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.

I Ain’t Been Shot Mum: Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives 1944 Scenario

stlambertsurdives1944Just over two months after the Allied D-Day landings, the Normandy campaign marched toward a conclusion at the Battle of the Falaise Pocket in mid-August 1944. With orders not to withdraw, a last ditch German defense was cobbled together from surviving Panzer divisions in an area about 20 miles south of Caen. Over a nine day period desperate fighting, the German defenders were eventually encircled by overwhelming British, Canadian and US forces. Aside from tens-of-thousands of surrendering troops, Germany had suffered enormous losses in its dwindling tank forces. Elements of the German 7th Army managed to elude capture and slipped back to the German border, although they too took heavy losses in men and and equipment.

VCCurrieMajor David Currie, winner of the Victoria Cross for his actions at Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives in August 1944

On August 18, 1944, Canadians from the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and armored South Alberta Regiment made way for Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives. The objective was to take and hold the town, thus preventing more Germans from slipping out of the Allied encirclement. Over three days of infantry fighting and tank duels in and around the town, heavy losses piled up on both sides. With dozens of vehicles and tanks destroyed, the surviving Germans surrendered to Major David Currie. Currie’s actions at Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives earned him the Victoria Cross, the only one earned by a Canadian during the Normandy campaign.

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View from the north entry point for Canadian troops in the IABSM Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives scenario

The rulebook for I Ain’t Been Shot Mum from Too Fat Lardies includes a scenario for the battle at Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives which we recently ran at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Using 15mm terrain, we set up the table with a series of roads intersecting at the town sitting at the edge of a hill surrounded by fields, orchards and hedgerows.

IMG_4092View from the south of the IABSM scenario — the Canadian objective is the crossroads at the lower right

My first Canadian platoons arrived under blinds along the road to the north heading straight for the town where the Germans waited. With several turns of movement under blinds, the plan for each side was quickly exposed in two main areas of the field. My two platoons of M4 Sherman and Firefly tanks made straight down the main road toward the crossroads objective. To stave off the Canadian armor, the Germans quickly set up their Panther A and Tiger tanks behind a hedge southeast of town. The other German armor, two Panzer IVs operating without a commander present, set up in the orchard south of town and covering the other main road to the objective.

IMG_4095German Panther and Tiger tanks overlook the main road into Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives

IMG_4096Panzer IVs occupy the orchard at the southwest corner of Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives

Two platoons of Canadian rifle infantry crossed the river. One made way to the orchard just north of town at the middle. Meeting them was a single, smaller German rifle platoon. The veteran Canadians quickly destroyed half of one fire team from the tired, German regulars. The surviving Germans pulled back to take up position in the buildings in town as the Canadians pursued.

IMG_4094Canadian and German troops open fire across the stream just north of Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives

IMG_4098Canadian infantry press forward through vicious fire at the center of town

The second Canadian rifle platoon made way through the buildings nearby their fellow Canadian tank platoons. Once close enough, the Canadian rifles exposed a German platoon armed with a frightful MG42 camped out in a farmhouse on the eastern edge of town. Thus all the infantry settled into a series of firing positions at the center of town with the Canadians taking fire from German rifles and machine guns on two sides.

IMG_4097Canadian and German tanks exchange fire to the southeast of Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives

At the farm to the east, a game-long tank duel erupted with the Canadian Shermans and Firefly tanks firing from positions behind the French farm’s buildings. The German Panther and Tiger fired from light cover of a hedgerow over the fields beyond. In two turns of fire, the Panther sat in flames and the Sherman platoons were able to focus on the Tiger which unsuccessfully returned fire over repeated tries. One Panzer IV shot harrassingly at the Sherman platoon closer to town which was forced to turn its guns away from the Tiger to return fire.

IMG_4100With German armor aflame, Canadian tanks roll to seize the objective

Back at the town’s center, the Canadian infantry took heavy casualties from German rifles shooting from building windows and the Panzer IVs firing from the orchard. The breakthrough for the Canadians came as the Tiger was destroyed and the Shermans were able to fire up their engines and make way across the fields. Turning the Sherman and Firefly guns to the orchard, the Panzer IVs were quickly destroyed. One more fresh German rifle platoon finally moved to occupy buildings in the town, but by then the path was wide open for the Canadian armor to roll unmolested to the crossroads objective and victory.

This was our first IABSM game using a lot of armor, and the unbalanced number of Canadian tanks firing and moving without a single loss clinched the game for the Allies. The veteran Canadian rifles had also served their purpose of locking down the town in a pitched battle with their numbers and quality allowing them to hold out against their German foes.

Seventy years ago at Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives the German surrender was captured by a a film crew, and bits of the film survive today (see below). The exploits of the Canadians in the Falaise Pocket led by Major David Currie helped seal victory for the Allies after months of fighting in Normandy, and his miniature tank crews won the battle again on our tabletop historical repeat of this important victory at one more crossroads in the French countryside.

Newsreel footage of Canadian troops in action and the German surrender at Saint Lambert-Sur-Dives in August 1944

New Game Weekend: A Few Acres of Snow

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 “You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth.” — Voltaire, Candide (1758)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the area of what would become the Northeastern United States and the neighboring Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec were a battlefield for French, British and Native American control. With the two European empires locked in a protracted series of large and small wars around the globe, the American colonies were often a sideshow to the global conflict. In the colonies, King William’s War (1689–97), Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), King George’s War (1744–48) and the French and Indian War (1754–63) each played a role in shaping not only the birth of the United States of America but also the face of the entire globe for centuries to come.

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A mid-18th century map of British and French colonies in North America

(from New York Public Library Map Division)

I grew up in Western New York State, spent most of my twenties in Eastern Michigan and Western Pennsylvania, and finally settled in New York City nearly twenty years ago. In my life I’ve logged many a road trip to the landmarks of British and French military control at Fort Stanwix, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort William Henry and Fort Niagara, along with various battlefields and stops at roadside markers. In July, I’ll be swinging by Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania where a British officer named George Washington first commanded troops in an opening battle of the French and Indian War. I’ll also be swinging through Letchworth State Park which was occupied by the western edges of the Iroquois Confederacy which sided with the British during the era of European conflict. In short, I’ve spent my entire life living amid the ghosts of the contested colonial regions of the North American colonial wars.

AcresCardsSample cards from A Few Acres of Snow

At the recent D-Day Plus 70 weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY I was fortunate to score a copy of A Few Acres of Snow in a dice-off raffle. Created by famed designer Martin Wallace and released by Treefrog Games in 2011, the game takes its name from a quote from Voltaire’s Candide commenting on the absurdity of European focus on colonial wars for territory. AFAOS takes players through the French-British colonial period in North America as each nation competed for control of the continent. Within the theme, the game is a rich mix of deck-building and area control mechanics as players seek to settle and defend key areas of the map.

snowsymbolsCard symbols from A Few Acres of Snow

(Wagon, Bateaux, Settler, Military Strength, Money, Fur, Ambush and Ship)

The two-player game begins with players choosing a side as the British or French with a set number of settled outposts in the wilderness of 17th and 18th century North America. British begin with their main settlements in New York and Boston while the French player starts with Quebec. Players begin with a draw deck from which they start with five cards. Playing cards in turns of two actions each, players perform a variety of actions including settlement, fortification, raids, sieges, trade, piracy and a number of card management options. Symbols depicted on each card allow for enormous flexibility in how each player executes their strategy of expansion. For example, a player might begin with a Location card setting off from an existing settlement. From there, a card is played with the appropriate movement symbol like a Bateaux along a river. Once at a new location, a card with a Settler might be played to create a new settlement. As a player’s holdings expand, their decks grow in size and options, leading to even more potential paths of empire growth. Once all settlement tokens are used or major settlements like Boston or Quebec are captured, the games ends and victory points are scored.

IMG_3640My first play of A Few Acres of Snow

In my first play through AFAOS, I faced off with my son playing the French and me playing as the British. The game plays in about an hour, but on our first run we went to a bit over 90 minutes as we wrapped our heads around the rules. After I quickly sailed to and settled Halifax well within the bounds of French country, several  sieges commenced. In his first siege attempt, my son was repelled by my superior military might powered by my store of money. He then took a few turns to quickly trade a lot of fur (one of the strengths of the French player) to buy additional forces for a second siege which chased my British from his territory.

IMG_3647My heavily-settled British Atlantic Coast in A Few Acres of Snow

In the meantime, I pushed inland with a string a settlements toward the Great Lakes in the hopes it would expose Quebec to a siege. However, my son quickly landed a stronghold in my coastal territory in a siege victory at Pemaquid. I retaliated with two failed attacks on Pemaquid using Native American raiding parties. Having held on, my son launched an attack on Boston and my British rule of the colonies fell.

Our first game showed us how quickly AFAOS can move once you get the mechanics. Getting the right cards in and out of your hand is key to winning the game, and the cards shift in importance as the game quickly unfolds. The balance of trade, expansion and military actions does a fantastic job in re-enacting the dynamics which played out between the British, French and shifting Native American allies over some 150 years. Even though we upset the course of history, we both walked away pretty thrilled over our new game and chatting up strategies for the next time we meet up in the woods and along the coasts of Colonial America.

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