Michael Eckenfels, 23 September 2021
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
Liberty is a block wargame in a long line of Columbia products of the same format. The block system is somewhat unique to hex-based wargames in that it incorporates some very Stratego-like elements, such as hiding units from the enemy player’s view until combat is joined. Some blocks are color coordinated to indicate a unit type on a certain side; for example, a dark blue block is a Rebel unit, whereas a red block is a British one. The biggest pain for any block game is having to place the adhesive unit labels on each block, but this is mitigated a great deal with Liberty because there are only 50 total blocks for the game.
The map measures 11″ by 34″, and is made of a thick cardstock instead of a more hardy mounted board. The relatively small size of the map should limit the amount of wear on it, though, but the narrowness of the map and the short range of units involved makes it feel claustrophobic. The colors are decent and the print is easy on the eyes.
Each block represents a certain type of unit (Foot, Cavalry, etc.) and has different movement and combat capabilities. These units have 2 to 4 steps, which determines the number of dice that are rolled in combat (4 steps means four dice, etc.). Then, units are rated as to when they fire in combat, as well as with an attack rating to indicate what number needs to be rolled (or under) to score a hit.
At heart, Liberty’s essence revolves around real estate. The British win by capturing 30 or more Supply Points’ worth of cities and towns; these Supply Towns run in size from 1 to 3 Supply Points each (and, there are several towns on the map that have no Supply Points value at all). Once the British capture these points, the Rebels’ will to resist is assumed to be demolished and it’s Long Live the King for the Colonials. If the British fail, then the Colonials throw off the British yoke and win their independence. That’s all well and good, but 30 points seems rather arbitrary. What if the British get 28 or 29 points? It’s the same result game-wise as it would be if the British only had 10 points’ worth of cities. It seems arbitrary to just lay a line out like that without having levels of victory (such as Decisive, Minor, Draw, etc.).
The game runs in year-long turns from 1775 to 1783 (9 turns total). Each year, both players get five cards (‘Action Cards’) that have a number on them, or in a few minor cases a special reinforcement ability. The numbers give the player that many Actions to undertake during their turn; both sides play a card at the same time and the side that played the higher number gets to go first. It’s a very simple and elegant way to run a game that does not get bogged down and is not easily forgotten. Since each side has five cards, essentially each year-long turn is divided into five separate phases.
Players then ‘spend’ the points on their card by spending one Action to move units from one hex to another, or one Action to build a brand-new unit out of their unit pool. It is interesting to note here that block units currently on the board cannot have steps replaced through spending Actions; instead, the Supply Card can be played in lieu of any other action and a certain number of steps are granted to be distributed as the player wishes. Otherwise, the only way to bring a unit to full strength is to disband it at the end of the year’s turn and then hopefully recruit it from the pile the following year. This mechanic makes it easy for each side to build up their forces in lieu of movement, or vice versa, in the early years of the game, but once the replacement pool dries up it becomes more of a task to manage forces and to maintain their strength.
Units that are eliminated are not actually destroyed; instead, they go to the opposing player as prisoners. One of the most interesting factors in Liberty is the negotiations that can go on between the two sides as they haggle for units. One commander does not want to give up too much for a particular unit, but then again without that unit who knows if the coming campaign will be successful. And negotiations don’t have to be limited to just unit exchanges; instead, players can impose any kind of rule they want such as trading X units in exchange for not being attacked in a certain city for a certain amount of time. While I noted there is no real rule that says each player must absolutely abide by any agreement, I assume that is the nature of the beast. If a player gets, say, 3 units and agrees not to attack Boston for a year, if they decide to go ahead and attack Boston see if the other side will trade any more prisoners for being backstabbed like that. I’d like to think the rule for prisoner exchanges is kept ambiguous for just that reason, but players will need to come to some hard bargains to get those units back into the field.
Movement is somewhat limited, as foot units can move one hex, cavalry two, and ships two. This is over the course of an entire year. While I find it hard to believe that it would take a year to march a cavalry unit from Charleston to Wilmington (just look at movement rates in the Civil War, or better yet during the Napoleonic era), there are forced march rules that give units a little extra push at the risk of losing a step of strength. While losing a step in this case is a 50/50 roll of the dice, it can be a very powerful tool when bringing firepower to bear in the game.
Speaking of firepower, some very interesting mechanics come into focus here. For example, when attacking a single hex from multiple directions, only one hexside can be designated as a main attack; the remaining blocks are placed in a reserve and not used until the second combat round. Each combat takes place over three separate rounds, where each block fires according to its ranking in order and hits are delivered before lower-ranking units are allowed to fire. As long as a side has enough actions available, they can feed units into the fray that are within range of the battle – even defending units. So, if the British attack Rebel-held New York, and the Rebel player has actions available and units in range, they can move those units into the battle. However, if the main attack units are eliminated in the first round, the reinforcement units must retreat. This can make some combats a dicey prospect when considering that a main attack may not be any more powerful than follow-on reinforcement units, and if it gets chewed up the player is faces with having to retreat from battle after having spent precious action points to move them there in the first place.
The most powerful feature of the game lies in the Atlantic Box. This is where British (and later, French) units from the reinforcement pool appear. It is also where players can move land units from the Colonies to attack and/or capture ports. The only limiting factor here is that at least one warship must accompany every three ground blocks, so this precludes the Rebels from getting to use the Atlantic Box until the French and their warships join up. The British then essentially have a free invasion box where they can feed reinforcements and pick and choose Rebel-held ports to attack. Some ports in the South are usually vulnerable to such British strategies, since Charleston is worth 3 supply points on its own with an additional 4 points’ worth of supply cities total (Wilmington, Ninety Six, and Savannah) within two hexes’ range. Or, an unobservant Rebel player can find that leaving Philadelphia or New York unattended can cause them to pay dearly when the British come calling. This can cause quite a bit of nail-biting for the Rebel player when the British mass troops in the Atlantic box. It can also encourage the Rebel player to spread themselves out too thinly, trying to cover more ground than they have combat power to do effectively. If the Rebel player does this, they’re meat for the British.
The Rebels aren’t entirely in the War alone, as the French will eventually come to assist. However, in the original rules this only happens when the player rolls an 8 or higher on two 6-sided dice. Technically, the French may never even show up in the game, which can spell doom for the Rebel player – but not knowing when they enter, or even if at all, is a great mechanic that adds more tension to the game. The British will certainly have a harder time of it when the French enter the War, as the Rebel player gets warships and additional ground units. The British, then, cannot dilly-dally around but must seek a decisive and crippling blow to the fledgling country or otherwise watch as Rebel strength is enhanced by French soldiers and ships. The Columbia Games website (see below) has optional rules posted that tier the rolls required as time passes, making it almost impossible for the French to join in 1777 but over time slowly getting easier, until 1780 when they enter automatically if they have not already.
Columbia Games has published additional rules for Liberty, which can be located here. There’s a new version 1.01 of the rules that clarifies some of the sore points some gamers had with this title, such as clarification needed when it comes to invasion from sea rules. Also, some variants and options that are not in version 1.01 can be found. Also, the Columbia Games’ block discussion forum for Liberty (ed note: this link is dead)offers player insight, variants, and other interesting information that help add to the game’s experience.
Liberty is a simple, easy-to-learn game that is no trouble to set up and simple to execute. In my book, that counts for a lot, since who has time to play a game that takes an hour to set up and an hour to put away? Some of the games tend to devolve into a static bludgeoning centered around New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, with the southern part of the map ignored or relegated to token forces. Of course, a Rebel player only makes this mistake one time before the British sense an easy 7 supply points’ worth of cities and puts a sizeable force ashore there. Of course, balancing such an effort with attempting to hold on in the northeast is a shell game in and of itself, making Liberty different every time it is played. Even though the price tag is rather steep at fifty dollars (plus shipping), if the reader is a fan of simple, fun to play wargames then Liberty is highly recommended.
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