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Subject: Hammer of the Scots After One Year rss

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John R
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Hammer of the Scots After One Year

I received Hammer of the Scots as a birthday present last June and after about a year of playing, I thought a review was in order. Because of its slightly long playing time, I only got this to the table eight times, about every month and a half.

Components

Hammer of the Scots is typical Columbia Games fare. It comes in a black cardboard box with a sleeve. The sleeve has a colorful (some might say gaudy) depiction of battle. After opening the box, you’ll get a set of blue and red wooden blocks, a set of stickers to turn those blocks into units, some rather unexciting playing cards, a garish map, and a short set of rules.

As for the blocks—these are pretty high quality. I own three Columbia block games and have never seen a block that was poorly coated in paint, chipped, or cracked. These are definitely a step above the blocks found in other games, like GMT’s Commands and Colors: Ancients.

The map is functional, although I’m unsure why anyone needs a topographical map. This often makes it hard to read, especially for first time or older players, or players with poor eyesight. It’s made out of cardboard, so you’ll need a trusty poster frame or Plexi-glass to fit over the map.

The playing cards are perhaps my biggest gripe. The card backs feature Columbia’s bland logo, and the pictures on the card faces are grainy and pixilated. You’ll probably need some card sleeves too, to prevent card bending or nicking.

Rules

One of the beautiful things about most Columbia games is that the rules are almost always under ten pages. This holds true for Hammer. You can read the rules from cover-to-cover in about 30 minutes, and then set up and play a few turns. There are a few ambiguities here that I discovered in my first play or two, but these are usually ironed out pretty quickly by skimming through other sections and applying common sense. Three scenarios are presented for play. You’ll probably spend most of your time with the “Braveheart” scenario, although “The Bruce” is included, or if you want a good afternoon of gaming, try combining the two.

Gameplay

The goal of the game is to control the majority of nobles in Scotland. Each noble is a block, and acts like any other military unit. But here is where the fun comes in—when you “kill” a noble, you remove him from the board and place the exact same piece on the board, but with your color! So there are two “Bruce” nobles—one red for the English, and one blue for the Scots. The “killing” of a noble represents either his change of allegiance after capture, a dubious deal, or the death of the noble and his son’s subsequent betrayal of his father’s political beliefs. This is what makes the game stand out.

Each turn (or year) is divided into a few phases. After dealing five cards to each player, most of the year is spent laying a card, activating that number of groups on the board, and moving. Then your opponent does the same thing, and you play out any battles that result. Most cards in the deck are a 1, 2, or 3, card, but there are a few event cards. These let you do things like move by sea, raid the enemy at no cost to yourself, get free reinforcements, etc. There’s a neat twist here; if at any point you and your opponent lay down an event card at the same time, the year immediately ends. This adds a surprising tension to the card play.

Movement might seem a simple matter at first until you begin examining the board. This is an area-movement game, and each area either has black or red borders. A black border means that six units can traverse that border during your turn, while a red border means that only two units can do so, and they must halt once they reach the far edge of the border. The “highland” areas in the north have lots of red borders, which make it slow going up there. By contrast, the southern lowlands have many black borders, so players can gallop about as they please.

Battles take place in three rounds, with the attacker retreating at the top of the fourth round. All units are rated as either A, B, or C units; this indicates what order they go in during combat. After that designation is a number: 1-4. This indicates the punching power of that unit. A 3, for instance, will get hits on a 1-3 on a six-sided die. Last, each unit has a number of diamonds indicating current unit strength. Many units start at four diamonds, which means you would roll four dice for that unit. In play, we usually call units by their strength, order, and power. So a “3B3” unit has three dice of strength, goes second in combat, and hits on a 1-3.

I won’t go too heavily into detail on the combat, but you basically line up your units by their order in combat. All defending A’s roll, followed by attacking A’s, then B’s, and so on. When it comes to your subsets of units, you have the option to fight or flee. Hits are applied to the strongest enemy unit at the moment, with the owner making the decision. If a noble is killed in combat, he shows up at strength one on the enemyside, which is pretty fun. Nobles also get a bonus when defending their home territory.

After five card plays, players must go through a winter phase. Certain units must retire to the draw pool, while other hole up in castles and wait out the snow. The number of units that can winter in a region is determined mainly by the castle size (1-3). It’s pretty tight quarters in most of Scotland, so about halfway through the turn I’m usually looking around to see how I can make sure all my guys have room and board for the winter! This gives the game some nice tension, as sometimes a player must make a lunging attack so he isn’t forced to disband units. Players also can reinforce units, or set new units on the board if they have enough resources (calculated by castle size).

Another fun twist occurs in this part of the turn. Nobles have to winter in their home territory, and English-owned nobles return first. If enemy blocks are in a noble’s home territory, he switches sides at his current strength. When I play, there are always jokes when this happens, such as: “Lord Mentieth goes home, only to find WILLIAM WALLACE holding a sword to his wife’s throat. His heart now burning with patriotism, Mentieth switches sides…”

There are a few unique units. William Wallace (a.k.a. “Braveheart”) is probably the neatest. He’s an extraordinarily fast and strong unit, well-suited to hit and run attacks. He’s a Scot, of course, and if he gets trapped and killed, the Scottish ability to win is greatly reduced. When he shows up, kills a noble, and takes an area, we like to joke about that scene from Braveheart where he breaks into some guy’s house on a horse and kills him with a ball-and-chain to the face. Ouch! The English King is also powerful, though not as fast. He has the special ability to winter in Scotland, which allows him tobasically keep as many blocks with him over the winter phase in one place. This gives the English the ability to send a very large force north every second or third year. This contributes a lot to the ebb and flow of the game. The Scottish also get a contingent of French knights, some Norse ocean-raiders, and the Scottish King. This is also an incredibly powerful unit, but the Scottish must sacrifice a lot to get him out on the board.

Rule Britannia: English Strategy

The general English strategy throughout the game is pretty simple. Draw infantry units from your draw pool and get them into some nice comfy Scottish barracks. Then, when you get the English King on the board, gather a large force, head north, grab some territories, and winter. Next year, make a lunge for some fat territories, and then do it all over again the next year. Hunting and killing Wallace is also a priority, because without him it’s a lot harder for the Scots to win.

What’s nice about playing the English is that you don’t have to be too concerned with getting a lot of your infantry units killed. They just return to the draw pool anyway, so you can use them to soak up hits while your more powerful units dish out the damage.

Early on, it’s good to crush the southern Scottish rebellion and then turn your attention north. If you can keep the Scots penned up in the highlands, the game is yours.

Because they have a pretty straightforward strategy, I consider it best to give new players the English.

Scotland the Brave: Scottish Strategy

First, let me just say that I love playing the Scots. You start with two separate strongholds, one in the south and one in the north. Chances are you’ll lose the southern rebellion pretty quick, which leaves you with the highlands. Locking those up is important, but even more important is capturing and holding onto some fat territories so you can get your armies out of the draw pool and onto the board. Geographically, the highlands are great for defense, but you need to come out of them to win the game! Your sense of timing must be impeccable. Sweep into the rich lowlands too early in a given year and the English will just crush you. Go to late and you might not be able to mop up before winter comes.

Use Wallace the way he’s meant to be used—as a fast, hit-and-run unit. Because he’s an A3 and all nobles are B’s, it’s not uncommon to have him kill off a noble without taking a scratch. Commit him carefully to larger battles, and if you feel a battle is lost, have Wallace withdraw to fight another day.

Perhaps my favorite raiding combo is Wallace and the Norse together. Essentially, you’ll get to roll seven dice before a lone English noble gets to fire a single shot.

Knowing when to get the Scottish King into place is also key. When you do so, some of your nobles will automatically defect, so be ready to crush that rebellion immediately. It’s worth it to have him on the board, but some careful planning is needed first.

What’s Good

You can read the rules in 30 minutes, put stickers on blocks in about 15, and be playing 45 minutes after you open the box. There’s not many deep wargames that can deliver the same.

And while this game is definitely asymmetrical in terms of how the two sides play, it is not unbalanced. Each year feels pretty tense as you sally forth from winter quarters, attempt to “persuade” a few nobles to your side, and then dash back to your barracks before the snow sets in.

Several unique mechanics also make this game a winner. The whole nobles-flipping mechanic is pretty cool, and the area border limits mean that certain areas of the map quickly become hotly contested. The English King wintering rule also gives this game a nice ebb-and-flow for both sides. There will be big years when a huge English army comes roaring north and the Scots are hanging by their fingernails, and more quiet years when Wallace is raiding and the English are trying to pen him in.

What’s Bad

My only complaint is some of the graphics (mentioned above in Components) are pretty shoddy and the board is hard to look at. There are a few ambiguities that will come up when several parts of the game interact, but they are easily answered by common sense or by checking out the ConSimWorld or BoardGameGeek forums.

I’ve heard some other complaints from people I’ve played with: (Keep in mind that I tend to be the wargaming “hub” among my family and friends. I’m the only person that owns this game.)

Some don’t like the Zen-like quality of this game. It’s rather abstract, as are a lot of Columbia block games, and while the rules are pretty simple, it’s hard to master. Often new players are saying “Oh…Oh NOW I get it” in the middle of a turn, and that annoys some of them.

There are some fiddly exceptions and special rules. I don’t really consider this a true “card-driven” game, as the cards don’t contain those rules exceptions; it’s up to you to memorize them.

The reasoning behind the rules of the game can be confusing to some people. This is my brother’s complaint with most Columbia games. I have a pretty easy time reading a rulebook and understanding the “why” behind a particular rule; he’s one of those people that just feels cheated, even if the rule has been clearly explained. Some people won’t like that nobles flip sides, or that two event cards played at the same time ends a year.

Some also complain that this game feels too random because of dice, draw pools, etc. It’s my belief that this complaint is unfounded. This is not a “buckets of dice” game, though the fortunes of war sometimes go against you. My experience is that the better player will always win. As for the draw pools, I think they simulate perfectly what’s going on outside of Scotland. Sometimes the lords of England ignored the king’s call for a levy, and sometimes the Scottish people were too afraid to rebel. And there were times where the English king was sick, or fighting somewhere else, and couldn’t make it to Scotland.

A good way to circumvent these complaints is to play this with an experienced player, or have a teaching game played with hands and units visible to each player. That way, the more experienced player can walk the new player through the game and show him or her some of the common moves, interactions, etc.

Final Judgment

This is an excellent abstract intermediate-level block wargame. It has a pretty good replay factor, and it’s a game where your choices are infinitely more important than a single unit draw or die roll.

I wouldn’t consider it a good entry-level game, but a great intermediate game to purchase after playing a simple battle game like Manoeuvre, Memoir ’44, or something similar.

And it’s a game…that has a movie to go along with it! You can’t always say that, can you?

John,
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Justin
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http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/413649
 
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John R
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Hurray! Thanks for the link.
 
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Iain K
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Nice review John, what rating do you give the game on the BGG scale after having played it 8 times ?
 
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Jeremy Carlson
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Great review John. I have never played HotS in person, only on Vassal (vassalengine.org). I've played 3 times and thought is was a great game.

The graphics are indeed crap. But about half way through my first game, I found that I didn't really care. Though the link to those maps are pure awesome. I have seen the brown one before and it rocks!

The rules though...yes you can read them in 30 minutes or less...BUT you will go back and reread sections a bunch of times as the odd rule comes up. Most of it is really easy to understand, its the little exceptions that muck things up sometimes.

I am not a war gamer, but this is indeed one of the games someone should play after they have tried MM44. It really steps it up a notch.

I will also 100% agree with the dice comments. While you can certainly have a bad round in battle, it won't change the fact that the better player will win. Even having played just 1 game will put you a lot further than someone playing it for the first time. This isn't like a euro where anyone has a chance to win.

Have you played Crusader Rex? If so I would like to hear your comparisons. I like CR a lot more than HotS. Not because it is a better game, but because I like its subtle rule differences more. If you have played HotS or CR, you can play the other, as they share a LOT in common.

If you have not used the Vassal software to play against people (real time) yet John, I highly recommend it.
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John R
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My rating is an 8. I'll suggest it often to the right people, and am pretty much always up for a game.
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Colin Hunter
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Nice review, this is my favourite block game after Eastfront. The dice do matter, but, I'd agree they aren't as decisive as many other bucket of dice games.
 
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Drew Heath
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BeatGuy wrote:
Because of its slightly long playing time, I only got this to the table eight times, about every month and a half.


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Stephen Sanders
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Nice review for a game I love to hate. The main issue I have is with the initial dealing of the 5 cards which can hinder any strategic outcome for that player. A couple of 1's with some useless events will put you behind for a whole turn. This can especially hurt the English.




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Michael Debije
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caltexn wrote:
Nice review for a game I love to hate. The main issue I have is with the initial dealing of the 5 cards which can hinder any strategic outcome for that player. A couple of 1's with some useless events will put you behind for a whole turn. This can especially hurt the English.






You have to suck it up and deal with it. I'm sure the real King also felt the same way at times.
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Mike Brewer
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Quote:
Perhaps my favorite raiding combo is Wallace and the Norse together.


This is indeed very powerful, but can be hard to do (as the Norse have to activated separately).

Good review though. I'd say the luck factor is quite high in this game. I wouldn't say it's chaos; it's just that the cards do make a difference.

Mike
 
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James Megee
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Very nice review!

Jim
 
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Brian Lucid
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I think the game is weighted toward the English. I always use the optional rule schlitroms or however it's spelled. It's the unlimited resources the English have that make it tough to beat them.
 
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John R
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Thanks all for the kind comments. I greatly appreciate it.

John
 
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Timothy Young
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hughthehand wrote:
I am not a war gamer, but this is indeed one of the games someone should play after they have tried MM44. It really steps it up a notch.


That is exactly what I am doing!


Good review John and it is always good to read reviews from people who have played a number of times. I always worry that a game like this might become stale after a few plays.


I do wish that some of the rules had been explained better. For example the two event cards making winter - I assume that this is to reflect the fact that the weather in Scotland is very unpredictable and winter could come early, but without this explanation, it just seems like a very random rule and thus harder to remember.

I think the dice work well in the battles since they add a sense of unpredictability. No matter how strong your units are, they could be defeated by an inferior defending force. Afterall, look at a battle like 'Stirling Bridge'. However, the various factors on the blocks that affect how the dice are rolled means that 90% of the time Goliath will beat David, it just opens the possibility that David might sneak a lucky win.
 
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Peter White
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Quote:
Some also complain that this game feels too random because of dice, draw pools, etc. It’s my belief that this complaint is unfounded. This is not a “buckets of dice” game, though the fortunes of war sometimes go against you. My experience is that the better player will always win. As for the draw pools, I think they simulate perfectly what’s going on outside of Scotland. Sometimes the lords of England ignored the king’s call for a levy, and sometimes the Scottish people were too afraid to rebel. And there were times where the English king was sick, or fighting somewhere else, and couldn’t make it to Scotland.


The complaint is not unfounded at all, but a matter of personal taste.

However the randomness does feel very realistic to me. Leaders simply could not count on the next batch of "BRPs" arriving on a schedule. They had plan for the possibility of weird luck, and have the wits to survive/exploit such turns of fortune.

This is a great game that requires the cultivation of certain kinds of stoicism and perseverance that most other games do not.
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Nice review though your remarks about the garish map and cover seem a bit odd.

Cover - Medieval warfare was all about being garish. Coats of arms, Caparisoned horses in house colors, and banners were never designed with the goal of blending in. Displaying art from a medieval battle on the cover of a wargame that is about medieval battles makes sense. If that means the cover is garish because it is accurately displaying what was worn in battle then I can live with that.

Map Board - I will agree that the map could have been done better given the quality of the maps we have seen done by independant designers on here for HotS. I am looking forward to seeing the results of the map design contest. But your review brings up a few questions. First, how is the map topographical? It's more of a relief map than topographical and the relief is helpful in reminding the player where the highlands are. The colors in the map are fairly muted otherwise with pale blues and greens. If anything, I find the map rather unremarkable. For the record, I am an older player that wears glasses and have no trouble reading the map but do find myself squinting from time to time when trying to read my Dominion cards. Finally, I am not quite sure where the map ambiguities are. This could be because I have played the game many many times, but I can't recall there ever being any ambiguities in the map.

Card Graphics - This is the first time I have seen a game company negatively reviewed for bland card backs. I can't recall any card back that has ever been truly inspiring. Regardless, there are better cards for the DIY crowd that can be downloaded. The cards in the game are functional. I agree, it would have been nice to have standard sized, coated cards but expecting these in a wargame from 2002 is unrealistic. Perhaps your set is different than mine. Even today, standard sized plastic coated cards are a rarity even in true card-driven wargames. Finally, My card faces are neither grainy nor pixilated. They are functional if unremarkable.

Overall, your review seems to find the graphics a huge issue. To counter and FWIW I disagree. My biggest issue with HotS is the rules. I have played this game more times than I can count and yet I am still finding places where someone brings up a question that can't be readily answered by referring to the rules such as the question I had the other day where I had to ask if Wallace can go directly to the draw pool instead of being forced to Winter in Selkirk. We've played this way for years, but even after a complete re-read of the rules I couldn't find a place that definitively answered this question.
 
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Sturmkraehe wrote:
... if Wallace can go directly to the draw pool instead of being forced to Winter in Selkirk. We've played this way for years, but even after a complete re-read of the rules I couldn't find a place that definitively answered this question.

I think you have been playing it right and it's pretty clear:

7.5 Scottish Disbanding: "The Scots player now disbands all blocks..." and then "With the exception of Moray, a Noble cannot disband."

If you are looking for it to say "you can disband Wallace" it doesn't - but it doesn't say you can disband infantry, either. The rules state the exception instead of listing all the blocks you can disband. This means you can also disband the Kings (Scots and Edwards) and the Norse if needed.

Also, 9.0 Victory: "... the English win if Wallace is dead or in the Draw Pool."

There is no other way for him to get to the Draw Pool other than disbanding him since he has a black cross and is eliminated from the game when killed.

My favorite quote in a rulebook is from Combat Commander via Total Krieg!:
Quote:
"Do not infer or imagine more to a rule than is stated in it. When in doubt, interpret strictly."

That quote should be at the beginning of every rulebook and the rulebook writers, editors and readers should live by it! If you interpret a rule strictly and you are wrong, in my opinion it is the fault of the rulebook author...
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John R
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Sturmkraehe wrote:
First, how is the map topographical? It's more of a relief map than topographical and the relief is helpful in reminding the player where the highlands are. The colors in the map are fairly muted otherwise with pale blues and greens. If anything, I find the map rather unremarkable.


My apologies. Relief map it is.

Sturmkraehe wrote:
Finally, I am not quite sure where the map ambiguities are. This could be because I have played the game many many times, but I can't recall there ever being any ambiguities in the map.


My comments about ambiguities were not about the map. The ambiguities are rather when several portions of the rules interact at once. I think this speaks to your frustrations as well.

Sturmkraehe wrote:
Card Graphics - This is the first time I have seen a game company negatively reviewed for bland card backs. I can't recall any card back that has ever been truly inspiring. Regardless, there are better cards for the DIY crowd that can be downloaded. The cards in the game are functional. I agree, it would have been nice to have standard sized, coated cards but expecting these in a wargame from 2002 is unrealistic. Perhaps your set is different than mine. Even today, standard sized plastic coated cards are a rarity even in true card-driven wargames. Finally, My card faces are neither grainy nor pixilated. They are functional if unremarkable.


To see an excellent example of standard-sized, coated cards in a wargame, check out Wilderness War (2001). Great cards. The pixilation I'm seeing is in the background of the card faces. I see similar pixilation in the flags on the card backgrounds in Manoeuvre, unfortunately.

Sturmkraehe wrote:
Overall, your review seems to find the graphics a huge issue. To counter and FWIW I disagree. My biggest issue with HotS is the rules. I have played this game more times than I can count and yet I am still finding places where someone brings up a question that can't be readily answered by referring to the rules such as the question I had the other day where I had to ask if Wallace can go directly to the draw pool instead of being forced to Winter in Selkirk. We've played this way for years, but even after a complete re-read of the rules I couldn't find a place that definitively answered this question.


I don't find the graphics a huge issue--they just happen to be one of the few things I *can* find wrong with the game. This definitely speaks to the quality of the game, as I think we can agree on!

Thanks for the comments,
John

Margin of Victory: an in-depth look at board games
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Philip Walker
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I accidently wasted my money on this game and I got rid of it as soon as I could. It is absolutely horrible and this review does not even accuratly talk about how the game plays or how it feels to be confused and make a bunch of moves and have nothing happen. I guess that I will have to write my own review to make sure that it is done right. Block games are a bad idea and I hope I live to see the day when they are no more.
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philipwalker35 wrote:
I accidently wasted my money on this game and I got rid of it as soon as I could. It is absolutely horrible and this review does not even accuratly talk about how the game plays or how it feels to be confused and make a bunch of moves and have nothing happen. I guess that I will have to write my own review to make sure that it is done right. Block games are a bad idea and I hope I live to see the day when they are no more.

LOL! That's gotta be the funniest thing I've read on here in a while. Thanks for the laugh!
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bunkfoss wrote:
philipwalker35 wrote:
I accidently wasted my money on this game and I got rid of it as soon as I could. It is absolutely horrible and this review does not even accuratly talk about how the game plays or how it feels to be confused and make a bunch of moves and have nothing happen. I guess that I will have to write my own review to make sure that it is done right. Block games are a bad idea and I hope I live to see the day when they are no more.

LOL! That's gotta be the funniest thing I've read on here in a while. Thanks for the laugh!

Yeah if you look at some of his other comments you'll see he's good for a laugh.
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Philip Walker
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What is so funny? I seriously hate games with blocks in them and because of Hammer of the Scots I will never play another one unless I am forced at gun point and even then I might just think hard about taking a bullet.
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Walter OHara
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Agreed. Pretty hilarious!
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philipwalker35 wrote:
What is so funny? I seriously hate games with blocks in them and because of Hammer of the Scots I will never play another one unless I am forced at gun point and even then I might just think hard about taking a bullet.



Hang on a minute...let me find my gun...ninja
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