23rd May2018

‘Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Prior to playing 878 Vikings earlier this year, I hadn’t played a single war game. Since then, including 878, I’ve played and reviewed seven and this, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection will be the eighth. It’s also, by far, the most complex. Liberty or Death may be the heaviest game I’ve played to date; but let me tell you right now – it is also incredibly powerful, with undoubtedly the most challenging solo play that I’ve encountered and support for up to four real humans that is just sublime.

I may have anticipated my conclusion somewhat in the opening, but the reality is that I have been gushing about Liberty or Death with all of my gaming friends, so it seems only fair that I do so in this review as well. It’s also fair to say that I’m giving you an easy out – this game is so large and complex that I’m likely to struggle to articulate everything that I want to in minute detail. If that happens – refer to the above.

There’s only one place to begin – with the premise. Liberty or Death is a strategic, grand scale wargame that recounts the struggle of the American Patriots against the oppressive and exploitative British regime of the era. Liberty or Death is Volume 5 in Volko Ruhnke’s renowned COIN series, which now extends all the way to eight instalments, some of which I hope to feature in the future.

Liberty or Death supports between one and four players, split between two opposing sides. The English are tenuously allied with the Native Americans (although each can win independently) whilst the Patriots are seeking support from the French, who enter the game a few turns in, once they have reached a high enough level of readiness.

All four factions in the game must be present, so whether you choose to play solo or with up to three friends, you’ll have a balanced experience. My first game was solo (so that I could learn the system) and as a result, I was able to fathom just what the COIN system is capable of. To support play (whether human or automatic) Liberty or Death includes a pair of player guides for each faction that are simply exceptional.

The actions available to each faction are highly asymmetrical in cost, power, timing and effect, so players will need to immerse themselves deeply into the role that they are playing. The Patriots need to gather support and raise militia, but it’s important that isolated cells of opposition avoid surfacing where the British are powerful. The Native Americans are in an uneasy peace with the British, but their interests remain rightfully their own, which is reflected in how they play.

When using automaton factions (which you’ll likely often do) then a specific guide will tell you exactly how to do so. Each guide works like an “if this, then that” kind of flowchart and whilst there are many potential outputs, they are actually quite straightforward once you get to grips with them. None are watered down half measures either – the automaton players can and will beat you if you fail to handle your business!

In terms of how play is actually driven, Liberty or Death couldn’t be simpler. The players simply turn a card over and look at the flags along the top. Only two factions act based on each card, with the flags that are shown first taking priority. As is the case (in one permutation or another) in all COIN games, the factions that acted on the previous card will be ineligible on the current one, so the two that are eligible will act in the order shown among flags from left to right.

Depending on which factions are acting, the card might have different events or scenarios that benefit the current player. For example, when Franklin visits France, he may either impress the French (which increases their chance of entering the war and also strengthens the Patriots) or he doesn’t, which strengthens the British.

There are cards for all manner of scenarios that represent each of the factions in the game, from the political machinations of the French and British to the localised struggles of the Patriots and the atrocities committed both against and by the Native Americans. The deck of cards doesn’t deliver a narrative as such, it more adds flavour to what is happening on the board – which is where the real story in Liberty or Death unfolds.

Usually, I’d attempt to explain the actions available to each faction in detail here, but considering that each faction has a very comprehensive flowchart associated with it, I’m not sure how I can summarise it into a review, but I’ll try. Each faction is uniquely capable of achieving the thematic objective that will enable them to win and all play very differently.

As an overview; the British have a clear advantage in the early war, but their ability to meet threats all over the map is limited, as is their need to support their weaker troops (Tories) and their allies (the Native Americans) neither of whom can participate in battles without line infantry. The Patriots need to draw support, place propaganda and work to bring the French into the battle. The French player will have little to do in the first few turns except gain a desire to join the fray, but once she enters the fight, she can bring battle to the British like no other – both on land and at sea.

Armies will be mustered, fortresses will be built and camps will be established along the frontier. Propaganda will placed and Generals will rise and fall as the turns roll on, but it’s rare that Liberty or Death becomes unbalanced. Resources are always too stretched and the lines of battle are too thinly spread for it to become a pushover, all of which is the result of how the turn eligibility system works and how tightly the COIN system operates.

Every so often, a Winter Quarters card is seeded in the deck and instead of being placed face up on top of the deck (as other cards are, to provide a bit of forward info) it is enacted immediately. At this point, players who have overextended themselves will pay dearly, as the card intends to simulate 18th Century warfare during winter, which usually had a very high human cost. This manifests in the game as a significant cost for unconnected locations, which makes it an ever present strategic consideration.

All of Liberty or Death’s incredible drama is delivered on a board that is both huge and incredibly detailed, with support from the very finest components. Regular units are represented as cubes, whilst militia and Native American war bands are shown as hexagons, with both active and underground sides. When battle is joined, irregular units count as half in comparison to a regular unit, whilst in any case, fighting is costly.

There’s actually a lot more I could write about Liberty or Death. It is certainly one of my favourite games this year and whilst it is not the shortest or by any means the most accessible, it’s already among my favourite wargames. I’ve tried to write this review to demonstrate how a less than hardcore gamer can enjoy a relatively heavy game – it takes time, it takes effort, but it is more than worth it.

Liberty or Death is an incredible game. It offers mechanical depth and flexibility that is close to flawless, whilst at the same time, it works hard to counteract its vast scope with rules, player guides and reference material that anyone can accommodate. Sure, you’ll need to invest some time in it, but whether you choose to play solo or with friends, if you can work your way through the first three or for four games and eventually into your second or third game, it will really reap dividends.

****½  4.5/5


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