I previously called Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War designed by Alex Knight and published by Blue Panther, LLC (2023) my surprise game of the year. I discovered Land and Freedom when I signed up for a teach-n-play session at Circle DC in early April led by the designer in person. Alex did an excellent job teaching the game and us three players got into the play of the game right away. Alex taught the game and offered advice along the way (advice we didn’t always take) and we almost, almost won the game. Yet, even in our loss, I came to absolutely love Land and Freedom.
Why does this ol’ Grognard love Land and Freedom so much? In many ways I shouldn’t as the game is very far from a “classic” wargame. Land of Freedom doesn’t use hexes or a combat results table (CRT) although it does have cardboard counters. The mapboard isn’t paper or even mounted. Yet, the game has enthralled me like few games can.
During our teach-n-play of Land and Freedom, we asked Alex how he designed the game. He described how the game started out as something maybe more familiar to Grognards; a wargame about the Spanish Civil War with politics to the side. As the game evolved and was developed with the aid of Ryan Heilman (who designed Brave Little Belgium for Hollandspiele), the “war” became more abstracted while the “politics” became more pronounced. While this may not be a “traditional” wargame the end result is a game that works in interesting ways and is both engaging and enjoyable in refreshing ways.
Not just another Spanish Civil War game
Here is how the publisher, Blue Panther LLC, describes Land and Freedom on its web site:
1936: Right-wing Army Generals have rebelled against the Spanish Republic, aided by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy! To save Spain, three factions – Anarchists, Communists, and Moderates – must put aside their differences and forge an anti-fascist alliance. But can you trust your allies when your agendas are directly opposed?
Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War is a card-driven tug-of-war game in which players are immersed in the dilemma of balancing this fragile alliance against their own political and revolutionary ideals. You must repel the Fascist attack on the 4 Fronts, while gaining the Initiative through tableau-building, deck management, and powerful Medallions.
If the war is won, the player with the most Glory will win the game and determine the future of Spain. If the war against the Fascists is lost … 40 years of dictatorship await, with death, imprisonment, or exile are the only choices remaining.Land and Freedom from Blue Panther
As much as the publishers blurb says about Land and Freedom there is actually much depth in this “card-driven…tableau-building, deck management, and powerful Medallions” game. The players play one of the three Republican factions (Anarchists, Communists, or Moderates) against the “game” which represents the Fascists. Alex made an important design decision here that avoids forcing a player to play “the bad guy.” This framing of the game is but the first of many interesting design decisions inside the box.
Land and Freedom – Ameritrash version
From a somewhat simplistic Ameritrash viewpoint, Land and Freedom is a historical conflict game fought around two themes—war and politics. The war is fought on a map on the right of the board and the politics is portrayed using tracks on the left side.
In a design decision that may disappoint Grognards, the war in Land and Freedom is fought in a highly abstract manner on four Fronts. Each Fascist token in a Front is -1 strength; Republican strength is positive. If a Front is ever -10 strength it suffers a Defeat (permanent Fascist control of Front); if it is ever +10 strength the Republican players achieve a Victory (permanent player control of that Front).
The game rules make it very clear that the only way to win the game is to win the war side of the board: “The war can only be won in 1 way: 3 Fronts must be at +1 or better at the end of Year 3.” If the Madrid Front falls, the game automatically ends in a Fascist victory (defeat for all players).
Every turn in Land and Freedom starts with a new Fascist event card turned face-up. The card directs against which Front Fascist tokens are added or what tracks are moved. Most importantly, the card has a Fascist Test which is a challenge to be addressed at the end of each turn. The test is usually associated with a Front and may be something like “Fascist strength -1 or less on Southern Front.” Passing a Test usually involves a reward for one or more players. Conversely, a failed test usually penalizes one or more players or tracks.
The Ameritrash politics theme of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War is fought in Land and Freedom on the tracks to the right side of the board. The Anarchists control the Liberty and Collectivization tracks while the Communists have the Soviet Support track and the Moderates have the Foreign Aid track. The Government track is shared between the Communists (left side of the track) and Moderates (right side of the track). While success or failure on a track is not a victory condition, players will quickly discover that their position on the track is very important as it directly ties to Initiative and rewards. You see, while Land and Freedom is rich with theme, it is the unique collection of game mechanisms dealing with the political aspects of the game that most actively engage the players.
Land and Freedom – Eurogame version
While one can describe Land and Freedom solely by its themes (war, politics, historical) to do so would demonstrate a criminal under-appreciation of the game. You can also describe Land and Freedom by the game mechanisms; semi-cooperative, card-driven, deck management (hand and tableau builder), simultaneous action selection, and even a bit of bag-building. In my not-so-humble-opinion, it is the unique combination of game mechanisms that vividly bring the themes to life and makes Land and Freedom stand out from other thematic strategy games (wargames, if you will).
Semi-Coop. A semi-cooperative wargame is virtually unheard of. Land and Freedom is but one of only 11 entries for a semi-cooperative wargame found in the BoardGameGeek database. The use of the semi-cooperative game mechanism in Land and Freedom is what immediately sets this game apart, and above, many other titles. The game is cooperative in that all three factions need to cooperate to avoid Defeat on the Fronts and especially to pass—or fail—the Fascist Test every turn. Yet, while it is usually in the players better interests to cooperate at fighting the Fascists, each needs to advance their individual political interests (i.e. their tracks) in a fashion that may not be so cooperative. In Land and Freedom war brings strange bedfellows together but politics often acts in a disuniting manner.
CDG tableau. Land and Freedom is a card-driven game (CDG). Each player has a faction deck of 18 unique cards. Like most any CDG, the cards can be played for the Event or for Action Points (AP). Unlike many CDGs, Land and Freedom also uses deck management which is maybe better described as a combination of tableau builder and hand management game mechanisms. The 18 cards in each player deck have 12 cards with 1 AP, five cards with 2 AP, and a single card (Leader card) with 3 AP. When you use a card for the Event it is trashed—permanently removed from the game. If played for the AP, though, the card goes to the players tableau. As more cards are played to the tableau it is possible to unlock powerful additional actions when the Morale Bonus is active. For example, that card you play may have only 1 AP but it might also be the third of a track symbol now face-up in your tableau meaning it could move that track by three spaces! At the end of each year the tableau is cleared with cards sent to the discard pile. Players are, however, allowed to keep one card from the tableau in their hand and another card can stay on the tableau. Thus, players are encouraged by the game to keep their more powerful cards and not throw them away by using the event. Yet that event may be exactly what the player needs to do. Such an agonizing choice! The decision agony is only made greater when one gets to the final year and has the opportunity to “Bid for Glory” using only the cards in their hand.
In our teach-n-play of Land and Freedom my Leader card was dealt into my hand on Turn 1. I played it to my tableau during that year. At the end of the year I could have kept in in my tableau (plenty of powerful ways to use a bonus action) but instead discarded it in the hope I would draw it again. Alas, even when I reshuffled my deck it remained buried for all of Year 2 and stayed buried through Year 3. (Sigh).
Initiative. How does one control the Initiative in Land and Freedom? Well, its all in the tracks. If the Communists or Moderates control the Government (standee on their side of the Government track) that player holds the Initiative. If the Anarchist have both of their tracks (Liberty and Collectivization) at +6 or greater, they control the Initiative.
Simultaneous action selection. Though one player may have the Initiative and goes first in the Turn, all players must select their card for the turn at the same time and place it face down in front of them. The turn is then played in Initiative order with the player-selected card turned face up when play comes to them. Though most times players will select a card knowing in advance they will be playing it for the Event or Action, this is not always the case.
In our teach-n-play on one turn I selected a card planning to use the Event. When play finally came around to me (I was last in the turn) I realized I could do better by playing the card for the AP and taking advantage of the Morale Bonus to chain events. I don’t plan it that way, but somehow I stumbled onto a strategy I should of used more often.
Tracks. Each faction track in Land and Freedom has symbols along the way that award bonuses. If the end of a track is reached, a Medallion is awarded. Some portions of tracks are dependent on other tracks. For example, the Moderate player cannot advance beyond the 7 space on the Government track unless Foreign Aid is at least 8. If a track is ever “zeroed out” the Morale Bonus (useful for chaining actions on the player tableau) is turned off.
Bag of Glory. Initiative in Land and Freedom not only decides who starts a turn (and who breaks ties) but is also an integral part of Glory which is the second measure of victory. The game uses a bit of a bag-building mechanism for this part of the game. At the end of every turn the player with Initiative places one of their tokens in the Bag of Glory (two tokens if it is the end of the Year turn). At the end of Year 1 a single token is drawn and placed on the Glory track. At the end of the second year two Glory tokens are drawn and placed. At the start of Year 3 players bid to place another Glory token and if the players win the war a further five tokens are drawn. The winner—assuming again the war was won—is the player with the most Glory drawn.
In our teach-n-play of Land and Freedom, I was the Moderate faction player and started the game with the Initiative which I held for the first three turns. Thus, at the end of Year 1, I had three tokens in the Bag of Glory and it was my token drawn. Alas, at the end of Year 1 I lost the Initiative and never regained it. Thus, at the end of Year 2, I had only 2 of 9 tokens in the Bag of Glory and, as my luck would have it, none were drawn. I lost the Bid for Glory at the start of Year 3 and, never holding the Initiative, didn’t add any Glory that year either. If we had somehow won the war (we lost on one Front by a single Strength Point) I still had only 2 of 12 Glory tokens in the Bag of Glory with five to be drawn. At best I could of helped win the war (and the game) but I totally lost the peace (placed last).
Fascist Events. I talked above how in every turn of Land and Freedom a Fascist Event card is turned face-up and a test revealed. The Fascist Event cards are in many ways the engine that drives the game forward as it defines the contours of potential player cooperation as well as creating opportunities for individual advancement. Land and Freedom is played out over three Years each with four turns. There are 54 Fascist Event cards divided equally into three years giving 18 cards each year. Given that no more than four cards come out in a single year, there are 3060 possible combinations of events EACH YEAR. This almost certainly ensures that no two games of Land and Freedom will ever have the same events occur.
In our teach-n-play we asked Alex why so many Fascist Event cards. He kinda shrugged his shoulders and answered that he wanted good replay potential. Achievement unlocked.
I should also point out that the Fascist Event test in Land and Freedom is usually directed at a single Front. If the test is passed, the reward can affect one or more players. Likewise, failure can affect one or more players (often more than one). Three of the Fronts are “home” to a different faction (Northern for Moderates, Aragon for Anarchists, Southern for Communists) meaning the rewards/penalties often are aimed at the “home” faction. This distribution of rewards (and penalties) from tests adds another layer of challenging decisions into each turn; often players will want to “pass” the test to avoid the loss of a Front but doing so might strengthen an opposing faction in an undesirable manner.
Hero Points and Medallions. in Land and Freedom “Hero Points are a currency that players earn by performing heroic acts, primarily at the Fronts.” Players gain Hero Points by working together (cooperate) but they are usually spent to advance an individual position. In each game four Medallions are randomly selected out of nine possible. The Medallions are earned when a player maxes-out a track. Three Medallions are one-time bonuses, three are permanent upgrades, and three others enable Hero Points to be used in some fashion. For the math-inclined readers that’s another 126 possible combinations on top of the 3060 Fascist Events every year on top of the innumerable combination of hands and tableaus for each player created by their 18 cards.
Talk the talk, walk the walk
One aspect of play of Land and Freedom that absolutely is not in the rules but makes the game such an enjoyable expereince is the table talk that should naturally arise during play. Early in our teach-n-play game, we looked at Alex and asked if negotiation was allowed. He told us there is no rule prohibiting it so we ran with it. As I already mentioned, in the teach-n-play I was the Moderates while a player named Zack played the Anarchists. In somewhat typical Anarchist fashion, Zack had shown up late and missed part of the rules introduction and watched the game but late in Year 1 substituted in when the original Anarchist player left for a tournament at another table. As luck would have it, Anarchist Zack ended up drawing most of his cards into his hand meaning he had plenty of options to chose from but—in very Anarchist fashion—had no real plan. Ray, a Russian Studies major by education, played the Communists and was never shy about trash-talking a move using classic Soviet propaganda terms. Alex later commented that he found every teach-n-play interesting in some way; for ours it was the fairly open table talk that was a combination of “friendly” cooperation and “trash” table talk. Mind you, we did our fair share of backstabbing too (I don’t think Zack is ever going to take a restroom break in the middle of a game turn again). Alex mentioned our table was a bit entertaining, especially compared to other tables where players are maybe a bit less reluctant to communicate.
I cannot praise Alex enough for walking us through the teach-n-play of Land and Freedom. I compliment him for sticking it out with us for the two hours as we played slower than the expected 60-90 minutes, probably from a combination of learning the game, the extra negotiations, trash talk, and Zack having analysis paralysis from an overloaded hand. Land and Freedom is the first game design published by Alex Knight. I know he has a few other designs in the works (he had prototypes at Circle DC) and I sincerely hope he gets more published. He told us that no two of his game designs are the same.
I hope Alex saw our eureka moments during this play of Land and Freedom when the majesty of the game appeared. Alex did such a great job teaching the game we never reached for the rule book as the tableaus and cards had all the information needed to play. After I got my copy of Land and Freedom at home I (finally) read the rule book and found I easily remembered much of the game; the only “new” part was the rules for the solo bots.
I took Alex’s advice and read one of the listed sources, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Graham (Oxford University Press). I quickly discovered that the cards in Land and Freedom present a simple yet comprehensive view of the history. Truthfully, I enjoyed learning the history through the game much more than I enjoyed reading the book (as short and easy to read as it is). As a Grognard I had learned some of the history but focused mostly on the military actions thanks to wargames like Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader: Origins, 1936-1942 (GMT Games) or Shattered Armada: Naval Battles of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 from Admiralty Trilogy Group for its Command at Sea series. In Land and Freedom, Alex’s focus on the politics—yet keeping the war important—teaches the history in a subtle but very enlightening way. At the end of the game one cannot help themselves but to look through all the Fascist Event cards and the player faction cards and simply learn more about the events. Right next to play, that is the mark of an outstanding historical game design.
In Land and Freedom designer Alex Knight assembled a combination of game mechanisms in a streamlined, highly playable fashion with minimal rules overhead yet maximized (and all-too-often agonizing) decision space. I especially enjoy the push-pull of cooperative needs versus individual objectives. The best wargames force players to make decisions and in Land and Freedom needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few…but not always. The balance between victory in war and political achievement is up to you.
Feature image courtesy RMN
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