Hammer of the Scots

For some reason, I’ve never quite engaged on Hammer, and I’m not precisely sure why. It’s a game I certainly think is good, but somehow it’s just not my game. Part of it is probably that the English get most of their useful units wiped out at the end of the turn and reallocated at random, so it’s hard to bring much strategy to the table. Part of it is probably the extreme bottlenecking of the narrow front and constrictive terrain. It also seems a little more subject to the whims of fate than many Columbia games. And almost certainly another factor is that I’ve never been very good at it. So despite the fact that the card play works nicely, it gets good mileage out of the blocks, it’s a nice period piece, the complexity is refreshingly low for an involving game, and the overall system balance is good, I find it’s a game I personally just can’t get that excited about, unlike so many Columbia games.

My sense is that a lot of folks feel the game is pro-English, but to be honest, we’ve never felt this was a problem. The game can certainly be upset by good or bad luck early (an English Sea Move on turn one, for example, is fundamentally game-altering), and both sides take a bit to really get a feel for, but once you get past the learning games I’ve felt this is pretty well-balanced. We use the Schiltroms optional by default, which is a minor but significant boost for the Scots – possibly too much actually, but it also adds some interesting tactics – but we’ve never felt any particular need for the other pro-Scottish optionals:

  • Muster: This is a particularly bad rule that doesn’t seem very well thought out and has a couple nasty loopholes. It’s also extremely pro-Scottish unless you allow the English to muster across the English/Scottish border (something not covered – logically it should be prohibited, but by the letter of the rule it’s legal). This one is not recommended.
  • Hit Allocation: This is an interesting rule that should be balance-neutral-ish, but I’m not sure that the game needs more chaos. The possibility of a stunning elimination of Wallace, the King, or Edward on a lucky 4-hit roll hardly seems worth it.
  • Moray: Wow. Only use this one if you’re playing an opponent who needs a huge handicap.
  • Norse: I actually kinda like this one. It both tones down the Irish a little bit so that the English don’t have to commit such large forces to garrisons, but on the other hand makes them more useful by not counting against stacking. I’ll use this one in future, as it seems mildly pro-English and so might balance out the Schiltroms.

At any rate, I enjoyed our game and this was one of the closest games I’ve seen – the Scots won by one noble on the very last turn, after

Hammer of the Scots, Part II

Carl had me on the ropes after Tuesday’s session, with the Scottish King holed up in the north with a few loyal nobles. But, having solidified the base after the shudder induced by defecting nobles due to Comyn’s coronation, the Scots were ready to take the fight to the English again.

The far north is awfully difficult for the English to campaign in, absent Sea Moves and big hands; so the knockout blow is difficult to administer, and the English can’t be complacent just because they’re up 9 nobles to 5 and have the remainder penned in. In this case, I think Carl really only made one mistake – he had the King and 4 powerful blocks all the way up north, with the Scots on the ropes, but decided not to winter there and return home. This gave Comyn the breathing space he needed to survive and turn things around. The next year, the English King again made it all the way up north, but the Scots managed to sneak behind him and secure the “neck” of the country, with the help of the Norse (usually, I find the Norse a waste because they’re so expensive to activate – but when you’re against the wall and don’t have much to spend your activations on anyway, they can be a tremendous nuisance).

Things were downhill from this point for the English, as Carl didn’t get many good levies or good cards from here on out, and I ended up pulling it back from the brink of disaster to squeak by with the win.

This was probably the most enjoyable and all-around best-played game of Hammer I’ve seen, and the only one that has gone the distance. After an early run of decisive English victories, followed by a run of decisive Scottish victories, we finally had a good, close, interesting game. Although I do think it’s quite a good game, nonetheless my opinion of and enthusiasm for Hammer has fluctuated a bit over time – but it won’t take too many more exciting games like this for it to move up significantly in my opinion.

My only qualm is that in the last couple games I’ve played, the Scots have always been foiled by first-turn Sea Moves into Mentieth that block Wallace from joining up with Bruce. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next time the Scottish “south first” strategy isn’t thwarted in this way; without that blocking play, this strategy has dominated recent games.

Hammer of the Scots

Carl recently moved so we haven’t had a chance to have one of our occasional rounds of Columbia games; we took the opportunity now, Hammer of the Scots again. Same sides as lat time, when I lost as the Scots after they had been on an impressive winning streak.

The game stated out as a rerun of last time – Wallace heads south, but the English play a Sea Move to fortify Mentieth before he can link up with Bruce. This makes the Scottish player’s job much harder. Wallace does make it to the south, but the Scots control of center of the board is shaky. After turn 2, I made a slightly gutsy decision to winter Wallace in Selkirk Forest to keep a 4-factor Infantry block alive that would otherwise have had wintering issues … but Carl has the 3 card required to take a shot at him, gets lucky, and is able to kill him. Losing Wallace is always disheartening early, but remembering that Columbia games are often games of player morale, I pull back into the north and crown Comyn king. This is bad, as it takes my strength down to near-zero – just the King, Comyn, Moray, maybe two other nobles, and two infantry blocks.

Things would still get worse before they got better; the two infantry blocks are eliminated before we have to call it a night, but the Scots are still hanging on, the King is a strong block, those rather pesky Norse show up, and northern Scotland is a long ways from Hadrian’s Wall. To be continued …

Hammer of the Scots, Rommel in the Desert

Carl came by again for one of our occasional Columbia game sessions.

First was Hammer of the Scots. The Scots have actually been on quite the roll recently with the new “South First” strategy. Wallace moves out of Fife and into Mentieth to secure the center of the board to link up with Bruce in the south, who hopefully never falls. Wallace then turns the whole south of Scotland into a quagmire for the English while Moray slowly cleans up the north over many years. Well, I was now the first to lose with this strategy (in games I’ve been involved in, anyway). Part of this was two serious tactical errors: firstly, I was entirely too anxious to link up with Bruce, and bypassed a significant English force in Argyll, which combined with a sea move snuck back to retake the critical Mentieth area leaving Wallace cut off at a very bad time. Secondly was pushing too hard in the north too early. Moray and the infantry block in the north assaulted Buchan and were bloodily repulsed through very bad luck. This wasn’t the bad move; the bad move was then trying again before building up enough, which when he lost again resulted in Moray being too weak and he was attacked, surrounded, and eliminated. The English nobles up there can’t do too much, but they can still be potent if given the chance to gang up and kill someone who can’t retreat.

I must admit that I feel I can blame at least some small part of this 2-turn fiasco on the dice … Wallace was egregiously incompetent in this game, managing to score some 2 hits in his first 20 or so shots. This was huge I felt, because Wallace and his A3 is desperately needed to actually inflict some casualties on the English nobles early, otherwise they just retreat before you come to grips with them. The other problem was that for the two turns and change we played, my hand was remarkably homogenous – all 2s and one 3. This sounds cool, but the Scots really don’t need that many activations – they really want to be moving last, and as it worked out I was often moving first, which actually caused a lot of problems.

My opinion of Hammer has been fluctuating a bit. I was down on it somewhat for a while when it seemed there was an optimal Scottish strategy. I still think there is (the South First is the only thing that seems remotely plausible, every other alternative has failed spectacularly), but it’s certainly not a script the Scots can follow. There are still tough operational and tactical choices, and sloppy play is punished. This is good, and I’m feeling better about playing the game again, although it still ranks only about 5th on my list of favorite Columbia games.

After this disaster, we broke out Rommel in the Desert, the Crusader scenario (it’s short – only 3 turns, and due to the supply situation it plays more like 1.5). Now we’re talking. The dice that had abandoned me in the first game came back with a vengeance in this time. Carl attacked 3 hexes, all of which contained a single recon unit (I felt proud of this), all of whom retreated without loss. My German reserves then proceeded to crush one intrusion, obliterating 5 British units at the cost of one (double) step. For Carl, it was downhill from this point. This is a tough game to play the first time, and my experience was decidedly more recent than Carl’s, so I’m sure he’ll return the favor next time. Plus, the Brits are tough to play in this particular scenario I think – forced to attack with a supply advantage but a decidedly inferior army. And those dice … I would have preferred a little more balance, but you take what you can get. Every time I play this game I tell myself I gotta play it more often. This is an awesome game, really, really tense – even after mauling these British units, I was always worried about the amount of supply I had spent to do it and was scared I had not kept enough in reserve to counter British threats – the German supply situation is very tight. At one point I was down to 2 supply while Carl had 6 cards in hand, but he didn’t have enough.