Reviewed by Herb Levy

HAMMER OF THE SCOTS (Columbia Games, 2 players, 2-3 hours; $49.98)


Fans of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart find a new venue for their energy as the War for Scottish Independence is brought to life in Hammer of the Scots, the new release from Columbia Games.

Hammer of the Scots is a Jerry Taylor/Tom Dalgliesh design (development by Grant Dalgliesh and Cal Stengel) for two players, one marshalling the forces of the Scots, the other commanding the forces of England. The game comes bookshelf boxed with a map on heavy stock, two sets of wooden blocks (in red and blue, with stickers that need to be placed on the block to track each unit’s strength and ability) to represent the opposing forces, 20 Movement and 5 Event cards, 4 six-sided dice and eight pages of rules.

Hammer of the Scots in the newest game in Columbia Games’ well received series of block wargames. Instead of the standard cardboard chits, each piece is a wooden block (with label applied) which serves the dual purpose of identifying the unit as well as its strength. At full strength, for example, a unit may have its “4” designation on top. If sustaining a “hit”, the block is rotated so that a “3” is on top. Not only is this a simple yet clever way of keeping track of damage, it also brilliantly creates a “fog of war” atmosphere to the game. Your enemy knows your forces are there but is rarely certain of their strength until meeting in battle.

There are several different types of forces (blocks) in the game. The Scots have two leaders: Wallace and the King. The English leader is Edward I (until 1307 when he replaced by Edward II). Leaders can move up to three areas (most other pieces are limited to two) and have some other advantages. There are 14 Nobles, marked by their heraldry. Interestingly, Nobles can (and will) switch allegiances. For that reason, there are TWO blocks for each Noble: one for the Scottish side and one for the English side. Also present are blocks for archers, knights, infantry and the Norse (which represents possible intervention in the conflict from Norway).

The map depicts Scotland and northern England, divided into areas clearly marked by name. The home areas for the 14 Scottish nobles are noted by their heraldic shield. (Nobles have a defensive advantage when operating in their home areas.) Many of the areas are populated by Castles with numerical ratings of 1, 2 or 3. These numbers are economic values which tell how many blocks can remain in an area during the Winter Phase as well as the annual value of replacement steps in the area. Three areas are marked by a blue circle with a white cross to indicate the major cathedrals. Cathedrals add 1 for the Scottish player during the Winter Phase but have no value for the English. All 25 cards are shuffled and players are dealt a hand of five cards face-down. This is their cards for that year of play. The forces of the players are placed on the map in their respective starting areas (as stated in the respective scenarios).

The game is played across a series of years (starting with 1297 or 1306 depending on scenario chosen) with each year comprised of up to 5 Game Turns. Each Game Turn consists of 3 phases: Card Phase, Movement Phase, Battle Phase. (A special Winter Phase occurs at the end of the game year.)

To begin, both players place ONE of their cards face down and then, simultaneously reveal them. Cards may be Movement cards which come in denominations of 1, 2 and 3 indicating the number of GROUPS (NOT pieces) a player may move that turn. ALL blocks in an area are considered ONE group. Or it may be an Event card which allows a special action (such as trying to recruit an enemy Noble to YOUR side or restoring strength to weakened units). The player playing the highest valued card gets the initiative and goes first. Ties go to the English player. Should both players play an Event card, the year ends.

Movement is straightforward but there are interesting strategic considerations. Depending on the type of piece, units may move from 2 to 3 areas on a turn. However, borders restrict movement. For example, 6 blocks may cross a black bordered area but only 2 blocks may cross into an area bordered in red. Once all movement is done, battles may be fought.

Battles are joined for a maximum of three rounds. Each block may either fire or retreat. All blocks are rated by letter and number (e.g. A2 or B3). The letter indicates the order in which they may attack: A first, followed by B and then C. The number indicates a unit’s Combat Rating. In attacking, each block rolls as many dice as its current combat Strength (from 1 to 4). Each die roll equal to or LOWER than the block’s Combat Rating is a “hit” with hits targeted at the enemy’s strongest unit. Blocks may opt to retreat instead of fighting. Nobles, when eliminated in battle, SWITCH SIDES and reappear at a Strength of 1. (The Noble Moray is an exception. If eliminated, he is removed from the game.) “Foreign” forces, such as the Norse and French Knights, once eliminated, are permanently removed from play. When a battle ends, the winner may shift any of his blocks to any adjacent controlled area.

Once all players have played their five cards OR when both players have played an Event card, the game year ends and there is a special Winter Turn. All nobles must return to their home areas. If their home area contains an enemy block, that noble immediately switches sides! The Scottish player must now remove all blocks that exceed their Castle Limit. The English player is also subject to Castle limits as only infantry and controlled Nobles can remain in Scotland during Winter. All other blocks are placed in the Replacement Pool. Blocks remaining in play may now receive replacement steps (i.e. be restored to their former strengths) equal to the Castle’s Limit. After this, the cards are shuffled again, a new hand of five cards is dealt to each player and the next game year begins.

The English player wins immediately if the Scottish King block is eliminated in battle. The Scottish player wins immediately if Edward II (not Edward I) is killed in battle. Alternatively, the player to control ALL of the nobles in play gets an immediate victory (although, for England, Moray must be dead). Should a scenario end without any of these conditions being met, the player who controls a majority of the nobles gets a marginal victory. If each side controls seven, the game is a draw.

There is much to like here. The colorful red and blue blocks played against a green and gray map is pleasing to the eye and touch. The game is well balanced and the strategic choices presented offer much to engage the interest of the armchair general. It should be mentioned that the map by Jerry Taylor is not only beautiful to look at but extremely user friendly in its use of names and symbols although, I must confess, it would have been nice to have had the map MOUNTED.

Hammer of the Scots captures the ebb and flow of 14th century warfare extremely well. It is one of the stellar offerings in Columbia’s block system of war simulations. – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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