Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a game that deals with one of the darkest periods in American history. The stain of slavery plagued the States for many years and it took a concentrated group effort to abolish it. There were people fighting on the front lines, trying to free slaves from their plantation owners and navigate them safely to Canada, avoiding slave catchers along the way. There were those who fought the political battles to try and sway public opinion to their side of the cause. And there were the slaves themselves who cast off the chains of ownership and risked the ultimate price for their Freedom. In the latest release from Academy Games, first time designer Brian Mayer gives players the chance to fight the battle to end slavery in the United States and change the face of a nation forever.
Freedom is a cooperative game. Players take the roles of different characters from the 1860s and each has a part to play in the battle to end slavery. Your goal is to free a certain number of slaves using the underground railroad to Canada. At the same time you need to gain enough political support to turn the tide before eight rounds of the game are completed.
Based on the subject matter alone this can be a tough game to play. It’s emotional to know that the actions you’re taking have true historical significance. People fought and died in real life to accomplish the goals set before you in this game. That was of utmost importance to Brian Mayer and Uwe Eickert when they set out to work on Freedom. Mayer kept it as historically accurate as possible while still making the gameplay fun and engaging. According to Mayer it was easy to make an exciting and interesting game without having to change the history at all. The real life events were thrilling, exciting and stressful just as they play out in the game.
Freedom is played out in several rounds. You can move slaves out of their plantations in the south, but you must be careful of the ever-watchful slave catchers. They act as a moving curtain across the northern States hoping to capture any freed slaves they come across. With careful planning you can draw them closer to one band of freed slaves in an effort to clear a path for another group. At times it’s even necessary to sacrifice a group so that others might make it to Canada. These are the tough choices laid before you in the game.
At the start of the game you are assigned different character roles that will give you a benefit each round and a special ability to be used once during the game. The roles were designed to represent groups of people that helped with the abolitionist movement, but no one specific person. The Conductor helps with slave movement, The Preacher is able to purchase cards cheaper, The Station Master can exert some control over the Slave Catchers and so on. Certain roles are better at doing different actions, so using the characters to your advantage is very important. Choosing when to use your special ability can be a huge factor in the success or failure of your campaign.
Each round is broken down into phases. In the Slave Catcher Phase you roll the dice to determine which Slave Catcher (if any) will move. This could result in a path opening up or a tightening of the net. During the Planning Phase players can buy Support, Fundraising and Conductor tokens. Conductor Tokens will allow the travel of different bands of slaves, Fundraising Tokens will drum up financial support for the cause and Support Tokens are necessary to gain political support and ultimately end slavery all together. By game end you need to to have purchased all the Support Tokens to win the game. In the Action Phase, you guessed it, players can play out their actions. Usually this takes a lot of coordination to accomplish the best possible results. Actions can include playing Conductor Tokens, Using your role’s benefit or special ability, playing Conductor or Fundraising Tokens, or buying and using abolitionist cards. The Slave Market Phase introduces new slaves to the plantations, and the Lantern Phase is general upkeep.
Like all Academy Games the components are really beautiful. There is a classic style to the art on the cards and the board itself looks like an old map of the time. Painstaking attention to detail was given to the front box cover. Four separate oil paintings were commissioned until they felt they got the look just right. Even the rule book is almost a history text book with a great deal about the course of slavery in the United States during the 1800’s and the people who took a role in ending it.
It’s no surprise that Academy would include supplemental historical information. The company has a long track record of producing historically accurate games and they are working on full text books to be used with the games in the classroom. This philosophy of making games both educational and fun is working very well for Academy and expect to see more and more educators using games as learning tools in the classroom.
So, is Freedom: The Underground Railroad a game for everyone? Of course not (few games are). The subject matter is serious and it can add to the pressure to the players to succeed in their goal. It forces you to look at a dark time in history and confront it and that may be tough for some. Victory can be extraordinarily satisfying and defeat can be tough to swallow when you consider what is lost. The mechanics are solid and challenging and it is still a fun game to play despite it’s theme. I would highly recommend giving this game a try. Use it as an educational tool, try it to learn something about the past or just play it to take on the challenge. I think you’ll enjoy the experience of fighting on the right side of history.