We instinctively turn towards the spatial dimension in our understanding of history. We write the histories of places, cities, countries, and sometimes even bigger regions like the Mediterranean Sea. Often, this acknowledgement of the spatial is a mere sorting mechanism – what belongs in my history, and what must go out? History can be understood more comprehensively, however, if the spatial dimension is fully embraced, understood in context, and applied to all sorts of historical inquiry. We know that Russia is vast, but what does that mean for Russian history?
1989 is spatial without remaining in the mere geographical. It offers a rich blend of the topological and social qualities of the space in its rules, map and gameplay. We’ll have a look at the mechanisms that allow for that as well as at some specifics on the map and how they influence the game.
Area Control, Domino Theory, and Positional Play
1989 is a card-driven game. Cards are the players’ primary resources, and cards ultimately decide the fate of countries in the power struggles. In between that resource basis and the final conflict, 1989 is about area control on the map – in the two layers of controlling an individual space and then parlaying control of multiple spaces into VPs for scoring and card advantages for the power struggles.
When a player spreads her ideology via normal influence placement, she can place new chits only adjacent to existing ones. 1989 has borrowed this mechanism from Twilight Struggle, in which the designers see it as a representation of domino theory – the fear of Cold War America that one country turning to Communism would topple its neighbors as well. 1989, however, employs a more fluent form of domino theory: Since there are no DEFCON restrictions, players can always attempt to get into a region far from their current power bases by support checking an opponent space. On the other hand, support checks – unlike coups in Twilight Struggle – depend on the control of the surrounding spaces. That increases the importance of positional play, and the location of a player’s controlled spaces is often more important than their sheer number.
Connections, Chokepoints and Support Structure
The placement and connection of social groups on the 1989 map is more than a mere geographical matter. It represents the social fabric of Eastern Europe. The immensely influential Catholic church in Poland sits imposingly in the center of the country and is connected to a whopping five worker spaces, four of which are battlegrounds. In contrast, a rather marginalized church like the one in Hungary connects to only two spaces – one elite and one worker space. Similarly, while the intelligentsia might lean strongly in favor of the Democrats, it has little influence over society – all intellectual spaces are only connected to the students of their respective countries, who in turn have one meager additional connection.
This dearth of connections is just as telling as the wealth of it in other places. For each country, there is only one connection across the border with a neighboring country. That is not only an expression of the reclusion of the Communist countries with their limited travel and strictly monitored borders, but also of the national character of the revolutionary struggles. The diffusion of ideas and events beyond the barriers of language and nation is significantly harder than within. In game terms, occupying these chokepoints can curtail the opponent’s infiltration of one country from another.
Finally, where there are connections, they tend to form structures. The most basic of these are three spaces that are connected to one another. Many of these structures are made up of three worker spaces – a “worker triangle”. Securing all three spaces of such a triangle gives a hard-to-take stronghold and can be instrumental to achieve domination of a country or at least prevent the opponent from doing so. Along with the sheer number of worker spaces (they make up at least half of the battlegrounds in every country), that is a reflection of the workers as the most important demographic in the revolutions of 1989. Not only did they make up the largest number of the population (the Eastern European economies were substantially more manufacturing- and less service-oriented than their Western counterparts), they had also been Communism’s first and most loyal supporters. Communism had promised the workers that they would be prosperous masters of their own destiny. This promise, however, was assertively challenged in the 1980s (for example, by the independent Polish labor union Solidarity which was founded to give the workers a voice – unthinkable to Communist orthodoxy!).
The workers, however, are not fixed in their allegiance. If one space of a worker triangle can be cracked open, the others might follow suit. These quick changes of support are a testament to the fickleness of the masses – an interesting psychological observation.
1989 shows what a map can do beyond reflecting geographical features. Aided by the mechanisms of area control that encourage positional play, 1989 gives its societal relations a distinct spatial dimension.
Now that we’ve talked about space, what about time? Which pace and rhythm had the revolutions of 1989? We’ll look at that in the next article of this series.
The famous history of the Mediterranean is Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Collins, London 1973.
You’ll find an interesting collection of “spatial” historical research on Eastern Europe (in German and English) in Schlögel, Karl (ed.): Mastering Russian Spaces. Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte, Oldenbourg, Munich 2011.