Saturday, 7 January 2012

A Few Acres of Snow

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

Martin Wallace uses the deck-building mechanism (from Dominion) in this game about the French and Indian War (that's what the Americans call it, but others have different names), which is part of a global Seven Years' War between the British and the French. In A Few Acres of Snow, the combatants fight for superiority in North America. Both sides start with some settlements, and a deck of cards. Almost all actions in the game are executed by playing cards. You start with a pre-constructed deck, and will add cards to it to customise it. The game ends if a capital is successfully sieged, or if one side uses up all village pieces or all town pieces. In the latter case, victory points (VP's) are calculated based on locations settled and successful attacks.

There are two types of cards - location cards and empire cards. Empire cards are similar to action cards in Dominion. Both the British and the French have their own pool of empire cards from which they can buy cards, and there is also a small common pool of empire cards. Money is in the form of physical coins and are not treasure cards in your deck like Dominion. Location cards are added to your deck whenever you settle a location. A location card can be used as long as you still control that location and it is not besieged. In case you lose that location, the card becomes useless but still stays in your deck, clogging it up.

The starting setup. The French is blue, the British red. Only one third of the board is really needed for the game pieces, the other two thirds are just space for cards. The three green-border cards on the left are the common pool. At the bottom left and top right corners of the board are the player-specific pools of cards.

Some of the British cards. These are 0 cost cards, but you must also consider the non-financial cost of diluting your deck with more cards.

Every turn you have two actions. If you spend cards for your actions and end up with fewer than five, you always draw back up to five, without discarding any card. This means you can hold on to cards that you want to save for the right opportunity to use them. In fact, there is also a Reserve pool where you can save cards, so that they don't take up space in your hand, but it costs $1 to reclaim a card from the Reserve.

The longer box is the Reserve box, where you can place up to 5 cards. You can bring them into your hand with at any time with no action cost, but with a financial cost of $1 per card. I have nothing in my Reserve box at this moment.

The types of actions can be overwhelming at first. There are money-earning actions, and money is mainly used for buying empire cards. You can settle empty spaces on the board, and upgrade them to towns (which give double points). You can fight. There are two ways to fight. Some cards let you raid nearby enemy settlements, and if your opponent doesn't have cards to stop you, you destroy and claim his settlement piece (which is worth victory points). Some cards let you siege an enemy settlement. Sieges are a tug of war affair. When you commit to a siege, the cards committed are set aside, and both sides try to play military cards to try to win. You win when you have achieved a significant enough strength difference, and your opponent is unable to reduce the gap. A siege can be a very long stalemate, which means cards can be committed and stuck for a long time. It can be good or bad. Good because you thin your deck making it more effective, assuming you don't desperately need those tied-up cards; bad because you do desperately need those tied-up cards.

Discs are towns, cubes are villages. The mother-and-baby icon is a settler icon, and such locations require a settler card to be played if you want to build a village. Purple hexagons show the VP value, which is doubled if by upgrading your village to a town. Modes of transportation between locations include sea, river, road (between Fort Halifax and Kennebec, on the right) and Indian tracks (dotted lines, which can only be used for raiding).

The deck-building in A Few Acres of Snow creates delay and uncertainty in when you draw the cards you need and have bought. Like Dominion, you are restricted by what you draw, but you are not forced to discard your hand at the end of every turn. In fact, you can't simply discard any cards you want. You spend an action to discard a useless card. Managing useless cards, i.e. keeping your deck effective, is an important aspect of the game. When you settle a location, you must take the corresponding location card. You will need it to further expand from there, but once your borders have pushed further forward, you may find that this location card becomes effectively useless. The Governor card can help to remove cards from your deck, but the more important consideration may be whether you want to settle this location in the first place. Too-quick expansion leads to ineffective decks.

Like many Martin Wallace games, there are multiple ways to end the game - by using up your village pieces, using up your town pieces, or capturing the enemy capital. Going the village route means low quality expansion (towns are worth more VP's), and the town route means much effort required in upgrading. Military aggressiveness can impact these, because players would be capturing each other's pieces. Capturing the capital is harder to do, but is a valid strategy.

The Play

Han and I played two games back-to-back. I picked the British because I remembered it being easier to play. In the first game we both played slow-and-steady, gently exploring the game. I settled Halifax on my right flank, because it was worth victory points, but was quickly beaten back, and I never dared venture into that region afterwards. The slow and steady approach seemed to favour the British, which had more settler icons on cards and could settle and upgrade settlements more quickly. Although I lost some battles, I managed to force the game end by upgrading my settlements to towns. We thought I would win by a wide margin, but it turned out I only won by four points. I think it was because although Han's French did not have many towns, the towns were worth many points.

The black disc under Albany is a fortification. It prevents raids, and also provides a defensive bonus if the settlement comes under siege.

The French settlements are approaching Albany, which I have upgraded to a town. I need to be prepare to defend it against attacks.

I find that conducting sieges is a long and grueling exercise. If you want a swift victory, you need to have accumulated many cards with military power. However that's risky too because if your opponent plays an ambush card, you will need to remove a military card from your deck (and military cards are often expensive). There are some cards that you can use to cancel ambushes, but then keeping them in your hand means they are occupying space.

The two sides play very differently. The French start with slightly more cards, giving the ability to do more things. They also start with an infantry unit while the British start with none. However the British start with more money and a thinner deck. That means they have options in deciding how to initially customise their deck, and also a thinner deck means a more nimble and more predictable deck. Even when the same location is settled, the benefits gained are different depending on whether it is being settled by the French or the British. The empire cards available to the two sides are different, both in card availability and card count. The French tend to have better relationships with the Red Indians, they can do pirating, and they tend to do better in fur trading. The British tend to settle better, and are usually better at making money.

In the second game that Han and I played, we played the same combatants. This time Han's French started very aggressively, focusing much on the military aspects. He dictated the pace and I had to keep buying infantry to be able to keep up. Thankfully I was able keep him at bay. However I was mostly reactive in the early game. Later on he started expanding aggressively towards Detroit, a high VP location. He managed to settle Detroit, but the problem was all those location cards he gained en route clogged up his deck. I had some success with raiding and claimed some of his village pieces. That caused a big problem for him. He could end the game easily by placing his last village piece, but at that point his VP's were less than mine. He could not build another village to get closer to me to make it easier to raid my settlements. He would need to upgrade a village to release a village piece back to his pool first. So he was quite stuck. In contrast with history, I was the one successful in raids. Also in contrast with history, Han's French was making money like they own a mint - they were indecently rich. Unfortunately for the French, they were never quite able to draw the right cards at the right time, and they had few military successes. In the late game I was able to launch an attack on Port Royal, an originally French village, and conquered it. The game ended with a British victory again, this time by a larger margin.

This was the second game we played. Han (French, blue) had expanded all the way to the left. On the right, I had conquered one of his start locations Port Royal (red cube on blue box).

The Thoughts

The deck-building mechanism is a very appropriate tool to represent the French and Indian War. The delayed effects, the uncertainties, the challenge in organising anything coherent, and also the inefficiencies when over-stretching oneself are implemented well. Despite the many possible actions in the game, on your turn you don't really need to consider all of them. Just taking a look at your cards and your board position will help you rule out many actions that you can't take yet anyway. So again the deck-building mechanism shows its usefulness - reducing choices and speeding up the game. Many aspects of the war are represented in the game, and the two sides play very differently. I really feel the theme in this game. Now I'm tempted to bring out my unplayed copy of Wilderness War, a Card Driven Game and wargame about the same war.

One worry that I have is how replayable the game is, since the starting condition is always the same, and there are probably a few general broad strategies that both sides can pursue. At the moment I still feel there is much to explore. So far there has been no attempt at capital conquering. Also I think the randomness in the card draw will force players to adapt to the situation, as opposed to strictly following a formula. There is one almost unbeatable British strategy that experienced players have found. The designer may introduce rule changes to address it. I only read about it after playing two games. My temporary solution is simply to not use that strategy.

To summarise using a bunch of keywords and phrases: tense, thematic, asymmetric, excellent artwork by Peter Dennis (one of my favourites), deck-building not for the sake of deck-building.

Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: restocking (at time of this post).


Unknown said...

Nice review. The rules changes are available now - Martin Wallace posted them on BoardGameGeek.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you for pointing out. I wasn't aware of it.

Here's the link for those who are interested: