Freedom: The Underground Railroad and America’s Slavery Pop Culture Moment

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Slavery in the United States is having a moment in today’s popular culture. Suddenly again the long, complicated and violent history of slavery is seemingly everywhere — movie and TV screens, bookstores and even Presidential politics. Chalk it up to the mostly-ignored 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, a surging national conversation on race in America or a growing recognition among cultural creators for the need to tell this story, but slavery is importantly among us.

Slavery in contemporary fiction: Underground Airlines and The Underground Railroad

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters has been my late summer read. The book depicts a dystopian alternate contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists in a pocket of Southern states and the hard-boiled narrator (himself an escaped former slave) pursues runaway slaves looking to escape north to Canada. Colson Whitehead’s newly-released The Underground Railroad takes a more historical fictional approach following an escaped Georgia slave girl’s journey north through a fantastically re-imagined Underground Railroad consisting of an actual network of secret railway routes.

Slavery on contemporary television: Roots and Underground

On small screens, no telling of the story of American slavery has been greater than in the landmark 1977 TV miniseries Roots which I watched as a child. Almost 40 years later, the summer began with a well-reviewed remake of the series on the History Channel, once again telling the multi-generational story of a family from Africa to slavery to freedom. Earlier in the year, Underground premiered on WGN with a fictional drama telling the tale of a group of slaves making the decision to escape their Georgia plantation. A second season will be premiering in 2017 and the first season has just become available for streaming on Hulu.

Slavery on contemporary film: Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation

Hollywood has a spotty history with slavery but some old favorites of mine include the story of the first black volunteer regiment in the Civil War epic Glory (1989) and the slave ship revolt trial film Amistad (1997). Django Unchained (2012) somewhat controversially showed how slavery could be used as framework for what was essentially a violent action film. The following year’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) returned to a true narrative of a New York freeman sold South into slavery and winning his freedom again. In 2016, two movies have turned to historical armed slave uprisings with Free State of Jones and The Birth of the Nation, a film which riffs on the title of the classic pro-KKK 1915 movie in the telling of the story of the martyred slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star published in Rochester, NY from 1847-1851

While stories of slavery, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad are currently in our pop culture media landscape, my years growing up south of Rochester, NY exposed me to all this history from an early age. Escaped slave, writer and activist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester in the 1840s through 1870s and was eventuality buried there upon his death in 1895. Harriet Tubman, another escaped slave, activist and escort along the Underground Railroad, also settled in nearby Auburn, NY and was buried there in 1913. Stories, historic sites and statues to the abolitionists of the period litter Western New York, as do the routes and stops along the Underground Railroad — some factual and some folklore.

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Solo play set up for Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games

While the Civil War has long been a popular period among historical miniatures wargamers and board game players like myself, the subject of slavery has been largely ignored. That changed in 2012 with the release of Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games. The intense board game presents the period from 1800 through 1865 with players cooperatively taking on the roles of abolitionists and conductors of escaped slaves along historical routes from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.

Playing against the game, players must work together in Freedom to raise funds, build abolitionist support and ferry slaves from three plantation areas of the South. A series of actions in each round give players choices in moving escapees, fundraising and buying cards as slave hunters prowl routes in the North attempting to recapture slaves seeking freedom in Canada. The cards depict historical events and people that assist or hinder the mission of the players, with each of the three rounds of the game revealing cards specific to the events of different periods of the era. As each turn ends, more slaves (depicted as small wooden blocks) fill the Southern plantations so the game is a race against time from the start. Only by rescuing a certain number of slaves and building anti-slavery support by the game’s end results in a victory.

And victory is difficult and harrowing. Playing through the game several times in both its solo and multi-player mode, Freedom has an intensity I’ve rarely felt in a board game. Hard, balanced choices have to be made to lure slave hunters away from Underground Railroad routes and players likewise have to keep an eye on not only moving their escaped slaves northward but on the other important aspects of raising money and gaining support for the cause. After several games, I realized some slaves had to be heartrendingly sacrificed and captured in order to allow others to escape. By game’s end, players can be emotionally exhausted and I’ve even heard of some crying during play.

Playing Freedom reveals the difficulty of depicting slavery and the story of the Underground Railroad in game form. Making Freedom a collaborative game with players working against the construct of the game does a remarkable job of presenting the challenge the entrenched system of slavery presented to those working against it for decades under long odds and seemingly little chance for success. Academy Games does a great job in providing informative historical context in the rule book as well as making available a 72-page teacher’s guide to using the game in the classroom.

Much as our popular culture has struggled to deliver diverse, accurate and compelling stories of slavery in books, television and movies, it is most probably the complicated nature of  the history that has kept game makers away from the topic for so long. Thankfully Academy Games has risen gloriously to the challenge with Freedom and filled an important gap in historical gaming and our popular understanding of slavery in The United States.

Boardgames of the French and Indian War

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To understand the founding of the United States, you have to understand the American Revolution, and to understand the American Revolution, you need to understand the French and Indian War. As I’ve learned more about these wars in my adult life, I’m increasingly surprised the FIW gets such short shrift in American education and the general cultural conversations of the country’s history.

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Major campaigns and battles of the French and Indian War, 1754-1763

As I’ve written about previously, I’ve spent a lot of time touring many sites where the French and British vied for control of the continent in the mid-18th-century. In that era the French held much of the country west and north of the Alleghenies while the British possessed the eastern regions of the coast. As an extension of the Seven Years War in Europe and around the globe, the French and British empires fought over territory in America during the FIW and pulled numerous native Indian tribes into complicated alliances along the way. The clash of cultures and motives among Europeans and native peoples carried ripple effects for years to come and old grudges from the period led directly to the American Revolution some two decades later.

FIWBooksSome of my recent reading on the French and Indian War

My time spent touring various sites around the company has been supplemented by a stack of books. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (2001) weighs in at over 900 pages and provides a super comprehensive treatment of the war in depth. The French and Indian War (2006) by Walter Borneman provides a similar overview with detail stripped way back into a more historical narrative. For a focus on how Indian peoples shaped the 18th-century European settlement and wars for the continent, Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors (2007) gives some fantastic insights which are usually breezed over in most histories. Finally, I’ve recently picked up a copy of Braddock’s Defeat (2015) by David Preston. This book provides a great bridge story on how a key campaign on the western frontier of Pennsylvania in 1755 echoed through the events of the FIW into the American Revolution and history beyond.

With many miles traveled and pages read, getting to play boardgames of the FIW — both tactically and strategically — has provided me the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and experience the wilderness roads, forts, settlements and battlefields of this fascinating period.

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Wilderness War (GMT Games)

My longtime favorite of FIW games is GMT’s Wilderness War from 2001. Designed by Volko Ruhnke, WW is not only the standout game of the period but also ranks among the best of modern wargames depicting any period. The game’s gorgeous hardbound game board defines the game as the war was fought amid the geography of the Northeast with point-to-point connections between major landmarks, cities, settlements and forts.

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Sample strategy cards from GMT’s Wilderness War

Strategy cards featuring both abstracted military actions like recruiting troops and militia, building siege works or conducting campaigns and period-specific events and personalities drive the game. Alternatively cards are played for points to activate leaders, forces stacked with a leader or individual units. Points may also be spent to construct stockades and forts to defend against attack a provide a safe haven during wintering periods.

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Wilderness War by GMT Games

For me, the three key strategies to WW are in defending the important interior frontier, remaining exceedingly mindful of troop positions as winter seasons approach and playing a long game of carefully-planned campaigns. All of these factors are incredibly well factored into a game which balances abstraction with historic events, all of which can be experienced with a solid few hours of play.

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The French and Indian War (Decision Games)

For another grand strategic experience of the FIW, Strategy & Tactics magazine issue #231 from Nov/Dec 2005 by Decision Games offers up a full campaign level game with The French and Indian War. Traditional wargamers will feel right at home with this hefty game although it does offer some unique elements.

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S&T’s FIW map and counters organized in tray

Right off the bat, experienced gamers will notice a departure with the game map laid out on a square grid instead of the more typical hex style. Past the square grid, the map itself is gorgeous with well-delineated terrain, clear colonial control boundaries and abstracted French and British home country holding areas across the Atlantic in Europe. Charts and tables for terrain effects, supply points, balance of power and colonial control displayed right around the board. The tiny cardboard playing chits likewise feature some simple and colorful art clearly differentiating units types and nationalities. In all, there’s a lot to love visually in this magazine game.

Gameplay goes a long way toward representing the build up of tensions and eventual outbreak of war between the French and British in North America. Yearly turns between 1758 and 1762 are split into four seasons each, and the results of battles occupation of cities and towns shifts the Balance of Power track which drives income, initiative, random events and negotiating strength. The relatively weak and poor British at the start of the game quickly gain strength as the Seven Years War breaks out and men, money and ships begin to arrive from Europe. For the French, they have to take some early victories and then hold key cities like Quebec through the late game. Victory in one of the three included scenarios is determined by a straight points system accumulated during the game largely by capturing cities and settlements.

Aside from the game rules themselves, the magazine holds over 20 pages of background on the FIW, major battles and quick bios on some of the conflict’s major personalities. This plus some nice maps and a short bibliography makes for a great package for those wanting a relatively comprehensive experience of the war. Being a magazine game, there are a couple discrepancies in the rules here and there, but the design and heft of the game is entirely satisfying.

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Hold The Line: French and Indian War (Worthington Publishing)

The 2008 French and Indian War Expansion Set for the popular Hold The Line series by Worthington Publishing downshifts into a more tactical presentation of the war without sacrificing the flavor of the era.

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Scenario set-up for the Battle of Snowshoes for the HTL FIW expansion

Adding to the HTL base game components,  the FIW expansion comes with Indian, Ranger and French unit tiles to be played with using the British and Militia pieces in the original. Additional terrain hex tiles  are included to represent lakes, boats forts and Indian villages, all of which played important roles in the wilderness battleground of the FIW. Five historic scenarios round out gameplay which will be any lover of the original HTL.

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The 2016 remastered HTL French and Indian War game

The HTL series has been remastered in 2016 with a successfully funded recent Kickstarter campaign. The new version has some serious upgrades with plastic miniatures from the Plastic Soldier Company and redesigned board and tile artwork. For both the American Revolution and FIW sets there were a bunch of extra scenarios and options to buy add-on miniatures. The new game looks fantastic and breathes new life into an already immensely enjoyable game on the era of 18th-century American colonial conflict.

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A Few Acres of Snow (Treefrog Games)

A Few Acres of Snow, designed by Martin Wallace and published in 2011 by Treefrog Games, is my other go-to game on the period. While not strictly a game confined to the FIW, AFAOS takes two players through the broader French-British colonial period in North America.

Playable in just over an hour, AFAOS is an area control deck-building game where British and French players draft cards into and out of their hands in order to move, settle, construct, skirmish and conduct sieges. Managing cards gives the game a campaign feel as several turns may be taken up getting all the right cards in place before executing a plan. The British player generally has more financial and naval strength while the French are much more agile and open to trade opportunities in the wilderness interior. Essentially, the game captures the overall character of the opposing forces and provides for a ton of strategic play within a simple, gorgeous design.

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A recent game of  A Few Acres of Snow by Treefrog Games

The major downside to AFAOS that many critics will bring up is a broken mechanic within the game where one side can all but sew up a victory through a specific series of opening moves. I’m not going to provide any details since players agreeing to play fairly and ignoring this one issue with an otherwise perfect and wildly popular game is how I choose to play the game. The look and flow of AFAOS makes it what I consider to be the best at introducing even inexperienced gamers to the period.

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Struggle For New France (Schutze Games)

I picked up a copy of 2013’s Struggle For New France designed by Bill Molyneaux and published by Schutze Games in a charity auction at HMGS Fall In! 2015. It’s a super simple beginner’s game playable in about 90 minutes with event cards and point to point movement. With just a few pages of rules, including a solo game option, SFNF is a lean game designed for swift play while still reflecting the basic character of the war.

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Set-up for a play through Struggle For New France by Schutze Games

The relatively inexpensive game has a compact yet beautiful 11″ x 17″ color map, over 60 cards and over 175 small printed wooden tiles. Play is quick with a hand of five cards for each player, of which one can be played per season. In a season, both sides move and battle using standardized movement for regulars and Indians plus bonuses for having a leader stacked with a force. Forts, fortresses and Indian villages give defensive modifiers in battle along with leaders present and any cards added to the battle modifiers. Areas won or lost provide victory points, all tracked on either side of the map. After four seasons of play, cards are refreshed and the next turn year begins. Playing from the entire course of the war, British win at 50 points and taking Quebec, Montreal and Louisburg, and the French win with 45 points. While by no means as rich an experience as the offerings from GMT and Decision Games, SFNF achieves a remarkable amount in strategic experience of the FIW.

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French & Indian War Battle Collection (Two Buck Games)

Another charity auction win at Fall In last year was 2014’s French & Indian War Battle Collection by Two Buck Games. The game makes a nice companion to SFNF and is also designed by Molyneaux. Like SFNF, this is an easy game but with a pack of twelve major battles and engagements of the war instead of a grand campaign style of play. Each scenario is playable in anywhere from well under an hour to maybe two hours maximum. While not big on design, the game does allow a player to get down to the tactical level in some very small engagements including some personal favorites like Jumonville Glen, Fort Necessity and the Mary Jeminson Raid.

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The Fort Necessity scenario from The French & Indian War Battle Collection

A brief set of rules is supplemented with specific scenario outlines for set-up and play. Maps for each scenario are printed front and back on card stock, and 88 counters come with generic information to make for flexible use representing a variety of regular and irregular French, British and Indian units at each battle or skirmish. As this is a tactical game, units move just one hex and may only by stacked alone or with an officer. Leaders die easily in combat, Indians are dangerously flexible on the attack and terrain can play a big role in a game’s outcome. All these factors make planning an attack or defense finicky down at the ground level and FIBWBC goes a long way toward mimicking the feel of up-close engagements during the period.

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Empires In America (Victory Point Games)

My latest addition to my FIW games is the recent second edition reprint of Empires In America from the States of Siege series by Victory Point Games. This one stands apart from the others here as a purely solo game with the player’s French and Indian allies pitted against the game’s British and their allied Indian forces.

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My first try at the re-issue of Empires In America by Victory Point Games

It took me a few times to get a handle on the single player flow of the game and I was beaten by the non-player AI in my first two games. Having played through it about a half dozen times now, I’ve finally got the hang of it with quick play and a fairly rich experience. Leaders wind up being key in winning the game much as leadership could make the difference during battles during the war.

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Photo from my visit to Fort Necessity in the summer of 2014

So where to start with the French and Indian War?

The 21st-century has already given us a bunch of fantastic games to take us back to the forest, rivers and battles of the French and Indian War of some 260 years ago. Despite having a half-dozen of the recent FIW games under my belt, there area always more games to play. Wilderness Empires, also by Worthington Publishing, puts the war in a block game format with beautifully-illustrated event cards and game board. Columbia Games re-released its 1972 classic block game of Quebec 1759 in 2009, and the game still stands as probably the best way to experience this pivotal siege of the war.

For me, Wilderness War sits at the top of the list for its design and depth, not only for the FIW but among all the games I play. A Few Acres of Snow, Empires In America and Hold The Line likewise win big design points for me, and their speed of play sacrifices nothing in telling the story of the period. A gamer wishing to get into the FIW with a couple very different yet always rewarding gaming sessions could hardly do better by starting with these games.

Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part II

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I’ve been continuing to scratch a serious American War of Independence itch for months now. Last summer I took a first pass at some of my favorite games of the period in Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part I. Since then, gamers have also been blessed with the release of Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection, and it has fast become one of my all-time favorites among all the games I’ve played.

Away from the tabletop, I’ve been swept up in the fervor of Hamilton: The Musical and have been fortunate to catch the show twice on its record-setting Broadway run here in NYC. I’ve also recently revisited 1776 from 1969 and it’s 1972 movie adaptation. As luck would have it a new production will run for one weekend in early April at City Center here in the city, and yes, I’ve already got my tickets. A side note of Broadway trivia is that 1776‘s Tony Award-winning Broadway debut was in the same theater where Hamilton is currently running, and it too seems destined to sweep the awards in June.

But, back to games.

In this Part II, I take a look at more games of the Revolution I’ve managed to acquire and/or play in the past six months. Like the last time, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Despite my best efforts there are a lot more games I have yet to touch. What this round presents is again a variety in scope, mechanics and time commitment for gaming the Revolution.

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We The People (Avalon Hill)

Avalon Hill’s We The People from 1994 is a landmark in the history of modern wargaming. In taking on the well-worn American Revolution, designer Mark Herman created a number of innovations which have provided the basis for some of the most successful games of the past two decades.

Breaking from the standard hex maps of most prior wargames, WTP’s playing board of the British colonies of North America is abstracted into a series of connected key politically important locations like Long Island, Boston, Fort Niagara and Charleston. While battles play a part in controlling these areas, it is the shifts in political control that are tracked and lead to victory.

Combat in WTP was also stripped down in a few ways. Basic troop units mark the size of forces, but their quality is modified through the presence of leaders. When forces choose to clash in the game, battle cards are used to resolve various battlefield actions steeped in the terminology and effects of 18th-century warfare.

Lastly, the newly-introduced card driven game (CDG) mechanic propel the game’s action through the play of cards, rather than the more traditional roll of dice. With each hand of cards, players have the option of using them to play historically significant events which have varying results for each side of the conflict. Long term planning and success within the game often comes down to having the right cards at the right time.

An old copy of WTP sits on a shelf of club games at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and I recently blew the dust off it for a play. Despite its status at the time of  release, I honestly don’t find myself getting this one on the table very often. That said, I feel this game’s presence in so many games I play on a regular basis, and so its true game-changing effects on the hobby reverberate to this day.

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Washington’s War (GMT Games)

Building on the success of WTP, Herman revisited his game of the Revolution in 2010 with Washington’s War from GMT Games. Players familiar with WTP found much similarity with Herman’s original depiction of the period but with a few significant changes.

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A recent game of Washington’s War by GMT Games

The CDG mechanic was tweaked to allow for more flexible use of cards and the ability to ‘buy back’ discarded cards. WW also abandoned the battle cards for a dice-off combat resolution, making combat a quicker and more elegant part of the game. I feel the biggest change was in the more asymmetric representation of how the British and Colonial sides each play. The experienced troops of the King are strong on the coasts with their dominant naval power, and the Americans fair better inland but vie with keeping their militia in the action. Generals remain important to both sides, and the French entry to the war plays out in a way that truly captures the historical impact it had.

All the evolutions from WTP make the more recent game a quicker affair, with WW games running at about 90 minutes as opposed to the two hours or so to play WTP. The upgrades to the design and quality of the board, cards and playing pieces all brought the War of Independence into the 21st-century.

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Hold The Line (Worthington Publishing)

In 2008 Worthington Publishing released Hold The Line, a flexible game of the Revolution with a wide appeal from beginners to experienced gamers. Building on the success of their Clash For A Continent: Battles Of the American Revolution and French & Indian War game from three years before, HTL presents a blank hexagonal hardback game board which can be laid out with dozens of included double-sided terrain tiles representing streams, bridges, hills, forests, towns, fences and entrenchments. Terrain has varying effects on line of sight and movement within the game.

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Playing pieces from Hold The Line

Rectangular and square cardboard tiles represent British and Colonial elite, militia, regular and light infantry, dragoons, artillery and generic commanders. The chunky tiles are double-sided to mark losses as game battles unfold. Each turn players roll for random action points which may be spent to move, rally or fire, allowing for each commander to make choices in utilizing their troops. Additionally, the quality of troops and commander presence modify movement and fire ranges. For a simple series of rules, there’s a lot of game in HTL as even the most careful planning by one side over a series of turns can result in a foiled plan if subsequent action point rolls don’t provide enough actions to carry out a planned move or attack.

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Hold The Line Battle of Monmouth morning scenario

HTL comes with thirteen scenarios for historic battles, each with their own page of historic background, rules and guide to set up. Additional optional rules allow for specific historic leaders, rally rules and morale modifications.Once you’ve played through the included scenarios, numerous additional battle scenarios can be found online from fans of the game. Within a simple design, flexible scenarios and a short set of rules, it’s easy to see why this currently out of print game is a favorite.

 

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Battles of the American Revolution (GMT Games)

Between 1998 and 2013, GMT Games released a series of standalone games of the Battles of The American Revolution. Designed by Mark Miklos, each is a more traditional hex and counter game running three to six hours to play. For those looking to dig into eight key engagements of the War of Independence, the games offer nuances to reflect the historic events and personalities which shaped each battle wrapped in a beautiful modern design.

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In late 2015 GMT announced the re-release of the first three games in the series — Saratoga, Brandywine and Guilford — as a tri-pack available through their P500 pre-order program. Since I have never played any of the games from the series, I jumped at the chance to get in on the deal of $45 for three games. The games will get upgrades to mounted maps and a unified rulebook, and additional expansions and tweaks to components a offered in reprints over the years will also be included.

The Revolution Continues…

Having spent the better part of 12 months playing through new and old games of the American Revolution, I find myself definitely leaning toward the more modern games. In order of personal preference, here’s my Top 10:

  1. Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games)
  2. 1775: Rebellion (Academy Games)
  3. Washington’s War (GMT Games)
  4. Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 (Columbia Games)
  5. Hold The Line (Worthington Publishing)
  6. We The People (Avalon Hill)
  7. New York 1776 (Worthington Publishing)
  8. Trenton 1776 (Worthington Publishing)
  9. The American Revolution 1775-1783 (SPI)
  10. 1776 (Avalon Hill)

The main factors in consideration of the above for me are look, mechanic and importantly, time commitment. Some of the older games from SPI and Avalon Hill just require too much time for me at this stage in my life, and getting a quick game in with my fellow club members or my kids is a big determinant on what gets to the table these days.

What this two-part exercise has done for me is expose how such a diverse gaming experience can be pulled out of one signature conflict with a mix of maps, cardboard and cards. Playing through a span of forty years of American Revolution games, I can only wonder where some designer takes things next. Having gamed my way through the War of Independence, I’ve been spurred on to take a step backward in time to the French and Indian War and see what is revealed on the table next.

New Game Weekend: Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection

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A package containing my most highly-anticipated game of early 2016 arrived a couple weeks ago, and I finally unpacked and played all the glory that is Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection by GMT Games.

Designed by Harold Buchanan in consultation with the creators of of GMT’s COIN series of  games (including Volko Ruhnke), LoD places the American Revolution within the context of an 18th-century counterinsurgency on the American continent. Buchanan is a true inspiration as a first time game designer at midlife putting his passion for the period to work on the tabletop. Interviews at The Tattered Board podcast and Grogheads reveal Buchanan’s story of a lifelong gamer (with a degree from MIT in Finance and Game Theory) whose kids have grown up and out of the house, allowing him the time to pursue game design. His love of the Revolution and gaming has truly paid off with LoD.

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GMT’s Liberty Or Death hits the table for the first time

I’ve played multiple games of Cuba Libre and Fire and In The Lake from the COIN series over the past couple years, and those familiar with the mechanics of these games will find much familiarity and a few new differences in LoD. The game presents the American Revolution as one among four factions — British, Colonial, French and Indian — each vying for their own victory conditions. The British control both Regular (red cubes) and irregular Tory (green cubes) forces, the Colonials play with Continentals (blue cubes) and irregular Patriot Militia (blue cylinders), the French use Regular (white cubes) troops and the Indians field irregular War Parties (tan cylinders). Two loose alliances of British/Indian and Colonial/French work in concert to move and occupy city and Colony territory while battling, building forts and settlements and controlling political dissent.

The British press the war in New York

As in the other COIN games, LoD action is driven through a set of beautifully-designed cards. Cards provide varying turn order with depictions of historical events a player may choose to play or not play according to their force’s (or their ally’s) advantage. Alternatively, players may opt to perform a series of other combinations of actions specific to their nationality to move, battle, skirmish or raid, muster forces, build forts and villages, manage coastal blockades, promote propaganda or share in economic support and trade. An active card is in play with a look ahead also granted to the next card to be played, giving the game a true campaign feel as future moves are plotted, executed or thwarted.

Once a series of cards are played through, a season ends with the draw of a random “Winter Quarters” card. These cards, each with their own individual effect, create a round of actions where victory conditions are checked, resources are gained or spent, forces redeploy or are removed from the game and leaders may change. The variable combinations of turn order, events and actions contribute to the significant replay value of LoD, as even similar periods of campaigns may play out very differently in each sitting.

The French arrive to support the Colonists in Massachusetts

One of my favorite aspects that sets LoD apart from many games is the relative non-involvement of the French early in the game. The French player does not start on the board at all, but instead spends the early game offering monetary support to their Colonial allies. Once certain conditions are met in terms of Colonial victories over the British, the French enter the game by landing troops and offering naval support and blockades of coastal city ports. A French victory is achieved through the accumulation of British casualties and opposition to British rule.

The Indians are likewise an interesting faction with their main concern of building villages in territories while helping the British maintaining their hold on the hearts and minds of the colonies. Indian war parties assist the British through harmful raids which reduce the effectiveness of the Colonials while also advancing their tribal territorial expansion. Victory for the Colonists comes through the British casualties and holding the growth of Indian villages to a minimum against the construction of Colonial forts. A British win arrives with the accumulation of Colonial casualties and support for the King.

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Historic leaders are a new mechanic in LoD

Another way LoD differs from other COIN games is the insertion of leaders to each force, such as Gage, Washington, Rochambau or the Indian chief Cornplanter. As the game goes on, some leaders may randomly swap out for others, making it yet another variable for players to manage. With each leader holding their own set of unique abilities and modifiers, players need to work effectively to utilize them knowing full well they may be replaced in future turns.

Each faction also receives a “Brilliant Stroke” card for one-time use in the game to trump another player’s turn and perform an extra series of free actions. Additionally, the French’s entry comes with the achievement of game prerequisites and play of their unique “Treaty of Alliance” card. Figuring out the exact moment to deliver a big, often game-changing, play with one of these special “Brilliant Stroke” cards looms large in the mix of decision making throughout the game.

Examples of LoD cards featuring key personalities and events of the war

The entire design of the LoD is wonderful, with a rich playing board hinting at design elements of 18th-century maps without any compromise to game play. The cards are likewise rich in their look and content, each summarizing an aspect of the war or its politics in just a few lines of text and game effects. The rules and playbook are well done, and the designers notes by Buchanan and Ruhnke are well-worth a read for historical background and tips to playing to the strengths of each faction.

“The British Return To New York” scenario at Metropolitan Wargamers

A game of LoD may be played in one of three campaigns of varying length. A short late war game from 1778-1780 is outlined in “The Southern Campaign,” and a mid-length “British Return to New York” scenario runs in the early war of 1776-1779. Players wishing to roll up their sleeves for a long game can tackle most of the war in the  1775-1780 period with “A People Numerous and Armed.” Each scenario provides specific starting situational set-ups as well a guide to creating decks of cards for the campaign seasons with the game. A brief guided intro scenario also makes a first-time walk through of the game time well spent.

Since receiving the game, I’ve run through the introductory scenario plus multiple plays through both he the Southern and New York campaign scenarios. In a most recent game with some players both new and experienced with the COIN series at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, the Indians had the frontier ablaze and my French were far too late to the action except for dumping money into the rebellion. The British forces had much of the East Coast and South locked down without much trouble from my tardy French navy. Ultimately, the Colonials squeaked out a minor victory and had some very lucky battle results in upstate New York.

With my life split between growing up in Western New York and living in New York City for the past 20 years, the American Revolution was been a near-constant presence in my life for decades. As a run-up to the release of LoD I threw myself into classic and contemporary games of the American Revolution, playing the period in a variety of mechanics and design. With a few games of Liberty of Death under my belt, I’m thrilled to have the period refreshed anew, and the game will be very much at home with my other American Revolution games.

New Game Weekend: Mysterium

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I have a lingering boyhood fondness for the board game Clue, a classic murder mystery game that has gone through countless versions since it was introduced in the 1940s. In 1985, the game jumped from the tabletop onto movie screens with the hilarious cult classic movie Clue and what I recall as a wildly fun Clue VCR Mystery Game which presented an early attempt at interactive video play. The murder mystery concept among a captive group of suspects and investigators is just a fun story to play through, making the basic plot line of Clue in all its forms timeless. Like many classic games though, Clue leaves a bit to be desired in terms of long-term playability once players creep out of their childhood and teen years.

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The original Polish game of Tajemnicze Domostwo

That said, I still love a good murder mystery game, so I was glad to be introduced to Mysterium last year by a fellow member of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Mysterium was originally released in a Polish edition by Portal Games in 2013 as Tajemnicze Domostwo, or the “Mysterious Homestead,” and the game has gone through a number of international language versions since. I first played the Italian Il Sesto Senso, or “The Sixth Sense,” in early 2015 and was anxious for a readily available and revamped English version to be released later in the year by Asmodee.

MysteriumContentsContents of the English version of Mysterium by Asmodee

Unlike Clue, Mysterium is a collaborative game for 2-7 players. In the game, a new owner of a mansion has hired a group of mediums to work with a friendly ghost in the house to solve an old murder mystery in a seven-hour overnight séance. One player works as the ghost along with the other players as mediums to uncover the suspect, location and weapon used in the murder. The ghost knows how to solve the mystery but may only communicate with the mediums in each hour (turn) through abstract dream or ‘vision’ cards, attempting to point each clairvoyant toward the solution. After each hour, the ghost reveals to each clairvoyant if they have found their suspect, location and weapon. Those that have solved a piece of the mystery move onward and those who have not remain to try again in the next round. If all mediums uncover their individual three-part combination before the seventh hour arrives, a final round of dream clues are delivered to all the players to vote for the final solution. If the majority select the correct final suspect, location and weapon, everyone wins. If the group doesn’t choose the correct combination, everyone loses.

imageMedium players await their vision cards in Mysterium

Mysterium is truly collaborative, with a ton of discussion and debate among the medium players as the ghost delivers vision dream cards to them in each round. Mediums can also vote to agree or disagree with other player choices, with each successful vote earning the medium additional chances to view vision cards in the final round of the mystery. Over many recent games my three-generation group of family members found the more players the better in winning Mysterium.

imageMediums discuss their visions and try to solve the mystery in Mysterium

The recent English version of the game I picked up ahead of the holidays contains a lot of revised artwork and playing pieces (including a nice screen for the ghost and nifty clock turn counter) compared to the more spare European versions of the game. The design is beautiful and the abstract vision, suspect, location and weapon cards are a feast for the eyes. To mix things up a bit, we played a few games using cards from Dixit (also from Asmodee) as vision cards since the abstract illustrations fit nicely with the game. Playing the game on a table laid with a red cloth and some electrified candles also added to the séance setting for the game, and I could imagine it being a great theme game for a party or around Halloween.

Three generations of my family playing Mysterium

With a game of Mysterium lasting about an hour, it makes for a great game among a group of inquisitive friends and family. Like many collaborative games, the cards and pieces on the table are just tools, and the real game happens in the minds and conversations among the players. If you played Clue as a kid and unraveling a mystery is still your thing, Mysterium is really a dream game.

New Game Weekend: Zombicide Black Plague

Zombicide-Blck-Plague Box

Like any zombie apocalypse horde, the Zombicide series by Guillotine Games just won’t die. Through four enormously successful Kickstarter campaigns, the Zombicide games have raised nearly $10 million since 2012 and have made the games among the most popular board game projects launched from the platform.

As a fan from the start with the first Zombicide, I backed Zombicide: Black Plague last year along with nearly 21,000 other devoted fans. After skipping the third round in the series, the reinvented game with a medieval fantasy theme and updated rules brought me back to the fold. Buying in at the Knight’s Pledge level, I wound up with an enormous pile of gaming goodies, including the base game, the werewolf-themed Wulfsburg expansion box, 40 extra survivor characters, dozens of additional zombies and all sorts of extra playing aids. With the base game blessedly shipping ahead of the 2015 holiday season, I was able to get this re-launch of the zombie franchise on the table over the past week.

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Contents of Zombicide: Black Plague

I cut my teeth on gaming with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, so the theme of Black Plague and the basic dungeon-crawler play of the Zombicide series intersect nicely in this new game. Survivor player characters include a dwarf, warrior, wizard and archer which are right at home in the fantasy world of the game. As with the previous Zombicide games, the survivors work collaboratively to search the game’s map of heavy cardboard tiles for items such as weapons, shields, armor, spell scrolls, food and other special gear. After following turn actions of moving, searching, opening doors, rearranging gear and gathering objectives, zombie cards are pulled and the horde builds. As zombies are destroyed in combat actions, player experience builds which leads to more and more zombies swarming the board. From there, its a race for survival as each scenario’s objectives and win conditions are achieved.Zombicide Base

The new survivor’s dashboard introduced in Zombicide: Black Plague

One of the most welcomed innovations in the new game is the survivor dashboard. In a game with so many cards and experience, wound and skill tracks to manage for each player’s survivor character, having a tidy and intuitive plastic base is a huge boon to game play. A slot in the center holds the interchangeable character card, weapons and other items are held in  left and right ‘hand’ positions, five slots represent space for extra items in the character’s backpack and a sliding experience track traces along the bottom of the dashboard. An extra slot overlapping the character card allows for an extra quick-draw weapon like a dagger or a protective shield or armor.

Black Plague Zombies

New zombie figures include: Walkers (top), Fatty (bottom, left), Runners (bottom, center left), Necromancer (bottom, center right) and Abomination (bottom, right)

While regular zombie types of Walkers, Runners, Fatties and Abominations have carried over from the previous games, Black Plague introduces a new Necromancer zombie type with its own set of mechanics. When the Necromancer enters the board, an additional zombie card is drawn with zombies to accompany him. Additionally, a new spawn point is generated where the Necromancer appears and activates once the Necromancer escapes the board via the nearest exit. Destroying a Necromancer allows the players to eliminate a zombie spawn point. While a bit complicated at first, the Necromancer mechanic adds a new twist to the game in creating an additional moving target for the survivors to deal with while also completing their main objectives, avoiding being killed by other zombies and (hopefully) winning the game.

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Zombicide: Black Plague game in progress

Aside from the Necromancer, most rules have remained largely unchanged with some minor tweaks. Fatties are no longer accompanied by Walkers, making them slightly easier to kill but the Abomination is still a pretty tough foe with only a combination of a vial of dragon bile and torch able to eliminate them in a fiery combination. The jury is still out for me on the double-spawn zombie cards which can carry from one spawn point to the next in doubling and then re-doubling zombies coming on the board. This makes for a bit of a confusing mechanic which I wasn’t quite certain added much to the game.

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A lone survivor faces off with two walkers and two Fatties

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Survivors take out an Abomination with a dragon bile and torch combination

As with all the previous Zombicide games, the art and sculpting in Black Plague makes for a stunningly fun game to look at and play.The ten base scenarios included in the rules offer a progressive mini campaign of sorts, and additional scenarios are sure to come. With all the expansions and add-ons ready to ship this year, there’s going to be a ton of replay value with this game.

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A survivor leads a zombie horde through the medieval streets of Zombicide: Black Plague

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An enormous zombie horde from Zombicide: Black Plague

I had been feeling a bit played-out with the original Zombicide games based in more familiar contemporary environments of city streets, a prison and a mall. Black Plague’s reboot preserves the easily playable mechanics and engaging design in a refreshing medieval wrapper. Where the franchise goes from here either in additional fantasy expansions or in yet another thematic direction like a futuristic sci-fi realm remains to be seen. In the meantime, sword-slashing and spell-casting through the Black Plague zombie apocalypse will be a ton of fun.

New Game Weekend: The Grizzled

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In June 1914, a member of a group of fringe Bosnian Serbs assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in an effort to split some of  Austria-Hungary’s territory into a freed Yugoslavia. Through a series of cascading and intertwined alliances, the act of terrorism begat World War I and led to the death of millions.

Over a hundred years later in January 2015, two brothers self-identifying as Islamic terrorists associated with a Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda forced their way into the Paris offices of the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The men shot more than 20 people, killing 11 and setting off a nationwide manhunt lasting for two days until the men were found and gunned down.

A month after the 2015 Paris shootings, a WWI-themed card game called Les Poulis was released by Sweet November, a French company which largely produces colorful games geared toward children. Carrying the line “L’amitié plus forte que la guerre?” or “Can friendship be stronger than war?,” the game prominently features the artwork of Bernard Verlhac who drew under the name Tignous and was one of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo the month before. A century apart, the war which nearly destroyed early 20th-century Europe and the modern threat of international terrorism intersected in this curious little game.

Les Poilus is French slang for “infantry” roughly meaning “the hairy,” an appropriate title for a game which focuses on the experience of French soldiers in the trenches of WWI. The game’s designers wrote a manifesto of sorts for the game, here presented in the American printing under the translated title The Grizzled:

At the same level as literature and cinema, games are a cultural media which is undeniably participative.
There are no subjects it can’t broach, though some are more delicate than others. That of the life of the Grizzled is one of those.
Guided by the deepest respect that the suffering endured by these men has inspired in us, we’ve designed and tweaked this game with this constant concern.
In this earnest endeavor we’ve chosen to focus on the individual, with his preoccupations and his daily fears.
The only escape for the men we’ve portrayed is to use their solidarity, their brotherhood, and mutual assistance to save one another.
Without ever touching on the warlike aspect, “The Grizzled” offers each player the chance to feel some of the difficulties suffered by the soldiers of the trenches. Thus the emotions around the table will often be intense.
The path to victory may seem difficult, but don’t get discouraged – persist and survive the Great War!
IMG_7357A player’s set-up from The Grizzled with the Mission Leader marker, Speech and Support tokens and Hard Knock cards

Rather than attempt a grand take on the war, The Grizzled brings the war down to the level of six French friends who mobilize to action in the early August 1914 days when the war still seemed something heroic and noble. The cooperative game presents the soldiers fulfilling a series of missions in an attempt to deplete all the Trial cards covering a winning Peace card before the Morale Reserve cards covering a losing Monument card are used up.

IMG_7358The six Threats from The Grizzled – Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow

In each round, the mission’s leader chooses to deal 1-3 Trial cards to each soldier. Trial cards feature Threats of six types — Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow — or Hard Knock cards featuring various negative battle effects. In turn, players have a choice of actions. Threat cards may be played in the center of the table’s No Man’s land for the current mission, avoiding playing three of the same type and failing the mission. Hard Knock cards are assigned to the active player with immediate effect, and four Hard Knocks on the same player also causes a loss of the mission. Players can also choose to make a Speech, removing one type of Threat card from all player hands or use their Good Luck Charm to clear a card already played in the current mission.  Finally, players may withdraw from the current mission and assign a Support tile to another player.

IMG_7359The Peace and Monument cards from The Grizzled

Once all players have withdrawn from the mission, support tiles are passed to other players. Players with the majority of the support for that round may clear Hard Knock cards or refresh their Good Luck Charm. Cards are then moved from the Morale Reserve to the Trials pile according to the number of cards players still hold in their hands from the previous mission. With that the new mission leader deals cards and the next round begins.

The Grizzled is a powerful game in a tiny package and one of the most challenging games I’ve played in some time. The collaborating players need to tightly manage their own hands and plays while keeping an eye on all other the other players. As Hard Knocks mount up, effects on one player wind up rippling through the entire group, hindering the collective effectiveness in missions. Clearing Hard Knocks with Support becomes key late in the game but getting Support to the players needing it most also becomes a challenge.

Winning a game of The Grizzled feels like a real accomplishment. In the first week I had the game, I played about 15 games and my group of experienced gamers only won twice. Fortunately, a typical game runs about 30 minutes, so multiple games can be run in a sitting. It’s interesting the original French publisher states the game is for ages 10 and up while the American version from Cool Mini Or Not suggest ages 14 and up. The game’s play is intense but that’s the point, no matter the age of the group.

We’re still in the midst of the centennial commemoration of World War I, an enormously complicated war still argued over to this day. While fully understanding the war’s big picture may be a nearly impossible exercise, getting a view from the trenches in The Grizzled shows how the trauma of violence on individuals or small groups of friends or colleagues is an unfortunate timeless human reality.