Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Few Acres of Snow

"You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere in Canada, and that they are spending on this war more than Canada is worth."
Voltaire, Candide, 1759

Okay, so it is an open secret around these parts that I am not the biggest fan of Dominion. Despite its widespread success, I find the constant shuffling somewhat tedious (as I'm not good at it), and I have had difficulty getting my head around the deck building and card drafting mechanics. However, I am starting to enjoy card drafting games, and recently took part in a very enjoyable game of Mission: Red Planet, only to lose by a point. But I really liked the way that game is driven by your choice of character at the start of each round.

Alright, so Mission: Red Planet is not a deck building game, but it has a strong card-driven mechanic, which is what I'm getting at here, so let's see if we can roll with this for now...?

I digress somewhat. A Few Acres of Snow IS a deck building game. It DOES involve shuffling. But I DO like it. It is a two player game, and it includes a board, which represents the frontier between the British and French colonies in North America, circa 1750. It is a game about developing colonies in the American wilderness, and the competition between these two great 18th century empires.

A quick history lesson for those in the dark - by the mid-1700s Britain and France were the two dominant colonial powers in North America, leaving the Spanish and Portuguese to lord it over South America. Britain had a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast - e.g. New York - while France had its colonies along the St Lawrence River - called New France. The French and British both did quite a bit of fur trading and both powers had good and bad relations with the various Native American tribes. Eventually they started treading on each other's toes, and while there were numerous 'off the ball incidents', it was only when the empires ended up on opposite sides in the Seven Years War in Europe (1756) that things got really serious. Both sides in North America decided it was time to see if they could go for the jugular. Bear in mind that the fur trade was very lucrative and depended on access to the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley. In North America this conflict is referred to as the French & Indian War, although in Europe it was seen more as a side show to the main event of the big European military campaigns.

Back to the game... 

Each player seeks to settle the wilderness and upgrade their villages into towns. It is also possible to fortify settlements against raids and attacks from the enemy. Forts can block raiding parties and make it harder to capture a settlement by siege.

This was only my first game, and Maya  and I took it for a spin to try to iron out any creases. I played France. You build your deck from three sources:

  1. Location cards - the various locations along the frontier which you can settle and build in. You can't do something with a location without having its card in your hand.
  2. Empire cards - the various units and resources at your disposal, from priests, to fur trappers, to regular infantry to settlers. Lovely art, by the way.
  3. Neutral cards - these can be drafted by either player and comprise more settlers, Indians (Native Americans, First Nations, whatever), and forts.
Each turn you take two actions from a hand of five cards, then draw back up (you can use multiple cards as part of one action - e.g. a siege typically takes three, a location, transport and military power). Over time you add to your discard pile with new locations and resources, thus increasing your options as the game goes on (because when your draw deck is exhausted, you shuffle it to create a new deck). The board is used to keep track of the location of settlements, forts and towns in the wilderness, which in turn determines your end of game points scoring, also where you can raid and where you can siege.

Part of the board seen from the British side, with a location card.

This is where is gets a bit different

In A Few Acres of Snow, the sides are not the same like they are in Dominion. Each side has several cards which seem to be unique to them. In particular, the French seem to have a number of tricky ones, like the Intendant, which lets the French player draw cards back into his hand from the discard pile, or priests, who steal Native Americans from the British (I also like the French pirates, who represent a valuable additional source of income).

The French start off in the St Lawrence River, with some additional settlements on the Atlantic coast, in particular Louisbourg. The crown jewel in their empire is Quebec, which can be 12 points at the end of the game. France automatically loses if Quebec is taken. Similarly, Britain loses if the French take New York or Boston. I came close in our game, having driven the British out of Albany and established a fort and settlement there. I was poised to march down the Hudson valley, but sadly was not getting the right cards. Plus, Maya quickly fortified New York and then had some heavy artillery in reserve to defend it with: suffice to say, I wasn't going to be taking it in a hurry.

Maya had her own victories, in particular using hostile tribes to drive the French out of Port Royal before taking it for herself. Sneaky.

Settlers, fortifications and natives - all from the neutral deck.

The mechanics should be quite familiar to players of this kind of game. We blundered around quite a bit, simply trying to test what each card could do. I attempted a siege of Albany initially which went badly for the French. It seems to me that you really need some muscular forces to attack forts in this game - e.g. artillery. Otherwise the enemy is going to see you off in pretty short order, which happened to me in the Hudson Valley.

Raiding is a particular tactic both sides can use repeatedly to attempt to wipe out or downgrade enemy settlements. For this you can use your Indian allies, or certain irregular troops like Rangers that can strike deeper into enemy territory than your regulars, and can also navigate the various Indian trails that criss cross the wilderness. They can be blocked, however, by tribes friendly to the other side, militia, and also by forts. Indeed forts are an excellent way to curb raiding activities, and in strategic locations like Albany can quickly shut down this sort of anti-social activity (those who have played the first edition of Fury of Dracula should recall the strategic blocking value of holy wafers in Zagreb). We both had early successes with raiding, but soon learned to keep militia and Indians to hand to block it; my later efforts to harass Baltimore with raiders came to nought because Maya had recognised the value of her Indian allies.

The powers in A Few Acres do play like their historical counterparts, and the whole game possesses the essential feel of the conflict. The French are hampered by fewer settlers, as they were historically. They had inferior manpower reserves. They rely on their fur traders to make most of their money. Quebec and Montreal are important hubs for all sorts of things for them. The British on the other hand can quickly develop their diverse Atlantic colonies with a steady flow of settlers, and these can provide them with a ready source of tax revenue on top of their fur trade. This means the British seem to be flush with money all the time (at least Maya seemed to be generating cash every turn while my French were frequently skint and desperate for the next fur trading season). That also means the British can raise and deploy more regular troops at a steadier rate than France, which is forced to rely more on Indians and militia. This is what happened in reality, so thumbs up there.


I really like the way this game plays. As a two player wargame, it is simple enough that those who are not hard core wargamers like me can quickly get into it. I also like the new trend to use wooden pieces rather than cardboard chits in wargames. I think this makes them more accessible and is a welcome trend. A Few Acres of Snow should easily be playable in an evening, especially if one of the players has previous experience. The art and components are of an excellent standard, as you can see above. The whole product captures the atmosphere and tense decision making of a conflict that is not well-known in Europe, beyond the film The Last of the Mohicans.

1 comment:

  1. Controversial game this, because it's super-popular but there's apparently a guaranteed win strategy for one side. I'll say no more because I don't want to spoil the game for you!