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‘Tis Only A Few Acres of Snow..

A Few Acres of Snow is my favorite kind of wargame: one with no dice! The latest entry in the Treefrog series, it covers the struggle between Britain and France to control North America, culminating in the French and Indian War. In our timeline, England captured Montreal from the French and effectively took control of North America, until the colonies revolted a few decades later. In the game? Who knows..

This is a deckbuilding game inspired by Dominion; each player starts with a small deck of cards, from which he’ll draw at the end of each turn until he has at least five cards in hand. He also has two (non-randomized) decks of cards that he can gain for his deck: empire cards, which are purchased, and location cards, which are gained by taking control of the corresponding location on the board.

One nice thing about the game, actually, is the board: the areas in each player’s territory at the start of the name have the name oriented towards that player, so you don’t have someone trying to read upside down for the entire game; they’re also easy to read. (Yes, I am thinking of War of the Ring as I type this).

Each turn, you get two actions (except for the first turn of the game, when you get one). An action is playing a card, buying a card, discarding a card,  or putting a card in your reserve area. You can also take any number of free actions: taking your reserve into your hand (which actually costs money – “free” just means it doesn’t cost an action), withdrawing from a siege, or playing anything that says “free action” on it.

Much of the game consists of buying cards for your deck (largely military-related) and expanding your control. To gain control of a village or town that does not yet have a player marker on it, you must play the card for a village or town you already control that connects to it, another card with the appropriate means of transportation (ship, wagon, or bateaux), and possibly a settler card.  If your opponent already controls the region, you instead start a fight: you still need a way to connect to the village or town and a means of transportation, but now you also add in a military card. There can be two sieges going on at a time (one started by each player) and you check for victory at the start of each turn. Every area starts with a defense of at least 1, and players will add cards to the siege to boost their power. You win the siege if, at the start of your turn, you have two more power than your opponent (one more if you are the defender). The winner puts all of his played cards into his discard pile; the loser returns one of his to the supply. If the attacker won, the defender’s town or village marker is removed and the attacker has the option of settling the area.

The game is quite asymmetric; the French start with more points, money, and military capability, while the English are more able to ramp up militarily, depicting the superior support they received from their home country; this is represented by the different cards players have available. Thus, the goal of the French is to spread out over Canada as much as possible, while the English wish to conquer the French settlements. The game ends when one of the main cities (Quebec, Boston, or New York) is successfully besieged, in which case that player wins (that is, the British player wins the game if he takes Quebec, the French player wins if he takes Boston or New York). Each of the two games I’ve played was won by the second condition: if one player is out of towns or village markers or has captured twelve points worth of those markers from his opponent (villages are worth two points, towns four) then the game ends at the start of his turn if there are no sieges in progress, and whoever has the most points wins. In case of a tie, the French player wins.

After two plays of this, I wasn’t completely sure what I thought about it. A lot of that is not really being sure what’s going on; this game is much like Race for the Galaxy in that, for your first few plays, you’re concentrating more on getting the mechanics right rather than understanding the deeper strategy. I could see that my opponent, who had played multiple times before, was beating me, but I wasn’t quite sure why. However, I find myself strongly anticipating my next play; the only other game that I recall feeling that way about in the last year is Dominant Species.

As someone who used to spend a lot of time playing CCGs, deckbuilding games hold a lot of appeal for me; you can get much of the same type of play without the hassle (and expense) of actually collecting thousands of cards. One way that this game improves on Dominion is simply by having different decks, so players aren’t striving towards the same goal. A game of Dominion between players of roughly equal strength often comes down to who can get the most powerful strategy going first, which generally means either the player who goes first or the player who gets a better draw; in A Few Acres of Snow, while there are a few common cards, you usually won’t lose because your opponent bought the card you needed. Of course, a bad draw can still hurt you, but I suspect not as much as in Dominion if you manage your deck size carefully.

Based on my plays so far, I would rate this one above most of the games in the Treefrog series), but behind Age of Industry. Call it a tie with Automobile for the second best game in the series.

Edit: A Few Acres of Snow, previously available only from Treefrog Games, can now be purchased at Amazon.

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The Admiral is a Cylon!

If you’re not a fan of Battlestar Galactica, then the game probably isn’t for you; many of the mechanics make sense only in the context of the show. If you do enjoy the show, however, you’ll be happy to know that the board game captures the feeling of the show quite well. (Of course, I also know people who have started watching the show because they liked the game, so YMMV!)

Each player selects one of the characters from Galactica; the characters each have abilities in several different skill sets (politics, engineering, tactics, piloting, leadership), which is represented by the ability to draw cards of the appropriate color. Each character also has a regular special ability, a once per game ability, and a disadvantage; for example, Starbuck gets two actions instead of one if she starts her turn in a viper (because she’s an excellent pilot) and can discard and redraw a crisis card (to be discussed later) once per game, because she has a secret destiny. However, she is insubordinate, which makes it easier to throw her in the brig.

On your turn, you draw the cards indicated by your skill set, move (if desired), take one action, and then draw a crisis card. Most characters will spend their time on Galactica itself (which has eight locations you can move to, plus Sickbay and the Brig), but pilots will move around in space on their ships and the president will generally stay on Colonial One, which has three spaces offering political actions. There are also four Cylon locations which are not accessible to humans.

Ahh, the Cylons. Fans of the show will know that the Cylons are machines created by humanity; they rebelled and a blood war was fought. Now they have returned, but rather than being simply metal monstrosities, they now look human, and some even believe that they are human. At the start of the game, each player receives a loyalty card, informing them whether they are human or cylon. However, the other players won’t know how many cylons there are, or even if there are any at all; halfway through the game, another round of loyalty cards is dealt out, and anyone with at least one cylon card is a cylon. (Certain characters receive extra cards, representing their questionably loyalty – or actual cylon affiliation – on the show)

The meat of the game is in the crisis cards that happen at the end of each turn; generally this is a test that the players have to pass, or else Bad Stuff happens. Bad stuff generally takes the form of losing one or more of the four items being tracked: fuel, food, morale, and population; if any of these reaches zero, humanity will be destroyed and the cylons win. They can also make you discard cards, send people to sickbay, place cylon ships on the board, and activate those ships. Resolving the cards is simple: each card generally has a difficulty and a set of colors. Two random cards are put in a pile (face down) and everyone adds as many more cards as they like; those cards are then shuffled and revealed. Cards matching the colors on the card are positive, while others are negative. Since two of the cards are random, if two or fewer bad cards show up, you don’t know if it was just bad luck or cylon sabotage.

Some crisis cards also have the jump symbol, which moves you closer to Kobol. Once Galactica has reached a certain spot on the jump track, she can make an early jump (at the risk of losing population); finishing the calculations lets her jump risk-free. With enough jumps, humanity can reach safety and win the game.

Of course, the cylons aren’t limited to just sabotaging skill checks; once they feel the time is right to do the optimum amount of damage, they can reveal (often damaging Galactica or sending another character to sickbay in the process) and move to the resurrection ship, where they can start sending nasty things at the other players. Much of the game is actually spent trying to figure out who the cylons are; players are unable to work at maximum efficiency because you can’t trust anyone. Anybody could secretly be a cylon, and (if it’s the first half of the game) they might not even know it..

I would definitely categorize this as an experience game: you play it for the sense of paranoia and the fun of trying to figure out who the cylons are, rather than the (rather simple) gameplay itself. Battlestar Galactica is the game that replaced Shadows over Camelot for me; while it’s not one of my favorites and doesn’t hit the table more than occasionally, it’s a decent semi-cooperative game.

And with the expansions, you can finally throw those fracking toasters out the airlock..

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Preventing a Pandemic, or, Why the Dispatcher Really is a Great Role

For many people, the competitive nature of our favorite games can make it difficult to get our families interested. (This is especially the case when we tend to win a lot!) One solution to the problem is cooperative games, in which the players work together to reach a common goal. I cannot think of a better example of such games than Pandemic, in which players cooperate to find cures for four deadly diseases before they can wipe out humanity.

The game rules are simple enough: you have a board representing the major cities of the world, with links between them, and a number of colored cubes representing the diseases. Each player gets a pawn, which begins at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.  On your turn, you get four actions, each of which may be used to move to an adjacent city, play a card to move to the city it shows (or fly anywhere, if you’re already in that city), give a card to (or take one from) another player if you’re together in the matching city, treat (remove) one disease cube from your current city, build a research station, or cure a disease. Curing something simply requires that you be at a research station and discard five cards of the color you want to cure, which can be harder than it sounds given the seven card hand limit.

Of course, at the end of each turn, more cubes hit the board. Early on, they’re not too much trouble, but if too many cubes of one color build up in a city, they outbreak and spread to the surrounding cities. If you have to place more cubes of a color than are available, if you have too many outbreaks, or if you run out of cards…time’s up! You have failed to contain the disease, and the entire population of the Earth is wiped out. Thanks a lot, guys!

Each player also has a special power, given by a randomly-drawn role at the start of the game. The Medic, for example, can wipe out all the cubes of a single color in the city he’s in with one action, while the Dispatcher can move other player’s pawns around, making travel much easier. (Incidentally, while these are only two out of a number of roles, they’re some of the most useful, and the game is much easier if you have at least one of them). Other than the role combinations, players can set the difficulty by choosing how many Epidemics to include in the deck; when one is drawn, three cubes hit the board and the discard pile for new disease cubes is reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck, meaning that cities which already got hit recently are likely to soon be hit again..

The expansion, On the Brink, introduces a few elements that make the game more difficult – the Virulent Strain and the Mutation – as well as new player powers and the ability for one player to take on the role of the bio-terrorist, playing against everyone else with hidden movement. Most players seem to prefer keeping Pandemic a purely cooperative game, though, and find the cards themselves provide enough problems without adding in the terrorist. More roles are introduced as well, helping to keep the game fresh, including the previously released mini-expansion “De Generalist”.

This isn’t a particularly complicated game; it clocks in at under an hour, and is simple enough for non-gamers while still being interesting for gamers. At this is a coop, players need to coordinate their actions to keep things under control; hands are generally kept secret to keep the more experienced players from taking total control of the game. While the subject matter may be dark, the game is simple fun and often gets several players in a row, as a game can easily be finished in half an hour once everyone has played a few times.

The main problem with Pandemic, as stated, is that there’s a definite risk of the more experienced player or players running the entire game, while everyone else watches. There tends to be a lot of discussion as to what the best moves are, and it’s easy for the stronger players to end up making all the decisions. Of course, when you can avoid that situation, the discussion also keeps everyone involved in the game, avoiding downtime. What I like about the game, I think, is the way the pieces fit together: you end up with a different combination of roles each time, and you have to figure out how to make the available powers work together to cure all of the diseases. In that, it’s really as much of a puzzle as it is a game: how can you make the most efficient use of your powers and actions in order to save humanity?

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Arimaa: Chess for Humans

In the field of artificial intelligence, the most difficult problems for computers to solve are those that involve pattern recognition. Humans are very, very good at recognizing patterns (and will even see them where they don’t really exist). Computers? Not so much. In chess, for example, a human will apply pattern recognition to ignore all possible moves except those most likely to be good; in one study, chess grandmasters who were shown a game in progress could later recreate it completely, but when shown a board that was set up randomly, could no longer do so. Computers, on the other hand, generally win by checking every possible move extremely quickly and calculating the estimated value of each.

Enter Arimaa, the first game designed specifically to be hard for computers to play. While it uses a standard chess set (yes, this is a two player only game), each
piece can move forward, backwards, left, and right (except for the pawn, now called a rabbit, which cannot move backwards). Additionally, pieces can be pushed or pulled, and a turn consists of up to four moves. As a result, the decision tree for Arimaa rapidly grows out of control, which is why the top human players have no difficulty beating the top computer players (and not from lack of effort on the programmer’s part – the prize for creating a program which can defeat the top human players started at $10,000 and has grown from there).

So how does the game work? Take a standard chess set (you can also buy specialized Arimaa sets fairly cheaply) and let each player arrange his pieces any way he wants on the first two rows on his side of the board. On each turn, make up to four moves, where a move is picking up any of your pieces and moving it one space in any orthogonal direction (except, again, that rabbits cannot move backwards) More powerful pieces can push or pull less powerful ones, and a piece that is next to a more powerful enemy piece cannot move unless it is also adjacent to a friendly piece. Relative powers are determined by height: taller pieces are more powerful (so the king, for example, cannot be pushed around by anyone, and the queen can only be pushed or pulled – or immobilized – by the king). There are also four pits placed on the board; any piece standing on a pit that is not adjacent to a friendly piece falls in and is removed from the game. Indeed, there is no capturing in Arimaa; shoving enemy pieces into the pit is the only way to get rid of them.

The game ends when either one player loses all of his rabbits, or one of them makes it to the 8th rank (when it would promote, in chess). Each of the games I’ve played ended when one player made a mistake that allowed the other player to finish advancing one of his rabbits. After playing several times, I still don’t feel as if I really have much of an understanding as to the strategy of the game, aside from “watch out for the big pieces” and “make sure your pieces near the pits have backup”, but it’s an interesting challenge. Now if I could just play well enough to beat the computer..

In addition to the game itself, Amazon has a book on Arimaa strategy; additionally, you can play for free (or just check out the rules) at the Arimaa website.

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