Compared to the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s, game designers today must feel like they have an incredible armamentarium for expressing theme. Whether it’s through worker placement, card mechanics, resource management, auctions, tableau-building, or even a mancala, there are now so many ways to make little meeples or whatnot go on cardboard adventures that it’s almost like having a whole new ludographic vocabulary. And designers are taking advantage of it, with tremendous new games being released it seems every month.
Then there’s Freedom: The Underground Railroad.
Translating an emotionally and morally charged topic to paper and cardboard isn’t easy. If you’re successful, the payoff is huge. Boardgames are a different medium from books or movies, and a well-executed boardgame design provides a range of experience we’re just beginning to explore (n.b. Black Orchestra).
Freedom: The Underground Railroad has to do with the slave trade, or at least with the result of the slave trade, meaning the presence of slaves. That’s a pretty bold design decision for a boardgame right there. The ones in the game are on Southern plantations before the Civil War, and the players are charged with freeing as many as possible by helping them make their way north, while preventing too many from dying as they are transported through the United States on their way to Canada. At this point, you might be cautiously hopeful, expecting that a designer bold enough to take on this subject matter has bold ideas to match.
And then you play the game, which starts with a bunch of pale wooden cubes in three boxes representing antebellum plantations, with a bunch more pale wooden cubes on some cards labeled “Slaves for Sale.” Imagine someone walking by that game table. Several differently colored polygons sit menacingly between these cubes and Canada, representing slave-catchers. Some cards and tokens sit to the side, with helpful pictures, dates, and labels. “History can be uncomfortable!” they say from next to the board. You nod at them politely.
For your first game, you’ll probably continue to nod at them, like the people you met very briefly at the beginning of a party but whose names you’ve already forgotten. “These are Conductors!” you say to yourself as you pick up circular tokens whose function is to let you move slaves on the road to … that side of the map, past the … yellow oval. Ok, fine.
For a design from 2012, Freedom feels very 2005. That’s when games like Caylus could conceal the fact that they were terrible by presenting novel combinations of mechanics. I’m a king, but I can only build a castle by moving pegs onto spaces that have symbols on them so I can place discs to get cubes. Very kingly! Ok, I’m just working for a king, I’m not actually a king, personally. But you can see how I could get confused.
Here, I’m buying some tokens that allow me to buy the next tokens from the boxes that have tokens. These are supposed to be different eras, but after looking at that board for hours, I can only tell you that I think the game ends in 1860, not because the game communicates this but because I’m pretty sure something about that date is important. There are cards, but they have no connection to the theme other than that Frederick Douglass gives you +3 something. Dexterity, I think.
It’s a trap that game designers fall into over and over again. I’m reminded of a game I backed on Kickstarter a few years ago called The New Science. It is putatively about scientific discovery and publishing, but it could just as easily be about inventing cooking recipes and publishing cookbooks. Or being a cookbook. I don’t know why we’re limiting ourselves to books here. Nothing about the mechanics is specific to the theme. If I need to constantly read a character card to remind me what I’m playing a game about, something is broken.
So it amazes me that Freedom, despite its compelling theme, starts to lose me as soon as I try to engage the mechanics themselves. The slave catchers, while exuding a certain geometric fortitude, fail to evoke anything other than maybe the old arcade game Tempest, where various shapes would come relentlessly at you out of the void, and you would have to shoot them with button-pushes until they overwhelmed you with their Euclidean obstinacy. They also move according to strict deterministic rules that allow players to manipulate their travels, which is exactly what I think you’re supposed to do. Move this slave one box forward into this space, and the red slave catcher shape will move one space this way. Then move this slave here, and the blue one moves here, so that you can move this last slave and the red slave catcher moves back where he started. It’s as though someone had watched a bugged NPC in Mass Effect: The Andromeda Strain and tried to make it a gameplay mechanic.
I’m not saying that subject-specific mechanics aren’t in there. To finance your effort, you have to raise money, which is done with fundraising tokens that earn you money for each slave in certain spaces. Your organization is sponsoring talks to the gentlefolk of the abolitionist movement to highlight the plight of these slaves. The listeners will contribute funds, which you will need to use to buy support (newspaper articles, political influence) to advance you through the eras. These Fundraising tokens have to be purchased, which consumes money, etc. In general, getting slaves out of the Southern states can earn you money for each cube you have on certain spaces. There is an event called “Elijah Lovejoy,” an abolitionist publisher who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. The effect of this card is to make fundraising impossible except in cities until the effect is canceled by buying the card. It makes logical sense (representing anti-abolitionist sentiment in small towns). But the implementation is completely sterile because the game doesn’t establish cities as anything other than gameplay abstractions that function solely as fundraisers and spaces where you can place more slaves together. One of the classic ways good designers establish a theme is by evoking a thing or event and then subverting that by removing it in a way that also evokes the same thing. Thirteen Days does this beautifully by establishing the Defcon track as a thing that goes up and down based on how much force you wield (or withdraw), which is tied directly to the idea of rising tensions as you flex your political/military muscle. But to play a scoring objective that claims a Defcon track, you MUST increase the Defcon first: you’re basically saying to the world, “Look how strong I am!” which heightens awareness and thus kicks up the tension. It works exactly how you’d expect, so that it’s almost intuitive. Here, a box gets you a few more dollars, until a card says it doesn’t. For all I know, I could be selling molasses, and then there was a molasses strike.
While Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a cooperative game, there is actually nothing cooperative about it. You could play it yourself, which I know is not a downside to many people, but then why not call it a solo game? I know, I know: Bruce, you’re getting hung up on semantics. Maybe. But the fact that this is billed as a cooperative game provides some insight into the designer’s ideas of what makes good coop. In this case, it’s an open-information environment where having players possess different abilities hinders their ability to optimize each turn without any gameplay benefit? Why does it matter that I can only take two actions? Oh, because there needs to be some artificial constraint on the players that, even if it isn’t thematic, gives them something to do individually.
This sort of semi-collaborative cube-Sudoku is a trap many cooperative games fall into, because it’s hard to design inter-player tension without instituting artificial information barriers that prevent the game from being nothing more than a solitaire game where you carve player responsibilities into smaller and smaller chunks for no reason. But if you’re going to just arbitrarily do this in a game as deterministic as this one, you get what happens in Freedom, which is that you end up strategizing everybody’s move out for them whether they like it or not. “No, don’t buy the last Support token yet you need to get the previous era’s Conductor token first since it’s the only one you can afford, then I’ll buy the last Support and I’ll have the new era’s Conductors to buy. Don’t you see it?” Yeah, I see it now. Sure, let’s do that. Do you have any other suggestions?
It’s tempting to forgive Freedom: The Underground Railroad for its gameplay problems by admiring its guts in tackling a theme. As I said above, having a “Slaves for Sale” box on the map is a pretty bold move right there. But it submarines it by backing off from the theme through sterile mechanics, presentation, and perspective. Why pale cubes? Why abstract shapes for the slavecatchers? And why make the players some benevolent abolitionist force? Unlike Black Orchestra, for example, there is no sense of personal “risk” (to the extent you can achieve that in a boardgame). Instead of dipping a toe into the theme and retreating, why not go all the way?
That wouldn’t fix the game, though, because the biggest problem with Freedom: The Underground Railroad is that it’s simply tedious. All of that optimization might be great for beating the game, but it’s terrible for interactivity, because unlike the kind of interactivity where players have to combine interesting uses of game mechanics to achieve a goal, this is the kind that challenges someone to figure out the best way to make a move. Anyone’s move. My move? Sure. Why don’t you go ahead and make it for me. I’ll be over here, reading a book about the Underground Railroad.
As my compatriots and I stare at the board, trying to figure out the best sequence of six consecutive moves for us, I start to forget that the cubes are slaves, or that the shapes are slave catchers. Instead, they’re a puzzle I need to at least partially figure out before my friends do, or I can enjoy listening to them tell me what I need to do to optimally proceed through the game’s abstractions. Since we’re playing at a game store, I’d actually love to let them go ahead while I take a look at the Warhammer miniatures. Or see if they have any more cool used stuff, like the copy of Streets of Stalingrad they had last time.
It’s a shame, because the theme itself is so powerful that it affected me despite the designer’s efforts to obfuscate it. For example, I was very hesitant to allow the slave catchers to catch a slave. I actively avoided this, even if it wasn’t the absolutely best move. On the other hand, I had zero problem keeping slave cubes in the plantations to do this, and then watching new slave cubes get sent to the “Lost” box because there was no room to place them. So maybe not all of the theme works for me, after all.
I hate to be all negative on a game design because have I ever designed a game? You bet I haven’t. I know what I’m not good at. But after a friend of mine did me the magnificent favor of introducing me to Black Orchestra, he told me he could not wait for me to try Freedom, because I would love it! And as you can see, things worked out otherwise. As an exercise in comparative design, though, I could not think of a better pairing. So for that, I thank him.