- Chris HansenUnited States
UTI have two new 9 Card Games: 300 Spartans and Franky's 1st Christmas
A Hill Near Hastings is a light wargame covering the famous Battle of Hastings from the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The game is one of the first in the Shields and Swords series and introduced several concepts that would be used by later games. The game begins with the Anglo-Saxon player deployed in shield wall formation on top of Senlac Hill with the Norman forces arranged in three groups at the base of the hill. To win the game, both players are trying to eliminate 8 of their opponent’s units, although the Anglo-Saxon player must eliminate several more if their discipline breaks.
This game, like other games in the series, uses command markers to manage play. Each player will have a collection of command markers that allows them to move, conduct combat, form a shield wall, retreat, fire arrows, or conduct special horse combat. The amount of markers that each player receives is dictated by scenario rules. On a player’s turn, he or she will choose up to three actions (the exact number is determined by scenario rules) and assign them to certain counters to perform. The player will also have a special doubling counter which can take the place of a regular counter. This counter allows the player to either take an action twice or perform it once with a special bonus. For example, if a player doubles a combat marker, the strength of the combat units can be upgraded.
For the Anglo-Saxon player, assigning the command markers is a moot point since all units function as one large group. However, the Norman player’s counters are in three distinct groups (called Wings in the game), each of which functions independently of the others. The player must decide which wing will receive three orders and then will be able to assign one bonus order to one of the other wings. There are no leader counters in the game so the command markers are the only way to activate units. Even if the counters from different wings are adjacent to each other, they will need to be activated separately.
The movement rules in this game will be simple for most wargamers. Units move across hexsides up to a three hexes. There aren’t any rules about movement point modification due to terrain. (Other than the large hill in the center of the board and the impassable streams, there is not any terrain variety in this game.) Even suppressed units can move the normal amount of hexes.
The combat phase of this game is fairly unique. Instead of a numerical combat value, units are labeled with a letter ranging from A to F. This is the unit’s “Combat Class”. When attacking another unit, players will roll a die and look up the value on a chart under their Combat Class heading to determine the combat result. Before conducting combat, the player should compare the types of units involved in the combat on the Unit Type Modifier Chart. Some unit types will receive an increase or decrease to their die roll, depending on what sort of unit they are fighting. For example, if a Norman infantry unit is conducting combat against an Anglo Saxon fyrd unit, the Norman will receive a -1 bonus to their die roll.
While the chart itself is very simple, there are several modifiers that can alter the die roll, or the combat class of a unit. For example, a player can decrease their die roll by having multiple units join the combat. They can also increase their Combat Class by doubling their Combat Command Marker (i.e. a “C” unit will become a “B” unit), which gives them greater odds of scoring a hit on the Result Table. Once all the modifiers are calculated, the attacking player will roll a die and look up the results on the chart The combat results will be familiar to most wargamers with retreats, step losses, exchanges, and unit eliminations making up the possible outcomes.
The player can also choose from a few other other actions such as arrow fire and cavalry charges. Arrow fire has the ability to stun a unit (lowering its combat value) and cavalry charges essentially allow the mounted units to make an extra move and combat action in the turn. If a player is able to combine these actions with regular combat (for example, having the archers weaken a unit that is then attacked by infantry) they can earn a victory much faster.
Perhaps the most commonly used action is forming a Shield Wall. This was a common battle formation in which soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping making it very hard for the enemy to break the line of units. Being in a shield wall severely hampers the combat ability of the units (it’s hard to use a axe when you’ve got someone’s shoulder pressed right against you) but provides a large defensive bonus. The ability to form a shield wall is determined by unit discipline. At the end of each turn the Anglo-Saxon player rolls two dice and adds the total number of eliminated units to the result. If the total is equal to or greater than 12, discipline breaks and they are no longer able to form a shield wall.
The shield wall is also terribly important to the Anglo-Saxon victory conditions. To win, the Anglo-Saxon player must eliminate eight Norman units. However, if their discipline is broken, they must eliminate thirteen Norman units. The Normans on the other hand must only eliminate eight Anglo Saxon units to win.
Quality of Components
I built the Print and Play version of the game so I can’t speak to the quality of the published game, but the graphic design for the game is very nice. The artwork is very attractive, with images the Bayeux Tapestry adorning the map. The counters are a little difficult to read. Infantry units and Fyrd units are identical except for a small hat icon in the corner of the counter. It’s not terrible but not as clear as it could be. The three wings of Anglo-Saxon counters are differentiated by slightly different shards of blue which are easy to confuse as well. Apart from these minor concerns, the counters and markers are nicely illustrated and very playable.
Theme and History
Battles from the middle ages are fraught with uncertainty. Historians often do not know even basic details: how many soldiers fought or died in a battle; the exact numbers of infantry, cavalry, or archers; or sometimes even the location of the battlefield. Due to the lack of solid information, historians (and game designers) have to make some educated guesses about the details of the battle. Players can expect that there will be some significant differences between two games on the Battle of Hastings due to the many unknowns surrounding the nearly thousand year old battle. What is less acceptable is when a designer takes liberties with the elements of the battle that are well documented and agreed upon by historians. Unfortunately, A Hill Near Hastings takes a lot of such liberties.
Harold’s Anglo-Saxon forces were almost entirely composed of infantry while the Normans had a mix of infantry, cavalry, and archers. William’s plan was to weaken the Anglo-Saxon lines with a barrage of arrows and then move his infantry up the hill to break the line. Unfortunately for him, the combination of the tight Anglo-Saxon shield wall and the uphill angle meant that the archers accomplished very little. The archers fired their volleys to little effect and then ran out of arrows. In medieval battles, it was fairly common for archers to retrieve arrows from the ground that had been fired by the enemy for reuse. However, there were no Anglo-Saxon archers so once the arrows had been fired, they were gone.
The archers are far too important in this game. There is no mechanic for them to ever run out of arrows and the Norman player may freely activate them on every turn. The archers will only suppress a unit on the first hit, but a suppressed unit will become reduced on a second hit. The odds of archers hitting their target is (depending on the unit) 50% or 33% so reducing Anglo-Saxon units through archer fire isn’t terribly uncommon. As Seth Owen has pointed out, it is technically possible to win the game using only archers. Archers are also able to function as combat units ranking at a Combat Class of “C”. This seems remarkably high given that archers had no armor or weapons other than their bow, did not have the same combat training as infantry units, and the actually armed fyrd soldiers of the Anglo-Saxon line only rank at the “D” level.
While the game includes a historically accurate mix of of counters for the Norman and Anglo-Saxons, it takes a very dim view of the Anglo-Saxon strength. Most of Harold's force have a ranking of C or below. This makes them very weak when attacking the Normans. The designer notes specify that this to simulate the fatigue resulting in the long march Stamford Bridge, but this feels extreme. Fyrd units, which make up the vast majority of the Anglo-Saxon forces suffer an additional die roll penalty when fighting against almost any Norman unit which makes it incredibly unlikely that they will ever achieve a result better than Exchange.
The counter mix for the game includes far less housecarls units than most games on the subject. It is impossible to fill the front lines with housecarls (there are only 4 of them). This doesn’t work out to affect play as much as you might expect due to the strong defensive bonus provided by the shield wall. However, it is odd to be filling gaps in the wall with fyrd before the battle even begins. The rules never specify how many men each counter represents by but it appears to be approximately 500. It may have been better to assign different values to the housecarls (such as 250 men per counter) which would have allowed them to form a long formation along the edge of the hill. With the existing mix of counters it is more difficult than it should be to coordinate attacks from the housecarls and fyrds must be brought in for support far earlier in the battle than they likely were historically.
The Battle of Hastings is famous for the Norman feigned flights which enticed the Anglo-Saxon units to away from the defensive terrain. Essentially, the Normans units charged the shield wall, which they could not break, and then pretended to run away. (This may have happened after some actual retreats from the Normans.) The Anglo-Saxons, thinking they were winning, chased the Normans off the hill only to find themselves engulfed by Normans at the bottom. They were unable to form a shield wall on the low ground and their battle axes were of little use against the far more mobile Norman cavalry units. Harold likely did not order his men to pursue the retreaters (he had spent the entirety of the battle to this point trying to hold the line). Rather, his men got so excited by the perceived victory that they pursued on their own and fell into a trap.
Unfortunately, the game really doesn’t recreate the conclusion of the battle well. The Anglo-Saxons must maintain discipline in order to form a Shield Wall, but the Anglo-Saxon player never loses control of his troops. The are free to stay on top of the hill and enjoy the defensive bonus regardless of discipline status. Even if they force a Norman unit to retreat, advancing after combat is always optional. Due to the severe strength difference between the two sides, the Anglo-Saxon player is almost always better off playing defense rather than charging into a field of stronger Norman units.
The designer openly discusses in the game notes that this is a one-sided battle that will be extremely difficult for the Anglo-Saxon player to win. Being difficult to win is fine (the historical battle was very one-sided as well) but I’d argue that the victory conditions for the Anglo-Saxon player are practically impossible. Before their discipline breaks, the Anglo-Saxons must eliminate eight Norman counters. (I managed to eliminate 6 once but that was mostly due to the Normans making some exceptionally unlucky rolls when attacking me and getting exchanges or attacker losses.) Using an estimate of 500 men per counter, the Anglo-Saxon player must eliminate 4,000 units, which is approximately twice as many as they eliminated historically. After discipline breaks, they must eliminate 13 units (6,500 men) which is simply not going to happen. When the best most fyrds can hope to achieve is an Exchange, there simply are not enough units available to win.
My longer-than-intended criticism of the game’s historical accuracy, should not overshadow the things the game has going for it. Most notably, I really liked the way the game handled the limitations of command in medieval warfare. I think we can scarcely imagine how difficult it must have been for a commander to effectively communicate his orders and coordinate the movements of thousands of men. The game simulates the limited command efficiency beautifully through the use of wings. The Norman units are divided into three distinct groups and that player can only issue commands to two of them at a time. The first group can receive three commands and the second group only one. This severely limits the Norman player’s options and will leave him wishing he could do more every turn.
It’s important to note though that wings are only a concern to the Norman player since the Anglo-Saxon player essentially acts as a single group and any of the units can act upon an order. This actually gives the Anglo-Saxon player greater control over his units than seems reasonable, considering how hard Harold struggled to keep them in a defensive position.
Another strength of the game that I really liked was how hard it was for the Norman player to actually break through the shield wall. The rules allow for units in a shield wall to ignore Retreat results on the combat table and attacking Norman units may not advance after combat into a hex adjacent to units in a shield wall. This makes it very difficult for the Normans to break through the line (even when they are eliminating units) until discipline eventually breaks. I feel that this simulates the Anglo-Saxon ability to plug holes in the line with reserve units very quickly.
Print and Play Information
The game is available either as a printed folio game with die cut counters or a PDF file that you print and assemble yourself. As far as wargames go, this is relatively simple to build. The map prints nicely on a single sheet of tabloid/A3 paper (approx 11 inches by 17 inches). The game also includes an 88-counter sheet that includes counters for both Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age and Hill Near Hastings. The counters are double sided so you’ll need to glue the front and back together but this isn’t too difficult. Once my counters were glued, I cut them with an X-acto knife and straightedge.
How much ink is needed?
All of the components are in full color with very little white space. However, there is only a single sheet of counters (front and back are on one page) and the map so the illustrations won’t be that taxing to your printer. The rulebook is not excessively illustrated and it is only four pages so there isn’t much cost to printing that either—although you could just keep it as a PDF and reference it on your computer if you wanted.
Final Comments and Rating
This game is part of a broader trend to wargaming to make easily accessible games with very short rulebooks. Large and detailed wargames are often hard to learn, cumbersome to set up, and difficult to play in a single evening. There is a demand for wargames that are fast to learn, fast to set up, and fast to play. This is the goal of Tiny Battle Publishing, which published this game in two different formats (as an in-magazine game and a slightly updated folio edition). A Hill Near Hastings contains only four pages of rules which are very easy to learn. By comparison, this review (about 3,500 words) is actually longer than the rulebook’s 2,700 words (congratulations if you made it this far). You can open the game and easily play it through to completion the day you buy it.
The short rulebook necessarily requires the abstraction of many aspects of the battle - most notably leaders. The historical battle ended with the death of King Harold (and likely would have similarly ended had William been killed). However, with no leaders in the game, the victory conditions are based on number of units killed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the more units that are killed the higher the probability that the leader was killed as well. I simply mention it as an interesting design choice made to facilitate a shorter rulebook.
The game certainly achieves its goal of a small footprint. There are only 88 counters and you don’t even use all of those to play. Many of the counters are used only in the Stamford Bridge game and there are more suppressed markers than you could ever possibly need. (It might have been nice to see some additional unit variation and less suppressed markers but that is a minor complaint.) The game is also a terrific value with two games being included in the package.
I’ve criticised the game’s historical accuracy quite a bit in this review. However, I’m aware that this is a game and not a history lesson. While I think it’s important for a wargame to accurately simulate history, I think everyone is willing to make concessions if the game is fun. While A Hill Near Hastings isn’t a horrible gaming experience, it isn’t exactly fun either. It offers little variety from turn to turn. The game’s first several turns typically have the Normans charging the line and the Anglo-Saxons trying to maintain it. Once the Anglo-Saxon discipline breaks, the Normans begin easily picking off Anglo-Saxon units and there isn’t much the other player can do about it.
Unfortunately, while I find the Battle of Hastings to the more interesting and significant battle, I actually had more fun playing the sister game, Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age. That game used an identical system but featured equally matched forces and greater opportunity for strategic maneuvering from both sides.
The smartest way (in my opinion) to play the Anglo-Saxons is defensively, which unfortunately leaves that player with little to actually do besides plug holes. (I suppose the Anglo-Saxon player could break his shield wall early in the game and go after the easily-defeated archers, but leaving the defensive terrain is usually foolish since the strong Norman units will be able to quickly attack you from multiple fronts.) Due to the limited options for the Anglo-Saxon player and the near impossibility of that side winning, the game is probably better played as a solitaire exercise where you play as the Normans and see how quickly you can win.
While I certainly understand the appeal of wargames such as this one with short rulebooks and small maps, I find that they don’t usually offer the same long term playability as more complex wargames. Without some sort of card play or other variation-providing feature, four pages of rules generally isn’t enough for a diverse and interesting playing experience over the long term. A Hill Near Hastings offers an interesting perspective on the battle (albeit one with a very negative outlook of Harold’s chances) but there is little about the game that would invite multiple plays. There is no strategy that the Anglo-Saxon player can use to win so there is little incentive to try new things.
If you got this game as a bonus with the Stamford Bridge game, it is worth a try to experience the Wing mechanic and see how the system applies to a force with a variety of unit types (Stamford Bridge is infantry only). However, if you are looking at purchasing the package specifically for the Hastings game, you will be disappointed as it is by far the weaker of the two games. There are other games covering this battle that are more historically accurate and more fun.
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- Victoria Short
- Thanks for the indepth review. As a medievalist who studied the Anglo-Norman era in college, I wish there were better games on the period. I had hoped this might be one but doesn't sound like it.
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- Tom RussellUnited States
Thanks for the review, Chris. I am sorry you found the history lacking, as well as the play experience. I am glad that you found Stamford Bridge more to your liking-- I would agree generally that it's the stronger of the two games, and has a great deal more replay value. Hastings is probably better as a solitaire game, though I've had fun playing it face-to-face myself.
The main focus of the design was the issue of discipline, and the superior defensive position, and the combat ratings of the various Anglo-Saxon units take this into account. I don't think I ever said in the design notes that the lower combat ratings represents the fatigue from the long march-- more likely that the quality of the men Harold was able to raise was less than what he was able to field at Stamford Bridge.
Note that while the Anglo-Saxon Units are in Shield Wall, you have a 33% and a 16.7% chance of hitting, not 50-and-33. Once that Unit has been suppressed, the odds of hitting the Unit in Shield Wall go up to 50-and-33.
Note also that those "A" Class Norman Units attacking Anglo-Saxon Units in Shield Wall (down one CC) and uphill (down two CC) are attacking as "D"-level Units themselves. Anything above a 2 is going to be a retreat or step-loss for them; a 1 or 2 is an EX, and a 0 or -1 a possible EX. If those Anglo-Saxon Units come out of Shield Wall-- usually best to do when holding Initiative, so they can declare it and go right back in-- and they attack downhill, they're going to be attacking at +1 CC (D becomes C), unless they're going to Double + Combat for another +1 CC (attacking as a "B"). But the Anglo-Saxon position is primarily defensive, which does make this less of a competitive experience than Stamford.
I don't identify the scale of men-per-unit because the estimates can vary so wildly. It just represents a best guess at relative strength between the two armies. That said, I don't think I had anywhere near 500 men per unit in mind when I designed the game back in 2011.
Thank you again sir for your well-reasoned and thoughtful review. I might not agree with everything you had to say of course, but I surely do appreciate you taking the time to say it, and to lay out your reasoning.
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- Andy Daglish(aforandy)United Kingdom
chansen2794 wrote:(it’s hard to use a axe when you’ve got someone’s shoulder pressed right against you)
We can be reasonably sure that most commentators, inc. academics, have as much understanding of any aspect of combat as a pink blancmange. Sometimes they make it up as they go along. We do know expert axemanship impressed the Normans very much indeed. There are no problems at all in using an axe from the rank behind a shieldwall. Mounted targets are particularly easy to strike, but axes have other offensive uses; for example, as a hook that pulls away a shield as it destabilises the target.Quote:Battles from the middle ages are fraught with uncertainty. Historians often do not know even basic details: how many soldiers fought or died in a battle; the exact numbers of infantry, cavalry, or archers; or sometimes even the location of the battlefield.
This is true of all British battles. At Cheriton location of units on the ill-defined battlefield isn't certainly known.Quote:What is less acceptable is when a designer takes liberties with the elements of the battle that are well documented and agreed upon by historians.
Virtually every reported fact concerning Hastings including its location is latter-day supposition...Quote:Harold’s Anglo-Saxon forces were almost entirely composed of infantry while the Normans had a mix of infantry, cavalry, and archers. William’s plan was to weaken the Anglo-Saxon lines with a barrage of arrows and then move his infantry up the hill to break the line.
...however we can be reasonably sure the Normans didn't dismount to fight, and that attacking formed heavy infantry uphill would have put them at a serious disadvantage. The Tom Lovell painting shows this well, if perhaps inadvertently. Very probably infantry and cavalry would have attacked together, for there would have been no prohibition of this and because 'command' of any sort would have been lacking, and because most sub-units were composed of professionals who knew each other well and did what they always did, without much modification. Then we might ask what happened to men on foot when the Anglo-Saxons charged due to a sudden departure of their comrades on horseback?
Quote:Unfortunately for him, the combination of the tight Anglo-Saxon shield wall and the uphill angle meant that the archers accomplished very little.
It may have been devastating, but not for long. The likely location of the bulk of arrowfalls may well have been closer to the hilltop defenders, and they represented a better target than William's men, which would have been well within the competence of any professional archer. Here the archer has the advantage, but as the battle lasted all day, clearly it was not one they were able to realise early.Quote:Archers are also able to function as combat units ranking at a Combat Class of “C”. This seems remarkably high given that archers had no armor or weapons other than their bow, did not have the same combat training as infantry units, and the actually armed fyrd soldiers of the Anglo-Saxon line only rank at the “D” level.
or one could reasonably categorise them as multi-skilled mercenaries with 'more than one string to their bow', who knew well their greater value.Quote:it is more difficult than it should be to coordinate attacks from the housecarls and fyrd’s must be brought in for support far earlier in the battle than they likely were historically.
nothing wrong with this historically, albeit perhaps boring gamewise.Quote:Harold likely did not order his men to pursue the retreaters (he had spent the entirety of the battle to this point trying to hold the line).
8000 Saxon defenders would have been real end-of-empire stuff: a vastly bigger army than any of their antecedents fielded. There's not even any supposition over methods of overall command, which leaves the probability there wasn't any. Harold and his noble brothers probably stood together with their retinues, with their more senior followers likewise, backing up their own men on other parts of the field.Quote:the Anglo-Saxon player must eliminate 4,000 units, which is approximately twice as many as they eliminated historically.
You've resolved one of the biggest and most significant questions?Quote:I think we can scarcely imagine how difficult it must have been for a commander to effectively communicate his orders and coordinate the movements of thousands of men.
We know William tried to communicate to his army the rumour he was still alive, and they didn't all speak Norman French. He certainly didn't have much major battle experience.
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- Chris HansenUnited States
UTI have two new 9 Card Games: 300 Spartans and Franky's 1st Christmas
tomrussell wrote:I don't think I ever said in the design notes that the lower combat ratings represents the fatigue from the long march-- more likely that the quality of the men Harold was able to raise was less than what he was able to field at Stamford Bridge.
I apologize for this. I was thinking of a quote from the rules which in my memory had been about the march rather than the battle. I should have double checked the quote before hitting publish.
"(After his hard-fought victory at Stamford Bridge, Harold will take whatever he can get!)"tomrussell wrote:I don't identify the scale of men-per-unit because the estimates can vary so wildly. It just represents a best guess at relative strength between the two armies. That said, I don't think I had anywhere near 500 men per unit in mind when I designed the game back in 2011.
That's interesting that you weren't thinking of 500 men. I did the math on the counters and the total counter mix came out pretty closely to some of the main estimates I've read.tomrussell wrote:Thank you again sir for your well-reasoned and thoughtful review. I might not agree with everything you had to say of course, but I surely do appreciate you taking the time to say it, and to lay out your reasoning.
Thank Tom. I appreciate your comments. I always hesitate to post a negative review because I know there's a person behind the design that liked the game well enough to design and publish it. I also appreciate that you took the time to design a game on this battle, even if it didn't click for me. I look forward to playing more of your games in the future!
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