Saturday, June 28, 2008

I almost didn't get Hammer of the Scots

Yeah, it's true. I almost didn't buy the game that turned out to be Columbia's single biggest hit.

When I first heard about Hammer of the Scots I was very dubious. Up until that point I had purchased every single Columbia Games title to that point, without disappointment. I was an early enthusiast for block games, ever since I got the Avalon Hill edition of Napoleon about 1978 or so.

But I really had my doubts about Hammer of the Scots because of the theme. Medieval border warfare between the Scots and the English? Yeah, I had seen Braveheart and enjoyed it (even though I knew most of the "history" in it was suspect, except for the parts that were wholly made up). But I had a hard time seeing how that would be a good game.

And thematically it was pretty far off my beaten paths. Of all the eras of war I don't find medieval times all that interesting. Everything else Columbia had done up to that point was much more up my line: World War II, Napoleonic wars, wars in North America.

Finally I decided to go ahead and get it, mostly out of a desire to keep my Columbia set complete. I'd bought everything else up to that point.

As it turns out, of course, Hammer of the Scots turns out to have been a great game, and is probably the most successful Columbia game ever, at least in popularity with players. (I'm not sure about sales).

I usually make the point that theme is of pre-eminent importance for a wargame. For most euros the game comes first and the theme is added to provide color, context and market entry. Wargames usually (not always) start with the theme and are grown around that theme. This often causes design problems because real life isn't tidy and war is among the least tidy of human activities. It's hard to have simple and elegant game designs that also show fidelity to history.

But Hammer of the Scots does show that theme, as important as it is, doesn't need to overwhelm a good solid game design. We don't have enough knowledge of the situation in Scotland at the turn of the Fourteenth Century to create a detailed simulation in any event, so any wargame set in that era will necessarily have to be impressionistic to some extent. Hammer of the Scots succeeds beyond the usual because of its clever game design choices. There are a number of good ones, but I think the one that stands out is the way nobles are treated, especially their ability to switch sides.

Crusader Rex is very similar to Hammer of the Scots and a good game in its own right, but I think it's just a tad less fun and interesting to play, despite being very similar to Hammer of the Scots, because it doesn't have this rule. I'm not implying it should have that rule, the historical situation in the Holy Land during the Crusades was different.

No, it's just that the duplicity of Scottish noble politics creates an opening for the game mechanic and Hammer of the Scots runs with it in a particularly successful way. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

No comments:

Post a Comment