Battle of Dark Age Britain


Michael McKean


Instructional Objective

To educate the players about the political and military environment of Dark Age (sixth century Britain) by allowing them to construct or reconstruct the political and military conflicts between Saxon, British (Welsh), and Irish petty kings.


The game is designed for students of college-level classes in which the history of Dark Age Britain is addressed. These could include classes in medieval or ancient British history or classes in Arthurian literature. The game may also appeal to anyone with an interest in British history, including Arthurian enthusiasts, and members of the general wargaming/Diplomacy crowd.

Object of Game

The richest and strongest player or player alliance wins the game. “Victory points” are calculated by factoring in a player-king's wealth (cash-on-hand), the economic value of the lands he owns, the combat strength of his warbands, and "glory points" accumulated for killing opposition kings and princes in combat. Thus, the victorious player-king is the one most reknown for his wealth, combat prowess, and political/military power.


Game Materials

Time Required

The game is designed for 2 to 7 players. Minimum play time is probably about an hour.

The Set-up

Before the start of the game, the players choose how long the game will last. The game must last at least one year-turn and can last as long as thirty year-turns. The length chosen depends primarily upon the amount of time available to the players. The victory conditions do not depend upon the chosen length of the game. Players place neutral forces in the town hexes indicated on the Neutral Town Table. They then deploy their own forces anywhere inside their own kingdoms (player kingdoms include Gwynedd, Dumnonia, Wessex, Mercia, Rheged, Dalriada, and Northumbria). Northumbria must place all its leaders and four of its six infantry units in Bernicia, while the other two units are placed in Deira. The other player-kingdoms have no deployment limits.

The “Turn” chit is placed in the “Diplomacy Phase” on the Turn track, while the “Year” chit is placed in the year 570 on the Year track. Then the game begins.

The Rules


In this game, we use heads of cattle as our currency. Thus, players “spend” cattle to build or maintain units (see Unit Costs Table) or to initiate diplomatic initiatives (see Diplomacy Table). They raise revenue through “cattle” taxes. Each player kingdom has a tax base that represents how much revenue the player can raise in a year-turn. A player can expand her tax base by either conquering neutral towns or by convincing them to join her alliance through diplomatic overtures. The player can also expand her tax base by conquering other player kingdoms. Players record expenses and the revenue raised on the “Cattle Head” tracks located on each player-kingdom card with the chits (white pieces labeled “100s,” “10s,” and “1s”) provided.

Diplomacy Phase

Each year-turn begins with the Diplomacy Phase. At the start of this phase, players consult with each other and arrange terms of alliances, non-aggression pacts, or any other agreements they wish to make. The duration of diplomatic arrangements between players is up to the players themselves, and with the exception of alliances, they can make and break the agreements at will. There are no penalties for players who break diplomatic agreements except to the degree that doing so may earn them the distrust of other players.

Only full-fledged alliances between players are important to game mechanics and are subject to rules. Allied players make diplomatic overtures to neutrals at the same time, and move and attack in unison. Because of this dynamic, players cannot break alliances in the year-turn in which they forge them. They may only drop old allies or gain new ones (at least officially) in the next year’s Diplomacy Phase. If they choose to maintain their current alliances, players are bound to them for another year.

After players consult with each other and make alliances, they may make attempts to convince neutral towns to ally with them. The basic cost for such a diplomatic initiative is 10 cattle. Spending more cattle can increase the chances that a neutral town will join a player’s alliance. Other factors can also influence the outcome (listed in Diplomacy Table).

Players make bids for minor allies in descending order of the economic strengths of the various player alliances. The economic strength is calculated by summing together the tax bases of allied player kingdoms, including conquests and minor allies (allied towns). A town can only ally with one player kingdom, so only one member of an alliance can actually make a diplomatic overture to a particular neutral town.

Event/Unit Construction Phase

At the start of this phase, the Gwynedd player rolls a six-sided dice. On a roll of 5-6, the Gwynedd player draws two Event Cards. On a roll of 3-4, he draws one. No cards are drawn on a roll of 1-2. The Gwynedd player reads the text of any Event Cards that he draws. Players must implement the events described on the cards immediately.

Players then calculate the tax revenue associated with their kingdom, conquered kingdoms and towns, and allied towns. Players add the annual tax revenue to whatever cattle they had left over from the previous year.

Finally, players pay for upkeep on existing units and rebuild destroyed ones (see Unit Cost chart). In addition to their own lost units, players can rebuild destroyed units of minor allies, even if some of those units were destroyed prior to the alliance between the player kingdom and the town. Units of conquered towns or kingdoms may not rebuilt. Rebuilt units are placed in the kingdoms or towns with which they are affiliated.

Combat Phases

Each year-turn has six combat phases, corresponding to the months of May through October. Each combat phase has three parts: redeployment, normal movement, and combat. Play order is determined at the start of the May combat phase, before redeployment begins. The player alliance with the largest tax base moves and attacks first, the alliance with the second largest base moves second, and so on until the player alliance with smallest tax base moves and attacks.

Redeployment, however, takes place in the reverse order. That is, the player alliance with the smallest tax base redeploys first and the alliance with the largest tax base redeploys last. A unit can be redeployed up to a distance of 12 hexes, provided that the path it takes does not pass through or next to a hex occupied by an opposing player or through a neutral town. Each player kingdom can redeploy up to three units. Allied kingdoms can pool their redeployments. Leaders can always be redeployed and do not count toward the redeployment limit.

During normal movement, a player alliance can move none, some, or all of their units up to their full movement factors. The Terrain Effects Table lists the movement factor (MF) cost of various terrain features. Units of kingdoms and towns allied to one another can stack together, but players cannot move their units into hexes occupied by units of other players units or neutral towns.

Combat occurs after all normal movement is complete. Units of the moving player alliance can only attack opposing or neutral units they are adjacent to, but need not attack any of them. The moving player alliance indicates all the units it is attacking and the order in which the attacks will be resolved. Then the allied players determine the results of the attacks using the Combat Resolution Table. After combat is resolved, surviving attackers (if any) can move into the hex formally occupied by defending units. The attacker must carry out all planned battles. Communication was not fast enough in the sixth century to cancel one battle after the results of another become clear!

At the end of the October combat phase, all players may redeploy their units over any distance to the units’ original home territories. There is no redeployment limit for this movement.


A neutral town is conquered when a player kingdom occupies the town hex after destroying the native forces. Its cattle tax base is added to the player kingdom’s, although the player kingdom collects no revenue until the following year. Note that only one player kingdom in a player alliance can benefit from the conquest of a neutral town.

Upon the conquest of a town actively allied with or previously conquered by another player kingdom, the former controller of the town immediately loses cattle equal to one-half the town's tax base while the new occupier's tax base expands. Any town units in play remain in play and in control of their ally, but cannot be rebuilt once destroyed unless and until the allied kingdom later reconquers the town. Note: The former occupying player loses no cattle if she only occupied the town earlier the same year, i.e., if she has not yet collected tax revenue from it.

A player kingdom is conquered when all of its towns have been occupied and all of its forces destroyed. Except for Northumbria, only 50% of a major kingdom’s tax base is wrapped up in its towns, so occupying all of a major kingdom’s towns brings only part of the kingdom’s tax base to an invading power. That 50% is divided equally between the towns of the kingdom. A major kingdom is considered conquered only if the invading power has destroyed all native units in play. Only at that time does the tax base of the entire kingdom become part of the conquering power’s. However, in order to rebuild lost units, a player must have at least one military unit inside his original kingdom that is not adjacent to an enemy. Thus, a player whose forces are expelled from his homeland may have a hard time repelling the invader.

Dalriada has lands overseas that form part of its tax base. Dalriada can never be conquered. If expelled from Britain, the Dalriada player can still rebuild his units and “land” them during normal movement in any western coastal hex north of Dumbarton that is not occupied or adjacent to an enemy unit.

Cattle losses from conquests can never reduce a player kingdom’s cattle total below zero.

Victory Conditions

At the end of the game, the richest and strongest player or player alliance wins the game. "Victory points" are computed by summing together a player's cattle tax base, half of his remaining cattle at game's end, and three times the combat strength of his surviving units. Also, each surviving leader (no more than one per player) adds 20 victory points for each opposing leader he slew in combat. The player or player alliance with the largest number of victory points wins. Players can break alliances before victory is determined (something a particularly rich or powerful player might want to do so she does not have to share the glories of victory). However, they cannot forge new alliances.


Design Process

One of the reasons I chose this particular project was that I wanted to see if I could design a wargame that would (a) educate learners about a particular historical era; (b) incorporate diplomatic and economic components in addition to the military aspect; and (c) still be relatively simple to learn to play. The prototype game that resulted was about as simple as I could make it while still keeping it in line with goals (a) and (b). The rules are not long for a wargame, but they are still longer than the guidelines reccommended for this project and may be longer than many players would have patience with. Still, I think that most players would quickly absorb the rules and have a pretty good grasp of them before one year-turn elapsed.

The game could have been simpler had I chosen to simply model one battle and designed the game for two players, each taking one side. The main problem with that with regard to Dark Age Britain is that no single battles were well enough recorded for that to be a distinct possibility. Furthermore, I view such games as not particularly useful for educating students of history. Wars involve much more than simply the movement of armies. They involve diplomatic parlays and economic considerations as well. For sixth century Britain in particular, the individual motivations of kings were also important. In general, they sought glory, land, wealth, and military strength. The most successful or reknowned king was one who was both strong and generous (that is, wealthy).

These design considerations led me to include elaborate diplomatic rules involving both negotiations between players and between players and neutral rulers. They also led me to make economics a central game feature. Consequently, players need to spend the currency (cattle) to build and maintain units and make diplomatic overtures. They also collect cattle to accumulate their own wealth, which in turn contributes to their chance to win the game. I designed the unusual victory conditions in an attempt to include all the elements that went into the makings of the most reknowned kings. Finally, I have the players specifically role-play the kings and princes so that the goals of the kings (encapsulated in the victory conditions) become the goals of the players as well. My hope is that the players will make command decisions for the same reasons the Dark Age kings did--fame, money, power, and glory.

A few other notes: Not all things that happened in Dark Age Britian or in nearby territories (Ireland, Gaul) were within the control of the major petty kings. Thus, I have included a deck of random event cards to incorporate these uncontrolled events: plague, famine, good and bad harvests, overseas military and political events, and renegade minor kings. Many of the events that I chose for these cards are drawn from history, while others I invented, and a few (good harvest, famine) are more generic. For the major kingdoms, I chose those that appeared to be the most prominent in sixth- and early seventh-century British history. I chose cattle as the currency because coinage was mostly lacking in Britain at the time. Among the British (Welsh) at least, cattle was in fact a measure of a man's wealth.

All of the leaders in the game were either living or were purported to have lived in about the last half of the sixth century. Some of them show up in Arthurian legend, such as Urien (husband of Morgan Le Fay) and his son Owain or Yvain, and Cynfawr (Marcus Cunomorus) and his son Drustan (in legend, his nephew Tristan), although Arthur himself probably lived earlier if he lived at all (Aedan's son Artur may have been named after him).

Finally, I should mention that I borrowed many elements of this game from Avalon Hill's Third Reich, which is similar to this game in being multi-player (up to six) and including important economic and diplomatic components. Third Reich is a much more complex game, but I found that it taught me through "direct experience" much about the European theater of World War II that I never gleaned from simply reading books about it. That includes economic and diplomatic aspects of the war in addition to military aspects. Third Reich served as an inspiration to me in the design of this game.


The Gododdin (translated by ...)

Morris, John. Age of Arthur

Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Quest for Merlin.

More exact references forthcoming.

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