New Game Weekend: Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection

LOD Box

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.

LOD Leaders

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.

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Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette In The Somewhat United States”

WashingtonLafayetteIn today’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle of domestic political squabbling, international insurgencies and terrorism, and crushing economic conditions, it’s easy for most Americans to lament the early 21st-century as a period where the world has simply lost its collective mind. Taking a step back a couple hundred years to the late 18th-century in Sarah Vowell’s wildly entertaining Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, readers are easily transported to a period where the citizens of Europe and the American Colonies could have easily drawn the same conclusion in an era where broadsheets stood in for the Drudge Report, Politico, CNN and Fox News.

SVBooksSarah Vowell’s previous books offer unique journeys through American history

NPR, Daily Show and history nerd darling Vowell has made a career mining US history for the formative stories and personalities which have shaped us into the frustrating and wonderful mess we Americans are today. In her previous works, Presidential assassinations, dogmatic religious zeal, patriotism, colonizing of native peoples and other complicated parts of our centuries of experience have all been covered through travelogues and overviews of writings which all contribute to our American experience through the modern day. It is only fitting then that Vowell has eventually arrived at the very origin story of the United States with the period of the American War of Independence. As always though, Vowell has chosen to come at this era through the not-so-likely lens of an enlightened and angry fatherless teenage French aristocratic immigrant who is often ignored in most of our modern memory: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette.

SVLafayette

Vowell’s book provides an overview of the period with Lafayette as its star and a supporting cast of European and American aristocrats, playwrights, arms dealers, politicians, farmers, artisans, militarists, merchants, wives and strivers of the idealistic and violent era. Lafayette is portrayed as a young guy of the Enlightenment seeking personal glory, riches and yes, some political change on a worldwide stage. From the letters, diary entries and articles of the day quoted heavily throughout the book, Lafayette and these other folks are largely represented from their educated, wealthy one-percenter status which allowed them to reshape history. Although gunpowder and battlefields loom large in the story, Vowell shows it was in lavish dinner party conversations, drunken alehouse arguments and heady congressional debates where the real work of Revolution got done.

12045330_10206929315365760_4299028010311909902_oSarah Vowell at her reading and book signing at Book Court in Brooklyn, NY on October 20, 2010

Vowell’s journey takes her to out-of-the-way field trips in Europe, oddball artifacts displayed under glass and Revolution-era National Park Service sites stateside. In this she also brings her book, as she does in all her work, into the present during the government shutdown of said National Park Service sites in our modern political era of dysfunction. Like all good history, Vowell’s connection between past and present paints the picture of how our hundreds of years of squabbling and infighting sits at the American core. This is ground Vowell has covered in all her books, showing what a mess we are, how we never really learn our lesson and that we always manage to survive and get things done. Depending on your leanings and perspective, this might be a comfort or a challenge to your own experience.

That a bunch of talc-wigged guys (and women) would grow a cohort of “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” warring against the British monarchy into “state sponsored terrorists” backed by the French monarchy is a truly weird American story. By the time we get to the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence is effectively won by Lafayette, Rochambeau and their French forces, cementing the remarkable patriotic American tale into world history largely with a French accent. Lafayette In The Somewhat United States is also a tale perfect for Sarah Vowell’s smart voice.