Calvin’s Commentaries: The Defence of Pictland

It was a month ago that the review was a game by Jon Hather, and this week we revisit the works of this fine designer with The Defence of Pictland from Gothic Green Oak.

Like Vikings vs Saxons, the game reviewed previously; The Defence of Pictland has a historical basis.

“Northumbria in the seventh century was a powerful kingdom,” details the rules. “It had wealth; promoting culture, education and, through its religious houses, some of the finest art of the period. However, its aggressive foreign policy led to many battles along its borders, not least with the Picts to the north.

“The Picts were first recorded some seven hundred years earlier when the Romans attempted to expand their territory in the north. Hadrian’s Wall was one attempt to defend established Roman occupied territory from the native peoples beyond. The Picts were a clan-based farming society, and though far from warlike they were well able to defend their territory. Northumbrian expansion, in a similar way to the earlier Roman aggression, saw small battles take place in often difficult terrain. This board game sees two equally matched armies fight in a valley with a boggy bottom. Movement and capture in the bog is different to movement and capture on dry land. Such battles were typical during the period between the Northumbrians and the Picts. Eventually, the Picts defended their lands well and Northumbria’s power diminished, overtaken by the Mericans to the south and eventually the Vikings from the north. This is only a game but might give you a flavour of battle strategies on difficult terrain.”

That Hather takes the time to tell some of the history he draws inspiration from for his games is something I very much appreciate. The brief background seems to add a level of authenticity to the feel that the game could well have been created at the time of the battle it mirrors.

In the Defence of Pictland, both sides have 10 warriors symmetrically positioned at the start of the game, so it has that chess/checker ‘feel’ that Hather draws on in many of his games. The board, which is leather, is divided by a stretch of boggy ground, with two armies placed on dry ground on either side.

The board being divided into two terrain types, dry land and bog is really what sets Pictland apart and intrigues as a game player.

On dry ground, all men move by either one or two of the ‘knight’s move’ (think chess). The double knight’s move is made up of two parts and there has to be a vacant position for the first move before the second can take place.

The ability to move twice on dry land provides pieces with a great amount of versatility, although the dry areas are limited too.

“On dry ground, men are captured by replacement,” details the rules. “On capturing, a man must stop if he has moved by only one knight’s move and cannot go on to a second move, or a second capture. He may capture on the second knight’s move so long as there was no capture on the first. Captured men are removed from the board, not to be returned.”

Things change in the bog.

“On boggy ground, capture is by custodial capture on two opposing orthogonal sides, that is two men either side an enemy man,” notes the rules. “One or both of the capturing men can be on dry ground to capture so long as the man being captured is in the bog.”

The different capture rules based on terrain are a huge part of Pictland’s appeal.

A man may not move in between two enemy men in the bog (suicide) unless he is taking part in capture himself.

A man may leave the boggy ground and make a capture but is allowed only one knight’s move on leaving the bog.

This is a fight to the last and the winner is the player who has captured all the opposing player’s warriors.

The wooden pieces, leather board, and historical feel of this game are all major pluses, but it jumps even higher for me in terms of recommending it because of the dual movement and capture mechanics based on the two types of game board terrain. Definitely a game worthy of exploring.

Check it out at

Thanks to fellow gamer Adam Daniels for his help in running through this game for review.

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