You say vous desirez la revolution? How about A Few Acres of Snow?

, | Game reviews

Recognizing a revolution is a lot easier than starting one. In 1994, Avalon Hill published Mark Herman’s design We the People about the American Revolutionary War, and the term “card-driven gameplay” started its lexical journey to ubiquitous descriptor of pretty much any game currently in print. Instead of moving all your little cardboard squares from hex to hex each turn, you moved a few of them from box to box using a deck of cards with numbers and events. You heard that right: you didn’t always play games with cards.

After the jump, it’s all in the cards

It took a few years for the card-based thing to catch on with wargamers, but when GMT released Ted Raicer’s groundbreaking Paths of Glory in 1999, the tide had turned. The game had all those little square chits with numbers on them that screamed Real Wargame, but it had area movement and a deck of cards. It played differently from every other World War I game ever released. With admirable style, Raicer had piloted a dirigible full of new ideas clean over all the entrenched obstacles to making a good game about the Great War. Instead of stacks of counters and tedium, it introduced tension, uncertainty, and historical flavor, all thanks to that old standby, a deck of playing cards. All someone had to figure out was how to print war photos on them, write some flavor text that didn’t have to with mana, and then think up a new name for mana that sounded Real Wargamey and could use the exact same concept to move tanks and guns. And that, boys and girls, is how we got Operations Points.

That’s a pretty simplified history of wargame design in the past 18 years, and when future archaeologists are done excavating all the finished basements and garage game rooms of the early 21st Century, you can be sure they’ll marvel at the way games went from being simulations of two generals alternately taking turns moving their units while the other one watched the entire run of the BBC’s World at War, to actual tense, compelling, well … games. Designers like Courtney Allen, Don Greenwood, and Mark Herman realized that it made a lot more sense to involve both players in the game as much as possible in each turn, even to the extent that players wouldn’t necessarily know whose turn was next. Wargame designers quietly devised clever approaches to longstanding problems, and although far more people have heard of Settlers of Catan than Napoleon at Marengo, for example, Bowen Simmons’ application of new concepts to wargaming deserves every bit as much praise as that overplayed game etc., etc., etc.

For a period that has been so difficult to model with a standard hex-and-counter system, it seems almost bizarre that the American colonial period now boasts four superlative games across two mediums: the aforementioned We the People, Wilderness War (Volko Ruhnke’s award-winning design from 2001 to which A Few Acres of Snow bears more than a passing resemblance), Birth of America (a groundbreaking computer game from AGEOD that proved a few years ago computer wargame designers were far from out of ideas), and now the game we’re about to discuss. Maybe all this says is that when old design systems break down so completely, it’s good to start out unencumbered by previous assumptions.

A Few Acres of Snow is the confluence of this design philosophy, and it learned the above lessons so well that I’m not sure what kind of game it is. Oh sure, a good one. But whether it’s a wargame with blocks and cards or a block-and-card Eurogame about war, the way it incorporates the unique problems each side faced, their strengths and weaknesses, and the generally miserable conditions for waging war in 18th Century North America — all in a streamlined and accessible set of game mechanics — makes me realize how impossible it would be for me to ever be a game designer. It takes an entire playthrough to really understand how brilliant the design is, but all it takes is a glance at the cover to realize why.

The cover shows that A Few Acres of Snow was designed by Martin Wallace, whose reputation was earned as long ago as 2002 with the publication of Age of Steam, an innovative (and cutthroat) take on the train game genre, and cemented by subsequent refinements to his design of the Railroad Tycoon boardgame and finally his game Steam. Other designs include 2007’s Brass, an exploration of Industrial England, and Age of Industry, its 2010 redesign. Those games are all about acquiring industrial resources. While previous Martin Wallace designs were complex combinations of cards, blocks, tiles, and counters, A Few Acres of Snow rolls them all into some tokens, a busy but clear mapboard, and some seriously clever cards.

On the game’s webpage and in its designer notes, Wallace acknowledges his debt to Dominion, a 2009 deck-building game designed by Donald Vaccarino. While players have separate decks available to them, there is a common deck of North American “resources” from which both players can buy. But the comparison to Dominion is overstated. Yes, you “build your deck” by buying new cards, but it’s the turn-to-turn tactical management of that deck that makes the game. And the gameboard drives those tactics.

For a game with simple point-to-point movement, Wallace gets a lot of complexity out of the interplay between the cards and the way the points are connected. Movement is really just placing blocks on spaces, but in order to do so, you need to have an appropriate connection card and the right conveyance. Each location has a corresponding card, and is connected to other locations by rivers, roads, or Indian trails. Each card has various symbols at the bottom, which are really the game’s resources. Need to travel up the river to Albany? You’ll need a canoe (sorry, “bateaux” in the game) symbol on a card. But that bateaux card may be on the same card as a location you want to fortify. Or it may have a fur symbol on it, and you have a trader card that lets you convert the furs into money. Once you use a card, you’ll have to cycle it through your discard pile, which gets larger as you buy more cool stuff. Ooh, siege artillery! But if I don’t fortify Fort Duquesne now, when will I get that card back? The game is less about Dominion-style deck building than Magic-style deck management.

The French start with a lead in victory points but a constricted geographical position. The British start with a rich base for development and superior material resources. The game ends when either the British capture Quebec (possible), the French capture Boston or New York (less possible), or either side has played all of its tokens or discs and there isn’t any active siege*. This leads to a tense balance between aggression and expansion, as players maneuver on the map to capture victory point locations, and maneuver with their cards to protect their holdings. The French are chronically short of money because their fur trading can’t match the British merchant trade. There are more British troops available, but building up the British military takes time and resources, and the French will likely be expanding and raiding while the British send troops to the New World. Each side has problems. It’s impressive that they’re so well modeled by a game you can teach in 15 minutes.

Games about colonial warfare have an advantage in not being forced to model differences in morale, training, and equipment between similar units. How many tri-cornered hats did the Royal Queen Ann Margaret Fusiliers have, compared to the Lancashire Auxiliary Yeomen? Who cares. Regular infantry can all be one type without crazy rivet-heads complaining that it doesn’t correctly represent late-1749 upgraded black powder advantages. Add militia, some irregular units, and you’re done. Wallace folds all of this into a simple, clever combat system. As John Ellis’ historical commentary to the game notes:

During the whole thirty nine years of open conflict there were only three major engagements that did not involve sieges or direct assaults on forts: namely, two pitched battles (Plains of Abraham (1759) and Quebec (1760) and one large-scale ambush (Monongahela (1755). And each one of these took place in the immediate vicinity of a fort.

That neatly allows Wallace to just differentiate between raids and sieges, with each dependent on those ingenious cards. Raids can capture blocks in undefended outposts, but can’t capture the outposts themselves. Forts block raids, but building forts slows down expansion. Sieges tie up cards that could be used for other purposes. Cards with ship symbols can be used to reinforce besieged coastal settlements, while wilderness forts require actual troop cards.

Historical situations often straightjacket game designers by limiting the map to predetermined objectives. If the actual situation was all about one thing, then play can become stereotyped along those exact lines. In a game about colonial America, it’s hard to keep a game from devolving into attacks along Lake Champlain or the Mohawk River valley. The knock against A Few Acres of Snow is that the British can push through Nova Scotia using a military-only strategy called the “Halifax Hammer”. Designer Martin Wallace recently published a small set of rules tweaks which may address this. I have now played several games online, and each plays out a little differently. No one has tried out “The Hammer” on me yet. Maybe the rules tweaks fixed it.

I love theme, and I love wargames, so it’s possible that if you made this exact same game but set it in the dopey world of fantasy (Ascension) that I would like it less. But I’m not sure. Something about the elegance of the board and cards satisfies my inner optimizer, whether it involves British irregulars or regular old paladins.

My work schedule has effectively taken me out of the boardgame loop, so by the time I heard of A Few Acres of Snow, the publisher had sold out of all their copies, Thought Hammer was out, and my local store said their distributor no longer had it on hand. I eventually found it at Lost Harbor Games & Hobbies in Westfield, Mass. after some Internet searching. You can probably still find stock at various other places, too. But as with all small print-run boardgames these days, you’re at the mercy of word-of-mouth and irregular distribution networks**.

So that’s it then, eh? A cool game that you can’t buy or play because it’s already sold out, and therefore is just another example of hot boardgames being unavailable to anyone who isn’t compulsively refreshing Boardgamegeek every five minutes? Oh no, friends. That is where you’re wrong., a long-time Eurogame online free-to-play website, offers a very nice implementation of A Few Acres of Snow. Play is asynchronous, so you can’t see your opponent’s move until it’s done, but the applet does a nice job of refreshing itself when a move is available (and sending you an email about it). It can even move you from game to game if you’re playing multiple instances. The applet itself works cleanly, has an elegant interface, and — most importantly — enforces the rules.

Those rules are available online from the publisher, and Yucata has a license to offer the game this way. (There’s even a link to the rules from the Yucata website, and the online game implements the new rules tweaks mentioned above.) If you start a game and send out a public invitation, you’ll probably have an opponent within ten minutes. If you PM me on Quarter to Three and give me your Yucata user name, I’ll send you a game invitation myself. It’s the least risky way of discovering one of the best games of 2011. Then put on some Boards of Canada for appropriate theme music, and find out how good wargaming, or Eurogaming, or both, has really gotten.

5 stars

* There is a fourth victory condition which Qt3 regular Tracy Baker used to defeat me as the sneaky French: capture twelve points worth of enemy blocks/discs.
** I am hearing that the game will be reprinted sometime this spring, but I have no definite confirmation other than some stores listing “April 2012” as an expected restock date.