Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012)

Freedom: The Underground Railway. Academy Games, 2012. Game designer: Brian Mayer. $70.00.

It has been awhile since I could game and I was looking forward to trying this cooperative experience, so when Aram suggested we get together for dinner and some Freedom, and Julie agreed to suffer through it and Deb was on board, I was delighted we’d get a chance to play “Freedom: The Underground Railroad“. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a cooperative game, for 1 to 4 players, about the abolitionist movement in the antebellum American South. Players take on roles in the Underground Railroad, trying to move slaves from plantations in the South to freedom in Canada. If you’re not familiar with the actors, Aram is my gaming buddy, conveniently located around the corner and always up for a good game. Julie and Deb tolerate us both, Julie spends most of her time tolerating me and Deb is tasked with tolerating Aram. We started the game a little late, so the review below might be affected by how tired we all were, though it was no doubt positively influenced by the great Indian food, the good hospitality from Deb and Aram and the great soundtrack that Aram put together for the event.

Basically, the game revolves around moving slaves (wooden cubes) along four or five waypoints on a dozen paths, while slavecatchers move semi-autonomously across the paths, around the border between North and South. In the easy game, for four players, you try to save 22 slaves without losing 20 (and there are some other particularly pernicious victory conditions). If the slavecatchers end in a city with a slave, they send them back to the slave market. Meanwhile, every turn, tragically, a new shipment of slaves floods the markets in the south. You see, if you can’t move slaves out of the plantations fast enough, the supply outstrips the demand and slaves are “lost”. The poignancy of calamitous waves of “excess supply” of humans and the subsequent losses weren’t lost on the group, three lawyers, three of us with economics degrees. It is a tough subject to model in a game and kudos to the game designers for making it playable and interesting with such a difficult subject matter. In any event, with cooperative planning, players attempt to fundraise and gather support for the abolitionist movement (what better place than Capitol Hill to lobby and fundraise?), while using precious few actions to move slaves up the paths, all the while avoiding the slavecatchers. Each of the players has a role and commensurate strengths (a la Pandemic), I was the shepherd and it was cheaper for me to take the tokens that could move slaves, Julie was the station manager and could stop the slavecatchers from moving, Aram was the financier and rallied most of our support, Deb’s power was buying cards cheaper.

I’m going to cut to the chase – we lost. It is a really tough game, we seemingly made only a few minor mistakes early on and we ended up getting completely overwhelmed by the slave markets and the constant flow of slaves into the plantations in the south, to the point that we had to choose at the end between rallying support for the cause or getting people out of the plantations to make room for the next slave shipment. We needed both to win, but it wasn’t clear we could accomplish either. No doubt once the group knows better, they can do better (just happen to be listening to this while writing that line). But, I don’t want to spend a lot of this post on the play by play and I want to be clear, as a game, I think it is a good one, there are lots of interesting choices and it has a nice design (if you want a nice review of it is a board game, look here). But I want to focus on what I think is most interesting to our audience here at Paxsims: the educational merits and how that affects the link between theme and game design.

So, to me, Freedom is a game about building a movement, building support and fundraising to accomplish a collective goal. It delivers some of that. The tension between getting slaves actually moving to safety and “using” slaves in northern cities to rally support for the cause through financial support is strong, it reminds us that good intentions alone are insufficient to accomplish the noblest of goals (yes, you get more money for the cause bringing a slave through New York than you get routing them through Detroit). It also delivers lots of historical information through the cards. So would I recommend it as an educational tool for a classroom or family trying to better understand slavery?

Probably not.

Again, I think it is a great game, as a boardgame. If you are tired of Pandemic and want to play a challenging co-op, this is a great alternative. But I found the physics of the game, interesting as they were (basically careful strategizing about how to move slaves to pull slavecatchers and avoid capture), distracting from the theme. Players spend much more time thinking about how to move slaves like checkers to maximize fundraising and control the slavecatchers then they spend celebrating freed slaves or worrying about who might get caught (from a random die roll). Yet, the story of the Underground Railroad is so powerful – it wasn’t a calculated, centrally controlled logistics challenge of how to move people, it was real people taking real risks, deciding whether they could trust strangers to lead them to safety, or whether they wanted to risk their own lives to help others. It was subterfuge and conspiracy and concealment and hiding in barns and grasping for a few hours of refuge after walking 20 miles a day to safety. I felt very little of these tensions while playing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were real people, slavers and plantation owners and “decent folks” engaged on the other side, publishing notices in newspapers and sending bounty hunters and packs of dogs to reclaim their property. Maybe I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but I flinch at efforts to reduce adversarial human behavior to predictable response paths and random action (insert joke about economists here, Rex). I’d prefer to see an adversarial game where slavecatchers are working against the Railroad and both “sides” are trying to outsmart each other.

Maybe my critique is just because it is a cooperative game, built against difficult odds and a stacked deck as cooperative games have to be. I’ll definitely try the game again, but I don’t think it will ever be as satisfying as it would be knowing there were people on a red team in the next room playing “Oppression: Preserving our Way of Life”, deciding how they were going to move their bounty hunters on rumors of my slave on the run and whether they were going to use their profits as plantation owners to lobby Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In a classroom, I’d rather see students taking on these roles, choosing when to run, when to pursue, trying to sustain a plantation, investing in a risky movement. Maybe that subject matter is too difficult for a game, but maybe a game isn’t the right vehicle, then, for that subject matter?

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