Review – Drums and Shakos Large Battles

DSLB coverAs it is quite evident, my preferred ruleset to fight Napoleonic battles is Drums and Shakos Large Battles (DSLB for short). Since there is a bit of material on the subject, but no review, I will add one now.


Rulebook is well laid out, quite well written and has sufficient examples. It is not terribly expensive investment. Rulebook is available in pdf and in soft cover. Book contains also brief ruleset to scale the game up s where each unit represents brigade.

On a negative side, there are at least one unresolved point concerning the tie breakers in approach. (There is situation, albeit very rare one, that last die roll becomes unresolvable. We have adopted method that in this rare occasion, higher DIS looses, is same, lower Quality and last Attacker).

Rulebook contains only few scenarios. While they provide example, it would be extremely useful to have another book for scenarios – especially advance / rear guard actions that suit the force composition of the rules. There is no point system and while some generic brigade examples are present, scenario design needs a little bit of enterprising attitude.


Units presented in game are battalions (norm is 4 bases for battalion, but can do with 2 (I see no reason to use more than 4 bases, if one would like to represent companies by stand)) and cavalry regiments (2 bases is norm) and artillery batteries (2 bases wide). Base size is irrelevant, as long as both sides use same. Skirmishes can be represented as separate stands for informational purposes, but that is not necessary. Commander stands include brigadiers and CinC who controls the reserve and gives bonus to brigadiers in range.

Units have quality and combat values and it is possible that some units have special characteristics that affect gameplay, all of them useful, but none too powerful. 


Gameplay is very straight forward, and includes few concepts that are outright brilliant. DSLB does not have regular ‘I go You go’, or game turns as such. Essentially, units in each brigade (command) are activated one at the time by rolling variable number of dice against the quality of the unit. If two failures are rolled, then entire brigade is finished, and activation passes on to opposing player. This means in practice that by increasing the risk of failure, you may have more actions. Actions are used to move, change formations etc.

Key element is that each activation failure rolled, opposing player may react with any unit in the table that has not yet successfully reacted.

DSLB has quite nice way to use reserves. CinC controls the reserves may use actions to allocate reserves to brigades. This serves two functions, it increases the brigade break point, but also makes it possible to commit fresh units to any brigade.

Practically this allows player who sees that one point of enemy front is collapsing has option to reinforce the success and end game swiftly. Alternatively, if applied in right time, reinforcements can be used to sap enemy success.

Distances are measured with four sticks instead of ruler (distances are hence called (V)ery(S)hort, (S)hort, (M)edium and (L)ong). I have found that it actually helps the movement and accuracy – which is quite important in the game. Unit need to point dead on to the target to charge, or artillery to fire. Charge distances, especially for cavalry can be quite long in best of cases and sloppiness in the angle of movement has adverse effect.

Combat is divided in two parts, approach and contact. First unit charges and moves within VS (approach distance) of enemy, dice are rolled and results are compared. First die dictates who wins the approach fire combat and causes losses, and second and this die  gives unit one action that can be spent in various ways. Attacker can charge home, or if that is not done, defender can counter charge. In contact, each unit participating in combat is allotted X dice, depending on their formation. This number of dice is further modified by comparing combat value and other modifiers. It means, that elite units, such as Guard Grenadiers are not invincible in game – they can be, and will be worn out by successive attacks of poor units, such as militia.

This brings to an important point. Force multipliers (eg. better quality, defensive position) only works for amount of time, not indefinitely and eventually quantity overruns. Numerically inferior force has good fighting chance, if units are used efficiently and decisively. 

Cavalry works only few times before it becomes totally spent. This encourages historical use of mounted units.

Damage to units is measured by DIS (essentially cohesion hits). Unit can take maximum of four when it is removed from play. Optional rule allows 1/2 DIS, a worn status but I have not used that. There is no need to remove individual troopers and that makes game very good for 6mm. Units can recover DIS with actions at rate of one DIS per action spent, but cavalry can only recover from DIS 3 to DIS 2, and infantry from DIS 2 & 3 to DIS 1.

As I have pointed out in previous post, DSLB has one issue that should not, in my opinion be a game problem. Rules allow artillery to shoot over own troops in certain distances. In my opinion, this should be resolved by terrain design, instead of game mechanics, albeit I do understand the reasoning why the rule has been written.

Winning and Losing Battles

Outcome of the Battle is decided by routing enemy units and penetration into enemy territory. Essentially replicating the control of battlefield and forcing opponent to withdraw. While armies cannot withstand huge losses, system works quite well. Games do not take terribly long (game of 3 brigades a side, 3 hours if rules are known to both sides), and the victory conditions are quite accurate – battles that are lost according to the victory conditions, would be lost even if game is prolonged. Alternative endings are relatively easy to construct by setting objectives to the table instead of general advance in depth.


After all the Napoleonic and more generic rules, I have found that DSLB provides right amount of chrome and mechanics that feel right without excess rules and complicated structure. There are better games, where intricacies of command are modeled in great detail, but the weight of the system means that games stop being entertaining and playable in limited amount of time.

However, DSLB, in current for does not work in grande battles of Napoleonic era. It is definitely not designed for that in mind, and name ‘Large Battles’ only applies when game is compared to Song of Drums and Shakos – which is the skirmish game by same author.

Obviously DSLB does not excel in really big fights, but it does so in advance- or rearguard actions, which there are plenty in history books to draw from. This is especially true for revolutionary wars and era before Russian campaign.

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6 Responses to Review – Drums and Shakos Large Battles

  1. Nikola lion says:


    Would the rules be playable with only one brigade per player? 1 brigade of french versus 1 brigade british for example?


  2. Tichy says:

    Yes they would, easily. I think the practical maximum you can handle is about 10-15 battalions per side. Most of our games have been with 4-8 battalions + some cavalry and artillery per side, and perhaps reserve (which is rather important in all subtleness). Considering that the game mat is only 1.5m x 1m, and battalion frontage is 12cm (4 bases, 3cm each), it becomes rather soon rather crowded.

    Given you have sufficient amount of terrain (rolling landscape, walls, hedges, trees, fields, villages and dense trees) you could find it rather interesting. Especially if you make setup under blinds- Sort of first contact, or rearguard action where exact numbers of enemy, or their position is not known for certain.

    Ruleset is sort of step up from skirmish, and below divisional battles. That said, to spice things up, I’d strongly recommend to add layer of command structure where you have to send messages to your fighting elements. Confusion that ensues from the message/order delay makes battles most fascinating – and even outgunned side may suddenly find gaining upper hand. 🙂

    • Nikola lion says:

      Thanks for your interesting reply! I am completely novice at Wargaming and therefore I am considering building up napoleonic armies for which I could use this ruleset because the size of the game seems to be what I am looking for… currently I am considering which armies to build and how many af them, scale… Etc…
      How many figures do you use per base? 3 figures for infantry of more?
      So any advice of yours is welcome! Very nice website!


      • Tichy says:

        Thanks for toit comment! I use exclusively 6mm figures and as a result, each 30×30 stand has 12 figures. This means 48 for battalion and for Calvary I have used 9 in 6cm, but would prefer 18 per 12cm.

        In practical terms this means that 12cm of ground translates to about 200m in width. Area of battle is then approximately 2.5km wide and 1.6km deep. Using 6mm figures are very good because they almost look like in scale (which they of course are not).

        Approach distance of 3cm is then 50m which is quite agreeable for musket fire and line can march forward about 75m per activation while cavalry can cover around 125m or so in same time. Time in the game is subjective since there are no game turns as such.

  3. Nikola lion says:

    Thx for your reply once again!
    I was thinking of playing in either 15mm of 1/72…

  4. Tichy says:

    Scale is of course a personal preference. Rules do not obligate any particular one. You may however find somewhat larger area better for 15mm. Maybe 6ft x 4ft because your battalion frontage would probably end up more than 12cm. It is always good idea to leave room for maneuvers.

    My choice is based on the visual appeal of small scale. You can see the after action reports for some visual clues about the scale.

    Good luck!

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