Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Design by Brian Mayer
Published by Academy Games
1 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Freedom - cover

There are some subjects that many game designers feel are taboo, as they are likely to prove far too sensitive for a sizeable segment of the population.  The holocaust as a game theme would undoubtedly be offensive to nearly all folks of the Jewish faith, as well as many others.  Games featuring the Nazi party as a central element would likely be upsetting to many folks, and from my understanding, would be banned in Germany.  The terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers would likely prove offensive to many Americans if used as a theme.  Even though  these topics are historical, using them as a subject for games would be a risky venture and likely incur the wrath of a large segment of the population.

Included on this list is a game about slavery in the United States.  This subject understandably touches a raw nerve in anyone of African ancestry in the U.S.  The institution was so brutal and deadly that even more than 150 years after its abolition, it is still an extremely sensitive subject, even when examined in a scholarly manner.  Making it the subject of a board game is close to anathema.  Yes, it has been a small aspect of a few games in the past, but it is usually handled in a very abstract manner.  To my knowledge, it has never been the central subject of a game…until now.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad by designer Brian Mayer and published by Academy Games breaks new ground in focusing on slavery in the United States, particularly during the 1800s.  Fortunately, players are not required to assume the role of slave traders or plantation owners.  Rather, they represent benevolent forces attempting to guide the slaves to freedom via the shadowy “underground railroad” network.  The cooperative game is largely card driven and expertly interweaves historical persons, places and events into a challenging and, dare I say, fun game.

Freedom- game setupThe large board is divided into two main sections.  One section depicts the eastern section of the United States and lower Canada, which is the ultimate destination for the escaping slaves.  There are routes leading to various cities and unnamed locations.  Slaves will travel along these routes, hoping to avoid the slave catchers, whose job it is to capture the slaves and return them to the plantations via the slave markets.  Reaching Canada is the goal, and if the players can successfully guide the required number of slaves (which varies based on the number of players) to that country and garner enough support, victory is achieved.

The left section of the board serves as a repository for the game tokens and cards that will be used during the three time periods:  1830 – 1839; 1840 – 1859; and 1860 – 1865.  The tokens correspond with the actions the players can take, and these are limited by type and time period.  Each turn players will decide which tokens to take and how they should be divided amongst them.

The game begins with 16 slaves divided amongst the three plantations, all of which are located in the deep South.  Players each receive a character card that gives a good summary of the turn phases, as well as lists a special power unique to that character.  Each player has a small personal treasury of $8, which is usually expended quickly.  One of the challenges of the game is to secure a steady source of income, as the costs of caring for these freedom-seeking souls and mustering support for the abolitionist cause are steep.

A game turn follows a set sequence:

Slave Catcher Phase.  As mentioned, players do not assume the role of slave catchers.  That would undoubtedly by highly objectionable to many people.  Rather, the game system assumes this role.  Two dice are rolled, with the symbol and arrows depicted determining the direction and distance the indicated slave catcher moves.  If he ends his movement on a location containing one or more slaves, those slaves are captured and sent back to the slave markets.

Player must keep a careful eye on the potential spaces where the five slave catchers may move.  It is best to stay out of their range, but this is usually impossible.  Thus, risks must be taken.  Fortunately, only one slave catcher at most will move each turn, so the risk can be minimized.  Indeed, in most of our games, the slave catchers proved to be more of a nuisance than a dire threat.

Planning Phase.  An assortment of tokens are available each era.  These tokens generally grant a player income or allows the player to move slaves.  The amount of income is dependent upon the location of the runaway slaves, with the incentive switching to the north–and therefore closer to freedom–in the final period.  The movement tokens grant the player the ability to move a specified number of slaves, usually one or two spaces.  There are limits to how many slaves each space can handle, so proper planning is necessary.  A third type of token is the support token, which cost a whopping $10 apiece.  Players must collect all of these support tokens (3 – 16, depending upon the number of players) in order to fulfill one of the victory requirements.

During the planning phase, each player has the opportunity to take up to two of the available tokens from the current period.  There is a cost to obtaining all but the fundraising tokens, but this cost cannot be shared between the players.  Players can, of course, discuss options and decide how the tokens will be divided.  The available source of tokens is not replenished, with the sole exception of one conductor token, which is returned at the end of the turn that the token is used.  So, the supply can and will deplete.  Care should be taken lest all of the movement or fundraising tokens are depleted, leaving players with fewer options on the next turn.

The tokens also serve as a trigger for moving from one time period to the next. When all tokens are depleted from a period, the game moves to the next period, with those tokens now becoming available.  It also triggers a change in the Abolitionist cards, which will be explained presently.

Action Phase.  In turn order, players execute their actions, which usually involves using the tokens they acquired to raise funds or move slaves.  In addition, they may also use their character’s role benefit or one-time special ability.

A player may also purchase one of the five Abolitionist cards on display.  These cards depict actual historical figures, places and events and add great historical atmosphere to the proceedings.  They also provide a very nice, albeit brief history lesson, which is something I greatly appreciate.  The cards provide a variety of benefits to the players, but sometimes can also serve as a hindrance (these are known as “Opposition” cards).  The latter generally remain in the display until the end of a time period or until players purchase them, usually hindering or restricting the players in some fashion until they are removed.  Purchasing the cards does remove the restrictions the card imposes and clears the display for better cards. but usually at a cost.

In lieu of taking any actions, a player may pass and take funds from the bank, the amount varying from $3 – $5, depending upon the time period.  Funds can be extremely tight, so sometimes this is a viable alternative.

A few more words on the movement of slaves is in order.  Slaves must move along the Freedom - boardvarious routes depicted on the map.  Most spaces (small cities) can only accommodate one slave, while larger cities can hold up to four slaves.  When a slave ends his movement on a space, it may trigger one or more slave catchers to move one space towards that location.  This is based on the colored slave catcher routes, if any, that intersect that city.  Thus, care must be exercised lest those abominable slave catchers move into a location containing another slave or slaves.

Further, some cities generate income for the player when a slave ends his turn there.  As mentioned, income is tight, so it is usually advisable to maneuver slaves to these locations whenever possible, provided the risk is not too great.

Slave Market Phase.  The slave market is represented by a deck of cards, three of which will be visible.  Each market has space for 4 – 9 slaves, depending upon the number of players.  Fortunately, there is no mechanism for the auctioning of slaves, as that would prove highly objectionable to most people. Rather, slaves in the bottom market are automatically distributed to the three plantations as players see fit.  If some slaves cannot fit, they are moved to the “Slaves Lost” track, which can hold up to 20 slaves, depending upon the number of players and the level of difficulty selected.  If that track fills, the game is lost. Thus, players must constantly be moving slaves from the plantations, insuring that sufficient space is available for new arrivals.

Lantern Phase.  This is the “clean-up and prepare” phase.  Abolitionist cards are slid to the right and refilled in preparation for the next round.

The game continues in this fashion until either the players lose or achieve victory, or until the completion of the eighth round.  To win, players must purchase all of the Support tokens and move the required number of slaves to freedom in Canada.  Players collectively lose if they fail to achieve this by the end of the eighth round.  Additionally, players can lose if the Slaves Lost track is completely filled, which is a sad occurrence indeed.  A game generally takes about two hours to complete.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad is, no doubt, a venture fraught with risk.  People can be sensitive, sometimes overly so.  However, in the case of the subject of slavery, this sensitivity is certainly justifiable and understandable.  It is a dark period in our nation’s history, one that caused incomprehensible suffering, turmoil and death.  It boggles my mind how any sane person could have justified such an evil practice.  With such a potentially incendiary topic, one has to tread very carefully and keep in mind people’s sensitivities.

The safest path would no doubt be to avoid the subject completely.  Yet, there is no denying that the slave industry is a historical fact and played a major role in our country’s development and history.  To omit it from a game or discussion that focuses on the time period in which it flourished would provide a less than complete representation.

Designer Brian Mayer and Academy Games are to be applauded for dealing with this subject in a historical yet sensitive manner.  The game itself evokes the feel of history, with the historical information provided on the Abolitionist cards greatly adding to the atmosphere and players’ awareness of the characters and events that shaped this time period.  Even the map and board are artistically designed to enhance the historical atmosphere.

The game is quite challenging.  I’ve both lost and won, and each time the outcome has been in grave doubt until the end.  Finding a completely safe path past the slave catchers is extremely difficult; risks must be taken.  Each time the slave catcher dice are rolled, players are hoping to avoid capture.  There is a palpable tenseness to the proceedings.  Further, the proceedings can be made easier or more difficult with various rules alterations, all of which are included.

Choosing the tokens during the planning stage also requires careful planning and consideration.  There must be a balance between moving slaves and gaining income.  Since actions are performed in turn order, it is very important to carefully decide which tokens are to be taken by which players.  Performing the actions during the Actions phase also requires careful planning and thought.  The capacity limitations in the various cities can easily cause log-jams, making it difficult to vacate the plantations.  Players must keep the slaves marching continuously northward, leaving numerous spaces to which more slaves can flee.  Failure to do so will result in slaves being sent to the Slaves Lost track, which can fill quickly.

The selection and play of Abolitionist cards plays a major role in the game.  Taking advantage of the benefits these cards offer is critical to success.  Plans, however, can be thwarted by the appearance of the Opposition cards, which can throw the proverbial monkey wrench into their plans.

Being a history buff, the game Freedom: The Underground Railroad does an excellent job of drawing me in.  Since the subject matter is so distasteful and appalling on so many levels, I don’t want to lose.  At some point, I am no longer moving wooden cubes across a map; I am actually attempting to guide these people to freedom.  Having a slave captured is not just a setback; it is disheartening.  The Slaves Lost track is even more disturbing, not only in name, but by what it represents.  On the brighter side, I feel a sense of joy when a slave reaches Canada, and am ecstatic as more and more get to taste the rich ecstasy of freedom.  It is truly rare for a game to be able to engross and engage me in such a fashion.  Freedom: The Underground Railroad accomplishes this feat, and expertly deals with an extremely sensitive topic in a challenging, thought-provoking and entertaining manner.  Bravo!

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Jeff Allers: I would love to play this sometime, as it seems to be abstracted enough to be accessible without losing its thematic flavor, which is obviously very important for the game to succeed. I have not played it, so I cannot give it a rating, but I could not resist publicly taking my hat off to the designer and publisher.  By most accounts, this is “educational gaming” done right, and it’s another step forward in elevating the medium to an interactive art form.

Matt Carlson: I find myself echoing everyone else’s comments.  It is rare for an educational game to also be an enjoyable game.  This is one of those rare gems.  To top things off, it attempts (and succeeds) to convey information about a very touchy subject.  In terms of game play, the abolitionist cards are definitely key to succeeding at the game.  (They also are the best source of historical information in the game.)  In our first game we focused on pushing forward to each new era as fast as possible, but then stagnated in the last area and losing because we couldn’t clear the plantations fast enough.  Money is definitely tight, and I suppose it is the mark of a good game that you need to focus on keeping income going and focus on using the abolitionist cards well… oh, and focus on moving the slaves moving north to provide space for the slaves to move off the plantations.  My one regret would be that the game takes much  more than an hour – a time frame that would be perfect for use in the classroom.

As mentioned, the theme is rather gripping and is well implemented.  Reflecting on the game after my first play, I noticed by many of my in-game actions were not the most optimal for each situation.  What Greg was calling “taking risks” was to me (at least potentially) sacrificing some slaves for the good of others, something I was uncomfortable doing even to the detriment of my optimal game performance.  Perhaps the game’s theme is so gripping because of its subject matter but it is gripping nonetheless. Kudos to Academy Games for such an amazing game.

Ignoring the game’s educational aspects, I would place it very high in the “I Like It” category, just behind “I Love It”.  The long-ish timeframe for the game is the main minor setback.  Too many of my gaming opportunities will not be able to fit the game.  Ignoring my personal time limitations, or if one takes into account the general public good provided by its educational value, then the game easily bumps up to “I Love It”.


4 (Love it!):  Greg J. Schloesser
3 (Like it):  Matt Carlson
2 (Neutral):
1 (Not for me):

About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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3 Responses to Freedom: The Underground Railroad

  1. I definitely want to give this a few more plays, especially since everyone is singing its praises, but I was really captured by it. It’s strange because I haven’t seen anyone ambivalent about it, much less out right disliking it. Perhaps no one wants to be the person who doesn’t like the anti-slavery game?

    I definitely enjoyed the historical flavor and the questions that it brought up, but I still have concerns about the game play.

    How did you feel about the slaves being such passive entities? They do exactly as you command, seemingly without agency of their own. They can only follow freedom as a result of your actions. I think it’s an interesting facet worth exploring.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      For each player to role-play a single slave would also be an interesting game, though one quite different from this one, that seems to take the perspective of those who aided the escaped slaves.

  2. Excellent review, Greg.

    Freedom: TUR is a rare bird. A game oozing theme that isn’t a wargame. And accessible for beginners, too. One area, however, where I think it could have been more to my liking is in the scope it allows play. Players see options gradually removed until a handful of poor plays remain, and then these are sometimes whittled down even further.

    This is frustrating, though absolutely realistic. I have been shown secret rooms, false paneling, and hidden doorways in old houses in the area where I live. Escaped slaves on the underground railway moved slowly from house to yonder barn. Those who offered safe harbor took great risks and some paid a heavy price.

    A possible way around play being so limited might have been for the designer to have added an extra component, something like The Message, where resources could be diverted to printing Abolitionist literature and speakers urging greater participation. The effect would be to allow an increased number of freedom-seeking slave tokens on specific ‘hot beds’ of Abolitionist fervor. This would add complexity (markers to identify ‘hot beds’), so it’s possible the idea was considered and rejected, but it would have greatly increased the scope of possible plays, and thus goosed the fun factor.

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