Free At Last--A Double-Take Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad

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It’s a time of division in our country. States in the South have grown rich on the backs of their human laborers. But there are those who know this is wrong, and are working to end it. This is where you come in. In today’s review, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, players are Abolitionists, working together to get slaves out of the South, through the North, and into Canada. But they’re always being dogged by those evil Slave Catchers. It’s an ambitious project, and there’s only one way to find out if Academy Games has succeeded. Let’s take a look!




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The Components

  • 1 Game board

  • 1 Lead Player Lantern token

  • 17 Support tokens

  • 13 Fundraising tokens

  • 27 Conductor tokens

  • Money chips

  • 96 Slave cubes

  • 5 Slave Catcher markers

  • 1 Slave Catcher and 1 Movement die

  • 52 Abolitionist cards

  • 6 Role cards

  • 18 Slave Market cards

  • 4 Victory Conditions cards

  • 6 Player mats


The Setup

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  1. Each player will choose a Role, and grab the Player mat for that Role.

  2. The Plantation spaces on the Game board have light and dark spaces on them; you’ll place Slave cubes onto the light spaces of those Plantations.

  3. Take the appropriate Slave Market cards based on the number of players in the game, shuffle them, and place them on the Slave Market Deck space on the Game board. Then turn over the top 3 cards into the spaces under that deck, and place Slave cubes onto the cards. These act as a game timer, ensuring the game will never last more than 8 rounds.

  4. There are 3 types of Abolitionist cards: General, Reserve, and Opposition. You’ll create decks of the General and Reserve cards, based on the years they cover, and seeded with Opposition cards. This is all done based on a chart for different player counts. You’ll place three facedown decks onto their respective spaces on the Game board, and then turn up the first 5 cards from the first deck onto the Abolitionist Queue. If more than one Opposition card appears, set it aside and fill out the Queue, and then shuffle the remaining cards for that deck (including the “extra” Opposition card) together again.

  5. Set the correct Victory Condition card, based on the number of players, onto the spot on the Game board. Each card is double-sided, with a regular and a challenging side.

  6. Give each player a starting $8.

  7. Determine a Lead Player and give that player the Lantern token.

  8. Place the 5 Slave Catcher markers onto their respective spaces on the Game board.

  9. Place the grey Conductor tokens onto their respective spaces on the Period Columns spaces on the Game board. Then you’ll consult a chart and place a number of regular (non-grey) tokens on top of the grey ones, based on the number of players.


The Gameplay

A turn in Freedom is broken into five phases.

Slave Catcher Phase

The first thing you’ll do each turn is roll the Slave Catcher and Movement dice. If the Slave Catcher dice ends with a walking figure symbol (which is on one of the 6 sides), then nothing happens this phase. Yay!

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If one of the five Slave Catcher symbols is rolled, then you consult the Movement die, which will have 1, 2, or 3 arrows that are either black or white. The white arrows indicate movement to the west, and black arrows move to the east. (These are clearly indicated on the map, so you don’t have to remember.) You move that particular Slave Catcher that many spaces in that direction. Any Slave cubes the Catcher passes over are ignored, but any on the final space are captured, and moved to empty spaces on the Slave Market cards—starting with the bottom card and placing one Slave cube on each card, and cycling back around to the bottom, if necessary.

Planning Phase

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Players can each take up to 2 tokens from the active Period Columns on the board—provided they can pay for the tokens they take.

Support tokens cost $10. You can’t win the game until all of these have been taken, and when you take all the tokens from one Period, that opens up the next Period, including those tokens and Abolitionist cards.

The Conductor tokens cost between $2-4, depending on Period they’re in (getting more expensive as the game progresses). These tokens allow you to move Slave cubes during the game.

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The Fundraising tokens are free. Green tokens get you $1 for each Slave cube in a green Southern space or city, and blue tokens get you $1 for each Slave cube in a blue Northern city.

When someone takes the last Support token from the current active Period Column, you pause the game and,

1) Remove the current Abolitionist deck from the game—though you leave any cards in the Abolitionist Queue. New cards will come from the next Period’s deck.

2) The next Period Column is immediately open, and players may now also buy tokens from this Column.

Action Phase

Starting with the Lead Player, each player can do any and all actions they’d like. Once they’re done with all of their actions, play passes to the next player.

Exception: A player can pass his or her entire Action Phase in order to get $ from the bank. You get $3 during the 1st Period, $4 during the 2nd Period, and $5 during the 3rd Period.

Here are the Actions:

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Gain the Benefit and/or Special Ability of a Role card—Each Role in the game has benefits that are available each round. In addition, each Role also has a one-time Special Ability. You trigger that Ability and then flip the Role card to Side 2. Note that some Roles have different benefits on their Side 2, so you’ll want to be aware of that when deciding when to use that Special Ability.

Buy and resolve one Abolitionist card—Each card in the Abolitionist Queue has a cost, which you must pay. The card is resolved, but is not replaced until the end of the round. General cards have some effect, and are then discarded. Reserve cards are placed on a Player mat and have some sort of effect or benefit—and you can only have one Reserve card at a time.

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The Opposition cards are bad. So why would you ever buy one? Because by buying one, you control when it triggers, and sometimes if it triggers now, it might have no real effect, whereas if it triggers later, it would be BAD. You can’t buy all of them early, but it can be very helpful when you can. Some cards have an effect when they’re in the Queue, and some have an effect when they leave the Queue.

Play a Conductor or Fundraising token—You can play up to two tokens on your turn. As I said before, for the Fundraising token, you get money based on the Slave cubes in certain cities or spaces, so you can maneuver things to get as much money as you can on a turn. Conductor tokens allow you to move a certain number of Slaves up to a certain number of spaces. You may not move a single Slave more than once with a single token.

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If a Slave ends its movement in a city with a gold coin symbol on it, the player gets that gold. If a Slave ends on a path connected to one or more Slave Catcher tokens, those tokens move one space toward that Slave.

Slaves cannot move through Slave Catcher tokens. Small cities and spaces can hold one Slave and large cities and spaces can hold four. If you move a Slave up into Canada, you place it on the numbered spaces on the board. Freeing a certain number of Slaves (based on player count) is part of the victory conditions.

Tokens are hard limited and removed from the game when played. The exceptions are the grey tokens, which can be bought, used, and then returned to the board to be bought and used again.

Slave Market Phase

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Here, Slaves are sold to plantations in the South. Slaves from the Slave Market cards are moved to spaces on plantations, with players deciding where they go—but you can’t rearrange or change Slaves placed on previous turns. If there are no more spaces on plantations, then those Slave cubes are moved to the Slaves Lost track on the Victory Condition card.

Once all of the Slaves are moved from the Market card, you discard it, move the two remaining cards down, and a new one is drawn. So you always know exactly how many Slaves are coming at the end of the turn, and can attempt to plan accordingly.

Lantern Phase

This is the cleanup. Discard the rightmost card in the Abolitionist Queue (two cards if playing with 2 players), slide the remaining cards to the right, and restock the Queue. Some Opposition cards have an effect when they’re removed in this way, so be mindful. Then pass the Lead Player Lantern token to the next player.

 

Players win the game if:

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  • they move the required number of Slaves to Canada, and

  • they purchase all of the Support tokens in the game, and

  • they finish their current round without losing the game.

Players lose the game if:

  • the Slaves Lost track is full and they have to place another Slave, or

  • they have not won by the end of round 8.


The Verdict

Firestone—Let’s be honest. There’s only one way for this game to work, and that’s for it to be a co-op. No one in their right mind would design a game where you’re actively working to be a slave-catcher. It would be a dumb idea, and gamers everywhere would condemn it. But is it a GOOD co-op?

My second concern was that it would sacrifice gameplay on the alter of education. Most educational games stink.

I’m happy to report that Freedom isn’t just a terrific co-op, and isn’t just a learning experience, but a great GAME.

Jeremiah—One. Hundred. Percent. Agreed. I had some similar concerns, but Freedom completely blew those concerns away. There is no hint of “cashing in on trying to market to educators” in this game. Its design is solid and nuanced, the artwork and graphic design are on point—it has it all.

Firestone—One of the most surprising things about this experience was how genuinely moving it turned out to be. In every game we’ve lost at least a few slaves (and in some games we lost many slaves), and…well, it sucked. It really sucked. How do you make that decision? How do you decide that that slave has to die in order for these other slaves to live? My 11-year-old was not happy about these decisions, and kept trying to work out other ways for this to work. And most of the time it just…didn’t.

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Jeremiah—The first time we played, we REALLY botched a couple of turns, and the result was going to be that we were losing like 8 slaves. I looked up from the table and my 12-year old son was nearly in tears. The weight of the subject matter is portrayed very well, and it is sobering. We weren’t depressed the whole night after losing (read, getting our butts totally kicked!), but there were moments that were very heavy.

The gameplay is difficult. There are different difficulty levels, and we’ve played at the easiest, still have yet to win. That is probably in large part due to the fact that at some point(s) you have to be willing to let some slave be caught in order to move more to freedom and that’s a move that’s hard to convince my kids to make/live with. Not only that, but it becomes INCREDIBLY hard to raise money during the last phase of the game. Yes, the large northern cities will accommodate up to four Slave cubes, but I simply haven’t been able to get more than one or two in a city without a major risk of being caught before being able to use a Fundraising token. We’ve been super close. But no victory yet.

Firestone—Yes, this is certainly challenging. In our first game, we completely filled the Slaves Lost track, and if we’d had to add just one more Slave cube, we’d have lost. But we pulled it out. Since then we’ve lost a few and won a few. I appreciate that this isn’t too easy. Challenging co-ops are just more fun.

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Aesthetically, I liked the simple style. It wasn’t flashy, which matched the sobering subject matter. The Abolitionist cards had evocative period drawings, or black-and-white pictures on them. Look at those Slave Market cards—the buyers are inspecting those Slave cubes. It’s the small details. Nothing about the art wows you, but that feels right. We don’t need Everdell here. (The game’s cover is a notable exception to this. The rich, blue color is striking, and the painting of these people risking their lives for freedom is both harrowing and hopeful.)

Jeremiah—I feel like this game is presented with heaps of respect, and dignity towards all parties involved. The slave cubes are not painted brown, or black, they’re just raw wood, the slave catchers aren’t portrayed by meeples or miniatures, they’re disks with geometric shapes and colors, not a whip, or gun icon. Some of that helps to abstract things a bit as well. But as I’ve already mentioned. This game is heavy, and rightfully so.

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Firestone—I think Freedom would be an excellent resource in a classroom. I’m not sure how that would work, logistically, since it’s not a short game. But if you spread the gameplay out over a couple of class periods, and even weaved in teaching about the figures and events depicted, it could really bring this topic to life. The cards have background info on what’s happening in them, so much of the work is already done.

Jeremiah—This game is historically spot on. My sons both recognized and pointed out historical moments and people that appear on the cards. So even if a teacher couldn’t use it in a classroom, it’s very strongly reinforced some of the history lessons that my sons have learned.

Firestone’s Final Verdict—Freedom surprised me. It takes a heavy topic and mixes it with excellent gameplay, and ends up becoming a work of art that’s genuinely moving.

Jeremiah’s Final Verdict—Everyone should own Freedom: The Underground Railroad. The lessons it teaches of our nation’s history are priceless; and the game play is thematic, engaging, and fantastic. Seriously, this belongs on everyone’s shelf, and it will stay on mine for a long time to come!

Theology of Games would like to thank Academy Games for providing review copies of Freedom. This in no way affected our opinions of the game.

Have you played Freedom yet? Tell us your thoughts—and thanks for reading!