Come on in for Next of Ken, where we'll swig a few beers over the corpse of MTV, and talk about Martin Wallace's outstanding new A Few Acres of Snow. Join us, won't you?
We Hear the Playback and It Seems So Long Ago
When I was younger, I vowed that as I grew older, I would not hate MTV out of hand. No matter what music format they took, I told myself that whether or not I disliked the music they featured, I would not, would never outright hate MTV.
Somewhere along the way, they played a dirty trick on me. But more on that in a minute.
This past weekend MTV celebrated its 30-year anniversary.
How did they celebrate their storied anniversary? With wall-to-wall specials, clips, footage, and talking heads going over the importance of the once-great Music Television?
Of course not.
Instead, VH1 Classic (that's right folks, VH1 *Classic*, not VH1 itself, but VH1 Classic) went completely retro from Friday to midnight last night, airing videos, concert performances, famous interviews, news bits, and commercials from MTV's past. And I know I'm going to sound cheesy, but for the entire weekend it was on, if a TV was nearby, I was watching.
It is really difficult to describe to younger folks today (yes, I'm old now) what an impact MTV had specifically on my generation. For better or worse, it changed the music industry. Stars were born, careers made off of exposure on MTV. Even more than that, MTV was a discussion point..."did you see that new video that came on last night?" It was deeply rooted in culture, and it had its own way of making an impact on that culture, of defining parts of it, making them their own.
MTV was for me a "de facto" channel. If I turned on the tube and had nothing else in mind to watch, I would flip it to MTV. I'd catch the premieres of videos, or watch the music video awards for the twenty-fifth time, or even just get a dose of music news. I still remember being home from college, sitting at the dinner table, and hearing that Kurt Cobain had killed himself.
If I had friends over, playing cards, shooting the shit, just whatever, MTV was the background noise. Lazy summers were spent with equal doses of riding bikes, playing video games, and overdosing on music videos. Seriously, I can still hear the twangs of Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" that they played 200 times one summer.
At one time, listening to top 40 radio of any kind, it was impossible not to visualize the video for each song. "Cradle of Love", I'm looking at you.
Somewhere along the way, MTV became...something else. Reality TV central, stupid people on TV for absolutely no reason, but sadly...no music. No focus on music, or musicians. That is incredibly, incredibly sad.
The one thing you could always say about MTV is that even when they did feature programming that wasn't specifically music videos, at least the content had some relationship to the music industry. Beavis and Butthead would show and poke fun at videos. Remote Control had viewers trying to name an assortment of music videos in a race against time. Now, there is no tie to music, except in the form of nondescript chapter changes in the latest "reality" show. As a fan of music, I miss having that sort of mainstream champion for music of all kinds.
Man, I know that bitching about MTV is sooooo 2008. But what made me sad watching all these great clips this weekend was that instead of a celebration, it felt more like a funeral wake--having a few beers, smiling wistfully and talking about what great times you used to have together.
Gone are concerts. Gone are socially relevant stuff like Rock the Vote and Live Aid. Gone are videos that feel like events.
It's funny too, because as MTV phased out music videos, they invented MTV2, a channel for music videos. That too ofcourse became a repository for their re-runs of reality programming. VH1 was too overtaken, but by the "celebrity" wing of reality television, as you could watch 10 skanks compete for the "love" of Bret Michaels or Flavor Flav.
So why was this celebration relegated to a second-tier VH1 channel? Well, in the midst of all this goodwill I was feeling towards MTV, I decided to flip over to see what they were doing on the main channel. You know what I found?
A fucking Jersey Shore marathon.
Yes, watching completely unremarkable New Jersey gutter trash is certainly more important than celebrating your anniversary. In fact, it's kinda cheating--MTV hasn't survived for 30 years. It died around a decade ago or so, and this thing limping along with its name? It ain't MTV. I mean, in the early days, MTV was endorsed by legends like David Bowie. Can you imagine that now? Pete Townshend coming on and saying, "DEMAND YOUR MTV! Up next, Sixteen and Pregnant!"
Alright, alright. Old man rant over.
But seriously...fuck MTV. I miss ya, old friend.
Lickey Boom Boom Down
On to gaming, there's just one game I'd like to talk about this week, and that's Martin Wallace's new A Few Acres of Snow (Treefrog, Martin Wallace, 2 players, 90-120 minutes.) Not to be confused with the following album:
There is something to be said for truth in advertising, though
A Few Acres of Snow is a new hybrid of deckbuilding and boardgaming, one of the first "deckbuilders that does something." In other words, a deckbuilder which does not have the deckbuilding experience as the totality of the gameplay.
In A Few Acres of Snow, one player plays the British, the other the French, during their conflict over what is now Canada. I can't confirm, but the conflict likely originated over hockey, beer, or both.
Deckbuilding is a core element of the game--Wallace goes so far as to credit and thank Dominion directly. Players have two options for acquiring cards for their decks. Multi-purpose location cards are added to the deck via settling or military conquest, while "Empire" cards--generally straightforward action cards--are added by purchasing with money. Players actually have and accumulate money, most often by playing one of their multi-purpose location cards with a coin on it, but also by selling furs with Merchant, or using ships to get more money in one burst.
Expansion happens in one of two ways. You can settle peacefully if the location you want isn't taken. This involves playing a location card that's next to the place you want, then playing a card with an icon matching how you can get to that location (ship, canoe), and lastly a card with a Settler icon, should the location require it. If you put this combo together, you get to place one of your village pieces there to show ownership, and add that card from your reserve to your discard pile to become part of your deck. You'd do this to allow you to expand into critical areas (as you need to create paths from location to location), or to get a valuable location card that has resources you need in the form of travel, settlers, military, money, and so on.
The other way to expand is via military action. You can put locations under siege in a similar fasion to settling--play a location card next to where you'd like to siege, plus the card you'd need to travel--but you must also provide some military strength in the form of another cardplay. There is a siege track which measures how the siege is progressing, and players can use their actions to contribute more military strength to the siege. Cards committed to the siege go to a special area on your part of the board, not to be added back to your deck until the siege has either been won or repelled. The loser of the siege must then remove his village or town, given to the opponent for scoring purposes. They also must place back in their reserve areas one card that participated in the siege.
There is certainly other stuff going on--fortifying locations, Indian raids, ambushes that will strip key cards from your opponent's hand...but that is the heart and soul of the gameplay.
We sat down with it for 75% of a game yesterday, and I gotta tell you, I was considerably impressed with how the game works. The deckbuilding mechanic is thematically sound as it took time for supplies to reach the colonies.
You're overwhelmed at first because you have a ton of options how you'd like to proceed. You only have two actions per turn,
and you're going to want to get money, build up your deck, expand, attack and raid your opponent...so much to do, that you are going to feel a little bit lost at first. The game gives you a playground with which to operate and a lot of things you're allowed to do, giving the game an almost "sandbox" feel (so far as these types of games are ever going to seem as such.) The game has no 'guard rails' to speak of, so it's going to be possible to muck things up if you start floundering around.
What will definitely take some time to get used to is how the deckbuilding itself is not the sole focus of the game. It is, honestly, a deckbuilding game with a true purpose. You need your cards to come together to allow you to do certain things, but the impetus is on those things you need to do on the map, not the circular feedback loop of the cards themselves. (photo credit: walterhunt.com.)
You also have to deal with a weird form of deck bloat. You need to settle locations, you need to move from place to place to get at your opponent, and along the way you'll be adding cards to your deck...some of which you won't necessarily want (Kennebec is, for the French, a completely blank card...but you need it to raid certain places). The game has a nice system where you can place cards in reserve as an action, keeping them out of the way. You can buy them to your hand as an action, but you must buy them all, and it costs one coin apiece to do that.
Then you start thinking about how you can store up a huge military assault in there, buy 'em up when the cards come together, and unleash holy hell on a tightly defended location. Again, it's a nice freedom to use the game's systems to achieve whatever goals you need for them too.
In our game, Jeremy was the British, and he began settling locations with a vengeance. The poor French was looking at their dearth of settler and ship actions and trying to figure out how to respond to that massive amount of land grabbing. Then, he was able to put together a raid but changed his mind, and I realized the danger there as well. Since the British start with a huge points and ship advantage, I knew I had to do something.
Buying a few cards to protect from ambushes, I turned things around by using my canoes and fur trading to get at key locations and generate a nice wad of cash. I also mixed in piracy to keep bleeding the British of coins when I had the chance. Then, I was able to strike, first with a raid that brought a town back down to a village, followed by some hot military action with a siege that came from the sea. I had purchased the big guns in the form of siege artillery, and suddenly I had a settlement smack dab in the middle of British turf.
We had to call the game due to running out of lunch hour, and I'm not sure how it would have played out from there. I had the capability to use piracy and raids to demolish the surrounding settlements given time, but he had amassed a large number of points over on a part of the map I had no quick way to get to. I had captured one of his town and one of his village pieces (worth six points total), but it's possible the game would have gone either way from there as he would have had a TON of points from towns and villages.
I know it's early to rave about a game after a single (partial!) play, but I was completely and thoroughly impressed with A Few Acres of Snow. This is hopefully the first in the wave of "new" deckbuilders, games that move beyond the deckbuilding as the only element and incorporate it into a cohesive part of a larger game.
I can't wait to play this again.
It isn't widely available yet, but when it is, if you're at all a fan of two-player games like these, at least give A Few Acres of Snow a look. It takes some old and some new and creates a game that somehow manages to feel like part settling, part two-player card-driven war game, and part deckbuilding and management. And it freaking works. I know it's the honeymoon phase here and there is a lot of playing to do, but so far, it's pretty incredible and a nice breath of fresh air in the form of a hybrid that seemingly does justice to every element it touches.
Stay tuned, folks. I think this one's a good one.
That's going to do it for this week. 'Til next time, I'll see ya in seven.
Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff.