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Board Game: 1989: Dawn of Freedom
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Subject: 1989 by Zeb rss

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Zeb Larson
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EDIT: Added a bit toward the end about why I think this game raises an amazing possibility in the way that games address history and how we think about them. I didn't want to give the impression that I was bashing this game for taking on history. Instead, I'm excited by what it tries to do and want to see it continued.

Going into this latest game session, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous as I sat down to play 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Produced by GMT Games, 1989 is the sister game of Twilight Struggle, one of the best-ranked and most popular games in the world (among geeks, anyway). The feeling could best be compared to seeing the sequel of a movie that you loved. You hope that what you loved in the original will be there, that it won’t be a clone of what it did before, or, God forbid, totally drop the ball. Continuing with my movie analogy, if Twilight Struggle was Alien, 1989 manages to be Aliens. It maintains the quality of the original while offering a couple of new enjoyable features.

The premise of the game is that it is the year 1989, and communism is crumbling throughout Eastern Europe. One player will take the side of the communists and try to hold on to power for as long as possible, using a combination of threats, reforms and crackdowns. The other player will take on the democrats as they attempt regime change, using civil disobedience and the crumbling authority of the regime to inaugurate change. The countries include East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Part of the fun for this game with me was that having played Twilight Struggle several times, there wasn’t much my friend and I needed to do to sit down and start playing. The game consists of a large board, two dice, influence counters, some miscellaneous tokens, and two decks of cards. One deck includes 110 events divided into three separate events: early year, middle year and late year. These are shuffled into the deck in successive turns. The other deck is the strategy deck and consists of a few different suited and wild cards that are used by the players whenever a struggle for power occurs in a country. Different territories are divided in effect by their constituencies, such as farmers, workers, students, etc., and whether or not they are considered “battleground” territories. The game also includes a track for events in Tiananmen Square, which feed the demands for democracy in Eastern Europe.

Events are all based on historical events; in fact, the manual kindly includes a paragraph reference for each card, listing the historical basis for it. Players can use these cards for the printed value on them or for a stated effect, some of which only have one use. Some cards are exclusively beneficial for the Communists, while others only benefit the Democrats. If the Communist player plays a Democrat card, the stated effect will go off, limiting the effectiveness of cards for both players. These can be used to place influence in locations, challenge an opponent’s control of an area, or can be used one per turn on the Tiananmen track. Sending a card to Tiananmen does not trigger its event, making it a safe “burn” location.



The game also includes scoring cards, where players receive points based on their control of a country. When these are played, both players are dealt “strategy” cards, which they then play against the other to force them to yield. When one side yields or can no longer play cards, a struggle for power follows. Depending on a dice roll, the communist may hold on to power or be ejected from the country. Every time the Communist holds on to power, he receives bonus points. The game goes until either 10 turns have elapsed or one player reaches twenty points.

1989: Dawn of Freedom does a good job of adapting its more famous counterpart while injecting some new mechanics into the game. The struggle for power is probably the single biggest innovation to game play, as it introduces an element of chance into a game that is based almost entirely on strategy. It’s entirely possible for a weaker player to defeat a stronger one in the struggle with a little bit of luck and clever planning. This makes game play a bit more random than it was in Twilight Struggle, though the game never comes down to just getting the right cards. This will come off as a weakness to some gamers who might have preferred the emphasis on positioning in Twilight Struggle. Personally, I see it as refreshing; I can decide between a slightly more random experience in 1989 or a more strategic experience in Twilight Struggle.



I also like the idea that Twilight Struggle has created a system of mechanics that other games from GMT can follow. My friend and I could sit down and within twenty minutes begin playing, despite not having looked at the rulebook once or even organized all of the game components. Card-driven strategy war games have been popular in the last couple of years; A Few Acres of Snow is another card war game from Treefrog Games which has been rated extremely well. Perhaps the next few years will see the further development of this genre.

Here comes the part that nobody is going to want to hear, though, which is my criticism of the history of the game. There’s no fault in the game’s accuracy; it’s excellent, and when I’m not gaming, I’m a graduate student studying the Cold War. I’m a snob on the topic. The game’s issue with history is that it seems to reinforce the Western triumphalist attitude about the Cold War, one in which the only possible outcome is democracy and capitalism. The game’s manual notes that many of the reformers in Eastern Europe sought a “third way” between capitalism and communism, though this was swept away during the revolutions.

Why does it have to be that way? Was it inevitable that it would fail? The game can conceivably end with communist leaders maintaining control of all of their countries. It’s even possible for the Ceausescus to survive the game. The game’s mechanics create the possibility of history changing, but only the small details can change. Other communist regimes have survived, either by intense repression (North Korea) or dramatically reinventing themselves (China). If a democratic outcome for Eastern Europe was inevitable, than it makes for a rather poor game concept; why play a game where there’s only one outcome?

I’m picking gnat turds out of pepper. You can easily argue that this is just supposed to be a game, and that view is correct. GMT did not create this to educate people about the Cold War, but instead to make a fun game, in which they succeeded quite admirably. The fact that this game addresses these historical issues so cogently is remarkable and truly exciting for somebody like me. It raises the possibility of a game that addresses questions in history that we should be asking ourselves: "Was this inevitable?" "Why did it happen this way?" "And if this was inevitable, why?" The game does a good job of moving away from the rather narrow U.S.-Soviet viewpoint of Twilight Struggle, acknowledging events in Eastern Europe as significant. Perhaps we could see this brought to an even smaller level: West Germany vs. East Germany, each struggling to gain the diplomatic hand over the other. That would go a long way toward rectifying my concerns about the portrayal of history in these games, and give another direction for the company to go in.
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Henry Rodriguez
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Re: Review of 1989
Great review, thanks for sharing your opinion. I haven't had a chance to play it yet. I do want to point out something regarding card-driven strategy war games that perhaps you are or are not aware of (your comments below are not clear):

EmperorZeb wrote:
I also like the idea that Twilight Struggle has created a system of mechanics that other games from GMT can follow. [snip]; A Few Acres of Snow is another card war game from Treefrog Games which has been rated extremely well. Perhaps the next few years will see the further development of this genre.
CDG's have been popular for well over a decade now. Paths of Glory, Hannibal RvC, For the People, Succesors and We the People have captured the attention of many. So much so that CDG's are arguably the most popular war games out there. There are now over 30 titles that have been birthed since We the People's initial release in 1995. The genre has been developing nicely, including its sub-genus groupings like Twilight Struggle -> Labyrinth -> 1989. I agree that more games exploring modern political topics via this type of system are welcome.

Henry R.
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Bruce Wigdor
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Re: Review of 1989
Quote:
If a democratic outcome for Eastern Europe was inevitable, than it makes for a rather poor game concept; why play a game where there’s only one outcome?
The historic result was that the Communists were toppled from Power in every country they held. 1989 certainly gives them a chance to have another outcome besides that.

From where the game starts, with the seeds of rebellion in Poland already sewn, if you accept the premise that the Soviets were not going to send military assistance, the Communists probably were not going to hold power everywhere. That's the premise 1989 operates under.

Despite the premise, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's all from a Western point of view. Don't get too hung up on the semantic use of the word "Democrat." The Democrat could just as easily be called the anti-Communist. A Democrat win could mean that there indeed was a Third Way, one where the Communists were marginalized. Communist wins, on the other hand, mean that Communism has survived in Eastern Europe, usually in several countries.
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Zeb Larson
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Re: Review of 1989
I think the premise that the Soviets weren't going to send military assistance was pretty much solidified by 1980, when they wouldn't send troops to crack down on Solidarity. That's a premise I'm comfortable with; otherwise, you'd have to assume that Gorbachev never took control and really go down a rabbit hole.
There is actually a "third way" card that is acknowledged in the game, but the manual also writes that those who sought a "third way" were swept aside in the rush for democracy. Certainly true, but it kinda kills the idea of a truly socialist democratic state and leaves only the possibility for a more western style of governance.
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Roger Hobden
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Re: Review of 1989
Very nice review, and nice thoughts about democratic socialism.

EDIT : I actually OWN the game, so now I have another good reason to try it out during the holidays.
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Mike Owens
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Re: Review of 1989
I disagree with your assessment that the inevitability of the democratic outcome makes for a poor game concept. The Allies triumphing over the Axis in WWII was inevitable, but companies still produce (and gamers still buy) WWII wargames. The hook for the gamer is to do better than historical counterparts. I think 1969 does this very well, making a fun and balanced game out of it.

I didn't get into this on your blog post before, but since you brought it up again: What is it that indicates that there was a Western triumphalist attitude toward the Cold War? Could it not be equally argued that there was a Soviet triumphalist attitude?
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Zeb Larson
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Re: Review of 1989
I misspoke when I said that this makes for a poor game concept. It makes a great game concept, one I look forward to replaying several times. To me, the game's mechanisms don't seem to indicate any outcomes outside of either democratic control of Eastern Europe or Communist control. I see some of this with the "Third Way" card, which acknowledges that socialists who sought democratic reforms were largely shunted aside. Reducing that group of intellectuals and activists to a single card reduces their voice in this affair. Completely true, they were pushed aside, but it narrows the historical counterfactual possibilities somewhat.

Part of this may be an inherent problem in using actual events as cards and mechanisms for the game. We want to create an alternate history, yet we're limited to the events of our own history, and I worry that this prejudices our views somewhat. The game offers some possibilities for imagining a different outcome, but we should remember that no outcome in history is wholly inevitable. As you rightly point out, the Allies always held the upper hand against the Axis, but their victory could have taken different forms.

As for Soviet Triumphalism, I don't see a hint of that in this game (and rightly so). The Soviets don't have much of a voice in the game. Indeed, the game is predicated on the fact that the communists that you're playing as are trying to hang on to power, offering reforms where they can and crackdowns elsewhere. All of that suggests a bankrupt system, which it largely was. If the communists do manage to hang on to power in this game, it's unlikely that it could be seen as a triumph for their ideology: either they were brutal, or they reformed sufficiently.

Was the democratic outcome inevitable? I don't know. I just think it's worth thinking about. The game does a good job of doing this, but I'd like to push people a bit more in thinking about this.
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Abravenewgeek
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Re: Review of 1989
Nice review Zeb - curiously, how would you have made the game different?
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Zeb Larson
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Re: Review of 1989
Vis a vis game mechanics, I wouldn't change a thing. Gameplay is an absolute blast and I think it builds nicely on what Twilight Struggle offers.

I would have liked to see a few different event cards, maybe those focusing on reformers who wanted that Third Way that I keep harping on about. I know that Ted Torgerson read 1989 by Mary Sarotte in prepartion for this game, which is remarkable in and of itself, but maybe digging for a few more names to work with, people who could have played as neutral events for both Communists and Democrats. Stuff to get us thinking about how grey this revolution was. Anything else to describe this counterfactual world is probably too complicated to create as a game mechanism.

I know that I'm being wholly unreasonable here, as I'm just some wiseass pipsqueak who demands that in addition to designing a great game the designer also write a term paper. 1989 raises so many interesting ideas though that I just keep wanting to push people to think about some of the issues that it raises. We love to talk about educational boardgames; this pushes it in an interesting new direction.

Incidentally, Mr. Torgerson was very kind about my criticisms, which he didn't need to be (who the hell am I, after all?). I'd love to see what he comes up with next.
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Re: Review of 1989
I haven't played the game but still would like to contribute to the "Third Way Possible?" discussion by at least suggesting a mechanism.

My premise in doing this is such divergences generally have a small window of opportunity to get going or to utterly fail - a tipping point if you will. In chaotic systems of events these tipping points may, of course, be invisible to the participants until way after the time has past. The could remain invisible to this day (okay - which might make it tough to incorporate into a game design ) - like perhaps Roosevelt dying before the USA enters WW2. Could the Axis have pulled off a victory then, with no lend-lease to Russia say?

To get back to the situation in question, would it be possible to introduce an alternative deck (or an alternative part-deck, to be shuffled into the next deck) of Third Way biased event whose use is only triggered by a particular series of, perhaps, unexpected events in close proximity to each other occurring?

The analogy is not very good, but sort of like the possibility of a Royalist Counter Revolution happening in Martin Wallace's excellent Liberté design?
 
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