Bob Durf
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Liberty or Death is a very fun game with an interesting and modern take on the historical purposes and goals of the movers involved with the American Revolution. Liberty or Death is a game with flawed gameplay that represents a ludicrous historical view of the American Revolution.

Now do you see my issue?

Starting with the components is the easiest thing to do in any game review, and its particularly easy in this case because of how phenomenal GMT has done making an extremely attractive and pleasant gaming experience in one big heavy box. I didn’t think the game map of Virgin Queen could be topped by GMT, but Liberty or Death gives it a darned good run for its money. The geography is soft and loving and the city circles are incredibly evocative and historical. Anyone who grew up visiting both Boston and Quebec City (or any of the other cities on the map) easily could fall in love with the portrayal of Revolutionary America. The wooden pieces are wonderful, and even the raid and propaganda markers have reverse sides with historical figures and tribes. Last, but not least, the cards each have colorful artwork and events on them. The player aids are incredible, particularly the “Purpose” section for each action, which allows new players to feel their way independently through strategy by looking at each action available to them.

The rulebook is one part of the presentation that I take issue with unfortunately. The arrangement of the rules can make looking up some things difficult. The rules lay out most interactions via the faction command and special activities, which is fine; the problem is when some information is laid out in different ways. One particular issue we ran into was stacking villages—it is referenced vaguely on the faction card/in the faction specific area in the rulebook, but in fact the stacking rules for the villages is in a completely different part of the rulebook. Another particular issue involved the West Indies space, which is treated different from other spaces. I would have appreciated a better explanation of that space on the faction cards like most actions, or it to be easier to locate information regarding the space in the rulebook. I won’t pass judgement too harshly on the rulebook, because I try not to in cases where I can’t think of a solution myself to the issue.

Gameplay-wise, Liberty or Death in many ways is a great success of the COIN format. The tempo of the turn flow-chart with the card faction orders creates always interesting strategic decisions. The Winter Quarters flipping with the card active is such a simple and reasonable solution to gaming the final turn that I would find it difficult to play COIN games any other way. One thing new players to the system have to understand quickly is that commands and special activities can be done in potentially many different spaces at the same time. Maximizing your turns is very important, and the game system really comes alive when you realize moves like Rally and March can be huge moves across the whole map. Battling, the new introduction to the COIN system is balanced very well as a difficult to set up yet powerful move if successful with the Win the Day ability for the winner; and rebuilding armies lost feels appropriately difficult if a campaign is mismanaged. Each action is a lever that a player can pull to achieve some effect on the game, and setting your faction up for a big move like a Battle or Plunder is very fun.

The teamwork present in the game also is fun, even if it is questionable in theory. Each player has a team goal and then a personal goal, each which is opposite to the other team or an opposing faction. Teammates work together but are subtly attempting to an independent victory. I was worried about the gamesmanship of this mechanic in theory, as I’ve read about the Patriots suiciding into British positions to ensure they win rather than the French, and that type of play did not seem beyond the pale for my own game groups, cutthroat as we are. I have not found that generally to be the case in play, although the Patriots and French in particular remain vulnerable to a teammate sabotage, which I dislike (The British and Indians are much less prone to this because of the more detached nature of Indian play). I am all for sabotage and betrayal, but in this particular situation, it is extremely gamey and against the spirit of the game, and affects one team more than the other (I suspect). I would almost prefer the Patriots and French to share completely joint victory conditions, since the players are intended to cooperate closely and have to resort to gamey tactics to sabotage each other in any case, unlike the Indians and British, who usually cooperate less at the hip and do have reasonably separate victory conditions.

Victory Conditions, wrapped up in this team play, do make up the biggest source of frustration with Liberty or Death, both on a gameplay level and on a historical one. The developer, recognizing pre-emptively a source of contention, has laid out an interesting theory of the war as it regarded the interactions with the Patriots and Indians, and it certainly has merit as a modern look at the sweep of American settling and the tragic extinction of Indian civilization as part of the American Revolution. Yet the Patriot/Indian victory conditions are easily the weakest part of the game both as historical commentary and gameplay in action. George Washington and the Continental Army focused on combating the British forces, not Indian tribes on the frontier historically. Some Patriot players I have played with have used the main Patriot army not to combat the British, especially late game, but rather to use as a strike force against the Indians. They aren’t to blame for this—their victory conditions suggest this strategy to be a correct one, and when they play historically (which some do intuitively) they instead help the French win. Playing the game as the Patriots did historically (building up a Continental Army to be a useful fighting force against the British, scoring major wins in Saratoga or Yorktown) in Liberty or Death would lead to British casualties and a conceivable French victory.

Despite the protestations that the Patriots had a huge chip on their shoulder regarding Indian threats (true protestations), that does not lead to the conclusion that the Indians merited the prime focus of the Patriot victory conditions—because that was not the Patriots’ prime focus in the Revolutionary War. Yes, the Revolutionary War was an important piece in the large tapestry of America’s persecution of Indian tribes, but its role in the Revolution does not merit the strange Patriot victory conditions, and it leads to strange gameplay as well depending on how the Patriot player acts. I am a recent graduate with a history major, I do not state this as an appeal to authority but rather to express that my recent education regarding the revolution in two higher level classes did not lead me to the same conclusions of the importance of Indian affairs for the Patriots as it affected strategic decisions in the war, conclusions drawn from an education every bit as modern as the sources used to bolster the designer's position regarding colonial drives in the war.

Truly, this personal victory condition, and how it affects the potential gamey relationship between the French and Patriots is frustrating, because of how fun and evocative almost every other mechanic is. The designer of Liberty or Death went outside the established COIN box in several areas (battles, French build up, Winter Quarters) and beautifully integrated his new mechanics into the existing structure. It would have been nice if he had gone out of the box regarding the victory mechanics. The teams and factions have diametrically opposing goals that mirror each other’s, yet the teams in reality and on the board are not co-equal opposing forces. I think that more asymmetric victory conditions would have made more historic sense and created more natural gameplay, especially between the Patriots and French, who had different goals, but largely those goals were equally pushed forward by defeating the British. I would either want to see a total team goal on the Patriot/French side encompassing both control and casualties; or more asymentric goals with the French creating strain by sending troops elsewhere rather than to the Colonies to combat the British as a sort of expanded West Indies side theatre. The British/Indian goals on the other hand work fine from both a historical and gameplay stance, and the explanations in the playbook for each are satisfying. As it stands, the Fort/Village/Casualty conditions are not satisfying on the Patriot/French side.

I’ve done a lot of complaining about victory conditions, and on paper, I have a lot of issues with Liberty or Death. Those issues vanish while I’m playing. It is such an attractive package, from the components, to the mechanics, to the addictive gameplay in action. It is a testament to the game that all my personal gripes vanish when I am actually sitting down and playing the game as the hours fly by. My question to the reader at the start of this review (do you see my issue?) remains because the game is such fun even with the flaws that frustrate me greatly.
I suppose I’ll just have to play more. Gladly.

ERRATA:
FLOW CHART MANIA: A shout out to the Indian flow chart, who flew under the radar and beat three humans with beating hearts and apparently faulty brains.

UPPER MASSACHUSETTS: As a Mainer, I am still salty that my state, home to the infamous Quebec Expedition (go read Arundel, it’s a good one), is literally the only inaccessible area in the entire damn Eastern American seaboard.


FRANGLAIS: Nothing better than playing the French and attempting to pronounce the French phrases in terrible French accents.
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John S
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Excellent and thorough review!! Thanks!

A friend and I are about to take this up on VASSAL. We just finished a few Cube Libre 2 player campaigns and found some difficulties in balance when playing the cooperating (but not really) factions. Seems the same could hold true here?

Lastly there have been some complaints regarding rules errors and a long errata. Did you incorporate the errata feedback into your rule set? How did you address?

Thanks.
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Bob Durf
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Snowdog_2112 wrote:
Excellent and thorough review!! Thanks!

A friend and I are about to take this up on VASSAL. We just finished a few Cube Libre 2 player campaigns and found some difficulties in balance when playing the cooperating (but not really) factions. Seems the same could hold true here?

Lastly there have been some complaints regarding rules errors and a long errata. Did you incorporate the errata feedback into your rule set? How did you address?

Thanks.


I must confess I rarely incorporate rule errors or errata into rulesets, since the murky areas in games most of the time get debated by the group and resolved as house rules (I'd say we often play these big war games loose and fast with little rules lawering, which always seems more in the spirit of the games). I also have the second edition, which I believe includes quite a few edits.

That being said, the procedures did garner an example of confusion, being the British Muster on the player aid suggesting to a more 'textualist' player that if he mustered he was required to turn redcoats into forts if he did not chose to reward loyalty..that did not seem right to the rest of us but it is how the text on the aid seems to read.

I think playing with just two players will avoid the gaminess between the Patriots and French, but of course, you'll miss out on the fun interactions between teammates that make this game a lot of fun.
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Oerjan Ariander
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BobDurf wrote:
That being said, the procedures did garner an example of confusion, being the British Muster on the player aid suggesting to a more 'textualist' player that if he mustered he was required to turn redcoats into forts if he did not chose to reward loyalty..that did not seem right to the rest of us but it is how the text on the aid seems to read.

Hm?

The bit about Forts or Reward Loyalty on the reprint Play Aid reads:

Quote:
Then, in up to 1 selected Muster space (including West Indies if selected), replace 3 British cubes with 1 Fort ~ or ~ if Regular, Tory and Control -- buy Reward Loyalty ...
(emphasis added)

"Up to 1" means "any number from 0 to 1, as chosen by whoever executes the action". (Integer numbers, obviously, since you can't pick just half a space.) If you don't want place a Fort or Reward Loyalty anywhere, you are perfectly free to choose to do it in 0 spaces instead of in 1 space.

Regards,
Oerjan
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Oerjan Ariander
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BobDurf wrote:
The rulebook is one part of the presentation that I take issue with unfortunately. The arrangement of the rules can make looking up some things difficult. The rules lay out most interactions via the faction command and special activities, which is fine; the problem is when some information is laid out in different ways. One particular issue we ran into was stacking villages—it is referenced vaguely on the faction card/in the faction specific area in the rulebook, but in fact the stacking rules for the villages is in a completely different part of the rulebook. Another particular issue involved the West Indies space, which is treated different from other spaces. I would have appreciated a better explanation of that space on the faction cards like most actions, or it to be easier to locate information regarding the space in the rulebook.

Situations like these are where the Key Terms Index in the rear of the rulebook comes in handy; e.g., the entry for "Stacking" gives the direct rules reference to (1.4.2). The entry for "West Indies" is weaker though; while it points you to (1.3.7), you then have to flip to (1.3.7) itself to find references to the rest of the rules pertaining to the WI.

Regards,
Oerjan
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BobDurf wrote:


That being said, the procedures did garner some questions as we played that we were unable to resolve to our satisfaction--an example being the British Muster on the player aid suggesting to a more 'textualist' player that if he mustered he was required to turn redcoats into forts if he did not chose to reward loyalty..that did not seem right to the rest of us but it is how the text on the aid seems to read.


Your example caught my eye as I had not considered it that way, instead just assuming that each bullet/option for any Command/Special Activity carried an implicit ''may'' as long as there was no explicit ''must'' requirement. Meaning the whole final ''Then'' clause for British Muster would be optional, neither a fort not Reward Loyalty being required.

It got me curious enough to dig into the rulebook, where to my eye it does not spell it out clearly in the Commands (3.0) other than to say the acting faction makes all choices for where and what pieces are affected, leaving the idea that a faction might choose ''none affected'' as an option to the reader's assumption.

The Playbook on page 4 says, ''may either...or''.

Then Oerjan says, it's possible to pay for and then do nothing at all which may match the line at the very end of (2.3.4) saying a Command is still considered executed as long as it occurs in at least one space, whether or not it has any effect.

That's what I came up with anyway, before getting distracted.
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Bob Durf
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Oh that is how I read it as well, but the British player disagreed in that particular game, focusing on the "then" and "or" language, and we got confused. Its the only such situation I could think of of misclarity.

Overall, I like the player aids a lot.
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Todd V
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BobDurf wrote:
Victory Conditions, wrapped up in this team play, do make up the biggest source of frustration with Liberty or Death, both on a gameplay level and on a historical one.


BobDurf wrote:
I’ve done a lot of complaining about victory conditions, and on paper, I have a lot of issues with Liberty or Death. Those issues vanish while I’m playing. It is such an attractive package, from the components, to the mechanics, to the addictive gameplay in action. It is a testament to the game that all my personal gripes vanish when I am actually sitting down and playing the game as the hours fly by.

Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed review, you really crystallized the frustrations I had with this game, specifically the Victory Conditions. I also enjoyed LoD every time while I was actually playing the game, until the moment of the final scoring which more often than not, ended in an unsatisfying result. Despite many hours of enjoyable play, repeated frustrating conclusions left a bad taste which made it harder to get the game to the table the next time.

The question "What can the Patriots do to prevent a French victory?" kept coming up, and most of the answers to that question are gamey, unthematic and unsatisfying. It's also possible for the French to do absolutely nothing and still win by default because the Patriots were "too successful" in their battles. I enjoyed the game more playing 3-player using combined Patriot/French victory conditions, but still ended up selling my copy, regretfully.
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