Like Stratego, But With More Bagpipes

The fight for Scottish independence, coming to a living room table near you.

Michael Peck
Michael Peck

Damn that William Wallace. Damn that stupid movie Braveheart.

And curse this infernal board game that compels me, Edward Longshanks, King of England, to relive those tumultuous days of 700 years ago.

Spread before me on the celestial kitchen table is Hammer of the Scots, a board game of the First Scottish War of Independence of 1296-1328. Pleasing is the title of this game, a reference to my epitaph: Here lies Edward, the Hammer of the Scots.

Across from me sits that impudent traitor Wallace, grinning at me because he knows that Scotland may vote for independence from the United Kingdom today.

After all I did to unite England and Scotland, they still want to leave?

Moon me if you like, Wallace, you underwear-less barbarian. You never looked like Mel Gibson anyway, and even less so after I had you drawn and quartered. Scotland would never have gotten this close to independence were I still king.

So we fight again. You and I did have our share of battles, didn’t we? You destroyed my army at Stirling Bridge; I returned the favor at Falkirk. But this time our battlefield is of cardboard and dice. The object of Hammer of the Scots is simple. Whoever has the most Scottish nobles on his side at the end of the game wins. Or, the English win if they kill Wallace by destroying his army in battle. Either path to victory is desirable, but I confess that the latter would be so much more satisfying.

For the Scots, victory means the freedom to become a socialist Sweden with kilts. For the English, losing means a United Kingdom that was never united in the first place. Instead of the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher invades Edinburgh.

Our battlefield consists of a map of Scotland and the tip of northern England, divided into various regions. As even my idiot son Edward II could perceive, terrain is everything in this contest. The lowlands of southeastern Scotland are flat and fertile enough to enable my armies to move quickly and feed themselves. It is the accursed northern highlands that impede my troops and succor Wallace’s outnumbered forces.

The clever designers of Hammer of the Scots have seen fit to depict our armies through wooden blocks printed with numbers and letters that show how well they fight and move. However, those details are hidden from the opposing player, a bit like that enjoyable board game Stratego, so that I can never be sure whether the army in front of me consists of peasant rabble or Wallace’s elite household troops. Red blocks are English, blue are Scottish. Such colorful hosts we commanded in those days, eh, Wallace? The game has pieces representing infantry, knights, English longbowmen, and French aristocrats fighting for Scotland. There are even Welsh and Ulster foot soldiers and archers for whom I must roll dice to see if they will desert during the middle of a battle. (Damn their disloyal eyes have they no respect for their monarch?)

Yet it is that cantankerous lot of Scottish nobles who hold the key to victory. Each is represented by a block marked with their heraldic crest, and each has a home region on the map marked with that crest. They start out evenly distributed between both sides — but hold their home regions at the end of the year, or destroy their armies in battle, and they will defect to save their own skin. And that is how I shall win. My army is bigger than Wallace’s. Each year, I can draw upon a feudal levy that replaces my losses while he is starved for fresh troops. I will occupy the home regions of key nobles and cause them to join me. At the same time, I shall seek to meet and destroy Wallace in decisive battle.

A simple and effective plan, I think. ‘Tis a shame they haven’t asked me to help put down those Saracen lunatics in Iraq. Those fanatics think they are tough because they can kill hostages? I could teach them a thing or two about the meaning of ruthlessness, and I wouldn’t need Predator drones or smart bombs to do it. In six months, they would be wailing the name of Edward Longshanks, the Hammer of Islamic State.

Unfortunately, William Wallace is a more formidable foe than the Mohammedans. He has the Devil’s own luck, and the Scottish mountains besides. Try as it might, the English juggernaut cannot simply crush him.

First, while I do not pretend to understand this Net-centric warfare the moderns speak of, it must be easier than commanding a medieval army, that lacks even radios. The game simulates the problems of command and control by requiring the players to randomly draw cards that specify the number of regions — from one to three — in which the armies can move and fight. Thus while I have more troops, if I scatter my army across a half-dozen regions to destroy Wallace and capture the home areas of his nobles, I will only be able to move a portion of them should a sudden opportunity present itself.

The obvious solution would be to concentrate my troops into a few compact armies to facilitate command and control. However, there is the small problem of feeding them. Each game turn represents one year of real time. At the end of each turn, the English armies must return home for the winter, where they are automatically resupplied and their losses replenished. Or, the English can choose to winter in Scotland. But each Scottish region can only feed a limited number of troops, and any excess troops starve.

Thus I find myself in a dilemma: Either I preserve my forces by returning to England at the end of each year, and then waste much of the following campaign season on laboriously advancing back into Scotland, or I spend the winter in Scotland with depleted forces, and hope that I can contrive to spread out my troops enough to avoid starvation without leaving them vulnerable to attack. My only consolation is that Wallace and his savages have the same problems. At least I can usually control the more fertile southern lowlands, while he must forage for food in the highlands.

Ah, those highlands bedevil me. The game simulates the difficulties of operating in mountainous terrain by limiting the number of troops that may move into a region at a time. Six blocks — a considerable force — can freely enter a lowland area. But only two blocks can enter a highland area. My greater number of troops avails me not because I cannot bring this superiority to bear in the mountains. And so I must confront Wallace with equal numbers.

Yet fighting the Scots with equal numbers is a fool’s venture. Dice are rolled to determine the losses an army inflicts on the opposing forces during each battle. Here the Scots have an advantage because of their schiltron, a hedgehog formation of spears that pokes deep holes in my proud English knights and which gives them bonus dice in combat.

Thus, subduing Scotland becomes a medieval version of Groundhog Day. Each year the English armies venture north. Southern and central Scotland, up to Perth and Stirling, are easy enough to conquer. But just as my troops begin to penetrate the highlands, winter’s chill sends them back to England, to return again next year.

But return I will, Wallace. If I don’t beat you this time, I will beat you the next. Or my name isn’t Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1