Review: Liberté—Historically Accurate and Quite Fun to Boot
Liberté, originally produced in 2001, went out of print a while back. However, we players can now find it back in stores courtesy of Valley Games. In Liberté, the players find themselves at the forefront of the French Revolution. The players must guide the Royalists, Moderates, and Radicals to electoral victory and earn victory points in the process. Unlike what you might expect, the players do not represent those factions directly. Instead, they can back all three factions in the hope of sending the most votes in the controlling government to Paris.
Liberté is a moderate/heavy game that relies on area control, support of factions that do not necessarily correspond to the players themselves, and alternate victory conditions. Because of this, successful strategies are not immediately apparent and the game requires a few plays to understand how to work the system and get points. Follow me after the cut for the full review, where this game shines and where it’s a little more complicated than it needs to be.
(Begining with this post, I’ll be separating “The Basics” from “The Feel” with the former going over salient rules and the latter a discussion of how it all melds together)
The Basics. Liberté is a Martin Wallace game. While I haven’t played all of Wallace’s games by any stretch, in my experience his games tend to be very historically accurate—even sacrificing playability for coveted accuracy. In Liberté, I think the historical nature forms an excellent bond with gameplay and, in at least a few occasions, sacrifices were made to make the game flow more easily from a mechanics perspective. Notably, some Personalities (from my own humble research) provide blocks to regions that they had little to do with in life. But this greatly improves gameplay, so I’m all for it.
The players start with a hand of cards and on their turn they may either play one or two, or draw one or two. When playing a card, it will typically allow them to place blocks of a faction (Royalist, Moderate, or Radical) into a specific region. Each region consists of a number of provinces and the faction blocks can be distributed however the player likes among the provinces. The only restrictions are that each player can only have one stack in a region, each region can only support three stacks, and each stack can be at most three blocks high.
The deck of cards is separated out into an A deck and a B deck. The A deck goes on top and has more Royalist and Moderate cards while the B deck has more Radical ones. In our five player games—which seemed to be right at the “sweet spot” in terms of players—we bottomed out the A at the end of turn one (of four) and bottomed out B at the start of turn three. The end game has them all mixed together.
The round ends when all faction blocks of a particular color have been used. At that point, everyone gets their final turn and the election is held. The highest faction stack gets a point on the election track and the owner of that stack gets to hold the block temporarily. Whoever contributes the most to the winning faction gets victory points, whoever contributes most to the second place faction gets some, too.
There is also a battle that takes place in turns two to four. To participate, a player must forgo placing faction blocks on the board and instead use his cards to commit troops to the battle. One of those cards must also be a General to lead the army. No General means you lose automatically.
And then there are ties. So many, many ties. Ties for votes, ties for faction blocks, ties for battles, ties for points. Each one is broken in a different manner with different consequences. The game comes with a handy-dandy chart to help you remember how to break ties, but it can feel a little overwhelming to the newcomer.
The interesting thing about Liberté is that there are actually three separate victory conditions. The first, and, in our plays, sole method of winning, is simply to play out all four turns and whoever has the most points wins. But it can also end if the Radicals ever get 17 points in an election. Then there is an immediate revolution ending the game with the largest supporter of the Radicals winning. Alternatively, if the Royalists control 7 of 15 specific zones at any time, then there is an immediate counter-revolution ending the game and the largest Royalist supporter wins. In either alternate, accumulated Victory Points are meaningless.
The Feel. There are a whole host of additional rules, but that gives you a general sense of what you’ll be doing during the game. What newcomers to the game may miss (my group certainly did) is that there is a tension between winning a province and getting the most votes. When you have a card that lets you put three blocks on the board, it’s tempting to load them up in one province. Since the maximum stack height is three you’ll have the most there or tied for the most. That will net you that province’s vote.
Doing that too often, though, is a big mistake. It’s often much better to spread your forces out and put one block each in three different provinces. That means you could get three votes for your faction whereas the first method would net you one vote at most. Of course, by putting down only one block in a province, another player might put down more and snag your vote away completely. So there is a nice tension there.
The battles are also an excellent way to prevent a runaway leader problem. The person with the least points goes last in a round. That means they have the last chance to add to the battle or to use special cards to kill off other Generals. If a player doesn’t have a General, then it doesn’t matter how many troops they committed, they aren’t eligible to win. This gives the last player a distinct advantage and helps him catch up to the other players.
Though more plays revealed more strategy, the game remains fiddly. Certain provinces are worth bonus points if you control them—but only in rounds three and four. The counting of votes is a little tedious and we eventually broke it down into a two-man job. The first turn has you taking two faction blocks from each color out and returning them at the start of turn two.
So many special little rules and a lot of upkeep give this game a feeling of dragging. In fact, when we finished our second game—rules firmly applied—we were shocked that it took us only ninety minutes to play. With all of the fiddly bits, it just seemed like it took a lot longer.
Components: 5 of 5. I really enjoyed the pieces and bits in this game. Valley Games did a tremendous job of bringing the Personality cards to life. Playing to the historical nature of the game, each personality card is named after a real-life actor in the French revolution. Minor actors are worth less blocks, and all are tied to the factions they represented in history. Add to that that each has a sketch of the named individual. Fantastic additions for a history buff.
The cards are also a good size—about the size of playing cards—making them easy to shuffle and wield. The faction blocks and player markers are the standard painted wood found in higher-quality games.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. There are no dice to roll and the battles and elections are generally won by the player who invested more of his resources into an area. Strategy is paramount in this game. At the same time, though, a player can only add the faction blocks of the cards he draws. There is often a fine line between the fun challenge of being forced to make the best choices with what you have, and the frustrating feeling that you can’t do what you want because the cards won’t let you. Liberté runs right along that line. Most of the time, you can use the cards to maximum efficiency, but occasionally you feel like you got hosed.
One major improvement over the original printing, though, is the ability to sometimes play two cards each turn. In the first edition, you played one card—bad or good. In the new printing, if you play a card that is only worth one faction block, you can play a second one-block card that same turn. This helps to mitigate any particular bad draw.
Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the game is not immediately apparent, or at least wasn’t to my group. There is a nice tension between playing down smaller stacks or grouping up for larger ones. While the battles may feel random at first, further reviews show that they exist primarily to benefit the lower point players and allow them to catch up. This prevents what might otherwise be a runaway leader problem. The major difficulty comes from so many little special occasion rules. Multitudes of ties broken in different ways, special rules for certain rounds. And an upkeep-intensive end to each round. By no means do these break the game or render it boring or dreary. But it does place it squarely in the category of “gamers’ games.” This is not something I would choose to play with entrants to the hobby.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. For an election game with a high degree of player determinism, Liberté is surprisingly replayable. The cards which inform the player’s actions are random enough to foster variations in strategy without completely overturning the game. And the three different winning conditions are a nice addition. Though I suspect that the majority of games will see four rounds of play, the two alternate ending conditions mean that the players must always be aware of the potential. And it isn’t a theoretical potential, either. In one of our games, we had the Radicals receive 16 points—just one shy of the full revolution—without any player particularly striving for that end condition. This game can see very wide swings and I imagine it will foster a lot of memories—”Remember that game of Liberté where….”
Spite: 4 of 5. Be prepared to fight tooth and claw in this game. Scattered amongst the cards are the Special Cards. Each of them allows the player to make some change to the board. Usually it eliminates a faction block or kills a selected personality in front of a player. Have the most tokens in the battle and looking forward to that victory? Someone plays the Guillotine and lops off your General’s head. No victory for you! Spite isn’t the central focus of the game, but it is a major tactic and the players must be prepared to lose their good cards and their good board position to the Special Card wrath of their fellows.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. In case I wasn’t clear, I want to throw out the disclaimer that this is a gamer’s game. This is not something that will be part of Operation GamerWife—at least not in the immediate future. With that caveat, this game is very entertaining. It plays remarkably quickly for the depth it brings. While Analysis Paralysis is certainly a possibility, I think that most players will be able to avoid too much of it and plan the broad outlines of their turn during other players’ moves. Beyond that, the multi-leveled strategy is a delight. In one of our plays, I was able to provide the second most votes to the winning faction (yay points!), as well as the most votes to the opposing faction (more points!). Because you’re losing pieces will often (but not always) stay on the board, a long term approach is also viable.
Add to that the historical element of the game. If you are a fan of the French Revolution, especially if you studied it and know the actors and the agitators well, you will see a lot of familiar faces and names. Even the non-history buffs will recognize a young Napoleon and Robespierre. I can recommend this game to any Revolutionary looking for multiple strategies.
A special thanks to Valley Games for providing a review copy of Liberté.