An RPG-style game with a dope app, treasure, and a playspace that accommodates seven players all made for a curious property that I knew I had to try. This was especially true because I knew how good the app would be if it came from Plaid Hat Games.
That’s because I had the chance to play Forgotten Waters, another Plaid Hat Games production in the “Crossroads” line (somewhat similar to Dead of Winter, in that there’s loads of story), in the early days of the pandemic. Forgotten Waters featured pirates, over-the-top humor, a wire-bound booklet that served as the worker-placement game board, and Mad Libs-style score sheets that required players to come up with funny names for their characters.
Forgotten Waters is more show than tell. By that, I mean that I sat back and laughed heartily at the fantastic voice acting and the witty jokes told by the game’s app-driven narrator, but I rarely took meaningful actions during the first couple scenarios of that game.
Freelancers: A Crossroads Game (2023, Plaid Hat Games) is the next game in the Crossroads line, and it doesn’t stray very far from the Forgotten Waters-style of cooperative adventure gaming introduced in the last game. While not technically a sequel, Freelancers blatantly introduces itself to players as another AAA production—over-the-top storytelling and voice acting, a slick desktop or mobile app that doesn’t require any downloads, and another easy-to-use wire-bound location booklet.
Freelancers is better than Forgotten Waters. It also appeals to two distinct audiences: players who want a two-hour all-in-one RPG campaign, and groups (ideally families with older kids) who want to introduce dungeon dives to newer players.
In both cases, Freelancers will really land if you prefer your comedy to fall into the “more is more” camp.
Open the Chromebook
Freelancers allows 3-7 players to take on one of the five missions built for the game, each of which takes about two hours to play, maybe more if you’ve got a full complement of players. (When this article went into editorial review, only three of the five missions were available. I played each of those three missions once.)
Each mission is self-contained—everyone in your group will take on a character, take that character through that mission’s story, gain experience and level up, then retire with one of two scripted endings conveniently located on the back of each player’s job sheet based on their final level.
Everything in the game is driven by the Freelancers app, be it new games or saved games picked up later by a crew that didn’t have enough time to complete the campaign during a previous session. And I mean, everything: setup, the story, every line of dialogue (which is read by professional actors), pointing players to locations in the story book, listing the results of conversation choices, combat outcomes, and boss encounters.
The items handled “IRL”—rolling dice, scratching off sections of your player sheets, and negotiating with your comrades regarding which actions you will take—usually take place in the location booklet. This, like the excellent system in Forgotten Waters, allows players to place their character standee in one of the location’s spaces to take actions. Red actions must be taken by one of the players; blue and green actions allow for the discovery of treasure, encounters with NPCs (non-playable characters), resting/healing, and other standard adventure game options.
In my experience, games of Freelancers are two-thirds listening, and one-third action. There’s a LOT of spoken dialogue in each of the scenarios. Sometimes, players will chuck dice to check skills like Smarts or Sense, or battle foes by doing a Weapon check. Occasionally, players will discuss plans for attacking a boss. Often, you’ll have time to get a drink or a snack while another player resolves an encounter suited only for, say, the Warrior or the Judge. (Yes, “Judge” is a playable role in Freelancers.)
This listening/playing mix led one player to call Freelancers a “board game visual novel.” Freelancers also made me think about some of the better story-driven short games on my Xbox, where I was mostly moving from place to place while reading flavor text found in rooms throughout a game.
I’m calling this out because you’re probably thinking what a few players who joined me for review plays were actually saying: how much “playing” will I actually be doing in Freelancers?
The answer: not a lot. Certainly less than most of the games I will play this year, in terms of that time ratio I mentioned a moment ago. And this is where you’ll either pull the ripcord or stick around.
Freelancers: A Beer & Pretzels Story
Freelancers is not for a hardcore Dungeons & Dragons player. (One of our “review crew” members plays D&D weekly, and didn’t think this game would be for people in his group.) Freelancers is also not a great fit for someone looking to take the reins as the alpha in a cooperative experience, because the app does most of the talking.
Freelancers IS a fantastic way to spend a Saturday night when you don’t want to do that much work to administer a light RPG with friends. Maybe you ARE a D&D player, with the “muggle” friends over who want to “try one of those ‘hardcore’ games on the shelf”…another great fit for Freelancers. It’s not hardcore. It looks like it is going to be, then it isn’t. Those friends of yours get a taste of “hardcore” (hardcore to them, anyway) and you can have a good laugh while doing RPG-adjacent things. You’re almost certainly going to win, because unless you are playing the hardest mission I saw on the hardest difficulty—yes, each mission has a level, and then you can play that mission scaled up or down based on your group—you are going to have some moments of uh-oh! before winning the game most of the time.
Freelancers keeps things easy on another front: it is incredibly easy to drop in and drop out. Each of the missions is its own party, so you don’t have to campaign this puppy and try to keep the same group together for all five of the missions. Even within a mission, you can save your progress and come back later.
The voice acting is top notch. There’s a little sprinkle of treasure items (or just a straight-up Treasure Golem!!) from time to time; treasure really ramped up in the second and third missions I tried. The story elements are engaging, plus you’re never really required to take a lot of notes to keep up with what’s going on. (What little you do have to keep track of is called out by—you guessed it—the app.) I was surprised how often I felt OK standing up and getting more chips, another round of bourbon, or to take a bio break during missions of Freelancers because I wasn’t really missing out on much.
The other audience that worked well for this game: my kids. Now, with some of the adult themes going on in Freelancers, particularly in the opening scenario, stick with your adult gaming group. But I played the entire second mission with my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. They were enthralled with the voice acting. They loved grabbing treasure (although my son needed help reading his treasure cards). They enjoyed taking on the roles of Cartographer (one player has to make updates and lead choices on a paper map) and the Scout, managing our risk tokens and the threat level of the campaign.
I think they might have had even more fun than I did playing Freelancers. For families of almost any size, this might be a fun way to spend 2-3 nights after dinner, or a single night if you want to binge an entire mission. Introducing RPG elements in a space like this, with an app-driven “DM” (dungeon master), serves as another bridge I need to get my kids excited about new games.
Now, for players who want to take a lot of turns and do a lot of things…I would skip Freelancers. Even during the first scenario, where there was a roughly 30-minute stretch where our Cartographer was guiding the party by drawing a line from point A to B to C to etc. for what felt like forever, there was almost nothing happening except listening to dialogue in the app. I was surprised that I hadn’t rolled a die or done, well, anything for such a long stretch.
Don’t get me wrong—much of that dialogue was hilarious. And this section in the first scenario was a great teaching tool for things like Camp Actions, which give players a chance to heal, trade stuff, and other minutiae between major story elements.
But for those itching to make a difference, I think Freelancers lays its intentions out quite well. Chill, it almost seems to be saying. Enjoy the movie, it says quite often. Isn’t the artwork in the location book gorgeous?, the game points out on occasion.
It’s a short beer-and-pretzels RPG, so prepare yourself for potty humor, occasionally foul-mouthed jokes, breaking the proverbial fourth wall, Easter eggs, and a game that goes for a joke more than even I thought was possible given my love of a good comedy flick. For fans of movies like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Freelancers feels about right: both properties are constantly trying to land another joke, comedy is the main goal, and you can get in and out in about two hours with a group of 3-4 players.
Freelancers works more than it should, but I am really thankful I played Forgotten Waters as a warm-up. The style of these games will land for some and really miss for others, so I would recommend looking at Forgotten Waters before diving into Freelancers to make sure you’re up for the task.
I’ll toss in one negative, which might only be a negative for me: there’s no way I’m playing Freelancers with six or seven players. The downtime for each player might be massive, and even I have my limits for 30-second audio bits where yet another joke is made about a specific pop culture reference to social media, the undead, and song lyrics. I appreciate that it is possible to do a game night playing Freelancers when everyone on the text chain happens to come out on the same night. But I would be shocked if the game is as enjoyable with so many mouths to feed.
I’m glad I gave Freelancers a look, because it is one of my favorite experiences of the year. It’s a great system and a nice diversion in a tidy package that requires almost zero commitment. The game essentially teaches itself to new players, so very little prep is required; speaking of little, the table space required to run this game was impressively small. If you are looking for a good laugh to pair with your goblin bashing, treasure hunting RPG gaming buddies, Freelancers should fit the bill.