Domains at War Designer's Notes #4: Combat Mechanics

Every wargame design must balance simulation and playability. Achieving this balance is often quite hard, and most games end up tipping towards one or the other end of the range. Balancing Domains at Wars was even harder than other wargames I’ve designed, because I was actually attempting to simulate two things – an ancient or medieval battle, and a battle fought by characters from an ACKS game.


While the battle system in Domains at War: Campaigns uses abstract 10 minute turns, but in Domains at War: Battles we default to the same 10 second combat round as ACKS. Initial versions of Domains at War: Battles used “battle turns” of much longer duration, ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Ultimately, we found such longer battle turns unsatisfactory. There are a variety of reasons for this, but they all came down to our desire to have heroes on the battlefield be capable of the same degree of action they are permitted by ACKS. Since a wizard can cast fireball every 10 seconds in ACKS, we wanted that same wizard to be able to cast fireballs against enemy units in Domains at War: Battles at the same rate. There was no end to the number of special rules we created in order to accommodate this desire in the context of longer battle turns – for example, allowing spellcasters to cast six spells per one minute battle turn. But of course spellcasting was just one tiny portion of the rules. Drinking potions, curing mortally wounded comrades, using magic items, on and on, all such activities bedeviled our attempts at longer battle turns.

Yet we resisted the obvious solution of 10-second combat rounds for a long time because we didn’t want pitched battles that lasted only a few minutes in game time. Many historical accounts of battles suggested they lasted for hours! Victor Davis Hanson’s fine book The Western Way of War, which exhaustively explores the actual length of battle in the ancient world, finally calmed our doubts. Domains at War: Battles assumes that pre-battle deployment and post-battle pursuit are lengthy affairs, but the actual period spent fighting we assume to be short and bloody.


Thrown weapons seem to have little to recommend them. Fewer can be carried than arrows or slings, and their effective range is considerably less. Yet thrown weapons, in particular javelins, were the weapon of choice for velites, peltasts, light cavalry, and other skirmishers in the ancient world. Why? Certainly the ACKS mechanics did not highlight them as weapons of choice.

One much-praised benefit of javelin-like weapons in the historical sources was that they would get embedded in the fabric of enemy shields, making the shield too unwieldy to keep using. This is why Domains at War: Battles gives thrown weapons a unique benefit against units defending in lieu of attacking: While defensive stance increases a unit’s AC by 4 against bows and crossbows, it increases it by only 2 against thrown weapons.

The two-point AC difference has profound effects. An average infantry with chain and shield unit has AC 5. If the infantry are defending, a bow unit (attack throw 11+) will hit the infantry only a “20”. A javelin unit will hit on an “18-20”, or three times as often. This means that when you need to disorder an enemy shield wall, each javelin-equipped unit will be worth three bow units!

Javelin-armed skirmishers thus have utility in the battlefield that archers do not, which increases the diversity of useful troop types and opens up interesting opportunities for combined arms. If we have over-exaggerated the power of thrown weapons in this regard, we hope our zeal will be forgiven in light of the improvement in gameplay.


If you multiply the hex range of missile weapons in Domains at War: Battles by 20 yards per hex and compare them to the values in ACKS, you’ll find that the resulting value equals the medium range of the weapons rather than their long range. This is by design, and carries with it several benefits.

First, by ignoring long range and consolidating short and medium range into one “effective range”, we eliminate the need for measuring range brackets, greatly increasing speed of play.

Second, it actually increases realism. A common error in wargame design is to assign every weapon its maximum theoretical effectiveness – for instance, allowing longbowmen to fire at enemy units 500 yards away, because there are historical cases of longbow shots hitting at such ranges. Such mechanics tragically increase the effectiveness of weapons well past their historical utility. In war, rarely is any weapon used at anything close to its maximum theoretical effectiveness! Archers get fatigued. Wind blows arrows. Small pieces of terrain block lines of sight. All of this friction is real, but rarely modeled. Thus we seek to model the average, not peak, performance on the battlefield.

Third, it allows battles to be pitched on smaller battlefields. A battle generally begins in earnest when the enemy units come into missile range of each other. Shorter ranges save 6” to 1’ from the battlefield, a virtue for anyone who does their gaming on a coffee table.

Finally, it allows us to scale up unit and hex size (without having to adjust weapon ranges, on the assumption that a unit capable of hitting a 2,400 square foot mass of men at 100 yards can plausibly hit a 10,000 square foot mass of men at 200 yards and a 20,000 square foot mass of men at 300 yards.


The following tactical hints might prove useful to first-time generals and commanders:

When organizing your army, try to include an assortment of both missile and melee troops in each division. Loose Foot work well with Formed Foot and Formed Mounted. Formed Mounted work well with Loose Foot and/or Loose Mounted. Loose Mounted and Formed Foot don’t work well together because of the difference in movement rate.

When deploying your units, place your heavy infantry in the center in a checkered pattern (what the Romans would call a “quincunx”) such that each unit is adjacent to two friendly units. This provides a battle line bonus to morale while leaving room to retreat. Deploy your missile-armed infantry in front, and your cavalry on the flanks.

Before attacking with your heavy infantry, try to disorder the units in the enemy’s main battle line with missile fire. Javelin-armed light troops are particularly useful because they are the most accurate when firing on shielded units. Disordered enemy units won’t be able to react to your attacks, and will be harder to activate during the enemy’s phase.

To avoid having your heavy units disordered by enemy missile fire, position your Loose units in front of  your main battle line. This will draw off fire from the enemy’s missile attacks, because missile attackers must target the closest enemy unit. After they are targeted, your Loose units can withdraw in lieu of taking damage, avoiding any harm!

If you have to attack readied enemy units, and aren’t able to disorder them first, approach them at the march. Don’t charge, especially if they are heavy cavalry or spear- or pole arm-equipped heavy infantry!

Once you’ve engaged an enemy, move up a fast, powerful unit, like heavy cavalry, and flank attack the enemy unit with a charge. Since they provide a bonus to hit, and a penalty to shock rolls, flank attacks can have a dramatic effect. The order in which you activate units can be critical. If you have a numerical advantage of even one unit, you can sometimes roll up an enemy’s entire battle line step-by-step.

Once the battle gets going, your army and your opponents’ will both begin to descend into total chaos, with units disordered or out of their zone of control. The longer you can postpone the chaos on your side, the better - avoid breaking up your formation for short-term advantage. On the other hand, take any opportunity to cause disorder to the enemy.

If you’re playing beastmen or other irregular forces, your units won’t be able to ready, defend, withdraw, disengage or do anything else fancy. But you will have a lot of cheap infantry. Draw your battle line up in multiple waves and charge! You’ll likely lose the entire first echelon, but your second wave will often crush the battered enemy. 

Not sure I like the implications of your rules concerning missile attackers, specifically that they must target the closest enemy. This invalidates several tactical options including firing over front lines at units not yet engaged. It would also seem to establish that meta-game concepts are more important, where rules invalidate other choices that should be possible.