18 November 2019
Anyone for a game of Hangman?
In July 1885 Louis Riel, one of the leaders of the Northwest Rebellion that had pitted the local First Nation and French-speaking Métis people against the British Government of Canada, was put on trial for treason, found guilty and hanged.
The trial was fixed. It was moved from Winnipeg to Regina, and the jury members – six, not 12 – were all English or Scottish. Riel’s defence team tried to show he was not guilty by reason of insanity, a claim Riel fiercely denied. The jury took half an hour to find Riel guilty. They recommended mercy, but the judge ignored them.
The trial of Louis Riel is one of the most important cases in Canadian legal history and Alex Berry, a Canadian and a lawyer, has turned it into a board game.
It’s an ambitious project. There’s a reason there aren’t many games based on court cases: the cut and thrust of legal debate and deliberation is not easy to condense down to cards and counters. You don’t have to know about the Riel case to play this game but it helps, because without that background the game is mostly about trying to influence the jury with chits and sliders.
The players are the prosecution and defence, while the gameplay is in five phases that replicate the course of a trial and comes on like a stripped down Twilight Struggle. The cards represent opposing attorneys, witnesses, testimony and evidence, each with different (if sometimes samey) effects. You may find your hand is full of cards that help the other side, but most have something you can use, or at least can be burnt for action points.
Winning is a clever combination of working out where the jurors’ loyalties lie and trying to lock them, and using cards or spending points to move the tokens for religion, language and occupation up and down their numbered tracks. The final score is a combination of the two, and if the prosecution amasses at least a hundred then Riel is for the drop.
Technically it’s very impressive. On the table the legal cut and thrust tends to turn into tit-for-tat: the dynamic of moving tokens up and down tracks or putting them on juror cards, only for the other player to take them off, fails to thrill. And if you haven’t done the reading on Riel then it’s going to be a dry, mechanical 45 minutes.
This is the second edition of the game, co-produced between Victory Point Games and German publisher Frosted Games (as evidenced by the board with English on one side and German on the other). There’s no solo mode, which is a shame; the setting and the system would be a good fit for one.
High Treason! is a really interesting demonstration of how real-world systems and historical events that aren’t battles can be simulated on the tabletop. I’m not sure the end result is exactly fun – but I’m certain it wasn’t for Louis Riel, either.
PLAY IT? PROBABLY
Designer: Alex Berry
Artist: Tim Allen, atelier198
This review originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.