The Wave of History (1989, #5)

Different games have a different dramaturgy. Chess is most exciting in its midgame peak of creativity, sandwiched between the more cautiously calculating opening and endgame moves. Twilight Struggle often works like a pendulum – the USSR makes a strong push in the beginning before the tide turns and the Soviets are forced to defend their gains against the American late-war onslaught. Some games are a dramaturgic melange of multiple interdependent processes – like Here I Stand which mixes the unpredictability of military campaigns with the race for ever scarcer New World exploration and conquest opportunities and the pendulum of the reformation and counter-reformation. All of these tell a story about their source material: Chess tells you that a battle can be planned for, but that you will still encounter things you have not seen anytime before when the fighting is thickest. Twilight Struggle evokes the memory of the expanding Soviet power of the 1950s and 1960s before the West reined supreme again. Here I Stand makes you realize how many different things were going on at the same time in the early 16th century, how all of them were different and yet they were connected.
So, what is the dramaturgy of 1989? Which story about the Eastern European revolutions does it tell? In early 1989, the countries in the region were firmly Communist. By the end of the year, drastic transformations had taken place in all of them. So, 1989 tells the story of how the wave of history swept away the Communist governments. We’ll see which mechanisms the game uses for that and how they play out during a game.

From Stability to Revolution

The Brezhnev era had ended the former quick policy shifts in Eastern Europe and given the Communist rule the air of eternity. Even years after Brezhnev’s death in 1982, this hyperstability (or stagnation, depending how you see it) endured. Only slowly grew the tender flowers of dissent in Eastern Europe, beginning with the Solidarity trade union in Poland and the reform-minded Communists in Hungary. By the second half of the year, matters had not been resolved in these two countries, but more dissent sprang up in the other Eastern bloc countries. 1989 reflects this by the sequence of the scoring cards in the early, middle and late year.

The growing force of dissent from some small voices to an overwhelming chorus is also achieved by another trick: Many strong Democratic cards in 1989 have a precondition card – like St. Nicholas Church needs to have been played for the much more powerful Monday Demonstrations to take effect. While the early card will not help the Democrat much, the writing is surely on the wall.

The Acceleration of Revolutions

The revolutions propelled each other forward. The reforms in Poland were celebrated in Czechoslovakia, and the opening of Hungary’s borders sparked emigration and protest in East Germany – events in one country had a “demonstration effect” on those in others. One card reflects this more than any other: A surging Democrat can rise even higher with Domino Theory and give Communism the last push to the ash heap of history.

Domino Theory

If you can free one country, you can free a second. If you can free two, you can free all of them. Image: Card Domino Theory, ©GMT Games.

However, not every game of 1989 shows the full wave of history. Sometimes, the Communists are able to snuff out the Democrats early – usually by holding on to power in Poland and Hungary and then benefiting from an advantageous scoring card early in the mid-year before the Democrats have developed in the country in question. But if that does not happen, events will just get ever faster and more dramatic in the second half of the game. Some of this acceleration is actually hidden – the three parts (Early Year, Middle Year and Late Year) of the game are not of the same length. The three turns of the Early Year cover the events of roughly half a year, whereas the three Late Year turns only deal with the dramatic unraveling of the last weeks.
So the struggle gets more intense. This intensification also shines through the decision to remove countries from further contention once the Democrats have taken power there, so the revolution shifts from countries where it has already succeeded to others where the forces of the status quo are still on top. In addition, this indicates that the wave of history only knows one direction – forward. It echoes the spirit of 1989 as expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay – Western liberal democracy as the “final form of human government”, the “end of history”. In the years since 1989, we’ve grown a bit more skeptical if history is indeed so linear and progressive. But in 1989, people believed in it, and they had ample reason for their optimism and hope.

Now that we’ve explored the space and time of the 1989 revolutions, it’s time to look at the very different players on both sides: The next article in this series will deal with the culture of dissent and the police state in Eastern Europe.

Further Reading

For a collection of essays in English and German on the question if the static Brezhnev era was characterized by (positive) stability or (negative) stagnation, see Belge, Boris/Deuerlein, Martin (eds.): Goldenes Zeitalter der Stagnation? Perspektiven auf die sowjetische Ordnung der Brežnev-Ära, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2014.
If you’re interested in the „demonstration effect”, see De Nevers, Renée: Comrades No More. The Seeds of Change in Eastern Europe, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2003, p. 44—51.
Fukuyama, Francis: The End of History?, in: The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), p. 3—18, online here (requires free registration).

6 thoughts on “The Wave of History (1989, #5)

  1. Ludobits

    I really like the use you make of the word “dramaturgy” here. Makes a lot of sense – especially with regard to the parallels you draw between in-game and historical “stories”.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. cliosboardgames Post author

    Thank you for reading! To be thematic, a board game must tell a story. It’s an important part of the game design to choose which one to tell. Those stories rest under the surface – which makes the deciphering all the more fun!

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    Reply
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