Review: Liberté

Posted by James (admin) on August 6th, 2010

Liberté was released in 2001 and Valley Games are publishing a new version of the game in 2010.   This review is of the 2001 version by Warfrog Games and not of the new version by Valley Games – I’m not sure what differences there may be (if any) but I know the boards look very similar.  I bought Liberté about 8 years ago and had never played it until a week of two ago.  When I bought it, it seemed too complex for the main gaming group I had at that time and other games always took priority.  However, the news of its re-release made me re-visit the game and it wasn’t seem as complex to me now having played so many other games.

Set during the French Revolution, players play cards to place blocks on a map of France.  The coloured blocks represent the support for the three political groups in the area where they are located – the nicely-thematic red, white and blue blocks represent the radicals, the royalists and the moderates respectively.  The map is divided into 6 coloured regions each containing several areas.

Each turn, a player can either play a card from their hand, or take a card from the 3 face-up or a face-down card from the draw pile.  Players don’t represent any one party – instead, the card played determines which colour block(s) can be placed into which region’s areas.  When a player places blocks, they put a  marker on the top of the stack showing they added them.  There can be no more than 3 blocks in any one stack, than no more 3 stacks in any one area, and no player can own more than one stack in an area; however, there can be more than one stack of the same colour in an area.  So, Liberté is an area control (almost people placement) game at heart.

The game lasts 5 rounds and a round ends when all the blocks of any single colour are on the board.  Then, an election takes place and victory points (VPs) are scored.  Each area is assessed and the party with the single tallest stack of blocks in an area wins one vote (potentially more in the Paris area) for that party.  When all areas have been assessed, the party with the most votes wins the election.  The player who added the most stacks that earned votes for the winning party gets 5 VPs, as does the player who was second most influential in the party’s win (2 VPs).  Also, the player who was most influential in the party who came second in the election gets 3 VPs too.  Some areas score some bonus VPs, plus there are some extra VPs for winning battles.  One battle occurs in each of the later rounds and this is won by the player with largest army (created by playing certain cards instead of placing blocks) and with at least one general in their personal display.  There were a lot of executions of Generals in our game to stop players winning the Battle VPs.

There are two clever game mechanics that add more depth to the game.  First, up to 4 of the cards that are played by each player during a round can be placed in front of the player for later use – this is called their ‘Personal Display’.  As you can imagine, the rules for block placement mean that ties are common occurrences.  To break ties, the players involved can (in turn order) each use the strength of one of their cards in their personal display.  Any cards used this way are discarded, and cards still in a player’s personal display at the end of a round can be added back into the player’s hand.  For example, two players each have stacks of 2 blue blocks in an area and one player has 1 red block which causes a tie on blue. One of the tied players uses a card from his personal display showing 1 blue block.  The other player has a blue card with 2 blocks on it so has the choice of using that card to win the area, or keeping it to use in a different area, or not using it at all so they can play it from their hand again next round.  This game mechanic is called ‘Advancing’ and is used to split ties on all matters (controlling an area, largest party support, battles, and so on).  Usually, only one card can be advanced by each player, and only in player turn order, so knowing who could do what means the decision-making is interesting but also limited enough so it doesn’t slow the game down.

The second interesting mechanic is that the game usually lasts 5 rounds and the player with the most VPs wins; however, there are two immediately game ending situations – one is if the red blocks get 17 + votes in an election (the player with the most influence in the red party wins) and the other is if the white blocks control 6 or more of the specifically marked areas (the player with the most influence in the white party wins).

Overall, Liberté was an interesting and very tactical game which we all enjoyed (all regular gamers).  Only being able to play or take one card meant every action was critical.  The unknown length of round meant it was always tense and it seemed there were always various areas you were trying to win and/or defend whilst keeping an eye on other areas to try and win scarce VPs.  What I found interesting was that controlling an area is one thing but you need to control the right colour stacks in the right locations so as to earn the VPs for supporting the winner (and/or runner-up) of an election.  Tactically, this means you need to react to how popular support for the parties changes on the board.  If it looks like blue will win the election at the end of the round and you haven’t placed much blue support, then you’re not going score any VPs when that party wins.  So, you either need to add your own support for blue that will win areas, or start spreading support for a different colour/party so you can at least be the biggest supporter of the runner-up party.  You might try to negate the support of the leading party or you could add support into uncontested areas instead.  Much of your decisions need to be based what you think other players are attempting to do too.

Working out where to place your support offered interesting tactical decision-making with some difficult choices.  Draws in areas were common which made the game really interesting as players chose whether to use a card in their personal display to win a draw, or to keep it until the next round made for some other entertainingly tough decision.  We played with 4 players which seemed like a good mix.  I think 5 and 6 player games would be really manic, and a lot of fun, especially as only 3 players can fight over any one area.

So, what was negative about Liberté?  The biggest complaint was the colour matching of the cards to the board.  The colours on the board didn’t match the colours on the cards which show the area they affect.  We continually played cards only for someone to point out they were for different areas which spoiled some planning.  After the first round, we realised south-west France had no blocks on it because the cards for that area had all been used to place blocks in a very similarly coloured area elsewhere.  Additional symbols, area names or map icons would all have helped greatly (and been essential to many colour-blind players) but there’s not much excuse for poor colour matching that is so essential to the flow of the game. (The colour of the Valley Games’ board look much better.)

Production issues aside, there were a couple of game play items I thought could be improved.  In addition to the cards that place blocks in areas, there are some special cards which allow a player to remove other player’s blocks or even kill (guillotine) cards in another player’s personal display.  Some were very powerful and obtaining them was completely random due to the luck of the draw.  I didn’t have a single execution card during the game, but another player had (and used) at least 5.  This felt rather unbalanced and I think some limit on them would have been better (maybe each player gets 3 each at the start of the game, or one per round, and any use is at a cost).

The random nature of gaining cards (even with the draw mechanic) meant you could be very limited by the cards you held – at one point in our game, red was very strong, white was barely represented and I had a hand of almost all white cards so had little opportunity to influence the game or win VPs.  I took and used blue cards to try to boost the clearly second-placed party and be their largest supporter, but getting the cards to play used a lot of turns.  Also, the cards to place blocks range from placing 1, 2 or 3 blocks so the 3-block cards were powerful and the 1-block cards were weak.  I would have liked to have seen some balance to this where the 1 block cards allow you to place in a choice of 2 or 3 specific areas so that players with 1-block cards weren’t at a disadvantage.  In our game, the 3 face-up cards to draw from quickly stagnated (all 1-block cards) and players mainly preferred to take a face-down card as it wouldn’t be any weaker than the face-up options.  Maybe a different rule would be that a player could take any one card or they could take two cards if they both show 1-block.  Alternatively, there could be a weak card deck, from which you can draw 2 cards, and a strong deck, from which you can take only one card.

The rules are relatively short although some points lack detail so were confusing or could be interpreted in multiple ways (not helped by the text on one of the powerful cards conflicting with the written rules).  I appreciate that writing clear rules is very difficult and I can make up house rules fine, but when I buy a game I do expect it to be complete and I want to play it as intended.  (Unfortunately, I find Martin Wallace’s rules can be quite vague.  His fans will probably criticise me though – I once got accused by one fan of trying to find loopholes in a game’s rules when I asked questions on a forum because the rules were incomplete, the text didn’t match the examples, and some examples didn’t even match the images they accompanied.)  Anyway, the rules for Liberté are not the best but are okay.

I’ve played a few games by Martin Wallace recently and I do like the tight tactical options that are the kernel of his game designs.  Some are better than others of course and I think Liberté was above average.  Even though luck felt like it played more of a part than it should have done, it was still possible to plan and shift tactics whilst making interesting decisions.  Liberté played quickly with 4 players and I do want to play it again, especially now we understand it more.


[Played with 4 players]

Game Photo: Phil Romans

2 Responses to “Review: Liberté”

  1. Jacob Says:

    You owned the game for eight years and played it for the first time now? I can’t imagine that. Especially a game by the esteemed Wallace. I’ve wanted the game for about four years, but when I first heard about Valley Games doing the reprint, I held off. I’ve been frustrated waiting for them to prioritize it, but it sounds like they’ve finally got it together for this fall.
    Good writeup! I enjoyed reading it.

  2. James (admin) Says:

    Hi Jacob,

    Thanks. Yeah, 8 years is quite a while 🙂 I think it just always ended up being beaten to the table by some other more recent/shiny game, or wasn’t suitable for the players in the group. I’m glad I got to play it at last. It’s made me write a list of other games I own but haven’t played yet.



Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>