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.

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New Game Weekend: 1775 Rebellion

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Late this past week, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on game designer and CIA analyst Volke Ruhnke. Ruhnke’s games are popular at Metropolitan Wargamers, including his COIN (Counterinsurgnecy) series from GMT Games, including the two 2013 releases of  Cubra Libre (Cuba) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). The basic mechanics of these games and other historicals like them involve simple map game boards, wooden blocks placed in area control of spaces and detailed cards driving player actions.

While Ruhke’s games from GMT focus on 20th-century insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America, Academy Games has been producing games for a couple years framed in similar mechanics but focused on US history with their Birth of America series. Thus far, the series consists of  1812: The Invasion of Canada, published two years ago  to conicide with the 200th-anniversary of the War of 1812, and 1775: Rebellion, an American Revolution game. Next up for Academy Games is an Underground Railroad-themed game called Freedom which was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year.

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Back of the box for 1775: Rebellion showing game contents

This past weekend I had an opportunity to play 1775 for the first time, and if you’ve got a passion for board games and American history like me, you need to give this one a try yourself.

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Game set up for 1775: Rebellion

The board presents a map of ther thirteen original American colonies, plus Quebec and Nova Scotia to the north, at the dawn of the War of Independence. Two to four players begin the game as American Regulars, Colonial Militia, British Redcoat Regulars and English Loyalists deployed throughout the colonies. On the western frontier are unaligned Native Americans, and throughout the game opportunities arise for Hessian and French forces to join the conflict. All forces in the game are indicated through simple color-coded cubes with American Colonists in blue and white, British in red and yellow, Native Americans in green, French in purple and Hessians in orange.

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Sample movement cards from 1775: Rebellion

The action of the game is propelled by movement and event cards. Each player draws three cards to their hand and may play one movement and up to two event cards during their turn. Movement cards indicate one or more allied army’s movement from one to three spaces in a turn. Native American, Hessian and French forces cannot move until another force moves to their space and joins in alliance with them. Moving forces cannot move through enemy-occupied areas, and movement to a space containing enemy forces results in a battle.

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Sample event cards from 1775: Rebellion

Event cards depict historic personalities such as generals or statesmen and other occurences from the Revolutionary period like Paul Revere’s Ride, signing of the Declaration of Independence or the creation of the American flag by Betsy Ross. Each event card allows for things like additional forces to arrive or extra movement.

 

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Turn 1 with the Americans moving on British-occupied Boston

Combat is resolved with dice color-coded to each force. Dice faces show hits, blank sides and flee indicators. Defending forces roll first in a combat. Hits destroy an enemy unit, returning it to the reinforcement pool. A blank result allows the option for a unit to retreat to a neighboring allied-controlled space. A flee roll removes a unit to the flee space to be replaced at the beginning of that player’s next turm. Dice for each force are weighted differently, so British Redcoats don’t hit as often but never flee while Hessians hit more frequently but flee more readily.

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Truce cards from 1775: Rebelllion

The game proceeds in random turn order each round with players deploying reinfocements into occupied cities and retrieving fled units. The object of the game is to control the most colonies before the game ends after turn three with the play of two truce cards on each side. Colonies are only controlled when every space in the colony is controlled by allied forces.

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Turn 3 with the American truce card played and British advancing from the north

In our four-player game this past weekend, my team’s Colonists initially attempted to oust the British from Boston but were repelled. The British advanced from Canada into northern New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Colonists picked up Native American allies in Western Pennsylvania and took control of the colony while a stalemate resulted in New England. With a mass of British-allied reinforcements to the north, the Colonists recieved French reinforcements in turn three and quickly took control of two colonies to the south. Colonists quickly played their second truce card and ended the game with more colonies in our control.

Although our intro game was a quick one, I’m very much looking forward to trying 1775: Rebellion again using different paths to victory. The game’s rules are short and the components simple, but there’s a lot of strategic heft to the game. For adults, or even smart kids, with a thing for early American history, I can’t recommend 1775: Rebellion enough.

Favorite Kickstarters of the Month (August 2013)

These days it seems like a month doesn’t go by that some Kickstarter horror story makes the rounds. Projects vanish, people lose money to scams or entrepreneurs running Kickstarters go belly-up with their success. This past week, the owner of a successfully-Kickstarted game called Corporate America wrote about his experience. The piece gives a solid, balanced look at the real economics behind running a Kickstarter game campaign. It’s a good read and worth bearing in mind while taking a look through the game campaigns I’ll be watching this month.

duelA Duel Betwixt Us: This two-player card game pits two 19th-century gentleman in a game of manly combat. By using their workers, each player is able to mine for ingots used to create weaponry and armor for combat. Once ready, a player selects a duel and then brings their arms, armor and stack of dirty tricks to the fight. The very Victorian artwork reveals a hilarious game of codpieces, drunken miners, oddball weaponry and double-crossing at every turn in the quest of woman’s favor.

incursionIncursion: Released by Grindhouse Games in 2009, Incursion is yet another take on an alternative post-WWII world where Nazis and Allied forces persist in protracted combat as a Doomsday Device threatens world destruction for all. This sci-fi-fuelled game is full of fantastic weapons, evil scientists, daring heroes plus zombie Nazis and combat gorillas. This second edition and expansion of the game adds all sorts of plastic miniatures to the game, new missions and rules for three players.

freedomFreedom – The Underground Railroad: I grew up in Western New York, a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement and gateway to Canada for escaping slaves. Academy Games is adding the story of the Underground Railroad to their Birth of America Series of games that has already covered the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. There’s a lot of real history packed into this intense strategy game as players take on the role of allied abolitionists alluding slave trackers while escorting escaped slaves north to Canada along eight routes. Historical events and people shape the game along the way, making this game a really fascinating vehicle for retelling the story of the Underground Railroad.

TemplarTemplar – The Secret Treasures: I’m a fan of a number of the Eurogames produced by Queen Games, and Templar looks to be another fun hit. The game plays on two boards, a “harbor board” of warehouses and the other a detailed floorplan “abbey board.” Moving between the boards, players seek to find and hide treasure relics throughout the abbey by playing different character cards. Characters like the Prior, Abbot or Spy act to either aid or foil the Templar’s plans.

zerohourZero Hour – Survivor Horror Card Game: Aside from the occasional run-in with some zombies, I’m not generally a horror gamer. Zero Hour could change that. Play begins with 30 children stranded in the woods after their bus driver dies. Soon, weird things begin to happen in the woods, pushing each child closer and closer to insanity. Somehow, the children have to survive the night until the zero hour at dawn. The gothic design and theme of the entire game makes this look to be creepily attractive. A bonus part of the campaign is a tall plush Slenderman doll, certain to please the darkest child within you.