Bleeding Kansas is a very well designed 2-player game that deals with the violence and politics of pre-statehood Kansas from 1854-1861. The game focuses on the tensions between pro-slave and abolitionist parties and their attempts to win over emigrants to Kansas to their cause and thereby influence the outcome of elections to move the state toward their leaning on the issue. The game has four elections that players will fight over trying to have the most influence in Kansas counties to score victory points.
The core mechanism in the game is the cards. Each of these cards is tied to an historical event, important person or other factor involved in the conflict and allows players to choose their actions for that immediate turn. The game proceeds as players alternate the play of one of the cards from their hand to take various actions from symbols that appear on the cards. These symbols provide actions such as influencing new settlers to the region to join their side in the conflict, build up forces for the coming battle, take control of counties by moving these forces around or displacing those of your opponent, attacking the opposition, burning down their population centers, enticing settlers to migrate to their areas or request intervention from the Federal Garrison stationed at Leavenworth. The cards carry out the plans of players and create a historical narrative of the conflict.
In this series of posts we will take a look at many of the actions available to players as they fight for control of Kansas counties including Burn, Skirmish (both in Action Point 1), Movement, Influence, (both in Action Point 2), Politics, Migration and Cooperation (in Action Point 3) and take a look at the Election Track and how an election is decided.
In this Action Point, we will take a look at a few of the more violent actions in the game including Burn and Skirmish.
Before I get into the description of the actions and show some examples, I wanted to give you an idea of the makeup of the deck and how often the symbols for the 7 actions show up on cards.
There are 52 cards in the deck (53 if you count the Joker) and each of the cards has two different symbols and in addition some cards have a Faction Star on them as well that allows the controlling player to take two actions from that card, either one each of the symbols or one of the symbols twice.
The following is a breakdown of the cards makeup:
As you play the game you will realize that you don’t always draw the cards that you need at that very moment and will have to make due with what you have and take an action that helps your cause in some way. Influence is the most common card symbol (making up 37.7% of the deck) and that should tell you something about the game. Influence is a good action when you don’t know what to do as having more of your colored cubes on the board is a good thing in this area control game. I like to build up my forces using Influence and then play a Movement card to spread out from one county to influence the surrounding counties and begin establishing a foot hold for the upcoming election.
As I mentioned above, there are cards that have a Faction Star printed on them. These are special cards and provide a great benefit to each of the players. If you play one of your own Faction Star cards you will be able to take two actions that turn, consisting of one of the symbols twice or each of the symbols once. The other very cool part of the Faction Star cards is that when your opponent either plays or discards one of your Faction Star cards, you will be granted one action after they have taken their action from the card. This can be fun (but also extremely frustrating) as you can simply undo what your opponent just did. I seem to draw my opponents cards more than I do mine but each side has the same amount of Faction Star cards (11). Great part of the design that creates some very interesting decisions.
Now that you have an idea of the deck makeup, let’s take a look at two of the more violent actions available in the game; Burn and Skirmish.
A bit of background on this action before we get into it. The game focuses on control of the various Kansas Counties when deciding the outcome of elections and how many VPs a player will receive. This control is determined by counting up the total Faction Points each side has in a county to determine control. Faction Points come from the presence of faction cubes at 1 per cube as well as 1 point for a faction aligned town and 2 points for faction capitals. For example, in the picture below, the Anti-Slavery faction has a total of 3 Faction Points in Douglas County (2 for blue cubes and 1 for Lawrence) while the Pro-Slavery faction has a total of 3 Faction Points (2 for butternut cubes and 1 for Lecompton).
When taking a Burn action, a player must have one or more of their faction cubes in any county containing a target town or capital. The action is pretty simple as the player simply places plays a card with a Burn symbol on it to place a Burn Marker on a targeted faction town or capital. No die roll is necessary. The presence of the large black cube in the county where the player wants to take a Burn action, will prohibit that action from being taken. This black cube represents the Federal Troops stationed at Fort Leavenworth who played a key role in keeping the peace in the Kansas Territory at this time.
In our example below, the Anti-Slavery faction checks to make sure they have at least one faction cube present in the county, they actually have two cubes, and plays the card Battle for Titus, which contains a Skirmish symbol and a Burn symbol. They identify their target as the Pro-Slavery faction aligned Lecompton (colored lite brown) and places a Burn Marker over the town signifying that it has been burned. Note: There is no requirement to play matching cards to events that took place historically in the counties. In this example, the card used Battle of Fort Titus was an event that occurred in Douglas County but this is just a happy accident and not a prerequisite for the action being taken.
Only one such Burn Marker can be placed on a town or capital. The Town of Lecompton is now considered Burned and doesn’t add a Faction Point to the total in the county for purposes of determining control during an election or during other actions such as a Skirmish. One other note, when you place a Burn Marker on a faction capital, which counts as two Faction Points, the capital still provides 1 Faction Point toward determining control.
The player taking a Burn action now places one of their Violence Markers on the Election Track. This violent action hastens the election for that year occurring as there are a specific number of spaces on the Election Track that must be filled by either Violence Markers of Political Markers to force an election.
But more importantly, the outcome of this action is that the Anti-Slavery faction now has a lead in Faction Points for the control of Douglas County with a total of 3 Faction Points to only 2 for the Pro-Slavery faction. This action has also set up the next action we will take a look at Skirmish and has given the Anti-Slavery faction an edge here.
When playing a Skirmish action you are ordering an armed conflict in one county containing faction cubes from both sides. The purpose of the action is to disband or displace your opponent’s forces in that target county giving you an edge in the control of the county for scoring purposes. A Skirmish cannot take place if there are no cubes or only cubes from one side located with an opposing faction town or capital. Cubes, representing armed forces, must be present to take the Skirmish action.
Each player will add up their Faction Points in the area where a Skirmish action is being taken and then each side will add that number to a d6 die roll. The winner is the side with the highest total and the results are based on the difference of that die roll. Migrant cubes (white)) present in the county where the Skirmish is taking place are not counted for either side. Also, towns and capitals are not damaged as as result of a Skirmish.
For example, in the below picture the Anti-Slavery faction player plays a Skirmish action with the card Code Noir and we count up the Faction Points. Anti-Slavery (blue) has a total of 3 Faction Points (2 cubes at +1 per cube with one faction aligned town in Lawrence adding +1) while Pro-Slavery (butternut) has a total of 2 Faction Points (2 cubes at +1 per cube). You will remember that in the previous action Lecompton was burned and a Burn Marker placed over it reminding us that it won’t add its +1 Faction Point to the total. This means that blue will add +3 to their die roll and butternut will only add +2.
The dice are rolled and results in a total value of 7 for Anti-Slavery to just 5 for Pro-Slavery. The Anti-Slavery faction has prevailed in the Skirmish and now places a Violence Marker on the Election Track as in the case of taking a Burn action. The results of a Skirmish are based on the difference of the contested die roll. In the case of a tie, nothing happens, although a Violence Marker is still placed. If the results are a tie, nothing happens on the map.
If the winning side wins the modified die roll by one or two, the losing side’s cubes will be displaced to surrounding counties. The winning side moves one of the losing side’s cubes, then the losing side moves one, alternating this movement until all losing cubes have been moved out of the county where the Skirmish occurred.
If the winning side wins the modified die roll by three or more, the winning side removes rather than retreats the first of the losing side’s cubes and returns to to their supply where it can be used later. The remaining losing force is retreated from the county as described earlier by alternating the movement.
In the previous example, the Anti-Slavery faction won the Skirmish by a difference of two so the Anti-Slavery faction gets to relocate the first Pro-Slavery cube and pushes it into Leavenworth County where it cannot be used to take control of one of their adjacent counties. The losing side then gets to push the second cube to an adjacent county of their choosing and then move the cube into Jefferson County when they hope to Influence the Migrant cube (white) there to bolster their forces for a future Skirmish there.
I hope you got a good feel for how these two actions work and their importance to the strategy of each faction. In Action Point 2, we will take a look at the Movement and Influence actions.
If you are interested in learning more about the design, you can read our interview with designer John Poniske published in July 2019: https://theplayersaid.com/2019/07/08/interview-with-john-poniske-designer-of-bleeding-kansas-from-decision-games/
How do you get someone to play a game as the “pro-slavery” side?
That is one of the reasons you don’t find many games on this subject. This history is fascinating though and a good chance to learn. I think the designer handled this pretty well though, as well as he could.
Great post- it is a game I have been considering picking up so I appreciate the look at the mechanisms.
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How long is the game, typically?
It looks intriguing.
90 minutes once you get the rules down. Which are pretty simple.
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