Reviewed by Frank Hamrick
(Treefrog/Mayfair Games, 2 players, ages 12 to adult, 60-90 minutes; $55)
Two hundred and fifty years after Voltaire said it, it became a game!
The British and French struggled for control of North America from the early 1700s until the final battle of Quebec in 1760. That final battle ended the long French and Indian War and led to Voltaire’s supposed quote: “Ah, it’s only for a few acres of snow!”
In 2010-11, Martin Wallace designed a Euro-styled game based on the protracted struggle between these two superpowers for control of North America and, as was fitting, he titled it after Voltaire’s quote – A Few Acres of Snow – and I will say up front, I love this game! But before you rush out to buy, you need to take my review with “A Few Acres of Salt” specifically:
1. I’m an old time wargamer from the heydays of Avalon Hill. Any game of conflict gets my attention. Yes, I don’t mind “attacking” other players.
2. I’m a 1990s convert from complex wargames to the more approachable Euro games. I am now given to short, low to medium complexity, games.
3. I love games that rely more on strategy and tactics than luck.
4. I love maps!
5. I love games that allow me to study maps and cards to improve play and skill.
A Few Acres of Snow doesn’t disappoint in any of the above.
A Few Acres of Snow is a two player wargame. I call it a wargame because it is based on the 17th century conflict between the British and French. However, it is not the stereotypical wargame with tons of cardboard chits to move, hexes to conquer, dice to roll and myriads of charts to consult. In fact, there are no “troops” maneuvering on the map! Rather, it is a wargame greatly simplified in mechanics (but not in angst or depth of play). You might call it a card game with a war theme as it is as much about card management as it is about capturing territory! If you’ve played Dominion, you will realize that Wallace happily took concepts from Dominion and incorporated them into this game. I call it a “Euro-styled” wargame or “Dominion at war!”. In Wallace’s own words, “I’m happy to adapt ideas from other games as long as I feel they they fit the theme.” In this case, Martin Wallace (a self-confessed lover of wargames), saw the deck-building element of Dominion as a perfect way to simulate the delay between asking for assets and actually getting them – thus, a perfect way to simulate warfare between two opposing armies or players.
Ten lavishly illustrated pages of rules lay out an extremely simple game to play. The game is card-driven but plays out on a map. Each turn, a player will…
1. Check to see whether she/he has won a siege combat.
2. Perform two actions (except the first turn when they take only one action).
3. Draw cards from his/her Draw Deck to bring their hand of cards up to five.
When you draw deck is empty, you reshuffle your discard pile and place it face down to form a new Draw Deck.
The actions you perform are the heart of the game. You will either:
1, Select/buy a card from either a Neutral Deck or your personal Empire Deck to add to your discard pile. Some cards are free; others cost “money”. Thus, there will be a lag time between taking the card and getting it into your hand.
2. Play a card or card combination from you hand (this is the meat of the game) and take the appropriate action.
3. Discard a card.
That’s it – choose any combination of two of those four actions per turn. The game continues with players alternating until any of three end game conditions are met.
Though there are only two actions per turn, there are a host of things the cards allow you to do. In fact, there are some 21 different actions possible. Wallace has broken these actions into five categories to simplify comprehension and execution. There are Expansive Actions (move into areas and create villages and towns), Aggressive Actions (siege, raid and ambush), Financial Actions (to get more money), Card Management Actions (draft and/or purchase additional cards) and “Other Actions” (including simply to pass). Each, however, is simple and quick to execute and each is logical, “intuitive” (to use a term often used to describe computer programs), easy to understand and feels very natural.
A Few Acres of Snow is a game of strategy and tactics. The only “luck” in the game is the order in which cards may appear in your hand. Though there are only two simple actions available each turn, there is rich depth in the effective use of those actions. Do you raise funds? Do you expand and/or improve your holdings? Do you launch a siege, ambush or raid an opponent’s town? Do you use your actions to draft cards and, if so, which cards should you draft? Do you spend an action to thin your deck or to put cards in a “reserve” for future quick access? Do you draw cards that will increase your card management abilities? Do you expand to a needed location but, in doing so, add a weak card to your deck, lessening your deck strength? There are gut-wrenching decisions at every turn.
The two sides are asymmetrical both on the map and in their respective card decks. The French excel in raids and ambushes. The British have the superior naval and land forces. The French start with more victory points and can generally win a quick game. Both sides have numerous strategies and counter-strategies depending on what their opponent does. Good players will discern the opposing strategy and effectively counter or adjust their actions to minimize the opponent’s objective.
A Few Acres of Snow is played on a wonderful, though slightly skewed, triangular map depicting the towns and forts stretching from Nova Scotia in the northeast, down the east coast to Norfolk, VA, and westward to Detroit. The map is simple but elegant and wonderfully serves its purpose. Movement is along rivers, lakes, Indian trails, by sea and, in a couple of instances, via short wagon trails. Players use their cards to expand along these pathways settling villages, towns and forts in the 36 locations marked on the map. All but 8 of these locations provide victory points to the player holding them. Villages give the owner 1-6 victory points while town double the victory points of a given location. The British are better at moving via sea, the French via beateaux (canoe). As stated earlier, understanding the map and getting the right cards in your hand to maneuver, establish villages, fortify your holds and upgrade your villages to towns is key to winning.
As a card game, A Few Acres of Snow shares elements of Dominion as this, too, is a game about deck-building and hand-management but, in this case, the cards direct play on a map! As in Dominion, a player begins with a hand of vie cards and refillsl his hand back to five at the end of his turn. However, unlike Dominion, he does not discard his entire hand at the end of his turn. Those cards he does not use on a turn remain in his hand. He refills his hand back to five. Thus, if he is not careful, he will find his hand full of less than optimal cards or card combinations. Thus, strategy and tactics drive both the development of one’s card deck and the effective use of the cards to move them through your hand and to move troops, siege, raid, ambush, gain money and reach objectives on the map. Both the map and the cards require careful thought.
Other differences of note are you may place a card in a “Reserve” area of the game board to be retrieved (free action) later at a cost of 1 money per card in reserve and the French and British decks are not symmetrical. They differ, reflecting the various strengths and weaknesses in the historical situation.
Like Dominion, you may draft cards into your deck that help manage your hand and your deck (e.g. Home Support allows you to draw three extra cards into your hand, Governor allow you to return two card in your hand to either your Empire Deck, your Locations Deck or the Neutral Deck, Intendant allow the French player to pay 1 money to draw a selected discard back into his hand). All in all, I think the concepts of Dominion shine better in this game than in Dominion! It’s as if the concepts of deck-building and hand-management in Dominion were made for A Few Acres of Snow.
The game ends immediately if the British win a siege against Quebec or if the French win a siege against either Boston or New York. In each case, the British or the French have won the game. Otherwise, the game lasts at the beginning of a player’s turn he has either a) placed all of his cubes (villages) or discs (town) on the map and there are no ongoing sieges OR b) there are no sieges in progress and that player has captured at least 12 poitns worth of cubes/discs from the opposing player. In these two cases, players total their victory points counting villages and town under their control adding the victory points gained for enemy cubes (worth 1 point) and discs (worth 2 points) captured. The player with the most victory points wins. In case of a tie, victory goes to the French.
Any downsides? A growing FAQ indicates the rules do not clearly address numerous situations that can occur during the game (but Wallace has been quick to answer these FAQs). Also, it is only a two player game so it will not fit in multi-player events. Although “Euro style”, it is at least the first cousin to a wargame and may not appeal to those who oppose conflict or combat in any form (but for the vast majority of gamers, it makes a piece of military history accessible – and acceptable – to the non-wargamers in our community). Finally, there is some concern the the British have a distinct advantage if they build their military early and siege, siege, siege! Yet, with over 2000 recorded games on the ‘Geek, no one has found an invincible strategy. For me, the upsides far exceed the downsides.
The Euro nature of A Few Acres of Snow can be seen in the game length. The box claims the claim to last 60-90 minutes and I have found this to be accurate. So it’s not your typical 4 hour wargame! Another Euro aspect of the game is how Wallace has relived the game of typical wargame complexities. He caught the spirit of the history and turned it into a game that is simple to play but challenging to win. What I love about the game thus far is the strategy/counter-strategy aspects of the game: the asymmetrical strengths and weaknesses of each side, the simplicity of rules but the complexity of playing effectively and the “between game” study of map and card decks to develop changing strategies and tactics. I have spent more leisure time looking at the cards and studying the map than any game I have purchased in the past decade! A Few Acres of Snow is absolutely my current favorite game!
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Fall 2011 GA Report Articles