The Judgment-Free Zone: Freedom

It doesn’t really matter whether I like a game or not. What matters is whether you will like it. But first, you have to learn the game. So, here’s my judgment-free exploration of Brian Mayer’s Freedom: The Underground Railroad.

Charles T. Webber’s 1893 painting

Academy Games,
Designer: Brian Mayer
Players 1-4
Playing Time 90 min.
A.P. Factor: 3/10
Learning Curve: Moderate
Best Table Size: 3 chairs
Weight: Medium
Footprint: Large
Type: Cooperative Curiosity

Few historical events have spawned as many board games as the American Civil War. And with all the emphasis on battles, few games are developed that highlight the events leading to war.

Designer Brian Mayer, who creates games to integrate into the classroom, meets that challenge with a cooperative game about the Underground Railroad, the only path to Freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Mayer’s game builds upon the antebellum reality that runaway slaves were not safe even if they made it to the North. So, you and your compatriots are tasked with outsmarting the Slave Catchers and bringing the refugees all the way to Canada.


You, and up to 3 other players, start with $8 and one of 6 Role Cards, with characters both White (Preacher, Station Master) and Black (Conductor, Shepherd). Every role has a benefit which can be used in each of the 8 rounds. The benefits aid in getting funds, moving runaways or purchasing tokens.

In addition, the roles have a special action that can be taken just one time. Once that power is used, the card is turned to the reverse, where the benefit is diminished. So, it’s crucial to wait for the right moment to use your power.

Three plantations in the Deep South are populated with slave tokens. Also, there is one Slave Market for each round. This market card is also filled with tokens. The game’s Goal card is placed in the corner of the map, showing the number of slaves that need to be brought to Canada.

The game uses a card mechanic reminiscent of the Cold War classic Twilight Struggle. There are 3 time periods (1800-39, 1840-59, 1860-65) and Abolitionist Cards for each. These event cards give you extra actions or benefits. Shuffled among them, a la Pandemic, are cards that negatively affect gameplay. Five cards from the first era are laid out on the board.

Five Phases

Routes referred to in just one 19th century book; there were many more

(1) Slave Catcher. Five different slave catcher tokens are placed on their starting cities. They each follow separate tracks around the country. They move in the direction of runaways that cross their path. During this phase, two special dice are rolled to move one Slave Catcher a certain number of spaces. If it lands on a space where there’s a runaway, the slave is lost.

(2) Planning. You can purchase up to 2 tokens to use in the Action phase. You choose from Fundraising tokens (free), Conductor tokens ($3-$5), and Support tokens ($10).

(3) Action. You may play up to two Fundraising or Conducting tokens. Fundraising gives you $1 for every slave on the run in either the North or South, depending on the token. Conducting tokens allow you to escort from 3 to 5 slaves either 1 or 2 spaces. As you escort the refugees into the North, you earn extra funds for each city you enter. You’re limited to one runaway per location, except in the largest cities. In addition you can take other actions: (a) buy and resolve an Abolitionist Card; (b) gain the character’s benefit; (c) use the character’s one-time special ability.

(4) Slave Market. Move all slaves from the next Market card onto the Plantations. If there is no room for any of the slaves, those slaves are lost. Then, turn up and fill a new Slave Market card.

The lantern is a powerful symbol of the Railroad

(5) Lantern. Abolitionist cards are consolidated, with older cards lowering in price, and new cards are dealt to fill in the empty slots. The Lantern token, signifying the first player, is passed to the left.

In addition to escorting a certain number of runaways to Canada (with a limit on how many slaves can be lost along the way), a 2nd victory condition involves purchasing a certain number of Support tokens. This is symbolic of the need to raise funds to support your work. It’s possible to exceed your goal of freeing slaves but still fall short of the required tokens.

Final Thoughts

During play, try to lure the Slave Catchers to one side of the map so that you can run slaves up the other side. While the shortest routes are in the center, that’s where the most Slave Catchers linger. Also, a sea route costs $1 but gives you flexibility of which port to land in.

With more slaves being brought into the plantations every round, Freedom has the out-of-the-gate rush of Pandemic. Like Flashpoint, the game forces you to reconsider the phrase “Acceptable Losses.” For firefighters, there’s no such thing, and that’s true in Freedom, also. You’ll try to save all the slaves, though it’s virtually impossible. Even if you meet both victory conditions, you’ll want to do better the next time.

Let us know what you think of Freedom: The Underground Railroad. And don’t be afraid to get judgmental!

  • Drew is a contributor to the Board Gamers Anonymous podcast. He's a curator by nature, compulsively reading and obsessively organizing what he's read. He's also been a gamer since the age of 3, which means he's been playing board games for... let's just say more than 40 years, and leave it at that...

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