Review: A Few Acres Of Snow

A Few Acres of Snow Review
by Patrick Korner

Designed by: Martin Wallace
Published by: Treefrog Games, 2011
Playing time: 60 minutes (in my experience games range from 45 to 150 minutes)
Ages: 12 and up

Introduction

Martin Wallace is best known for his deep, engaging multiplayer games – Steam / Age of Steam, Brass, Automobile, to name just a few. But Wallace has also dabbled more than just a little bit in the two-player wargame world, having released Waterloo and Gettysburg over the past few years. And now, another addition to Wallace’s two-player portfolio has seen light of day: A Few Acres of Snow, which lets players relive the conflict between France and Britain that directly led to France giving up its holdings in the New World and eventually to the formation of Canada (the country that, oh, by the way, I happen to live in).

A Few Acres of Snow is more than just a pure wargame, though. Wallace has borrowed inspiration from Dominion‘s deck-building mechanism and used it to create a wargame/euro hybrid where ‘dudes on a map’ combine with ‘card shuffling and deck management’ to create something genuinely new. But does the combination work? Or, like oil and vinegar, does it only work on salad? Did that last sentence make any sense? Read on and find out!

Gameplay

I won’t spend pages and pages revisiting the game’s rules, but a little time outlining how the game plays is always fun. Each player starts with a very small deck of location cards – one card for each spot on the map that they have a village or town in. The French player starts with some extra cards in his deck – some infantry (with military strength), a trader (used to trade furs for money), and a bateau (a large wooden boat used extensively at the time to navigate the various lakes and rivers).

Additional cards can be drafted into your deck in two ways: By settling new locations (thus gaining you that location’s card) or by drafting a card from your Empire deck (a set of cards with a wide variety of functions, ranging from military might to card-drawing to everything in between). Some of those cards cost money, others are free.

Location cards are useful in a variety of ways. First off, most of them have one or more icons along the bottom that let you use them to carry out other actions. Bateaux are used to get from place to place (as are wagons and ships), money is used to gain coins (shock!), settlers are used to settle new locations or develop existing ones, and military strength is used in sieges.

Regardless of what kind of cards they are, you start the game with a hand of five of them. Apart from the very first game turn (where you only get one action), you get to carry out two actions each turn. Once you’ve done those two actions, reload to five cards and then see what the other guy (or girl) does. Simple, right?

Oh, you want to know what you can use your cards to do? Well, it’s easier to explain what they can’t do, which is discover cold fusion. Seriously, Wallace has more or less tossed a kitchen sink full of options your way, and a huge part of the game is figuring out which action will help you the most when. A quick summary of what you can do:

Get Cash: There are four ways to get money: a) Take Money (play a card with a money icon on it to get that much money), b) Merchant (play a ship icon plus up to two other cards with money icons to get the sum of said icons), c) Trader (play a trader plus as many cards with beaver pelt icons on them as you want to get 2 money per pelt), or d) Piracy (play the Louisbourg card along with a ship icon to steal 2 money from the nasty British (this option only available to the French…)). Why do these things? Well, money makes the world go round and, more to the point, is needed to buy many of the cool cards you might want in your deck.

Expand: You can expand your empire in three ways: a) Settle a new location (which requires up to three cards – the location you’re coming from, a card with the icon showing how you’re getting to the newly settled spot, and possibly a card with a settler icon should the new spot demand it), b) Develop an existing location (which requires you to play the appropriate location card along with a settler icon), and c) Fortify a location (which requires the location card, a fortification card (which you need to draft into your deck first (ooh, nested parentheses are always sexy)) and three money). Why do these things? Well, settlements give you cards that you can use later, give you a way of reaching out to better locations and give you victory points (as some locations have VPs showing on the board). Developing those VP-gaining settlements doubles their VP value. And fortifying a settlement makes it tougher to besiege as well as raid-proof.

Be Aggressive: You can do several nasty things to your opponent: a) Raid (play a card that allows raiding – usually Native Americans) to try and destroy your opponent’s settlements, b) Ambush (play a card that allows ambushes – again usually Native Americans) to try and force military cards out of your opponent’s hand, and c) Siege (play cards showing where you’re coming from, how you’re getting there and what kind of military strength you’re bringing along), which is the real meat grinder in the game. Unlike the other aggressive actions, sieges don’t resolve right away – instead, each player can take turns reinforcing the siege (or their defense thereof) by adding more cards to the siege. The military power these cards add is tracked on a linear track that has a neutral middle section and then country-specific sides. If the strength marker is on your side of the track at the start of your turn, you win the siege. Congratulations! Sieges can be long, drawn out tug of wars between the two sides, as more and more forces are committed to the battle. Losing a siege really sucks: Not only do you lose whatever settlement you had there (it becomes VPs for the other guy), you end up with a useless card in your deck (since you can’t use location cards that you don’t freely control) AND you lose one of the cards you used in the siege, forcing you to draft it into your deck again. Oh, and if that wasn’t bad enough, a successful siege can result in the other guy plunking his own settlement down, effectively giving him even more of a leg up. So the moral is: don’t let a massive military build-up go by unpunished and unmolested – it’s a guaranteed bad time.

Other Stuff: The rest of what you can do is highly variable and depends on what kind of cards you play. The Home Support card lets you draw three more cards into your hand, the Governor lets you ditch two back to their draft piles again (thinning your deck and hopefully cutting out some deadwood), the Intendant (France only) lets you pay two money to retrieve a card from your discard pile, etc. etc. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice to say there will almost always be something cool you can get up to.

The game ends in a couple of different ways: When one side has captured 12 points worth of settlements (villages are worth 2 points, the more developed towns are worth 4 points), or when one side has run out of all of their villages or towns. At that point, each side counts up their points and, in a stunning display of design ingenuity, the player with the most VPs wins. Oh, yeah: there are also auto-win conditions, which trigger if the French player successfully sieges Boston or New York (France Wins! France Wins!) or if the British player successfully sieges Quebec City (Britain Wins! Britain Wins!).

Commentary

Wallace has created, in my humble opinion, a true masterpiece here. It takes the deck-building mechanism from Dominion and, amazingly, wraps an actual game around it, giving all that shuffling and card-playing an actual point instead of just being an efficiency exercise. All of the cards have their uses, depending on what the other player is doing and how you plan on messing with their plans. Is Britain going big military? Grab those Native Americans and start raiding / ambushing him at every chance. Did the Brits buy up all the Settler cards? Governor up to thin your deck and then start working your way to settling as many locations as possible. Is France raiding your settlements and scaring your children? Fortify those villages. And so on, with each ‘killer strategy’ seemingly having a foil against it, resulting in close and tense games.

In addition, the fact that many of the cards support different actions makes your choices each turn difficult and, in turn, make for a good game (after all, what’s the fun in always knowing the right choice?). Do you want to use all those pelts to trade? Or use a few of them to settle instead? Settling might get you some more points but leave you cash poor. And since it uses fewer cards you might not get to draw as many new cards, leaving you with more turns before you get to reshuffle and redraw the cool stuff in your discard deck.

Even knowing which card to draft is tough: Do you draft one that hurts your opponent? Or one that helps your own plans? A common British tactic is to try and deny the neutral Settler cards to the French, who are then left only with the settler icon on the Quebec City location card. Sounds like a great plan, except that those two Settlers sure do clog up your own hand – so just how are you going to fix that little problem, hotshot?

A Few Acres of Snow is perfect to play with my more euro-leaning gaming partners, as the system is far more accessible than, say, Wilderness War, a card-driven wargame which models the same conflict but approaches it with a more traditional wargame design focus, complete with CRTs and stacking limits. The game might seem overly simplistic to those weaned on Case Blue, but for those of us looking at the modern euro crop and wishing there was more wheat and less chaff, this is pure manna from heaven.

My sincere hope is that A Few Acres of Snow will serve as the harbinger of a new breed of hybrid games that take the planning and maneuvering of a good wargame and couple it with a somewhat lighter development and combat system. I also hope that other designers rushing to copy Dominion‘s style will see what engaging and interesting designs can result from taking Dominion a step further. It’s clear that there is still interesting game development space out there, and kudos to Wallace for having started to chart the perimeter.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Mike Siggins: I enjoyed Waterloo, I enjoyed Gettysburg more, but this is the best of the three. I am no fan of Dominion, not least because of the lack of theme, but the mechanism is used well here and gives me a believable narrative. Is it the French Indian War? Well, let’s say the timescale is extended – we are building stuff here, after all. In scope it is more Struggle of Empires, another favourite, and there are plenty of strategies. As Patrick indicates, this will be a sure fire hit with the crossover crowd. I can’t wait for more applications of this excellent system.

Tom Rosen: I find A Few Acres of Snow to be an interesting game and am looking forward to playing it more, but am not ready yet to declare my love for it.  I’ve played six times so far and have been pleasantly surprised by the way in which the deck-building element is weaved into the larger tapestry of the overall game.  I’m also a big fan of asymmetry in games when it is done well and this appears to score on that front.  One concern I have is that the game seems like one that could be significantly affected by group think, with the possibility that playing against the same opponent or opponents repeatedly could devolve into a rut of thinking that certain cards are must buys or certain moves are necessary.  On the flip side, it could be interesting to experiment with a diverse array of opponents, if possible, to see different approaches.  An additional concern is that the map design is remarkably unintuitive and uninformative.  The connections between the cities are not at all clear without checking the numerous location cards, which makes for a steeper learning curve than otherwise necessary.  Notwithstanding those concerns, the game is intriguing and something that has kept me thinking about it long after playing, which is a great sign.  I’ll continue to investigate and remain cautiously optimistic.

Larry Levy:  (6 games)  Those who are on the fence about checking this game out may want to judge by my example.  I don’t care for wargames and I’m terrible at deckbuilding, but this title has really grabbed me.  Like Tom, I find myself thinking about strategies when I’m away from the game, which is very rare for me.  It’s a leading candidate for my Game of the Year and I’ve never really been tempted to pick a two-player game for that honor before.

I don’t really consider this to be a wargame; it feels more like a colonization game, with military elements.  In truth, players can choose to focus on either of these aspects or try to do a little of both, but while a pure military game is possible, I don’t think it would be too successful.  Mechanically, there are enough good ideas here to fill up several games.  One of my favorites is an action that Patrick didn’t mention:  players can place cards in their reserve for an action and can retrieve them on a later turn for a cost.  This has all kinds of possibilities and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

I’m still struggling with the deckbuilding aspect, but I’m slowly learning and am genuinely enjoying the process, which is more than was ever the case with Dominion.  But even a tyro like me can appreciate that the use of deckbuilding to reflect the logistics delays in a war carried out across the ocean is a brilliant idea and it works really well.  There’s many strategies to check out and, as Patrick says, all of them seem to have a counter, so it comes down to proper execution, along with the imagination to come up with those counters.  Both strategic and tactical skills are important and I always like games that feature both.

On a slightly negative note, the rules aren’t bad, but there have been some confusions that would have been eliminated with more careful wording.  If you’ve played the game, the odds are you did everything correctly, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check out some of the rules threads on the Geek.

My main complaint in gaming over the past two years has been the lack of a truly great game.  I’m not 100% sure yet, but A Few Acres of Snow may finally be the design that fills that void.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I was lucky enough to be involved in this project making the Italian version of the rules (together with Mauro “MdM” Di Marco) … that means that I have got a pre-production copy, followed some changes during the development and played it a lot trying to really understand it well to make the right translation. I really like this game, how it works and how Martin was able to mix part of the deck-building mechanics with typical wargame rules. The game is fun, tense and really thematic. Probably the best Wallace game in the 2-player series. Of course I like both games like Dominion and Wargames so I’m not really impartial.

Nathan Beeler: I was not prepared to comment on this game, as I have only played once, and that was a learning game late at night.  But after reading all the overwhelming joy the game seems to be producing, I had to offer a slight voice of dissent.  Generally, I am not a wargamer, but I had heard from Patrick that this was more accessible than most.  In my game I was brutalized early and often, and the rewards for losing a long and hard fought siege at the onset of the game were legion – I lost the territory, I lost the tempos it took to obtain it, I lost a card, and now my deck had the worthless card for that region that I had to spend effort to ditch.  Somehow, I was also unable to do anything but fight with the early British deck, while Patrick was fighting and making progress on the rest of his game.  I never recovered, and in fact I got given the kid glove treatment after that, largely because Patrick definitely didn’t need to attack me further to win.   For me, at least, this was not the gateway to grognardism.  But neither am I prepared to hate it…yet.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it! ……………. Patrick Korner, Mike Siggins, Larry Levy, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
I like it ……………… Tom Rosen
Neutral ……………… Nathan Beeler
Not for me …………

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5 Responses to Review: A Few Acres Of Snow

  1. Based on two (losing (maybe)) games as the French, I can’t wait to play again. I say maybe because in the first game, we overlooked the 12 captured points as a game end trigger, so played until all the British pieces were on the board. I may actually have been ahead when the game “should” have ended.

    This is a great cross between deck-building and wargames and I look forward to more of this cross-genre as well as many more plays of this one. The rules do have some issues (withdrawing from siege as defender still seems to be under discussion on the Geek), but definitely one of the cleaner rule sets from Tree/Warfrog.

  2. rthornqu says:

    Great review, Patrick. I’ve been looking for a good hybrid, being a huge wargamer in my formative years, and it looks like this one may just be the ticket.

  3. garygarison says:

    Add my voice to the chorus of lovers. Like Larry, I’m not fond of deckbuilding games. They seem no so much games as algorithm puzzles — look at the commands, build an algorithm, and put it in action to see if it works. Few Acres is more about the players than the commands. An ingenius design.

  4. Frank Hamrick says:

    Patrick, I’m scheduled to write a review of the game for Gamer’s Alliance, and I think I’ll just copy yours! :) You produced an excellent review for an excellent game. No game has so enthralled me over the past several years as A Few Acres of Snow. Yes, I loved 7 Wonders, and Dominion had its day, as did Race for the Galaxy, and a handful of others. But this one has gripped my mind more than any other. I find myself studying the game (not just the rules), but the strategy, the cards, the various tactics and “moves” I can make, and the counter moves as well. Few Euro games have offered me that kind of post & pre-game experience. There’s something to be said for that! A game you play before you play and after you play! Wow. Good stuff.

  5. The game just showed up in catalog and I can’t wait to play it at our next game night.
    French vs. Brits! Can only be good (as long as we (the French) win!)

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