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Posted on Aug 29, 2005 in Boardgames

Hammer of the Scots – Boardgame Review

By Johnny L. Wilson

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Bones in a Hammock
Columbia Games’ Hammer of the Scots Returns

By Johnny L. Wilson

Nearing death, the one who was eventually to be named Scottorum Malleus ("Hammer of the Scots") ordered, "Wrap my bones in a hammock and have them carried before the army, so I may still lead the way to victory."1 Edward I is the key to English victory in the first scenario of Columbia Games’ Hammer of the Scots, even as he was in history. The monarch can also establish a nice opening in the second scenario if he is drawn and comes into play in 1306 (since he automatically dies in the 1307 game turn, as per his demise in history).

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A brilliantly designed block game, Hammer of the Scots combines some of the best elements of a card-driven game with that of a block game. Though the game has been available for a couple of years, it has now been released in a new edition with more distinctive card art and the updated rules. For those who have never played a block game, the concept is simple. The wooden blocks are kept facing the controlling player. On the faces are labels identifying the name of the unit, type of unit and having one to four sides with a triangle, two triangles, three triangles or four triangles respectively, representing the unit’s strength.

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FIFE AND STRIFE At start, the English player (red blocks facing) examines William Wallace’s defenses in Fife (blue blocks) at the beginning of the Braveheart scenario. By mid-game, (second picture) the Scots had created a sea of blue for the English to contend with.

The beauty of the system is that it creates a limited intelligence or fog of war so that one never quite knows the strength of the enemy until the engagement begins. After all, the enemy might have several blocks, but they might all be at one triangle of strength while you have fewer blocks aggregated together, but all of your blocks are at full strength. This reminds me a little of the bluffing and counter-bluffing we used to do in the classic game, Stratego.

For those looking to duplicate William Wallace’s use of schiltrons (a forerunner of the British infantry square where footmen stood in a circle with their twelve foot spears and reserves filled the center to be able to fill gaps in the circle) at Falkirk or the tactical placement in the initial Battle of Stirling, Hammer of the Scots is not quite the right game (although p. 4 of the rules does feature an optional rule designed to reflect such use whenever there are no English archers present). Such players would be better of with Richard Berg’s new Men of Iron. For those who wish to play a fast-moving, suspenseful game around the campaigns for Scottish Independence (led by Wallace in the Braveheart scenario and Robert the Bruce in the Bruce scenario), Hammer of the Scots (HOTS) is ideal. It is fresh (even after two years) and will make a wide scope of history come alive through its use of simple, elegant mechanics.

Initiative and Movement
"They need not follow me! I go to meet them. This very day." – Edward I2

On top of this elegant system, HOTS has added a card deck and mechanics similar to many card-driven games. To be sure, the cards in the original version weren’t very pretty, but they sure added a strategic element to the game. Most of the cards could be called "operational point" cards. These are numbered 1, 2 and 3, respectively and allow the player to move 1, 2 or 3 groups of blocks (groups being the number of blocks in a given area). They determine initiative because the player with the highest point card goes first (tie goes to the English). Whereas many card-driven games (such as Avalon Hill’s We the People and GMT’s Napoleonic Wars and upcoming Here I Stand) have optional events on most or all of the cards, allowing players to choose between operational points and events, the card deck in HOTS has discreet operational cards and event cards. In fact, there are only five event cards in the total deck of 25 cards (20% of the deck) and the players have only 40% of the deck (10 cards) between them, so the chances are good, but not perfect, that there will be an event in play each year (a turn consisting of five moves, corresponding to card play).

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NEW UNIFORMS Hammer of the Scots has received an upgrade in "uniforms" with the new card art in the just released second edition (bottom row) being far superior to the minimalist look of the earlier version (top row).

Used well, the event cards can even slow down an opponent with a hand full of high point values in movement cards. For example, the Truce card can keep the enemy from being able to attack during the turn. However, if two event cards are played simultaneously, the entire turn ends prematurely. A successful 1-4 die roll on the Herald card recruits a noble of your choice (except Moray) to your side. Imagine the devastation of playing that card as your enemy is massing an attack against you. The Victuals card lets you reinforce your weakened blocks by gaining back three lost triangles of strength, anywhere on the map. So, as in the card-driven games, playing event cards in HOTS lets you shift momentum quickly.

Movement is also simple. Some block games, such as Columbia’s popular East Front Pacific Victory and Bobby Lee games, use hex-based movement. Others, such as Napoleon and the brand-new Crusader Rex, use point-to-point movement. Hammer of the Scots uses area movement as in Columbia’s early Quebec, 1759 and GMT’s Europe Engulfed. Unless the blocks represent leaders, they usually allow movement of up to two areas. Some leaders can travel up to three areas. However, all blocks must immediately stop after crossing a red border and only one block per movement point is allowed to cross the Anglo-Scottish border.

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