I've had a long-standing interest in the Scots Wars of Independence. They seem to me to be graced with more than their fair share of larger-than-life characters: the mysterious yet pivotal William Wallace, the brutal yet undeniably forward-thinking Edward Longshanks and the cunning and valiant James Douglas to name but a few. It go to the point where I actually found myself taking a biography of Robert the Bruce with me on holiday: got me a few strange looks round the pool, I can assure you. Given my interest in the subject, I've been playing Hammer of the Scots, one of the few games on the subject, on and off since it was released. Given that the game has just seen a reprinted third edition, it seemed like a good time to revisit one of my old reviews on the subject.
Hammer of the Scots is a two player block wargame based on the first war of Scottish independence. If you’ve seen the film “Braveheart” you’ll have absolutely no idea of what actually went on during the war, since the film is historically illiterate, but it will give you a sense of time and place. In essence Edward I of England used a crisis of succession to the Scots throne to press his own dubious claim of lordship over Scotland. The Scots, leaderless as they were, resisted. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Anyone who’s read my reviews before will know that I detest giving rules summaries but here, I think, it’s justified. Many users will not be familiar with block games and even if you are there’s subtle differences in each implementation of the concept that you need to know about.
The game is played on a map of Scotland divided into regions that roughly reflect the Earldoms and lordships of feudal 14th Century Scotland. Pieces consist of blocks each of which represents infantry, archers, knights, nobles or leaders with the precise nature and strength of each block being hidden from the opponents through the simple system of the unit details only being written on one side which is faced away from the opposing player, a nice, simple reproduction of the fog-of-war effect.
Each turn is divided into five phases. At the start of each turn each player gets five cards and one is played at the start of each phase. Most of these are number cards from 1-3 which allow the player to activate the corresponding number of regions and move the blocks therein. Most blocks can move two regions per phase, and region borders allow either six blocks per phase (lowlands) or two blocks per phase (highlands) to pass. This makes it very difficult to use overwhelming force in the highlands.
If there are opposing blocks in the same area, combat ensues. Blocks strike in a strict order – blocks marked “A” (guerrilla forces) go first, “B” (knights and archers) go second and “C” (infantry) go last. Defenders always go before attackers. Each block has a strength (from 1-4) and rolls that many dice in combat, seeking to get equal or below it’s combat value (also ranging from 1-4). Any hits are taken in strength steps from the opposing units. Because that means those blocks will then roll less dice in combat, strike order is crucial to the game.
The object of play is to be in control of the most nobles at the end of the scenario you’re playing. When nobles are defeated, instead of being removed from the map they change sides. At the end of each five phases all the nobles return to their home areas to winter which stops the game degenerating into a clash between huge stacks of blocks.
One of the most interesting things about Hammer of the Scots is that the forces are asymmetric. The Scots player has a couple of powerful “A” blocks at his disposal and some tough infantry as well but lacks knights and has to pay to repair his units and bring on new units from the “castle strength” of regions he controls. The English player gets his new units for free but these full-strength replacements always start in England, making it difficult to get them to where they need to be. The English King can winter in Scotland with as many blocks as you can muster though, which is usually a decisive move when you choose to do it.
What Works Well
Hammer is a very fine game that balances nicely on the dividing lines between depth of play, ease of play, excitement and historical accuracy.
The game rewards careful consideration of your moves before you make them. There are various rules in the game that punish ill considered tactics quite severely. An example would be the “forward retreat” concept which allows a retreating block to move into empty territories as long as no attacking forces issued from them – so one must be very careful when leaving spaces empty lest you suddenly find one filled at virtually no cost by retreating blocks. There is a constant tension between wanting to move first and seize the initiative and wanting to go second so you can see what your opponent has done and react accordingly. On the other hand the wintering rules for nobles means that the game “resets” to some extent every five turns which makes it impossible to plan too far ahead and stops the game suffering too much analysis paralysis. The distinction between the “lowlands” and “highlands” in the region borders means that very different tactics and approaches must be taken depending on where your troops are fighting and adds to the depth and interest of the game.
Combat is fast and very exciting, not least because the fog-of-war rules mean that you’re sometimes surprised at what suddenly pops up in the battle against you. That said the wintering rules also means that it’s very easy to keep track of where the nobles are, but the fog-of-war is still a nice touch. The “ABC” system of striking does a very nice job of simply modelling the power of guerrilla warfare and the advantage that mounted units had over infantry.
The asymmetry between the forces is brilliantly well done. The rules are constructed in such a way as to make the differences between the two sides minimal rules wise but huge in terms of play style. The English must play a war of attrition, constantly trying to grind down the Scots and watching, frustrated, as new units join the rebellion and living in fear of the Scots leader popping up and converting a noble or two. The Scots must take and defend territory wherever possible, worrying about what dreadful units the English might get in the levy this year and striving to piece together a strong frontline while ravaged units get the chance to recover. All this and the game is still pretty much balanced – it’s generally agreed the English have a slight edge, but the fact that even this small issue is contested is testament to how well balanced the game actually is.
Reading through negative comments about the game there seem to be two frequent complaints. The first is that the game quickly turns into a north/south slog which proceeds along the same lines virtually every time. The second is that the game is governed too much by random factors.
On the first point I would suggest that people saying this have not played the game enough. It is true that most games do eventually reach a situation where the Scots are entrenched in the north and the English in the south and most of the action becomes about controlling the centre ground. However the length of time it takes to reach this state, and the precise steps leading up to establishing the status quo are often crucial in determining who wins the game. The longer the English player can delay the northern takeover and the more level 2 castle regions he can hold onto in the process the more likely he is to win. I’ve seen this happen through a number of different routes – sea moves, early wintering with the King, a determined drive to push infantry up north to defend nobles. So I don’t really accept this as a valid criticism – the game remains interesting, varied and vibrant in spite of the eventual similarities in the endgame.
The second point is more serious. Because of the manner in which early-striking blocks can actually reduce the combat power of late-striking blocks before the latter get the chance to attack, the combat system is extremely unforgiving and if your awesome first-striking block fluffs all his dice, or the poor old infantry rolls a bunch of 1’s then it can massively tip a combat away from the expected outcome, to the point where some statistically unusual dice rolls can decide the entire game. Take the Wallace block for example: his great advantage is that he strike first (an "A" block) with a good to-hit number of three and the Scots player is partly reliant on using Wallace to whittle down the English before they can attack. So if he throws a bad hand of dice, the Scots player can suddenly be in real trouble. There is also luck in the card draw – being stuck with a lousy hand when you’ve got lots to do can really hurt. These aspects do tend to even out over the course of the game but if fate deserts you at a crucial moment it can really screw things up. The most notable example of this is during the opening. The Scots start off with powerful blocks but in a tenuous position. If the English player gets lucky cards and dice in the first couple of turns and/or the Scots get unlucky the game can result in very fast English wins purely on random factors. Doesn’t happen too often and you can always restart but it’s annoying nevertheless. Another telling factor is the English side pulling Edward in the draw for the levy. Because of his ability to winter, this can be absolutely crucial and since the draw only happens once per turn (there are lots more cards drawn and dice thrown to even out) a run of bad luck in this regard – not drawing Edward or drawing him on turns when you’ve got a feeble hand of cards – can be devastating.
Bottom line with the luck factor though is that the game is played competitively at tournaments and the same players tend to do well year after year. That’s the indisputable sign of a game which generally relies more on skill than luck to determine the outcome. But it's indisputable that there is a significant random element here, so if you’re averse to chaotic games this might be one to avoid.
I’m no grognard but the first Scots war of independence is one of the few areas of history I know anything about, so I’m able to give a brief rundown on how the game works as a historical simulation of the period.
In short an awful lot has been sacrificed in terms of history to keep this a playable and exciting game. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion and pleasingly, the overarching historical themes are very much still intact, even if the detail has been lost.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the game historically speaking is the way in handles the Scots king. In reality Robert Bruce was crowned king in 1306 after murdering his only serious rival, John Comyn, and seeing the original king, John Balliol, languish in exile in an uncooperative France. The game gives the player the option for all three kings, but the play situation means that the genuine contender, Bruce, almost never gets crowned. He’s the southernmost noble on the board and so an obvious target for the English. As long as he’s controlled by the English he obviously isn’t going to be defecting to become king of Scots! The most common situation is that the Scots player chooses to bring Balliol back as king which historically was probably the least likely situation of all. It's a shame in some ways that the fact the Scots side was split two ways between support for two different royal houses isn't better handled in the game as it would actually have made a good basis for a 3-player title and the world could use more multi-player wargames.
There are other problems with the Scots leaders. Moray for example was killed at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 but the opening game setup makes it virtually impossible for Moray to actually get to Stirling Bridge by 1297, let alone die there. Wallace’s leadership was dependent on his reputation as a military commander and when he was defeated at Falkirk in 1298 he felt the need to resign his guardianship and go on a mission to treat with the Pope in Rome. The game fails to handle this too but it’s easy to see how trying to work in too much detail here would have derailed the balance of the game far too far in favour of the English. I'm also not entirely sure of the way in which the game uses what are effectively generic infantry blocks titled after famous clans for the Scots forces to represent the rather haphazard manner in which the patriots recruited and organised the forces at their disposal.
On the plus side the way the game revolves around control of the nobles is fantastic. It may seem hard to understand from the modern perspective but the Scots nobles did switch sides repeatedly during the war. Most of them were pro-Scots at heart but legal binds, frequently as a result of lost battles, kept many of them on the English side. For example, John Comyn was originally on the Scots side but was beaten in battle by the English before the period portrayed in the game and his son taken hostage by Edward. He was then forced to serve with Edward in Flanders in 1297 and once back in Scotland joined the side of the rebellion once again. Bruce switched sides several times, only becoming firmly patriotic in 1304. Once he’d crowned himself king he had to go back and “convince” a number of pro-English nobles to back him through force of arms. So support for the two causes did flip-flop back and forth and control of the nobility really was the key to the control of Scotland.
It’s also worth noting that historically Edward only chose to winter in Scotland once, during 1303. This proved a decisive move and (temporarily) succeeded in quelling the Scots rebellion. It’s good that Edward wintering is also usually a decisive moment in the game, whether it works well for the English player or not.
This is a fantastic light wargame with relatively simple (8 pages) rules, lots of tension and excitement in the random aspects of the game and more than enough depth in the decision making to keep you interested play after play. The asymmetrical approach is fantastically well done providing a really different feel to the two sides while remaining balanced and without requiring a morass of exceptions to the rules on either side. This adds to the longevity of the game.
On the downside I do feel that there are slight historical shortcomings and that the random factors can be too dominant at times – I enjoy the excitement and tension that they create but I’ve seen one too many games of Hammer of the Scots swing on luck to be entirely comfortable. But these are relatively small faults and even all these years after release, Hammer of the Scots managers to just about squeeze a place in my top ten which is no small feat for a gamer who spends most of his time admiring and playing multi-player games.