Artist: Peter Dennis, Kurt Miller and Mark Poole
Publisher: Valley Games
Heads will roll! Well, actually only cooler heads will prevail in this Martin Wallace classic. I said classic because Liberte has been around the block, first with the Treefrog edition followed by the Valley Games reprint. I believe these are the only two print runs and I don’t think there are major changes between editions except for one small rule change which I will mention later in the review. I have owned both versions of Liberte and loved the game play from the get go. However, it has been many years since I pulled out the title. Our recent forays into Martin Wallace designs had me eagerly revisiting this title. This is the third of five Wallace designs in my collection which we have played on consecutive game nights (after Railroad Tycoon and Automobile). I remember having a great time playing Liberte but it has been a while. So, has the game aged well or is nostalgia fueling my desire to keep the game on the shelf?
As is abundantly evident in the title, Liberte is a game about the French Revolution. Many of Martin Wallace’s games have historical roots and are thematically very rich which I really like. This is mainly reflected in many of the cards which have tons of flavor text and historical personalities. Such is the case for Liberte as well. It may be easier to concoct something fictitious, but I appreciate the effort and research that goes behind the production of these games. I usually end up learning a lot more about each topic by doing additional reading. Other Wallace games with historical themes which I have played include Automobile, London, A Few Acres of Snow, Steam (and its derivatives) and Brass. However, it feels like the more recent Wallace games are less tied to historical settings. Case in point: Wildlands, A Study in Emerald, Nanty Narking, AuZtralia, etc. However, he did come out with Lincoln and his latest and highly anticipated release, Anno 1880 seems to be historical.
In Liberte, players are trying to fight for VPs’ by being on the winning side of the elected government that are represented by three major factions: radicals, moderates and royalists. In each of the 4 rounds, a new government from one of these factions will be installed and players earn points for holding the most votes from the bloc that is forming the government as well as the opposition, which is the faction that garners the second highest votes. Now, in order for a new government to be installed, each province in France will vote based on the majority influence in that province. There are about close to 30 French provinces on the board, with each province returning exactly one vote, and Paris returning from 1-3 votes. So, all players have to do, is to place influence blocks in each province that correspond to each faction. Thankfully, each province can only have 3 stacks of votes, with each stack containing 1-3 blocks. Each player can only own a stack and so, each player can only support one faction by placing up to 3 blocks of a particular color in each province. Other players, however, can also start a new stack of either a new faction or the same faction. When voting occurs, it’s the height of the stack that counts and not so much the total number of faction blocks per province. So, while you and your opponent may support the radicals, the player with the tallest stack of radical blocks will win the province and own the vote. As you could imagine, since each stack is only 3 blocks tall, ties are incredibly common. This is where the game provides the freshest take on breaking ties.
Breaking ties in games are normally boring affairs. Ties can be broken by coins, or some random resource. Ties can also be broken based on turn order or worse, where you are positioned relative to the start player. In Liberte, I would argue that half the game is knowing how to break ties as the game is centered around the tie-breaking procedures. It is fresh, but can also be quite mind-bending to wrap your head around. To recap, players place blocks on provinces to support a faction. To do that, players draw and play cards. Cards come in three flavors: personality cards, club cards and special cards. The majority of the cards are personality cards that allow players to put down faction blocks in specific regions (with each region comprising of several provinces). Usually, each card allows placing between 1-3 blocks in any province within a region. Normally, cards that are played will be discarded. However, you have an option of keeping a card in your personal tableau for tie-breaking purposes. One can stash up to 4 cards, 5 if a sans culotte icon is present on one of the displayed cards. At the end of each round, votes from each province will be tallied, if the height of each stack is similar, and that almost always includes Paris, then a tie breaking phase will occur where players get to push one card forward from the tableau to break ties. If the card you push has more blocks of the faction you supported than your opponent, then you win the tie. Critically, your opponent can choose not to contest because cards that are used for tie breakers will be discarded. Cards that are not used from the tableau can be picked back up in the next round. The winner of the province will then get to score 1 vote for the faction to form the government and also retain one of the blocks from the stack for purposes of book keeping and scoring. Once all the votes across France are tallied, the faction that scores the most votes will be installed as the new government and the player who supported the winning side and the opposition by retaining the most blocks of the faction gets VPs’.
Liberte would be a rather pedestrian and straight forward area majority tussle were it not for the innovation in tie-breaking. There are potentially lots of ties to be broken in the game. One can anticipate where ties need to be broken in specific provinces as the game unfolds and prepare for it. However, some ties are less predictable. For example, if the number of votes for factions are tied after counting all provinces, players collectively push cards to support the government of their choice with the majority forming the government. If you run out of cards on your tableau or don’t have the cards with the correct faction, then you cannot contribute or break ties. Ties also need to be broken for players that contribute to the French Revolutionary War. Like placing blocks in provinces, players can play cards with a cannon icon and place a player marker on the battlefield. Cannon icons are found in personality cards and also club cards. At the end of the round, the player with the most markers on the battlefield AND having a card with a general icon in the personal tableau will win the war and gain VPs’ for that round. General cards are just a subset of the personality cards that also allow you to place blocks in provinces. Clearly, ties are again quite common on the battlefield and generals are used as tie breakers.
Much of the decision space in Liberte is deciding where you want to get your VPs. There aren’t a lot of VPs’ to be had in the game and the VP track only stretches to 20 points. One can earn VPs’ by supporting the winning government or winning on the battle field. Certain provinces also score 1-2VPs’ and since every point is valuable, all these areas are usually hotly contested. At the end of the game, player with the most VP wins, but of course, Wallace had to spice things up by introducing not one, but TWO sudden death victory conditions. First, if the white Royalists control at least 7 of the 13 provinces with a fleur-de-lis symbol on the board, the game ends immediately and the player with the most white blocks from the cards and controlled regions, wins the game. VPs’ be damned. Here, Wallace intentionally made the sudden death open ended in that the victory conditions can be met at any point during play when 7 provinces (including failed battles where ties are not broken) are controlled by the royalists. There is much tension to continuously assess the political landscape if one or few players are gunning for a sudden death win. To win, one has to spot and call out the winning condition. This is brilliant. Similarly, if during vote counting there is red radical landslide victory (>17 votes), then the player with the most reds would win.
Liberte is not without flaws. I found the vote counting a bit fiddly and error prone. Only provinces with tied stacks are cleared. If an outright victory is claimed, then only one block is removed and retained by the winning player. But, that’s just a procedural gripe. I think the tie-breaking can also be tough to prepare and almost impossible to predict. It is not easy to spot all the ties, but sometimes, a decision whether to push a card for a tie-breaker by a single player will trigger a cascade of decisions that will alter the tie-breaking landscape, making it frustrating to map all the possibilities. Whether you like this unpredictability is really a personal preference. If you can stomach some chaos in tie-breaking and the swings that come with that, then you will enjoy Liberte. I think the bigger concern for me is how evident luck of the draw from the draw deck can be at times. This is unfortunate because the problem feels more outsized in Liberte than I would like to admit. Sure, there is a display of cards for you to select. But, in the original version, the cards of low value (personality cards with single block placement), are often not selected and players just draw blind from the top of the deck which leads to a stagnant card selection display. The new rules tweaked this problem by allowing players to select and play up to two value-1 cards. I think it is a good change and allows cycling of the deck. However, even with this rule change, the card draws can still be frustrating. At times, one can have a multiple cannon cards at hand to be competitive in the battle field, but no general card to accompany the cannons. Other times, one draws a bunch of weak cards only to flip a high-value card during the refresh stage for the subsequent player to pick up. Because cards have such disparate values, with the high value cards clearly sought after, it amplifies luck of the draw.
Even with all the listed negatives, Liberte is still a fine game that I enjoy playing. The turns are fast even though the game can be quite long at higher player counts. The game can also be brutal with special cards that can remove high value personality cards from player tableau (by guillotine of course!) or discarding blocks and entire stacks in provinces. There is often not much you can do about it. I think I particularly enjoy the sudden death victory conditions as well as planning how to deploy the cards even though I don’t think it is easy to gauge how the votes will tally. Finally, I really enjoy the historical theme associated with Liberte and also all of Wallace’s designs. For a non-wargame, the rules are so well-integrated into the theme that I can’t help but wonder if the theme preceded the mechanism. Now that Liberte’s place in my collection is validated, Brass and London will be next up the list.
Final words: Good (almost great!)