that merits further discussion. Accordingly, comments, suggested additions, and/or critiques are welcome. Direct them to Chris Brantley at brant@erols.com.

Copyright Wargaming.net 1999-2013
DBA 1.2 Rules Wargames Research Group 1995
DBA 1.22 Rules Phil Barker, Richard Bodley Scott, Sue Laflin Barker 1990-2000