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Subject: Why this game is so impressive rss

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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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1. Introduction

I purchased the third edition of this game a few months ago (August or so) using money family had given me in lieu of a birthday present, saying more or less "We don't know what to get you but buy yourself something fun.-- No paying bills with this money." Since then, I've played numerous times, most often solo but also with my wife. Technically, I've played both the two scenarios and the grand strategic game numerous times, but the grand strategic game always seems to end in automatic victory for one side or the other before I get to the end.

This game as honestly impressed me far more than any other game has in quite a while. Although the system is used in other games (albeit I believe this game was the first) the game's designer clearly put a lot of time, effort and genuine thought into coming up with a game which is both innovative and thoroughly well done, while being appropriate to the conflict the game seeks to represent. I intend to go into more detail on this subject below in both the rules summary and the description of gameplay, but I'll give an example which addresses something players of this game should from the beginning be aware of.

Specifically, the game is well balanced as a game but the balance is not simple or symmetric. Newcomers to the game may well think the game unbalanced in favor of the English player but while true that the English player has more obvious advantages, Both sides have advantages, but the Scottish player's advantages favor guerrilla tactics while the English player's advantages favor more straightforward brute force attacks. Admittedly the Scottish player is more susceptible to an early bad hand of cards, but the Scottish player can more easily strike anywhere he wants; both aspects are also true to the conflict this game represents.

Specifically, this classic game represents the First War of Scottish Independence from 1297 to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Some years previous, Edward I (called the Hammer of the Scots in his epitaph) had agreed to arbitrate a dispute over the Scottish crown and after dismissing all but two claimants (whose supporters became the Bruce and Comyn factions) chose as King John Baliol (technically John Baliol II) of the Comyns but forced the new king and his nobles to swear fealty to England as a vassal. At the time, Scotland had no king and no army and so had little choice but to do as Edward demanded. The year previous to the start of the game (i.e., 1296) the English under King Edward I had invaded Scotland which that king regarded as a renegade vassal kingdom. Although the English overran the country fairly easily, they did not pacify it by any means. Revolt broke out in 1297 led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray. These men were at first considered outlaws by most nobles but they gained support over time as they conducted a guerrilla war against the English. The capture and execution of Wallace in 1305 by the English marked the end of one phase of the war, but the Scottish crowned Robert the Bruce king (since John Baliol II had abdicated before the start of the war) in defiance of the English and continued the war. Robert the Bruce won the war for independence at the Battle of Bannockburn, but that independence was only legally recognized by treaty more than a decade later.

For historicity, I have never seen a game truer to the history, and it even manages the feat without being scripted. Each unit has a historically documented counterpart that piece represents and the framework of the game seems largely dictated by the actual history. Yet the victor is by no means certain nor is a single clear path to victory apparent for either side.

2. Components


First, this is a block wargame, the first of that sort I have tried. I had avoided this classic because until I got married I assumed that the fog of war aspect of block games would simply be a waste since I so often solo games. Obviously playing with someone else will always be better is many ways, albeit not all, but looking at the board from either player's perspective and training oneself to ignore info a player couldn't know makes a pretty good approximation. Playing with my wife still did better in this aspect.

Although one has to apply stickers to the wooden blocks, I managed without mishap to easily get the stickers applied evenly and smoothly. Yet I am absolutely terrible at such things normally. The game even came with one spare block of each color just in case. A slightly older version of the blocks can be seen here:

The only difference is that this scan predates the addition in the third edition of a black cross to blocks which are eliminated if killed as seen below (next to the game's four dice):

The board can be seen here:

Example cards are:

Finally like previous editions the box has a slip cover:

Apart from the rules booklet which is short but clear and well written as well as thorough, these are all the components of the game.

All of these components are simple, functional and built to last. The blocks are well-fashioned wood with high quality paint and no splinters. The cards are of quality stock both durable and as easy to shuffle as the small number of them (25) allows. Personally I prefer dice that have a bit more weight but this point can hardly be termed a genuine complaint.

3. Rules summary

I generally don't give the complete rules to games other than traditional abstracts, for which reviews often double as introductions. With this game, I also won't list all the rules but I suspect I'll list most of them because the design is elegant in the sense that the rules are remarkably few and all serve a significant role in gameplay and balance.

Each round represents a year and consists of three phases which must be played in turn. Within each year, in principle five game turns occur, but as explained below one condition can cause the year to end on an earlier game turn. The first scenario in principle represents the years 1297-1305, and the second scenario similarly in principle plays out the years 1306-1314. A grand campaign game also exists which combined both scenarios but continues past 1314 in the case of a tie at that point. No tie is possible in the first scenario.

The game is all about control of the nobles. Fourteen nobles are represented in the game, and all but one of these (Moray) has both a red block to show an English allegiance and a blue block to show a Scottish allegiance. Only one block is used at a time in the game but eliminated nobles (apart from Moray) immediately re-enter the game on the other side, presenting another member of the family. To win, a player must control a majority of the nobles at the end of the scenario, but instant victory occurs if (1) all nobles in the game at any point are aligned with one side, (2) the English player kill the Scottish king in battle or (3) the Scottish player eliminates Edward II in battle. (Eliminating Edward I just brings Edward II into the game earlier than the start of the second scenario.)

At the start of the year, the entire deck of 25 cards is shuffled and each player is dealt five cards. 20 cards shows numbers 1-3 and represent the number of groups of blocks which a player may move that game turn. The other five cards are event cards. At the start of each game turn, the two players select and simultaneously show a card. If both players select an event card, then those events occur but the end then immediately ends. If only one player selects an event, then the event occurs first and then the other player moves as normal. If both players select a numbered card, the player whose number is higher moves first on that game turn, ties going to the English player. The second phase of a game turn is movement. Depending on the number of the card, a certain number of groups of blocks may be moved. Certain exceptions exist in regards to invading England (for the Scottish player only) or similarly moving the Norse unit, but in general all the blocks in an area form a group. Any or all can be moved, and they need not all go to the same destination. Indeed in most cases, they shan't be able to.

A remarkable innovation of this game is that except for wintering (a phase at the end of each year) no stacking limits apply within a territory, but how many units can cross a border is limited. Two types of borders exist, red and black (although green was previously used in lieu of black). Up to six units may cross a black border in a given game turn, and those units may move as far as their movement rating allows in principle. Yet only two units may cross a red border and then those two units' move must end. Very often then units will enter along differing paths, in such cases a main attacking group must be declared. Defenders moved in to reinforce defending units also act as reserves. Such reserves, whether attacking or defending, enter combat only in the next (usually second) round of combat, which is limited to three rounds. Yet a noble who is limited reenters combat at the weakest strength in the next round of combat-- for the other side. After the third round of combat, attackers must flee and any nobles eliminated in the third round of combat reenter for the other side, possibly fleeing with the attackers. Border limits also apply to retreats.

Combat then is not simultaneous. Units are lettered A, B or C. In each round of combat, all units marked A either roll for combat or flee, first defending units and then attacking units. Next similarly units marked B, which includes all nobles, and finally all units marked C. Most units have a combat rating of 2 but a very few are rated 3 or even fewer 4. Hits reduce units in strength and must be taken by the one of the strongest blocks.

Wintering then occurs at the end of each each in a precise order. First, English nobles return to their home areas, and then Scottish nobles do. If the enemy occupies a nobles home area, or both in the case of Bruce or Comyn, then the noble switches sides at its current strength. Each area has a stacking limit called a castle limit which represents the maximum number of units that can winter in an area, but a few areas have higher limits for the Scottish player due to church support. Units which a player cannot or does not want to support return to the player's draw pile, and for the English player Edward II and certain other types of units must do so.

New units enter the game at wintering as well. For the English player, all new units must be placed in England but at full strength. The build points associated with a castle limit can for the English player only be used to strengthen units already in an area. For the Scottish player, build points can be used to recruit units (at minimum strength) up to the castle limit of an area and/or to strengthen units. Such build points only apply in areas where a player has units at the start or the build phase of wintering.

4. Gameplay

As befits this kind of war, in both scenarios but particularly the first, the Scottish player needs a modicum of luck at the beginning; a bad hand of cards, especially when the English player receives a good hand of cards at the same time, can end the game quickly. To me, this aspects seems a virtue rather than a fault because it's true to life. At the start of the game, the Scottish player needs to survive and to bring other nobles over to his side.

The English player has to move his forces up from England to where they are needed for the conflict. While Edward I can winter in Scotland with unlimited units in the same area, no units will then be recruited in England, and Edward cannot winter in Scotland twice in a row. This means that Edward I wintering in Scotland has to be used at choice moments when potentially he can crush the Scottish and is not vulnerable to invasion of England. If the English can crush the Scottish when they are still fewer and comparatively weak, the game ends.

The great temptation as the Scottish player is to stand and fight at the wrong time. The only battles worth fighting are those which will recruit nobles. While in a sense that is true for both sides, the lesson remains most important for the Scottish.

Both players use border limits (which include limits on fleeing) to force units to stand and fight in impossible situations from which they cannot flee. The English will usually have the benefit of numbers of their side though. The Scottish can however effectively recruit nobles by occupying areas, even with nobles at the end of the year; while the English can do so too, the English player cannot use nobles for this, and nobles by far outnumber other units. A good way for the Scottish player to eliminate non-noble units is by invading England, which forces the English player to remove a non-noble unit each game turn.

Event cards can and should be used to good advantage but especially by the Scottish player. Either player can use an event, but the Scottish player usually needs them more and ending the year early virtually always helps the Scottish player.

What I find with this game is that as the Scottish player, I have to outsmart my opponent. As the English player, I have to crush my opponent. Key to playing is realizing the differing strengths each side has. Thus, this is a fun game which also appeals to one's head.
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Stephen Sanders
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whac3 wrote:
At the start of the year, the entire deck of 25 cards is shuffled and each player is dealt five cards. 20 cards shows numbers 1-3 and represent the number of groups of blocks which a player may move that game turn. The other five cards are event cards.


This is the part of the game that became frustrating to me. If you got dealt several event cards that were not useful with only one or two number 1 cards, you couldn't do much for that whole 'year' of play. Other than that, I thought the game was quite interesting and thematic. Ultimately, I traded it away, though I would play it again if offered.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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caltexn wrote:
whac3 wrote:
At the start of the year, the entire deck of 25 cards is shuffled and each player is dealt five cards. 20 cards shows numbers 1-3 and represent the number of groups of blocks which a player may move that game turn. The other five cards are event cards.


This is the part of the game that became frustrating to me. If you got dealt several event cards that were not useful with only one or two number 1 cards, you couldn't do much for that whole 'year' of play. Other than that, I thought the game was quite interesting and thematic. Ultimately, I traded it away, though I would play it again if offered.

The trick in such a case is to use the events to best advantage. I've never seen a case where a player couldn't with a bit of thought use an event. They build strength of units (sometimes at the cost of enemy units), move units by sea, force an opponent not to attack or cause a noble to switch sides.

These are all powerful cards.
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Phil Miller
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whac3 wrote:
Since then, I've played numerous times, most often solo but also with my wife.


Nice review! In your opinion, how well does this game play solo?

Thanks,

-Phil
 
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Tom Russell
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caltexn wrote:
whac3 wrote:
At the start of the year, the entire deck of 25 cards is shuffled and each player is dealt five cards. 20 cards shows numbers 1-3 and represent the number of groups of blocks which a player may move that game turn. The other five cards are event cards.


This is the part of the game that became frustrating to me. If you got dealt several event cards that were not useful with only one or two number 1 cards, you couldn't do much for that whole 'year' of play. Other than that, I thought the game was quite interesting and thematic. Ultimately, I traded it away, though I would play it again if offered.


My wife feels much the same way, especially as she always plays the English, and has had more than one game in which several turns of the game were gummed up by a hand of 3 or more Event Cards!; as the OP points out, the Event Cards are much more useful for the Scottish Player. We're using a variant in which she can use an Event card as a "2" Movement card[*] until she becomes more comfortable with the game (she's not exactly a hardcore wargamer). As she beat me pretty badly in our last game, I think that day is coming pretty soon!

[*-- In retrospect, using them as a "1" Movement card would probably be a more reasonable variant.]
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Michael Debije
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PhilFromIT wrote:
whac3 wrote:
Since then, I've played numerous times, most often solo but also with my wife.


Nice review! In your opinion, how well does this game play solo?

Thanks,

-Phil



I do a lot of games solo, incl. Combat Commander and C&C:A, that are not normally soloed. However, I really don't think Hammer can be satisfactorily played solo. The need to hide unit identity and their strength is so critical to play, as is the timing of event plays that it simply would not be possible solo. I imagine you could play with 'perfect information', but the whole tone of the game would be vastly different. If you try it, please let me know how it goes for you.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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PhilFromIT wrote:
whac3 wrote:
Since then, I've played numerous times, most often solo but also with my wife.


Nice review! In your opinion, how well does this game play solo?

Thanks,

-Phil

With one person playing both sides, the game mostly is excellent. Te two caveats are that outguessing which card the opponent will play doesn't really apply and one has to train oneself to ignore info the side one is playing wouldn't know, i.e., which block is which.
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Phil Miller
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Hammer of the Scots » Forums » Reviews
Re: Why this game is so impressive
I've now read the manual for HotS and I think I may give it shot. I play a game called Caesar's Gallic War that has very similar mechanics and I enjoy playing it solo. Each side is dealt 5 cards per year (turn) face down. For each sides turn, you simply play the card off the top of that players stack.

Thank you both for the replies.

-Phil
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Chris Ferejohn
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Quote:
Technically, I've played both the two scenarios and the grand strategic game numerous times, but the grand strategic game always seems to end in automatic victory for one side or the other before I get to the end.


Doesn't the campaign game by definition last until someone achieves total victory? From the rules:

This game starts as per Braveheart scenario and is played until one player achieves victory. Extend game years beyond 1314 if necessary
 
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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cferejohn wrote:
Quote:
Technically, I've played both the two scenarios and the grand strategic game numerous times, but the grand strategic game always seems to end in automatic victory for one side or the other before I get to the end.


Doesn't the campaign game by definition last until someone achieves total victory? From the rules:

This game starts as per Braveheart scenario and is played until one player achieves victory. Extend game years beyond 1314 if necessary

I took that as ambiguous myself because the statement is right after the statement that a tie is possible in the second scenario. I took it as meaning that one plays until 1314 but beyond in case of a tie. Still the other way also occurred to me. From context though I thought the meaning given in the review above seemed to fit better.
 
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Josh Malbon
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Great Review!

You touched on a lot of what makes HotS so brilliant. Totally impressive how much game you can get out of a few blocks, cards, dice, and a map.

I find playing solo on Vassal works well for me, by just clicking the blocks hidden between each sides. Makes a nice chess battle.

Nothing beats the intensity with two-players though. I swear no matter how much I want to try to relax playing this game it's always teeth in the throat.
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