Give me Liberté, or give me death!

Review of board game Liberté by Pevans

Okay, that may be a bit excessive, given that Liberté is just a board game. And that its subject is the French, rather than the American, Revolution. The game attempts to simulate the chaos of revolutionary times, with different factions vying for control. (SPI did something similar - but more complicated - years ago with The Russian Civil War. How can you resist a game that includes Trotsky's armoured train? But I digress.) Designed by Martin Wallace, the game is published by his Manchester-based outfit, Warfrog.

Liberté box art (courtesy Warfrog)

Over the years, the quality of Warfrog's productions has got better and better. Liberté comes in a stout, slightly-bigger-than-A4 box with colour artwork. Inside is a solid board, showing a map of France divided into regions and provinces. The components are wooden blocks for the three factions (radicals in red, royalists in white and blue moderates), wooden markers for the players and two substantial decks of cards. All good, solid, quality stuff. Rules are provided in English, French and German, together with a couple of quick reference sheets.

The aim of the game is to accumulate victory points by having the most influence in the parties in government and opposition after each election. Players can also score points by winning battles or winning the election in specific provinces. However, the game can end early with a Red landslide or a White counter-revolution, in which case the winner is the player with the most resources of the appropriate faction. Assuming this doesn't happen, the game is played in four turns, each of which ends with an election. Depending on the number of players and just how the game goes, it can take between one and two hours to play.

The game is driven by the cards: these are personalities, clubs or events. Personalities represent major figures in the revolutionary period (Robespierre, Danton, Necker, Condé for example). Each personality card commands support for a particular faction - shown by a picture of 1-3 blocks of the appropriate colour - in a particular region - the background colour of the card shows this. Club cards (Jacobins, Girondins, for example) have 1 block of a particular colour, but can be applied to any region. Event cards allow the player to do something special: be nasty to other players! The most feared card is "Terror", which allows the player to remove a stack of blocks from the board and guillotine an opponent's personality card.

To start the game, each player gets a hand of seven cards from the 'A' deck. The remaining cards from the 'A' deck are placed on top of the 'B' deck. The top three cards are turned over: players can draw a face-up card (which is immediately replaced from the deck) or the top card from the deck. What players do is very simple: you can play a card or pick up a card (as long as you have less than nine in your hand). Or pass. Playing a personality or club card allows you to place the number of blocks in the colour shown into the region given on the card. The blocks can go into one province or several, can form new stacks or add to existing stacks. Provided there are no more than three stacks in a province, no stack contains more than three blocks and no player has more than one stack in a province. Placing one of the player's markers on top of the stack indicates ownership.

Once played, a personality or club card can be discarded or left face-up in front of the player. Each player is limited to four cards in their display - five if one of them is a 'sans culottes' radical (a symbol on the card shows this). These can be used later to break ties. If not used up, they go back into a player's hand at the end of the turn. But they don't count against the number of cards in your hand in the meantime. An event card is played with a personality or club card and can take effect before or after you place block(s).

Players continue until the blocks of one faction run out. Any player who hasn't already had a go this round still gets to play and then it's time for the election. Each province in turn gets to vote. The tallest stack in the province indicates which faction is voted for (the faction's marker is moved up on the election track) and the owning player gets the credit (a block from the stack). (Paris is special: the faction and player get as many votes as the highest stack!) In the case of a tie, the players involved have the chance to win by sacrificing a personality or club card of the appropriate faction from their display. If the tie is broken, the faction and player get the vote; otherwise it's wasted. The faction with the most votes forms the government and the player with the most (and second most) blocks of that colour in front of them score points. The faction with the second most votes is the opposition and the player with the most blocks of that colour also scores points. Any ties can be broken with personalities of the appropriate faction.

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Some tactics

These are the basics of the game and you can already see some of the tactics. You have to be aware which faction is likely to win the election and how much of a stake you have in that faction. This will depend on the cards in your hand, of course. Here you have to decide whether to build up your hand first or to get in early with the cards you already have. It's useful to have multiple cards for the same faction in the same region as this allows you to reinforce a position. But it also limits you. Because they're not specific to a region, Club cards are very useful as reinforcements. As blocks remain on the board between turns, you can build up a powerful presence in a region. Especially if you retain the appropriate personality in your display and get to play them again the following turn.

The various wrinkles add to the game and the tactics. First are the battles. Some Personality and Club cards have a cannon in the corner. When playing one of these cards, you can place a marker in the battle box instead of blocks on the board. At the end of turns 2, 3 and 4 a battle takes place. The player with the most markers in the battle box and a general (a personality wearing a plumed hat) in his display wins the battle and gains the victory points. If nobody wins the battle, a white block is placed on it (more on this later). Second are the victory points for four specific provinces. These go to the player whose stack wins the election in that province, regardless of faction, in turns 3 and 4. They are not many points, but they can give a very useful advantage (in general points are quite hard to come by - the scoring track only goes up to 20).

And then there are the different ways of ending the game. The radical landslide is quite straightforward. If the red votes go off the top of the scale (16) in any election, then the revolutionaries take over. Players add up the red blocks in front of them, the red blocks they control on the board, the red blocks on cards in their display and the red blocks on cards in their hand. The player with the most wins - victory points are irrelevant. The Royalist counter-revolution is rather different. For a start, it happens during play - during turns 3 and 4 only - and causes the game to end immediately. Various provinces on the board are labelled as 'CR'. If the white faction controls enough of these, the counter-revolution takes place. In this case, control means that the tallest stack in the province must be white blocks. Ties are not allowed. Plus any lost battles count as a white-controlled province. If the counter-revolution happens, players add up the white blocks they control on the board, white blocks on cards in their display and white blocks on cards in their hand. The player with the most wins - again, victory points are irrelevant.

The counter-revolution, in particular, adds another dimension to the game. If you have holdings in white, then it's something to think about. Though in a five or six-player game, one player is unlikely to be able to force a counter-revolution on their own. If you don't have many white cards or blocks, then you need to watch out. Is anyone else trying to set up a counter-revolution? Do you (and your fellow non-whites) need to protect any areas from a sudden influx of whites? Similarly, if a radical landslide looks likely, how much red do you have? Whose red holdings need to be taken down a bit? It adds quite a bit to the players' machinations.

There are quite a few subtleties to the game, too. The 'A' deck is predominantly blue, which makes it likely that the first couple of elections will return blue governments. The 'B' deck is overwhelmingly red, redressing the balance with blue, and later governments are almost bound to be radical (given the attrition in cards over previous turns). You will notice that white has little chance of winning an election: they can hold their own with the radicals in the 'A' deck, but are overwhelmed in the 'B' deck. And then there are the event cards. They give opportunities to sabotage other players' positions - removing blocks as an alternative to placing blocks.

I really like this game. There's plenty of interaction between players, lots of decisions to take and the opportunity to follow your own strategy. Though the cards available limit your options. It seems to work well with any number of players - though I haven't tried three. And it's fun.

Liberté was designed by Martin Wallace and is published by Warfrog (843a Wilmslow Road, East Didsbury, Manchester M20 5WD). It is a board game for 3-6 players, aged 12+ and takes 1-2 hours to play. The game is readily available in UK games shops at around £28. Thanks to Warfrog for the review copy. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Flagship 99 (Oct/Nov 2002).

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Page created 23rd November 2002. Last modified 24th June 2005.
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