Written by Zeb Larson
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. And 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.