Radio Review #48 – Freedom: The Underground Railroad


(2013 – Academy Games)


“Oh, freedom….Oh, freedom….”


Academy Games are known for their development of historical board games. Ones that are streamlined and designed for a wide range of young and old gamers, with the overall intent on being able to teach history and educate players on particular events. Their newest release, Freedom: the Underground Railroad (by first-time designer, Brian Mayer) covers the events during 1800-1865, with the organized operation of escorting slaves into Canada, before the War between the States.

Freedom: the Underground Railroad is a cooperative game in which players will work together as abolitionists during the 1800’s, escorting slaves through the Underground Railroad, and into Canada. Slave catchers will move amongst the various cities and lands of the Northern and Southern United States, attempting to gather escaped slaves and send them back to the slave market. Players must gain enough support for their cause, as well as free enough slaves before the end of the 8th Round to succeed. Players must plan and organize which routes to Canada they will take, awhile visiting various Cities in order to gain enough money to fund the Underground Railroad.






– Freedom Game Board



– Player Boards



– Victory Condition boards



– Role cards



– Abolitionist cards



– Slave Market cards



– Slave markers



– Support tokens



– Period tokens (1800-1839, 1840-1859, and 1860-1865)



– Slave Catcher markers & dice



– Money tokens



– First player marker





Players must first choose a Victory Condition board that suits their particular game, which is then placed in the top-right section on the game board. There are 4 individual boards, each corresponding to the number of players in the game.


Each board is dual-sided, with one side representing a regular difficulty, while the other, a more challenging difficulty. Each board contains the number of freed slaves needed to win the game, as well as the number of lost slaves that will trigger a failed result.


Next players will create a draw pile using the deck of Slave Market cards. Each card represents the number of slaves that will be sold amongst the various plantations between Rounds. The deck is also used as a Round mechanism. Each Slave Market card has a player number in the bottom right corner of the card that shows which cards are included in the deck, depending on how many players are in the game. Whether it is a 1, 2, 3, or 4-player game, there will always be 8 of these cards that make up the draw pile, therefore each game will consists of 8 Rounds. Before the initial Round, the top 3 Slave Market cards are flipped and placed into the empty sections below, and the spaces on the cards are filled with a particular number of Slaves (representing by the wooden cubed Slave markers).


There are 3 plantations on the board in which players will attempt to escort slaves from throughout the game. Slave markers are placed on the lighter tan colored spaces to start the game with, though during the game it is quite probable that there will be times when all of these spaces will be filled.


During the game, players will have the opportunity to purchase Abolitionist cards that will give them bonuses and special abilities that they can use during the game. There are 3 types of Abolitionist cards that will appear: General, Reserve, and Opposition cards. These cards are also separated into the 3 time periods that will play out during the game (1800-1839, 1840-1859, and 1860-1865). Each of the General and Reserve cards have numbers representing which cards will be used in which games depending on the number of players. After the General and Reserve cards have been separated into their corresponding time periods, a number of Opposition cards are shuffled into each deck depending on the number of players in the game. After each time period deck has been shuffled (each containing General, Reserve, and Opposition cards), the top 5 cards from the 1800-1839 deck are draw and placed face up on the available spaces on the board. These 5 cards will be available to players during the 1st Round of the game.


Above the Abolitionist cards, there is an area where different tokens can be purchased by players for use during the game. These tokens will allow players to gain support, move slaves, and gather funds throughout the game. Each time period has a different set of tokens and players will find that as they advance to a new time period, more options will be available to them. The token area is split into 3 separate sections: Support, Conductor, and Fundraising. The number of Support, Conductor, and Fundraising tokens are placed according to a chart that comes with the game, and is dependent on the number of players in the game. For the purposes of this review, we’ll be taking a look at a 2-player game, which would consists of the following:


– 1800-1839 period: 2 Support tokens, 5 Conductor tokens, and 2 Fundraising tokens

– 1840-1859 period: 3 Support tokens, 3 of each set of Conductor tokens, and 2 of each set of Fundraising tokens

– 1860-1865 period: 2 Support tokens, 2 of each set of Conductor tokens, and 2 Fundraising tokens



The main game board represents the northern and southern areas of the United States during the pre-Civil War era. There are 5 Slave Catchers that patrol the towns and cities within these areas attempting to catch escaped slaves and return them to their owners. Each of these Slave Catchers is represented by a marker with a unique color and symbol. These markers are placed onto the town and city spaces which are pre-marked on the game board, and they will begin the game on these spaces.


Each player will receive $8 in funds and a Role card containing some ongoing benefits that a player can use throughout the game along with a 1-time use special ability. Players will also receive a player mat that contains a summary of the different phases of the game, as well as an area at the bottom to place their Role card and a single Reserve card if purchased during the game. All additional components including the Slave Catcher dice, 1st player marker, money, and additional Slave markers are placed near the main game board. At the end of setup, the play area should look something like this:






A game of Freedom: the Underground Railroad can be divided into 5 main phases of play: The Slave Catcher Phase, the Planning Phase, the Action Phase, the Slave Market Phase, and the Cleanup Phase. A full set of these phases represent a single Round, and as mentioned before, the game consists of 8 complete Rounds. If players have not won the game by the time the 8th Round has been completed, they automatically lose. Let’s take a look at how each phase works.



Slave Catcher Phase – At the beginning of each Round, the Slave Catchers will attempt to move from town to town, looking for possible escaped slaves. The game comes with a set of dice, with one die representing the slave catcher icon, and the other die representing the number of spaces a particular Slave Catcher will move. On the game board, you will notice that there are routes connecting the various towns and cities on the map. These routes are color-coordinated to the Slave Catchers and each town/city space shows either and white or black arrow pointing in a certain direction from it.


During the first phase of each Round, a player will roll the set of dice. The result will show which Slave Catcher is moving this round and which direction he will go. For instance, taking a look below, the yellow Slave Catcher begins the game in Rochester, NY. If the die result showed a yellow icon and two black arrows, this Slave Catcher would move two spaces along the yellow route, n the direction following the black arrows from Rochester, NY. This would place him into Ferrisberg, VT. If the icon of a walking slave is rolled, then none of the Slave Catchers will move during this phase.


If the Slave Catcher lands on a space containing a Slave, that Slave is captured. This only occurs for the final space that the Slave Catcher lands on. Any space that he crosses over during his route does not capture a Slave, only his final stopping point. Any captured slaves are placed onto the Slave Market cards starting from the bottom and moving upwards (1 additional slave on each card, before another slave is added to the same card if necessary).



Planning Phase – During the Planning Phase, players will be allowed to discuss and plan what they need to do for the upcoming Action Phase. Each player will be allowed to take up to 2 tokens from the current time period area, or any time period that has already been completed. Both the Support and Conductor tokens costs money in order to purchase, while the Fundraising tokens are free (though limited in supply). The game begins in the 1800-1839 section. In order for players to advance to the next area, they will need to gain a certain amount of support. This is represented by the number of Support tokens in a particular time period area.


For instance, in a 2-player game, once players have spent the money to collect the 2 Support tokens from the 1800-1839 area, they will then be allowed to buy and use tokens from both the 1800-1839 area as well as the 1840-1859 area.



Conductor tokens will allow players to move slaves during the Action Phase. Each Conductor token shows the number of slaves that can be moved with that token, as well as how many spaces each of those slaves can move. Since players begin the game in the 1800-1839 time period, the movement of slaves can be somewhat limited, however once players reach the final time period (1860-1865), the movement of spaces and quantity of slaves that can be moved will increase. While Conductor tokens are limited, there will always be at least 1 token available in each space for the duration of the game, even once the extras have been purchased.


Fundraising tokens allow players to gain a substantial amount of funds on a turn depending on where the escorted slaves are on the board. Both Fundraising tokens during the 1800-1839 and 1840-1859 periods will give $1 for every slave currently located in the southern (green) locations, whereas Fundraising tokens during the final 1860-1865 period will give $1 for slave currently located in the northern (blue) locations. These tokens a very limited in number, and once all of them are used, they are not replaceable. Fundraising tokens must be used wisely, as knowing when to raise money at the right time is essential to succeeding in the game.


Taking a look at the map above, there are currently 7 slaves in the lower southern regions of the United States (plantation areas do not count for fundraising purposes). If a player were to use one of his 1800-1839 or 1840-1859 Fundraising tokens at this time, he would automatically earn $7 ($1 for each of these slaves).




Action Phase – Players will now take turns taking various actions. This is the only phase in which players are not simultaneously playing together. The player with the 1st player marker will take all of his actions first, then the player to his left will perform all of his actions and so on. This is why the Planning Phase is so essential. Being able to perform actions that will lead into another player’s actions is a neat balancing act. It is a unique mechanic that lends itself well to the theme in which the game is based off of. Historically, the Underground Railroad was an elaborate chain of coordination amongst various people. While individually doing their part, they collectively worked together to help these slaves from the southern plantations, and into Canada. The game uses the Planning and Action Phases as a tool to help imagine what it was like to plan and execute the logistical needs within Underground Railroad. On a player’s turn during the Action Phase, he has an array of options to choose from, and may perform these actions in any order. Let’s take a look at what all he can do.



1.) Play Tokens – During the Action Phase, a player can play up to 2 of his Conductor and/or Fundraising tokens, performing their actions as he does so. Remember that Conductor tokens will allow a player to move slaves around the map, while Fundraising tokens will help the players gain money needed to purchase Abolitionist cards, Support tokens, and other Conductor tokens. Player can also gain money when a slave ends his movement in a space that contains a $ symbol on it. This represents local support for the cause and the money is awarded to player that moved the slave to that space. Slave Catchers however, will become aware of movement along their routes and will move 1 space towards any slave that ends his movement on their particular route.


For instance, Player A chooses to use a Conductor token on his turn that will allow him to move 4 slaves up to 1 space each. For one of his slave’s movement, he chooses to move a slave 1 space north, into Newport. Landing in this town will gain the player $1 of support. However, since it is located along the purple Slave Catchers route, that Slave Catcher will move 1 space towards Newport.





2.) Abolitionist Cards – During the Action Phase players can buy and use the Abolitionist cards that are available on the game board. Buying these cards will cost that amount of money located above the card’s current location on the card track. When a General card is purchased, its action is resolved immediately. When a Reserve card is purchased, it is placed below the player’s player board for later use. A Reserve card will state when the card can be used on a player’s turn, but a player can only have 1 Reserve card at a time. Opposition cards are negative effects that can take place while their on the card track or when they are discarded from the track. Let’s take a look at some example of these cards:



John Price Rescue


– This is a General card found in the 1840-1859 deck. The John Price Rescue card will allow a player to move any slave from a small northern (blue or white) location space directly into Canada.



Levi Coffin


– This is a Reserve card found in the 1800-1839 deck. The Levi Coffin card will allow a player to stop the movement of a Slave Catcher, if that Slave Catcher would have captured a slave on its movement.



Fugitive Slave Act


– This is an Opposition card that can be found in any of the three decks. The Fugitive Slave Act card will resolve when it is removed from the card track. When resolving, 3 slaves that are in spaces connected to any of the Slave Catchers routes are caught and sent to the bottom-most Slave Market card. The 3 slaves being captured do not have to be on the same Slave Catcher route. Players can decide which slaves are captured from which routes.




3.) Role Card Abilities – During the Action Phase, players can use the abilities on their Role cards. All Role cards have some benefit abilities which will be available at all times during the game. These abilities are located at the top portion of the card. Role cards also have a one-time use special ability located at the bottom portion of the card. Once this ability is used, the player must flip the card to the opposite side, showing that he has used his special ability and it is no longer available.


Taking a look at the Station Master role card, we can see that her ongoing benefit abilities are that her player will gain $1 during every Action Phase. Also, when using a Conductor token to move slaves, she can choose a Slave Catcher that would normally move 1 space toward a slave among his route, and not move that Slave Catcher. Her one-time special ability is that during another player’s turn Conductor token movement will not trigger any Slave Catchers.



4.) Collect Money – During the Action Phase, a player may choose to perform any of the above actions and can choose to perform all of them if he wishes. However, he may choose to skip these actions, choosing not to perform any of them, and instead collect some funds. When a player passes their Action Phase they will collect $3 during the 1800-1839 period, $4 during the 1840-1859 period, and $5 during the 1860-1865 period.



Slave Market Phase – After players have taken their actions, slaves will be transferred from the Slave Market to the 3 plantations on the map. It is essential to move slaves off of the plantations as quickly as possible during the Actions Phase, since any slaves that cannot be placed onto an empty plantation space during this phase, will be considered a “lost slave” and placed on the lost slave portion of the Victory Condition board. If the slots on the Lost Slave section of this board fills up before players are able to move enough slaves into Canada, the game is lost. Remember that anytime a slave is captured by a Slave Catcher, that slave is also placed on the Slave Market cards, so it is very possible that there will be more slaves on these cards than the original amount placed when the card is first revealed.


For instance, there are 7 available spots amongst the various plantations. The next Slave Market card would normally consist of 5 slaves, however an additional slave has been set here since he was captured earlier in the game by a Slave Catcher. During the Slave Market phase, these 6 slaves are placed onto the empty plantation spaces, leaving only 1 remaining space available for the next round.


If there had only been 5 available spaces amongst the plantations instead of 7, 1 of these slaves would have been placed on the Lost Slaves portion of the Victory Condition board, and players would be one step closer to losing the game.


After the Slave Market card has been resolved, players will move the next available Slave Market cards down one space, and flip over a new Slave Market card from the draw pile, placing a number of slaves on the new card, according to its available spaces. The only exclusion to this is if there are no more cards in the draw pile. Once the last Slave Market card has been resolved, the game will end.



Cleanup Phase – During the Cleanup Phase, players will adjust the available cards on the Abolitionist card track. In a 1-2 player game, the two rightmost cards are discarded, while in a 3-4 player game, only the single rightmost card is discarded. Remember to reference any Opposition cards discarded in this way to make sure and resolve any of their “when removed from the queue” abilities.


After these cards are removed, the remaining cards are shifted to the rightmost spaces. The next card or cards (depending on the number of available slots) are drawn from the Abolitionist deck corresponding to the current time period, and are then filled in to the available spaces on the far left side of the track. The final cleanup step that needs to be taken before a new Round begins is the 1st player marker is given to the player to the left of the current 1st player.




End-Game Victory Conditions:

There are a number of ways to win and lose a game of Freedom: the Underground Railroad. The players can lose the game if there are no available spaces on the Lost Slave portion of the Victory Condition board, when another slave needs to be added. They can also lose if they are not able to complete their Victory Condition by the end of the 8th Round.


Players can win the game if they meet all 3 of the following conditions. They must have purchased all of the Support tokens from all 3 time periods. Players can not win if they have not gained all of the support for their cause. They must also have moved a number of slaves into Canada successfully as noted on their Victory Condition board. And they must have done both of these before the end of the 8th Round. If players have meet all 3 of these conditions successfully, they will have won the game.






As with Academy Game’s previous release, 1775: Rebellion, the publisher is known for putting incredible thought into combining the theme found within its games, with the contained mechanics. The goal is to provide a game that can be enjoyable on its own, but one that can be used as an educational tool to learn more about the particular event or time period that the game is tied to. Freedom: the Underground Railroad is no different, and is one that meets Academy’s vision, yet again.

The subject of the Underground Railroad is not one that can be taken lightly, and is one that if not designed correctly can raise issues of being offensive in nature . The designer has done a great job in developing a game that is both respectful to the history, as well as those involved. Instead of forcing players to play against each other, (and who would really want to play the side of a slave catcher?!) the game is cooperative, urging players to work together to make the Underground Railroad a success. It is not without its hard decisions, however. There are many times when players must decide whether to allow a slave to be captured, for the betterment of rescuing other slaves. As long as players have planned correctly however, these captured slaves will eventually return to a plantation, hopefully being able to be escorted to freedom again.

Using the different time periods offers up a walk through history, as the Abolitionist cards will help unfold the overall events leading up to the Civil War. Even if players choose to not use particular cards, it is neat seeing the events play out as they appear on the card track while the game progresses. The rule book also comes with 2-page history of the summary of events included in the years between 1800-1865. Gaining support, using conductors to move slaves from the plantations and into Canada, as well as playing out period events all come together to make Freedom: the Underground Railroad a unique combination of challenging gameplay, historical education, and an overall entertaining cooperative experience.



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