Friday, March 09, 2007

Free At Last for Free

I caught the flu this week, and I missed the weekly meeting of the Appalachian Gamers, and so I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to write about. But I also had more time than usual to surf the Geek, and I came across a free game that I thought looked interesting. I haven’t played it yet, but I have read the rules, and I’d like to make myself a copy of the game if I can figure out how to print out a game board. I’m talking about Free At Last, Ted Torgerson’s game about the Civil Rights struggle in the USA in the years from 1955 to 1965. It can be found at, and the components can be downloaded from the site. You can also find a professional game board for Free At Last at This map is by talented game artist Mark Mahaffey, and it can be downloaded for free as well.

Free at Last is a card-driven political game in the same style as Twilight Struggle. The Civil Rights player mobilizes black leaders and various followers in Southern cities in an attempt to win voting rights, integrated schools, and accommodation rights (integrated buses, movie theaters, and lunch counters). The Segregationist player mobilizes southern politicians and segregation followers in attempts to stop integration and arrest large numbers of civil rights protesters. The Civil Rights player must achieve certain levels of political victories in southern cities to win. The Segregationist Player wins by either preventing the Civil Rights player from scoring high numbers, or by forcing the Civil Rights movement to depart from its policy of non-violence.

Both players have hands of cards which can be played for their operational points or can be used to trigger events. I am not an expert on the Civil Rights era by any means (I’ve read Parting the Waters, the first volume of Taylor Branch’s monumental three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and I’d recommend that book for anyone who can handle anvil-heavy tomes), but Mr. Torgerson appears to have done his historical homework.

There are a few oddities. The Segregationist player can play a Malcolm X card which pushes the Civil Rights movement away from non-violence. While Malcolm X did not embrace Gandhi-style values, if he were alive today he would probably have some angry words about any game that makes him even an accidental ally of white supremacists.

There are also some interesting twists. The game cleverly defuses the issue of having the Segregationist player constantly trying to assassinate black leaders. Even a game that salutes the civil rights movement could be distasteful if one of the players ends up saying things like: “Give me the die. I want to try to kill Medgar Evers.” Instead, the Segregationist player is allowed to play Klu Klux Klan units, and these units can automatically eliminate black leaders if the Civil Rights player is unlucky with his die rolls. In the end the game still simulates the horrifying violence of the extreme Segregationists, but no player is obliged by the gaming system to directly pull the trigger on the cardboard counterparts of the courageous historical black leaders.

The game also allows players to influence the presidential elections of the era in the hope of getting a president sympathetic to their cause. And the Civil Rights player can try to recreate certain historical civil rights victories ( like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the integration of Ole Miss) for extra points.

I don’t admire everything about the game. The paste-them-yourself units could have been bigger. The leader units need to have their names on the counters; the black leaders look like generic black guys, and the white leaders look like generic white guys, and I suspect it will be annoying to constantly have to look up and see which face goes with which name. And the follower units could use their identifying letters on them. I’ll probably mark my counters with the appropriate N’s, S’s, and B’s. But these are minor gripes.

As I mentioned, I haven’t played this game, and I have no idea whether the game system works when it is really up and running. But I like medium-complexity political/historical games and this certainly fits that category (Free At Last has only five pages of rules). I hope to give this game a try in the near future. Thanks for the free game, Mr. Torgerson.

If you’ve actually played the game, post a message and give us some comments.


Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

I'll have to check this out as the local high school does like to use games in Social Studies from time to time...

Anonymous said...

I understand your criticisms of the components of the game. This was the best I could do as an amateur game designer and graphic artist. To become a good game Free at Last would need a professional designer and developer working with a group of playtesters. Any game like this requires endless tweaking and revision, but I do think the basic game system works well as a simulation of the events.

Court decisions and legislation are not too interesting of a subject for a game. I wanted to keep the focus on the confrontations in the streets. The media also played an important part in the civil rights movement. As a designer you have to think of ways to abstract these elements without making them the focus of the game. T\For instance the media column shift helps emphasize King's natural charisma as a major factor in the game, much as it was in real life. As you wrote I tried to make the Klan abstract and remove those decisions from the hands of the player as much as possible.

A lot of people have said they would not want to play the segregationist player in the game. I can understand that. I usually want to play the Americans and British in the Second World War or the Union in the Civil War. It's important to remember that although the events of this game are painful, the society that emerged was more noble and just. I like to think of the whites in the South as being transformed not defeated. I guess I am a dualist in this respect: you cannot show the goodness of the civil rights movement without showing the injustice it had to confront. Showing the firehoses and attack dogs let's the game demonstrate how committed the protesters were to their core value of peaceful resistance.

With regard to Malcolm X, I would say the game is not about a white and black struggle as much as a struggle for the hearts and minds of the American blacks of the time. The game assumes the Jim Crow system will fall. That's why once a city is integrated it remains so for the rest of the game. The question is the means to that end. King, Young and Lewis represent a different future for blacks than Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X. The end for each is black equality, but when you say "by any means necessary" you will end up with a different society than the vision of the I Have a Dream Speech. That's because ends and means are inextricably mixed. Malcolm X represents the lure of that message - "The ballot or the bullet" - which became dominant in the later years of the Civil Rights Movement.

If you get a chance to try the game try playing the 1960 scenario with split decks. It takes a couple hours. Oh, and I should mention the S and N units participate in the confronations just like B units, that was left out of the rules accidentally.

Thanks for the write up. I hope you like the game.

Ted Torgerson