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  • Next of Ken, Hot Topic Blog Edition: A Response to Jesse Buddha and "The Criticism of the Critics" on A Few Acres of Snow

Next of Ken, Hot Topic Blog Edition: A Response to Jesse Buddha and "The Criticism of the Critics" on A Few Acres of Snow

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There Will Be Games

I've been waiting until I had a chunk of time to respond to this, as being someone who proclaimed A Few Acres of Snow my best game of 2011, I feel obligated to respond.  (I also answered the questions that Jesse sent out during his research for this article.)

First up, my 'review' style has changed greatly over the past year or so.  Originally, I did wait until several months after a game's release and write very heavy, very thorough reviews.  I noticed that if a game was more than a few months old, it seemingly generated much less discussion and interest.  Especially if it were not from one of the "big" publishers--I think Mike Barnes can attest to this as well, because when he goes off the beaten path a bit, it seems as though he also gets fewer hits and less discussion.

I was gaming so much that I felt like my articles were bottlenecked; how could I only talk about one game per week?  And so, I made it more of a habit to do mutli-game columns with much more "off the cuff" thoughts on games.  I don't really even call them reviews anymore per se, and I think that a lot of readers no longer consider them as such because I am not really referred to in that manner.

The feedback I got on my shift was overwhelmingly positive.  Gamers seemingly wanted to hear about more games, and faster.  So I've kept that style.  It seems to fit with a lot of boardgame culture too these days, where we play a game five or six times tops and then move on to the next one.  I guess my approach proved more popular because it fit the consumption patterns of a chunk of modern boardgamers.  "Tell me about a new game, and now!"

I don't qualify these as reviews exactly, but more impressions.  Was a game fun?  Approachable?  How were the rules?  Did the people I play it with like it?  What were their complaints?  Who did I play it with?  Were there games I liked better?  These are the types of things I tended to focus on.  I've tried to drop out the whole "here are the rules" bits, unless it's vital to help someone understand exactly how the game plays.

So, this explains how I missed the broken strategy in A Few Acres of Snow, but it doesn't explain why I never elaborated on it afterward.  More on that in a bit though as I feel there's another ominous point lurking under the surface that I'd like to address.

"Free" games.  Yes, we as bloggers and reviewers, particularly on a website as prominent as F:AT, receive free review games.  I think the popular perception is that game companies shower us with unsolicited review copies to the point we're swimming in them.  Also, the second perception is that we feel obligated to give positive reviews to companies who send us stuff.

While this may seem true, you have your cause and effect confused.

As Mikey B. mentioned earlier in the thread, even those who are highest on the review chain still have to go out and do the rounds for review copies.  I don't receive much in the way of unsolicited games.  I do the legwork, I send the emails, I make the phone calls, I keep the contacts.  How do I decide what to ask for?  It's really a simple two-step criteria here:

1.  Does this look like something I will like?

2.  Is this something our readers might be interested in?

If a game fails either of those two criteria, particularly the first one, I don't do the legwork.  I don't chase it down, I don't send the emails.  Why would I do that?  Sure, there's the sensationalist thrill of watching things get torn to pieces.  And hey, I don't necessarily like everything I ask for completely--sometimes I am wrong about what I think a game is going to play like.  But again, why would I make overtures to a game company for the sole purpose of getting a free game I can tear to pieces?  That is a completely dick move, right?

Do I have an obligation to cover crap I don't like?  I don't know.  I'll say this--if you see me talk about a boardgame, you can form your opinion based on my feedback.  If I don't talk about a game yet, it's either the fact that I haven't played it yet, or I had no interest in tracking a copy down because it looked like crap.  It's pretty simple, really.

But it also means that the overwhelming majority of the time, the stuff I request is going to be stuff that I end up liking.  That's just the cold hard facts.  I seek out what I'm likely to enjoy; odds are, I'm going to actually enjoy it.

There's also the misconception that everything we cover is provided to us, gratis.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, at least for me.  I receive, at most, an average of a few free games per month.  It's not the avalanche that you're probably thinking about.  Maybe half the games I've talked about in the last year are those I received for free.  The others?  I've paid good hard coin for, or traded for, or bartered for, or whatever.  There are several large companies that I've never received review copies from, including Fantasy Flight and several others.  Like Michael, if you see me talking about an FFG title, it's because I've either bought it, or played it at a friend's house.

Which, coincidentally?  A Few Acres of Snow is a game that I bought directly from Treefrog.  There is no relationship nor obligation for me to give Treefrog or Martin Wallace a free pass.  They don't send out many review copies, and to be honest, I don't want to cover a lot of Treefrog games.

Martin Wallace is not a designer that is typically of interest to our readers.  To be honest, he's not a designer that I'm usually smitten with.  His designs are often dry, his focus on the economic.  His themes are often not my cup of tea.

But when I read the rules to A Few Acres, I was smitten with the idea.

I like deckbuilders.  They're an extension of both the card games and CCGs that I have always enjoyed, so they're a natural fit for me.  But while so many deckbuilders were content to do the whole, "spend some money, buy some cards, put them in your discard, shuffle, repeat" gameplay, AFAoS looked to be trying something new and different.

My favorite deckbuilders are those that have a gameplay element external to the deckbuilding process.  Nightfall and Puzzle Strike, my two favorite deckbuilders bar none, both have the "buy stuff, shuffle it in" as a part of their gameplay, but outside of this, the *real* core of the game happens.  In Puzzle Strike, it's crashing gems and playing attacks to disrupt your opponent.  In Nightfall, it's about minions doing battle and players using cards to screw with each others stuff.  

Dominion as a agame wouldn't exist without its purchase, shuffle, repeat.  That's the whole game.  But from this it allowed for evolution and expansion of the mechanics.  In Puzzle Strike and Nightfall, assuming you already had "tweaked" decks, you could strip out the deckbuilding portions and still have a game.  A limited, less interesting one?  Quite possibly.  But a game nonetheless.

A Few Acres of Snow looked to be something that went to another degree.  Now we had the spatial element of a wargame-esque board.  The deckbuilding mechanic, which was thematically stretching it to even say it had anything to do with a game's theme before, was now justified in the difficulties in coordinating a war effort from a great distance.  As leaders in the battle you made your request for supplies, and waited...you just hoped they showed up when you needed them.

So I received my copy that I bought from Treefrog, and we played it.  I was wowed mostly by the ambition and the artistry inherent in the game's design.  While so many companies and designers had been flirting with breaking into the next level of deckbuilding, what we had here *was* the next level of deckbuilding.  The mechanic no longer as the star and sustainer, but just another part of the gameplay, and one that was thematically justified, to boot.

Did we stumble upon Halifax Hammer?  Of course not.  That's not how we would even think to play.  Is that a failure of me as a reviewer?  Maybe.  But I don't review games in the spirit of breaking them precisely because most of the people I game with don't play games to break them.  And seemingly, many of our readers don't play games with the intention of breaking them.

To me, and to many others, people are more important than gaming.  Even back in the CCG days, if playing casually, I would not use my most lethal tournament decks to play for fun; how ridiculous is that?  What am I proving?  My goals in casual play were radically different than those of tournament play.  Tournament play was "win at all costs."  Casual play was "have fun."

Ultimately, if you extrapolate that to A Few Acres of Snow, that means that it fails as a tournament game.  But...does every game need to meet that criteria?  I don't know.  Personally?  I don't think so.

So, then, we're talking the nebulous "spirit of the rules", here.  You know, the same thing that Wargamers and Ameritrashers have been talking about for years.  Think back--if you had a fun game, but then you stumbled on a "broken" strategy, what did you do?  You houseruled it, that's what you did.  You took out a problem card, ignored a problematic rule, changed starting set-ups, whatever it took to make sure you enjoyed the game.

Let's take a game I and many others consider to be an Ameritrash classic--Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel.  Did you know that this game is fundamentally flawed?  It certainly is.  First up, if you're lucky enough to be the one who gets the Grenade Launcher in the first scenario, you're going to have a lot of promotion points from your first mission, way more than the other players.  The second mission with the Ezoghul?  The marines have no chance, and if you're the bad guys for that scenario, you're going to get a lot of promotion points, way more than the other players.  Those two players have a permanent leg up in the campaign, and if it turns out to be the *same* player for BOTH?  Forget about it.  It's over already.

The houserule?  Move the second mission to be the fifth or so, and remove the Grenade Launcher from the available gear for the very first mission.   Boom, fixed.

Does that mean we're giving a designer a free pass if we do that for a game now?  I don't know.  Were we giving free passes to designers who issued all sorts of errata for their games in the 70s, 80s, and 90s?  Hell, The General had errata and "fixes" for games published in every issue.  Do we think Dune is broken because three-way alliances can steamroll to victory?  Do we think that people who limit alliances in Dune to 2 are "giving someone a free pass" by "fixing" that game?  Is Dune less of a game because of some of its balance issues?  I don't think so!

Games aren't mathematical exercises for thematic gamers.  And that's a problem for a designer who wants to occupy that space.  You add rules, you add theme, you add chrome, you add asymmetry, and you can no longer design a game with the dry mathematical precision of a Knizia or Kramer.  

You can playtest the hell out of that game, sure.  You can have dozens of people on your playtest team, in fact.  But the asymmetry and the diverse theme elements will conspire against you the moment you release that game to a thousand+ gamers.  People are going to find stuff you missed.

Ask any CCG designer, even those at Wizards of the Coast who have probably the most stringent playtesting team around  (stop laughing, Magic players, 'cos it is undeniably true.)  Cards make it out of design that get broken by gamers and need errata or bans.  

Design in the non-abstract space can be messy, and imprecise.  The trade off is that we play games that are dry, with little black and white pawns and no thematic window dressing.  That's not a trade-off I'm willing to make, y'know?

And now, the million dollar question--knowing what I know about the Hammer, would I revoke my "Game of the Year" honors to A Few Acres of Snow?  No, I wouldn't.  Even if the game did ship with a glaring design flaw, I can still respect the ambition and art behind the design.  I can give my respect for the direction that the design was heading.  I think I even mentioned in my rewards wrap-up that I played my #3 and #2 games far more, and would likely play them far more in the future, but had to give the nod to what A Few Acres set out to do.

So the game has errata and rules changes.  Yeah, that happens and something that as a thematic gamer and card flopper over the years I'm used to dealing with.  But I'll take my ambitious but flawed designs that I'm served up over the me-too but *especially* over games that don't reach out to try and capture theme and excitement.  

I am just a guy who likes to play games and talk about 'em.  I wear this on my sleeve.  If I'm not going in depth enough, I do apologize, but it's not my style, nor is it something I ever claimed to do.  When I do the "Hall of Fame" entries (one is due pretty soon!), I'm covering games in depth that have stood the test of time.  Other than that?  I'm just playing games and shooting the shit about them.  It's what I do.  It's what I've been doing for quite awhile now.  I write because I love gaming, and I enjoy being a part of this website.

Bottom line?  A Few Acres has a flaw.  It's still a genius, ambitious design.  With either errata or those playing by "the spirit of the rules", the game works fine.  If it fails for you as a tournament-caliber game, move on, or more importantly, just wait for the next evolution in this design.  Because like it or not, this game is the lynchpin and catalyst for this type of design to move forward; and I am extremely excited to see where we go from here.

There Will Be Games
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