Mary Russell

Some kind folks have expressed interest in This Guilty Land, my two player game about American politics in the forty years leading up to the American Civil War. Most know that it builds on my earlier design about Roman politics, Optimates et Populares. While that game was largely deterministic (random set-up and a once-in-a-blue-moon die-roll aside), this one has quite a bit more chaos, being powered by cards. This led at least a couple of folks to assume that the game would be similar to Twilight Struggle or 1960: The Making of the President, with alternating plays of cards either for Ops or Events. When I've seen this pop up online, I've let people know that the game doesn't work anything like the "typical" CDGs; it's not just a re-skin or port of the standard-issue CDG format. 

But while I've been clear about what the game isn't, I haven't been entirely clear about what the game is. That's not because I'm being deliberately cagey, but rather, it's just been rather difficult for me to articulate it. Partially this was because, up until recently, I was still cobbling together my card mix, and without the cards, any explanation of the game's mechanisms would be fairly abstract and hard to grasp. Now that I have a card mix and have begun playtesting with it, I think I'm in a better position to explain myself. 

To start with, the deck consists of fifty cards, with each card being associated with one of the two players, Justice or Oppression. So far, so ordinary. Five of these cards are Special Events with specific, one-off uses, but none of the others are "events" in the traditional sense. Instead, the cards are divided into types that dictate the actions you can take with that card. For example, Justice's card Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Public Opinion card, and so it can only be used to take Public Opinion actions. Cards have a cost in Political Will (PW), the game's currency, which sometimes dictates how much can be done with the card.

Unlike most card-driven games, there is no fog of war element. Cards aren't dealt to a player's hand, but are drawn and placed face-up in an Events Display. These are handled one at a time until each player has at least a certain number of cards. During play, this is going to be equal to a player's Organizational Capacity. So say for example that Justice has an Organizational Capacity of 3 and Oppression of 2. Cards would then be drawn until Justice has at least 3 cards and Oppression at least 2. Let's draw some cards and see what that looks like.

First card drawn is Nat Turner's Revolt, a Justice card. Justice has 1 card, Oppression 0, so we keep drawing.

Second is Lincoln's Cooper Union Speech (Justice). That's 2 for Justice, still zilch for Oppression, so we keep drawing.

Third is A Positive Good (Oppression). 2-1, we keep drawing.

Fourth is New York Manumission Society (Justice). Justice now has its 3 cards, but Oppression is still short a card, and so we draw again.

Fifth is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Justice). We draw again.

Sixth is Harper's Ferry (Justice). That's 5 cards for Justice, but Oppression still only has one card.

Seventh is The Pinckney Resolutions (Oppression). Now that both players have at least as many cards as their Organizational Capacity, we stop drawing.

In this way, a player may end up getting cards in excess of their minimum, quite possibly to their advantage. Players then receive Political Will equal to the PW value of their highest card in the Events Display. That means of course that they will have at least enough PW to play any one card, or they might play multiple cards. PW can also be saved from turn to turn (up to Organizational Capacity) and, in a key similarity to Optimates et Populares, players earn PW for almost every action their opponent takes.

The player with the most PW chooses which player will be First Player. That player then does all the things they want to and are able, then discarding any PW in excess of their Organizational Capacity. Then the Second Player does the same. In this sequence there are opportunities for players to oppose certain actions by playing cards from their Reserve. So, okay, what's a Reserve?

When a card has been played from the Events Display, it can end up in one of three places, generally depending on the card type. It can go into the Discard pile, to be shuffled back in when a Special Event Card is put into effect. It can go out of the game permanently, which thins the deck. Or it can be put into a player's Reserve. A player can Reserve cards equal to their Organizational Capacity.

Most of the cards that will be put into Reserve are going to be Public Opinion cards. I don't want to get into the minutiae of the marker-play or an explanation of how a two-player game has four factions with counters to flip or replace, so let me keep it simple and say that when you play a Public Opinion card from the Events Display, it strengthens your on-board position. How much it's strengthened depends on the PW cost of the card. But if you play a Public Opinion card from your Reserve, it weakens your opponent's position. How much it weakens your opponent depends on the number of face-up Public Opinion cards you currently have in your Reserve; after resolving the action, the card is flipped face-down, to be flipped back at the end of the turn. 

Public Opinion cards in your Reserve can be used to nullify your opponent's attempts to strengthen their own position or weaken yours - call it a war of words - but only if they're face-up, and doing so causes you to flip them face-down. You can discard a Public Opinion card from your Reserve to gain support in the United States Senate when trying to pass your bill or kill your opponent's, but otherwise the card remains in your Reserve, a permanent part of your repertoire.

This is both a blessing and a curse, because there are other cards you might want to tuck away into your Reserve. If a Law passes the House but not the Senate, for example, you can park the Law Card there until you can pass it. Both players have Violence cards in the deck, which damage their support in every Region when played. If the card isn't played, it's just going to stay in the Events Display, gumming up the works, unless the player tucks it away into their Reserve, where it stays for the remainder of the game.

Putting cards into Reserve gives players control over the composition of the overall deck and the actions they can take on every turn (and also on the actions their opponent might take, given the possibility of being stymied by the opposition). But putting the wrong cards in Reserve however can limit your actions and render your position inflexible. Put too many Public Opinion cards in there, for example, you'll be able to erode your opponent's support, but will have fewer and fewer cards to use to add support for your own cause. That will make it more difficult to pull off a win, especially if your opponent is already slightly ahead; like Optimates et Populares, early advantages can snowball quite quickly if they're not stopped.


  • Was intrigued by game idea and at the same time very concerned by game idea, this though has helped to quiet my negative concerns about the idea of a slavery themed game.

    Jim Neeley

  • Hi Phil, Tom here. I became aware of your design while still working on this one, but have consciously avoided learning much about it so as not to be unduly influenced. Given the topic, I can imagine there will be some overlap in card titles. Interestingly, we’re also likely to see a September (or perhaps October/November) release for TGL.

    Tom Russell

  • Hello Mary, I am intrigued with this design. The cards shown eerily overlaps those in my own design about the abolition of slavery, called “Pax Emancipation”, by Sierra Madre Games. “Pax Emancipation” card game goes on preorder in a few days, and is published this September.

    Phil Eklund

Leave a Comment