Freedom: The Underground Railroad – Shut Up & Sit Down Review

[AMBIENT MUSIC, FRUSTRATED SIGHING] Start with… [SIGHS] Wait, have I just insulted myself, on paper? By myself? How does a person..? How does that happen? How do.. wh..? How do.. by myself? Is no-one here? It’s just, it’s just.. I’ve just… I’ve just insulted.. on paper, through the medium of.. I’ve… Why? How? “Freedom: The Underground Railroad” is a difficult, sometimes desperate, almost frantic co-operative boardgame about abolitionism, about saving lives, and about the struggle to try and change a country. Yes, your goal is nothing less than the ending of the slave trade upon which much of the United States of America has become dependent. To do so you’ll need to raise funds, you’ll need to.. you’ll… you’ll need to raise support as well, and you’ll need to evacuate slaves north, to Canada. But slavery is an industry, and it makes some people a lot of money. You have opponents. You have people working against you, and you have malicious slave-catchers, who are going to do their very best to scour the nation.. to try and reclaim what they think are the possessions they’re owed. The game begins with each player taking a role perhaps as a preacher, or a station master, or a stockbroker, or something else which gives them special abilities. And then these southern plantations here are stocked with cubes. There’s also several more deliveries of cubes, queued up here on the right. All of these represent slaves arriving in the southern United States, which as you can see, from the start is already quite well stocked. Now, as well as your victory conditions, which are to raise support and evacuate these slaves to Canada, you also have to pay attention to your failure conditions. Now, not only do you have just eight turns to win the game, you also can’t afford to fill up this ‘lost slaves’ track. Now, should these cubes, these slaves arrive at the plantations and they’re full – and there’s no room for them – they’re immediately moved to the ‘lost slaves track, along with slaves who’re also caught by slave-catchers. Now, I should point out they are simply listed as ‘lost’ – it’s not made entirely clear what’s happened to these slaves, but you can be sure they are gone. You will never see them again. So you don’t want this to happen. Nobody wants this to happen. So what can you do on your turn as a player to help this? Well, you buy tokens from here, from the left side of the board – and these are tokens that might gain support for your cause. Buy all of these and you’ve fulfilled your ‘support’ victory condition, and there are also tokens that help you fundraise or help you move cubes out of plantations northwards. And that’s critical. That’s where you need to start, because the moment you start moving northwards you get that traffic going; that raises you money. As soon as you can move cubes into any squares marked with dollars, you can raise that amount of dollars when you start fundraising; when you take a fundraising token. And you will need to do that. You will need to start clutching at every dollar you can, very very quickly indeed. As well as using your cash to buy more movement tokens or to buy support, you can also use it to pay for these cards that are constantly cascading down this track, becoming cheaper and cheaper. Each of these has a special power, that does something like give you extra movement, or allow you to rescue cubes faster. But occasionally you’ll have a bad egg come to the fore; a member of the opposition, a slug of some sort who has long as they sit in this track, slows your progress and sets you back. If you’re flash enough with your cash to be able to buy all of the support tokens for one era, you move on to the next era, and then the cards for that era, which are all different. And there are a lot of cards across these three eras, ‘cos it turns out a lot’s happened in history. Now, all of this is quite simple. “Freedom” isn’t a very complex game; it’s easy to learn. And this lures you into a false sense of security;, after your first turn, your second turn you think, “well, I know what I’m doing, “I understand how the game works. I’ve got all this sorted out. “I can be a good person! I can do good things!” But you can’t. Because so much is arrayed against you. These plantations are going to fill up fast. Very fast. New shipments of slave cubes are arriving all the time. You’re going to have to keep shuttling cubes northwards, all the time, which means you’re gonna have to keep buying these movement tokens and spending your money. All the time. But there’s only a limited amount of space on the board; many of the spaces can only take one cube at a time, and then there’s the slave-catchers; don’t forget the slave-catchers. Every time you move a cube into a space that’s connected by a coloured, dotted line, that triggers one of the slave-catchers who sits on that route and sends them in that direction. Now, if you’re good, if you’re co-ordinated, you’ll pull slave-catchers back and forth in this way. You’ll manipulate them. But when the board is crowded, when your moves are limited, in theory that sounds easy; in practice… ‘What’s more: at the start of every turn, the slave-catchers make a randomly-determined move, which may foil your carefully-constructed plans. It’s not long before you realise the plantations just really, really aren’t big enough; that you never have quite enough money to do everything you need. You certainly don’t have enough room on the board for all of these cubes. So you start to do something… a little bit terrible. You start to make compromises; acceptable sacrifices. You think, “if I move a cube here… it may lure a slave-catcher away and create space for somebody else to be evacuated, even if someone’s captured. Or maybe this turn, I can spend my money gaining support instead of actually moving people out of plantations. You scan the board increasingly desperately, and start grasping at all of the cards, to see if they give you just a little more cash, or a little more movement, because none of them give you any more time. So does this make the game seem a little more difficult now? Well, good, it should. And let me tell you something else about “Freedom”: it’s a game of momentum, and by that I mean it’s a game where you could have lost one or two turns ago, without quite realising. Without realising that you’re never gonna raise the money that you need to get support; that you’re never going to master the logistical nightmare that is the sheer volume of cubes that are drenching the United States of America. It takes time and experience to see defeat coming in the distance. And it can be very easy to send yourself down a route where there’s no way out, where there’s no way to win. [SIGHS] But you know what? I like that it’s hard. I like that it’s difficult. Hard like headbutting marble is hard, or difficult like getting your tongue stuck on a lamppost on a freezing cold d… Well, not really quite like that. Look, another co-op game that we’ve advocated several times is “Pandemic.” It’s very good, but let me tell you about my first ever game of “Pandemic”. We lost on our second turn because of events exploding out of control, that we had no influence over at all, that we couldn’t do anything about. “Freedom” doesn’t behave in that way because “Freedom” has a kind of a gentle curve of difficulty. It throws more and more things at you as the game progresses. It feels more natural that way, and the end is simply a mopping-up exercise like it can be in a game of “Pandemic” or “Ghost Stories”, which we also really enjoyed. However, “Freedom” doesn’t have that variety of starting situations that many other co-op games have. Every game will feel kind of similar: it’ll have that same build, it’ll have that same starting scenario. I tentatively recommend it for how difficult it is; how challenging it is, but of course, you are missing out on variety, and then… there is something else I absolutely have to mention, that I think is really, really critical. And that is the theme. I.. wasn’t playing “Freedom” for all that long before I actually started to become a little bit agitated. I was struggling to shuffle cubes around the board and make space, and actually just keep them out of trouble. and I also wasn’t really all that willing to call them ‘cubes’, or ‘slaves’, because they didn’t… seem that to me once they’d left the plantations. They were, of course, people – the cubes represent people. Now, there’s two you things you could do right now: one of those is you could stop the review with me basically closing and saying we tentatively recommend “Freedom”. It’s… hard. It’s a game where the appeal is mainly in the difficulty. It’s a good game but not great, and it has an element of educational value as well: when Quinns and I were playing he was pointing out how all the cards in the game are actually interesting, historical details; they’re people, they’re locations or things that happened. The game has quite a strong educational element. But you could also indulge me maybe for just a little bit longer, ‘cos there’s… one or two other things I’d like to point out that I think are very interesting about the experience of playing “Freedom”. When I was a kid, I remember playing a video game about the American civil war and I remember actually learning more about it that way than I ever did at school because – fair enough – it was not a priority of the British educational system. And games can do this! They can put ideas into your head and put information in there while you’re having fun. But the thing with “Freedom” is it does this almost too well, in a kind of unusually practical way that I found a little uncomfortable. All board games are an abstraction of some sort, whether that’s “Agricola” or “Seven Wonders” or “Pandemic”, or anything else. And they turn resources into components, and they turn ideas into mechanics or systems. But the thing with “Freedom”: when you’re trying to minimise and maximise your actions; when you see all these many, many tiny cubes that are people – that are just a resource, it’s almost like you’re transported back to that time where – for many people at the time – their slaves were abstracted onto balance sheets. They were.. possessions. They were things to be shuffled around, and minimised and maximised, and actually it’s the best thing that you can do for them to try and get them off the board; to try and move them north, to freedom. Or maybe I’m actually overthinking this – maybe I’m oversensitive, and I’m a little too aware that I’m a white English guy talking about black American history. But I did feel uncomfortable at times with this sort of manipulation. So if you’ve stuck with me for this long – and thanks for your indulgence if you have – there’s a games designer that I think you should look up, who you might also find interesting. Her name is Brenda Romero – or Brenda Brathwaite, which she’s previously known as – and as well as designing some classic video games she’s also made some board games with the specific intention of getting a certain idea or theme or feeling across. She’s done a bunch of presentations which you can find online: there is a TED Talk, for example or there’s something on a site called ‘GDC Vault’ that you can look at, and I’d urge you to have a look at what she has to say about her games, “The New World” and “Train”. I won’t spoil what they’re about. Now, most of the time I suppose games are mostly about having fun and enjoying yourself, and testing your brain and making the most of the company you have. But I think occasionally they can do something a bit different – something a bit special and I think “Freedom” is a game that kind of does that. And I’m excited by that – perhaps more excited than I actually am by the rest of the game. Even though it made me feel awkward at times, I’d still take that as a positive thing. Thank you very much for watching, and we’ll have a video that I promise will be funnier and sillier next week. I mean, I’m certainly… to be honest most of the time I’m actually a fountain of ideas and I never, never get caught out for funny things, I mean, um.. you know the limes? We could do limes again; we haven’t done limes for a while… or, um, pears or peaches… you just.. all fruits are funny! You like fruits, don’t you? Um, or… animals… are good How about… CARS? Because they’re everywhere! What’s going on with that?

32 thoughts on “Freedom: The Underground Railroad – Shut Up & Sit Down Review

  • Many games draw on horrific themes, from wars to deaths to pandemics and so on. One of the best selling video games right now if Battlefield 1 based on the incomprehensible human catastrophe that was World War 1. If you don't feel squeamish about those games, then I don't think you should feel uncomfortable playing a game where you free slaves.

  • I think it speaks to Paul's (and others') integrity that they feel the way they do with the game. Yes, there are many games dealing with horrific themes, but most of those can also be abstracted to generic "war" where there's at the same time a romantic and heroic element attached. With something like slavery, the romance of it either doesn't exist or feels dirty itself, like there's something dark bubbling under the surface of this "just a game". I imagine it'd be like if a game like this were themed with the Holocaust, or perhaps playing Memoir '44 with someone with strong German heritage. I'm glad the game has the undertones it does and that many of the reviewers I've seen don't shy away from it. Bravo, SU&SD for your treatment of this. You won my subscription before with your humor and quality reviews, but you won my respect with your honesty and dedication here.

  • Great review, and I yes your funny reviews are nice but sometime a harder look like you did on this one is in order. Thou it is a game it is important to remember that should we forget the horrible things we did in the past we are doomed to do them again one thing about games like this it allows us to work together or against each other but it can also educate.

  • I'm glad you acknowledged the problematic point of having cubes to represent people in this case. I feel like I'd be less squicked if they chosen either a wooden person figures or printed tokens with people illustrated on it, since… dehumanization is exactly the problem. This is especially highlighted with the illustrations of the slavers on the board – you have some people illustrated as people…and others just as cubes.

  • I played this game last year, and I'd describe it more as co-op chess. Sure, the theme is of slavery, but the game itself is really fun. I did find, though, that one or two people would end up controlling the board and others would just be along for the ride, so not the greatest co-op game. However, it still felt really fun to bring slaves to freedom. We won, but just barely, and that just adds to the tension of the game. I haven't played it since, but it was definitely enjoyable, and, TBH, I prefer it to Pandemic, just because I am very logical, and this game is very logic based (no random events that make it impossible for everyone, etc.). Overall, it's not the greatest game, but it's fun and challenging, and worth picking up.

  • Great review and excellent handling of the sensitivity of the subject material. It should be high praise that the game can even illicit such a dreadful response. As a thought experiment, would the game change if the subject matter was smuggling Jews out of Poland circa 1941?

  • It's always a bit of a masturbatory experience when "woke" people talk about the American slave trade. Yes, it was a dark time in history and people are affected by it today, but it has been practically abolished in the West except for highly illegal, highly hunted human traffickers. Board games can never approach a subject in a way that is respectful on the level of movies, music or books so don't act like this game is anything but a light, easily digested way for people to approach a subject that they would otherwise look away from. Instead of being somber and pretending that it carries a heavy burden on our hearts today, praise it for raising awareness on a historical issue that could easily be forgotten by those who can't stand hearing about human suffering.

  • Games about stabbing or beating or even slaughtering people by the thousand are just fine, but games including slaves, even if you are freeing them, provokes deep moral introspection.

  • Firstly, another great review. Now I personally wouldn't buy this game. I do appreciate the educational element but I'd find it hard to justify having fun based on the evil things that went on just a couple of generations ago. Games are no doubt a great way to teach/learn if played in the right environment but themes like this, for me, take away from the enjoyment of playing. I think themes that remind you of an oppressive history sets your mind to a serious mode of thought, a mode of thought that you're trying to escape by gaming in the first place!

  • a touchy subject and I think it may be Black History Month in the U.S. now yet it is no.1 in the American Civil War games on bgg so I dunno maybe I will get this there is more to just war during that period and as good as For The People and Battle Cry are..

  • My husband (who happens to be African American) and I played Freedom with a few friends a couple of years ago. We have only plumed it once and it remains I. Our collection. Incredibly immersive, indeed it made for some uncomfortable moments. We actually "won", strange even calling it that. I definitely suggest it to people who enjoy thinky, strategic, euroesque games. And it should be essential in everything American history classroom.

  • In this review he mentions you should look out for Brenda Romero and her games The New World and Train. Her TED talk about them is here

  • I've played this game twice now.

    The first game was just atrocious. I'd lost 6 rounds into the 8 rounds, so I quit. It was a very interesting match, as I'd had to make very difficult decisions, including which slave I would allow to be lost. It felt really sick to abandon the slaves still on the board.

    The second game was a challenging puzzle, but we were able to finish the victory conditions by turn 4! But that didn't mean we were done! We pulled out all the stops to save as any people as possible, overshooting the mark by like 4-5.

    The difference was the strength of the abolitionists we pulled, and the strength of the opposition cards we pulled.

    There is a big power level difference between the stronger and weaker ones. One abolitionist might only save you $1, but another halves the cost of a support token. And Harriet Tubman is OP as fuck. Furthermore, an opposition card can be completely backbreaking, or be so weak that you can just let it sit around doing it's thing.

    I'm very glad to have purchased it. You definitely bond with the escapees, especially as they start getting close to Canada. There was one point where we had to choose between the one guy about to get captured, and a mega fundraising turn that would allow us to support the whole cause. It really hurt, but we threw the one guy to the wolves.

    There are tons of impactful decisions, and you really do feel the weight of the people you are helping.

    If you can pick it up for a reasonable cost, you should do so.

  • Another reason why i've fallen in love with this channel, this review actually moved me almost to tears. I would love to try this game and grasp it emotional drive.

  • I really think you guys need to play Black Orchestra so. It has a solid design (more solid than this one probably) and you can learn tons of history from it. Event cards are a lot in numbers, they are all illustrated, and with flavor text. It is a very challenging Coop experience, and also educational.

  • Sounds like a game you can only feel a victory if you save all the slaves but freeing them all is impossible.

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