Passing Judgment on Mary Surratt
Legal trials seem like the perfect setting for board games. Distinct victory conditions, formal rules, the uncertainty that arises from the human element. Crud, defending and prosecuting attorneys take turns, for crying out loud. That’s nine-tenths of a game right there.
Despite all that, I only know of two games about trials. The first, Alex Berry’s High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel, was largely about juror selection. Individual jurors acted as victory conditions that were picked at the start of each play. Everything after that was about swaying them to your side, one icon and tracker at a time.
Tom Butler’s Unforgiven: The Lincoln Assassination Trial also features icons and trackers. But because this is a military tribunal, every game revolves around the same nine judge-jurors. In place of selecting victory conditions, Unforgiven is about constructing an argument — and although it’s not quite as plugged-in with its subject matter as High Treason, the result makes for one heck of a standoff.
This is an argument. It’s also a collection of icons. At first blush, Unforgiven doesn’t acquit itself as being particularly trial-y, and it has everything to do with how much it centers its gluttony for multicolored iconography. Each of the game’s three phases opens with a dice draft for icons. Cards cost icons. Cards also provide, you guessed it, icons. The more icons you accumulate, the more and better the icons you can acquire. Icons beget icons.
But it’s what those icons are for that sets Unforgiven apart. They aren’t tricky to decipher, as the icons in High Treason’s very Victory Point Games-esque artwork sometimes tended to be. Instead, they’re clearly coded. White icons are evidence. Gray icons represent persuasive arguments. Blue is for swaying the momentum of the trial in your favor, and gold represents the strength of your closing argument. Simple. Crisp. Comprehensible at a glance, even across the table. Provided it isn’t a very wide table, anyway.
Which is a good thing, because Unforgiven is about making sure you have the right icons at the right moment. Material evidence for unlocking an eyewitness. Sway tokens to intimidate somebody into nudging the trial your way. A leaked murder weapon to the press to set the tone of public discourse. Most importantly, the right combination of icons for swinging those judges to your side. Even better if the other side doesn’t have the proper icons to swing them back. As in many of the best games about acquiring icons, it’s not only the icons you gather that defines victory, but also the icons you deny the opposition.
There are three ways to win Unforgiven, although until both sides become experts at blocking the opposition’s drafts there’s only one that matters: swaying four of the tribunal’s nine judges. Why four and not a majority of five? No idea. It’s probably a game thing. Historically, Mary Surratt’s death sentence required six of the judges to sign the writ, and afterward five of them requested clemency on account of Surratt’s sex. This speaks to one of Unforgiven’s few snags, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.
For now let’s focus on those judges. The same nine men are always present, but Butler is too clever to lock them into the same roles. Instead, both sides begin with two in hand. If they can amass the proper icons, they can discard something from the card display to secure the judge, both earning his vote and whatever bonus he brings along with him. In other words, those judges are always “yours.” They’ll never vote for the opposition. But as for voting for your side, they need some persuasion. Hence the icon-hunting.
That leaves five judges up in the air. Two more are locked at the outset, their appearance contingent on how well the trial is going in your favor. Swing the trial far enough in your favor and they’re added to your hand, ready to be purchased like the others. The final three judges are more open to persuasion, and must be jockeyed back and forth on the main board before they’ll join either side.
Regardless of where they come from, Unforgiven is largely about swinging judges to your side. At times this is so straightforward that the other two victory conditions hardly seem to matter. Why bother with the reasonable doubt track or endgame points when only dice icons, never those on cards, are permanently spent on purchases? Isn’t it relatively easy to amass the right icons to sway the requisite number of judges?
Well, yes, especially during the game’s first few plays, and it’s a big enough problem that I wonder whether Unforgiven wouldn’t have worked better had it required five judges for victory or made them pricier to buy out. The existence of the other victory conditions is clearly intended as a counterpoint; spend too much effort seesawing judges back and forth and you might lose the trial by other means. As it stands, judges are so prevalent that certain icons are less desirable than others. Which is an unfortunate peccadillo, because the way the game sees you gathering those icons is utterly clever.
It works like this. Each phase sees a deck dealt into a lattice of face-up and face-down cards. In an example of smart layout, the cards’ icons are right smack dab in the middle, so it’s a cinch to splay them in such a way that all the pertinent information is readily visible. From there, every action demands the removal of a card, whether you’re purchasing it into your argument, discarding it for sway tokens, or influencing a judge. This slowly whittles away at the card display, occasionally revealing new tidbits of information and gradually closing in on stuff that’s otherwise tucked beneath other cards.
Like everything else in Unforgiven, this doesn’t initially scream “military tribunal.” Also like everything else in Unforgiven, it warrants a second look. In this case, gradually untangling the display feels like you’re sorting through hearsay and eyewitness accounts, uncovering new connections, and stealing crucial evidence out from under your opponent. This is where the game begins to take shape, not only as a hunt for the proper icons, but also as a long-form dance of maneuver and counter-maneuver. Everybody’s information is laid bare, not the least of which are the judges you’re hoping to sway — and the icons you require to do so. This tucks an element of denial into every decision, with certain cards better left unearthed lest your opponent snatch them away and persuade the jury of their case. At the same time, those few face-down cards are revelations in miniature. Every card will be claimed or discarded by the end of the round, so at various points you’ll be forced to push through a bottleneck and let your opponent take their pick of the goodies underneath.
It’s also the most thematically appropriate portion of Unforgiven, for better and for worse. Better, because it’s a grandiose take on the reliable old card market, loading every pick with both short-term gains and longer-term opportunities and consequences. Worse, because the rest of the game doesn’t reproduce the same degree of verisimilitude. It’s possible that this is, in part, because I knew about Mary Surratt (unlike Louis Riel from High Treason). But it might also have something to do with a lack of context or even any differentiation between prosecution and defense. After one victory, I irreverently declared that we were going to “hang her, hang her!” Everybody stared at me in confusion; I’d completely forgotten that I was Surratt’s defender. The omission of broader context also seems peculiar. I’m unsure what I’m supposed to take from the whole thing — if anything at all.
That last tidbit is a tall order, I’ll admit. I like my historical games opinionated, or at least clear about what they’re discussing. In High Treason, Berry examined the notion of an “impartial jury,” drawing attention to the Protestant English jury that convicted the French Catholic Louis Riel. It touched upon possible legal abuses as much as upon legal procedure.
Unforgiven doesn’t quite pull that off. There are snippets of deeper meaning, but they remain secondary. The judges who can be swayed by either player, for instance, might succumb to either ordinary or alternate means of persuasion. What is meant by “alternate” is never explained. Is it a bribe? Political pressure? Well-rounded rhetoric? Pure gameplay? Butler notes that the trial of Mary Surratt was controversial, but never unpacks the reasons behind said controversy.
Instead, Butler seems to have focused on crafting a game that’s thoroughly playable. In that regard it’s an impressive piece of work, especially its card market and the need to examine the information on both sides of the table. The result is a tug-of-war that’s taut with flinches and clenched teeth, only giving ground long enough to regain footing. It takes some doing to get me excited about yet another two-player game. Unforgiven manages that and more.
A complimentary copy was provided.