Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions
Designer: Tristan Hall
‘Tears To Many Mothers’ takes players on a tour through the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Normans invaded the English isles to claim their throne and change the DNA of ol’ Blighty forever. Personally, I find wrapping my head around medieval politics more challenging than unwinding Christmas lights while nursing a vodka hangover, but some context is useful for those of us who didn’t learn about this historic battle in primary school.
The childless King Edward the Confessor, was without an heir and had supposedly promised the throne to a distant Norman cousin, William the Conqueror. Of course this didn’t jive too well with the Saxon nobles, who had been in power since Roman times. Together, the Lords of the land started rallying behind the next most powerful person in England at the time, Harold Godwinson the Earl of Wessex. Eventually under mounting pressure from the English nobility, Harold usurped the throne upon the death of King Edward, thereby breaking the oath that was made to the Normans. And we all know what happens to oath breakers in the times of honour and destiny.
In ‘1066…’ you play either as the defending Saxons, commanded by Harold Godwinson, or the invading Normans lead by William ‘The Conqueror’. You build your army up by committing units into three formations called ‘wedges’, creating rows of steely-eyed knights, ready to crash into your foes shield wall or cavalry charge alike. However, the only thing certain in ‘1066…’ is a cruel death in a cold muddy field. Units will inevitably succumb to the constant attacks from archers and berserker axe-men, forcing a row to shift and filling the space of fallen heroes. “Once more unto the breach” as they say.
Committing cards to the battlefield is as simple as discarding a number of cards equal to the cost of the one you want to play. That might seem like you can burn through your hand very quickly, but fortunately, buried in your deck are units that generate resources while they’re in play. The more resource generating cards you have out on the field, the more efficiently you can catapult hulking knights into the fray.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. So far the game sounds like your standard 2 player card game with players taking turns, one after another, until one of you is dead. However, the most interesting thing about ‘1066…’ is that for the bulk of it, you don’t actually fight anyone. Not one single arrow finds another mans eye for the most of the game.
Instead the game takes you through the most notable events that occurred before the battle, by way of an objective deck. Beginning with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, to William gathering support and gaining the Popes blessing, through to the Invasion of Sussex and the eventual final clash in Hastings. The game abstracts your progress through these events by measuring the strength of your units on the board. Each unit has a might and zeal value, and every round you check if you’ve amassed enough to progress to the next chapter. Eventually both sides will reach Hastings and finally meet face to face on the battlefield on that frosty October morning. THEN you fight! And oh Nelly, what a glorious fight it is. Both sides crash against each other in a melee of blood and steel, dealing damage to their respective wedges. The first side to deal 10 damage to a wedge claims it, and if 2 wedges are claimed, the game is over and a victor is crowned.
It took me a few goes to settle into this games intended rhythm. The discard a card to play a card mechanic felt sluggish at first, as I struggled to hold more than one card for most turns before passing several times just to refill my hand, only to play one more card. Not to mention that because the majority of the game is about preparing for the final fight, I found myself feeling frustrated with it’s pacing. But I quickly learned this was less of an issue with the game and more me trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
After years of playing 1 vs. 1 card games, I realised I needed to re-programme my thinking for ‘1066..’. I made the joke earlier likening this game to a Doom Metal album, but in all honesty, ‘1066…’ really does follow a narrative structure similar to a Black Sabbath song like ‘War Pigs’. It’s a slow but steady slog in the early parts, but as the energy swells and gains momentum, its starts to take shape, then suddenly it explodes into frantic, panic inducing violence. The Wedge you’d been fortifying the whole game is neck and neck with your foe, but that means you weren’t focusing on the others, and you scramble to rescue the soldiers you assigned so carelessly. Their lives are in your hands, so don’t make their deaths meaningless.
Tension is a persistent feature of ‘1066…; as it constantly asks you to make difficult choices with your hand. To an extent, the card play reminded me of Poker, insofar as the game wants you to play aggressively with your hand. You’ll often have to discard strong cards that are unplayable at that time in favour of making smaller gains, thus sewing the seeds for a long term strategy. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be agonising over which axe wielding barbarian I’d have to sacrifice to counter those damn Norman archers!
While the tension in the 2 player game is so thick you could cut the air with a knife, the solo variant is equally nerve wracking. The AI foe is often 2 steps ahead of you thanks to the games solo system which deploys units on the battlefield with relative ease. In fact, the solo system in this game is a veritable work of art, that is if you’re like me and enjoy a well designed flow chart, and let’s face it, who doesn’t like a good flow chart? The solo game in ‘1066…’ gives you a dynamic living puzzle to solve in every game, and contrary to other AI board games systems, you’re far less concerned with it behaving like another human player and instead relish the way it reveals the puzzle one piece at a time.
Medieval war games are always an intriguing prospect for me, as they invoke imagery of muddy battlefields, drenched in blood, with sword wielding knights astride great armoured steads, charging into battle. In the age of digital perfection and constant social and economic strife, the appeal of games that take you back to a simpler time when the sky was big and life was short, is perhaps at their peak right now. However most war games in this genre are either huge complicated efforts that try to simulate every aspect of medieval life or are too simplistic and lack any narrative backbone. ‘1066…’ proves a happy medium with just enough weight and complexity to scratch any armour clad players strtegic itch while capturing all the grandeur of it’s theme with 2 simple but beautiful decks. Everywhere you look in ‘1066…’ is steeped in charm and historic context, as if every card serves as the final epitaph of those depicted in the artwork. You’ll actually pause as you play, just to admire the games vision of that frosty morning in October of 1066. Luckily, Hall or Nothing games is soon to release it’s sequel ‘1565, St. Elmos Pay’ which depicts the siege of Malta, and is fully compatible with ‘1066…’ if you wanted to pit both eras against each other in some mad historical mash up. We certainly look forward to more settings from this system and will keep a very close watch.