Games set in the courtroom have a longer pedigree than you might at first imagine. Verdict was one of the first four games published by venerable Avalon Hill Games in 1959. There is a list of some more here on BoardGameGeek. As of writing the list doesn’t include High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel—which is a crime (#ahahaha); it is also a crime if you’ve overlooked this little gem because it deals with (okay, collective sigh/groan here) Canadian History.
Now, I teach Canadian History and the Riel trial is currently a highlight of the Grade 8 curriculum. I wish this game had been around when I taught Grade 8 because (along with the amazing Riel graphic novel by Chester Brown) it would really have helped bring the trial to life.
One player plays the prosecution, the other the defence. Each side is trying to sway jurors to their side, on top of which the prosecution must accumulate enough Evidence of Guilt or forfeit the trial. The game is structured like a trial with phases for jury selection, witnesses, and summation. There is a pool of 12 jurors whose Aspects (religion; language; occupation) are initially hidden from both sides. The Prosecution does well when the jury is full of Protestant, English Government Workers; the defence, naturally, wants French Catholic Farmers. In the Jury Selection Phase cards can be used to peek at or reveal these attributes. At the end of the phase, each side will reject 3 jurors, leaving 6 for the trial. So the more you know (and you never know enough), the more you can try to stack the jury in your favour. You must also set aside two of your cards for Summation.
During the two Trial phases each side will generally be playing cards to sway individual jurors or influence Aspects—for instance, a card could make all the Protestants agree with you more. Some cards let you accumulate or lose Evidence; the prosecution wants lots of Evidence of Guilt, as stated above, while the defence wants lots of Evidence of Insanity because…well, it makes the jurors more sympathetic to Riel’s plight, I guess (it was also a cornerstone of the historical defence strategy). Again, some cards will be set aside for Summation.
When it comes to Summation, each side picks up the cards it has saved up through the game and plays them—so, one last kick of the can before the jury reaches a verdict. Then all the jurors take off their masks, reveal their Aspects, and herd into the caucus room to light ceeegars and decide on a verdict.
Figuring out who wins in High Treason can get pretty mathy, which some people will find very annoying. Unless the prosecution forfeits through insufficient Evidence of Guilt you have to calculate a score for each juror using their individual attributes and factoring in how much they’ve been swayed during the trial. The prosecution wants this score to be as high as possible for each juror. Add’em all up and if the sum is over a hundred then Riel swings; if not, he walks (and maybe the Bloc never happens).
The game poaches liberally from Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews’ 2007 game 1960: The Making of the President, which in turn owes much to the 2005 classic (and #3 game on the Geek) Twilight Struggle. The cards can be used in a variety of ways during the various phases, and the mechanism of setting aside cards for later is right out of 1960’s “Presidential Debate” mechanic.
Like its spiritual forbearers, High Treason is a set of simultaneous tugs-of-war as prosecution and defence go back and forth swaying jurors and Aspects. The flavour text on the cards adds much to the atmosphere, but cramming it all on in smallish font is hard on these old eyes. High Treason is a typical Victory Point Games production, with laser-etched pieces which will turn your fingers black (what would we do without the complimentary enclosed napkin?) colourful (but flimsy) pasteboard cards, and a board that needs to be folded back on itself to lie flat. On the last page of the rules VPG promises that this is just the first in a line of trial-related games, and invite submissions from the general public with a list of suggested themes including: Socrates, Jesus (!) the Salem Witches, Scopes, and “the dingo ate my baby”. OJ didn’t make it for some reason.
All in all High Treason is a well-balanced game which should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys legal procedurals or wants to learn more about this important piece of Canadian history.