A Few Acres of Snow

This is a really great board game. It takes the deck-building mechanic of Dominion and marries it with a light war-game set during the 17th and 18th century conflict between the French and the British in North America. It’s a really smart combination of mechanics and theme, but what makes it so great is how tense and adversarial it is. As a bonus, its got a great, free online implementation on  Yucata if you want to try it.

The cards in your deck represents the resources (such as settlements, military units and friendly native americans) available to you in the colonies. Growing your deck, either by settling a new location or purchasing an available card, thus increases the amount and diversity of resources available to you, but it comes with a downside. Many actions in the game require combinations of cards, and the larger your deck, the harder it is to draw a given combination. This problem of accumulating a useful hand of cards from your deck represents the difficulty in usefully bringing these resources to bear across an empire. Want to lay siege to Louisburg as the British? Then you need the card of an adjacent settlement to attack from (say, Halifax), you need a ship to get you there, and you need a military unit to actually mount the attack. That’s three cards out of a hand of five that you need all at once. And even then, your siege is unlikely to be successful unless you can guarantee a steady stream of additional military units to reinforce the siege on your subsequent turns.

Unlike Dominion, your hand doesn’t get discarded at the end of your turn, so you can build up a desired combination over a number of turns, but at the same time, this means that drawing a useless card is more costly, since it sits in your hand taking up space until you spend an action and money to discard it.

Dominion players are used to having their deck steadily grow in buying power for most of the game. At first, you can only afford to buy 3 and 4 cost cards. Then you start hitting 6 and accumulating Golds. Then, maybe two-thirds of the way through the game, you start hitting 8, and buying Provinces, and only then does your deck begin to peter out. The process in A Few Acres of Snow is almost exactly opposite. The initial, more coastal settlements are quite lucrative, especially for the British, so your deck hits its economic peak almost immediately. Expanding inland dilutes your deck. Purchasing military units is necessary since early battles in Nova Scotia are nearly inevitable, but in times of relative peace you’ll have to spend actions to discard those units or put them in your reserve. This means that the decision to add a given card has a much higher element of risk to it than in Dominion, which in turn makes playing A Few Acres of Snow a much more tense, directly engaging game.

It’s also more directly adversarial than Dominion. Obviously, from the war-game side, you can attack your opponent’s settlements on the board. But you can also attack your opponent’s hand. In Dominion, this is something you’d do blindly. If you have a Spy or Militia card in your hand, you’ll likely just play it automatically; it will annoy and slow down your opponent, but it will just have a generic effect, rather than be targeted. The hand-attacks in A Few Acres of Snow are two different: they only target one type of card (usually military) and if successful, they remove that card from the opponent’s deck entirely. Importantly, these actions also attack the opponent’s (publicly visible) reserve. Also, all the cards that can attack in-hand military cards also defend against this same action (referred to as an “Ambush in the game). This makes timing these attacks important. If you do it right, you can force a military unit out of your opponent’s deck just as he was hoping to use it for a siege. If you do it wrong, you’ve not only wasted an action, but you’ve left yourself open to enemy ambushes in reprisal. (Note that there’s also a neat thematic element here: mustering an army in preparation for an attack risks that army getting broken up by ambushes before reaching their destination.)

All this adds up to make a tremendously tense experience. I can’t remember another game where I have been hanging on pins and needles waiting for my opponent’s turn to come in. I found myself constantly striving to effectively balance my own strategic priorities against the desire to counter what my opponent appeared to be working towards. And it wasn’t just overarching strategy that I had to be concerned with; what specific cards my opponent has in his hand at this moment, and what that means for his capabilities on his turn were a constant source of worry. I might really want to use the settler on the Quebec card to develop Trois Rivieres and claim some victory points, but that leaves Quebec vulnerable to raids, and can I afford to take that risk? If I expand towards the Great Lakes I’ll get a bunch of victory points, but I’ll clog my deck, and slow down my economy, and then If I get attacked, how will I be able to respond? I should have enough military units coming up in my deck to make this siege a success, but what if they’re all on the very bottom and I can’t get to them in time? What if I get them right away, and then my opponent ambushes them out of my deck?

Other things I love about the game: it’s quick. A given turn takes only a few seconds to implement, and since you have your cards in hand while your opponent plays, you can mostly plan it out while he goes. A full game takes about an hour, rather than the three-hour slog that something like 1960: The Making of the President, or Twilight Struggle (two other favourite card-driven two-player war-games of mine) can devolve into. It’s also heavily asymmetric. The British deck relies on the economic strength of the New England colonies and uses that cash flow to amass an overpowering military. The French deck must rely on the less-consistent fur trade to earn most of its money. It has a weaker army in the late-game, but it can expand much more quickly, and it can limit British expansion and military power with a concerted effort to raid and ambush effectively. There’s a wide variety of strategic options available, and while all the games I’ve played have tended to start out fairly similarly (Nova Scotia is just too tempting a target to ignore and too risky not to contest) they’ve all gone off in different directions from there.

It’s not all perfect. The ending can be anticlimactic. One of the end-conditions is capturing a certain number of opposing settlement pieces. There was a game where I was the British, and I accidentally triggered this condition by mounting a series of successful raids, which caused me to lose the game since my board-position was too weak, even though my deck was more powerful militarily at the time. There’s also a little strategic wonkiness. Because of the powerful Nova Scotia sea route, and the relative weakness of the interior cards, there doesn’t seem to be enough built-in incentive to encourage the British player to settle towards the Great Lakes. It always seems to be better either to push by sea, or turtle up and improve the core New England settlements. This in turn limits the potential for French expansion but forcing the French to build up a military to disrupt the British plans. One suggestion that the designer, Martin Wallace, has put forward (in an excellent episode of the excellent podcast Three Moves Ahead) is to make French control of Fort Duquesne one of the possible winning conditions, thus forcing the British to expand inland at least to Fort Duquesne in response to French expansion. Since I haven’t gotten my hands on a boxed copy yet, and am stuck playing on Yucata, I can’t try out this rule, but my guess is that it or some refinement of it (perhaps requiring French fortification rather than settlement) should improve the game. It does still seem like at the top-tier of play the British will win more often than the French, but for learners there is definitely a French advantage; In all of my first four games, the French won with varying degrees of decisiveness. So I don’t think you’d want to mess with the balance of the game too much.

So, in conclusion, it’s a fantastic game, and one I’ll add to my collection as soon as more physical copies are available. It’s quick, tense, adversarial, strategic, varied. It takes familiar mechanics and implements them in clever new ways. I want to commend Yucata on their online implementation, especially for how quickly they implemented changes that were made in the official rules back at the end of December. And once again, even if you’re on the fence (maybe the theme isn’t quite your thing), take a listen to the Three Moves Ahead episode on the game. It makes for a good listen.

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