Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A few is more than two

On the table this week, at Eric's request, was A Few Acres of Snow (BGG entry), a newish title from Treefrog Games, by Martin Wallace.

Now, there are a couple of things here that you probably need to be aware of before we go much further. First, I am a Wallace fan boi. Rampant, in fact. His game designs just hit my spot. Age of Steam, Steam, Brass, Age of Industry, Automobile, Gettysburg, Last Train to Wensleydale, Perikles, Prices of the Renaissance, Byzantium, Liberté, Rise Of Empires; some of my favorite games of all time. And yet, his more recent designs have me troubled. A Test of Fire looks lighter than light. I didn't even bother ordering Discworld: Ankh-Morpork after reading the synopsis. Could it be that he's falling out of favor with me? (Collective intake of breath from all those who know me.)

The other thing to be aware of is that I am not fond of deck building games. Well, it's not really just deck building games, but a lot of these more recent card games just leave me cold. Dominion, Race For The Galaxy, 7 Wonders. I can barely tolerate Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and Thunderstone. I just find them totally tactical, and very prone to luck of the draw, with not really much you can do about it. (I find RftG to be especially prone to draw luck, and find that my card draws are totally opposite to whichever strategy I'm trying to follow at the time, regardless of how I try to roll with the draws.)

So, given a potential waning of interest in Wallace games, and a dislike of the central mechanism, just how did A Few Acres of Snow sit with me?

The physical presentation of the game is good. Mounted board, with good graphics, showing a point-to-point rendering of the game area. There are wooden cubes and discs in the player colors, representing villages and towns, and a neutral color to represent fortifications. There are the standard Warfrog/Treefrog plastic chips for money. The Limited Edition, available to subscribers, replaces the cubes and discs with houses in two sizes, and the plastic money chips with wooden tokens. The cards are of decent quality, and consist of two types: Location cards, representing a named location on the map, its connections, and the method of transport connecting them; and Empire cards, which have various types of benefits, e.g. Traders, Military, Leaders, etc. Both types of cards may have symbols at the bottom that are used in the player actions, e.g. boat, ship, wagon, settler, fur, gold, military. Some Empire cards are only used for their symbol. There are also a few neutral Empire cards (Settlers, Fortification, and Native Americans) that may be bought by either player.

There are many special Empire cards that I'm not going to go into, or we'll be here all day. Players have their own deck of cards, and don't have the same collection of Empire cards in their decks, so the sides have a different feel to them, e.g. the French player doesn't have a Settler card in his Empire deck, so one tactic for the British player is to buy up the neutral settler cards. The Location cards are the same for both players, and are added to the deck as the locations are captured on the board.

There were also lots of mentions of symbols there, and Location cards for the larger locations, e.g. Quebec, Montreal, have lots of symbols on them, but can only be used once before they hit the discard pile. Out of the way locations may have only a single symbol. So choosing how to use your more flexible cards drives a lot of the game.

Generally, you have four types of actions that you perform, and you have two actions per turn. The first type is to improve your empire, by capturing a new location, or improving an existing location. The former is done by playing a Location card, and card that matches the transportation type that connects it and the target location, which may be either a Location card or an Empire card. Some locations also have a settler symbol on the map, so also need a settler symbol card to be played. This allows you to put your village in the location, and add the Location card to your discard pile. Improving a location requires the Location card and either a settler symbol card, to upgrade the village to a town, or a fortification Empire card and 3 gold to add a fortification.

The second type of action is to get more gold. Either play a single Location card for the gold symbol on it to gain that amount, or play combinations of Empire cards that allow gold collection. The French player may also play the Louisberg location for piracy, which steal 2 gold from the British player.

The third type of action is to manage your deck/hand. You may select a card from your available stock of Empire cards, often with a cost in gold; discard from hand; place a card in reserve; take the cards from reserve back into hand (which is a free action); or use special Empire card actions to remove cards from your deck or (for the French player) take a card from your discard pile.

The final type of action is to screw with your opponent. Raids are performed by playing an empire card that allows raids, and you may raid an enemy location adjacent to a location you control. (You can play multiple raid cards to raid further.) Your opponent may play a card that allows a raid to be blocked, but if not you capture the enemy token, and any town is downgraded to a village. You can also ambush, which if not blocked removes an Empire card with the ambush symbol, generally military, from your opponent's hand, and it goes back to the available Empire cards and has to be repurchased. Then there are sieges.

A siege is started by playing a Location card that connects to the target location that you want to siege, the a card with the transportation symbol required, and a card with a military symbol. Each location has an intrinsic strength of 1, and fortifications add two to that. Regular infantry Empire cards have 2 military symbols, others have 1. So if a siege is started by playing, say, a 2-symbol card, the marker is put in the 1 space for the attacker on the siege track. The 0 spot and the 1 spot for the defender are colored grey, meaning the siege is unresolved, otherwise they're in the player colors. If the marker is ever in your color area at the start of your turn, then you've won the siege. If it's in the other player's color, then you need to play card(s) with military symbols to move it at least into the grey area before the end of your turn, otherwise the other player will win at the start of his turn. As an action you may play a single card onto the siege, moving the marker on the track for the number of military symbols on the card. The winner of the siege retains the loser's token, and may place their own village token, while the loser also has to remove one of the cards in the siege back to the available cards deck. Each player may have a single active siege at any one time. Fairly abstract, but pretty simple and effective, as you get a chance to react to the attack or defense, before the other player's turn, but you need to draw the right cards. This is where the Reserve comes in, as you can stack your military cards there, ready for attack or defense.

Now, that probably all sounds very confusing, but the rules are very clear (and a lot more verbose than my brief description). There are play aids for each player which covers the basics of each action, as well as the Empire cards available.

All well and good, but how is it to play? Our game had me as the French (randomly picked), and I focused on settling initially, and then fortifying and developing my gains. Eric tried a couple of sieges, but I managed to defend successfully, in the first by having my military in my Reserve before he started, and in the second by having a lucky draw of both my military cards immediately after he started the siege. I was able to raid extensively, sometimes keeping 2 Native American cards in hand to draw out his blocking card, which let me grab a few of his village and town tokens for VPs. Eric had a couple of successful raids, but mostly I kept a blocking card in hand.

The game end is when one player runs out of either village or town tokens, which Eric did first. However, the tokens I'd captured were enough to give me the margin, and I won by 8 points.

I'd actually played this once before, getting stomped as the British player, as my initial thoughts on reading the rules were reinforced by my game experience - deck building, yuck. However, when Eric asked to try it, and I started to read the rules again, I started to see some of the possibilities that I hadn't seen or understood previously. Lots of choice angst as you can't do everything with the cards that you want (or need) to do. I think having that first game gave me a huge advantage over Eric, as translating the rules into game board action takes some understanding and there's no better way than getting the experience while playing.

As the French player, gold is always a limitation, and there never seems to be enough to do what needs to be done. With the British player being stronger in military, keeping a reserve of Regulars Empire cards (which have 2 military symbols), and the cash to use them, seems important. The French player will be raiding a lot, trying to grab the villages and towns that mean VPs, and hasten the end of the game.

So, did this play change my attitude to the game? Yes, it did. Whilst I'm still not overly fond of the deck building mechanism, I now at least understand it a lot more than in my first game, and I can see some of the strategies and options. Whilst I don't think it will ever be my favorite Wallace game, I can see me playing this occasionally, and I can understand why a lot of people are really grooving on it.

Hey, it's a Wallace, did you really expect me to come up with anything different? My Wallace fan boi badge is intact.

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