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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Land and Freedom, or Engineering the Delicate Balance of Semi-Cooperation

by Alex Knight

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, but not for the military history normally represented in games on the topic. If you’re into military simulations, you can find wargames that do that better than anything I’m going to create. What interests me about the Spanish Civil War is precisely that it wasn’t just a war; it was also a revolution.

In 1936, the Spanish working class began the largest-ever experiment in self-management in a modern economy, with workers taking over industrial and agricultural production on a vast scale and running them collectively. At the same time, the women of Republican Spain carried out a sexual revolution, demanding equality from the home to the trenches.

The revolution was defeated. Franco’s fascist army, supplied with tanks and planes from Mussolini and Hitler, slowly squeezed the life out of the Republic while the Western powers sat and watched. At the same time, the Republic was at war with itself; Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and regional separatists could not look past their opposing political agendas to maintain a united anti-fascist alliance.

The dilemma of the fragile alliance is the core of what I was determined to explore in this game. I wanted players to put themselves into that dilemma and viscerally feel both sides of the quandary. On one side, you know that if you and your allies fail to work together, you are doomed. On the other side, you cannot possibly trust your allies because as soon as you drop your guard, they will take advantage. The only solution is to do both: fight the fascists and pursue your political objectives at the same time.

It wasn’t easy to create a game that captured that delicate balancing act between co-operation and competition. I started working on it in 2018, but the first prototypes were far too long and far too similar to a traditional wargame.

The first playtest in 2018

Gradually I scaled back the complexity of the military conflict to make room for the political/revolutionary conflict to breathe. I zoomed out from many units in many territories. Armies became mega-units that defended multiple contiguous territories at once. Each army had its stats hidden behind screens. How much of an army to exhaust on a particular battle was a push-your-luck decision. Aircraft and armor were simple dice-roll modifiers. Meanwhile, political support became tied to specific territories, so losing a particular battle meant more to one faction than it did to another.

A 2019 version with the army screens

Still, the game was slow, and players rarely did anything that hurt the war effort for the sake of their own faction’s advancement. I was stuck. I started focusing on other designs.

Everything changed when I played Watergate for the first time. The tightness of that design — which takes a complicated historical conflict and boils it down to a tense, snappy, tug-of-war — got my wheels turning again.

Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War now became two simultaneous tug-of-wars: the military and the political. I streamlined the military conflict into the four fronts on the left side of the board where players co-operate against the Fascists, while the right side displays the five political tracks where players struggle with each other for initiative. Winning the game now required devoting equal attention to both sides of the conflict…or so I thought.

Set-up of the final version of the board

Tightening up the gameplay brought the “semi-cooperative problem” directly into focus. If a playtester fell behind, they would face a decision of either abandoning the co-operative side of the game and potentially screwing the team, or doing the exact opposite – disregarding their own chance of victory for the sake of not losing the war to the Fascists. In particular, because the winner would be whichever player held initiative at the end of the game, the last turn would often be decisive for two of the players, with the third player thrust into a frustrating king-making role.

Slaying this beast of a design challenge, which every semi-cooperative game must face at some point, was accomplished with a simple bag. I have to credit my local Game Makers Guild, and especially James Firnhaber (designer of Tesseract) and Jay Vowles (designer of Elements of the Gods) for their many playtesting sessions, one of which yielded the final “a-ha!” moment that led to the Bag of Glory. Each turn, the initiative player adds one of their player tokens to the bag. At the end of each year, tokens are drawn from the bag, and whoever has the most of these Glory points at the end wins — assuming the war against the Fascists is successful, of course.

Anarchist, Communist, and Moderate player tokens

By shifting victory into the results of bag building, I could engineer it so that no player has a 0% chance of winning until after their final turn, and therefore they cannot rationally abandon the war effort. At the same time, with the odds of winning corresponding closely to how often a player has held the initiative throughout the game, players can’t neglect the political/revolutionary conflict until the very last moment either.

With the introduction of just the right level of uncertainty, the tightrope balancing act of co-operation vs. competition factors into every decision on every turn. A little bit of cloudiness was the necessary ingredient for the core dilemma to shine through.

To make sure the math worked, I learned how to use R, the statistical modeling program, then simulated all possible distributions of the Bag of Glory. This showed me that each individual player token added to the bag has a significant effect on the probability of winning the game. For example, a distribution of seven tokens for player A and six each for players B and C will result in A having the most tokens drawn almost twice as often as B or C do (28% to 16%). In other words, the player who played the best has substantially better odds of achieving the Glory, but it’s not a guarantee.

R code

I also made the decision to remove the Fascist side of the war from player control. The bad guys are now automated by their decks (years 1-3). Each turn, the Fascist event dictates which fronts receive attacks, and it tests one front such that the players will be rewarded for sufficiently supporting that front — or receive a negative consequence if they do not. The consequences of a Fascist test may affect all players, two players, or occasionally just one, providing new motivations for teamwork as well as opportunities to be sneaky when failing a test is in your best interests.

Fascist cards

Players must be careful. With only four turns per year out of decks of 18 cards, where the Fascists will direct their attacks is a gamble and a front is permanently lost to defeat if it receives ten attack tokens (a value of -10). Lose any two fronts, and the war is lost immediately — or just lose Madrid, and that’s game over, too. The only way to win the war is to hold three out of four fronts in Republican control (+1 or better) at the end of year 3.

Attack/Strength tokens

The player decks (Anarchist, Communist, and Moderate) also have 18 cards each, twelve 1 action point (AP) cards, five 2 AP, and one 3 AP, which is that faction’s leader. Players benefit from managing their decks so that they can access their best cards at the right times. One way I incentivized this was through the final bid for Glory. The very last turn of the game, each player can bid up to three cards as their final bid. The one who bids the most AP wins the bid and immediately scores one Glory point, circumventing the bag.

The cards themselves can be played in two different ways. Playing a card for its event produces instant benefits, but the card is permanently removed from the deck. The other option is to add the card to the player’s tableau, which allows for a slower build-up towards more powerful turns in the future. When playing to their tableau, a player can use the card’s action points to adjust anything on the board: a front, a track, or a bonus. Along with this, they can use the morale bonus to activate any one icon on their current card and multiply that effect by the number of times that icon appears in their tableau.

For example, if the Anarchist player plays Buenaventura Durruti, which is their leader card, they could burn it for the very strong event (all the effects in the text box), but doing so possibly sacrifices their chance at the final bid for Glory, since this would trash their only 3 AP card.

Tableau-building

Instead, they could play this card to their tableau as in the above example. In that case, they would have 3 AP to devote to any one area of the board, e.g., adding 3 strength to a front, or getting +3 liberty. Additionally, if the morale bonus is on, they would choose any icon on the Durruti card and multiply this by the number of cards in the tableau with that icon. If they wanted to add strength to a front, they could add +4 to a front because of the four Republican strength icons in the tableau. Alternatively, they could choose +3 liberty or +2 collectivization as their morale bonus using those icons on Durruti.

More player cards

It was important to me that players be able to upgrade their capacities outside of the cards. One avenue for this is the Medallions, which work a bit like the progress tokens in 7 Wonders Duel. There are nine Medallions in Land and Freedom, with five of them randomly drawn at the start of each game. These provide either an immediate boost, like adding a token to the Bag of Glory (Subterfuge), or an ongoing, permanent upgrade like the ability to add extra strength to the fronts every turn (Strategy).

Medallions

A player can acquire a Medallion by maxing out one of their two tracks, such as the Moderates increasing Foreign Aid or Government all the way to 10. At that time, they take one of the available Medallions from the board. This creates motivation for players to race up their tracks for the Medallion they want before another player can snatch it. By extension, it supplies another reason for players to keep the other player’s tracks in check.

Ultimately, I’m thrilled that Blue Panther decided to publish the game, and that they hired Ryan Heilman (Brave Little Belgium) as the developer and José Ramón Faura as the artist. They’ve both done incredible work and have allowed me to realize my vision for this game. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I do.

Alex Knight

P.S.: Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War is currently available on the Blue Panther website.

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