It is the go-to argument when arguing for the value of games to those late to the discussion. Games can be more than fun. They can be compelling.
Indeed, some games can actively undermine fun through their very design. Playing them can be unsettling or even boring. The story, we might say, is what drives us onwards. Or, in the case of the board game A Few Acres of Snow, it is the system itself that creates an immensely interesting experience, despite a sense of almost programmed boredom. This masterpiece manages to build a compelling experience by offering a competitive exercise in the creation of a churning and diabolical bureaucracy.
Designed by Martin Wallace, A Few Acres of Snow joins a variety of other “wargames” that pit just two players against each other for a battle over territory. Set during the Seven Years War, one player takes the side of the British while the other controls the French and each makes a play for territories around today’s Canadian and American border. Positioned in different territories and with slightly different resources available to them, A Few Acres of Snow is an asymmetric experience with each participant playing a slightly different version of the game than the other.
Like Dominion and a variety of other “deck-building” games, A Few Acres of Snow models its territorial warfare through an ever growing and shifting collection of cards. By using one city card in conjunction with a card that features an appropriate transportation symbol, players can settle neighboring cities and increase their influence on the board. When the game is over, players with the most valuable and best built cities win the game. However, opponents can disrupt this strategy through a variety of tactics, including siege warfare and Native American raids. It is these disruptions that lead to cycles of inefficiency and tedium.
In an ideal deck building experience, your deck, the thing that represents both your conquests and your active power, is a sleek machine. A trim and speedy deck pulls helpful cards more frequently, speeding up your progress towards the finish line. In A Few Acres of Snow absolutely everything you do undermines this ideal state. Each new settlement adds location cards to your deck, some of which do more harm than good, watering down your machine with chaff.
Warfare in particular becomes a bureaucratic mess. In order to initiate a siege, players set aside cards with military symbols into a siege pile. Early in the game with few dedicated military cards in your possession, local militia make up the brunt of your offense or defense, but this also means sacrificing access to potentially important cards. If you can outnumber your opponent, you win the siege and can claim the land. It sounds attractive, but that’s right when the levy breaks.
See, the moment the game becomes competitive, each player’s deck becomes a ugly and hideous system of its own. To defend your own territory, you may draft infantry into your deck. But that just postpones the inevitable, so you draft another militia just in case. Fearing for a loss, your opponent does the same. Then the siege ends, and your deck is flooded with useless military cards. Overstaffed with personnel, the tedium of war continues as efforts to simply expand are endlessly slowed down by a bureaucratic mess of a deck or petty squabbling that ties up resources and movement.
The same occurs with Native American cards. These units can raid settlements or defend them against raids. Once one player adds them to their deck, the other must respond in kind. The result is another addition of cards that increasingly become useless, making your governing machine a slow, grumbling monstrosity. This is not a thrilling assault on a battlefield as you might see modeled in Memoir 44, a similar asymmetrical wargame. This is a plodding example of Mutually Assured Tedium, and it’s wonderfully entertaining to examine through play.
This is a wargame that doesn’t glorify war. Instead, the rhetoric of A Few Acres of Snow depicts war — and this war in particular — as a tedious experience for both sides based on a number of constraints. Historically, communication and resource delays, modeled in the game by an increasingly burdensome and unresponsive deck, meant troop movement and asset allocation came slowly. Geographical constraints limited travel options and increased the defensive value of strategic forts, which in turn meant time and resource consuming siege tactics.
A Few Acres of Snow also models in its system some of the rhetoric regarding the unsettling nature of the military industrial complex. War has a way of justifying itself. Complete removal of tedious military cards is a slow and agonizing process. If your deck is burdened with military, the far more sensible act would be to conduct a siege, putting them to use and removing them from your deck. In turn, both sides maintain an active state of war and only justify the expansion of their own military until they nearly reach capacity. War, the game seems to say, has a way of perpetuating itself into a nearly endless cycle of tedium and inefficiency. And all for “a few acres of snow.”