Bleeding Kansas is one of the most integrated experiences I have ever had in the theme and mechanics blending together.
Theme and What is it?
Most strategic, area control games I have played have some fictional theme to make them appealing. Bleeding Kansas goes the other direction in a big way. This is a deeply historical game. The map, election timeline, and cards played are steeped in their historical origins. There is even an entire historical document giving more thematic content than there are rules in the rules document.
It is totally possible to mostly just ignore the theme and play the strategy game within. This would be a deep disservice to what this game is really about. I found myself reading every obscure fact and major event described on each card played. And I now totally understand why the designer put the following note early in the rulebook:
“We urge you to take the time to read the brief background information on these events and personalities. In doing so you may obtain a more in-depth understanding of how our country was led to and over the brink into Civil War. If you are drawn to further research on one or more of the topics here presented, we consider our efforts more than successful.”
You score points in a variety of ways in Bleeding Kansas. The primary way is by having made the most influential events before each election is triggered. The second main way is by controlling enough key counties during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th elections during the game. In these scoring elections, you gain points equal to the number of circled counties you control in excess of your opponent.
The final way comes from the main mechanism for gameplay, hand management. At the start of each player’s turn, they draw up to 3 total cards in hand. Then, the player selects one of the cards to play for one ability listed in the top symbols. These actions allow players to influence migrants to their side, burn opposing towns, skirmish with opposing forces, move neutral migrants westward, move your forces, garner political support, or cooperate to gain favorable conditions.
If a player has all unique symbols on their 3 cards (6 of the 7 total possibilities) they can gain a coordination bonus by discarding them all for 1 victory point.
Alright, let’s address the elephant in the room. This looks like a game that is trying to teach history. How can you have a great game in such an overwhelming torrent of real information? I consider it quite the feat to make something both educational and solid on its own gaming merits. John Poniske has managed to do the near impossible. I truly enjoyed playing Bleeding Kansas for its strategic game play on its own merits. The fact that I can use this game to teach students or sneak some education into adult gaming is purely a bonus.
Game Build Quality
Bleeding Kansas comes with a sturdy board, simple punchout chits, colored cubes, some dice, and the action deck of cards. All of the components are well made and appropriate to the game. The game has a quite manageable number of components. I find this a perfectly desirable situation for easy setup and tear down. Elegance in design and quality in the core components is something Decision Games has done perfectly.
The artwork is designed to give a face to the personalities and an impression of the emotions of those embroiled in the conflict. Chris Dickson and Joe Youst have done a great job capturing the history and making the action cards look just like the images I would expect in a historical textbook. Nothing is quite photorealistic but the vibe is definitely towards realism and old photograph style.
There is one twist about playing action cards I haven’t yet mentioned. When you play an action card with a faction star on it, that faction gets to take a bonus action. This is all well and good when you play a card of your own faction and take two actions (or use a more powerful version of an action by using a couple special rules).
But what about drawing cards that will give your opponents bonuses? This is where the coordination bonus has more benefits than just the one victory point. Ideally, you can get a coordination bonus that lets you discard one or more card of the opposing faction thus dodging the need to give up any benefits at all.
Age Range & Weight
The Bleeding Kansas conflict was entirely centered on the issue of slavery. This alone is justification for the 14+ age rating. This is a subject matter serious enough that the rulebook very intentionally mentions right away what the competition between factions is over. After mentioning it, the rules shorten the faction names to just Anti and Pro rather than repeating the word slavery extensively.
As far as the difficulty of gameplay goes, Bleeding Kansas was much easier to learn than my first glance suggested. If you ignore a couple special faction star bonus possibilities, the player aids are basically all you need to get the game rolling.
I always recommend games purely on their gameplay. There are some highly thematic games that just don’t interest me enough or have an excellent material that is a letdown in its execution. Bleeding Kansas is one of the most integrated experiences I have ever had in the theme and mechanics blending together. I can recommend it purely on the gameplay, but really the whole experience is what impressed me so much.
The first opportunity for area control scoring at the first election, is actually skipped. This gives more time for players to get the hang of the various actions and branch their control out appropriately. It also happens to match the historical events where that elections result’s were voided because of rampant voter fraud.
My final verdict is to highly recommend this game. Give it a try for a solid 2 player experience that will provide a wealth of valuable historical knowledge. I doubt everyone will find it as wonderful as I did, but most of you are going to find a hidden gem in Bleeding Kansas.
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