I am fascinated by games with challenging subjects. The subjects themselves are, of course, interesting and deep. But I am more interested in how a game designer will choose to handle the topic at hand. Two things need to be addressed: the core of the subject and everything that resonates from it, as well as the mechanisms of the game.
Brenda Romero has created a series of games that pertain to difficult subject matters. Her best known game in this series is Train. However, it is easy to realize that the mechanisms of the game are not important. What is important is what the discovery of the game's meaning invokes. Truth be told, Train (and her entire series) aren't really games. They are interactive art. That is fine and important.
But what if you want to handle a challenging subject, but also want a game? Herein lies the challenge for the designer. If things become too abstracted, then the game is about the mechanisms and the resonance of the subject is lost. If the game is too easy, then you may be innately stating that the circumstances of the subject aren't really too difficult or complex. Likewise, if you make it too difficult, then perhaps you are paying too much mind to the subject and not the actual mechanisms to make a playable game.
Brian Mayer has addressed the issues of slavery and Abolitionist movement in the United States in the 1800's with his game Freedom: The Underground Railroad.
Freedom is a cooperative game for 1-4 players in which the players take on the roles of members of the abolitionist movement who need to strike a balance of leading escaped slaves from southern plantations to the safety of Canada and raising enough funds to further their movement and spread the idea of freedom.
Each player takes one of the eight roles in the game at random, which gives each player their own ability as well as a unique once-per-game ability. The roles range from Preacher to Stock Holder to Conductor to Station Master and represent a range of people actively working in the abolitionist movement at the time.
The southern Plantations are seeded with slaves (represented by simple naked wooden cubes) and the slave ships which arrive at the end of each Round are also filled with slaves ready to be added to the Plantations' numbers.
Cards are laid out on a track for purchase. These represent events and people which helped aid the escape of slaves to the north as well as aided in financing and bringing awareness to the movement. However, Opposition Cards are also mixed into these decks, which represent the pitfalls, dangers, challenges and setbacks that struck the movement. Their random appearances in the card track generally harm the abolitionist movement.
The goal of the game is to lead a set number of slaves to Canada and to have purchased enough support for the movement. Both of these goals must be achieved to win. However, the players lose if they fail to do this before eight rounds have passed or if they have lost more slaves than they are allowed to lose for the game's Slave Lost Track (it varies by difficulty and number of players).
Players can purchase Conductor Tokens which will help them move slaves along routes to the north. However, five Slave Catchers also move along certain routes, blocking and hindering movement. If a slave moves into a space that is part of a Slave Catcher's route, then the Slave Catcher moves one space closer to the slave. Slave Catchers can also move by a die roll at the start of the turn. If a Slave Catcher ends up in the same space as one or more slaves, then they are caught and distributed onto the slave ships that will be added to the Plantations at the end of the round.
However, the game isn't just about freeing individual slaves. It also focuses on the Abolitionist Movement's attempt to gain support and political and popular momentum. This is represented by the need to purchase expensive Support Tokens as part of the goal of the game. Purchasing these tokens takes a toll on resources as it depletes money, but it also counts as one of the two tokens a player can purchase a turn. So if you purchase a Support Token, then you can only purchase one Conductor Token.
A player can also take a Fundraising Token (again, taking out of the small supply of tokens available to purchase). Fundraising Tokens allow a player to raise money for each escaped slave in either a southern or northern space. Players can also gain money by moving the slaves to the north. In many of the cities and spaces, a player gains a bit of money when they move a slave into the space, which represents aid and contributions from the local communities to help further the slave's escape efforts.
At the end of the round, the slave ships arrive. All of the slaves on the slave ships are added to the Plantations. If, however, the Plantation spaces are full, then the slaves that cannot be places go onto the Slave Lost Track. If too many slaves are placed on it, then the players immediately lose.
This creates a delicate need for balance. Money and support is needed desperately to further the cause, but focusing too much it means you will not be able to move slaves out of the Plantations fast enough and more and more slaves will be lost. However, if one focuses too much on freeing the escaped slaves, then the group will never advance enough support in order to ultimately bring about the abolishment of slavery in their time.
For the game's mechanisms, it is a difficult cooperative game. The game forces difficult decisions to be made since such a delicate balance of objectives are required. The card track presents the main variety for replayability. While I would have preferred more cards, there is a mini-expansion pack which allows for the card set to be changed up a bit, offering more variety. However, even without that, the timing of when certain cards appear will create enough variety that the game should not become repetitive in strategy for a long while. Each of the roles creates enough uniqueness in their abilities that everyone should feel that they have their own ability to contribute in a unique fashion. Some roles are simply better at doing some things than others. Freedom doesn't eliminate the cooperative game's problem with the "alpha player" syndrome, but, in my opinion, that is generally more of an issue with your group than your game.
While the gameplay and mechanisms are vastly different, I feel out of my cooperative games, Freedom reminds me of playing Pandemic the most. In our early days of gaming, my wife and I played literally hundreds of games of Pandemic and it was always a challenge to figure out the puzzle of optimal solution.
Freedom feels a little bit like a puzzle in that regard. Looking at the board each round, it feels as if there is an optimal solution for your movements. Truth be told, there are often several semi-optimal routes to be taken, but never one clear path, which is a little different than the more puzzle-feel of Pandemic. Strategies can be divergent, but still work. At the end of the game, win or loss, I've never felt that I wasn't challenged or that, had I undone a poor play or two, the game would have been "unsolvable".
There are obvious abstractions to the theme. Slaves are represented as naked wooden cubes. The Slave Catchers are tokens with geometric shapes on them (to aid with color-blind players). And slaves that cannot be placed in the Plantations end up on the Slaves Lost Track. This is another abstraction left to be intentionally vague and it is up to the player to interpret their fates. Did they die along the Middle Passage? Were they not purchased because there were so many available and were disposed of in other ways? Or were they buried so far into the system, that there would never be any hope of escape for them?
Most of the hard history lessons, however, come from the cards. While each card has an effect on the game, each card also represents a person, place or event as well. At the bottom of each card are a couple of lines of historical "flavor" text. It is easy to pass over the text and just read the effect of the card, however, they are worth reading as they are very interesting. Some are simply trivia, but others help to expand on what the time period was like.
At the end of the day, Freedom does a good job of balancing theme and mechanisms to make a playable game. Loss of a cube to the Slaves Lost Track is painful, but does not stop the game. Unless you take the time to pause to consider what it means. This is left up to the individuals playing and can be used for a good teaching point.
As a Teaching Tool:
I've found that Freedom: The Underground Railroad serves as an excellent teaching tool about the abolitionist movement and the period of slavery leading up to and through the Civil War. The reason why it is such a good teaching tool is that the game presents its lessons at the pace that the players want. It serves as a means to learn without being heavy-handed in its lessons.
In fact, the most common misconception about the period that I have seen taught was the fact that merely making it to the Northern States did not equate freedom for a runaway slave. You would be surprised at how many people did not realize that there were laws about returning runaway slaves found in the North to their "owners" in the South. This is why the game ends with Canada as being the final destination.
But beyond that, the game can be used as a tool for teaching social studies students about the era. The Abolitionist and Opposition cards each have an effect that is thematic to its source. But as a card comes it, it doesn't hurt to read the flavor text to a young student and use it is a starting point for brief dialogue.
Some of the cards are merely trivia points, such as Henry "Box" Brown who mailed himself to freedom. However, others can lead to more specific places, instances or ideas, such as the "Gag Rules" that tried to silence the abolitionists within Congress from opining on matters of slavery.
What works best for this is that the game allows players to learn without making them feel uninformed. This means that a group of adults can sit around to play the game and can learn something without feeling stupid. For every player that I have explained that just reaching the northern states did not mean freedom without fear of being returned, all took the information with interest.
Naked Wooden Cubes:
Perhaps the choice was too abstract. I don't know. It is easy to simply push it along a track or count it for victory or loss and completely forget what it represents. The cubes aren't color coded or marked to represent families being separated. Maybe it would be better to see how spread apart families have become with little chance of reuniting. But then again, it is easy to forget what the cubes represent. We start to see them as obstacles or goals, figures on ledgers to win or lose by. We forget what we are dealing with as we send one cube out as a distraction to allow three more to move by. We move the cubes onto the Lost Track. We stop seeing what the naked wooden cubes represent.
Then part way through the game, you remember.
And you see how easily you've been treating lives as simple naked wooden cubes.
It was a good choice.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad finds a balance between being an educational tool and a good game. I enjoy playing the game and I enjoy trying to piece together how to win. But I also like to use the game to teach. It is a great tool to open discussion to youth groups and social studies classes. But it isn't just a teaching tool. And it isn't just a game.
It is a hybrid. And it is one that will remain on my shelf for a long time. My daughter is a little young to really learn much about the abolitionist era leading up to the Civil War. But when she is old enough, this will be used as an activity to spur discussion and history lessons. And the game is engaging enough that I don't think that I'll have to brush any dust off of it once we hit that point.
A copy of the game was provided from the publisher for review.