HomeBoard GamesReview of Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad

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Photo by Brian Mayer – used with permission

Some of my favorite lessons from childhood spoke about the heroics of Harriet Tubman as she helped to rescue slaves and lead them to freedom on the Underground Railroad.  Slavery is a dark period in the history of the United States, so it is important to remember the men and women who bravely worked for the abolitionist movement and the former slaves who knew the dangers they faced, but risked everything for freedom.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a cooperative in which players are abolitionists attempting to end slavery through influencing events, raising funds, and helping slaves on their way to Canada and freedom.

Components / Set-Up
There are a lot of components in Freedom.  For tokens, you have the lead player lantern token, 17 support tokens, 13 fundraising tokens, 27 conductor tokens, money, and slave catcher markers.  There are 52 Abolitionist cards, six role cards, 18 slave marker cards, and four victory condition cards.  In addition, there are six player mats, two slave catcher/movement dice, and 96 slave cubes.  All of the components are of good quality.

To set the game up, first shuffle the role cards and deal one to each player (or allow players to choose their role).  Give each player their matching player mat and $8.  Choose someone to be the first player and give them the lantern token.

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Next, take the slave cubes and place them into the light squares of the plantations on the game board.  These spaces show the number of slaves on the plantation at the beginning of the game.  The darker spaces may be used later in the game.  Now create a deck with the Slave Market Cards by checking the player number count on each card, only certain cards are used depending on player count.  Choose the cards that correspond to the correct player count, shuffle these and place them face-down on the game board.  You will then need to draw and fill each card with slave cubes, three cards will fill the empty spaces below the market deck (to represent the slaves being delivered to the market).  The Slave Market is also the timer for the game; the game ends in defeat after the 8th round if victory conditions are not met.

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Next, set up the Abolitionist cards.  There are three types of card, general (tan), reserve (white), and opposition (red-orange).  You may need to remove some cards depending on the number of players.  There are also three Period decks – 1800-1839, 1840-1859, and 1860-1865.  Separate the general and reserve cards into these three periods and then, depending on the number of players, shuffle in the correct number of Opposition cards.  Shuffle each deck and place them on the board.  Now, deal five cards for the first Period into the Abolitionist Queue.  If there is an opposition card, set it aside and redraw.  Put the opposition cards back into the pile and reshuffle.

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Take the grey Conductor tokens and place them on their period columns and add tokens on top of these according to the number of players.  For example, in a two player game, there are two support tokens, five Conductor tokens, and two fundraising tokens in Period 1.

Now choose the correct Victory Condition Card according to the number of players.  The white side on the card is for a regular game, while the red is for a more challenging game.  Place the five slave catcher tokens on their colored starting spaces.

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Game Play

The game is played in up to eight rounds, with five phases in each round of play.  The phases are:

1. Slave Catcher Phase

2. Planning Phase

3.  Action Phase

4.  Slave Market Phase

5.  Lantern Phase.

To win the game players must move the required number of slaves to freedom in Canada (as shown on the victory condition card), purchase all the required Support Tokens, and finish the round without losing the game.  Players will lose if they need to add a slave to the slaves lost track but it is filled, or if they do not win the game before the end of the 8th round.

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Game Phases

1.  Slave Catcher Phase – In this phase the lead player rolls the slave catcher and movement dice.  When players roll a slave catcher symbol, that slave catcher will move the number of spaces in the direction shown on the movement die.  The slave catcher will only capture slaves in the space it ends, not on the spaces it passes over.  Captured slaves are placed on the bottom Slave Market card.  When players roll the symbol of the walking slave, no slave catcher moves.

2.  Planning Phase – Next players plan out their action phase.  Each player may take up to 2 tokens.  Fundraising tokens are free but are one time use.  Each fundraising token raises $1 for each slave on a green Southern space or city.  In the third period, the blue tokens used during raise $1 for each slave in a blue northern city.

The Conductor tokens are what allow players to move slaves during the game; they cost the number indicated on the board.  The Support Tokens cost $10 and must be purchased in order to win the game and also to move into the next Period.  When all the support tokens from one Period Column are purchased, the next Period Column becomes active.

3.  Action Phase – During the Action Phase, players may take several actions in any order.

Pass & Collect Money: Instead of taking any actions, the player may choose to take funds from the bank.  During the first period they may take $4 and during the second and third periods they may take $5.

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Playing Tokens – Players may play up to two Conductor and/or Fundraising tokens.  Conductor tokens allow player to move a specified number of slave cubes a set number of spaces along the paths.  If a slave cube ends their movement in a space marked with a gold coin, the player takes that amount of money from the bank.  If the space is connected to a slave catchers path, the slave catcher moves 1 space, along the path, toward the slave cube.  If the slave catcher ends its movement in a space with a slave cube(s), those are caught and placed into the slave market.  Fundraising tokens help players raise funds.  In the first two periods, they raise $1 for each slave in a green southern city or space.  In the third period they raise $1 for each slave in a blue Northern City or space.

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Buying Abolitionist Cards:  A player may also purchase one Abolitionist card in the Queue during the action phase. General cards are immediately resolved and discarded. For example, David Walker allows the player to purchase two tokens at a discount of $2. Place Reserve Cards in front of the player to use at a later time. A player may only have one Reserve Card. For example, at a later time, the Levi Coffin card allows a player to stop the movement of a slave catcher if they would capture a slave. Opposition cards are different. They may be active while in the queue or become active once they have reached the last space in a queue. For example, Reopening the Slave Trade card it triggered once it is either purchased or once it is the last card in the queue. It causes two slaves to be placed on each slave market card.

Role Card Benefits and Special Ability: A player may also use their role card’s benefits each round. If the player is the Agent, they may move two slaves one space during their action phase, while the Shepherd pays $1  less for Conductor tokens during the Planning and Action phases.  Players may also use their one-time special ability. If they use this ability, they must flip their card to the other side.  The Shepherd may move two plantation slaves to New York without any effect once during the game.

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4.  Slave Market Phase –After the players have completed their actions it is time to move the slaves from the bottom-most Slave Market card to the Plantations.  Players may move slaves to any empty spaces on the plantations.  Move any slave that cannot be placed on the plantations to the Slaves Lost Track.  If the slaves lost track is filled, and players need to move an additional slave to the track, the game is lost.

5.  Lantern Phase – During the fifth phase players will discard the card in the right-most space of the Abolitionist Card Queue, slide over the remaining cards, and fill in any empty spaces with cards from the current period.  If you discard an Opposition card be sure to resolve it.  Next, pass the Lantern token clockwise, that player will now be the start player for the next round.

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Game End

The players will win the game if they move the required number of slaves to Canada, purchase the required number of support tokens, and finish the round without losing the game.

Players lose the game if they must add a slave to the slaves lost track and there is no more space to add another slave.  They also lose if they did not win the game before the end of the 8th round.

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My Thoughts

Cooperative games sometimes offer great themes for getting people to work together for the common good, becoming abolitionists trying to help people to freedom is certainly one of those great themes.  As a history teacher, I see the value of Freedom for learning about a sensitive subject in an engaging way.  As a gamer, I respect the amazing mechanics, components, artwork, and meaningful decisions found in every moment of Freedom.

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Components

Every time I play an Academy game I am impressed with the quality and design of their game board.  I wish some other companies would look to Academy when designing a board.  Freedom’s game board lays flat, its matte surface is easy to see and read from every seat at the table and is aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  There is space for everything on the board, even an order of play, and player aide, making setup fast and easy.  I love the map and the routes on the board highlighting important cities for the Underground Railroad.  If you can purchase the wooden tokens that replace the cardboard slave catcher chits it is highly recommended, they are easier to see on the game board.  We picked ours up at Origins convention a couple years back.

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The dice are very nice, with etched surfaces that are well painted.  They are easy to read, and though the slave catchers are different colors, they are colorblind friendly because of the different shapes.  The tokens are all very good quality and easy to read.  The cards are nice, but ours do curl a bit and slide around on the game board.  I do like the historic photographs, documents, and drawings that adorn each card.

The artwork and graphic design of the game is both thoughtful and artistic.  I love the colors of the map and the integration of historic pictures and drawings on the board and cards. If the symbols are confusing, there are detailed explanations of each card in the rule book.

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Photo by Brian Mayer – used with permission

Rules

The rules are very readable and offer many pictures and charts to help you learn the game.  The rule book also includes a detailed summary of each card and a few historic notes about the Underground Railroad and the Age of Immediatism.  There is no player aide on the back of the rule book but the two Rules Summaries and order of play on the board are more than adequate in that regard.  The rule book is a good quality paper that will stand up to be read, reread and passed around the table.  After our first play, we were able just to use the Rules Summary when we had a question.  Most of the time, coming back to the game after not playing for awhile, this summary also is a good way to quickly remember how to play.

Being able to adjust the difficulty of play is a nice feature of the rules.  When you wish for a more challenging game, all you have to do is flip the Victory Point card to the red side.  Or you might add more slave cubes to the plantations at the beginning of the game.  In addition to being able to adjust the difficulty, rather than just winning or losing the game, you can keep track of the score.  I’m not sure about the points awarded for actually winning; I wish it awarded more.  One game we played where we lost was close in points to another game where we won, there were only a few points differentiating the scores.

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Photo by Brian Mayer – used with permission

Theme

Without a doubt, the sensitive subject matter is handled with the utmost respect by the designers and publisher of Freedom.  Teaching about slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the Abolitionist movement was not an easy task when I taught American history.  The reality of the subject matter was difficult for my young students to understand and process.  I focused on the heroism of Abolitionists and the slaves, but also taught the darker side.  I believe that we need to remember The Dred Scott Case, Bloody Kansas, the 3/5 Compromise and other events and decisions and learn from them.  This requires respect and understanding; that is why I applaud Freedom.  Freedom shows the sacrifices and courage of the movement but keeps in mind the darkness as well.  It is reverent in the design, artwork and mechanics of the game.  The subject matter is heavy, but it helps us remember the people and events from that period.  We can simultaneously celebrate the heroism while learning from the mistakes made during this time.  Playing the game helps players understand the challenges the Abolitionists faced and their need to be flexible in their tactics.

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Photo by Brian Mayer – used with permission

Game Play

Freedom, like many cooperative games, is a dynamic puzzle that players need to work together to solve.  It is not an easy game to win, and it takes thoughtful planning and teamwork from the players.  Players are engaged throughout the entire game as they watch other players turns and help make decisions as unexpected problems arise.  Unfortunately, Freedom, like many cooperative games, can suffer from the “alpha gamer syndrome” where one or a few players take the lead.  This does depend on the group playing it, and it won’t be a worry for many groups.  I am sometimes turned off by cooperative games; I don’t enjoy the constant tension and the pressure to win for the team.  What I like about Freedom is that Opposition cards sometimes give you time to plan and prepare.  You can work around them and sometimes even remove them with player powers.  Also, a slave caught by a slave catcher isn’t immediately lost but sent to the slave market, and you are given a second chance, of sorts, to rescue them once more.

The mechanics of Freedom are solid.  The movement of the slave catchers as they are drawn towards escaping slaves, the pressure to empty out the plantations from the slave market, and the need to raise enough money to buy support tokens and Abolitionist cards come together in an intense game experience.  I enjoy the planning, discussions and teamwork needed to win and do well in the game.  I also enjoy that the discussion usually continues after the game as well.

 

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Players need to balance freeing the slaves from the plantations to open space for the slave market and buying support tokens.  It isn’t a bad strategy to give up your turn just to raise money.  We never did this during our first few games, but won the first time we tried that strategy.  All of the games we have played have come down to the wire, so I don’t know if I will every play the most challenging game.

The randomness of the dice and card draws is positive in my opinion.  Sometimes the dice may cause you to lose an escaped slave, and that can hurt.  Sometimes you cheer when the slave catcher is drawn in the opposite direction opening up a clear path, or when you roll the runaway slave symbol and no one moves.  The unique push and pull of the slave catchers is another enjoyable part of the game; a puzzle for the players to solve.  I enjoy drawing a slave catcher one way while sneaking a few slaves behind their back.  I get a kick out of sneaking the slaves by the catchers.  It is incredibly satisfying when an escaped slave reaches Canada.  Sacrifices are also a hard part of the game.  Sometimes players may be faced with the difficult decision to have one slave captured in order for many more to escape.  Players need to be very careful of their resources and actions, leading to difficult decisions and consequences.

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Overall

The theme, strategy, simple mechanics, and thoughtful decisions make Freedom an incredible cooperative game.  Respect to the subject matter is paid by the designer and publisher of the game in the artwork, cards, and game play.  Freedom is both an enjoyable game and an incredible teaching tool.

Quick Stats

Designer: Brian Mayer
Artists: Jarek Nocoń, Stephen Paschal
Publishers: Academy Games
Players: 1-4
Game Length:
Ages: 8 and Up

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