Non Plus Ultra

I love writing articles that will spur somebody to write me a nasty note!

As fascist forces encircled Madrid in 1936, Dolores Ibárruri delivered a string of speeches meant to rally those loyal to the Second Republic to its defense. Nicknamed la Pasionaria, the “passion flower,” Ibárruri had only been elected earlier that year as a deputy in the Cortes Generales for the Popular Front, a coalition of leftists, communists, socialists, anarchists, and regional nationalists. Her first act had been to empty the local prison of its political detainees, throwing open the cells with her own hands before the Cortes could waffle over drafting the order. Now, with a military coup threatening to seize the country by force, one of her  broadcasts inflamed the city’s defenders. “¡No pasarán!” she declared. The fascists shall not pass.

But they did pass. After a siege of two and a half years, General Francisco Franco entered Madrid. “Hemos pasado,” he is reported to have said. We have passed.

Me: "My goodness, I love maps." Internet Boy: "But what about tracks?! Why are you so anti-track?!"

Spain under fire.

Alex Knight’s Land and Freedom, a three-player wargame published by Blue Panther, plays like a dissection of those dueling phrases. Like many of its new-wave peers, it’s entirely uninterested in the particulars of military maneuvers or bombardment ranges. It’s also all the better for it. This is a wargame in the sense that war is politics by other means and politics is war by other means. A fascist coup is on the verge of putting you up against a wall and offering a blindfold. Unfortunately, your allies aren’t far off from making a similar offer. By the end of its hour-ish playtime, you’ll likely have a pretty good impression of how the Popular Front was defeated by its Nationalist foes. Better yet, that impression will likely include the phrase “It’s complicated.”

Since we’re here to punch fascists, let’s begin there. Every round in Land and Freedom is bookended by incursions. Thanks to three surprisingly deep stacks of event cards, one stack per year of war, there’s no predicting which pressure point will be pinched next. Knight smooths the war down to four fronts. Three of these, the Northern, Southern, and Aragon fronts, can only sustain a single loss. The last, Madrid, can’t be lost at all. Winning the war is a test in endurance. Fascists pour into these fronts, you trim them back, and eventually you’ll need to ensure that your strength overawes theirs.

Thankfully, the process couldn’t be simpler. Every round revolves around a single card. These announce where fascists counters will be placed and sometimes enact a penalty. More importantly, they also signal where that round’s “test” will be held. Tests represent significant incursions. If the Popular Front pulls together to bring the crisis to heel, there are goodies to be had. Otherwise, more penalties.

I love how many cards there are. Each faction gets their own deck, plus there are unique event decks for each year of the war. It's so perfectly excessive in its desire to cover as much ground as possible.

Three full decks of event cards present new challenges with each play.

But this is where Land and Freedom reveals itself as an unusually canny board game. The trouble with these tests is that their rewards and penalties aren’t equally applied. If anything, a timely fascist incursion might cripple a rival faction.

To understand how such a thing could happen, it’s important to understand what’s happening with the Popular Front. Your newly-minted coalition may have squeaked out a win in the last election, but that doesn’t make for comfortable bedfellows. There are three broad factions in play. The Moderates begin the game in control of the government. As such, they’re the ones most invested in keeping the situation level. The war effort requires foreign aid, and that means the scary ideas need to be trickled out gradually — farming collectives, sexual equality, replacing Catholic schools with secular teachers, and maybe keeping the church-burning to a minimum. But their peers the Communists and Anarchists have very different ideas about what the new Spain ought to look like. The former are racing to tether Spain to the Soviet Union, while the latter keep pushing for radical ideas like land redistribution.

This soon leads to friction, handily mapped onto five ideological tracks. Some of the concepts on display are easier than others to grasp. Control of the government, for example, veers between the Moderates and Communists depending on whether one track leans right or left — a tidy shorthand. Because control is the game’s route to ultimate victory, this track soon occupies those two factions, boosted and enabled by their performance on the Foreign Aid and Soviet Support tracks. Makes sense.

Some audiences might find the conflict between the Communists and Anarchists harder to parse. The gist is that the Anarchists want to maximize personal liberty and labor collectives, while the Communists, following Stalin’s marching orders, need to ensure that the Soviet Union’s allies in France and Britain are kept prosperous so they can keep a lid on the boiling threat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Ironically, this means pausing the revolution. It’s an unusual dynamic, one that leaves the Communists doing their darnedest to structure power without actually enacting any reforms that would unsettle international capitalism. The result is a three-way struggle for control of the Popular Front. The Moderates and Communists both want the government itself, while the Anarchists appeal to the masses with their reforms — and periodically find themselves wrenched backward by the others. It’s easy to see why George Orwell emerged from the Republic’s international brigades with a commitment to democratic socialism but a seething hatred for Stalinism.

I'm very curious how much this game owes to Mark Herman's Churchill.

The tracks are where the parties struggle for dominance.

Hence why those tests matter. If you’re a Moderate and an attack threatens to diminish Soviet Support, why exactly should you intervene? Land and Freedom is careful with its incentives. Everyone prospers when they help the Popular Front succeed at a test, earning “hero points” that can be spent to shift tracks, but it isn’t long before the coalition’s members face temptation. In the same vein as many other card-driven wargames, every play revolves around deciding whether to use a card for its event or its action points. There’s never quite enough time or flexibility to cover every base. Soon, priorities must be assessed. You’ll often be faced with deciding whether to contribute to the war effort or compete against your allies on the home front. There’s nothing quite like the betrayal of withholding aid at a crucial moment so you can play party politics in the Cortes, strip a labor collective of its autonomy, or otherwise injure your friends in their time of need.

As a side note, Land and Freedom does something smart with its cards that I haven’t seen elsewhere. The usual traction is present, pitting powerful but rigid events against the more modest but flexible gains of action points. Here, however, Knight goes one step further. Whenever a card is used for points, it joins a growing tableau of icons. One of these can now be activated, providing an extra boost to a front, tweaking a track, or drawing extra cards. The more icons you accumulate, the stronger your future actions become. What begins as a slight nudge to a track eventually becomes an upset as, say, personal liberty disappears overnight, or Stalin becomes the Popular Front’s savior out of nowhere.

Or, of course, that your faction learns better how to conduct warfare, removing additional fascists per pop. But that’s the funny thing about this game. Its battle lines are clearly drawn, a fascist army literally at the gates, yet there’s rarely any doubt that your worst enemies are sitting next to you. It’s one thing to read about the May Days, when allied factions raised barricades and shot each other in the streets of Barcelona, when the fractures between anarchists and communists and statists made themselves evident in bloody murder, when an entire political party was outlawed and its leaders executed. It’s another thing entirely to act it out. I’m reminded of how the revolution in T.L. Simons and Greg Loring-Albright’s Bloc by Bloc: Uprising faced the threat of being co-opted by bad actors. It was effectively a variant, not quite as smooth as the game’s fully cooperative mode. Land and Freedom is that variant blown outward into an entire game of its own. More than that, it’s a game that demonstrates how an idealistic faction, increasingly paranoid as the months of war drag on, jealous of its peers’ power and terrified of how that power might be used, becomes a faithless ally in the first place.

Hey! It's my favorite picture of Stalin looking like a goof!

As cards are added to your tableau, their effects multiply.

The game’s smartest tool for enabling this distrust is a silken receptacle called, of all things, the “bag of glory.” At the end of every round, the ascendant faction tosses one of their chits into this bag. For the Moderates and Communists, that means controlling the government track. For the Anarchists, it means lots of personal liberty and collectivization initiatives. Either way, there can only be one. Into the bag that faction’s chit goes. If it’s the final round of a year, the winning faction adds an extra chit.

When the year is finished, you draw some amount of chits. The first year only allows one draw — out of five invested chits. The second year requires two. The final year allows five, plus an extra chit based on a final bid. Doing the math, that means eight chits, out of fifteen, will be drawn.

These determine the victor. I expect somebody will soon voice their exception to them, not unlike the retirement rolls in Cole Wehrle’s John Company. The comparison isn’t inapt; in both cases, these games are about maximizing one’s odds of success. Yet Land and Freedom is the more graceful, even the more “fair” version. The bag of glory serves to keep those three factions at one another’s throats. If we’re playing best-of-five and I win three rounds, I’m now free to focus my attentions elsewhere; the same goes for everyone else, really, since their defeat is assured. In another game, that would free our hands for some fascist-bopping. Knight’s method is too clever for that. Until the utter last round, you’re fighting to get your chits in the bag. Every contribution matters. Because the final draw is random, there’s no such thing as mathing out a win. All you can do is tip the odds in your favor.

This breeds a maximal mindset. It isn’t enough to partially beat your allies. You need to keep their grubby chits out of the bag altogether. By extension, the war against the fascists is always pressing, but not quite as pressing as your own political ambitions. To be clear, semi-cooperative is the toughest player mode to design for. It both elevates and reduces every action to a miniature prisoner’s dilemma, a question of selfishness versus cooperation that never produces satisfying answers. Here, the pressing question is whether a trailing player should look the other way during a fascist onslaught or pull together for the good of the team. Knight’s approach doesn’t eliminate the mode’s drawbacks. There are still some turn order issues, some balking at the possibility of a premature conclusion, and certainly some wiggly incentives.

But Knight does wrangle those incentives into something like verisimilitude. At heart, these factions are faced with an impossible choice: either they win the twin wars they’re fighting or they’re done for. That latter option covers a range of possibilities. Exile or obscurity, imprisonment or tossed into a ditch somewhere. These aren’t equivalents, but in the heat of the moment we grapple against them as though they were. Is a fascist victory worse than fleeing the country from your former allies? As with the semi-cooperative mode itself, Land and Freedom doesn’t offer an easy answer. That’s precisely why it works so marvelously. Its ambiguities resemble the flaking crust of power its factions are scrabbling so hard to get their jaws around. Every play, somebody has voiced the conundrum. Regardless of the exact phrasing, it always comes down to “Should I help myself or help all of us?” I don’t know. I really don’t. I suppose it depends on your moral character — the moral character you’ve adopted within this shroud of play, that is. What is the best choice in a game about a history that didn’t offer its actors many clear choices?

Whoops, we forgot about the war.

Defeat is never far off.

That feedback between historical setting and player decisions is the surest sign that Land and Freedom is a resounding success. Why did the Popular Front fail? It’s complicated. Foreign interests played a part — the partisan contributions of fascist Germany, Italy, and Portugal, the mealy-mouthed neutrality of Britain and France, Stalin’s counter-revolutionary international communism. Factional infighting didn’t help, entire wings of support withdrawing as they were barred from power. And let’s not discount the columns of fascist traitors. Not exactly angels, those ones.

This game brings all of that to life. It reveals both the possibilities and pitfalls of revolution and democracy. It shows why the fight for a better world is a fight at all — but also how easy it is to grow distracted, to squabble with those whose ideas of a better world differ from our own. In that regard, Land and Freedom is a warning. Because the fascists passed into Madrid. Because the possibility of a better world was smothered until Franco’s regime died with him in 1975. And while many hands took part in the deed, among them were the same hands that had birthed the Popular Front in 1936. The better world had been delayed in part by its own midwives.

Land and Freedom is available from Blue Panther. It’s phenomenal.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on March 29, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Very pleased to see this one come out.
    A far more sophisticated treatment of the internal problems of the Republic than anything published so far, especially my own effort.
    Re solitaire play: do you think the bots necessary, or can one player take all three roles and play to the best of their ability?

    • Personally, I think the bots are necessary… but I’m always impressed at wargamers’ ability to parcel their brainpower into parallel threads, so take that with a grain of salt. There isn’t bluffing or anything like that, but so much of the game’s richness arises from reacting organically to what the other factions are doing.

      • Yes, I was curious if there was much hidden information, bluffing or auctions… three things that give even the most Multiple Personality Disordered wargamer pause.

      • Every faction has a hidden hand of cards and programs one in advance each round. You could get around this by always programming in reverse play order. There’s also an end-game auction for one last chit… but since you’ll always spend your three best cards, it’s really more about whether you bother to save them for that auction or not.

        So you could get around it. But I’d rather not make the effort, personally.

    • Thanks. Well, as you say there are bots… I found that with the COIN system, the bots tended to free player-users of any notions of free will, so 80% of the questions on BGG seem to deal with how to interpret board states or parsing commas in trying to implement the bots. This is in a game system that has no hidden information, programming or auctions.

  2. Fascinating read, as always.

  3. Christian van Someren

    I just grabbed a copy of this after playing a game with the designer. Such a unique, interesting design. I’ve Crusade & Revolution and Arriba Espana on this topic, and while both are good games, it does feel like having 2 clear-cut sides is a detriment to the history they are trying to portray. This game resolves those issues marvellously and elegantly, and gives such a unique perspective for a wargame. I am impressed, and I am very much looking forward to Alex’s game on the Russian Civil War.

  4. Thanks, a thoughtful review of an intriguing game. In terms of reading matter, the oral history Blood of Spain by Ronald Fraser is a great book, as are the recent works of Chris Ealham, Danny Evans and Agustín Guillamón – no guesses where my sympathies lie.

  5. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    Very interesting! For starters, it solves a “problem” playing games about the Civil War. Or two problems, one person having to play the Fascists, or the related problem of somebody wanting to play the Fascists.

    Still, the “Civil War is complicated” its basically the most accurate thing ever said about it, more when you realize we in Spain keep refighting it all the time – thankfully so far just not with weapons. So far. Lets hope.

    For starters, the beginning of the article; La Pasionaria was all that, yes. Also was a commited Stalinist for a long, long period that wrote stuff like her absolute support for the alliance with the Nazis, and was involved in several cases of “purges” of other communists that reached their same conclusions about Stalin she eventually did, only years before her. The Anarchists are simultaneously people with a unflinching compromise with their principles and annoying everybody else by not compromising those principles… but then, who was warning everybody about the fact that changing authoritarian leaders from the right to the left wasnt changing much at all? They also commited a lot of crimes that were at the bare minimum bad PR and bad tactics for the Republic… and then you have somebody like Melchor Rodríguez, a commited anarchist that made all he could to stop the “sacas” and “paseos” (extrajudiciary executions) of prisoners jailed just for being though to be leaning to the right – while saying that he was more than willing to die for his ideas, but not to murder for them. That got him, nowadays, a posthumous medal by the right-wing party that governs Madrid council now… a party that is basically the heir of the Nationalists that put Melchor in jail after winning for “treason against the Motherland”.

    Now, as usual, you leave me with a game I’m going to try and see how can I get here 🙂

  6. Another well considered review of yours that has convinced me of the need to buy another intelligent history board game! (I similarly have you to thank for Versailles 1919, Time of Crisis, and Red Flag Over Paris)

    The Spanish Civil War seems like a perfect example of a historical moment that can’t be adequately expressed in traditional wargaming terms. I’m reminded of how the Spanish Civil War is approached in games like Hearts of Iron where they had to shoehorn in ideas and stretch existing mechanics in an effort to simulate the conflict that simply wasn’t well suited to a grand war strategy game.

    I do wonder whether the mechanics that Alex Knight has used could be expanded into a 5-6 player game that includes the Falangists and Carlists that made up the Francoist side, exploring the tensions between fascists and monarchists. Then again that may be a dodgy comparison given that, as so often happens, the right was far more successful at falling into line behind a single leader. Also as others have pointed out the idea of playing as fascists is something that can make people understandably uncomfortable.

    • After seeing how Wir Sind das Volk! transformed from a two-player game into a semi-cooperative four-player game, I won’t say anything is impossible… but I suspect you’d need a dedicated system to transform this one.

      You know, the model everybody always overlooks is Mark Herman’s Pericles, an underdeveloped and overlooked game about the political entities behind the Peloponnesian War. You want to win the war, but only with your political party in control of the country. It’s a fascinating game that I wish more historical game designers would take a cue from.

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