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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

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

19th century

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.


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.


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.


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?


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
Players: 1-4
Designer: Brian Mayer
Playing time: 1-2 hours

At Any Cost Metz 1870 by GMT Games  The Franco-Prussian War; not many besides historians and wargamers have even ...

At Any Cost Metz 1870 by GMT Games At Any Cost Metz 1870 by GMT Games

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

19th century


 The Franco-Prussian War; not many besides historians and wargamers have even heard about it. The Franco-Prussian War is really the catalyst for the events of the next seventy-five years in European history. If France had not lost this war, and had Germany not taken Alsace-Lorraine from her as one of the spoils our world might be very different. France's burning desire for revenge and the return of those areas was one of the main reasons behind World War I. Had Germany not lost World War I there would have been no need for a second war with Germany looking for revenge. The Franco-Prussian War was the last act in Bismarck's successful attempt to unite Germany under Prussia. 

Full Map

 The next part about the Franco-Prussian War was not just how France lost, but how she lost so badly. There have been few wars where one side had weapons that were so technologically enhanced over the other side yet still lost (except for wars of liberation). The French rifle, the 'Chassepot', had a range twice that of the Prussian rifle. It also had a higher rate of fire. The French also had the Mitrailleuse that was the first well functioning machine gun used in large numbers on the battlefield. Time and again, the Prussians and their Allies stormed into the hail of lead that was thrown at them by the French forces. The Mitrailleuse was, unfortunately for the French, used as an artillery piece, and rarely made its presence felt as much as it should have. The war came down to a lop-sided game of chess between the efficient Prussian Generals, and the lax, and almost comatose French generals. The French High Command acted like prey transfixed by the eyes of a serpent. More than a few times, the Prussians and their Allies broke or almost broke under the weight of French fire while attacking. The French High Command could not overcome their malaise, and constantly pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.

First Counter Sheet

 At Any Cost is a simulation (I hate using the word 'game' for a wargame) of the French Army under Marshal Bazaine's attempt to escape from the environs of the fortress of Metz, and meet with another army under Napoleon III. The six scenarios of the game take place during August 15th to August 18th 1870. They run from small two corp battles on each side to two different campaign scenarios. 

Second Counter Sheet

 This 'game' uses the 'Blind Swords System' to play out the different battles. It is essentially a chit-pull system that emphasizes the three 'FOWs' of war: fog-of-war, friction-of-war, and fortunes-of-war. The Blind Swords System is meant to put the player on the horns of a dilemma and to keep him there during the entire game. The game itself is based upon infantry brigades, cavalry, and artillery. This was the last war where cavalry really made any useful contribution on the actual battlefield. The situation that the Prussians find themselves in is that they have lost the French Army. The Prussians outnumber the French, but due to fatigue and weather Bazaine's Army has escaped their grasp. The French forces are trying to go West, however their somnambulist state plays against them at every turn. The Prussians find the French, but assume that it is their rearguard. Unfortunately for them it is actually the slow moving French vanguard. 

Map Close up from the 'A Day Of Battle' scenario

 So what do you actually get with the game:

 RuleBook - With play examples
 Playbook - This contains the scenarios, and the historical notes
 Game Track Card
 Prussian Strategic movement Card
 4 - Player Aid Cards ( 2-Prussian, 2-French)
 4 - Ten-sided Die (1-Blue, 1-Red, 2-White)
 22" x 34" map
 Two Standard Size Counter Sheets

 The six scenarios are :

 The Afternoon Crisis (Small Battle Scenario)
 Twilight Of The Guards (Small Battle Scenario)
 A Day of Battle (Full Battle Scenario)
 Bloody Thursday (Full Battle Scenario)
 A Beckoning Victory (Campaign Scenario)
 It Will Cost What It Will (Campaign Scenario)

 The sequence of play is:

1. Planning Phase
2. Chit Draw Phase
3. Activation Phase
 A. HQ Command Step
 B. Fire Combat Step
 C. Movement Step
 D. Assault Combat Step
 E. Rally Step
 F. Out Of Command Step
4. End Turn Phase
 A. French Command Step
 B. Prussian Command Step
 C. Victory Determination Step
 D. Housekeeping Step
 The Rulebook is twenty-eight pages long. Both it and the Playbook are in color and well set up and easy to read. The counters and map are your typical GMT fare. Which means they are extremely well done with great artwork. On the map each hex represents 500 yards. 

 This is a few of the French Event Chit Descriptions:
 Beaten Zone: Play immediately of hold. Any one French Infantry or Mitrailleuse unit conducts an immediate fire combat following all normal procedures.
 Command Initiative: Hold. Play at the end of any enemy's HQ Command Step (after the opponent assigns an Order to the activated HQ units). Roll a die and apply the following.
 1-2 = Active HQ unit is given a different Order by the Prussian Player.
 3-4 = Active HQ unit is given a different Order by the French Player.
 5 = Active HQ unit must be given a March Order.
 6 = Active HQ unit must be given a Defend Order.
 7 = Active HQ unit must be given a Regroup Order.
 8 = Active HQ unit must be given an Attack Order.
 9-10 = National Doctrine: French HQ must be given a Defend Order. Prussian HQ must be given an Attack Order. 

 So, you can see by the chits how the Blind Swords System at times actually gives your opponent the chance to change your own forces' orders. This unique use of the chit pull system has now become the ultimate in fog-of-war. You,as the French Player, could give your HQ's defend orders only to see the Prussian Player able to change your orders to attack and vice versa. Remember that the chief goal of the French Player is to escape (in the campaign scenarios). So, not only is good play needed on the tactical level, you must also be ready to have all of your well thought out plans thrown to the winds. The system took an old grog like me a little bit of getting used to. Then I was able to embrace it, and see how artfully it depicts not only the fog-of-war, but also the friction, and fortunes-of-war. 

This is the setup for my favorite scenario 'Twilight Of The Guards'

 I have been a student of this war since I was a child. I have played out these battles in my mind and table for the last fifty years. I can say, unfortunately for me, this game is the best tactical representation of the conflict I have played. I said unfortunately because I have always wanted the French to win these battles. The smaller scenarios, including my favorite 'Twilight Of The Guards' are able to show how close the French came to victory, and can actually have the French winning them. The campaign scenarios are a bit tougher on the French side to win. The 'French Army Morning Deployment Rule' (they are essentially laying in their tents waiting for water to boil for their cafe) in the campaign scenarios really hamstring the French Army's retreat. This is not a bad thing, and is totally historic, but it is tough to overcome. I have liked the postings I have seen by the designer Hermann Luttmann, and his very prompt answers to game questions. He also does not treat the rules as if they were etched in stone, but encourages players to experiment with changes to them. That is the one thing that board games will always have over computer ones. If you find a rule that is non-historical or doesn't work, don't use it and make your own. It's your game.

 I can unequivocally recommend this game to anyone with an interest in the era. I can also recommend the Blind Sword System to grogs who are looking for a change of pace. The system is going to be used in a number of upcoming games from the 19th century.

 This is a link to the Rulebook:

 This is a link to the Errata and FAQ:
 This is an excellent write up about the Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat:


The Sirdar and The Khalifa by   Mark Simner    'Khartoum', a big motion picture from Hollywood, was made in...

The Sirdar and The Khalifa by Mark Simner The Sirdar and The Khalifa by Mark Simner

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

19th century


  'Khartoum', a big motion picture from Hollywood, was made in 1966. It starred Laurence Olivier as the 'Mahdi', and Charlton Heston as 'Chinese Gordon'. Like many movies, it plays with the actual history. However, unlike most it follows the historical narrative fairly closely. The movie deals with how England came to be entangled with Sudan. If you haven't seen it, take a gander. It is a perfect segue for this book.

 Like the movie, the author begins with the history of Sudan and the rise of Muhammad Ahmed as the 'Mahdi' the expected one of Islam. According to either Sunni or Shia beliefs and writings, the Mahdi will rule all of Islam before Jesus comes back for Judgement Day. The book takes us back to the early days of Muhammad Ahmed's life, and goes into the history of the Sudan, explaining that it was considered a part of Egypt at the time. Egypt was still considered a part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. Egypt was ruled by a 'Khedive', roughly a governor for the Ottoman Sultan. Egypt however, was only nominally under Turkish rule, and was greatly under English sway.

 The Khedive's armies were smashed by the Mahdist forces, so he asked England for help. The English prime minister refused to get involved other than to send General Gordon to supervise the removal of Egyptian citizens out of Sudan. Gordan had other ideas. He attempted to fight the Mahdists with the few troops on hand in Khartoum. Gordon and the troops were then besieged in Khartoum. At this time public opinion forced the English government to form a relief force to save him. The relief force was under Lord Wolsley. It was too little and too late. Gordon was killed with the relief force just days away. This was in 1885. This campaign was where Kipling came up with his poem 'Fuzzy Wuzzy'. This was an English term for the Sudanese warriors. Strangely, the poem praises the Sudanese warriors' valor and commends them on the fact that they 'broke a British square'.

 The above history takes up roughly the first third of the book, just so the reader can get a grasp of the history up to the main part of the book. British involvement continued to grow in Egypt, and in 1892 Lord Kitchener became the 'Sirdar' or Commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Egyptian army. 

 The Mahdi had died not too long after the fall of Khartoum to his forces. His Sudanese uprising continued under one of the three men he named as Khalipha (Caliph) Abdullahi Al-Taishi. The British press still campaigned for England to avenge Gordon. 

 The rest of the book covers the campaign of Kitchener to reconquer Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian Army was now much better trained and armed. The battles of Omdurman and others are shown to the reader. These include some of the last successful cavalry charges in history, including none other than a young Winston Churchill with the 21st lancers at Omdurman. Omdurman was the last great battle between a European army and one of so called 'savages'. Although the Sudanese fought valiantly, the Anglo-Egyptian Army was even equipped with some early machine guns, so the issue was never really in doubt. 

 The author, Mark Simner, knows his history well, and writes engagingly about it. He even continues with the 'Fashoda Incident', which almost brought Britain and France to war in 1898.

 The book comes with five pages of maps. It also includes thirty-two pages of black and white photos of the campaign.


Book: The Sirdar And The Khalifa
Author: Mark Simner
Publisher: Fonthill Media
Distributor: Casemate Publishers