Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: 1989—Dawn of Freedom

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.

Instructional Potential

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!

* * *

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.

3 responses to “Review: 1989—Dawn of Freedom

  1. Rex Brynen 11/06/2012 at 9:14 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Ted—and thanks too for designing such great game.

    I certainly found the game engaging enough that the notion of “support checks” didn’t bother me much—hence being classed only as a “minor quibble.” Immersed in game play, it was certainly possible to imagine circumstances that might generate a loss of support for one side or another. However, it still rather does feel like a game-mechanic-in-search-of-an-explanation, rather than an attempt to model something specific. (If, as you suggest, the purpose had been to model the snowball effect of effect mobilization or repression, one would have expected some sort of spawning dynamic whereby your own support multiplies, rather than the erosion of the other side regardless of your strength in that locale/constituency.)

    The domino effects issue is a bigger issue (even if addressed in a single card, as you note). I also agree that this is an area where one needs to tread carefully to maintain playability: no one particularly wants to sit down to a game which imparts a sense of one side being steamrollered by history. Moreover, it is possible that domino effects only seem inevitable after the fact, with history appearing (or being) far more contingent when you’re in the midst of it. In any case, as you suggest, it is easy enough to house-rule this.

    From a teaching point-of-view, moreover, it is precisely this sort of openness to user modification that makes manual boardgames so potentially useful. (By contrast, try tweaking some lines of code to experiment with different game dynamics in a computer or video game…)

    Finally, if you ever decide to do an “Arab Spring” version of 1989, do let me know!

  2. Ted Torgerson 11/06/2012 at 7:40 pm

    Thank you for your very thorough review. I think both your criticisms are well grounded, and I would like to explain a bit how we chose to model the revolutions the way we did.

    First the support checks are abstract, and, as you note, are not synonymous with confrontations. What is happening when either side makes a support check depends upon the context; in particular it depends on the socio-economic class where the support check is being made. For instance, a Communist support check in a student space would represent security forces cracking down on a street demonstration. We try to evoke that with the Tear Gas event card, making clear the Communist SPs that are generated represent oppression of student activism, almost like negative Democratic SPs. In a Worker space a Communist support check might be a crack down on strikers, but more commonly would represent an offer of wage increases, or rolling back price increases of basic goods, to try to buy support or at least acquiescence from the workers. Placing Communist SPs in a Worker space then would mean the social contract between the workers and the Party is still intact. A successful Democratic support check in a bureaucratic space would represent the technocrats inside the government who were nominally members of the Communist Party but who switched their allegiance to the democrats when they saw the regimes were doomed. They are careerists, not really Communists, and most of them would go on to serve in important posts in post-Communist governments. So I would explain to the students what is represented by the support check depends on the people represented by the space where the support check is being made and what their motivations were during the revolutions.

    The support check is not quite the same as a coup or a realignment in Twilight Struggle. The adjacency modifiers are there to reflect the phenomenon of the crowd mentality that can happen in mass movements where people who have not been active suddenly begin joining demonstrations, marches and rallies. For instance if the Democrat controls 2 adjacent spaces and attempts a support check in a worker space, that +2 modifier gives him a much better chance at success. That represents people seeing others involved and getting swept up in the moment. So, with the support checks we were trying to model the sense people felt of individual liberation through social connection. That is, people finding power in mass street demonstrations and a sense of connectedness in what had been rather atomized societies (because of fear of informants and security services).

    As to the domino effect, you are correct in your thought that this was a game design decision. Very early in the development of 1989 there was a modifier for the Power roll for bordering countries that had already overthrown Communism. It was decided that this was too deterministic and instead we incorporated the Domino Theory event. That event is purely a card game mechanic, there to make the Communist worry about holding on to power during the Late Year after winning a power struggle in a country where he has little support. If the Democrat has the Domino Theory event the Communist will end up giving the Democrat another chance for Power and lots of VPs as well. I expect the Domino Theory card is how you were able to play East Germany scoring a third time in your game. It has a precondition that the Democrat be in power in at least 2 countries, but again it is a card game mechanic nothing more. We don\’t object to house rules, particularly with historical support, so if you want to add some benefit to the Democrat based on the number of countries where he holds power a couple ideas would be draw 1 more Power Struggle card per country, or a +1 to the Support Loss roll per country where he holds power. I would be interested to hear how that alters the balance of the game.

    Again thanks for your kind comments about our game.

  3. hipshotau 10/06/2012 at 11:56 pm

    Reblogged this on The Big Board and commented:
    Rex writes up a thoughtful review of GMT;s Dawn of Freedom, highlighting the instructional value of the game for Students. Indeed seeing the value of a re application to model the recent Arab Spring.

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