Confessions first. This was the first time that I have played a cooperative board game. I've played plenty of cooperative RPGs, and more than a few uncooperative ones now that I think about it. But up until this, whenever I've sat down with a board and pieces and dice I've been competing against the others around the board, not the board itself.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad is the latest game from Academy Games, and the first in their Freedom series. It was funded via Kickstarter, and sold-out in Essen (which is why I'm still waiting for stock). The Underground Railroad in question was the secret network used to smuggle freed slaves from plantations in the Southern States to the liberty that awaited in Canada.
The one to four players are representatives of the abolitionist movement, doing there best to liberate slaves. During the set-up each player receives a role card which specifies the benefits they receive and a one-off special ability that they can use during any of the game's eight turn duration.
Ranged against the players are five slave catchers and the seemingly never-ending supply of fresh (or re-captured) slaves from the slave markets. Each slaver, represented by a cardboard token or wooden tokens, has its own route that it can follow on the board. Whenever a slave lands on the route, the slave catcher takes a move towards the slave, capturing any slaves in the city where it lands.
Every turn starts with the slave catchers movement phase, when one of them will move randomly up to three spaces and capture any slaves where it lands. This is followed by the planning phase, where the players get to buy various tokens that have affect the following movement phase. Once movement has completed the slave markets sell their contents to the plantations. But, I'm not here to tell you the rules, you can get an official description of game play here.
Playing the game involves a lot of negotiation and planning between the players. As they aren't allowed to transfer moneys or tokens, every step has to be discussed, not just the moves, but which tokens are going to be picked up, and who is going to be paying for them.
The tokens available and slave markets available vary depending on the number of players. As there were two of us, their were fewer tokens, and the markets held fewer slaves. Not that made it any easier. From the first round it was clear that our biggest problem was going to be freeing up spaces in the plantations for the new slaves coming from the market. With the exception of the big cities, each stop can only hold one slave, so you've got to keep them moving if you want to get more slaves out of the plantations. Of course, moving the slaves can also move the slave catchers - are you willing to sacrifice the freedom of one in order to help another one or two make it to the free lands of the Union Jack. Historically, there were many cases of individual slaves being freed and recaptured on several occasions (see Flash for Freedom)
As well as freeing the slaves, political progress has to be made, and is represented by the purchase of support tokens, and to purchase these, you've got to raise funds, and if you raise funds, you lose an opportunity buy support tokens and move slaves. So there's always plenty for you to keep your eyes on.
The playing time is given as 1-2 hours, but our game took longer than that, probably as a result of being new to the game, but the time passed quickly as we were busy all the time. It might have been quicker if we were both sitting on the same side of the (very large) board, as trying to read the cards upside down from further away wasn't the easiest job. Also sitting side-by-side would help to create a more cooperative feeling amongst the players.
How did we do?
Well.. at the end of the action phase of the eighth (and final) round we had moved the required number of former slaves to Canada, we'd purchased all the support tokens, but we still lost. There weren't enough spaces in the plantations for those poor souls in the slave market.
If you want a score out of ten, check out Board Game Geek