Freedom; Underground Railroad – Review

Type: Co-Operative

Time to play: < 1 hr (Teaching: 15 minutes)

Best played with: 1 player (also co-op)

As I start this review, fair warning I have predominantly played this as a solo and a couple of times as a co-op. I will therefore cover the detail of the game and try to answer a key question – does adding any more players add to this game?

So what is it? Well Freedom is set in 1800s America as slavery is abolished in America. You play a mix of characters, engineering the political support to progress abolitionism and as slaves moving across the country. The goal is simple – free a certain number of slaves (by moving them north on the map) and by all the support tokens on the board. You must achieve both these goals before you lose a certain number of slaves or the time runs out. This combination is great, you are racing pieces across the board, but also trying to get enough money to buy support. You are trying to avoid piece getting stuck at the start of the board and new pieces not “overflowing” the initial sites, but also make watching the 8 turns tick by!

You get given a role card, but no matter that role your actions breakdown into a few basic points: (1) Buy tokens (only two even if they’re support / fundraising) (2) Use two tokens (even if they’re fundraising) (3) Use your special action (4) Buy and use a card (if you can afford it). Outside the game will try to make it harder for you to win.

Your actions drive you forward on the map – getting slaves off the north of the board or getting you money in one form or another. Meanwhile, the automatic actions move the “slave catchers” (either randomly or towards your moves as you select them), or resolve bad effect cards. The bad effect cards limit your fund raising or capture your pieces. Then as the slave market cards deliver at the end of the round, if you haven’t cleared the spaces in the plantations you will lose those pieces permanently and be nearer to losing the game.

The great thing about this game is that there is a very tightly balanced but fair puzzle, with a small but impacting random element in the cards that turn up each time. It’s a delicately pressured game which encourages you to make mistakes but if you can hold your nerve you can often win. It will take you a few goes to get the puzzle, but then it will be a refreshing challenge each time you play. It’s also very good because, with a decent set of bags, this is a super quick set up and take down. You can get through a solo game in 35 – 45 minutes, constantly making decisions.

The other unique feature about this game is the theme. It’s a tough theme and it will turn some people away form the game; and I couldn’t blame them. When you play this game it can feel trivial in dealing with such a weighty part of history and it can feel stressful letting pieces “die” or “get captured” in the way that a Pandemic – Outbreak does not matter that much. This is part of the stress of the game, trying to not make compromises in your strategy. However, the flip side of that is that you can actually learn a few interesting individual events or actions from the game – the cards give you indications of key actions that changed the dynamic of the abolitionist movement. It’s also pretty interesting to consider the balance between saving lives today and changing the political landscape!

The game does have downsides though; this is not a “push your luck” game in my view as whilst you can score the game there is little sense in which you try to win by a bigger margin but further risk your loss. You are typically losing or winning but nothing more in my experience. This impacts some people’s replay-ability; once the puzzle is solved you will likely win it most times. I would say the experience is different each time, but perhaps others would disagree here.

Also, and here’s the key answer… I am not sure that adding players truly makes a difference to the way the game is played. This matters, because whilst this is a good game, the co-op is not different to the solo and that means the co-op can be dominated in the way that one player can fundamentally “solve” the answer for everyone.

Last notes:

  • If you like solo playing (and I am only new to it) this will give a real sense of achievement and success. For me it’s also got good replay-ability.
  • If you want to compete, or if your co-op group has a dominant “solver” in it, perhaps pass this one…
  • If you win at this game then you have figured out a couple of core tactics that allow you to beat the game – flip the tile, and try hard mode! If that’s not enough, then just try and do the whole challenge in 7 turns instead of 8!

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