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Subject: Surprisingly thematic rss

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Jon W
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This review was originally published in GameNotes in December, 2002 (see "").

France in 1789 was a country in the grip of social and political upheaval. The reins of power were being tugged away from the monarchy by the increasingly influential bourgeoisie, while the lower classes, upset over centuries of abuse and repression, were agitated and easily swayed by the rhetoric of demagogues promising social and economic redressing of their grievances. Yeah, whatever. You don't really need to know any of that to enjoy Liberté, a game designed by Martin Wallace and published in 2001 by Warfrog (though, curiously, the copyright date in the rules is 1999). As for me, I'm not terribly well-versed in the history of modern France. Sure, I've a passing familiarity with names such as Napoleon, Robespierre, Marie Antoinette, and Lafayette. The guillotine, the Bastille, and the phrase "Let them eat cake!" are not foreign to me. But I have a hard time identifying the exact timeline of the French Revolution, the secondary players, the political factions involved. Liberté is not, however, a simulation, nor does it make any pretense toward being one.

Thematically, Liberté covers (in the typical broad-brush "German" fashion) the turbulent period in France from the convening of the Estates-General in 1789 to the rise of Napoleon in 1799 (I looked that up). A nicely illustrated box opens to reveal a large, mounted map with various tracks and charts on it, player-aid sheets, 110 cards, 30 flat red blocks, 28 flat blue blocks, 24 flat white blocks, 120 round wooden player markers, and 7 neutral markers (3 red, white, and blue, and 4 black) for the various tracks. The rules are in English, French, and German, but the cards are only in English. The production quality is very nice, with one noteworthy exception. It seems that an unfortunate communication mix-up resulted in a distracting color variation between the cards and the map in one region, and a minor difference in another (the color indicates a region of France, and dictates where a player may place blocks). It's a big enough gaffe that you'll wonder how it could have happened, but in practice it's only an issue during your first game.

In Liberté, three factions are vying for control of France: white, blue, and red (representing Royalists, Moderates, and Radicals). Three to six players represent neutral political powerbrokers who are attempting to "back the right horse" in the upcoming struggle. The map displays France in six regions, each containing four or five provinces, for a total of 27 provinces.

The game is played in four rounds, each of which has five intuitive phases. Phase One is the simple determination of turn order: random on the first turn, but in descending victory point order after that (it's an advantage to go last). Phase Two is the distribution of cards: players pick up cards they've kept from the previous round, then discard unwanted cards and fill their hand to seven. Phase Three is the action phase: players either play a card or draw a card (from three face-up cards or a face-down stack), and continue this in player order until one of the sets of faction blocks is exhausted (but all players get an equal number of opportunities each round). Phase Four is when battles are resolved: the player with the most tokens in the Battle Box wins and gets the victory points, barring an unbroken tie, in which case no one gets the points, and a white block is used to signify a "victory" for the Royalists. Phase Five is the resolution of the election: players evaluate every province and distribute votes to the winning parties. Then victory points are assigned based on players' contributions to the winning and secondary party.

Players put blocks into provinces by playing cards. Most cards represent various important persons of the era: Danton, Marat, Mirabeau, etc. These Personality cards allow a player to place one to three blocks in one to three provinces within a designated region. Each stack may contain up to three blocks of one color, topped off by a control marker denoting which player owns that stack. No player may control more than one stack in any province, and no province may contain more than three stacks. Other cards are "Club" cards, and allow a player to place one block (always blue or red for Club cards) in any province, regardless of region. Once played, Personality and Club cards may be kept by their owner face up in a "personal display" (of up to four cards, or five if a card is marked with a special "Sans Coulotte" symbol) which is used later for tie-breakers or to place those cards back in the player's hand for the next round. Other cards allow various special actions: forcing players to discard cards from their personal display, beheading (removing from the game) Personalities, and removing faction blocks from the board.

At its most accessible level, then, Liberté is a game of majority influence. Over the course of four elections, each province will contribute a vote (except Paris, which contributes up to three votes) to determine whether the government will be Royalist, Moderate, or Radical. If a player contributes the most to the party that wins the election, the player earns five victory points; the second-most contributor gets two, and the player who contributes the most to the primary opposition party (the one receiving the second-most votes in the national election) is rewarded with three VPs. In rounds three and four, four provinces confer an additional VP or two to the winner of that province. Ties, both in determining who wins provincial elections and who wins overall election influence, are settled by advancing (discarding) cards from one's personal display and comparing the number of blocks on the advanced cards. Every province that contributes a vote returns a faction block to the winning player; this helps track the progress of the election and returns blocks to the general supply. Any provinces which end up tied (a common occurrence) send all their faction blocks (even a faction not involved in the tie) back to the general pool, regardless of whether the tie is broken.

On each turn except the first, France will fight a famous battle (Valmy, Fleurus, Arcola). Some Personality cards and all Club cards are marked with a cannon, which allows that card to be used to place a token in the Battle Box (instead of placing faction blocks on the board). Generals are a sub-type of Personality card with a distinctive silhouette, and are fairly rare (11 out of 110 cards). Players may earn victory points by contributing the most to that battle and by having at least one general in their personal display. In total, there are 12 points (4, 3, and 5, by round) to be gained in these battles, so they are significant.

And now we come to the really interesting part: the alternate victory conditions. The Royalists and Radicals have a special condition that can end the game prematurely. Several provinces are marked with a "CR" symbol (for Counter-Revolution). If at any moment (in turns three and four only) seven of these provinces are controlled by a single white faction (two tied white faction stacks do not count), a Royalist victory occurs. Players count up all the white blocks they control on the map, in their display, and in their hand, and the player with the most wins, regardless of the number of victory points he has. In addition, "lost" battles (battles which end in a tie) count as a controlled "CR" province, adding yet another layer. The Radical victory occurs on any turn in which the election results in the reds controlling 17 or more provinces (Paris counts as up to three). Again, add up the red influence of each player and ignore victory points.

What emerges from this initially convoluted set of ideas is an essentially simple game that is rich in interesting decisions. The gameplay is straightforward: play a card or draw a card. A couple of runs-through on the tie-breakers should suffice, and after that, it's a transparent design. But the decision points are deliciously fiendish. Is it better to ensure a victory this turn in a province, or spread out your blocks to perhaps gain two or three (or none)? Is your opponent trying for a Counter-Revolution? Or does he just want you to think that as he angles for a conventional victory? Should I consign Monsieur Danton to the guillotine, or save the blade for another foe?

The card drawing mechanism has a potential flaw, in that due to the relative inequities of the cards (some have one block and others have three), the face-up cards may settle into a fixed array of "undesirable" cards, and subsequent card draws will all come from the face-down stack. In my experience, these static positions are short-lived, as it's often more important to be able to control the region of influence than the amount of influence. In addition, the tempo of the game can be affected by drawing an unpopular card, as other players may pause to draw if you unearth a "good" card. However, a very simple house rule could resolve these situations if they are commonplace in a particular game group; I recommend playing it at least twice without resorting to this.

At times, the game feels richly themed, as some rules abstractly reflect the historical concerns of the period. For instance, the fact that lost battles result in a permanent Counter-Revolutionary "province" does a credible job of elegantly portraying the natural result of a botched military campaign (as France was too divided and chaotic to defend herself, thus providing de facto support to the "law and order" faction). I suspect that people who have no interest in the French Revolution will feel left out by this, and that's unfortunate, as at other points the game is clearly abstract and just like many other excellent "German" games, where clever gameplay is juxtaposed with fairly tangential themes.

My principal caveat about the game is the potential for nastiness in the play of special cards. It isn't terribly difficult to assault another player by removing his blocks or beheading his powerful personalities (and of course, you may expect the same treatment!). This may be a negative factor in some game groups, and certainly diminishes the game's appeal as a "family" game, despite the straightforward rules and time commitment (two hours and less is quite reasonable). Those same factors, however, give it even greater appeal to more serious gamers, as the game packs many interesting and difficult decisions into a manageable time frame, and allows some conflict which is so often missing from "German" games.

If the game were merely a "majority influence" game, it would be a decent, but simple and not terribly noteworthy game. But the battles and especially the alternate victory conditions allow a good deal of scope for subtle play. Liberté is a rewarding strategy game, playable in about two hours, that doesn't feel dry or ponderous, and involves a host of interesting decisions. I'm very glad that I added it to my collection.
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