High Treason! The Trial of Louis Riel, July 1885, Review

One of the most joyous occurrences in gaming, is when you get caught completely off guard by a game. That instance where surprise hits you square in the jaw, leaving you lost in awe at what is unfolding, is truly special and to be savoured.

This is the position I found myself in after just the first few moments of, The Trial of Louis Riel, July 1885, wide-eyed, completely engaged and drenched in the life-affirming waters of utter surprise. The cause of such a state was two-pronged. On one side were my slight misgivings about the game I was about to play. It was a shift from what I would normally bring to the table. At first glance it looked like the rulebook was rife with intricate, complicated details, whilst the components were relatively basic and underwhelming. Attached firmly to the other prong was the fact that within just a few, I’ll say seconds, of play, it became absolutely apparent that I was about to embark on something genuinely thought provoking and special.

The Trial of Louis Riel is the opening play in Victory Point Games new series, High Treason! The idea pits two players against each other at a replication of one of the great judicial trials from the darker pages of human history.

I entered the fray having never heard of Louis Riel. To be fair, history was never a strong point for me back in school, and the desire to return to its dusty corridors post education never materialised. However, what game creator, Alex Barry, delivers within the rulebook is enough information, offered in easily consumable bitesize pieces, that I began play with enough knowledge of the backstory that my experience was perfectly flavoured with the taste of this historic event and its key players.

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A brief overview would read something like: In 1869, against the backdrop of the Wild West of Canada, Louis Riel, successfully led a rebellion against the Government, forcing compromise and resulting in the Manitoba Act. Riel fled to the United States, but, in 1885 as the North West Rebellion unfolded, he returned to once again lead it. However, this time, Riel wasn’t as successful, seeing his forces crushed under the weight of the Canadian government, and being subsequently captured and placed on trial for High Treason. Louis Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885.

In the game itself, two players undergo a battle of wits and strategy as opposing sides of the judicial process. One player plays the defence and fights to avoid the gallows on the grounds on insanity, the other plays the prosecution where the key is to prove the undoubted guilt of Riel. What on paper sounds like quite a dry premise for a game, is in reality a genuinely exciting and thoughtful experience.

Play moves across five rounds and sees each player sat across from one another, the pieces on the board move towards and away from each player as opinion within the courtroom shifts. This in itself is a brilliantly clever touch.

The opening round is based around the selection of a jury. As play opens each player is dealt a hand of seven cards. These cards depict real life characters from the trial itself, and to be honest they are quite wonderful to look at. Although holding a good amount of text, the black and white photo image of the character from the card really captures the imagination and adds some nice depth to an already deep game. Twelve jury cards are laid out and upon them are placed, face down, tokens that when flipped will reveal a jury member’s, occupation, religion, and language. Players then play five cards from their hand to reveal some of the details about the jury members. From here each will, in turn, dismiss members until only six remain. These six make up the final jury for the trial to come.

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Rounds two and three cover the back and forth of the case in progress. Players play cards and choose to either follow the event written on the card for that specific round, or play the card’s action points. An event might say something like, you can move the insanity meter up by +1, or you can move the catholic religion marker two spaces towards your side. Meanwhile, action points allow a player to make a choice of possible actions. This might be to sway a juror or two to your way of thinking, or it could be to influence the farmer’s opinion, or, if you play an attorney card, it might be to call, “Objection!” and rule out your opponent’s card, or even super sway a juror. The beauty of the game and the key to success is about playing the right card at the right moment and hoping you’ve second guessed your opponent’s strategy. It proves a fantastic back and forth of cunning moves and swayed jurors and gives a real impression that you are sat in a courtroom fighting for your perceived version of justice.

During each of the previous rounds, players are dealt seven cards. They play five per round and bank two for the summation phase of play. It’s here that each council sums up their case by playing the six banked cards and adjusting the opinions within the jury and upon the game board as they do. As end rounds go it’s a riveting experience to watch opinions shift like the tide as key pieces are brought into play.

The final act of the game is the deliberation. During this phase, points are scored, swayed jurors offer additional action points, insanity and guilt markers affect the situation, and the verdict is delivered.

That covers the nuts and bolts in brief. However, having played the game I can honestly say the only way to truly understand just how good this game is, is to sit down and play it. I simply can’t do justice to it via an explanation of the basic mechanics. The actual experience is so much more than the sum of playing cards and moving markers accordingly. Playing, The Trial of Louis Riel, is a rewarding, involving and deeply fun experience. I keep saying experience, but that is what this game is, it’s a great experience. The battle of wits, foundations that are bathed in such rich history, the images of faces from the past that adorn the cards, and the fact that the game captures that courtroom feel we’ve all witnessed in countless movies, all play a critical part in what is a truly fantastic game.

The components are okay, but they’ve also taught me a lot. I looked at the collection of games that sit on my shelves and noticed a definite swing towards vibrant, detailed artwork and top quality bits and pieces. The Trial of Louis Riel isn’t blessed in that department. Instead, the contents of the box are of a more workmanlike nature, they do a job but don’t particularly make you look twice. That said, the cards themselves are top quality and both, feel and look great. The board though is quite flimsy and the markers are small and forgettable. They make the game work, and everything is easy to follow, but little else. However, when the game plays so wonderfully well, is so beautifully paced and delicately balanced, I couldn’t care if the pieces were written out on scraps of A4 paper, the real pull here goes much deeper than the eye candy that sparkles upon the boxes of so many inferior games. The only reason I’d like to see more pizzazz here is that it might catch the eye of a player that will otherwise dismiss it in much the same way I almost did. And that would have been a huge loss on my part.

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One for the Kids

I played the game with my sixteen-year-old son and he thoroughly enjoyed it. I think my eleven-year-old daughter would be able to play unaided after a learning run through session, but, I also think she’d sooner be playing something a little more child friendly with a lot less serious theme attached. At the end of the day this is a game based upon the real trial, and subsequent execution of a history maker. King of Tokyo it is not.

Dylan, sixteen, said, “I really enjoyed the competition aspect of one against one, and it’s a lot easier to understand and play than I was expecting.”

Based upon that I would suggest looking elsewhere for the younger ones to get their gaming fix, but for those in their early teens and beyond, this is real gem.

Conclusion

I entered, The Trial of Louis Riel, as a doubter. Unsure such a heavy subject matter would sit well with my notion of what gaming is. I leave completely stunned by how utterly playable the game is, and thankful that I got to sit and play something that might otherwise have passed me by.

Victory Point Games have something special here. They have a game that is equal parts; exciting, thought-provoking, tense, and strategic, but more importantly than all of that, they have a game that is an absolute whole lot of fun!

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