New Game Weekend: A Few Acres of Snow

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 “You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth.” — Voltaire, Candide (1758)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the area of what would become the Northeastern United States and the neighboring Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec were a battlefield for French, British and Native American control. With the two European empires locked in a protracted series of large and small wars around the globe, the American colonies were often a sideshow to the global conflict. In the colonies, King William’s War (1689–97), Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), King George’s War (1744–48) and the French and Indian War (1754–63) each played a role in shaping not only the birth of the United States of America but also the face of the entire globe for centuries to come.

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A mid-18th century map of British and French colonies in North America

(from New York Public Library Map Division)

I grew up in Western New York State, spent most of my twenties in Eastern Michigan and Western Pennsylvania, and finally settled in New York City nearly twenty years ago. In my life I’ve logged many a road trip to the landmarks of British and French military control at Fort Stanwix, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort William Henry and Fort Niagara, along with various battlefields and stops at roadside markers. In July, I’ll be swinging by Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania where a British officer named George Washington first commanded troops in an opening battle of the French and Indian War. I’ll also be swinging through Letchworth State Park which was occupied by the western edges of the Iroquois Confederacy which sided with the British during the era of European conflict. In short, I’ve spent my entire life living amid the ghosts of the contested colonial regions of the North American colonial wars.

AcresCardsSample cards from A Few Acres of Snow

At the recent D-Day Plus 70 weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY I was fortunate to score a copy of A Few Acres of Snow in a dice-off raffle. Created by famed designer Martin Wallace and released by Treefrog Games in 2011, the game takes its name from a quote from Voltaire’s Candide commenting on the absurdity of European focus on colonial wars for territory. AFAOS takes players through the French-British colonial period in North America as each nation competed for control of the continent. Within the theme, the game is a rich mix of deck-building and area control mechanics as players seek to settle and defend key areas of the map.

snowsymbolsCard symbols from A Few Acres of Snow

(Wagon, Bateaux, Settler, Military Strength, Money, Fur, Ambush and Ship)

The two-player game begins with players choosing a side as the British or French with a set number of settled outposts in the wilderness of 17th and 18th century North America. British begin with their main settlements in New York and Boston while the French player starts with Quebec. Players begin with a draw deck from which they start with five cards. Playing cards in turns of two actions each, players perform a variety of actions including settlement, fortification, raids, sieges, trade, piracy and a number of card management options. Symbols depicted on each card allow for enormous flexibility in how each player executes their strategy of expansion. For example, a player might begin with a Location card setting off from an existing settlement. From there, a card is played with the appropriate movement symbol like a Bateaux along a river. Once at a new location, a card with a Settler might be played to create a new settlement. As a player’s holdings expand, their decks grow in size and options, leading to even more potential paths of empire growth. Once all settlement tokens are used or major settlements like Boston or Quebec are captured, the games ends and victory points are scored.

IMG_3640My first play of A Few Acres of Snow

In my first play through AFAOS, I faced off with my son playing the French and me playing as the British. The game plays in about an hour, but on our first run we went to a bit over 90 minutes as we wrapped our heads around the rules. After I quickly sailed to and settled Halifax well within the bounds of French country, several  sieges commenced. In his first siege attempt, my son was repelled by my superior military might powered by my store of money. He then took a few turns to quickly trade a lot of fur (one of the strengths of the French player) to buy additional forces for a second siege which chased my British from his territory.

IMG_3647My heavily-settled British Atlantic Coast in A Few Acres of Snow

In the meantime, I pushed inland with a string a settlements toward the Great Lakes in the hopes it would expose Quebec to a siege. However, my son quickly landed a stronghold in my coastal territory in a siege victory at Pemaquid. I retaliated with two failed attacks on Pemaquid using Native American raiding parties. Having held on, my son launched an attack on Boston and my British rule of the colonies fell.

Our first game showed us how quickly AFAOS can move once you get the mechanics. Getting the right cards in and out of your hand is key to winning the game, and the cards shift in importance as the game quickly unfolds. The balance of trade, expansion and military actions does a fantastic job in re-enacting the dynamics which played out between the British, French and shifting Native American allies over some 150 years. Even though we upset the course of history, we both walked away pretty thrilled over our new game and chatting up strategies for the next time we meet up in the woods and along the coasts of Colonial America.

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New Game Weekend: Brass

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Canals have been a part of human history for as long as people have sought to move large quantities of goods from one place to another along routes without natural waterways. Beginning in Mesopotamia in about 4000 BC, canals have fuelled the expansion of human settlement and trade just about everywhere. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th-and-19th-centuries saw an enormous boom in canal construction in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. To this day, engineering marvels like the Suez Canal and Panama Canal are critical to moving goods around the world.

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Map of New York State canals with Genessee Valley Canal (1840-1880)  in green

Growing up in the 1970s, every kid raised in Western New York State was surrounded by the mythology of the Erie Canal. Stretching 360 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the canal opened in 1825 and connected the ports of New York City with the booming Great Lakes region and the territories beyond.

Some of my earliest childhood memories of thrashing around in the woods in my hometown of Piffard, NY occured along the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal which ran as a southern spur to the Erie Canal from 1840-1880. In my mid-20s I found myself living and working in Southwestern Pennsylvania, once again surrounded by the ghosts of canals and later railroad lines which fuelled the economic expansion of the old western frontier. Today, many these old canal lines have new lives serving as recreational arteries like the Genesee Valley Greenway and the Pittsburgh-To-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway.

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The Brass game board depicting Northern Engkand

My life has had a lot of canals running through it, and so it was great when I recently had a chance to try my hand at playing out the canal and railroad boom era in Brass. Produced by Treefrog Games in 2007, Brass takes players back to an England at the dawn of its massive industrial expansion. The game divides into two parts — a Canal Age and a Railroad Age — and is played on a map of Northern England cities and ports connected by transportation routes. When cards are used up points are scored at the end of the Canal Age for industries built, canal routes constructed and income earned. Canals and industries are then removed before play procedes through the Railroad Age after which there is a final tally of points for victory.

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Brass industy cards (left to right: coal mine, shipyard, iron works, port and cotton mill)

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Sample Brass location cards

Cards depicting cities and industries are dealt to players at the beginning of the game. Canals and lower tech industries are built in the first half of the game, and railroads and more advnaced technologies are built in the game’s second half. Each turn a player may develop industries, build canal or railroad sections, develop their existing industry, sell cotton or take loans for additional capital investment. The player who spends the least money on their turn gets to go first on the next turn, one of the game’s many mechanics which makes for a good balance of cautious and aggressive play.

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The “Canal Era” in our game of Brass at Metropolitan Wargamers

Industries are built on specific locations by playing both a location and industry card in combination and then spending the appropriate money and resources. Connecting canals and railroads may also be built to establish routes between cities and ports to transport goods and resources. Multiple industries built by multiple players may be built at the same location, allowing for some level of shared collaborative play. A hub city like Manchester holds four industries and connects along five separate routes, making it a potential key location for players. Building routes to ports and foreign export of cotton becomes important as the game develops and generating more income for construction is needed.

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The “Railroad Era” in our game of Brass

There’s a ton going on in Brass, and fortunately I had an experienced player walk me through my first game. I’ve heard the rules themselves are a bit hard to decipher, but playing the game my first time was pretty easy to follow. Brass plays like many Eurogames with a balance of area control, building, managing resources and playing cards. Ultimately the game becomes one of competition for routes and resources and biding one’s time to export cotton goods to foreign markets when demand is at its highest.

I won my first game of Brass in a three-player game, but I’d like to try it at its full four-player maximum. I managed to have an enormous amount of cash on hand to invest into developing my industries and transport routes pretty early in the game, a strategy that didn’t allow me to play first in most turns but paid off in the end. Playing an economic game like Brass makes for some very different play than my usual rolling of tanks and advancing platoons of soldiers. For a gamer like me with canals and railroads flowing through my blood, I’ll take an economic victory just as easily as a one won on the battlefield any day.