Back when I interviewed Martin Wallace for this website, I had the pleasure of asking him about his background in wargaming. His latest game, A Few Acres of Snow has an interesting pedigree: he’s quite upfront in the rules that the design was inspired by the totally themeless Euro Dominion and yet A Few Acres of Snow strives to be possibly his strongest simulation to date. It even has several pages of historical notes, written by a military historian! I was lucky enough to get a review copy of this title direct from Warfrog, so I’ve had a chance to judge first hand how successful it is as both a simulation and a game.
The game purports to be about the long conflict between France and Britain for control of North America. The deckbuilding mechanic is worked into theme with the clever and accurate observation that in the early days of colonial warfare, the supply lines across the Atlantic were so stretched that governors and military commanders couldn’t simply request stuff and utilise it: they had to ask, wait, see what turned up, and make the best of it. There’s no doubt that A Few Acres Of Snow has quite an astonishing learning curve. Not because it’s complex - the rules are actually very straightforward and revolve around simple turn sequence of checking to see if you’ve won a siege, then playing cards to take two actions, then drawing your hand up to five cards and shuffling your discards to create a new draw deck if necessary. No, it's because of the staggering variety of options at the fingertips of a new player. Those two actions are chosen from a wide variety of possibilities and most actions are playable with a variety of cards. That complexity is compounded by all the cards that start in a players draft pile which they can then use to alter their deck and hone a strategy, resulting in a dizzying decision tree. An already terrifying array of choices is further complicated by the fact that in this game, there’s a board, and spatial considerations need to be taken into account. The first time I started a game of A Few Acres Of Snow, with five cards in my hand, a player aid listing all the actions and the map spread out before me, it felt a bit like staring into the abyss, but an abyss in which, twinkling faintly at the bottom, was a light that could either be vast re-playability or the fires of hell itself.
So lets descend into the crevasse, bit by bit, so you can get a sense of how this enormous, intimidating decision tree is built up. The best place to start is probably the map. Each side starts in control of certain locations, while the bulk of them begin uncontrolled. Location control is one component of the victory condition, with some locations being worth victory points at the end of the game. Each location has a card which you pick up and add to your deck when you gain control of it. What these cards do vary enormously: some have symbols on them that you can use to undertake certain actions such as trading for gold, or starting a siege (more on this later), some have lists of other locations to which that one is connected, some have both and a very few have nothing at all on them and are just chaff that clutter up your hand, although the location itself may have value as an outpost for raiding or victory points. To perform an action that would involve significant logistical co-ordination such as settling a new location or laying siege to any enemy one, you need to play a connected location card from your hand, and another card with an appropriate movement symbol: boats for rivers, ships for the sea or carts for roads. Confusingly, locations only connect to other locations that are listed on their cards, even though the map sometimes suggests otherwise. The map also fails to offer any clues as to what symbols are on a location card, it’s something you have to learn from experience even though it can often be an important strategic consideration. To further bamboozle the player, each side generally has its own card for each location, but these are not always the same: sometimes the symbols and connected locations are different, and there are actually a few locations that one side or the other cannot reach although, again, the map offers no clue to this. In short the map board is basically pretty useless as it is: a traditional point-to-point setup would have been much clearer, and although player aids are available to help with all the missing information, the "usability" of the game as currently published could, on the whole, have been a lot better.
So at the start of the game each player has a small deck of location cards corresponding to the locations he controls at setup. However there are also Empire cards, which can have symbols on them but more generally do stuff. For example the “ship” card has - you guessed it - a ship symbol for transport, while the “home support” card has no symbols but simply allows the player to draw three new cards from his deck when played. Each player has his own deck, and each is different, representing the strengths and weaknesses of each countries operations in the New World. There is also a very small deck of shared Empire cards that either side can pick from. Whilst you add location cards to your deck by taking control of the location on the board, you get new Empire cards by using a “draft” action to add one to your discard pile, for later shuffling into your hand. Many are free, others have to be paid for.
So already you can begin to see how the layers of mechanics stack up, like the layers of an onion, to create a dizzying array of strategy and choice. You need to control victory point locations, and to improve them into cities (effectively a double settle action, which doubles the VP) in order to win. But as you spread yourself across the map in an attempt to reach them or, at the very least, to connect with enemy locations in order to besiege or raid them, your deck becomes stuffed with location cards that may, or may not be useful. So careful consideration is required as to where, and by how much, you choose to grow your empire. You need to co-ordinate the effects and connected locations in your location cards with appropriate drafting of empire cards in order to achieve the effects you require while keeping a careful eye on what the enemy is doing and trying to ensure you can thwart his plans against you. You’ll probably need to change tack at least once during the game, and if locations are taken off you then you have to keep the card but can no longer use it so one way or another you’ll find yourself with cards you don’t need. And of course you won’t always get the combinations you need in the draw. To help with these issues each side has a “Governor” Empire card to draft that allows you to make permanent removals from your deck, a discard action which means you can discard one (or pay to discard more) card from hand and a reserve, a cunning idea that allows you to “set aside” up to five cards (only one at once) for later pick up, although you have to pay and you have to pick them all up at once. Given the strategic considerations of the board, that’s a wealth of options right there.
But it doesn’t stop. See there’s another way to get victory points and that’s by winning battles. Combat in the game is massively abstracted and comes in two flavours. The first is raiding - you pick a target and then play one raid card for each connection step between the target and your nearest outpost. This is nasty - a successful raid removes the enemy settlement marker from the target that that’s worth VP to the raiding player. A raid can be blocked with a raid block card or by playing the location card of the targeted location, both of which reduce the cards available for the targeted player on his turn, but that’s better than loosing the settlement. Fortunately you can defend yourself with yet another action - building a fortress in a location, which costs money but means enemy raids can’t pass through the fort. The other kind of military action is the seige, which begins just like a settlement action by playing a connected location card and a transport but then also requires a card with a military symbol. Sieges work like a see-saw: the initial number of military symbols tilt a siege track in favour of the attacker, and the defender can the re-enforce the siege with military cards of his own to tip the track back the other way, then the attacker can do the same and so on. Siege cards are not discarded and recycled into the hand but placed in a special pile, ensuring that you can’t rack up endless sieges and that overall military strength in the deck is usually the determining factor in winning. If you can swing the siege track by at least two (for the attacker) or one (for the defender) in your favour and your opponent doesn’t have the cards to re-enforce you win. If the attacker wins he gets to take off the enemy settlement, gains some VP, and has the opportunity to settle the space himself. Either way the looser has to permanently discard an empire card, so sieges are not to be started lightly.
So let’s recap those layers again, remember that these layers interconnect and build on one another so that at each step you get a semi-exponential expansion of the options and choices available to you. You get stuff done by playing cards from your deck. Where you expand to affects what’s in your deck. You need to watch the map to ensure you’re taking over the right locations to get the cards you need, to get victory points, and to give yourself opportunities to raid or besiege the enemy. You can draft cards to further expand what’s available to you. If you don’t like what you’ve got you can recycle or thin your deck, either permanently or by use of the reserve and you can also use the latter to gradually store linked cards to support a strategy. You can get victory points either by settling VP locations or by successful military actions. Does that give you some idea of how gargantuan the decision tree is for the game? I can’t recall anything else quite like it. Thankfully, on a turn to turn basis your decisions are limited by what you’ve got in your hand, and the sense that many possible actions are fairly futile in any given situations. But strategically, game-wide, it’s just mind-boggling. At times, in the middle of the game when neither side has an advantage and is still flexible about where it could possibly go in terms of overall strategy the weight of that decision tree is almost stifling - how on earth do you go about doing whatever it is you need to get done to advance your way toward the win conditions, you wonder? Even with experience there are times I’ve felt it to be overwhelming, forcing me into passivity with the sheer plethora of options available and an inability to winkle out the tiny differences in quality that divide them. Sometimes that feeling can be strategic nirvana, other times it can be almost oppressively frustrating, especially when you end up stuck with hand after hand of rubbish that you don’t need.
As if that were not enough, as is typical of Wallace games he’s managed to slap some history on top of the mechanics and connect the two together in places, although in others it remains fairly abstract. The justification given for using deck-building as a mechanic works for me, and there are some nice touches in the different Empire decks and starting decks for the two nations, such as the British having much easier access to Settler cards, reflecting their much greater population in the new world. The historical notes are interesting, and although you may be hard pressed at first to see how that history is reflected in the game, repeat plays will bear some of it out. But it’s no war game in the traditional sense. Both forms of combat are extremely abstract, and I find the end game condition - that one side or the other runs out of settlement tokens - so arbitrary as to verge on the irritating. But full marks for trying to balance history, theme and mechanical interest in one go, and for the most part, succeeding.
Basically A Few Acres Of Snow is a very good game, but it’s a very good game game that will only show its quality if you’re prepared to stick at it and, ideally, if you’ve got a single regularly opponent with whom you can explore and learn the game, and against whom you can match your evolving strategies. This is not a game for casual players: it takes several games to get a handle on leveraging that vast decision tree to make your deck do what you want it to, more games to learn the effects and connections on the location cards so you can plan an effective strategy, and it’s also a game in which an experienced player will be able to mercilessly crush a learner without fail, every single time. If you’ve got a gaming spouse, or one solitary regular gaming friend, it may be ideal for the pair of you. If you tend to jump in and out of a lot of different gaming groups, it’s probably less well suited. I’ve seen people claim this game can be played in 30-60 minutes but that sounds dubious to me: I soloed it once and took over an hour, even knowing what strategies I was employing against myself. 90-120 would seem more the mark, longer while you’re getting to grips with it. But if the idea of matching yourself regularly against another opponent for that sort of time slot sounds like the sort of thing that’s a frequent fixture in your gaming world, then this is certainly not a game you should ignore.