Thank you for checking out my fifteenth review. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
As a note, we were provided a copy of this game in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Academy Games for the chance to play this game!
An Overview of Freedom: The Underground Railroad
Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a game designed by Brian Mayer and is published by Academy Games. The box states that it can play 1-4 players and has a 60-120 minute play time on the box.
In Freedom: The Underground Railroad, players are working to build up the strength of the Abolitionist movement through the use of notable figures and pivotal events. By raising support for the cause and moving slaves to freedom in Canada, the minds of Americans can be changed and the institution of slavery can be brought down.
Freedom is a card-driven, cooperative game for one to four players in which the group is working for the abolitionist movement to help bring an end to slavery in the United States. The players use a combination of cards, which feature figures and events spanning from Early Independence until the Civil War, along with action tokens and the benefits of their role to impact the game.
Players need to strike the right balance between freeing slaves from plantations in the south and raising funds which are desperately needed to allow the group to continue their abolitionist activities as well as strengthen the cause.
The goal is not easy and in addition to people and events that can have a negative impact on the group's progress, there are also slave catchers roaming the board, reacting to the movements of the slaves on the board and hoping to catch the runaway slaves and send them back to the plantations.
Through careful planning and working together, the group might see an end to slavery in their time.
Setup and gameplay for 1 Player
Much of the game is similar regardless of the number of players involved. Here are some of the 1-player specific setup rules: You take the Victory Condition tile for the player count (in this case, 1) and place it in the top right corner of the board. This tile has two sides, and the red side would be the harder difficulty that requires more slaves freed while having fewer get captured. Take the Slave Market cards that include the 1 for player count, shuffle those and put three of them on the Slave Market spaces to begin the game. Place a slave cube on each spot in those Slave Market cards as well as on the light-colored spots in the three plantation spaces at the bottom of the map.
You'll remove the 3&4 cards from each of the three period decks and then shuffle in 3 Opposition cards to the blue and green decks and 4 into the purple deck. One support token will be placed for each period. The first period will get 3 conductor tokens and 1 fundraising token of that color. The second period will get 2 of each conductor tokens and 2 fundraising tokens. The third period will get 1 of each conductor token and 1 fundraising token. Place the slave catcher tokens on their starting spaces and 8 coins and you're ready to begin.
During a 1-player game you still get the same five phases of play and the same number of moves. Which equates to being able to buy 2 tokens during every planning phase, buying a card during each action phase, and playing up to two tokens during every action phase. This is where the difficult decisions come in, because you're very limited on how much you can do every turn, and most of the time you'll want to buy more cards or tokens, or play more tokens, than you have available.
The other major difference is that during the Lantern Phase, the two right-most cards in the market are discarded rather than just one. This is great for moving those Opposition cards through the queue, but terrible if there are several cards you want to purchase.
This game is deceptively challenging, a trait I find that I prefer in both solo games and in cooperative games. My first play of the game, I thought it was going to be an easy coast to a win. And then the later rounds came and suddenly I had no space to move any cubes and I needed to open those up before the end of the round. It was absolutely impossible to win with what was available, although I did manage to almost win. The second game was a breeze, partially because the role allowed me to move two cubes one space each turn as that role's action. So movement was never an issue, and no bad opposition cards came up. So after that I played on the hard side and, well, I never came close enough to win after that. Because everything is so limited (money, movement, cards), you have to really manage and plan things out in advance.
The slave catcher movement is an excellent system. It requires no thought on the part of the players because it follows a simple set of rules: you move a cube onto a space that is connected to the colored path, then the slave catcher moves one space in that direction along their path. This allows you to not only see what will happen as you move and plan for it, but it also creates clogs and jams that will keep some of your cubes immobile for a while. Because if the catcher lands on a cube, it gets added to the slave market. Which means more are getting added to those plantations at the bottom. Which fill up far too fast in later rounds, meaning you're losing slaves which brings you closer to losing the game. All in all, this is a simple yet remarkably frustrating mechanic that allows the game to play itself without involving the player to do a bunch of thought or planning for the opposition. The thought comes from trying to figure out how to succeed while knowing how the opposition will interact and react.
Artwork is always subjective, and the box itself left me underwhelmed. Thankfully, the components inside are much better to look at. I enjoy the newspaper look on the left portion of the board where the cards and tokens are placed. The map is simple yet the color-coding really provides a nice visual. The cards themselves are primarily blacks and whites and grays and most contain photos relevant to the period, person, or event in question. All of those work well to enhance the experience. If the cubes had been just a little more thematic, this would have been an even better result. But I understand because wooden cubes are cost-effective, whereas 70 miniatures likely would have made the price inflate up over $100 MSRP.
The theme for this board game is very unique, and that earns it some points. I'll talk more about this in the final thoughts, but this game's theme brings about some unique situations. The theme won't appeal to everyone, but it is a game that everyone should try at least once. Not only that, but the historical accuracy, and the added information within the rulebook, makes this an excellent game for classroom learning. Any classroom that intends to do a unit on this subject should seriously consider having a copy or two of this game to provide an interactive, educational experience that complements any textbooks or videos also being shown about the period.
Piggybacking on the above mention of the theme, this game gets points for really making that theme come alive. Which is surprising, given that you're pushing around cubes on a map while trying to avoid little cardboard circles that have colored shapes on them. You get a really good feel for the struggle that the Abolitionist movement faced, and just how hard this process was.
The rules for this game are put together well. It took one read of the book to have a very clear grasp of the game and how to accomplish my objectives. There is a great reference sheet in the box that covers everything, from the actions you can take to the phases of the game to how to set it up based on player count. There are examples of games where you need to watch Rodney Smith on Watch It Played in order to even get a basic understanding of how to play a game. It is always refreshing to come across one that is not only perfectly clear in the rules, but also provides a well-designed and comprehensive aid.
The setup and teardown time of this one is a bit on the longer side of what I want from a solo game of this length. It isn't nearly as bad as, say, Firefly: The Game but it also usually plays in less than half the amount of time. That middle category for setup/teardown/gameplay is a tough place to land because I'm more likely to pull out a smaller one I can play several times or push into a larger and longer game. With one player, the games run closer to the 45-60 minute range once you get the hang of what you can do on your turn and the five phases each round.
This game is an AP-player's nightmare. I enjoy the puzzle-like nature of the gameplay in the later rounds and can usually see, in hindsight, how the early rounds led to those tough situations. This is a game that provides a fair amount of mental drain by the end, which is a satisfying feeling to have from a game of this weight. Yet, as mentioned above, it is a little shorter than it should be for something like this. Twice I've played it early enough in the evening that I could easily have reset and played a second game of it. Both times I opted to put it away because I wasn't sure I could handle that level of taxing puzzle again.
This game is a difficult game to wrap my head around. On one hand, it is a game that presents an interesting and, at times, complex puzzle as you try and balance money and movement and how those movements will affect both current and future turns. It succeeds at providing a board game challenge that is interesting and worthwhile. It is definitely a game that provides a rewarding experience for solo gamers in particular.
I do not know how this would do as a group game, though. The subject matter itself is no laughing matter, and that could easily present a somber tone to any group sitting down to play the game. You don't want to be that person who takes things too lightly, because the subject matter is deep. Joel from Drive Thru Review has discussed that many times in his videos and, recently, in his audio podcast. The topic is as heavy as the puzzles the gameplay presents.
And yet there is incredible value in this game. It is something that allows us, in our modern day and society, to understand how incredibly difficult that period of time was. There are times where you are simply trying to select the best of the bad options left to you. You'll agonize over the slave catchers and their ability to cut off your movement paths. You'll gain empathy for the plight of those involved in the Abolitionist movement and for those ensnared in slavery.
This game is definitely one we should all play. It'll open our minds to the reality of what occurred, and provide a ton of educational value. Every classroom, whether home or private or public, should have at least a copy of this game to integrate with units covering this period in American History. It will provide insights that textbooks and video clips simply cannot imitate. This is where the value provided by this game, and many other historical games by Academy Games and other great companies, really shine because they allow a group of people to share in an experience that sometimes follows the historical path (in this game, for instance, there is no guarantee that the Abolition movement gains traction and succeeds) with its outcome but always allows you to better understand some of the dynamics and decisions that came about in that situation.
If you haven't played this game, you really ought to do so. Find someone who has a copy and get it to the table. Purchase one for yourself, especially if you have children whom you want to provide an engaging educational experience for. It'll be worth the time and the investment.
Check out more of our reviews at the following Geeklist and be sure to let me know what you thought of this game.
Great review. I have played this solo a couple of times and one two player game. It's a tough one to reset and play again. We almost won, and in fact, played out the last turn under an alternate scenario ("Let's pretend we didn't roll that and see what would have happened") and "won" that turn.
It will come back out, but like you said, probably not with the whole gaming group. Good game for 1-2 players.