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[Review] Liberte

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Here in Korea, at a local amusement park (Lotte World), there is a fairly fun roller coaster called the “French Revolution.” And while the roller coaster is a pretty neat one - I still have no idea as to why they call it this. It reminds me of a majority of euro-board games, where the games is good - but the theme doesn’t match at all. And Liberte (Warfrog, 2001 - Martin Wallace) was purported to be about the French Revolution. Was it to follow the example of the roller coaster?

Now, over the last few years, I’ve come to the realization that when Martin Wallace designs a game, chances are that the game is excellent. I have yet to play a game of his that I do not like (although Lords of Creation was only okay), and his newer games, such as Age of Steam and Princes of Renaissance, seem destined to become classics - fascinating and very deep, with a fair amount of complexity. Yet my favorite Wallace game is definitely this one. Liberte is in my top ten board games of all times, and for good reason! The components are stunningly cool, and the mechanics, while excellent in their own right - replicate the theme (French Revolution) exceedingly well. Some of my most enjoyable game moments have come from playing this game!

A board with a map depicting France is placed in the middle of the table, divided into six regions - each divided into five provinces. Four of the provinces are marked with VP values, and 14 of the thirty provinces are marked “CR”, because they are the determining factor in a Counter Revolution. Two decks of cards are shuffled, with the “A” deck being placed on top of the “B” deck - and seven cards are dealt to each player. Three cards are placed face up next to the remainder of them, which become a draw pile. Each player takes a pile of round tokens in their color, placing one of them on the “0” space of the victory point track. Piles of red, blue, and white faction blocks are placed next to the board, with a corresponding marker for each color being placed at the zero spot on the election track. Also, two faction blocks of each color are placed on the second space of the turn track. Two black markers are put on the board, one on the first space of the turn track, and the other on an election order track. There are four turns in the game. I will explain the first turn, and then tell how subsequent turns occur.

Turn order is determined randomly, and a marker from each player is placed on a turn order track, to help remember whose turn it is. An Action Phase now begins. The first player can take one of three actions (take a card, play a card, or pass), and then the next player goes, etc. If a player chooses to take a card (which causes them to lose two cards if they have nine or more cards), they may choose one of the face-up cards to put in their hand (which is immediately replaced), or the top card from the deck. If, however, a player chooses to play a card, they can play one of the cards from their hands. Most cards allow players to influence a province. These cards are colored to match one of the six regions on the board, and show a number (from 1-3) of faction blocks on them of a certain color. The player plays the card, placing that many faction blocks of that color (red = radical Jacobins, white = Royalists, and blue = Moderates) in any province in that region. The player can start a new stack - placing one of their tokens on top of the stack, or add to an additional stack they own. They must follow these rules, however:
- The player can only control one stack of blocks per province.
- The blocks in a stack must be of the same color.
- The amount of blocks can be at maximum of three.
- Only three stacks of blocks may be in a province.
- All blocks in a stack are controlled by the same player.
Some cards are “Club” cards, which are basically “wild”, and can be played into any province on the board. After the player plays any card, he can discard it, or add it to his “Personal Display” - face up in front of him. Only four cards maximum may be in the personal display, and players cannot remove them normally once placed. If any card in the Personal Display has a “Sans Culotte” symbol on it, the player may have one additional card there. Special cards can also be played by players, which have a variety of effects, from removing faction blocks from provinces, to “executing Personality cards in players displays.

As soon as all the blocks of one faction are depleted, the election phase occurs. Using the election marker, each province has an election, in a certain order. The highest stack in a province gives the corresponding faction one vote (up to three in the Paris province) - and the corresponding marker is moved up one on the election track. If a tie occurs, players may - in turn order - advance one of the cards in their Personal Display (if the blocks on the card match the color of their faction in that province), adding these blocks to their total. Only one card per province may be advanced in this way (multiple in Paris), and are discarded after use. One block of the winning faction is removed and given to the player who controlled that stack. In case of ties, ALL blocks in the entire province are removed. The faction who receives the most votes, after all provinces have been accounted for becomes the new government. The player with the most blocks of this color gets five victory points, and the player with the second most blocks gets two victory points. The faction with the second most votes is the opposition party, and the player with the most blocks of that color gets three points. All faction blocks are returned to the common stock, and after the first turn - the six blocks placed on the turn track are also added to the mix. The turn marker is moved one turn, and players pick up all cards that they have in their Personal Displays. Players can discard as many cards as they wish, and hands are refilled to seven cards. Turn order for turns 2-4 are determined by victory points, with whoever having the most points going first, etc.

On the second, third, and fourth turns, players can use cards to place tokens in the Battle Box (at the bottom of the board). They can do this if a card they play has a cannon icon on it, allowing them to place one of their tokens in the Battle Box. After the Action Phase, the Resolve Battles phase occurs. Whichever player has the most tokens in the Battle Box gets the victory points for that battle. (3-5). Ties are broken by advancing cards with a “General” icon. If a tie occurs, no one scores the points, and a white faction block is placed in the battle box to show that the battle was lost.

On the third and fourth turns, the player who wins the election in the four provinces with victory points in them gains those victory points. Normally, at the end of the fourth turn, the player with the most points is the winner. However, there are two other ways players can win. One is the Royalist Counter-Revolution: if at any time during the third and fourth turns - the Royalist faction controls seven or more “CR” provinces (a white block in the battle box counts towards this total), then the a counter-revolution immediately occurs and whichever player controls the most white faction blocks on the board (and on cards in the Personal Displays) wins immediately - regardless of whoever has the most points. The other game-ending condition is the Radical Landslide. If at the end of an election, the Jacobins gain 17 or more votes, they win the election by a landslide; and all players add up the amount of red blocks they control, plus cards in their Personal Displays. Whoever has the most is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The components are quite good - especially the faction blocks, which remind me quite a bit of the blocks included in Columbia war games. The player tokens are of other colors, and are easily distinguished form the three faction colors upon which they rest. The blocks stack well, incidentally, and the player’s tokens are small enough that they don’t fall off (a problem I’ve run into other games.) The cards are of a good quality, and the illustrations on them, as well as on the box are quite thematic and fitting for the time period. The board is nice, and the colors are striking and different; but this causes one problem with the game - even for those of us who aren’t color blind (Heaven help those who are). Some of the card colors, that supposedly match the board colors, are off - and not just be a small shade. It’s not too big of a deal, because the colors can usually be identified, but it’s a small flaw in an otherwise perfect game. The only other comment I have about the game components is that two black pawns were included in the box. The rules don’t mention them, and I have no idea what use they are for - but hey - who’s complaining about extra pieces.

2.) Rules: I’ve said it before about Warfrog games, and I’ll say it again - put your rules in a better format! I have enjoyed every game I’ve played, but when a game set of rules has a degree of complexity this great, one shouldn’t have to strain their eyes with poor formatting to read the rules. I didn’t have any questions from the rules, but I had to read them several times, squinting all the way, and was slightly annoyed about the lack of illustrations (although there were a few examples). I’m not sure why Warfrog does this - maybe to save money? Would a few extra pages hurt that badly - raise the font from the six points it’s at now? Anyway, the game is a little confusing to new players at first - it seems a bit chaotic to them, but after a round, they usually “get” it. There is very little text in the game, except for those on the special cards, and I didn’t see them getting that much use.

3.) Ages: However, as much as I love this game, it’s one I usually reserve for my gaming group. I have talked casual players into playing this game, and they did enjoy it - but it’s such a “meaty” game that people who are looking for a quick, fast, and good time will not enjoy the intricacies of the game play. Because of this, I don’t recommend it for teenagers or younger, as they may not feel they get enough “fun” out of the game.

4.) Fun Factor: Speaking of the fun factor, I don’t play many games I enjoy more than this one. After “wetting our feet” in our initial play of the game, we discovered that the game play strategies were wide and varied. The Battle Box tie breakers, the special cards, the shouting of “Liberty”, and other shouts are all high points of our games. I really enjoyed the three-player game, but then found that games with 5 or six players had a whole new feel - just as fun.

5.) Game End: One of the best features of Liberte is the fact that there are two alternate game-ending conditions. Neither of these is impossible to achieve, especially if more than one player sets their mind to them. It’s absolutely fascinating how a player in last place can suddenly win, because they were watching what they were doing, and decided to control the Royalist party at just the right time. Players must be on guard at all times (as I haven’t been, much to my chagrin) or they will watch all their carefully laid plans go up in smoke to a radical landslide or the stinkin’ counter-revolution.

6.) Theme and Strategy: There is a small amount of luck in the game, from the cards, but due to the card picking process, I doubt a better player will lose very often. Superior strategy makes this game fun, and knowing what provinces to control (and more importantly - which NOT to control) is the key to victory. The theme, the French Revolution, fits the game like a glove, and all the names of the characters on the cards are key players to this drama in history. The game does not make light of the time, but rather treats it in a historical fashion. Liberte is one of those rare games where the theme is excellent AND the game mechanics are even more so.

It’s not too easy to find a copy of Liberte today, but if you can, I highly recommend picking it up. Martin Wallace is certainly one of the greatest designers of our era - and I consider this his best work - which is impressive indeed. The theme is fun, and the strategy, while seeming somewhat chaotic, is rather deep and enjoyable. Liberte almost has the feel of a war game, a political game, and an area placement game - but supercedes those genre to create a unique game, one I’ve never seen duplicated. Liberte is one of those few games that I am ALWAYS in a mood to play, and I’m certainly glad I have it in my collection!

Tom Vasel

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