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Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Reviewed: Herb Levy

(Academy Games, 1-4 players, ages 10 and up, 90 minutes; $69.99)

freedomboxOf all the topics serving as the basis for a game, the American Civil War has to rank near the top. Countless games have dealt with the conflict that, for awhile, split the United States in half. But most of those titles, understandably, have focused on the military aspects. Many games have been devoted to the pivotal battle of Gettysburg while others have addressed the conflict in its entirety. But one phase of that event has been little seen in these games and yet, was one of the powerful reasons behind the war itself: the question of slavery. In Freedom: The Underground Railroad, designer Brian Mayer brings to life the impact of slavery and the movement to end it.

In Freedom: The Underground Railroad, players are abolitionists intent on freeing slaves by not only moving them from southern plantations into Canada but also by increasing support (and funds) for the Abolitionist cause. Since this is a cooperative game, players will either win or lose as one.

Each player begins with a Role Card (either selected or randomly dealt) which gives Benefits and a Special Action that may be used once during the game. (You also get the matching play aid which details the order of play.) Slaves, represented by wooden cubes, are placed on plantation spaces on the game board which is divided into two parts: a map of the eastern portion of the United States showing the South (in green) and the North (in blue) with Canada further north and a section devoted to the cards and tokens used in the game. The deck of Slave Market Cards (precisely which cards determined by the number of players) are shuffled and a deck of 8 created with the first three cards drawn to fill the three spaces of the board’s Slave Market. These market cards also serve as a timer. When the deck runs out, the game is over!

An important part of the game is the Abolitionist Cards. These cards come in three varieties: General (tan), Reserve (white) and Opposition (red-orange) and these cards are further divided into three Period Decks (1800-1839, 1840-1859 and 1860-1865). The three Period Decks are shuffled and placed in their appropriate positions on the board. Five cards from the first deck (1800-1839) are revealed and placed on the open spaces in the “Abolitionist Queue”. Players choose a Victory Conditions card depending on the number of players. (These are two sided, one for a “regular” game, the other for a more “challenging” game.) These cards indicate how many slaves must reach Canada safely and provide room for slaves that have been “lost”. Each player begins with $8. But here comes the hard part. Five different colored Slave Catcher Markers are placed on their corresponding spaces on the board, ready to grab fleeing slaves and return them to captivity.

Game turns are divided into five phases: Slave Catcher, Planning, Action, Slave Market and Lantern.

For the Slave Catcher phase, a pair of dice is rolled. These are not your standard six-sided dice. Rather, one dice shows one of each of the five Slave Catcher colors and a fleeing slave. The other die shows black and white arrows. If a Slave Catcher color is rolled, that piece is moved in the direction and number of spaces indicated on the second die. Should a Slave Catcher end his movement on a space occupied by one or more slaves, those slaves have been captured. Captured slaves are returned to the slave market (placed on the slave market cards there). Should a fleeing slave be rolled, no slave catcher moves.

freedomboardPlanning is when you consider ways to generate support for the Abolitionist cause and move slaves northward. Three types of tokens are available during this phase and players may take as many as two of them per turn. Support tokens cost $10 and represent the growing public opinion in favor of ending slavery. (Purchasing ALL Support tokens is one of the requirements for victory.) Conductor tokens are a lot cheaper with the cost varying (from $2 to $4) depending on what period the game is in. These tokens show how many slaves can move how many spaces on the map. These are one use tokens but there is one gray token of each type that gets “recycled” so that there is always the possibility of movement. Each space on the map will hold one cube but the big Northern cities can hold up to four. This is important for, if a space has a gold circle with a dollar amount above it, the moving player receives that amount from the bank for each slave occupying that space. But movement can be risky. Slaves moving into the North attract the attention of Slave Catchers. If a slave crosses the path of a Slave Catcher, the Slave Catcher will move TOWARDS the position of the slave, putting that slave’s run to freedom in jeopardy. Finally, there are Fund Raising tokens. These don’t cost anything. Rather, they provide income for players to the tune of $1 for each slave (cube) on a green Southern space (outside the plantations but not quite into the North) during the first two periods and $1 for each slave in a blue Northern city during the third period. But the bulk of the game occurs in the Action phase.

During the Action phase, players may do a variety of things. Actions include using the benefits of their Role Card (such as receiving extra money or reducing the cost of a token), using their special one time use Role Card Action (each role has a different ability such as moving two slaves from a plantation directly into New York), play one (or two) Conductor or Fundraising Tokens and/or purchase one (and only one) Abolitionist card from the Queue.

Abolitionist cards cost anywhere from $1 to $3, depending on their position in the Queue. These cards can be quite beneficial. Some are played immediately (such as the Amistad Rebellion which allows two slaves to move from the bottom Slave Market card directly to Canada) while others can be held in reserve for later, timely, use (such as Levi Coffin who will allow you to ignore the movement of a Slave Catcher if a slave would have been captured). Utilizing these cards wisely is imperative for a winning strategy. The red-orange ones, however, are detrimental to the cause and can damage your chances (such as John C. Calhoun, in real life, an outspoken supporter of slavery, who reduces the money for Northern cities to $1 less than normal or the Fugitive Slave Act results in the capture of up to three slaves adjacent to Slave Catchers). Sometimes, these cards will saddle you with bad effects until they are removed from the Queue and you may find it necessary to spend some of your precious cash to remove them from play to minimize the damage.

Once all players have passed, cubes on the Slave Market Cards are shifted to open spaces on the plantations. Cubes that cannot be placed there because there are no remaining spaces are placed on the Victory Conditions card instead. Should that card be filled and one more cube needs to be placed, the game is lost!

Now, in the Lantern phase, any Abolitionist cards remaining in the first two slots of the Queue are removed from play, any remaining cards slide down with any empty spaces remaining filled by cards from the current time period. (The game shifts into a different time slot once ALL Support tokens of a period are bought.) If winning conditions have not been met, the lantern (first player token) gets passed clockwise and we do it all again.

Players win if the required number of slaves have successfully been moved to Canada AND all Support Tokens have been bought AND the round is completed without losing the game. Players lose if one more slave than will fit on the Victory Conditions card needs to be placed OR round 8 is over and the players have not met the required Victory Conditions.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad is an apropos title, quite fitting with the goal of the game. Ironically, the title tends to lead you astray as it suggests that freeing the slaves, liberating them from the plantations in the south to Canada, is the key to victory. That is true, of course, but only to a point. Support tokens MUST be bought and they are expensive. With money so tight, it is imperative for players to claim the much needed funds necessary to buy those tokens (which, as mentioned, costs a whopping $10 each) by positioning as many slaves as possible into income generating locations in the North and the South. Without question, this can put slaves into the perilous position of being captured by roving Slave Catchers. While a distasteful possibility, it is historically accurate; slaves were often caught and sent back to the South. This aspect of play is certainly an important factor in the game, a rough equivalent of having a batter “sacrifice” in order to move the tying or winning run along in the crucial final innings of a baseball game or being a general forced to jeopardize troops in a pivotal portion of a highly contested battle in order to win the whole thing. You don’t want to give up anything but sometimes, that is unavoidable. This is a hard lesson that the game conveys. Hard but true and historically valid.

Another consideration is time. You only have 8 turns to accomplish your goals. The Slave Market cards, as they are revealed and slide down their column, are constant reminders that time is running out. This simple device ramps up the urgency making every choice and decision you make an important one.

Quite often, cooperative games are perceived to be bland and, as a result, lose their “edge”. Likewise, history often gets a bad rap, being thought to be dry, boring and burdened with dates to memorize. Freedom: The Underground Railroad proves that this need not be the case. The game is satisfying on many levels. Not only does it shed light on an important part of American history and captures the feeling of the times, helped greatly by compelling artwork and period photographs on the Abolitionist cards highlighting the people, places and events of the time, it also offers tough decisions to make and is fiercely competitive as players battle the game system. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is true to the history of the age and yet doesn’t sacrifice historical accuracy for game play excitement as players face the dangers and the dilemmas that fighting to end slavery entailed. Recommended.


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