Sunday, April 7, 2013

Hammered in Halifax: "A Few Acres of Snow"

My early childhood obsession for chess invariable led to a passion for wargames.  Unfortunately many of those classic Avalon Hill / SPI titles were burdened by rule books so dense and impenetrable they made the Magna Carta look like a Papa John's pizza flyer.

When games like Settlers of Catan, Tigris & Euphrates and El Grande exploded on the scene in the mid-to-late 90's I could foresee a time when innovative Euro-style mechanics would be grafted onto my beloved olde skool wargames.  I imagined that these elegant hybrids would have all the flavor and theme of the average hex n' counter grog-fest but with key mechanics and rules boiled intuitively down to their simplest intent.

It didn't take very long for my prediction to come true.  Over the years we've since since such inspired titles as Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Hammer of the Scots, Combat Commander: Europe, Memoir '44, and Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! Russia 1941-1942.  All of these games involve card-driven mechanics, excellent components, innovative design and most importantly: they're all a blast to play.

The latest entry into this evolutionary wargaming subset is Martin Wallace's A Few Acres of Snow.


Although I was initially put off by the same designer's pedestrian-looking but still awesome train game Steam, I was immediately taken by A Few Acres of Snow.  After reading the game's full deets on the Treefrog Games website, I really couldn't wait to try it:

"A Few Acres of Snow is our latest two-player only game.  It covers the long struggle between Britain and France for control of what eventually became Canada.

"The game involves a deck-building mechanism which may be familiar to those people who have played another certain award winning card game.  Each player starts with a small set of cards.  Cards come in two general types, location cards and empire cards.  You can add an empire card to your discard pile simply by taking one as an action.  

Adding a location card is a little more involved.  Each location card has a list of locations that it connects to and the transport type required to move to each of those locations.  To take control of a neutral location you would have to play a location card with that neutral location on it, then a card that has the correct transport symbol, and then possibly a card with a settler symbol on it if required. You then place a cube in the location and add the location card to your discard pile.

"Players take it in turns to perform two actions.  There are a range of actions available, such as settling new locations, besieging locations, trading fur, launching Indian raids, and building fortifications.  There are also cards that allow you to perform actions to manage your deck, such as getting rid of useless cards and drawing additional cards from your pile.  You can also place cards in reserve so that you can use them at a later point in time.

"The game ends if a player manages to capture his opponent’s capital city or he has managed to place all of his village or town pieces on the board. In the latter case points are calculated to see who wins.

"The game can last from between 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how well players pursue the victory conditions."

Looking for the game's Encyclopedia Internetica entry?  Click on the following link to peep the full historical account right hur.

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On our last game night, while Dean and Andrew were throwing down in their latest Blood Bowl contest, Chad and I had a chance to try this approachable little gem

We started by randomly selecting sides.  I drew the French and Chad played the British.

After playing a few introductory rounds with Mac to get a feel for the game, Chad seemed to know how imperative to was for the British to be aggressive.  He quickly managed to establish settlements in the neutral locations of Deerfield and Albany.

This I could tolerate, but as soon as he made a play for Halifax a line was drawn in the sand.  I immediately initiated a siege in our home city and soon the battle lines were drawn.

      
Thanks to some timely "Home Support" I managed to use a deadly combination of Infantry, Ship Symbol cards and some powerful Siege Artillery to wrestle control of Halifax away from Chad.  My opponent quickly responded by settling both Baltimore and Richmond then Fortified Pemaquid.  He then turned New York into the sort of fortress that Snake Plissken would be hard-pressed to break into.

I tried to keep pace by settling Fort Niagara and Fort Frontenac.  Then I got right up in Chad's grill by  crossing the St. Lawrence River and snapping up the strategic location of Fort St. John.


With Settler Cards popping up for him like meerkats, Chad spent the next turn consolidating his holdings.  The Villages in Pemaquid, Albany, Deerfield and Baltimore were all upgraded to Towns.  For his final renovation, he turned ol' Beantown into a wicked awesome fart, er, fort.  

Meanwhile, frustrated by my own dearth of willing Settlers, I had to content myself with establishing a Village in Fort Beauséjour.  Acquiring this site was actually kinda cool, since I've personally visited this same site several times in the past.  It's always fun to play a board game that references your own back yard, ain't it?

Realizing that I wasn't going to win with an army of Settlers, I began to ponder alternate avenues of exploration.  This involved getting more free cards into my deck and making friends with the Native population.


Even though I'd acquired two more neutral Settlers, they weren't coming up in tandem with other key card draws, making the task of Settling and Developing new Locations a genuine pain in the arse.  All I could do was sandbag Fort St. John on the vanguard and build a Village in the wilds of Detroit.

In addition to beefing up his infrastructure, Chad was secretly laying plans for another siege.   After ushering Norfolk into Town status, he pulled a Military Leader and several Regular Infantry Cards from his Reserve pile and then launched a vicious sea-borne invasion of nearby Port Réal...er, Royal.


Totally unprepared for this incursion, I quickly cut my losses and conceded defeat.  To ensure that this key location wouldn't easily slide back into French hands, Chad cleverly allocated just enough resources to settle the site with a Village and then threw down an imposing Fortification.

I was better prepared for the second phase of Chad's attack, which targeted our old stomping ground of Halifax.  In the end, we fought this siege to a standstill, leaving the city as vacant as Stalingrad for several turns.  Chad finished this exemplary turn by snapping up Cumberland with a Village.

Although I wasn't able to pull out a victory in either battle, it did free up plenty of resources to allocate elsewhere.  I settled the unpronounceable region of Michilimackinac with a Village, turned Gaspé into a lovely little tourist Town and then reduced Detroit to a drug-addled urban warfare zone policed by Robocop.

Better yet, I made another incursion on the English side of the St. Lawrence River by constructing a Village at Osweego.  Between this settlement and Fort St. John I was now well-within Raiding distance.  Led by some stalwart Coureurs de Bois, my allied Native groups launched a series of deadly attacks against Albany.  Chad was forced to scramble for a bit as he was forced to contend with this unexpected insurgency.


At this late stage in the game, I couldn't help but feel as if my mid-match momentum was waning.  After acquiring a cadre of his own Natives, Chad started to repel my guerilla tactics.  After transforming St. Mary's into an incorporated Town he promptly set his sights on Nova Scotia.

He went on an absolute tear throughout the region, upgrading Port Royal into a Town, dropping and then Fortifying a new Village in Halifax and then landing a fresh batch of Settlers in Canso.  As if that wasn't bad enough he even initiated an eleventh-hour siege of Louisbourg.    

Despite the fact that I busted out the ol' Siege Artillery again, Chad quickly gained the upper hand in the fight thanks to a veritable mob of Infantry and Rangers.  Convinced that the battle was a foregone conclusion, I concentrated on scoring some last-minute Victory Points wherever I could.  This involved upgrading both Fort Niagara and Fort Frontenac to Towns and launching another reasonably effective Native Raid.


Thanks to these last few desperate actions, I managed to trigger the end game before the Battle of Louisbourg was resolved.  All that was left to do now was tally up the final scores.

***

END GAME SCORING

SETTLEMENTS

ME...14 points
CHAD...9 points

CITIES

CHAD...48 points
ME...38 points

MILITARY SPOILS

Me...14
Chad...4

FINAL SCORE

Me...66 points
Chad...61 points

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POST-GAME NOTES


This final score came as a bit of a surprise to both of us.  Given Chad's many Town upgrades and his eventual acquisition of Nova Scotia, we both thought that he had this game in the bag.  

But in retrospect, the final score does make some sort of weird sense.  Armed with considerably more Settlers, Infantry and Ships, the mobile and expansive British army really needs to go after main French holdings such as Montreal as soon as possible.

My early expulsion of Chad from Halifax put him off-stride long enough to achieve expansion parity.  At the height of my growth, I'd managed to capture and/or settle no less then eight new Villages.  In spite of Chad's late-game military surge, my outlying sprawl and somewhat effective Raiding campaign gave me a slight edge.  

REVIEW

This game is freakin' phenomenal.  Whereas the deckbuilding mechanic in Legendary feels kinda clunky and pasted on, it's much more organically integrated here.  I think the real-world military and settlement goals in A Few Acres of Snow makes this one a lot more thematically flavorful.  Although its definitely not a hard-core military sim the game still feels historically evocative.  

The deck you end up assembling during the course of the game works well for every action.  Chaining these cards together actually feels as if you're guiding a Bateaux filled with Settlers across Lake Erie to establish the Village of Detroit.  Every siege feels like an attritional tug of war.  And when you pull a handful of Natives from your deck all at once you find yourself slavering for your next turn so you can launch a far-flung Raid on your enemy's closest outpost.  Indeed, the game completely out-Dominion's Dominion.        

But there's a down side to all of this.  Several times during our game Andrew looked up from the Blood Bowl pitch to make an off-handed remark about implementing the "Halifax Hammer" strategy.  Since I barely pay attention to Andrew at the best of times, I thought that he was referring to our online Blood Bowl PC league of the same name.  After the game he explained what he was on about.  

As it turns out, A Few Acres of Snow has a design flaw so egregious that even designer Martin Wallace had to admit was crippling.  This so-called "Halifax Hammer" strategy calls for an approach not unlike Chad's late-game run in Nova Scotia and, by all accounts, it virtually guarantees a win for the Brits.  I don't want to reveal the full strategy here, just suffice to say that it involves the early settling of Halifax with an eye on quick sieges in both Louisbourg and Quebec.  Anyone interested in reading more about this strategy can take a peek here.   

After playing A Few Acres of Snow once I'm not sure if this is indicative of a game-breaking design flaw or an armor chink exposed by the same sort of losers who play Halo only to expose lame advantageous flaws.  Sadly, if the designer was forced to come out and admit that there's a problem, then there's probably a pretty serious fucking problem.

In Wallace's defense, a perfectly-balanced wargame scenario should be scarcer then a decent reality show.  I saw someone on Google + the other day bitching that the "Pegasus Bridge" scenario in Memoir '44 is "unfairly slanted towards the Allies".  Well, of course it is, you dumbass!  If Richard Borg hadn't put the Germans behind the eight-ball in this scenario it wouldn't have been historically accurate.  This is why I always encourage people to play this scenario once, then switch sides, play it again and the person with the highest total Victory Medals wins the game.  

By this same philosophy, A Few Acres of Snow should be slanted towards the British.  In fact, using our own game as an example, I'm confident that if I hadn't given Chad a bloody nose early on in Halifax I probably would have lost.   

Honestly, everything else about this game is so damned good that I'm hesitant to completely flatline my score.  Having said that, if future plays reveal that the "Halifax Hammer" strategy is clearly insurmountable then I'll definitely be forced to temper my rating.

But until then I have to say that A Few Acres of Snow is nothing short of brilliant and, as such, it scores five pips out of six.  



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2 comments:

  1. Second edition rules fix the game.

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  2. The second edition rule changes are:

    1. Remove the French bateaux card from the initial deck and place it with the availble cards.

    2. Reserve - you cannot place location cards in your reserve.

    3. Raids - the raid distance is now two connections plus one connection for each additional card played (so playing two Native American cards would allow you to raid a location up to three connections away).

    4. Home Support - you can only take cards from your draw deck, so if you had fewer than three cards available you would only be able to draw these. Consequently, the only time you shuffle your discard pile is when you need to refill your hand at the end of the turn and your draw deck is exhausted.

    ReplyDelete