Venturing Into Controversial Territory - Freedom The Underground Railroad Review

This has been the new hotness in recent months, a Co-Operative game that tastes a very taboo topic from American history and puts it into a box for your to play. People were skeptical that such a game would work as the theme ran the risk of possibly insulting a lot of gamers if it wasn't handled properly.

However it's getting all the praise now with all sorts of awards and at The Dice Tower it gained a lot of awards recently in several categories. Unfortunately I'm only a new member into the Dice Tower Network so I didn't get to join in the voting council, but give it time, we all have to start somewhere.

Now I was torn about acquiring this game for review purposes. On the one side I love co-operative games, it is my favourite genre and many people already know this about me. On the other flip side however, I'm not a history buff and/or fan. It was one of my least enjoyed subjects at school and I got shot of it the first chance that the lesson format allowed for it. I'm very much a man of the present and the future and tend to ignore the past, it's done and dusted, move on, build a bridge, walk over it. That's just how I roll and I have many sides.

Twilight Struggle is regarded as the #1 game on BGG and after playing that, I wasn't drawn into it as much as everyone else because I didn't really have an interest in the historical theme, nor did I understand what any card in the game was meant to represent, because you had to stare at the rulebook to find out, slowing the game down which was already too long for a two player game. So will Freedom just be another Twilight Struggle disappointment or will it bring enough to the table to make it in my collection as the first historically accurate board game?

"Good quality cover, you know as you look at it that this isn't going to be a laugh-out-loud kind of game"

Designer: Brian Mayer (2012)
Publisher: Academy Games
# of Players: 1-4
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 90 -120 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 389 / 7.81
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: n/a
Category: Historical Co-Operative Game
  
The Greater Good

The aim of the game is two-fold. You have to free a certain number of slaves by moving them from the plantations in Southern USA across the continent to Canada and also help fund the Abolitionist movement by purchasing all the support tokens. Both these objectives have to be completed before the game ends which is represented by 8 cards (therefore 8 rounds) that bring new slaves on to the board from the Slave Market. How many you have to free and purchased is dependent on the number of players.

Moving the slaves and raising funds is done by the use of Conductor and Fundraising tokens that are purchased near the start of the turn. They are in limited supply aside from the final token that respawns each turn. The game is divided into three time periods based on the history of the theme in question and as all the support tokens are purchased in one period, you move on to the next. This unlocks more powerful tokens as well as new Abolitionist cards so it's important to get through the periods fast if you want to survive.

What are these cards you ask? Well they are laid out in a row of 5 and replenish each turn with one or two being discarded permanently. It follows a similar mechanic to that found in other games like Firenze where the further up the row you go, the more expensive the card is to purchase. Each card has a special ability that you can use or keep for later, however some cards contain nasty effects that hinder the group until they're removed or even sometimes when they are removed. Therefore you need to decide as a group when and where to grab the useful cards.

Each player has a unique special ability based on their chosen character as well as a "once per game" power that can also help. And whilst moving slaves they have to constantly watch for the slave catchers which move around the board randomly, but also creep closer to slaves when they tread on their paths. If too many slaves die or the 8 round timer runs out, the players lose.

"The various roles - each plays a vital role, but you only have one different ability you can do"

Looking Period

The board and components reflect a nice "period" feel, but aren't the most colourful items that you've ever seen. This put me off the game for a little while as the game appeared very bland at first glance and even when playing it, it does look a little dull, but the board is large and sturdy. Basic cubes make up the slaves and little coloured shape tokens represent the slave catchers which at first seems a bit underwhelming, but it works well with the dice mechanic of moving them.

The highlight of the components are the Abolitionist cards. Each card contains a real photo still of the subject matter from history and best of all also includes some flavour (or "fluff") text that describes the event in question. Twilight Struggle has a similar thing but where this game beats it is because the information is printed on the card itself so you can quickly read it as it is played to promote the theme. In TS you have to read the rulebook to find out which is time-consuming and irritating - I played TS and I didn't understand the first thing about any of the event cards I played and because that game takes so long and is more complex, I'm not inclined to constantly refer to the rulebook and extending the play time. And it doesn't stop there because Freedom also has background information on the time period in general at the back of the rulebook and not too much that you might get bored reading it (I'm not a history fan, I like such information sheets to be concise and brief).

"The cards are explained clearly and the flavour text is written on the bottom for quick reference"

Immersive Tension

The game scales with any number of players and there is a standard and challenging mode associated with each setup. Though be prepared for beatings if you opt for the latter. I've played several games and won most of them, but we're talking by the skin of my teeth. The last four player I hosted we literally won on the last turn in the nick of time and you'll find this is a common thing.

"Tokens are fairly intuitive and vital to your game"

If you haven't caught on yet, the game is tough, but not so tough that it puts you off another game. Challenging mode probably skips into that region however and I confess I've yet to win a game on that mode. Tension is ever present even in the standard game. You're hoping that a slave catcher doesn't come your way, you're thinking hard about the most optimal way to get your slaves out of the plantation before the market floods it again and as the timer ticks away you're struggling for that last dollar to grab the support tokens fast to advance through the timeline. It really does get you involved and because half of the turn involves simultaneous play/discussion from all players, you don't feel bored by downtime.

Feels Like A Lecture

It's tough, it's thematic, it promotes a strong sense of co-operation, so naturally I'm giving it a flawless verdict right. . . . . . wrong. This might be more just my take on "historical" games, but my issue is that even though they are designed well and very thematic at times, they don't seem that "fun" to me in the long run. You can enjoy a few games, but after a while, it gets a little dreary and when given choices of games to play, particularly in a genre such as this, I find myself drawn to the more "fun" and exciting games first. Sentinels, Ghost Stories, Shadows over Camelot, Legendary, Flashpoint, Eldritch Horror, hell even Robinson Crusoe which is more Euro-like, these games just grab me more when offered.

The game draws you in and you learn a lot, but it feels more like a fun seminar or lecture. If I was learning about the Abolitionist movement, this is the way I'd want to do it. But do I want to do it every week? This game will get played but you're likely to only play it every once in a while unless you're a strong historical flavour fan and play games like Twilight Struggle or 1775 religiously.

Verdict

I'm torn with this game. On the one hand it's a well designed, challenging, smooth game that has a lot of tension and makes you adjust your thinking cap to it's highest setting. On the other hand it's not the most "fun" co-operative game that I've ever played as the theme is a controversial one and the game takes itself very seriously with the historical flavour, promoting a strong learning experience, but sacrificing the fun factor.

"The four player game I mentioned where we survived literally on the last turn"

If you are interested in the historical theme and like co-operative games, then this is a no-brainer, you want to own this game. It's an excellent teaching tool. For me, I'm not blown away by the historical nature of the game but then it takes A LOT for me to really get into history in any way - it's why I like playing the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre more often.

However it's a good challenge and it scales well from 1 to 4 players though I'd say three is the best sweet spot for this game in terms of length and interaction. I can bring it out occasionally for those who want to learn a little bit more about the theme or are after a tough game, but even so, I don't know if I'm going to hang on to this or not - it has to measure up against classics in the genre, and I just fear that there isn't enough excitement to bring me back to repeated plays.


You Will Like This Game If:

  • You want a tough game to beat - this is not easy by any means and requires careful thought
  • You have an interest in the historical event that this game represents - it's a good teaching tool.
  • You enjoy heavy co-operative games

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • You are not interested in historical flavour games - the theme may bore you after a while
  • You are opposed to having the theme used in this game, i.e. controversial reasons
  • You prefer fun and excitement to drama and learning in your games

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