Sunday, 5 April 2015

Scotland Rising

Scotland Rising, published by Worthington Publishing, is a boardgame covering the battle of Bannockburn 1314.

Box artwork

The English King, Edward II, has invaded Scotland and is about the meet Robert the Bruce and the formidable Scot Schiltrons at Bannockburn.

This post examines the game by way of a replay. Please press 'read more' for the rest of this post.

The game is the first in the PT-90 series, reflecting that Playing Time will be around 90 minutes. An idea similar to the 120 series by GDW many moons ago.

From memory, the original intention was that the game would ship with three battles, but the design did not reach the funding mark, so was released with one battle. I note that over at Boardgamegeek, the map for one of the other games (Stirling Bridge) is now available for download and will work with the counters from Scotland Rising.

Bannockburn map

The game is attractive (apart from my game sleeve having excess glue on it - again!). You get a half sized map (4 panels in size) in card stock with nice large hexes and a sheet of thick colourful counters, which are likewise large.  There is a single play aid, though the charts on it are also repeated in the rule book. The rules are presented in an 8 page attractive booklet, though the actual rules occupy just 4 pages with the remainder of the booklet being given over to a 'Battle Manual' that covers the history of the battle, illustrated examples of movement and combat, designer notes and explanations of various unit types and their weapons.

The counters have three values on them (explained below) and are named as belonging to one of the three leaders per side, though there are no rules (even optional ones) that makes the naming  significant, but the system is so stable that a gamer could introduce some house rules, such as leaders can only rally units under their own command or when a leader is lost, an adverse test is taken by all units under his command etc. In that regard, it is possible for players to add a layer of chrome.

Likewise, there is some potential to bring some house rules for history via the Random Events Table. Currently the table when activated does something randomly mechanical to play, such as 'Add 1 die to any charging units', but the player could swap some of these out for historical narrative or even build up a smaller second table that might have instructions such as;

' Lay on! they fail' - if it is turn 12 or later, 1 eliminated Scot pike unit can return to play on its reduced side along the Scottish edge of the board. It cannot go into schiltron and represents the camp followers entering the battlefield'.

This is certainly not to say that the game needs this sort of thing, it is just to show the potential for those who like to tinker.

The Scottish player correctly has some 'pike' units and they can use the schiltron tactical formation, with the associated special rules. The English are also referred to as pike - but perhaps the term 'spear' would have chimed a bit better. I don't think it matters during play. The fact that the Scottish pike can either be in schiltron or not and when not, they behave just like 'English spear' did make me stop and think about that - but on reflection and having regard for the low complexity of the game, it works and works in a clever and streamlined way.

The first value on the counter shows how many dice the unit gets in attack. Both the above units will use 2 x D6 when attacking.

The second value shows the score needed on those attack dice by the other player to cause a casualty on this unit. In the above case, the archers will suffer a hit if any of the dice against them score, 4, 5 or 6, while the Axemen would only be hit if the dice against them result in any 5 to 6. Note the shadows on the ground in the counter artwork, I thought that was a nice touch.

The third value shows the movement allowance. Foot have an allowance of 2 Movement Points, but pikes have only 1 MP when in schiltron. Hobbler cavalry are light and so move the fastest (4 MPs). Ordinary knights have 3 MPs.

Knights, Scottish axemen and all leaders  (which behave as knights) are the only units who can charge, combining movement with attack - costing an extra Activation Point.  Schiltron cannot be charged and charging units cannot enter pot holes (only two hexes, situated on the Scot right flank have pot holes).

It is these sort of twists that take the system that is essentially from 'Hold the Line' (18th Century) and give it a Bannockburn feel.  

The victory points are based upon losses, plus the English will get VP's for exiting the  board at the road (see top right in the photo below). This is to reflect their efforts to raise the siege at Stirling. The Scots begin the game with 5 VP's to reflect their siege of Stirling.

From the outset, the promise of 90 minutes playing time looks good and this is the sort of game that you could have out on the table, counters punched and rules read within the hour of tearing the shrink-wrap off. 

So how does it play? - At the start of play, all forces are on the board.

This is the official set-up, but there is a free set-up option.

Plans - The Scottish player sees that the English are likely to press on their left flank in an effort to exit some units off the map for victory points, so they will transfer a little bit of weight over to that side. Also staying in position seems a good idea, as they already start the game with 5 VP's and the English will have to spent more of their activation points in simply moving their army up and the Scottish rear will be anchored in woods, which the English knights cannot charge into, so if they are outflanked they will be in less peril of the rear being vulnerable.

Plans - The English player wants to get enough units up to the front before attacking rather than launching early weak attacks that will suffer more harm than they inflict. In particular, they want archers in their second line, so that they can fire over the front line and weaken the defenders. The optional rule of bowmen not suffering any firing penalty against schiltrons will be used as it seems to accord well with history - though I am less sure that the bow should be allowed to actually eliminate units, but that consideration is for another day.

The following AAR will give the structure of the sequence of play for turn 1 and as necessary give a few detailed examples of how combat is managed. Once those are explained the AAR will give way to an overview of play.

Turn 1 (of 15) Scots 5 VP's  English 0 VP's.

The Scottish player has a once per game ability to launch a 'Scots Charge', which essentially allows them to charge to contact with units at the cost of just 1 AP per charge rather than the usual cost of 2. This charge is only useful when several units want to move AND fight and may be more useful on the opening turns to try and disrupt the English and perhaps score a few VP's. This is what the design notes recommend, however, it does pull the pikemen out of position and the question is whether they can extract themselves and get back to their lines and go into Schiltron before the English back-lash makes such a venture questionable in terms of victory points gained. The English typically get fewer AP's on the first few turns, so that does reduce their ability to immediately counter-attack and they will likely use their AP's to pull back those units that have been flipped and are vulnerable to elimination if attacked again.

It also seems sensible that the Scottish pike will want to get into the schiltron formation early and so the Scottish player has some thinking to do on turn 1 that will certainly influence the first 4 or 5 turns of the game. The decision to launch the Scots Charge has to be made before Action Points are rolled for - against my better judgement, I decide to launch the attack on turn 1.

Scottish Action Point Determination -  They always start the turn with 6 AP's  plus a randomiser die roll that can add a further 1, 2 or 3 to that. In this instance they roll an extra 2 AP's for a total of 8. 

Scottish removal of friendly disorder chits - there are no disordered Scottish units.

Scottish Action Phase - The player can spend action points to move, attack (melee),  shoot with bows, charge (knights, axemen and leaders only) or rally. All cost 1 AP except charges cost 2 AP's. The Scottish player (only) can put the pike into schiltrons (a sort of hedgehog of spear tips) or take them out of schiltron and this is done at zero AP cost, but that counts as their action for the turn, so they can't do anything else.

Having decided to launch the Scots Charge,  the first pike (pike normally cannot charge)  unit moves to contact English cavalry, no effect. The same for a second pike unit. But the third pike unit charges and rolls 2 x D6 on the attack (which matches the defence factor on the cavalry counter) - wow! The first hit flips the English knight unit. The second hit would normally remove a unit from play, BUT, knights and leaders on their flipped side if hit, have a 50 / 50 chance of surviving the hit. The attacker rolls again and manages to make the second hit count - the knight unit is removed from play and the Scots get 3 VP's.

All the other pike charges fail. The final AP is spent to pull a pike unit out of the rear line and start to shift it along the road in the woods towards their left flank.

English Action Point Determination Phase - The English only get 4 AP's (plus the randomiser) on turns 1 and 2. This increases to 5 AP's on turns 3 - 5 and thereafter they get 6 AP's. On this turn they roll well and get 3 extra AP's so have a total of 7 to spend.

English removal of friendly disorder chits - there are no disordered English units. (note units only disorder if they roll at least two 1's when charging).

English Action Phase - One of Gloucester's knight units ( a 3-6-3) attacks a pike unit (a 2-5-2) and rolls 3 x D6 and gets results of 2, 5 and 6. The 2 is a miss, but the 5 and 6 both score hits against a pike unit (denoted by the number 5 on the pike unit values) and so that unit is flipped for one hit and then  removed from play for the second hit, giving the English 2 victory points. By the end of the turn, 2 more pike units are lost - I now really regret attacking with them (In my last game, two English cavalry units had been flipped by the Scots Charge and then the English only rolled 5 AP's - they spent their AP's on getting the flipped units away from danger and bringing more troops up - leaving the pike alone, so this is quite a different situation). 

Turn 2. Scots 8 VP's, English 6 VP's.

The Scots get 9 AP's. The 4 surviving pike (1 is flipped) pull back into their start line. The 4 pikes that did not move, go into schiltron and 3 pike from the 2nd rank move forward to fill gaps.

The English player gets just 5 AP's, but the chance of attacking the retreating pike before they get into schiltron is too tempting. Two of their knights pay 2 AP's each to charge the Scottish line, removing one of those pike units from play. Victory points are now equal.

Turn 3. Scots 8 VP's, English 8 VP's.

Moray's Axemen (who can charge) counter-attack an exposed cavalry unit, but roll badly. Most of the Scottish pikes now go into schiltron and Robert the Bruce moves onto the flipped pike unit in the front line ready to try and rally the unit next turn - this might be unnecessary exposure for The Bruce. 

The English player gets 8 AP's and their cavalry attack Moray's axemen, getting three 6's on their 3 x D6 and removing them from play - ouch!

Turn 4. Scots 8 VP's, English 10 VP's.

Pike in schiltron attack with 1 dice less and are themselves attacked with 1 dice less. This battle is essentially about gaining victory points by removing units, so both sides are compelled to make attacks, the Scots cannot just sit it out.

English archers (above) fire over the heads of friendly cavalry and attack the schiltron beyond, getting two 6's, this gives 2 hits and removes the pike unit. I am not really that happy with this as a process / mechanic and would rather see a rule that lets archers only inflict 1 hit, since their role within the timescale and arrow supply was to degrade the enemy enough for melee troops to have a better chance of seeing them off. Anyway I will go with it for now, but may house-rule it in the future.

A unit of Edward's cavalry (above) attack the flipped pike that has still not been rallied by Robert the Bruce. The attackers dice are reduced from 3 to 2 because the schiltron reduces the attacker dice rolls by one. But it is enough to cause 2 hits. The unit on it's flip side is removed from play by the first hit, but there is an excess hit that The Bruce must take. Leaders have this 50 / 50 chance of survival when hit. Luckily for the Scots, he survives. Had he perished, the Scottish AP allowance would reduce by 1 for the rest of the game (the same for the English if King Edward is killed).

Turn 5. Scots 8 VP's, English 14 VP's.

Moray (leader) makes a powerful charge with an axe unit and removes a knight unit from play. Knights counter-attack and remove the axe unit, but Moray survives (lucky).

Turn 9, Scots 11 VP's, English 20 VP's.

There is a natural lull in the play. The Scottish army have suffered heavy casualties, but the English army has several flipped knights and they pull back, as not enough English support has moved up to keep up the momentum of attack.

Casualties so far are, the English have lost 2 x knights and the Scots have lost 3 x axe and 7 x pike. 7 game turns remain.

This feels like a gamey situation, the English could now choose to just pull back and sit the game out, while getting stronger as their rear units move up, because the victory point balance is so clearly in their favour - the scots who really should be fine just sitting on the defence, now find themselves having to attack, when tactically that does not seem the best thing to do.

Turn 11, Scots 15 VP's, English 25 VP's.

The Scottish left flank advances, but it is not really strong enough to overpower the numbers of English who are covering that flank.

Gloucester (below) has attacked Bruce, but he does not succeed and subsequently he succumbs to Scottish archers (range 2 hexes). He is the first leader lost, though there is no effect on play as he is not the main army leader.

Turn 12, Scots 21 VP's, English 25 VP's.

Though the Scots have closed the victory point gap over the last 3 turns, they have now been forced to fall back. Edwards cavalry charge some Scottish bowmen caught in the open, but they roll 1, 1 and 2. The two 1's mean the cavalry go disordered, making them a bit more vulnerable if attacked.

Bruce with Douglass (cavalry) has been pushing down the left flank, hitting exposed English archers, but they have become isolated and the target of a charge by Edward's cavalry. The Scottish cavalry are lost, but Bruce hangs on.

Turn 15, Scots 25 VP's, English 28 VP's.

It is the last turn. Bruce has fended off the enemy cavalry (flipping them), while the English have re-organised their line and launched a fresh assault, with a series of cavalry charges against the Scottish left wing. The pike get away with just a couple of flips, it could have been a lot worse and if this game was to carry on for just a couple of more turns, it would be likely that their left wing would be swept away.

My previous game was a low scoring draw and this 25 (Scot) to 28 (English) result is just as tight really. Note from the final photograph that roughly a third of the entire English and Scottish armies have not moved. This was a battle fought on just one side of the board, which is my only real criticism of the game - see below.

Conclusions: - Before taking the shrink-wrap off the game, in my mind I had categorised the game as likely to be quick to get into, fun to play, light on simulation and as would be expected with a game graded as complexity 2 out of 10, the game nicely met that expectation. 

It is a nice system from the point of view that you get drawn in to all the various tactical moments that occur in the battle, but when viewed as a whole, the game centric rather than simulation based game doesn't particularly put you in the chair of an army commander, but it gives an enjoyable hour or two of gaming at the local level. 

Based on the 'Hold the Line' series, it also shares the same fundamental problem and that is you play against clock (barely enough turns to succeed) with limited activation points and as a result for the attackers, it is common that between a third and half your army might never get activated to move at all, especially as the distances that an attacker needs to cover is too great to get everything moving with available AP's (and made worse in this game as the English rear units are hampered by swamp). The game defaults to the attacker using precious activation points to manage a small group of attackers to maintain the assault at the interface of the main engagement, with efforts spent by leaders trying to rally units to keep them in the game because it is too much effort (in AP's) to bring up reserves.

This pressure on time gives a sense of tension at the point(s) of engagement as each side seeks advantage, which is enjoyable, but the inability to move a bigger proportion of the army undermines the sense of this being a big battle. 

I might consider a house-rule in which the player can spent 1 AP to move a PAIR of ADJACENT units, providing those units are at least 7 hexes away from the nearest enemy unit. I imagine this might unhinge the scenario and in this particular game might make the English too effective.

I can see this game easily coming off the shelf, simply because it is so accessible and will give both players a fun game, great for a mid-week play and ideal for those gaming sessions when you haven't quite got the 'new' game ready in your mind to game with your guest and this can come out instead and be instantly playable. Worthington have done well to once again use a simple system to good game effect in a different period.

I can't help feeling disappointed that the other two intended battles did not actually end up in this package as the stretch goals were not reached. Sometimes I think Kickstarter can get in the way of a company just going with their gut instinct that they have a good game and just cracking on with getting the right package out of the door. (please note, there is two versions of this game - one has just counters and the other has counters plus blocks and labels for those that prefer them (dearer of course), again an outcome of Kickstarter and just having one streamlined package of counters only might have made it easier (cost production wise) to get the extra maps into the game - or at least one of them.

I am thinking of trying to use the simple engine from this system on some Command and Colors Ancients scenarios in lieu of the cards, with the main advantage being easier solitaire play and a change in emphasis in that the player will always be able to act at the point of crisis. It may or may not work with the existing scenarios, but is worth looking at.

Likewise, I have a small hexed game surface for figure gaming and this system might be utilised there, especially as the hex area is typically 8 x 6 or 10 x 7 hexes, so that combined with smaller armies might mean the more of the army is active at anyone time.

[EDIT] - I notice that 'Old Trousers' (Jay) is already doing something like this for the battle of Quatre Bras (from the Waterloo campaign 1815) - He has written up some nice rules for a 8 x 6 hex game on his blog, I have added a link in the resources section at the foot of this post. It will be interesting to follow his progress.

Solitaire: - This is a two player game that plays fine solitaire and this replay is based on a solitaire game. The Random Event Table also helps the solitaire aspect of the game.

Time: - Todays game played out in around 1 hour and 40 minutes and my previous game in 1 hour and 25 minutes, so I can see it playing more-or-less at 90 minutes on most occasions, give or take 10 minutes or so.

Complexity: - The box says 2 out of 10 and I am happy to go with that in terms of mechanics etc. The challenge to the players will be to understand how to get the best out of the armies. Even a first game can be played without the rule set being in your hands and players will be able to pull it of the shelves in the future and play with just the briefest of reads to remind themselves of the key rules.

Space: - The map (a half mapper) plus room for a letter sized play aid and a space to roll the dice is all that is needed. The box is a standard 'book shelf' box. This is a compact game.

For some time, Amazon UK have been selling the Kindle version of the Osprey Campaign book on Bannockburn for around £1 against the normal paperback price of £15. This book makes a fine companion to this game.

Jay's blog (Old Trousers)  - Numbers, War-games and Arsing About


  1. Nice AAR Norm. I take your point about the archers' combat effect. I prefer the idea of a disruption state for the effects of long range fire. I do like your "group move" idea and think that will work well. Happy Easter!


  2. Thanks Jay. On the 8 x 6 hex grid that we are both interested in, having units never activated in game should be less of an issue. As for archers in the game. I think I am either going to have to go for a disruption only rule - or otherwise not use the optional 'ignore schiltron' rule for archers.

    Hope you manage to get some QB done over the hols!