There's little sadder than finding out a favourite toy is broken. So it was with A Few Acres of Snow. After enjoying a few months in the gaming limelight, someone found out it was bust. If you don't know why it's bust you're best left in ignorance so we'll not elaborate. Suffice to say that even the designer agreed and proclaimed the game impossible to fix. And so a promising new avenue of deck-building design turned out to be a short cul-de-sac of disappointment. We all moved on.
All except for Daniel Berger.
Daniel essentially rebuilt A Few Acres of Snow, added a few new systems and moved it back about two thousand years to the First Punic War. It's a surprisingly good fit. What the two conflicts had in common was their drawn out, scrappy nature. The powers involved were unwilling to throw their full might into the fray. Instead they preferred to nibble at one another's dominions, hoping to gain a long-term advantage in territory or trade.
Most of the systems that made the original game so thrilling and still intact, and still so thrilling. Each side starts with a deck of cards, most of which represent the towns that begin under that player's control. These location cards show which other locations they're connected to on the board and whether that connection is by land or sea. To do something, you play a connected location and another card with a cart or ship icon to represent the transport. That's enough to settle an uncontrolled town.
Sometimes you have to add a third card to the mix. To attack, you add one with a sword icon, for example, or to settle a more populous area, you need a colonist. When you take a location, you add its card to your deck, right out of your opponent's hand if need be. Even that this most basic level, it's a brilliant system that offers lots of simulation for next to nothing. As you expand, your deck bloats and you find it harder to do things: just like the logistics trying to run an increasingly large empire.
Yet it also fuels the fires of tension beneath each player. Your hand consists of five cards and to get more, you have to play or discard what you have. Trying to churn through your deck to get the right combinations feels like racing to find a prize in a tub of sawdust. Combat piles an additional pressure into the mix. Players attack and defend with sword cards, attempting to gain enough of a lead for an instant victory. But, of course, you have to have the swords in your hand to play them. There's a reserve where you can store cards, but the excitement of waiting to see who'll collapse first can be excruciating.
All the more so, because when things go wrong it's usually your fault. For all the thrills of pulling cards, it's very much a game that rewards planning and strategy. And there are so many strategies on offer! You can go toe-to-toe in traditional battles. Or recruit cavalry and use them to burn down enemy towns before settling on the ashes yourself. Or raise a pirate fleet and pillage all your opponent's money. Or build unassailable cities and fortifications to win a fast economic victory. Or use a flotilla of warships to cut supply lines and watch your foes territory wither and die.
In truth, you'll probably end up doing most of these things in a single game. Each approach has a counter, and as each player begins to focus on a strategy it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Bolstering your deck with the cards you need to stymie the other player will, in turn, lead you to change your own plans. Strategizing becomes a living monster, snapping on your table, both players trying to pin it to the board without getting bitten. It's an absorbing dance that can make the 2-3 hour play time feel like a half hour. A half hour of tortuous brilliance.
Still, another monster is hovering close by through your first few games. It's the monster of fixed strategy, the one that ate A Few Acres of Snow. Hands in the Sea has a couple of clever tricks to keep it at bay. First, each player can buy and hold a strategy card from a limited selection that changes every so often. These don't go in your deck but instead offer a long-term, powerful effect that needs to dovetail with your overall strategy. Rome, for instance, can get a card that lets them double the rate of their ship building. Or either player might grab Siege Warfare, which makes it easier to beat otherwise impregnable fortifications. Because these cards change each game and contribute strongly to strategy, it's much harder to settle on a fixed approach. It's a great system that works well to keep each session fresh.
The other bulwark against boredom is our old friend randomness. There are random events every so often, and they can be catastrophic. The affected player gets determined by a dice roll, with some cards more likely to hit one player than the other. Storms at Sea will sink an unlucky player's entire navy, and that unlucky player will be Rome two thirds of the time. Speaking of navies, fleet combat is the other area where dice rule. Each ship rolls a dice and sinks an enemy vessel on a five or six. That makes it quite possible for sea battles, like land ones, to last several turns. But it also makes it possible for one bad fistful of rolls to scupper all your ships.
This is the price you pay for overcoming the flaws inherent to the system. It can be flip-the-board frustrating, especially after you've put in lots of effort to make your strategy engine work. The design, however, does at least offer plenty of opportunities to come back from the brink. Achieving a truly decisive action is hard, and it doesn't take that many turns to rebuild a navy, or refill your reserve or thin your deck. There's always a chance to come back, although it gets increasingly remote as the end of the game draws closer. There are other costs, too. Hands in the Sea is longer and more complex than A Few Acres. An issue which is compounded by a dreadful rulebook.
Which begs the question of whether it's worth paying these prices to play. To which my answer is an overwhelming yes. Hands in the Sea has taken over life in a way few games have. My regular opponent and I end every session by making a date to play again. Then we fill the intervening time plotting strategies, before watching it all fall to pieces on the board. The remainder we spend circling each other, like knife fighters with cardboard knives, trying to reclaim a victory from the scraps. It's addictive and brilliant, and Martin Wallace ought to be approve of it wholeheartedly.