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Freedom - the Underground Railroad gives 1-4 players the opportunity to become abolitionists in the fight against slavery in 19th centur...

Freedom The Underground Railroad Freedom The Underground Railroad

Freedom The Underground Railroad

Freedom The Underground Railroad


Freedom - the Underground Railroad gives 1-4 players the opportunity to become abolitionists in the fight against slavery in 19th century America.  Loosely, it is a cooperative, pick-up-and-deliver game that not only presents players with a satisfying movement puzzle during each round; it does so wrapped up in a surprisingly elegant ruleset that takes under 10 minutes to teach.

One of the enduring images in my brain from my childhood schooling was the famous Brooke's slave ship diagram. The horrors of such an Atlantic crossing are unimaginable and the slaves' subsequent lives in America, unbearable to consider. However, in this game, all players are working together to help your cubes/slaves escape into Canada and freedom.

You can watch my unboxing video below, apologies for the rambling discussion prior to opening the box. Skip to 2:43 to actually get to the box opening.

Gameplay

The games plays out over 8 rounds in which players have to move slave cubes along 'the railroad' of interconnected cities whilst avoiding the slave catchers.  Each round has five phases, three of which are purely mechanical with no decision points. In the other two, the Planning and Action Phases, players are deciding which tokens to purchase from the intentionally-very-limited supply (Planning Phase), and which slave cubes to move and where (Action Phase).
Players start with 8 money. The Conductor's ability is almost essential.
The Planning and Action Phase are bookended by a beginning Slave Catcher Phase which consists of rolling 2 unique d6 to determine slave catcher movement, and the final phases in a round of the Slave Market phase and Lantern Phase, The Slave Market Phase hopefully fill up the plantations with slaves. I say hopefully because if there is no space on the plantation then slaves in the market are lost.  Losing slaves is inevitable in this game and even though it is a game and the number of lost slaves is a primary victory condition, it didn't feel nice to move those cubes into the 'slave lost' box at all. I have, however, no objection to the mechanic and it very abstractly reflects the brutal reality of the slaves' existence.

Each player also has a role with once-per-round special power and one ability that can be used once per game. The roles are all anti-slavery abolitionists and reflect the history of the actual underground railroad's terminology. The historical aspect of many Academy Games' games keeps me coming back to them, and the treatment of slavery in this is a fun way to learn about important history that still has ripples in modern society.
Halfway through a solo game. Not many slaves escaped so far...
I lost.
The game is challenging no matter what player-count and victory is never guaranteed. In all my plays of this game, the first 2 or 3 rounds pass as just a satisfying yet achievable optimisation puzzle trying to avoid the slave catchers and you are able to lose few slaves. New players could be fooled into thinking this is an easy game.  The last few rounds, however, are anything but easy. You ruthlessly may have to knowingly sacrifice one slave to save 2 or more from the slave catchers and inevitably there is not enough room on the plantations after the slave market.

If I haven't lost the game before turn 8 (I'd like to think my win ratio has been about 30%, but it's probably lower) then it is always a neck and neck race to save the required number of slaves whilst avoiding the game-ending slave-lost number.  The required victory conditions are different for every player count and the gameplay, in terms of difficulty, feels similar at all player counts. The game is finely balanced, players never romp to victory and the game engine is especially threatening from the mid-game onwards.
4 Player endgame ... we lost
The most unique aspect of this game, for me, is the manner in which the slave catchers move. A random Slave Catcher movement will happen at the beginning of every turn and if they ever land on a space containing a run-away slave then the slave is returned to the slave market. However, as slaves move northwards they may cause certain slave catchers to move one space along a predetermined path. This mechanism is an elegant yet difficult puzzle and really makes this game stand out.  It doesn't sound difficult on paper but you are forced to consider multiple moves ahead (no easy feat) to see which and when slaves should move.
A beautiful yet fiendish puzzle. You're going to lose slaves.

Components

Any 'elegant' game should have few rules, right? Well, this is just 8 pages which includes setup. The rules are excellently written, and after one or two rounds of your first game (20 minutes or so) all players will have seen and understood all the gameplay mechanics. There was only one edge-case which wasn't immediately resolved by turning to the rule book - regarding Northern fundraising, if you're interested.

The graphic design is fairly simple yet sympathetic to the period and theme of the game. The icons are all intuitive and the components themselves, I would imagine, lend themselves well to any sight-impaired gamer.

The board, tokens and components are all of an excellent quality and I found absolutely nothing to criticise production of this game.

Criticisms

The history geek inside me would have liked to have seen more historical 'fluff' on the cards and the board. Most cards have two or three lines of fluff at the bottom which wasn't satisfying enough for me. However, I do appreciate the design of the components and adding more text would have been detrimental to the look of the game.  You do get 2 pages of history in the rule book but not many gamers at game night are going to be exposed to that. 

The only negative aspect of this game for me, and this is purely subjective, is that it is a fully co-operative game. Although I have had fun playing this with a group, (it does play a bit long with a full complement of players) I prefer competitive games when playing multiplayer. Hence, I prefer to play this game solo, for the head-space. As with most co-ops, the solo rules are no different from the standard game and you can either play multiple characters or play in true solo mode (which is, in my opinion, harder and more satisfying) where you only play with one abolitionist.
Did I say you want to  have the Conductor in your team?

Conclusion

Slavery is not an easy topic to make into a game but it has been done excellently here. I would go so far as to say that this is one of my favourite solo games at the moment. If I don't have the time or energy for Mage Knight or a solo wargame and no other players around, then this is currently my go-to game. I can complete a solo game in approximately 50 minutes and the slave-catcher movement puzzle is rewarding.
Clear and short rulebook
I wasn't expecting the game to be as light as it is, but this doesn't detract anything from the gameplay which is simple yet still satisfying. The side-effect of being exposed to important history, events and people of the 'railroad' is gratefully received, and will hopefully serve me in good stead for pub-quizzes. 

I would recommend this to any person, whether they're a gamer or not, as either:  a fun game, an introduction to unique mechanics, an educational tool, a first step into cooperative board games, a challenging optimisation puzzle, an simple exploration of the Trolley Problem (apt no?) or a great solo game. It ticks all of those boxes.

Thanks to Academy Games for sending this review copy.

Publisher: Academy Games
Website: https://www.academygames.com/pages/freedom
Players: 1-4
Designer: Brian Mayer
Playing time: 1-2 hours

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