A Wolfe at the Door

Before you read any further, I’ll say straight away that I like most of Martin Wallace’s games. I’ve also helped with play testing a few of them, including A Few Acres of Snow. I play wargames, board wargames, Euros and any other kind of board or card game I can get my hands on. I’ll happily play long, complex games like Through The Ages, Die Macher or Dominant Species, and I’ll happily play Dominion, 7 Wonders, or Parade. Heck, I’ll even play High Frontier! Up Front, 7th Fleet, Panzerarmee Afrika, Paths of Glory, SPI Quad Games, Napoleon’s Triumph – bring ’em on.

Having said that, there are few games that will hit the table frequently, and fewer still that will stand the test of time. Games that I will play more than a dozen times a year are rare. If I’ve play tested a game, I’ll often not play it again on release, because it’s already old hat. This has happened with Key Market and Automobile for example. But I’ve already played A Few Acres of Snow more than a dozen times since it was published (and 2 more times this weekend). I’ve increased the pool of opponents by teaching it to half-a-dozen friends or more, some wargamers, some not. And I found myself teaching it again to someone I met over breakfast at The Cast Are Dice a couple of weeks ago. Let’s just say, it’s had a bit of an impact.

Topical application

The topic looks like one of those ‘can you make a good game out of this’ challenges. God’s Playground anyone? It’s the long conflict between the French and the British for control of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So the coverage isn’t any particular war – and there were several, with periods of uneasy peace and localised outbreaks of hostilities when there was no European conflict. The game doesn’t model political realities; there’s no return of captured colonies in exchange for more valuable real estate in the Caribbean or India, for instance. Neither is there any attempt to portray military organisation or tactical considerations. If you thought Waterloo was abstract, then this is an even deeper level of abstraction. You won’t get a sense of the economic or social aspects of the period either.

A Few Acres of Snow has distilled the essence of the struggle for North America. It has captured the fundamentals of the strategic situation of both sides in a way that lets players carry out typical actions that feel right for the theme, describing enough detail to put you into the flow of the historical story from a military perspective. At the same time the game system has highly developed and well balanced mechanisms to enable the British player and the French player to create challenges for each other, to experiment with periods of relatively peaceful development and periods of intense conflict, and to discover novel strategic approaches to victory.

Dominion over Canada

As Martin admits in the Designer’s Notes, the main mechanic is similar to the deck building of Dominion, a mechanic that was also used in Fzzzt!, a recent game from my company, Surprised Stare Games, but in a very different context. Never let a good game mechanism pass you by, I say. AFAoS executes this brilliantly.

Players have two types of card. Location cards, one for each node on the map that can be occupied by that side, and Empire cards, which include military forces of several broad types, cards to manage your deck, and various specialist additions, including Native Americans. Location cards go into your collection when you take control of a spot on the board. Empire cards can be purchased for money from your very limited money supply (important note: although this is a Martin Wallace game, you get no loans!).

On your turn you use up cards from your hand to take actions, two per turn except for the first turn, when you only get one action. At the end of your go, you draw back to five cards in hand. All gained or used cards go into your discard pile, and when your deck runs out, you shuffle your discards to form a new draw deck. So new and used cards will usually flow through your discard pile, back into your deck and return to your hand in a subsequent turn when you draw more cards. The primary effect of this mechanism is that you won’t normally have access to new cards or locations you’ve just captured until some time later in the game. As cards representing military forces are also discarded when used – siege warfare is the primary type of conflict – these will also take a while to return to your hand for re-use. The effect of the mechanism is to vary the tempo of the game significantly, because there will be periods when you’re waiting for the right combination of cards to appear to enable you to carry out a successful attack, to develop a location or to get your people moving to the next settlement site.

There are some clever mechanisms that players can use to overcome the limitations of this basic flow of cards. The major one is the Reserve. As an action a single card in hand can be placed into your Reserve, up to a limit of five cards in total. These cards are no longer in your hand or deck, so they don’t clog up your flow of cards. You can retrieve them during your turn as a ‘free action’, an action that doesn’t count against your two action limit, but you must pay money to get them back, one per card. However, it’s an all or nothing deal; you either buy back all of them or none, so the bigger your Reserve the more expensive it is to retrieve it, and you have to buy back the ones you don’t want as well as the ones you do.

Both sides can discard cards. The first discard is free, but if you want to discard more than one card in one action, each subsequent card costs one money. Both sides also have a Governor card that can be used to remove one or two cards back to the stock of Empire or Location cards, taking them out of your ‘live’ collection entirely, effectively thinning your deck.

Both sides also have the powerful Home Support card, the Ancestral Recall of A Few Acres of Snow. Draw three cards as a free action – no down side! Finally the French have the Intendant, a very useful guy who can retrieve a single card from the discard pile.

Asymmetric Warfare

Another distinctive feature of the game is its asymmetry. The decks are asymmetric, as are the starting positions on the board. The British start with more money, fewer cards, an exclusively coastal position and more ships. The French have more military forces – they start with the only free-to-purchase military, a Regular Infantry card – and many more victory points, but with only one card they can use for settling, they have less potential for expansion and developing villages into towns. The British have the potential for more military power than the French, but they’ll have to buy those cards. They can use the powerful Merchant action to earn revenue, combining a ship card with money-earning locations. The main method for the French to get money is by trading furs, using the combination of Trader and locations with a fur symbol.

It’s a wargame, stupid

A Few Acres of Snow is a wargame, and most games will be decided by military activity, even if it’s only purchase of military cards to thwart your opponent’s ambitions. As befits the period, the main regular military activity is the siege of villages and towns, often fortified. Sieges are represented abstractly, and each side can commit to only one attack at a time. You win a siege only when your commitment of troops exceeds your opponent’s by three at the start of [b]your [/b]turn, modified in some cases by fortification or garrisons. So military activity can boil down to using up actions to save a location, or to force your opponent to save a location. Sieges can be protracted, and curiously it can pay both sides to leave their military engaged, as this will ensure that military cards – useless outside a siege – do not clog up the deck.

While besieging places is basically a conquest strategy, the game enables players to indulge in a raiding strategy too. Native Americans can be recruited by both sides to ambush unsuspecting military forces and to raid enemy locations. Native Americans and a limited number of other cards can also block enemy raids, so raiding can become a to and fro affair.

Strategic card play

Winning the game comes in two main ways. Automatic victory can be achieved for the British by taking Quebec, or for the French by taking Boston or New York. Alternatively you can try for more victory points when one of the end game triggers happens. Victory points are awarded for control of important locations, doubled if these are upgraded from villages to towns, and for capture of enemy locations. The end of the game is triggered by placing all your villages or towns, or by acquiring 12 or more points from captures.

The asymmetric starting positions point the way to some very different strategies for each side. With more revenue potential and settlers, the British could commit to developing their coastal villages, while expanding into victory point rich new territory. This might also restrict French expansion. Alternatively they could build their military power and try to push into the St Lawrence aiming for the historically important locations at Port Royal and Louisburg, on the road to Quebec. The French, with their existing lead in VPs, might be tempted to buy more settlers and push for expansion and development, in a race for the end game condition of using up all town or village markers. However, there’s the temptation of a quick attack via Pemaquid to Boston, the fall of which would be an automatic French win.

Whatever initial strategies are chosen, it will be very important to keep an eye on your opponent’s purchases. Falling behind in military potential could lead to loss of key locations by sieges. Having a large deck with a high proportion of inefficient cards – too many unimportant location cards for example – will help your opponent to an advantage in settling or access to military strength.

Mapping the wilderness

There has been some criticism (see other threads) of the game, largely because the relationships between locations for settling and raiding are not spelled out clearly in a small number of cases. However, these have now been entirely clarified by a couple of downloadable maps. These are only minor criticisms and mostly in corner cases. As in most games, an attentive reading of the rules and cards (a lost art amongst a high proportion of gamers!) will resolve the vast majority of difficulties.

Top of the Pops

Current rankings of A Few Acres of Snow on BGG tell a good story:

Board Game Rank: 213
War Game Rank: 20
Strategy Game Rank: 76

And the trend is still up. Even taking into account a tendency amongst some wargamers on BGG towards hyperbole, it’s difficult to gainsay these figures. My own view, having played A Few Acres of Snow regularly against a variety of experienced and inexperienced opponents, is that it deserves these high ratings and sets a new standard for innovation and replayability in board wargaming.


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