Monday, April 7, 2014

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

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There are a fairly limited number of core go-to backdrops for games: railroad building, renaissance Italy, Imperial Rome, the Age of Exploration, and trading in central Europe between 1500 and 1800 are the usual suspects. Generic Tolkienesque fantasy and generic sci-fi round out the mix. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a refreshing break, chronicling as it does the struggles of a marginalized people against oppression during a particularly disgraceful period of American history.
Players take on the role of abolitionists in the northern United States from 1800 through the beginning of The War Against Slavery (1861). They have the dual goals of freeing slaves from southern plantations and smuggling them into Canada, and building the financial and political support required for the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery in the United States. Each turn, players free slaves from plantations and move them along the Underground Railroad, stopping in American cities before eventually finding freedom in Canada, all while trying to dodge the slave catchers who are moved randomly by the game system. Along the way, the presence of freed slaves can generate cash and support political fundraising. That cash can then either be used to further the operations of the Underground Railroad (buying conductor tokens, which power all this movement in the first place), buy the political support required to win, or activate historical Abolitionist personalities and organizations made available from a deck of cards. If the players can free a target number of slaves and gain enough political support as indicated by the number of players and difficulty level, they win. If time runs out, or if too many slaves end up on the plantations, they lose.
As a cooperative game, this all works quite satisfactorily. Players have different roles (Stockholder, Preacher, Agent, Conductor, Station Master) which give them special powers and some individuality. Cash is held by the individual player, not the group, and can’t be transferred, so there is a need to balance keeping each of the players’ options open as well as furthering the interests of the group. The tactical game of moving slaves north while dodging slave-catchers is a little more about chess-like evasive maneuvers than it is about risk-taking or pushing your luck, which seems a little inauthentic – but there is still enough depth to engage the multiple minds and spark interesting discussions as the players seek optimal moves. The flow of historical personalities, organizations, and events provides some nice historical touchstones. The base difficulty level is probably a little easy for the hobbyists who will be the primary audience for this game, so I do recommend the harder victory conditions to start. I also think the game’s playing time probably exceeds its range of experience unless you are really smooth cooperative game players, but it’s not by a lot. Freedom certainly isn’t on the level of the classics in the genre (Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Forbidden Island, maybe Robinson Crusoe) when it comes to tight pacing and keeping all the players constantly engaged, but again, you can’t play those games allthe time and Freedom does attempt to cover a real historical period where not just real lives but the soul of a nation was at stake. That is Freedom’s most important and distinctive feature.
After my first play, I admit my impressions of how well Freedom succeeded in this were negative. It felt like it over-promised and under-delivered. The box art promises adventure, giving you a picture of a family of escaped slaves sneaking to freedom through the dark, armed and surrounded by unknown threats with nary a white person in sight. The game’s actual narrative, though, is the moral crusade of the mainly white, privileged northern abolitionists. The (escaped) slaves themselves don’t have a point of view in the game; they are just cubes being moved around at the players’ whims. The real pressure the players feel in practice is not to free as many slaves as possible, but instead is to raise as much money as possible to fund operations and buy all the support tokens which abstractly represent political clout. The event and personality cards tend to work in broad strokes (reducing the cost of buying tokens, moving extra slaves cubes, bonus cash), and so are a little flat except that some (Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas) are better than others (John Greenleaf Whittier). This is a frustratingly common pattern, trying to tell the stories of the oppressed not through their own eyes, but through the privileged white outsiders trying to rescue them. In this case, it’s a game not about the people on the Underground Railroad but the peoplefinancing the Underground Railroad. Attempting the former would be something unquestionably worth doing. The latter, while set in an important historical period, feels pretty much the same as every other game out there: tactical positioning and resource management by privileged white Europeans, primarily men, designed by and for those same people.
My attitude softened with time, though. I played with a couple guys who never realized that slaves had to get all the way to Canada to be free, so I got to explain the Fugitive Slave Act and its importance as one of the causes of the Civil War. Prominent black and female abolitionists are well-represented in the abolitionist deck, and are nice touchstones that give the knowledgeable some conversation material, and the whole presentation can spark the curiosity of an interested player. The flavor text on the cards is in too small a type size to read under game conditions, but the historical illustrations and photos are nicely evocative. One shouldn’t allow the excellent to be the enemy of the good; just because Freedom had a real opportunity to try to push the gaming envelope in an overwhelmingly white, male hobby but decided to play it safe and by-the-numbers instead shouldn’t necessarily lead us to judge it more harshly.
So after my initial disappointment, I came to like it. I think a key to appreciating the game for me was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals, which inspired me to try the game after my initial so-so impressions. The book covers not just Lincoln and his cabinet but also focuses on the balance Lincoln had to maintain between the hard-line anti-slavery forces (represented in the book by Salmon Chase primarily and, indirectly, William Seward’s wife Francis) and the anti-immigrant and sectarian factions (who might be against the spread of slavery but were not abolitionists and for whom it was not a voting issue) in the Republican party. For me, coming into Freedom with a little knowledge of the fundamental, complicated, and lethal social conflict in this period of US history gave me the leverage I needed to enjoy the game for what it is. It’s too bad it doesn’t stand on its own a bit better, using the gaming form itself to more strongly convey a unique narrative viewpoint. But the fact of the matter is that Freedom tries, and while perhaps it doesn’t achieve everything one might hope for, it is still at the very least a qualified success, and does make a strong statement. It’s surprising to me how few games do.

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