Friday, February 17, 2012

Hammer of the Scots: first game

Edward I, a four step B4 menace.
Yesterday I put Columbia Games' Hammer of the Scots (3rd edition) on the table. I bought it only a couple of weeks ago off a friend and got a change to play it surprisingly quickly. Normally my new games get to gather dust for at least a few months before I play them.

We played the "Braveheart" scenario set in the first Scottish war of Independence which pits William Wallace and his Scottish friends against the might of the English crown and king Edward I who was also known as Edward Longshanks. In Hammer of the Scots, control over area is not so much an issue as is the loyalty of the Scottish nobility. In the game they are featured as a backstabbing lot who switch sides every time their block is eliminated in battle, every time their lands are in enemy hands come winter, as the result of card play and also because of certain political events.

Every game year begins with the nobles at their home province. The player has only a few blocks he has any say in on where they are at the start of the year. The players then have five turns to complete what they set out to do until the nobles return back home to winter quarters. Irritating bunch. The scenario ends when either one player controls all of the nobles or victory is decided at scenario end by majority control. The game can also end in sudden death if either player gets their king killed. Apart from that, the mechanics are pretty much standard Columbia fare. You can't understand how the noble system works and affects gameplay until you play your first game, though.

William Wallace. Better looking than Mel Gibson.
Since both me and my opponent were first timers to this game, the first two years were spent in overall confusion over what we were supposed to do. I played the Scots so I set out to attack the isolated Scottish nobles and recruit them to my cause. I got off to a good start in northern Scotland, managing to get the situation under control there, but suffered losses in the central parts and outright disaster in the south. I lost the entire south and the support of the Bruce faction because of a military blunder. My opponent couldn't do much else in the confusion but react to my moves, support attacked provinces and roll dice. He rolled them well, mind you! 

We both had our share of misfortune when we started the first winter turn. Some nobles were lost because their homeland was under siege, and some blocks were eliminated because of stacking limits. We are no newbies in block gaming and this should be standard stuff for us to handle but somehow the situation just seemed chaotic at the beginning.

End of 1299, I'm forced to send Wallace to Selkirk.

Fast forward from 1297 to 1300 and the Scots had liberated almost the entire northern half of the map, with the English barely holding onto Mentieth in the center. At this point I blundered again, overstacking one province so that I had no choice but to send William Wallace to winter in Selkirk forest, which was surrounded by the English. Gleefully my opponent swamped and killed him in the following year. After that, I managed to crown Comyn as the king during the same year, so I replaced the loss of the formidable A3 block with another.

The English are fighting a losing war by 1301.
After that, the game turned against the English. On one turn, I got 9 nobles to my side, and even though my opponent turned some of them back momentarily, I got the french knight block into the pool, which proved useful at the end game. The Scots slowly pushed the English south with the aid of the powerful scottish king block and defeated the last English army stack in Argyll where it tried to evade the Scottish doom stack army.

The final battle ends in Argyll in 1302. The English pose little threat to the Scottish stack of doom.
Now, what I think lost the game for the English was that neither of us knew how to properly mount a powerful expedition from England by Edward I. Experienced players may even facepalm at the fact that Edward didn't spend a single winter in Scotland but returned home on the few occasions he was on the map at all. Let's pin that on this being our first game and see how the game plays after I get a couple more sessions under my belt.

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