Making Freedom - The Underground Railroad

By Richard Martin 10 Jan 2014 0

A couple of days ago we brought you a review of Academy Games? boardgame about freeing slaves in C19th USA - To follow that up here is an interview with game designer Brian Mayer conducted by the reviewer, Rick Martin, on behalf of The

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RM : What is your background and how did you get involved in board game design?

Brian: I work as a Gaming and Library Technology Specialist right now. I helped develop and currently curate a game library ( of over 200 modern board and card games that I have aligned to state and national standards, which are available for use in 22 school districts across five counties in rural Western New York. Part of my job is pushing to classrooms and school libraries to work with teachers and school librarians to utilize games as a resource for connecting students with curriculum. As an extension of that, for the last three years I have been running design projects with several classes where students use board game design as an alternative way to show content understanding and mastery.

Over the years at work I?ve often gotten requests for a game on a particular area. Our selection criteria for games to get into the library favors the authenticity of the game first, so we sometimes don?t have resources on topics because there are not engaging games available on the subject. But these requests got me thinking of areas to begin developing games around and that is where my design sparks began.


RM: Brian, Freedom: The Underground Railroad covers a concept not traditionally explored in the board game environment. Can you tell us about how and why you designed a game based upon slavery?

Brian: As I noted, the idea of looking at game topics that weren?t covered began with my work. The very first spark for the idea came from a work colleague who was new to our department. We were introducing them to our game library and talking about different types of mechanisms that are found in games. When we talked about ?pick up and deliver? games, they had asked if there were pick up and delivery games about delivering people, like trains. A little light bulb clicked and I thought: ?Underground Railroad?.

That spark sat until I had the chance to see Brenda Romero talk about her games and got to see her showcase her game Train. That presentation gave me the courage to take on the subject and the belief that it is possible to accomplish a more complex topic in a nondigital format and strive to remain respectful to the subject matter.

To be clearer, I think games are evolving ... growing as a medium and I think they need to. Games, both digital and non, are one of the most dominant forms of entertainment today. With that growth comes the need for exploration and evolution, much in the way that graphic novels took comics into a form of literature that explores complex and meaningful topics in a myriad of ways. So too, games are beginning to explore and grow into their own adulthood. This has already begun in the digital space with the Serious Game movement, and works like ?The Last of Us?. We are starting to see a transfer of these explorations moving over to the nondigital space.

We are most certainly aware of the growth of games in terms of complex and dynamic mechanisms and interesting themes. But I also believe that games are starting to transcend and become a bridge between play and art. Brenda?s work is pure art, all emotion and impact. But there are more games that looking to strike a balance and elicit a similar quality of emotion and engagement as you would get from good quality literature or film. Part of my desire with the design was to aspire to at least graze that place. To create a medium of entertainment that engages the audience, challenges them and elicits a connection/reaction to the experience. I hope that players come away a little changed, whether that be because they learned, felt or connected more with the people and places that played a part in the historical setting of the game.


RM: Slavery is traditionally a very touchy subject to cover in the entertainment medium in America ? witness the heat Quentin Tarantino took for some quarters with his reimaging of the Django series when he set it around the theme of slavery. Did you have any concerns about your game Freedom: The Underground Railroad?

Brian: Every step of the way. I definitely wanted to make sure that I dealt with the subject matter in the most respectful way I could. I know regardless of whatever decisions I made, not everyone would agree with my design choices, but it would remain true to my intention and vision for what the game was trying to accomplish. Uwe was great in this respect. He really took my lead in most cases in the layout and look of the game.

A few things were key to the subject. The game had to be cooperative, with the players struggling against the institution of slavery. None of the players take any active role in the negative aspects. The slave catchers react to the movement of the players and the negative events associated with the time are represented by cards that the players must deal with during the course of play.

Also, the choice of what is abstracted, what is not, and what is left to be filled in was something I put a lot of thought into. ?Slaves Lost? during the game is an example. While it is not explicitly stated what that means, players understand what is implied when it happens during the course of the game. The weight of that adds to desire of the players to do better, they connect with what?s happening despite the abstraction.

My biggest fear was people making judgments? before they saw what I was doing with the game and what it was about. The game strives to not trivialize what happened, but to instead help people connect with and perhaps come away with a little better understanding of the people and events that helped shape that time.


RM: What challenges did you face during the design and play testing phases of Freedom: The Underground Railroad?

Brian: Beyond the expected challenges of refinement and balance, the most challenging aspect of the game?s development for me was the mechanism for the slave catchers. A lot of the design fell into place early on. The map and the cards were there when the concept first starting coming together and they evolved fairly quickly, but the mechanism for the catchers went through a lot of different iterations, taking a long time before it settled in to what it currently is in the game. I owe a big nod to designer Kevin Nunn who got me thinking in the right direction on that. He had a chance to play the game at Protospiel and gave me some great feedback, noting that, at the time, the catchers were ?dumb?. He said they should move more intelligently rather than randomly moving based on some die rolls, which they did at the time. That led me to creating the paths that are on the board now. I think that was the piece that took the game from a pretty good game to something worthy of Uwe?s attention and efforts. Thanks again Kevin!


RM: If the player takes one things away from their playing of Freedom: The Underground Railroad, what would you have this be?

Brian: I would hope the players come away with a better understanding of the history, of the men and women who did so much for such a noble cause ? and I hope they have fun doing it as well!


RM: What can players look forward to from Academy Games?

Brian: I can?t speak for Academy, but I am working on a followup to Freedom that takes some of the elements from the game: the emotional connection of the players to what?s happening, the struggle of managing multiple elements while dealing with positive and negative impacts and placing it in a less controversial but still historically rich and relatively untapped setting. Added to that will be some evolution and carryover of game play throughout consecutive plays.


Thank you for your time and we look forward to many hours of enjoyable gaming with Freedom: The Underground Railroad.



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