Blocks!: Hammer of the Scots Early Access

Blocks!: Hammer of the Scots has just arrived on Steam via the Early Access program. It’s Avalon Digital’s third in their series of Blocks! games, each based on a tabletop original from Columbia Games. I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with an early version to see how things are looking.

Now, Early Access can be a gamble. Sometimes it’s a great way to get our mitts on a yet-to-be-released title. It can also let us take part in the beta testing of a game and help shape its development. At its worst, it’s handing over money for a product that isn’t quite ready for prime time and maybe never will be. You take your chances, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Hammer of the Scots.

As another in the Blocks! line, it is built on the shoulders of its predecessors. In particular, the gameplay, map, and rules are very close to what we saw in Blocks!: Richard III, released last fall to positive, if thin, reception on Steam. That heritage means that most of the pieces are already put together and wrung out, despite the fact that this is still undergoing testing and rework.

The game’s title is taken from the tomb of Edward I of England, who attempted the subjugation of Scotland by politics, marriage, and warfare. That attempt resulted in a multi-generational war for Scottish independence that laid down foundational legends for Scotland as well as spawning some big-budget, Hollywood imagery for the rest of the world. This is a game that allows the player re-fight the First War of Scottish Independence, with William Wallace in the ‘Braveheart’ scenario, Robert I in ‘The Bruce’ scenario, or a combined “Campaign Game” which runs from 1297 (Stirling Bridge) through 1314 (Bannockburn).

Choose a scenario, a side, and the characteristics of your AI opponent.

While you play either as Scotland or England, you’ll soon notice that the Scottish lords fight for both sides. While Edward looked upon the Scottish nobility as rebellious subjects, they themselves saw Edward as but one playing piece in the game of thrones. Many Scottish families sought to increase their power and, while calling for freedom from English rule was one route, joining with Edward to put down the rebellion might also work. The blocks representing Scottish nobles, therefore, come in both the blue of Scotland and the red of England.

Once you’ve started the game, you will see those blocks arrayed on a map depicting Scotland, Northern England, and a little slice of Ireland. Graphically, the game reproduces the look and, to the extent possible, feel of the board game. On your blocks, you see the forces raised by the various nobles, by clans, or brought in from across the border (England, Ireland, Wales, France, and Norway are all represented). For your opponent’s blocks, all but their color are kept hidden. The identity and capabilities of the enemy remain unknown unless and until engaged in battle.

The AI, as Wallace, forces something very much like the historical Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Each year is broken into five turns managed through a hand of five cards. The year lasts until all five cards are played or both players simultaneously choose a special ‘event’ card. At that point, winter sets in and the Scottish nobles take their men and head home. Some forces disband for the winter while others remain intact, assuming their location can support an encamped army. The cycle begins again in the spring as fresh forces are called up for another season of campaigning.

The beauty of this game is expressed in the elegance of its rules. A quick flip through the 20-page PDF manual and some help from the tutorial mode can get you up and playing in no time. However, if you haven’t internalized the details, you’ll miss out in much of what the game gets right with respect to its subject matter. There are special rules for the English longbow and for the Scottish schiltron (with their “long spears, twice as long as a man”).

Numbered cards are used to move forces. Event cards substitute special actions.

The Irishmen may abandon the English mid-battle and Norsemen may sail down from the Outer Hebrides to join the resistance. The English must return home before the snow flies, except by special rule which models Edward’s commitments in France. All these details are in the manual. You can study them or simply leave them to the computer to enforce. You’ll get more out of this game from the first approach.

In my playing, Blocks!: Hammer of the Scots isn’t terribly far off from release quality. Documentation is there but unfinished. I did get through both sides of the Braveheart campaign without a crash or a halt, but noticed the occasional glitch or unimplemented rule. At release, The Bruce seemed to be more of a work in progress.

I’ve trapped Wallace and his force in the Selkirk Forest. This villain will plague England no more!

To my mind, the biggest weakness in this early build is with the AI. It doesn’t yet seem to know what to do to win the game, big picture-wise, but also makes simple mistakes. For example, it frequently will elect to retreat from a battle when no retreat is possible. This AI weakness is mitigated by the availability of online play. Yet, many of the Steam-forum complaints from the earlier Blocks! iterations focus on the online mode. One hopes that the Early Access release is a chance to shore up these two features.

Final release is planned for 4-8 weeks out and you’re offered a discount of 20% for buying early. While there is still more work to be done, the path to the final product is already clear. If you know you want this one anyway, getting involved early shouldn’t look scary at all.

Blocks! Hammer of the Scots was released on Steam via Early Access on July 20th. At the time of writing, it’s due to stay there for up to 8 weeks.