Dale Yu: Review of Swords and Bagpipes

 

Swords and Bagpipes

  • Designer: Yan Egorov
  • Publisher: Right Games
  • Players: 3-5
  • Ages: 11+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with advance copy provided by Right Games
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Swords and Bagpipes is “a game about Scotland, betrayal and honor” – or at least, so says the box.  Set in the first Scottish War of Independence in the 14th century, players take on the roles of clan leaders that are working independently to gain as much gold (victory points) as possible, and hopefully to help preserve Scotland’s independence along the way…

The game shows a map of Scotland and spaces for the different types of cards.  There is also a helpful player aid printed on the board for all to review.  The most important thing on the board is the “Scotland Defeats” track – essentially, this is a track with 5 spaces on it.  There is a marker which starts on the first space, and over the course of the game, if Scotland loses a battle, this marker is advanced to the next space on the board, and eventually ends in a tam-o-shanter topped skull.  There is also a space on the board for the “Scotland camp” – a holding area for troops that will always fight for Scotland.

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The board

Each player gets a castle with his clan name on it as well as a camp marker (a tartan-emblazed tent).  These are placed in front of the player.  The castle is where you store your coins (i.e. victory points) as well as some of your army units.  The camp is an area where you also place army units, but the units in the camp are pledged to fight in the current battle.  (More on fighting later).  Players start the game with 3 coins and 3 units on their castle.

Your castle and camp in four lovely tartans

Your castle and camp in your own lovely tartans

Finally, each player is dealt a Bagpipe card.  Each of these cards have special abilities that can affect yourself, an opponent or all players – all depending on the text on the cards.  Bagpipe cards have icons in the corner that tell you when they can be played.

The game is played over 7 rounds – each round representing a battle in the war of Independence.  In each round, there is an English Arms card drawn which explains the current political situation in the war – i.e. what the specific rules for the round will be.  This card tells the players what the strength of the English army is for the round as well as the rewards given if Scotland wins or if England wins.  The card may also have an additional conditional action that is applied during the round.

S&B_Photo_44

Then, players in clockwise order from the starting player token take their actions for the turn.  Each player MUST take a replenishment action, and may relocate and/or play bagpipe cards.  The active player will do all of his actions before the next player takes his turn.  You may do the three available actions in any order.

There are four replenishment options, and they are summarized on the player aid on the board:

  1.       Collect Taxes – you take one gold coin (victory point)
  2.       Raise Militia – Add one unit to each player’s camp and add one unit to Scotland’s camp
  3.       Assemble Troops – Add two units to your Castle
  4.       Hire Mercenaries – spend one coin and add four units to your castle.

When you relocate troops, you move as many units as you wish from your Castle to your Camp.   Again, remember that only troops located on your Camp area will go and fight. During this phase, you can also play any Bagpipe cards that have an axe on them.

Each player takes their turn to do their actions.  Then, the first player marker is passed along.  The current holder can give it to any other player in the game except to the player who had passed it to him in the previous round.  Not only will the new holder of the “Badge of Honour” start the next round, he also essentially gets to spectate in the next phase of the current round – which is the declaration of loyalty – the holder of the Badge of Honour will always fight for Scotland!

So, as I mentioned earlier, each round represents a battle in the war for Independence.  At the start of the round, you can see how many troops will fight for England – that is seen on the bottom corner of the English Arms card.  At this point in the round, you will also know how many troops are on Scotland’s camp on the board as well as on the camp of the current holder of the Badge of Honour.  The other players in the game now have to decide which side they will support.  Each clan has two markers, one with the tam-o-shanter for Scotland on it and one with a crown for England on it.  These are secretly and simultaneously placed facedown on the table, and when all players have chosen, they are revealed.  (Again, remember that the current holder of the start player marker does not do anything here because he MUST fight for Scotland this round).  During this phase, players may also choose to play any Bagpipe cards with the choice marker icon on it.

S&B_Photo_43

Once all the players have declared which side they are fighting on – the battle is resolved.  The total strength of the Scottish and English sides are calculated.  The side which has more armies will win the battle! If there is a tie, then Scotland wins.

  •         Scottish strength = armies on the Scotland camp on the board + armies on all the camps of players that have declared loyalty to Scotland
  •         English strength = armies on the English Arms card + armies on all the camps of players that have declared loyalty to England

Then, it’s time to reap the spoils of war.  The top of the English Arms cards has three different areas that line up with icons on the board to explain who gets what in this phase.  Note that a player must have committed at least one army to the fight to be eligible for awards OR to play any bagpipe cards this phase (the ones with a gold bag icon on them).

Under the regular tam-o-shanter is the reward given to each Scotland supporter IF Scotland WON the battle.  In every round but the last, players getting this reward will also be able to draw another Bagpipe card from the deck.  This is the only way to get more Bagpipe cards.

Under the arrow pierced tam-o-shanter is the reward given to each Scotland supporter IF Scotland LOST the battle.  Also, remember to move the Scotland Defeats marker one space forward on the track is Scotland lost this battle.

Finally, under the crown are the rewards given to each England supporter – REGARDLESS of the outcome.  There is usually a large amount of gold here, and generally, that pool is to be divided equally amongst all the people who supported England.  There are a few cards, though, which give each England supporter the full amount depicted on the card.  Additionally, each England supported is required to draw a dagger card.  These dagger cards can have a value of 1,2 or 3 on them.

Dagger and Bagpipe cards

Dagger and Bagpipe cards

If the game is to continue, a new English Arms card is revealed and the game continues.  If the game has finished the 7th Round or if Scotland has just suffered its fourth defeat (and the marker is now on the skull) – the game is over and it’s time to figure out who won.

The method of determining a winner is different depending on how the game ends.

If the game ends and Scotland has won (i.e. the Scotland Defeats marker is NOT on the skull at the end of the track) – the winner is the player with the most gold.  If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player with the fewest number of daggers – because that player has been the most loyal to Scotland.  There is one important rule exception here – if a player has at least 5 more daggers than any other player, he is automatically disqualified from winning.

If the game ends with a Scotland defeat (i.e. the Scotland Defeats marker IS on the skull at the end of the track) – the winner is the player with the fewest daggers.  Ties go to the player with the most gold.

My thoughts on the game

Swords and Bagpipes is another game from Russia that has impressed me.  As little as 3 years ago, I don’t know if I had played a single Russian designed game – but there is definitely a good pool of designing talent that is now becoming more widely recognized.

This is a hard game to wrap your head around on the first few plays.  First, it’s hard to really know what your end goal is with different victory conditions based on how the game ends.  In our first game, the game went the full length as Scotland never lost.  However, the higher rewards offered for the England supporters caused a lot more disloyalty in our next game, and Scotland barely won – needing to pull out a victory in the final round’s battle in order to win.  A well timed defection could net you up to 8 gold pieces which is not a small sum in this game!

Secondly, the Bagpipe cards add a lot of uncertainty to the game.  Like any game with special action cards, some seem better than others – but a lot of that is dependent on how the game is going and/or the timing of when you are dealt the cards. Each player starts the game with a random card dealt to them, but after that, the only way to get more cards is to support Scotland when they win a battle.  Thus, you are at least in more control of getting more cards, and it just becomes part of the calculation (or gamble) when you are choosing who to support.

Does the amount of variance in the cards bother me?  Not really – there are so many moving pieces in the game, you just have to accept the fact that they are somewhat varied and that luck will play a bigger role in this game.  That being said, I would probably not want to personally play with the Scotland Ensemble variant in the rule book which gives players THREE cards to start each game with – that might be a bit more cardplay than I’d be interested in.

Choosing when to betray Scotland is a tricky, but important, thing in the game.  Generally the coin rewards are higher if you can be the only traitor in a round.  In general, the penalty of taking dagger cards is more than offset by the higher coin payout.  Of course, you can’t turn every turn because remember that if you have 5 more daggers than anyone else at the end of the game, you can’t win.

 

Another subtle decision is choosing who to give the start player marker to… we missed the importance of this in our first game.  When you give the marker to someone, you essentially force them to support Scotland that turn.  You can really disrupt someone’s plans if you give them the start player marker when they were going to support England that turn.

The game moves quickly – once players know the rules, each individual round takes about 5 minutes – the individual action phases move quickly, and the math of figuring out who wins becomes second nature.  I’ve found that the longest part of each round comes when players are deciding which side they are supporting in the battle.

The copy that I have is not quite a finished copy as the cards are pasted up – so I can’t comment on the quality of the production there.  I hope the graphics stay the same as they are very nice.  Iconography is easy to follow, and the text on the cards is also easy to understand.

Thus far, I have enjoyed this game, and I look forward to playing it more over the summer.  I would be interested to see the final production values, though I would expect it to meet current standards as Right Games has always done well in the past.  While this isn’t my favorite Russian designed game – that award would still go to Evolution – this one is definitely worth trying out.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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