A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011
In mid-2011, A Few Acres of Snow was released to great critical response. It rapidly received a plethora of good reviews and, in short order, won the 2-player awards for the committee International Gamer’s Award and the voters’ choice Wargame Golden Geek award.
Of course, before these awards emerged, A Few Acres of Snow’s reputation began to be sullied. On 25 September 2011, Michael Fitz posted a thread on BoardGameGeek entitled “Can France Beat Britain’s ‘Settle Halifax, Besiege Louisbourg, Besiege Quebec’ Strategy?” This created quite a bit of uproar, resulting in a thread with over 867 comments as various people began to argue about whether the game was broken and what to do if it was, as well as numerous secondary threads discussing the same topic. Eventually Martin Wallace promised a fix, and on 30 December 2011, he provided one. Soon after, the main reviewers who denounced the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy as broken determined that A Few Acres of Snow remained just as broken as it was previously. Martin Wallace seemed to agree, acknowledging on 25 January 2012 that, “Yes, it is flawed. It is not something that can be fixed absolutely. The best way forward is to keep changing the rules, with scenarios, to present new challenges.” In a later interview for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, Wallace went a step farther, stating that his intended fixes were largely designed to ensure that less skilled players would still be able to enjoy the game; he also stated that two player games in themselves are fundamentally flawed such that players who try hard enough will ultimately break all of them.
While my feelings on this topic are fairly well known, particularly by those who read my work regularly, what surprises me is how little discussion A Few Acres of Snow’s flaws have generated amongst individuals who are arguably the top reviewers, critics, and pundits in the board game community. This is even more surprising given Martin Wallace’s comments. In most other media or art criticism communities, a prolific and well-respected artist releasing a work that was both initially applauded and later acknowledged as fundamentally flawed would result in quite a bit of discussion and articles. In the board game community? Almost none.
Why is this the case? Why is so interesting a topic not being discussed by those with the biggest podiums in the hobby? After some thought and discussion, I came to the conclusion that a major component of how the more prominent voices in the hobby determine what topics to discuss is how they perceive themselves. I sent out a survey based on this theory to a variety of bloggers, podcasters, and textual and video reviewers, and got an impressive array of responses. However, I now believe the reasons are more complex, and are related to a number of other, interlocking issues. These surveys still ended up being valuable, simply because the respondents provided thought-provoking answers to my questions. What I intended to be a single article about how a voice’s perception of their role affects what they write about is now going to be a number of articles covering a variety of topics that emerged as a result of these surveys.
The primary reason I think that we have seen such minimal discussion on the implications of the fundamental flaws of A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s follow-up comments is simply a matter of incentives. The most popular reviews, both in thumbs for a site like BoardGameGeek and for views and comments on other sites, are highly positive reviews about the newest games. Since board gaming is a very consumer-driven hobby, players are constantly looking out for new games to provide them with both a new experience and a way to share the enthusiasm that comes from trying out a fun and exciting new game. Newer games, by nature of being unknown, allow consumers to create an idealized view of the enjoyment that can be derived from the game. Many consumers particularly appreciate reviews that effectively communicate to them that their original enthusiasm was well founded. Any reviewer or commentator who seeks to maximize their positive attention (and that is true of most of them, including yours truly) will tend to focus on the topic that provides them with the most attention: enthusiastic reviews of new games.
By the time the issues with A Few Acres of Snow came to the attention of the larger community, the game was well past the point where it was new enough to maintain the attention of the more prominent reviewers, who had already moved on to newer and hotter games. The fact that the fall of 2011 was a particularly exciting time for new board games did not help either, as most reviewers were already looking to the hot new Essen releases. The written reviews section on BoardGameGeek for A Few Acres of Snow bears this out, as all but two reviews of the game were posted before the balance issues were first observed. Reviews for A Few Acres of Snow on both Fortresse: Ameritrash and the Opinionated Gamers also appeared before the problems were observed. However, positive reviews certainly appeared after the initial problem surfaced, not to mention Top 10 Lists towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 that credited A Few Acres of Snow as being one of the best designs of the year. So while the timing of the discovery did have an impact on the amount of discussion that took place in the wider review community, this is not the only explanation. Other factors also impacted why later discussions and reviews of A Few Acres of Snow only minimally touched on the game’s problems.
One of these additional factors is that, to produce a truly critical take on a particular game, a reviewer would need to explore it in enough depth to be able to identify underlying problems, like those eventually discovered in A Few Acres of Snow. But the rewards for producing fast and effective takes on games discourage thorough exploration. Even if a reviewer did identify underlying structural problems, any negative review of a game would likely be controversial, and thus turn off potential readers. Why explore the game deeply to find potential flaws, when an initial enthusiastic review is likely to work much more effectively for a reviewer’s fan base? When you add to this the fact that the most prominent game reviewers tend to be constantly trying out and reviewing newer games, the likelihood of a particular game getting enough play to identify game balance issues is low.
Another reason, beyond simple ignorance of the game’s flaws, is denial that the issue was a problem in the first place. In many instances, this skepticism is reasonable. In my history of gaming, I can’t count the number of times I have heard claims that a game is broken by people I respected a lot less than the designer of said game, and the naysayers turned out to be wrong. Of course, commenters have been correct often enough that I have learned not to completely dismiss complaints about balance issues, but it is natural for those who are playing and enjoying a game to assume that those who are complaining are simply wrong. This is particularly true with fans of Martin Wallace because of the general level of divisiveness that has followed him, first with his conflict with Winsome games, and then with FRED Distribution. These conflicts make it easier for fans of Martin Wallace to dismiss those who are complaining about one of his games as another person with a particular axe to grind against him, and thus not actually relevant to the quality of his work.
Martin Wallace’s late December rules revisions initially seemed to resolve the issue for those who were less involved in analyzing A Few Acres of Snow’s mechanics, including me in Part 1 of my end of year list. At the time, I considered it fixed. However, the same community that originally identified that A Few Acres of Snow as broken was able to quickly prove that the fix was largely illusionary. Martin, to his credit, followed up with an acknowledgement that it was flawed and, less to his credit, with his statement that all two-player games are broken. Yet, despite this, there was still no discussion about the topic among the prominent voices in the board game community. On 25 February, Larry Levy of the Opinionated Gamers released an article about their annual Designer of the Year award, with Stefan Feld winning and Martin Wallace coming in second largely on the strength of A Few Acres of Snow. When I questioned him about this, he said, “I realize that there are some who think it’s broken and out of whack. But the game is played and greatly enjoyed by an awful lot of people. You can try to analyze why they like it despite what some feel is a dominant strategy, but I’d rather take their opinions at face value. When you combine that with the IGA award, it’s got to be one of the bigger titles of the year.”
While I generally find Larry’s criticism to be interesting, and value his contributions to the community, this sentence highlights what I believe is the next reason why we have not seen much discussion about the implications of A Few Acres of Snow and Mr. Wallace’s statements: a lack of willingness to subjectively judge whether a game is good or not in any criterion beyond whether people enjoy it. This also expresses itself in a similar lament about the game being fine if you just ignore the broken strategy. Both lines of thinking ignore the implications of giving a designer a pass for releasing an easily broken game. If the game continues to accumulate awards, climb the rankings, and enjoy good sales, what sort of message does this send to designers? That it is okay to release games that are initially pleasing and work as long as you do not attempt skilled play, because the customer base does not mind games that are ultimately broken? That effective play testing is not important? I like to think that Martin Wallace has learned some important lessons from this, but the lack of accountability does not bode well for the future of our hobby.
So, the primary reasons that we have seen so little discussion on the implications of the fatally flawed A Few Acres of Snow are: the way that board game consumers reward quickly produced enthusiastic reviews; the general tendency to not play games exhaustively enough to identify balance problems; an inclination to dismiss those who claim a game is broken and trust that prominent designers will not make a flawed design; and a general desire not to dismiss the enjoyment that players derive from the game. I also think a broader reason is related to the low level of development of board game articles in the review community. There are very few articles providing any sort of critical analysis of board games or the community as a whole, and without this infrastructure, there is little in place to create a real dialogue about the many interesting topics that A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s comments bring to mind. We do see some of this sort of analysis scattered around the BGG blogs section, Fortress: Ameritrash, the Opinionated Gamers, and a few podcasts, but this is relatively small compared to the volume of discussion on board games as a whole.
I have a few theories about the current lack of critical infrastructure, some of which are related to the topics I noted above, but that is going to have to wait for my next article.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ben (chally), John Broky, Joel Eddy, Larry Levy, Eric Martin, and Matt Thrower for their help in this article. It was great discussing this topic with them, and they really helped me crystallize my thoughts. The views expressed in this article are entirely my own, and while some of them will probably agree with my points and my ultimate conclusions, I suspect that some of them will have very different conclusions from me on why this has occurred and if it even matters.
~ Jesse James Dean