1989: Dawn of Freedom. GMT Games, 2010. Game designers: Ted Torgerson & Jason Matthews. Game developer: Bruce Wigdor. $65.00
It is 1989, and popular protests and uprisings have swept across much of Eastern Europe. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria the old communist regimes have been swept away. The Baltic republics are well on their way to independence. In Poland and East Germany the contending forces remain more finally balanced, while in Romania the regime appears to have an upper hand. Pro-democracy activists in East Germany take a desperate gamble, hoping to translate their narrow lead in popular support into a successful campaign to unseat the dictatorship. In the ensuing power struggle, however, they fail: for the third time in less than a year, the East German regime survives. The failure reverberates across Eastern Europe, bringing to an end—for now at least—further hopes of political reform.
And so it was that, as the forces of democracy, I lost my first session of GMT’s recent boardgame 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Although I had overturned communist regimes in three countries and nearly toppled the Polish government too, my third high-profile setback in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik had cost me dearly.
Game Contents and Play
1989 is a two player card-driven game, in which one player plays the role of various communist regimes seeking to maintain power, while the other represents democratic forces seeking to topple them. The game contains a good quality mounted map of Eastern Europe, two sets of cleanly-punched counter sheets, a deck of 110 “strategy cards,” a second deck of 52 “power cards,” a rule book, and two dice.
Game play is similar in many ways to GMT’s very popular cold war-era boardgame Twilight Struggle (2005)—hardly surprising, given that both were co-designed by Jason Matthews. Each turn the players are dealt a hand of eight strategy cards. They then alternate in playing a card each, either for its operations value or for the event (and associated effects) printed on it. When eight such rounds have been played, new cards are dealt to top up each player’s hand. As the game progresses, the initial “early year” strategy deck has first “middle year” then “late year” cards added to it, thus assuring that key events occur in a loosely semi-historical sequence.
Two sorts of actions are possible when a card is played for operations points: a player may either place “support points” on the map in an effort to secure key locations, or undertake “support checks” to try to reduce the other player’s support (and possibly build their own). Locations are each associated with a particular domestic constituency (workers, farmers, students, intellectuals, the church, bureaucrats, or elites), each of which can offer advantages during power struggles. Certain locations are also denoted as “battlegrounds,” and have additional importance in scoring victory points.
“Power struggles” are where political competition for the destiny of each country comes to head. Each player receives a number of power cards, depending on the number of locations they control in the country. These are divided into four suits (petitions, strikes, marches, and rally in the square) plus constituency leaders and wild cards. The competing players then play a sort of modified “go fish” card game. The result determines the outcome of the power struggle, which—if the democratic player wins—can also result in regime change.
The game ends after ten turns, or when one player reaches 20 victory points.
The card-driven nature of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, in which the historical contents of the strategy cards help to drive both the game and its narrative, makes for immersive game play. The process by which power struggles are played out as a cardgame-within-the-card-driven-boardgame makes for nail-biting tension, even if the cards are really abstractions that—apart from the names of the “suits”—do not especially match with any actual political process. The rules are relatively straight-forward, and the rule book clear and easy to read.
I had two quibbles with the game, one minor, the other more substantial. My minor quibble related to the two possible operations a player can conduct, namely placing support points and undertaking support checks. While the former was clear enough (representing the organizational and mobilization efforts by the two sides as they seek to expand their power bases), it wasn’t clear to me what real-world process a “support check” was supposed to represent. It certainly wasn’t a clash with the opposing side, since it presented no material risks to the player undertaking it. Instead, it simply seemed to be a copy of the “realignment” operation that players can make in Twilight Struggle. I definitely would have preferred an operations choice that related to something the contending sides actually did (or perhaps even asymmetric options, different for each side).
My major quibble with the game was the way in which it models the domino effects of East European regime changes—or rather, the way it doesn’t. Toppling a regime may score you victory points and end further power struggles in that country, but it doesn’t have any particular effects on game play in the remaining communist countries. However, during the actual historical transformation of Eastern Europe, the “demonstration effect” of regime change in one country emboldened populations in other communist countries too, boosting their morale, weakening the deterrent effect of regime repression, and generally giving populations an expanded sense of new political possibilities.
Perhaps the designers didn’t want to create a runaway train effect, whereby the democratic player could establish unstoppable momentum by the mid-point of the game. However, in our game I found it a bit odd that successful revolutions in three communist countries had no discernible effects in the other three.
That having been said, 1989: Dawn of Freedom is certainly a very enjoyable game. Game play is interesting and nuanced. It is also immersive and exciting. 1989 is likely to become one of those games I frequently play, and I would certainly strongly recommend it to those interested in the genre or the subject matter.
This being PAXsims, we’re interested in more than just the game value of a game, however. What of the potential use of 1989: Dawn of Freedom in an educational setting? Here too my assessment is very positive.
The game plays relatively quickly (about three hours), and is relatively easy to learn. The historical description on the cards (expanded upon further in the rules) would certainly acquaint students/players with the key historical developments of this period. While two player games can be problematic with larger classes, the game could easily be adapted for team play in the way that we early suggested for GMT’s “global war on terror” game Labyrinth. Indeed, given the many similarities between the two games, much of what we have earlier suggested for using Labyrinth in the classroom (here and here) would equally apply to 1989.
- Students could be asked to play the game through, and then write a critical evaluation (based on class readings, lectures, and outside research) of how it depicts the events and political dynamics associated with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe—much as one might write an academic book review. Such an assignment would challenge students to think critically about how the actual processes of repression and regime change might beset be captured within a set of game rules.
- Students could be asked to suggest new rules or events (strategy cards), outline their proposed game effects, and justify these with reference to actual historical processes.
- Students might be asked to play this and several other games of revolution and political change, and then design their own game of a completely different case.
As a scholar of the Arab world, I was particularly struck by the potential to use a modified version of the 1989 game system to design a game about the 2011-12 “Arab Spring.” There are many parallels between the two periods, especially with regard to the role of demonstration and domino effects. On the other hand, ongoing Arab political transformations were not occasioned by the declining power of a regional hegemon, unlike the pivotal role played by changing Soviet policy in the 1980s. Moreover, while the Arab Spring has involved East European-style mass protests in many cases (Tunisia, Egypt), it has also seen heavily militarized civil wars, with a degree of overt (Libya) or covert (Syria) external involvement. The transitional processes in some Arab countries (notably Libya and Yemen) are also even more uncertain than those Eastern Europe. Addressing those aspects in a game would require some substantial changes to the 1989 game system.
In short, 1989 could be used not only in teaching about the fall of communism, but also to generate some interesting educational and analytical perspectives into the decline and fall of regional authoritarian orders more broadly. Indeed, I may try using it in that way in a classroom setting during this coming academic year. If and when I do, I’ll certainly report the results back here as PAXsims!
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For further discussion of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, see the game listing, reviews, and forum at BoardGameGeek.
UPDATE: Also, game co-designer Ted Torgerson has offered some thoughtful responses to the points I raised in the review, so be sure to read the comments section too.