‘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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  1. To clarify the strategy it’s basically a race with the French trying to hand on to their early lead by developing all their towns (they only have nine) before they get wiped by superior British forces. The longer the game goes on, the more the French are at a disadvantage. The key to the game is hand management. You need to keep your deck lean and focused so that the cards you need cycle back quickly. It’s easier said than done and it took me four full plays before I really started having a handle on the gameplay. This game is quite playable, yet deceptively deep.

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