Long after my fighting days, one of my kids came home from school with a new title in her workbook: 1066. So I bought 1066: The Battle of Hastings, and it disappointed. There was little detail in the game, little sparkle in the bits and little depth in recreating the butcher's drudgery of shield-wall combat. How could it do otherwise when we've lost so much detail and gained so many contradictions over the millennium since the battle?
The answer arrives some years later. It's entitled 1066, Tears to Many Mothers and arrives in a huge box, emblazoned with a stunning painting of a crossbowman. The box contains a lot of air, a few wooden markers and two decks of cards. Fanning them out I meet William and Harold, Odo and Breme. Plus many names new to me like Eadric who, I learn from his card, held lands in Blakeney, near where I grew up, and got killed at Hastings.
The art is fantastic, staining my hands the colour of history. More real than numbers on a counter in a featureless hex. I want to reach out, rap their armoured heads, hear their hoarse yells, sit with them in the sooty light of tallow candles. These are my ancestors, after all, conquerors who got conquered in turn. But how does the game actually work? Burning with history, I attempt to learn the game via the included solo rules.
As a good Englishman, I take the part of Harold and William is my Foe. Each round, we're playing cards into a nine by nine grid which will be our formation for the battle at Hastings. I play cards from my hand, paid for by discarding other cards. In a solo game, the Foe has an ever-increasing allowance to play cards and you keep drawing for them until they find one cheap enough to play.
My opening hand contains the card for Gyrth Godwinson, Harold's younger brother. This puts me in a pickle. He's a great card, but expensive and it'll be a long time before I can afford to play him. So, do I used him as a discard to pay for other cards, or risk holding on? So early in the game, I opt to keep him around and play some Saxon swordsmen instead.
At the end of the round, we check to see if we've passed the top card in our respective objective decks. These represent pivotal moments of history running up to the battle. Essentially, play involves mustering troops for Hastings, overcoming obstacles to get there and fighting the early stages all at once. This should be impossible unless you're Doctor Who yet here I am, doing it, and rejoicing in the three-way unfolding narrative.
Next turn I draw a fantastic card that lets me play another one at a discount. So I go all in and use it, discarding my entire hand to play Gyr. But his huge stats push me straight through my objective at the Battle of Fulford. Meanwhile, poor William is stuck recruiting monks and taking council at Rouen. The next few turns I spend re-building my hand and wondering whether I can risk the grim process of self-cannibalising my cards to play anything.
As my army grows, I get a couple of units which I can exhaust for resources instead of discarding cards. Doing so, though, means their stats don't contribute toward my objectives that turn. It's a tricky balance and my progress slows as my army swells. Still, I'm ahead of William on both counts and victory seems assured. Especially when I reach the Hastings objective first and can start actually fighting the enemy.
When I total up the stats on each side though, I'm in for a shock. To win, I need to beat the foe in two out of the three columns. I haven't been paying attention to the numbers. One I'm winning easily, another I'm way behind and the third is a close tie. Worse, I've used Harold as a damage sponge to soak up unwelcome events, and he's close to death.
Frantically I start to throw out the rubbish units from my lines and replace them with better cards. But it's tough: I can't really afford it and now William has reached the Hastings objective and is fighting back. Then history repeats itself: the Foe draws and plays an "arrow in the eye card", leaving Harold one hit away from death. It literally comes down to whether I can draw and play a better unit before he draws and plays another direct damage card.
Off the top of the deck, I draw an awesome Battleaxe unit. He draws ... some stable boys. It's not a fair fight and it's one-nil to Harold.
My eldest daughter has long since forgotten the detail of what she learned. But she's drawn like a moth to those gorgeous cards. Some of the names she remembers, but most are new. And while she's able to grasp the rules, strategy eludes her. She can't get the awkward balance of playing cards versus discarding and keeping them. As a result, she ends up with a tiny army of heroes, easily overwhelmed by my teeming Fyrd.
The cards and the title prove an equal magnet to adult opposition though. And now, there's a game on my hands. Each time you play, you only see a fraction of the cards in the whole deck. That can be frustrating but it ensures each game tells its own story, to be dealt with as it unfolds. In this 1066, archers play a huge role. The Normans recruit a couple of units early on, who start to pick off the weaker cards in my army. Doing so, though, exhausts them and slows his objective progress.
I shuffle my card placement around in a panic, trying to preserve my most vital units. Then, a stroke of luck: I draw some elite longbowmen. It costs me everything to recruit them, but it's worth it. Right away they take out one of the enemy bowmen, swing that column in my favour and are able to start shooting at William himself. Let's see how he likes an arrow in the eye.
He's inches from death when my opponent pulls a lucky card that lets him kill the longbows. Then we're at the push and shove of the battle itself. We're overwhelming a column each but one is hotly contested. The cards involved cycle brutally, looking for an edge and the numbers creep up and down as the fate of my nation hangs in the balance. In the end, the cost I paid for those longbowmen decides it. The French card advantage allows him to afford the powerful Eustace of Boulogne and repeat the historic result.
So our Harold and William are consigned to the darkness again, like their real counterparts. Unlike those pivotal figures, ours will live to fight another day. And while too much as been lost to the mists of time, every play will bring at least some texture, some colour to that fog. It will bring me a little closer to my distant past, and perhaps my younger child too in her turn. 1066 might have bought Tears to Many Mothers, but it's bought nothing but pleasure to me.