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Liberté covers the French Revolution from 1789, including the meeting of the Estates General, to Bonaparte's coup d'état in 1799. Player’s fortunes rise and fall along with the groups that they choose to support. Clever (or devious) players might even decide to support different sides at the same time to help ensure their victory! In a time of trouble, any tactic may be considered acceptable, including sending rivals to face the guillotine. Just be certain that your characters aren't the next to be eliminated!
Speaking of characters, Liberté features an entire cast! From Marat to Robespierre, from Danton to Desmoulins, Liberté allows each player the chance to determine the fate of every major player in the French Revolution. Some will hold sway over the masses, and others will meet their fate at the hands of the Radicals.
Liberté is played in four turns. In each turn there will be a variable number of rounds in which each player increases influence in one of three factions: the Royalists, the Moderates, and the Radicals. After each turn, an election will be held to determine which of the three groups forms the government. The player that best uses their characters to win election seats will find themselves one step closer to victory.
The Valley Games reprint of Liberté features beautiful new artwork, new player boards, and upgraded rules resulting from thousands of plays from Liberté's legions of fans. This is a game for people who love history, interaction, or just great games. This reprint will rectify the color issues of the original as well as implement a slight rules modification to eliminate the stagnancy of having 3 "1" cards all face up on the table to choose from. The cards will all be redone as actual portraits of the characters.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review first appeared in Fire & Movement magazine #129
From the moment I first heard word of this game I knew I just had to have a copy. The French Revolution is a fascinating period in history and, sadly, there have only been precious few games designed utilizing this rich period in history. One of particular note was Azure Wish's La Revolution Francaise, but the rules were so complicated and butchered that it was virtually impossible to play.
Granted, this new Martin Wallace design is not a highly detailed simulation of the Revolution. It is, after all, a German-style game which stresses playability over historical reality. That's OK, however, as it does inject at least some of the flavor of the period and avoids being simply an abstract representation. The best news, of course, is that it is quite fun and exciting to play. I just wish it provided more opportunity for one to shout, "Off with their heads!"
Warfrog has taken tremendous steps in upgrading the production quality of their most recent games. Liberte is no exception. Included are a forest of wooden bits, an attractive map of France and sturdy, high quality cards. My one gripe ... and it is a biggie ... is that the colors on the cards do not match the colors of the provinces on the map. Since many of these subdued colors are similar, there was considerable confusion in determining the proper province represented on the cards. True, the borders on the map illustration on the cards do vaguely correspond with the map provincial borders, but this is difficult to spot without close scrutiny. This was a constant source of confusion in all of the games I've played. I understand that the map and cards were printed by different printers using supposedly 'universal' colors, but the proof is in the pudding. They simply don't match. How this managed to get past the final development process is outrageous.
This one major snafu aside, the remainder of the components are top-notch, functional and pleasing to the eye. This makes the enjoyability of the game even greater. Plus, I'm really impressed with the artwork on the box, which was done by Peter Dennis. The entire box cover appears as if it is a painting hanging in the luxurious halls of Versailles.
On to the game. France is divided into six regions, each containing four to five provinces. Three main factions are vying for political control: the Royalists (white blocks), the Moderates (blue blocks) and the Radicals (red blocks). Players will take turns placing these faction blocks into these regions in order to grab the majority of blocks (influence) in as many of the provinces as possible. Ultimately, this will earn votes for the factions and hopefully translate into victory points for the player. This certainly doesn't sound original, but the rules governing the placement of these blocks and the breaking of ties makes the game truly unique.
Game play is largely determined by the use of cards. The majority of the cards depict a particular region, along with 1 - 3 faction block symbols, all of the same color. When a player plays a card, he may place the indicated number and color of faction blocks into one or more of the provinces within the region depicted on the card. A few cards, known as 'Club Cards', afford the player the ability to place a faction block in ANY region and province. The power of these cards, however, is somewhat limited by the fact that they only allow the placement of one faction block. Clearly, a player's strategy is certainly heavily influenced by the cards he possesses. However, new cards are selected via a 'drafting' method, as three cards are always face-up beside the deck. Players can either take one of these face-up cards, or draw the top card from the face-down deck. Thus, a player does have some control as to which cards he obtains, and choosing which cards to take is a key element to success.
The only problem encountered with this aspect of the game is that it is quite possible that all three of the cards that are face-up in the drafting pile will be the less desirable "1 block" cards. This will usually prompt the players to draw the top card from the face-down draw pile, meaning the face-up pile will remain stagnant for an extended duration. One idea is to help rectify this occurrence is to discard the three face-up cards when this occurs and place three new ones in their place. This will also help the deck recycle faster.
As mentioned, there are some significant restrictions governing the placement of blocks into the provinces, most centered around the magic number of '3'. When a player places blocks into a province, he marks that stack of blocks with one of his control markers. If he adds more blocks to that particular province on a subsequent turn, they must be of the same color and must be added to the existing stack. Further, a stack may contain no more than three blocks and, of course, they must all be of the same color. A province may contain no more than three stacks of faction blocks (there may be more than one stack of the same color, but each will be controlled by a different player) and each player may only control one of those stacks. Thus, deciding which faction to place into a particular province is a crucial decision and will have long-term implications on a player's ultimate success or lack thereof.
Instead of playing a card in order to place faction blocks into the provinces, a player may play a card bearing a cannon symbol to place a control marker into the battle box. France will fight three battles during the course of the game, one following turns 2 - 4, respectively. The player who has provided the most support for these battles AND has the best General in his personal display will earn valuable victory points. So, one has to make a decision on whether to utilize a card to place faction blocks in the province, or place a control marker in the battle box in an attempt to lead France to victory. Another tough decision in a game filled with them!
When a player opts to play a card and place blocks, in addition to the decision as to where to place the faction blocks, a player must also decide whether he wishes to retain the played card in his 'personal display' or discard it. A player may only possess four cards in his display (plus a one card bonus if the card depicts the 'Sans Culotte' symbol) and these cards are incredibly critical in the breaking of ties during the election process. Generally, a player will only want to maintain cards which depict 2 or 3 blocks, as these are much more valuable in the tie-breaking process. To further make this decision tougher, however, a player must carefully analyze the board to determine the provinces wherein he is likely to be in a tie-breaking situation, as well as the particular faction he is backing in that province. Maintaining cards of these factions is very important.
The decision factors don't stop there, however. When resolving the battles following turns 2 - 4, even if a player has the most control markers in the battle box, he cannot claim the victory if he does not have a General present in his personal display. Some cards .. a scant 10 in the entire deck .. depict the silhouette of a General, so these cards are essential to maintain if the player has a desire to win one or more of these battles.
During the course of a turn, the only way a player can acquire new cards is to not play a card. Since a round can end fairly quickly, the choice on whether to grab a new card and pass on the opportunity to place faction blocks or a control marker is tricky. Of course, the three cards which are currently available in the face-up 'drafting' row will greatly influence the decision on whether to play a card or select a card.
A turn ends when the blocks of one faction expire. In the interests of fairness, however, each player will get an equal number of turns. Once this occurs, an election is held in each province to determine the faction which receives the most votes.
Elections are held in a pre-set order, which is critical when making a decision whether to participate in a tie-breaking procedure or not. Often, a player will elect to NOT attempt to break a tie in an early province, as it would be wiser to save a particular card in his personal display for a more crucial election later in the round.
Each province is examined independently in rectifying the election process. There are several possible outcomes:
If only one player opts to slide forward a card, he immediately wins the election. He receives one faction block from the stack he controls and that faction's marker is moved up one space on the Election Track. The card he slid forward is discarded. Unlike the case when there is an outright victory, however, ALL remaining faction blocks in that province are returned to the general stockpile. This helps maintain an ample supply of blocks in the general stockpile from round to round. Plus, it opens up that province again for more heated competition in subsequent rounds.
If both players slide forward cards, the player whose card depicts the most faction block symbols wins the election, with the same consequences as listed above. If both cards have an identical number of blocks depicted, however, then the election is deadlocked and NO faction receives the vote. ALL faction blocks are removed from the province and returned to the general stockpile. Both cards are discarded.
This election resolution procedure is quite entertaining and novel. I don't recall another game which uses a mechanism quite like this one. Cards played not only determine the location and quantity of markers you can place, but are subsequently used in election resolution procedures. The multiple uses of these cards makes proper card selection, play and hand management critical skills. The game is filled with tough, tough decisions and a multitude of choices. More than one player commented on just how many decisions and choices are present throughout the game. Very, very nice.
The only exception to this election procedure is the capital city of Paris. When resolving the election in this grand city, players do not cease sliding forward cards if there is a tie after the first tie-breaking round. Rather, each player involved in the tie may continue to slide forward a card until the tie is broken. All cards slid forward are discarded. If the tie is not broken, the same fate as discussed above is suffered (no votes receives, all faction blocks in the province are discarded and the players discard all of the cards they slid forward). However, if a player does claim an election victory, he receives ALL of the faction blocks in the stack he controlled and that faction's marker is moved up a number of spaces on the Election Track equal to the number of blocks in that stack! Such is the power of controlling Paris!
When elections in all of the provinces have been resolved, the faction whose marker is furthest along on the Election Track has won the overall election and forms a new government. Victory points are awarded to the players as follows:
From this victory point schedule, one can readily see the importance of backing the winning and secondary factions in the elections. With so many provinces and so many card playing options, properly managing such a task is quite daunting, indeed.
So, what if there is a tie in determining the faction who won the overall election? A similar procedure as used in resolving ties in the provincial elections is utilized to break the tie. All players, in turn order, have the opportunity to slide forward one card from their personal display. As usual, the card slid forward must depict blocks which match one of the tied factions. The faction receiving the most additional votes (blocks depicted on the cards) wins the election. Of course, the cards slid forward are discarded.
Every player who possesses a block of the new ruling faction is considered to have a presence in the new government, which is very important as it allows the playing of certain action cards. Thus, it is usually wise to attempt to gain at least one faction block of each of the three factions in order to insure that you will have a presence in whatever faction takes control of the government.
If there is a tie in determining the player who possesses the most blocks in the winning or opposition faction, players break the tie by sliding forward cards in a similar fashion. If a tie ultimately cannot be broken, then the first place players each receive 3 points, while players tied for control of the opposition faction would each receive 2 points. Ties for second place in the majority party would yield 1 point apiece for the tied players.
Rounds 2 - 4 offer additional methods in which to earn victory points. I've mentioned the battles, wherein beginning in turn 2, players can commit control tokens to the battle box in an effort to lead France to victory in battles at Valmy, Fleurus and Arcola. A battle is resolved at the conclusion of turns 2 - 4, with the player possessing the most control markers in the battle box claiming the victory ... but ONLY if he has a General in his personal display. If more than one player tie for the most control markers and each have a General, the strongest General (as determined by the number of blocks depicted on his card) carries the day. If there is still a tie, another subordinate General card may be slid forward by each player in an effort to break the tie. If the tie cannot be broken, the battle is lost and a Royalist marker is placed in that battle box. This will be an important consideration as the game progresses. Of course, the spent General cards are discarded.
Battles are extremely important as they will earn the victor 4, 3 and 5 victory points, respectively, in rounds 2 - 4. However, by committing troops to these battles, a player is forgoing the opportunity to place faction blocks into the provinces. Further, the struggle for control of the battle box is usually quite intense and the winner takes all. There are no points for second place. Determining whether the risk is worth it is yet another tough choice.
In turns 3 and 4, several provinces become increasingly important. If a player manages to win the election in one of these provinces, he earns 1 or 2 victory points, depending upon the province. Naturally, this makes these provinces a hotbed of contention in the latter rounds amongst the players.
I can hear the questions already ... how do you catch the leader or bring down a player who got lucky with the cards? The game provides a devastating method by the inclusion of a variety of special action cards. These are drawn in the usual manner and can be used in addition to the playing of a regular card. The effects are numerous, most having the result of forcing a player to discard a card from his personal display or remove faction blocks from the map. By using such cards as Purge or Guillotine, a powerful '3 block' General or Personality can be removed from a player's display. This can be quite effective when utilized just prior to the end of a turn and the resolution of a key province or battle. Trust me. I've been victimized by just such a tactic, costing me a key battle.
Further, another key tactic is for the remaining players to attempt to force ties in the provinces wherein the player who is ahead on the victory point track has control of faction blocks. Ties will force that player to utilize his powerful cards from his personal display in efforts to break these ties. Thus, he will soon find himself depleted of these cards, thereby making it easier to overcome his advantages.
The most powerful card in the deck is the Terror card, as it allows for the removal of an entire stack of faction blocks from a province AND the guillotining of one personality card from any player's display. However, the power of the card is mitigated by the fact that it can only be played when the Radicals are in power, a situation which did not occur in one of our games until the end of the final turn. In another game, however, three Terror cards were played in one round with devastating effects. If a player can maneuver the Radicals into power and make sure he has a presence in their government, he can wield a mighty and terrible power.
After all elections have been resolved and victory points awarded, a new turn is begun. Markers on the Election Track are set to zero and the Order of Play for the new turn is determined. This is done in victory point order, with the player possessing the most victory points going first. This does give a bit of an advantage to the players on the bottom of the victory point chart as they will have the opportunity to play last in the round, which is a desirable position.
Players then retrieve back into their hands any cards remaining in their personal display. Then, they may discard cards before drawing new cards to bring their hand back up to seven cards. The rules aren't clear on this, but we drew one card at a time in turn order until we all possessed seven cards. Since cards may be selected from the three face-up cards or the top of the draw pile, we figured it would be fairer to have each player draw one card, then repeat this cycle until we all had completed our hands. Otherwise, if we allowed each player to fill to seven cards before the next player had the same opportunity it would be possible for one player to get lucky and have the opportunity to draw several powerful cards in succession.
The game continues in this fashion for four complete turns, after which the player with the most victory points is victorious. Maybe.
Maybe? You see, there are two other conditions which can trigger the end of the game. If either of these conditions occur, the game ends and victory points are inconsequential.
Wow! These sure sound like a truck-load of rules, doesn't it? But, in reality, it isn't. In fact, the rule book is a very concise 3 1/2 pages. For the most part, it is easy to understand and follow. It does take a turn or so for everyone to adjust to the mechanics and proper use of the cards, but once this understanding is gained, the game flows very smoothly. After an initial playing, the rules can easily be taught and understood in about fifteen minutes.
As you can tell, I am thoroughly enjoying this game, as has most of the players I've had the pleasure to play it with. I feel very confident that my enjoyment and appreciation of this fine game will continue climb as I gain more experience and a better understanding of the strategies to be employed. It's a journey I'm certainly looking forward to as the game appears to have great depth and is loaded with that most important factor of all: FUN!
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 doesnt 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, Ive 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 players tokens are small enough that they dont fall off (a problem Ive 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 arent 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. Its not too big of a deal, because the colors can usually be identified, but its 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 dont mention them, and I have no idea what use they are for - but hey - whos complaining about extra pieces.
2.) Rules: Ive said it before about Warfrog games, and Ill say it again - put your rules in a better format! I have enjoyed every game Ive played, but when a game set of rules has a degree of complexity this great, one shouldnt have to strain their eyes with poor formatting to read the rules. I didnt 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). Im 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 its 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 didnt see them getting that much use.
3.) Ages: However, as much as I love this game, its one I usually reserve for my gaming group. I have talked casual players into playing this game, and they did enjoy it - but its 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 dont 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 dont 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. Its 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 havent 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.
Its 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 Ive never seen duplicated. Liberte is one of those few games that I am ALWAYS in a mood to play, and Im certainly glad I have it in my collection!
Libert is one of the rare games with an increasing suspense factor, in particular because you do not know--at least in the first rounds--in which way it will end. The three victory possibilities mean that on the one hand you can follow different strategies, but on the other hand you can only win if you are flexible enough to change your strategy if the actions of the other players require it. This is the best game I bought in Essen (out of 25).
Cards discarded from hand let you: (1) place influence blocks in the card's specified districts to support the pugnacious factions of Revolutionary France (Radicals, Moderates, and Royalists); (2) chase opponents out of districts; or (3) gain military points. You earn Victory Points by having the most influence in the faction controlling the most districts each round, and for having built up the greatest military strength. Holding the most Victory Points might win the game after four rounds, but these are perfidious, uncertain times...Tail-enders can wipe out a rival's seemingly unassailable lead by aiming for two fiendish alternate victory conditions: (a) a Radical electoral landslide (the player with the most Radical cards wins); or (b) a Royalist "Counter-Revolution" in key districts (he with the most Royalist cards prevails). Interactive, tense, and engrossing to the end, this Martin Wallace tour de force often ends in a very close contest.
Libert is an election game set at the time of the French Revolution. In it the three main factions -- Girondins, Jacobins and Royalists -- try to gain control of the Assembly and thus the Government, while the players strive to be the most effective backer of the side that is winning. This sort of cynical, behind the scenes, manipulative role that is assigned to the players is, of course, completely unhistorical and so you shouldn't come to Libert expecting a piece of accurate story telling. The game is first and foremost a German-style game, but, having said that, it is one that manages to pack in a good deal of historical flavour and much more than you usually get with the genre. The designer has read the books and done his homework.
The production is top notch and gives you two sets of wooden markers (one for the factions and one for the players) a large deck of cards and an attractive board. The game lasts for a maximum of four rounds and in each one the play of cards gives you the right to place faction markers into the various French regions. At the end of a round each area "returns a deputy to the Assembly" and the faction with most deputies becomes the new Government. The two main player contributers to this leading faction gain victory points, as does the main one to the second largest faction. In rounds 2-4 there are also victory points for control of the army and for being the election winner in certain key regions such as Languedoc and the Vende. If parliamentary government survives to the end of the game, the player with most victory points at the end of round four is the winner. However, there are also criteria for a Royalist counter revolution and a Jacobin dictatorship and in these cases the victory points that you have been working hard to gain count for nothing and the win is decided differently.
The cards are of three types: personalities, political clubs and specials. The personality cards each show between 1 and 3 "block symbols" in one of the faction colours and have a background colour corresponding to one of the six regions which make up the map. So, for example, Mirabeau has three white (royalist) blocks and a background colour identifying his power base as being in the south east. When you play the Mirabeau card you place 3 white faction blocks into this region. The region is divided into 5 areas and you can place the blocks all in one or split in any way you choose. When you place such blocks, you put one of your identifying markers on top in order to show possession. The placement rules are:
When the round ends, the highest stack wins the election for the area and, as you can imagine, the height restriction on stacks makes for quite a lot of ties. These are also resolved using the cards. When you play a card, you may either put it on the discard pile or place it face up in front of you. It is the more powerful cards that you will keep, but you need to choose carefully, since you may not have more than 4 (usually) or 5 (occasionally) in your display. If you still have cards in your display after the election is resolved, you take them back into your hand ready to be used again. This is an attractive prospect with the desirable "3 block" ones such as Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre or Napoleon. However, if you are involved in a tie in an area, the only way to resolve it in your favour is to use one of your display cards, adding its strength to the number of blocks you have in situ. This may swing it for you, but any cards used in this way go to the discard pile and so you need to decide how much the election victory in the area matters to you.
The faction that wins the area election gains one Assembly vote and the owner of the winning stack takes one of the blocks from it to be used later in deciding "best white", "best red" etc for victory point purposes. Other blocks stay in the area ready for the start of the next round unless the election was decided on a tiebreaker, in which case all are removed.
The special cards are event cards which can be used against a rival, either to remove blocks from an area or cards from a display. They cover things like bread shortages, intervention by the Church, purges and the guillotine and they are often appropriately tied to a particular faction: "Terror" can only be used if there is a Jacobin government and the Church never takes action against the Royalists. Nice, flavoursome touches.
On your turn you may either play a card or, if you are not at your hand size limit, take a card. If you opt for the latter, you may choose from three face-up cards or the top card of the face-down deck. The effects of playing a card I have already dealt with, except for the little matter of the army. Some of the personality cards and all of the political club cards carry a small picture of a cannon. When you play such a card you can either place faction blocks, as already described, or you can put one of your markers into the army box. At the end of the round, which happens when one of the colours runs out in the stock of faction markers, the player with most markers in the box gains control of the army and leads it to a victory point gaining success in the field. Or at least, they do provided they also have a "general card" in their display. Without a general the command goes instead to the player with most army markers from among those who do have one. General cards are a particular type of personality card and they are in a small minority; the rest being politicians. If the army is not led to victory, a white faction block is placed in the appropriate box and the Royalist counter revolution is one step nearer. This is another nice, small, historical touch, because it was on the hope of foreign military intervention that the Royalists pinned a lot of their hopes.
The game ends in one of three ways. If at the end of a round the Jacobins gain a landslide election victory, the game stops and the winner is the player whose combined total of red blocks on the board and "in hand" (pictured on the cards) is greatest. If at any time in rounds 3 or 4 the Royalists are ahead in 7 of certain designated key provinces (with this required total being reduced by 1 for each "military defeat"), the monarchy is restored and a count of white blocks decides it. Otherwise the game runs to the end of round 4 and it goes on victory points. All three can happen. In three games we have had one of each.
Libert is a game of considerable strengths and a couple of minor weaknesses of the "How come the developers didn't notice?" variety. Let's start with the positives.
Putting wooden blocks on to a map in order to gain control of areas is something we have seen a few times in the last few years and so it might not sound as though the mechanics in this game are particularly original, but they are. The fact that there are two struggles going on -- one between the factions and one between the players -- gives the proceedings a completely different feel. Then there are the restrictions on the number and sizes of stacks. These are novel and the way in which their effects have been worked up into an electoral system that provides players with tactical options is extremely clever. This is a very elegant game system. At its heart it is abstract, but then, as I said at the start, Libert is a German-style game of the sort we get from Kramer and Knizia and such games are almost invariably themed abstracts, but, as with the best from those two authors, it pulls off the considerable trick of turning a few simple rules into a game of depth.
The game's other great virtue is the way that it integrates its mechanics with its theme. The use of historical personages and the appropriate event cards get things off to a good start, but it is the alternative victory criteria that really validate the claim that this is a game about the French Revolution. The mechanics with the blocks could easily be used in a game about something else entirely, which is the usual state of affairs with German games, but these three possible endings belong most definitely to their subject matter. Nor are they just there for decoration. All three possible endings are feasible and this influences the strategic thinking of the players throughout. I again find myself reaching for the words "clever" and "elegant". Deciding that there should be different ways of bringing things to a conclusion is one thing; getting them all to be almost equally likely and integrating them so well into the play is quite another.
The niggles, and the criticism that Libert has been attracting in some quarters, centre on the differences in strength of the various cards. Personality cards with three blocks are very sexy; personality cards with only one block are about as welcome as political canvassers. One can't argue with the historical reasons for the differences in the ratings. Robespierre was a figure of much greater political clout than was the painter J.L. David and if the game didn't recognise this, it wouldn't be being true to its subject matter. However, gamers, though they might write to magazines about the need for good theming, are ultimately more concerned about how they can use the cards in their hand to advance their prospects of a win. It is possible that the Warfrog team have discovered good uses for these 1-block cards that the rest of us have yet to spot, but I doubt it. My theory, based not only on this game but on their previous ones, is that, as a bunch, they have a greater equanimity when it comes to the "slings and arrows" side of things and that this affects their judgement. In situations where the rest of us would be complaining about our luck, they seem able to concentrate on "getting into the spirit of things". Whatever the reason, the difference in perception has meant that players are finding that the card-draw mechanism doesn't work as well here as it does in games such as [page scan/se=0922/sf=category/fi=stockin.asc/ml=20]Union Pacific, where it is also used. What is happening is that the 3-card display of face-up cards quickly becomes full of cards that players don't want, with the result that they almost always draw from the face-down deck. Why take one of the face-up cards when the alternative can't be worse and might well be better?
The matter is not a major one and it doesn't spoil the play, but it would be nicer if the choice that a player drawing a card was being given was more of a genuine one. As a result there have been suggestions for discarding and replacing the face-up cards after they have been rejected by everybody one or more times. There are various ways for doing this, though if you are going to devise such a scheme, you need to be careful that it is not always the same player who gets first pick of the fresh stock. An alternative would be to make the 1-block cards more attractive. So here, off the top of my head, is a suggestion for a variant that does this. Leave everything else as it is but change the rules for the drawing and playing of cards to the following:
A player drawing a card may either take the top card from the face-down deck or take 1 or 2 of the face-up cards. If 2 cards are taken, neither can be a 2- or 3-block personality card.
A player placing faction blocks on to the map may play either 1 or 2 cards. If 2 cards are played, both must be 1-block cards and both must be used to place faction blocks.
The effect of this should be to close the gap between the perceived usefulness of the lowly cards and their betters and that should suffice both to unclog the display and to give players more options. Two 1-block cards now have a similar, though not identical, effect to that of a 2-block one. The 2-block card is still the better prospect for retention in one's display, but the play of two 1-block ones might prove more flexible in some situations.
However, even with this small quibble about the way the card draw mechanism seems to be working in most people's games, Libert remains a most impressive effort. I think that it is Martin's best game to date and one of the year's gaming highlights.
The game is for 3-6 players and I have played and enjoyed it with 3, 4 and 5. I think that 4 probably works the best. As the number of players increases, it is inevitable that you will have less control and, because of the way that victory points are allocated, it is more likely that there will be a player who fails to make it to the races and finishes with a score close to zero. Most of us don't like that sort of experience and so I doubt I'll be trying the game with 6. Not a criticism: race games apart, 6 is a bad number for most games.