Calvin’s Commentaries: First Snow
Nothing turns me off a game more quickly than lackluster art. I will add the caveat some like simple art to save on printing costs, but as a gamer with access to shelves of production games, I’m used to nice aesthetics so I need them in PnP games too.
It was the art that first drew me to First Snow by designer Tomas Uhlir. The game revolves around hunting in the far north and the art is ideal for the setting.
But, don’t worry about burning through a lot of ink printing this one as Uhlir designed the game with only nine playing card-sized elements, albeit the core cards are double-sided.
The concept revolves around you being an Inuit “wandering through the changing landscape, hunting for food, gathering wood, building simple tools, and looking for the best shelter to keep himself warm. This gets more and more difficult as the winter swiftly approaches. And on top of all that, there’s this big terrifying polar bear,” explains the Board Game Geek page dedicated to the game.
The game uses a worker placement mechanism combined with resource management and a bit of bluffing (it is a two-player game). It uses dice in a few interesting ways but none of them require you to roll them
So what does Uhlir think of First Snow?
“First Snow was my very first attempt on such a minimalist game,” he related via email.
The game was designed as an entry in a BGG 9-card contest.
The game is perhaps not quite as well-known as the solo-player Under Falling Skies by the same designer.
“In the case of Under Falling Skies, it started with the dice. Since the game was designed specifically for the 9-card contest, I needed to get the most out of each of the components. So I started to think what can be done with a single die,” said Uhlir of that game.
In Under Falling Skies, (UFS), again from BGG; “hostile alien mother ship is quickly approaching Earth. Mankind has been forced to seek shelter in underground bases to hide from a constant bombardment of the surface. As a leader of one of those bases, you have to develop a weapon able to destroy the alien for good while also expanding your base and dealing with enemy fighters.”
In the game dice can be placed to choose an action; its value can determine the strength of the action.
“And then it hit me! What if the same value would be used for both your action and for the enemy,” said Uhlir. “I had been working on more ideas at the same time and one of them was for a tower defense game. And coincidentally, this mechanic suited it very well. The ‘Space Invaders’ inspiration came almost immediately.”
Uhlir said he wants to create simple PnP games in terms of production, but still create some depth of play.
“While I love some smart light games, most of the minimalist PnP games are too shallow for my taste,” he said. “So I challenged myself to make a game (UFS) with a similar satisfying flow as you usually have when playing some heavier euro games – the feeling of juggling with all the options, considering the pros and cons of each decision and learning new tricks every time you play the game. The challenge was in making it work with so little components and keeping the rules simple.”
The same goal was on the designer’s mind with First Snow.
“I went in with a similar goal, to make a deep and thematic game despite the restrictions. Seeing this 9-card game with its cute artwork, people are usually very surprised by its complexity.
“It is a 2-player game, which means, you have fewer components per player. Thus, every component needed to be used to its fullest.
“The game uses dice, but in a very different way than in Under Falling Skies, they are never rolled.
“The game won the 2017 contest, but if I should compare it to Under Falling Skies, the later game fits the restrictions better. With Under Falling Skies, everything in the game feels natural, while with First Snow some aspects feel to be a bit forced. The lack of components needed to be substituted with a more complex rulebook. But even with that being said, I still love some of the mechanics in First Snow and I can imagine returning to them in some bigger game.”
So has Uhlir always been a fan of PnP games?
“Not quite, I mean, I have been drawing, printing, cutting, and gluing stuff as long as I can remember, but it has been mostly about redesigning some already existing games or designing my own,” he said.
“One example for all, sometimes in the nineties, I encountered an advertisement for Richard Garfield’s Robo Rally in an old magazine. There were no rules, just a rough description of the game, and based on that description, together with my friend, we made our own Robo Race. It went through many iterations and it took several years before I had the opportunity to play the original. It ended up similar in some aspects while being unique in others. To this day, it is still one of my favorite board games.”
For Uhlir, PnP has been a more recent interest.
“I really discovered the print play phenomenon through the BGG contests sometime around 2017, the time I’ve got involved in that year’s 9-card PnP contest,” he said.
So what is it about PnP that Uhlir likes?
“In the first place – the creativity involved,” he said. “PnP games compete with the professionally published games and they usually can’t afford to do it through artwork or great production value, they rely on clever ideas and innovative approaches. Often, they are very limited in components, because being easy to build is one of the best-selling points in the world of PnP.
“And those restrictions often lead to some of the most elegant little gems.”
Still, PnP seems a lot of work for no return, so what makes it worth the effort in Uhlir’s mind?
“This is closely tied to the previous question. The challenge of designing a fun and meaningful game with all those restrictions would be almost enough for me, but, what makes it worth it, is the community around the PnP games,” he said. “Publishing a game usually won’t get you as close to the players as the PnP game does.
“And for the artwork, I guess this varies for different designers, but for me, it’s part of the challenge. I am a studied architect and an amateur graphic designer. I believe that doing the artwork is, in fact, a similar process as designing the mechanics. You need to come up with well-suited illustrations supporting the story, the user interface needs to be intuitive and easily understandable, you need to use the limited space the best way possible, etc.”
While First Snow attracted my attention as a simple ‘build’ to play with the better half in this time of isolation, Under Falling Skies in on my list to explore as a solo game one day.