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Subject: Another review, but this one rocks. rss

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Andrew Wright
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Or so I hope...

Evan T and I have played a number of games of ‘A Few Acres of Snow’ in the last week. This is a fascinating game, with a mechanic that is focused on card management, combined with a theme that evokes very asymmetric capabilities of the French and British colonialists in the so-called French and Indian War 1754-1763.

There may be debate over whether AFAoS is a ‘wargame.’ On the one hand, the elements of play do not align the strength and locations of military forces or assets on a fixed time schedule. On the other hand, the game is essentially conflict based, as the French and British act mostly at the expense of each other as one under-explored continent is not big enough for the both.

AFAoS has a familiar Wallace feel, where early decisions on resources impact game outcomes even near the finish, and one never feels like there is enough capability to do everything that is needed.

The components:


The board is a map of the North American coastline and interior, spanning from Norfolk, VA to northern Lake Huron to the St Lawrence seaway. The various bits provide for money, villages, towns, and fortifications. Each player has a series of color specific cards (red/pink for British, blue/light blue for French) from which to draft cards for play. There are also green colored cards that may be drafted mutually by either side.

A perusal of game questions on BoardGameGeek will reveal that some location connections are not easy to interpret, which I attribute in at least one case to a misprint in the Quebec card’s listed connections. The bits are attractive, if a bit small (I purchased the limited printing that had more intricate shapes). The game is attractive and the player aid sheets are very helpful. Aspects of connections for the raiding mechanism (below) has also been difficult for some to interpret.

The Mechanics:

The mechanics center around the each player playing cards from a hand that usually consists of five cards. The hands are replenished from decks -- there is a French deck and a British deck. The players alternate turns with two actions apiece, with actions involving playing down varying numbers of cards, depending on their availability and the action taken. Players fill the hand back to five cards after every turn.

Cards come in two types: Location cards represent the villages and towns that players control and variably provide resources such as population, military (land and naval), transportation (naval, bateaux, or wagons), and money/trading (via direct payouts or selling of furs). Most of the start cards are location ones based on the beginning locations -- additional ones are added through the game as villages are settled. Empire cards are available that provide specific capabilities and allow critical card management actions; these may be drafted through use of actions and usually expenditure of money. Through the course of the game, the available deck grows for each player, and may have to be modified to best respond to the conflict with the opposing player. In his designer notes, Wallace states he adopted this approach from the game Dominion.

Cards are played to settle villages, grow villages to towns, attain money, and manage decks. Villages provide additional cards (as described), help control key areas on the board, and help victory point tallies at the end of the game. To settle, a player needs to play a card from a controlled town adjacent to the location, the means for transportation between the two locations, and sometimes additional population -- thus a settle action requires either two or three appropriate cards. Towns are grown to improve victory points. Fortification cards may allow placement on towns or villages for added protection. Money supports card play, and is essential to acquire additional cards and to allow deployment of certain cards within an action. The deck may be managed by certain cards that allow additional draws (‘Home Support’), removal of cards from the deck (the ‘Governor’), and picking from the discard pile for the French (the ‘Intendant’ card). One may also place cards into a reserve that may be bought back (for money) to supplement a player’s hand at the appropriate time. Finally, cards may be discarded. Used cards are placed into a discard pile. Newly acquired location and empire cards are also placed into the discard pile so they are not immediately available. When the draw deck runs out for a player, the discard pile (with newly acquired cards) is shuffled and forms the new draw deck.

There are two forms of active conflict that is played out on the board. Sieges are the one type and the only one that uses traditional army/navy function. There may be only one French initiated siege and one British initiated siege on the board at any time. In order to start a siege, an adjacent location and means of transportation must be played (as with settlements), and an additional card that provides military strength. Each siege may last turns, and each player is able to add military strength to ongoing sieges. Many empire cards such as regular infantry and siege artillery are designed to power such sieges. In losing a siege, a defender settlement/town is removed and the attacker may settle it automatically. The losing side in a siege must remove a card from those used in the siege, whether attacking or defending.

The second type of conflict is raiding/ambushing, which is specifically enabled by drafting of Native American cards, the Ranger card (for the British), and 'Coureur de Bois' cards (for the French). These cards may similarly block raids/ambushes if available in a player’s hand. Raids apply to settlements and towns, which are reduced or destroyed if the raid is successful. Ambushes if successful remove certain military cards to reduce the opponent’s ability to effectively conduct sieges.
Opponent’s towns and settlements removed or captured by raid or siege are retained by the attacking player and are good for victory points.

The end of the game is triggered by capturing 12 such victory points, or one side exhausting either their available settlements or towns (not both), or by winning a siege at Quebec for the British or by winning a siege at Boston or New York for the French. The latter result in automatic victories, while the former conditions trigger a victory point count for all captured bits, and extant on map settlements/towns.

The Strategy and the Outcomes

I feel that the learning curve to become really familiarized with A Few Acres of Snow is around a half dozen games (the number I have played). At this point, a player has had the opportunity to really understand the card management and anticipate strategic implications of actions.

The half dozen games played with Evan have resulted in both quicker and longer games, but our total playing time for the games has been around 8 hours. In one game, Quebec was removed from the game by raids from the hinterlands of Maine, which didn’t end the game automatically but left a gaping hole in French capabilities. In another game, Boston was successfully captured. Other games have had ends triggered by the other conditions – the triggering side won in all cases, but the results can be close.

In the opening comments, I mentioned asymmetry. The French and the British have different intrinsic capabilities that optimize certain strategies. For example, the British have both a strong Navy and a lot of population, so a typical strategy will be to build towns on the Atlantic Coast and to molest the French on the Nova Scotia coast and northwards with sieges. The French have many location cards with bateaux to navigate internal lakes and rivers, and they start with more settlements having higher potential value, but also are limited by little population to grow settlements into towns.

Each game has resulted in an internal dividing line of control, where the British can usually get to Fort Duquesne and Albany and hold these locations and points south. The French can usually establish control of the Great Lakes, with good victory point payouts for the end of the game. The Nova Scotia coast activity has resulted in majority control for either the British or the French, depending on which side was more diligent in building military for sieges -- thus far it seems that if one location can fall by siege, a cascade of similar outcomes result.
Particular advantages for the French are that their militia cards can block raids (something the British can’t do (the artwork on the British militia card is a guy holding up a cup of good cheer), the Coureurs de Bois cards being free to build as well as a single regular infantry card, and the Intendant card, which allows the French to recover a card from the discard pile to the hand for two gold. The British can get money more easily, and can build an impressive army of regulars by sheer quantity of these types of cards once they are in the deck, these cards can result in an unstoppable force. Each side has roughly equal access to Native Americans for raids/ambushes.

In the way of advice:

1. The French should avoid long protracted sieges, as that has seemed to favor the British capabilities, especially at port cities where the British can add to sieges with their navy
2. The British will want to grab Albany quick or buy an extra bateaux card to allow them to better settle the interior from their southern ports
3. The Governor, Home Support, and Intendants cards are pretty essential throughout the game to manage capabilities. Also, the reserve mechanism is a key one for building toward a particular set of actions, such as a siege or adding money to the treasury.

The result of this is a French side that wins by opportunism and optimizing a spread of multiple settlements, and a British side that wins by slow and steady growth and development of towns. Each side may still win by winning a siege against Quebec or Boston/New York.
In our games, the French have only won once, and that by taking Boston. The British have won the rest. Our suspicion is that French capabilities have not been fully tapped -- in the future I might try to buy militia, not regulars (less expensive) and buy extra population cards as the French to better create towns.

Conclusion

A Few Acres of Snow is a great game. It has a lot of depth and each play has been somewhat different. While the French have not won much during my plays with Evan, I don’t feel they suffer from an inherent disadvantage (and note that other session reports indicate a French advantage). Nor do I feel that there will be an eventual optimized strategy. The distribution of cards in the hand drawn randomly from the deck creates a lot of opportunity for chance.

Finally, the narrative feel seems right. I can’t speak to the specifics of history on the French vs. British capabilities, but the asymmetries fold in with those impressions I do have very favorably. In many ways, I am reminded of We the People/Washington’s War, though the execution of military operations is far more abstracted. Highest recommendation.
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Andy Andersen
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Excellent review thumbsup
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Eric Brosius
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Thanks for the review. I've played 3 games and watched one, and the French have won all 4 (though two were extremely close.) Since different groups report different play-balance observations, there's at least a good amount of learning still left to do.
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Raiko Puust
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Eric Brosius wrote:
Thanks for the review. I've played 3 games and watched one, and the French have won all 4 (though two were extremely close.) Since different groups report different play-balance observations, there's at least a good amount of learning still left to do.


French?

So far only English have won...
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Tom Pensyl
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Nice Review. I have played only two games so far. Both as the French and both times I lost but my opponent knew the game better. The second game was a lot closer and I think I can beat him. Looking forward to more plays
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Scott Pizio
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I have played 8 times now. The first 4 games won by the French and then with a shift to the British. I look forward to many more plays of AFAoS.
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Eric Brosius
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binraix wrote:
So far only English have won...


The French have two cost-free military units, which is a big advantage. Also, their militia protect against raids, which is another advantage. If the French lose a siege, they toss the starting Regulars or the Coureurs de Bois into the Empire deck and fish them back out free of charge, while the English have to pay for the military cards.

As the French, raid and ambush and don't be afraid to try risky sieges, as they don't hurt you much.
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Tim Seitz
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Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him. 2 Sam 14:14
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This game does seem to have some of the best theme-to-mechanic ties. All of the moves you make seem irrevocable and risky at the same time. Very tense.
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Yannick Carriere
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A most excellent review.

I'm glad to hear you say you don't feel there will be an optimized strategy. For either side. After playing the game half a dozen times against three different opponents, that is the last nagging feeling I have about it. I was first doubting that the game could accomodate a wide variety of strategic paths. Now I don't. It's a very strategic game, and so tense.

But now I wonder about replayibility. Will it feel same-y after a while or not, even with the wide strategic paths? Will the game have ultimately an optmized strategy? For myself, I'm not convinced yet it doesn't. I'm 80% there, so perhaps I just need to play the game more. So I'm glad to hear you don't believe it has an optimized strategy.

And play more I will cause after all I love the game and I believe it's a brilliant design. So engaging and tense. Can't wait to play more.
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Clyde W
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I think the samey issues will be allayed when Martin Wallace releases the first two of seven planned expansions, the Mohawk expansion and the Cherokee expansion, each featuring 26 new cards to draft each, themed appropriately for the Mohawk and Cherokee tribes.
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Tony Hamen
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clydeiii wrote:
I think the samey issues will be allayed when Martin Wallace releases the first two of seven planned expansions, the Mohawk expansion and the Cherokee expansion, each featuring 26 new cards to draft each, themed appropriately for the Mohawk and Cherokee tribes.


Are you serious?
 
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Kissa
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Where did you find the expansion info? That almost makes me not want to get the game if it's true. 7 expansions is a bit much unless they are super cheap (couple of dollars).
 
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Tim Seitz
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KissaTaikuri wrote:
Where did you find the expansion info? That almost makes me not want to get the game if it's true. 7 expansions is a bit much unless they are super cheap (couple of dollars).

He's kidding. He's making fun of Dominion.
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Kissa
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out4blood wrote:
KissaTaikuri wrote:
Where did you find the expansion info? That almost makes me not want to get the game if it's true. 7 expansions is a bit much unless they are super cheap (couple of dollars).

He's kidding. He's making fun of Dominion.


lol, that's wut I git for being gullible
 
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