Reviewed by Herb Levy
HIGH TREASON! THE TRIAL OF LOUIS RIEL JULY 1885 (Victory Point Games, 2 players, ages 13 and up, 40 minutes; $20.79)
Westward expansion in Canada was different from the American experience. In Canada, mainly French Catholic fur trappers and traders moved west and intermarried with the Native Americans there to form a new culture: the Metis. Being neither native nor white, treaties between the Canadian government and Native Americans did not apply to the Metis. This inequity led to unrest which led to rebellion in 1869, a successful rebellion led by Louis Riel, resulting in the Manitoba Act. But Riel, himself, had to flee to the United States where he remained until further difficulties between the Metis and the Canadian government led to more unrest. Once again, rebellion broke out and Riel returned to lead it. This time, however, the rebellion was crushed by the Canadian military, Riel was captured and, in 1885, put on trial for treason. This game, designed by Alex Berry, centers on that trial as it pits two players against each other – one as the Prosecution and one as the Defense – in High Treason! The Trial of Louis Riel July 1885.
The game comes in a slim sleeved box containing a play mat, 100 counters, 2 play aids, rules book and a deck of cards. These cards are historically themed and have multiple uses. Choosing wisely between their many possibilities is the key to success.
There are FIVE phases in the game. First is voir dire where a jury is selected. Twelve juror cards are laid out and three counters randomly (and secretly) placed on each one. These counters represent “aspects” – Religion, Language and Occupation – further subdivided into “traits”. (There are a number of empty circles for “Sway” markers and a noted amount of “deliberation points” on each card but more on them later.) Both players are dealt a hand of 7 cards and, during this phase, will play five of them, “banking” the other two for use in the Summation phase of the game. For jury selection, only the yellow part of a card, specific to this phase, is used. Each play of a card will either reveal one or more traits or allow one player to “peek” at one or more so that only that player knows what those traits are. Once both sides have played their 5 cards, jurors will be excused, one by one (alternating between the players with the prosecution going first) until six are left. With this six person jury selected, all discarded cards are reshuffled into the deck and a new hand of 7 cards dealt to each player to start the next phase, Trial in Chief.
The essential tracks of the game are displayed on the play mat. On top are Evidence of Insanity (vital for the defense) and Evidence of Guilt (crucial for the prosecution) tracks where higher values bestow benefits. As mentioned, the three aspects of Religion, Language and Occupation are further divided with seven traits distributed between them with a starting value (noted in red bordered boxes on each track): two Religion (Protestant and Catholic), two Language (English and French) and three Occupations (Farmer, Merchant and Government Worker). To move jurors towards a particular side, both the prosecution and the defense will be playing cards to either shift these values closer to their side of the board (defense = blue, prosecution = red) and/or place “Sway” markers of their color on jurors.
During the Trial in Chief phase (and starting with the prosecution), each player plays a card until each has played five. The remaining two cards are “banked” to join the first two from phase one. Card segments are color-coded to indicate which cards benefit which side. Segments with red backgrounds offer events favorable to the prosecution; blue/purple backgrounds favor the defense while green can be advantageous for either. Only events in the middle of the card are available during the Trial phase. All cards also have an Action value of from 1 to 5 “Action Points” which may be used instead of the event on the card.
It costs 1 AP to move a track marker toward your side or the board and another 2 APs to move it a second space. (When using this action, a Sway marker of your color is placed on one of the three open spaces to the left of that track. If all three spaces are filled – by anyone’s Sway markers – that trait is closed to further “argument” unless those Sway markers are removed by an event.) An AP may also be used to place a Sway marker on a juror. No more than 2 markers may be placed on a juror by actions from any one card. If you manage to fill all the spaces on a juror card with your Sway markers, that juror is “locked” and may not be “swayed” by your opponent (unless, of course, an event manages to “unlock” that juror.)
Now, another hand of 7 cards are dealt and a second Trial phase begins. Again, 2 cards are banked so that, at the end of this phase, each player will have six cards in reserve to be used in the next phase: Summation.
During Summation, events on the bottom portion of the cards are used and the prosecution begins by playing three of his six cards. (All cards in this stage have a “default” of 2 APs that may be used instead of the event.) Then, the Defense plays all six of his and finally, the prosecution finishes with his last three. Now, the jury deliberates.
The first thing checked is the Evidence of Guilt track. If that track is at less than 2, there is insufficient evidence and the defense wins! But, if the track is at 3 or 4, additional PROSECUTION Sway markers are placed on EACH unlocked juror! Now, the Evidence of Insanity track is checked. If at one or less, nothing happens. But at 2 or higher, EVERY marker moves 1, 2 or 3 spaces closer to the Defense. Now we move on to the jury.
At this point, all unrevealed traits of the jurors are exposed. Jurors who have been locked may use their “Deliberation points” (starting with the prosecution and alternating with the defense) and spend their points on any unlocked jurors who share at least one trait with them. Alternatively, those points may be spent on any track if the track isn’t filled with Sway markers AND they share the same trait. Once done, points are tallied.
Each juror’s base value is the sum total of their three traits as valued on the tracks on the board. If the juror is locked by the prosecution, that score is DOUBLED. If the juror is locked by the defense, that score is HALVED! To that value, add or subtract 1 point for each Sway marker on a juror (+1 for each prosecution Sway, -1 for each defense Sway). When the values of the six jurors are totaled, a score of 100 or more means success for the prosecution; 99 or less and the defense has carried the day.
The setting of a courtroom and the workings of a jury has long been themes used in games. You could look at Verdict from Avalon Hill published in 1959 and even go back further to the series of games that made up The Jury Box from Parker Brothers in the 1930s. But High Treason, the first design from Alex Berry, offers a different perspective. Using single cards each with multiple effects is a popular gaming mechanism and Berry uses it to great effect. The balancing act of deciding when to use a card – now during Trial or later in Summation – and whether to use it for its event or for its Action Points presents players with a constant barrage of meaningful decisions.
Four areas demand your attention throughout the game – the Evidence of Guilt track, the Evidence of Insanity track, the Aspect/Trait tracks and the Jury Box – and the player who best manages this juggling act will come out on top. Because the game is historical in nature (and the amount of research contained on the cards is impressive), the decks are skewed accordingly and are not equally balanced for each side. In persuading jurors, French Catholic Farmers are more easily swayed to the defense while English Protestant Government Workers tend to favor the prosecution as shown by the events on the cards. Events also make it possible but difficult for the defense to raise the level of insanity (a key contribution to a not guilty decision) while raising the evidence of guilt is a must for the prosecution. Individual play aids for each player detail the steps of each phase as well as give strategic guidance which is helpful and credit must be given for placing rules summaries right on the play mat itself for easy reference. Of course, this is a card game so the luck of the deal is a part of it. There is a “mulligan” rule, however, that allows a player to toss his hand. While helping to mitigate a bad deal, this comes with a cost. This may only be done once in a game (only during a Trial Phase) and the player draws back one less card! With each round consisting of only six cards, burning one like this is a move not to be taken lightly.
High Treason! could very well have been subtitled “tug of war” because much of the game centers on pushing and pulling the aspect/trait markers from one side of the board to the other. But the uniqueness of the game centers on the way it excels at simulating the effects of jury deliberations. The game excels in both capturing the intrinsic biases that human beings have and the influence convinced jurors can have on other, less sure, jurors. creating, in effect, a “falling domino effect” as jurors leaning towards one side can be pushed to “locked” status. This can make for an exciting endgame. This is a compelling design that is seen by Victory Point Games as a possible springboard for other trials throughout history. If this is the goal, it might have been a good idea to pick a trial with more name recognition outside of Canada so that this fine effort would attract more attention. The flip side to that, however, is that most players will go into the game without any preconceived notions and let the play of the game speak for itself.
So what is the verdict? High Treason! The Trial of Louis Riel July 1885 is GUILTY! Guilty of providing an extraordinary amount of tense courtroom drams due to a solid, strong and impressive Alex Berry design. – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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