Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dissing Quebec

Last week, Mike and I got Martin Wallace's newish (and controversial – I'll get to that) euro-wargame A Few Acres of Snow (AFAOS) onto the table. I bought it mostly due to it being a Wallace game (I tend to love his designs) and the fact it won three Golden Geek awards this year: Best 2-player game, Best Wargame, and Best Innovative Game.

That's a rather high bar. Does the game measure up?

First, for those (like me) who really didn't know what the game was about, here's the scoop:

AFAOS is, at its heart, a deck building game, a-la Dominion. It manages to merge that mechanic into a game where you are trying to conquer eastern Canada (or the Eastern Seaboard) during the French and Indian War. Once you start playing, it's the typical Wallace “war-o” where it's really a eurogame in wargaming clothes. Sort of like Wallenstein. There are even elements of Elfenland built in.

To build your deck, you can either conquer cities, thus acquiring the appropriate card, or claim cards. (Some of which may have a cost paid in coins. As opposed to Dominion, your cards generate cash, but don't act as cash.) There's a rather large number of possible actions you can perform on your turn, but you only get to do two of them. (Unless you've got one of the few “free action” cards in your hand.) Discarding is one of those actions, by the way. So every card that comes into your hand has to be involved in an action, somehow.

To conquer an uncontrolled city, you play the card matching an adjacent city, and a card with a transportation symbol matching the way you'd get from point A to point B. (That's the Elfenland link.) If there is a colonist symbol on the city, you also have to play a Settler symbol from a third card. Besieging opponent-owned locations, and upgrading currently owned locations are done in similar fashions, just with a slightly different mix of cards.

Other actions include creating fortifications, adding to a siege (the only way take a city from your opponent), raiding, ambushing, discarding, and spending cards for cash. (There may be one or two more actions, but that's the bulk of your game.)

On your turn, you first check if you've won any existing sieges, perform two actions, then draw your hand back up to five. Over to your opponent. Game ends when New York, Boston, or Quebec changes hands, or one player plays all their village or city counters. In case the latter happens, you count up your score – points are scored for appropriately marked locations on the map, with their value doubled if they've been upgraded to a city.

Mike and I got one session of this game in, and frankly, we were fishing around a lot. (Picture the first time you played Dominion, then add a map to that...) We fumbled as we went, and Mike eked out a small 64-56 victory as the French.

My thoughts?

As with most Wallace “war-o” designs, it's very abstract. At times it reminded me of Racier's First World War design that Phalanx published, though it's FAR better than that. (This is due to the multiple routes across the map - they're nearly as separated as the fronts in FWW.) There's a good amount of meat on the bones, and repeated plays should uncover openings and approaches that will be eventually countered and improved upon. There's a definite asymmetry to the game. The French cannot produce Wagons, for example, which are required to move towards the coast from Fort Duquesne. So their progress is blocked along those lines. Also, the French have very few Settler symbols, limiting their ability to take those locations compared to the British approach.

And, speaking of openings and approaches, here comes the controversy.

Note that I rarely participate in, or read, online boardgaming discussion boards. I used to frequent the BGG and Consimworld forums, but I no longer do. I just found the signal-to-noise ratio WAY too low. I still use BGG as a reference, but I don't go surfing the messages. As a result, I had no idea there's a community out there that considers this game “broken” because of a certain corner-case strategy the British can use that is claimed to be unstoppable. I looked it up after the fact. (Mike had mentioned the owner of Rainy Day Games had told him about it, but didn't say what the strategy actually was. So I got curious.) I prefer to evaluate games based on my own experience, and not a whole lot else.

Basically, the British player maintains an extremely small deck, then takes Halifax, Louisbourg, and Quebec as quickly as possible. Done right, they say, the French can't stop it. Apparently this “broken” strategy has been dubbed the “Halifax Hammer.”

I haven't tried to play out this approach. I see how it might work, but I don't know enough about the game to know if it will work consistently, and if it fails, what sort of position the British will be in to survive a French counter-attack. Even Wallace has yet to be convinced as best I can tell.

That said, if it does turn out to be true, I think there's probably a couple rules or map tweaks that could be put into play that stop it from being a game-breaker. The design is solid enough that one route through it shouldn't destroy the whole thing.

In the end, this is a solid game if you ignore the mutant “broken” strategy. I just don't think it was deserving of three Golden Geek awards. Maybe Best 2-player. Certainly not Best Wargame. (That should have been either No Retreat! or Fighting Formations. I haven't played Labyrinth yet, so I can't comment on that, though I suspect it might be better than AFAOS in both categories.) Most Innovative? Um... the core is taken straight from Dominion (and Wallace's designer notes state exactly that) and much of the rest is a blend of First World War and Elfenland with a few other things tossed in. Good, yes. Innovative? I wouldn't think so. But then, I've only played three of the ten games that were nominated.

Will I play this again? Certainly. There's a lot of depth here. Am I glad I own it? Also certainly. I have the feeling this is one Jack's going to want to pull out in a few years. (He's not even five and a half, and he's already asking to play “army games” with me. We've started with Memoir '44, and will work our way up from there.) Would I recommend someone else buy it? Probably. If you like Wallace's designs, definitely. If you're ambivalent about his games, wait and see how the Halifax Hammer situation gets resolved and make your decision. If you use cheat codes in video games, don't buy this. You'll get obsessed with the “broken” strategy, and you'll miss the game you actually purchased.

Oh, wondering about the title of my post? It's a reference to where Wallace got the name of the game. When Voltaire (yes, THAT Voltaire) was told Quebec had fallen to the British, he said it didn't matter. It was just a few acres of snow. Voltaire is just so quotable... I've got a perennially unfinished set of rules for wargaming the Great Northern War that I call “The Sword Does Not Jest.” Another Voltaire quote.

Our next installment will look at Academy's recent release, Strike of the Eagle.

1 comment:

Myk said...

Yeah, I think I'd call it innovative. Yes, the core mechanism, deck building, isn't new, but to apply it to a war game (and I use the term loosely) in this way is rather different.