Freedom - The Underground Railroad

By Richard Martin 08 Jan 2014 0

Freedom - The Underground Railroad is a brave and unique new release from award winning game publisher Academy Games of Conflict of Heroes fame.  Freedom - The Underground Railroad examines the turbulent times of pre-reconstruction America during the age of slavery from 1800 to 1865.

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The slave trade was a horrible blight on human existence and, even after almost 150 years from the end of the American Civil War, we as a society are still dealing with its after-affects.  Alex Haley?s epic ?Roots? helped educate the American public about the horrors of the slave trade back in the late 1970s, and Quentin Tarantino?s 2012 re-imagining of the ?Django? story updated the main character to an African American gunslinger and former slave trying to free his wife from slave traders in the South.  As a subject for a board game, the system of slavery has never been approached until now.  Ohio?s Academy Games (best known for their award winning Conflict of Heroes World War 2 game system) has created a beautiful and educational game set around the struggles of the abolitionists and conductors who helped free thousands of people from the evil of slavery.

Freedom - The Underground Railroad, hereinafter referred to as Freedom, is the second game in Academy?s Birth of America series (the first game being 1812 ? The Invasion of Canada) and like the other game in the series uses a combination of cards, dice and blocks for game play. Freedom can be played solitaire or with up to 4 players.

In Freedom, each player takes the role of a person working to end the institution of slavery ? the roles available are: Shepherd, Stockholder, Station Master, Agent, Conductor and Preacher.  Each of these archetype roles is rated for amount of income they help generate during the Action Phase, plus one other ability which may be used each turn.  Additionally, each role has one major ability which can only be used one time per game.  For example, the Harriet Tubman like Conductor adds one additional dollar to the abolitionist funding at the start of each turn plus each turn may move 2 slaves one space each during the Action phase.  Once per game, the Conductor may give a total of five movements for one or more slaves.

The attractive mounted game board represents the North and South Eastern states of America as well as Canada.  There are record keeping tables on the board to keep track of slaves freed as well as slaves held in Southern plantations.  North America is divided in to regions and cities connected by roads which the slaves move on and color coded tracks on which the game controlled slave catchers travel.

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Based upon the number of players and the difficulty level the game is to be played at, ?slave market? cards are played on one side of the board.  Each card has a specific number of spaces for slaves to be sold to the plantations.  Slaves in the game are represented by wooden blocks while slave catchers are represented by different colored counters.

The game is limited to 8 turns spread out over three different time periods (1800 to 1839, 1840 to 1859 and 1860 to 1865) or until the number of ?lost slaves? is greater than the amount that can be contained on the ?lost slave card? used for the number of players or difficulty level of that the players have chosen.  How does a slave become ?lost? you may ask.  That is a very good question.  Near the end of each turn, the slave market sells as many slaves as it can to the slave plantations shown on the board.  When slaves are rescued by the players, they leave the plantation cards and travel across the board in hopes of reaching Canada.  When the market sells slaves to the plantations, any box not containing a slave block on the plantation is restocked with a slave block.  When the market can sell no more slaves to the plantations, each extra slave block is moved to the lost slave card on the map.  When the card is filled with lost slave blocks and one more slave block is about to be put on it, the game ends and the player(s) have lost.  This system creates a great sense of urgency as the player or players must not only move freed slaves towards Canada but must also continue to rescue slaves from the plantations.

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Each turn is made up of 5 phases ? the Slave Catcher Phase, Planning Phase, Action Phase, Slave Market Phase and the Lantern Phase.

During the Slave Catcher Phase, two dice are rolled. One die determines the color of the slave catcher counter which activates while the second controls the number of spaces and direction that the slave catcher moves.  If the slave catcher ends its move on a slave block, that slave is captured and placed on the bottom most slave market card.

During the Planning Phase, the player or players purchase tokens which can be used during the Action Phase.  These tokens can do everything from dictate the number of slaves and how far they can move, generate income towards the abolitionist cause, or purchase political and popular support for the anti-slavery movement.

During the Action Phase, random cards can be purchased to help the players or keep a negative event from happening or tokens purchased during the Planning Phase can move slaves or generate revenue for the cause.  When a slave moves, if the slave block crosses a colored line on the board, the slave catcher counter of that color moves towards the slave block who crossed its path.  Once again, if the catcher lands on the slave block, the slave block is transferred to the slave market.

To win the game, the abolitionists must move a given number of slaves in to Canada to rescue them as well as purchase all of the support tokens before the lost slaves are greater than the amount shown on the victory conditions card.  This is where the game gets in to trouble.

Out of four games I played (three on the standard difficulty level and one on easy), I lost all four games.  Most of the time I rescued the required number of slave blocks but didn?t have all the support tokens that I needed.  In my opinion, the game is too heavily weighted towards the defeat of the player.  When I play a solo game, I expect to win around 25% of the time, when this doesn?t happen I question both my tactics and the game design.

While the game is fun to play and the amount of information both on the ?flavor text? of the cards and in the designer notes is very educational, it reaches the level of total frustration a little too often.  I think the victory conditions are a little too difficult to meet and the factor of bad luck can kill even the most solid tactics.  After so many times losing the game, I?m afraid some players will say ?oh well? and move on to another game.

While Freedom - The Underground Railroad is a beautiful, brave and innovative game, I recommend it only to those who don?t get frustrated too easily.  None-the-less, it is one of the most important games to come out in the last few years and Academy Games deserves praise for having the intestinal fortitude to bring this out!

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Publisher: Academy Games

Designer: Brian Mayer

Price:  $70



About the Author                                                                                                                 

Richard Martin has written film and game reviews for over 20 years and has been playing war games and RPGs since the days of Ogre and Basic Dungeons and Dragons. Additionally, he writes screenplays, games and works in the legal profession.  (Don?t tell anyone but Richard prefers writing games and movies to law work any day.)




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