Digital Wishlist: Freedom: The Underground Railroad

12 Apr 2016 5

Several weeks ago I wrote a lengthy post about the games we played on the first day of my boardgaming vacation and if they would make for good mobile apps. A couple weeks later, I was outdone by Kelsey who extolled the virtues of GMT Games' fantastic Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection. Not only was his article better written than mine, it opened my eyes to how I should have done my board game reports from the beginning. Instead of 3500+ word treatises which give brief glimpses into several games, we should give each game its due in manageable, normal-length post bites! It all made perfect sense! Also, I'm too lazy to write another 3500+ word article, so it works out for everyone.

Like Liberty or Death, today's board game takes place in America's past. Unlike Liberty or Death, however, this slice of America's past is shameful and not a particularly common theme for a game. It revolves around slavery in the US from 1800 through the American Civil War and is titled Freedom: The Underground Railroad.

Freedom is a cooperative game that puts players in the shoes of Agents, Conductors, and other Abolitionists as they try to rescue slaves from the plantations of the south to the safety of Canada. The game is broken into three eras--1800-1839, 1840-1859, and 1860-1865--with the goal of the players to rescue a predetermined number of slaves and purchase "Support Tokens". Support Tokens represent the growth of the Abolitionist movement, and as they are purchased move the game from era to era. Thematically, the players are not only trying to help slaves escape servitude, but also building the economic and cultural framework for the eventual destruction of slavery.

Freedom image 002

Like most cooperative games, there are multiple ways to lose, with the simplest being simply running out of time. The game lasts eight turns, and if you haven't completed the victory goals by that time, too bad. You can also lose if too many slaves are "lost". Slaves are lost if, at the end of a round, a ship carrying slaves needs to be emptied but there is no room in any of the plantations for them to go. From a thematic point of view it's a bit jarring, but the designer explains the thematic disconnect as follows:

The slaves lost is an abstracted representation of all of the loss that is a part of the history. The loss of life due to inhumane conditions and treatment in plantations, the loss of life from escape and from capture.

Mechanically, that loss generally happens during the slave market phase but it is representative of a much larger piece.

The game board is split into two halves, one that resembles the eastern half of the United States, and the other which is made to look like The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper published by Frederick Douglass. On the North Star side there are piles of cards (called Abolitionist Cards) and tokens for each era. Each era has it's own set of tokens: Conductor Tokens, Fundraiser Tokens, and the aforementioned Support Tokens. The map side of the board is riddled with small towns and large cities all connected with dashed lines. Some of those lines are different colors which represent the routes taken by the autonomous Slave Catchers who will move toward any slave that enters a city or town along their path. Along the southern edge of the map are the three plantations from which the slaves will begin their journey north.

Each turn is broken into multiple phases. The first--and easiest--phase is the Slave Catcher phase. Here two dice are rolled and the Slave Catcher that matches the one die will move in the direction shown on the second die. If a Slave Catcher ends in the same space as a runaway slave, that slave is removed from the board and placed to the side to be placed in the next Slave Market phase. More on that in a bit.

In the first phase that players get to do anything is called the Planning phase. Here, players will take turns purchasing up to two of that era's tokens. Support Tokens cost $10 (which is a lot of money in Freedom) and get you nothing other than moving you closer to the next era. Conductor Tokens allow you to move slaves. In the 1800-1839 era, for example, you can spend $2 to buy a token that will let you move three slaves one space each. Fundraiser tokens allow you to raise money based on how many slaves have moved to towns and cities. They are free, but there are only a few each era. Fundraiser and Conductor Tokens are one-use items. Once you purchase the token and use it, it's placed back in the box, meaning that you really need to make the best decision with each turn. There is no room for error.

Freedom UGR 003

Once each player has purchased tokens or passed, the Action phase begins. Here, each player in turn order can take as many actions as possible and in any order they wish. Actions include using tokens that you purchased (only up to two per turn), buying the Abolitionist cards that reside on a Through The Ages-like track, using your character's special ability and more. 

Abolitionist cards are in decks by era that are constructed before the game begins. All of the cards have a historical event, place or person on them and the game goes to great pains to include flavor text explaining why they were influential. Most of the cards are beneficial to the players, allowing extra tokens to be bought or providing discounts or allowing players to move more slaves. Seeded in each deck before the game are some downright evil cards, however, which will either hamper your game while they remain in the queue or will fire off their bane when removed from the queue during the Lantern Phase (see below).

As you move slaves northward, they will move from city to city. If they end their move in a city that lies on one of the Slave Catcher's paths, those Slave Catchers will move one city/town closer to that slave. A large part of the game is figuring out this puzzle of trying to move the catchers away from a busy path so you can move slaves safely past them. Many of the cities (especially in the North) have money values attached. If you end a slave in one of those spaces, you collect that amount of money which adds another means of obtaining coin without using the very limited Fundraiser Tokens.

Freedom UGR 004

After the Action Phase, the Slave Market phase begins. Here slaves from a card on the side of the board need to be placed into the Southern plantations. Players can place them however they wish, but the slots are limited and any that will not fit are placed on the Slaves Lost track, moving you closer to a loss.

The last phase is the Lantern Phase and it's merely a cleanup phase. Cards in the Abolitionist track are moved down and new cards are drawn, used tokens are placed back in the box, and the Start Player token is passed to the left. 

One of the gamers in my group purchased Freedom: The Underground Railroad a few months ago and it's become a staple of game night. From a gameplay perspective, it's one of the best cooperative games I've ever played. No other cooperative game generates this amount of discussion, planning, and actual cooperation. Because each turn is so tight and one bad turn can ruin an entire game, each player is fully invested in making sure that every benefit is wrung from each decision. 

From a thematic standpoint, Freedom is also a standout. I can't tell you how many games were lost because we refused to let the Slave Catchers nab runaways here and there. You do not want those cubes going back to the plantations and it becomes personal. It sounds silly, but you do become invested in the fate of each cube and getting them to Canada becomes the only option. The theme is also highly educational and there is always at least one time each game where we'll see a card and have to look it up to get more information on the person or event. The game makes you want to learn more about the Underground Railroad, the Abolitionist movement, and slavery in general, and that's a good thing. Have older kids? Play this game with them. If you really want to use it for teaching, Academy Games has a booklet you can purchase for using the game as a teaching tool.

I think it's fairly obvious that I highly recommend Freedom: The Underground Railroad. It's a fantastic game and I liked it enough to purchase my own cardboard version so I can play solo. I should warn you, however, that it's hard. Incredibly hard. I've played the game at least 10 times now and have yet to win. Not only that, I have yet to come close. There are variants in the rules for an easier game which I haven't tried yet. Probably won't, either, as the difficulty feels right for the subject matter. 

The big question for Pocket Tactics readers is how would this play as an app? Like most cooperative games, it would be fantastic. There is no AI to program and solo games using multiple characters would be rather easy to implement. One of Academy Games' other titles, 1775: Rebellion, is already in development with HexWar. Let's hope they find a developer who's willing and capable of bringing Freedom: The Underground Railroad to our tablets as well. It deserves to be played by everyone.

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