In my deckbuilding article on Eminent Domain, Jessey mentioned Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow as another game that integrated deckbuilding as part of a larger game. Now that I’ve played it, I agree — it goes even further than Eminent Domain in using deckbuilding as a mechanic rather than as a genre of game.
A Few Acres of Snow is on the one hand a wargame. Like Martin Wallace’s densest wargame, Waterloo, the most obvious victory requires the capture of specific villages. However from there it opens up into a more common Wallacian euro-warfare design, where the combat actually happens through the play of cards. There’s also a fair amount of additional resource management, as players build up their holdings of villages and towns. In some ways, it reminds me the most of Wallace’s Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, as both games center on the play of cards which are full of symbols that enable actions.
In A Few Acres of Snow, the two players each start off with a small collection of villages. Each of these locations puts a card into the player’s deck. As I noted, these cards in turn enable action. For example, to expand into a new village, you play a nearby village card, then a second card that features an appropriate mode of transport (like a boat, a ship, or a wagon) for the target village. If you’re instead attacking, you play a combat symbol rather than that transit. Other multi-card combos can be used to do things like sell furs (a trader card + one or more cards with furs on them), trade over seas (a ship + one or two cards with coins on them), develop a village into a town (the village’s location card + a settlers card), etc.
As you take new villages, their cards are put into your deck, and new symbols come with them. However, you can also pay to draft other sorts of cards, which provide more effective military, special powers, or just help your deck fill a niche that it’s currently lacking.
If you can’t win by taking the core villages of the game, then you instead win by running out of pieces and having the best collection of built-up villages of your own and sacked villages from your opponents — which pretty much shows the two sides of the design, resources and warfare.
And if deckbuilding doesn’t appear on that list at all, it’s because it’s a deeply integrated way to get your resources and to win wars — a means, not an end.
Thanks to Eric B. Vogel for being kind enough to bring around a copy of A Few Acres of Snow so that I could try it out.
So what does A Few Acres of Snow add to the deckbuilding genre? Quite a bit. It’s almost unique in the way that it approaches those core ideas that originated in Dominion. Here’s what I think is most interesting:
A Thematic Reason for Deckbuilding. Martin Wallace proves his brilliance in the designer notes for A Few Acres of Snow where he says: “The deckbuilding element of the game builds in the delay between asking for something and getting it which was a major issue for the two combatants. This was a war fought at the end of a very long supply line.” I’ve never seen anyone else explain why the deckbuilding mechanic might be appropriate for a game. Not only does Wallace do so, but he also nails it.
Deeply Integrated Deckbuilding. As I said, Eminent Domain is the only other game I’ve played that integrates deckbuilding as part of a larger system. If anything, A Few Acres of Snow does so even more deftly, with the deckbuilding placed square in the middle of the game. On the one hand, you have game systems providing input to the deckbuilding mechanics: you can get cards for drafting (as with any deckbuilding), but also for taking locations. On the other hand, game systems take output from the deckbuilding: it’s what allows you to take actions and what provides your income.
Location-Based Cards. Much like the upcoming Fantastiqa, A Few Acres of Snow ties its cards into locations: you have to take over a village before you get its card. Having the purchase of cards being based on some other element in a game system is exactly what’s needed to tie deckbuilders into wider game systems, and I hope we see more of it.
Simplistic & Repetitive Powers. The powers in A Few Acres of Snow are pretty simple, and most of them are based on simple icons: boats, ships, wagons, furs, gold coins, settlers, etc. There are more complex cards (like the siege engine, which you have to pay to use, and several cards that allow for the assault and raid actions), but their number is still pretty small. This is in wide contrast to the majority of deckbuilders, which have special powers on every different card. I think it shows a very valid alternate route, which thus far has been taken mainly by Eminent Domain (though Fantastiqa seems to use the same general idea).
Unique Cards. There are a surprising number of cards in A Few Acres of Snow that only exist once in a player’s set of potential cards. That 3-military siege engine I just mentioned is one, as is the Trapper which allows you to trade furs for money. By this point, there are a generous handful of deckbuilding games that include unique cards, with Penny Arcade and Resident Evil being other examples. I hope to see more as time goes on.
Infrastructure for Real Card Management. In most deckbuilders you draw a totally fresh hand each turn. As a result, the strategic act of building decks is played out entirely tactically at any moment. Eminent Domain and Nightfall were among the first to give you a bit more control by allowing you to choose what to discard, something that was important because both games depended more on matching combos (as does Thunderstone for that matter, and the fact that you don’t have better control over getting your adventurers and their weapons together has on occasion frustrated me).
However, of all the deckbuilding games I’ve played, A Few Acres of Snow depends the most on getting precise combos of cards, because you need at least a couple of cards for any action. To siege a city needs even more: probably a real cache of combat cards. Remarkably, these multicard requirements work great in A Few Acres of Snow because of the infrastructure Wallace has created for card management. You have a Reserve, which you can use to store up to five cards. Adding a card to the Reserve takes an action, while taking each one out costs a coin, so using it isn’t cheap — but it can be extremely valuable. Notably, you don’t get to discard cards in A Few Acres of Snow at all — unless you take the discard action, which takes one action, and costs a coin for each card you discard beyond the first one.
I’m quite impressed with this work that was done to make the collection of cards from turn to turn into something great, and think it’s another great deckbuilder innovation in a game full of them.
Infrastructure of Additional Resources. As I noted, it costs coins to recover cards from your reserve and to discard cards. However, these aren’t the typical sort of coins you’d find on a deckbuilder card. They’re instead a totally separate resource represented by plastic tokens. This creates a resource management totally external to the cards themselves, and is another way that the deckbuilding is actually part of a larger engine.
Generally, I consider the deckbuilding elements of A Few Acres of Snow to be extremely inventive and well-polished. Here are my scant complaints.
Deckbuilding is Pretty Opaque. Because cards enter your deck as the result of another action (taking a location) and because those location cards often have multiple icons on them, as a first-time player I found it hard to figure out how to really make a good deck. You’d have to go out of your way to take specific locations, as well as drafting action cards that complemented your strategy, and I doubt anyone’s going to be able to think like this during their first several games. I had similar problems with Eminent Domain and I did eventually figure things out, so I expect the same would be the case here.
Deckbuilding Doesn’t Create Replayability. Because the deckbuilding part of the game is based on a single set of cards and because those cards have pretty simple, repetitive powers, A Few Acres of Snow isn’t going to have the sort of replayability you see in most deckbuilders, where every game is very different. Of course, that’s true of every other game out there that isn’t a deckbuilder, and A Few Acres of Snow has plenty of other stuff going on to keep your interest.
With my comments on the very impressive deckbuilding aspects of A Few Acres of Snow out of the way, I should say, perhaps, that the overall game didn’t win me over. I found the warfare of the game to be really exhausting, as you could spend turns and turns contesting over a single town and end up right back where you started. I think that’s just a Your Mileage May Vary sort of thing, but I’ll offer a caveat to folks looking at the game that they should be sure its gameplay is to their liking before they dive in, because it’s certainly nothing like the other deckbuilders out there.
Overall, A Few Acres of Snow is a darned impressive adaptation of deckbuilder mechanics to a totally different sort of game. Even more than Eminent Domain it shows how these mechanics could be more widely used and really impact the entire euro-genre of games in impressive ways.