"Why doesn't the William Wallace counter have half a blue face?"
Hammer of the Scots pits the armies of Edward I and II of England against the combined, fickle barons of Scotland. The history behind this is truly fascinating, but you didn't come here for a history lesson so we shall leave that for another day. In brief, the English monarch wish to conquer Scotland, and the Scots don't fancy that much above half. "Let's WAR!"
At first glance, you could be forgiven for mistaking this game as something along the lines of Risk: there are areas to control, red and blue armies, and a deck of cards and dice used in gameplay. Yes, dice are used to resolve battles, and areas are controlled by your armies occupying them. However, a number of subtleties of game design make Hammer of the Scots one of the best board wargames I've played in many a year...
First up, it's a block wargame. This is a literal description of the playing pieces: wooden blocks with a sticker on one side showing your unit type and strength. Apart from when involved in a battle, you keep the stickered side facing you, which means your opponent knows neither what unit it is or how powerful it is. A simple yet effective game tool!
Next, the English player repeatedly invades Scotland, but at the end of each game year, must 'winter' her army in friendly castles, or retreat back to England. This makes it hard for the overwhelming might of the royal army to control Scotland, especially far to the north. This models medieval asymmetric warfare in a very thoughtful way and throws up challenges galore when playing.
Thirdly, and perhaps most unusually, the Scottish barons swap sides like there's no tomorrow. If the English control a baron's home area at the end of the turn, the baron fights for the English, and vice versa under Scottish control. A baron defeated in battle also swaps sides. This means that it is never easy to harness your strength or make assumptions about who will be siding with you in future turns.
These three elements combine to make Hammer of the Scots stand head and shoulders above most run of the mill board wargames.
Conclusion: The game mechanics are simple, card and dice driven. Where Hammer of the Scots really shines is in the planning, deduction, and ability to adapt to setbacks that you'll need as you play through each game year. A top historical boardgame - check it out!