1989 is a strongly asymmetric game – one player represents a group of Communist governments, the other player takes her on with the power of a plethora of different non-state dissidents. Still, both players use the same rules and mechanisms (which makes the rules half as long and the game twice as easy to learn). How come the two sides still feel very different to play? – The answer lies in the theme of the cards. Here the game paints a rich picture of power and protest in a tense moment in history.
The Communist Police State
The Eastern European Communist states were set up by the victorious Soviet forces after World War II and modeled on Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union of the time, including its organs of internal repression. Much-feared political police forces cracked down on every form of dissent with harassment, arrests, and often show trials doling out harsh punishments for the accused. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the level of state control was relaxed both in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but the powerful state security organs still kept tabs on dissenters. Until 1989, more lenient and more repressive periods came and went.
Public and Private Dissent
The police state could not enforce total obedience. Just as repression had been stronger and weaker at times, so had dissent been in Eastern Europe. In the post-war era, open strikes and revolts had not been uncommon, but the Soviet interventions in East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 had quelled these uprisings. Afterwards, there was an unspoken “contract” between the rulers and the ruled: The state required a lower level of ideological commitment (adherence to the rituals was enough) and raised the material standards of living. In return, the people refrained from open dissent. The 1970s saw therefore many heterodox people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union turn inward: They did the minimum that was required from them in terms of work and politics, and gave their life meaning within a small niche of close friends and personal interests. Dissenting ideas might be shared, but quietly, among trusted people, often in the form of forbidden books or essays that were copied by typing the entire text on one’s typewriter (samizdat, “self-publishing”).
From the late 1970s on, some dissenters turned outward again, especially in support of the human rights the Communist rulers had guaranteed their citizens in the Helsinki Accords. These “Helsinki Groups” professed to help the government in implementing the Helsinki Final Act which put said governments into an uncomfortable position between publicly going back on their word and allowing the dissenters to influence policy. The game reflects this masterfully with the “Helsinki Final Act” card. Under normal circumstances the ops math in Student and Intellectual spaces favors Support Checks by the Communist player: usually at +0 against the Student space and +1 against the Intellectual space since the Student space is usually flipped by the first Support Check. The Democrats can only reply at -2 at the Student space and then +0 at the Intellectual space (provided they succeed on the first support check). Helsinki, however, makes this costly for the Communist at a loss of 1VP per Support Check. But if the Communist player forgoes all Support Check in Student and Intellectual spaces, the Democrat will have a lot of spare ops which can be used to run wild in the oh-so-important worker spaces.
Notwithstanding the Helsinki Groups, even by the end of the 1980s, both the rulers and the ruled expected things to proceed indefinitely without major changes – “everything was forever”.
The Escalation of 1989
But everything was only forever until it was no more. The political certainties of Eastern Europe would soon be swept away, but it is important to remember that in 1989, nobody had this prescience. Nonetheless, millions of people took to the streets even though they expected the police to crack down on them – and often, the police did.
Tensions ran high. When the Chinese Communist Party was faced with similar demands for democracy in the summer of 1989, they had the army massacre the protesters on Tiananmen Square. The shadow of the “Chinese Solution” hung over Eastern Europe as well. Still, the crowds on the streets grew larger.
In the end, cool heads mostly prevailed. The political changes stayed mostly peaceful, and the powerful stepped aside for the powerless instead of trying to crush them. The only exception was Romania, where the forces of repression were not overcome by peaceful dissent, but instead they changed sides and overthrew the tyrannical Ceausescu themselves.
The Unexpected Victory of Dissent
Dissenters and the police state had been in an uneasy state before 1989, but neither side had expected a big confrontation. When long-held certainties were shattered, many different outcomes seemed possible, including a war in the streets that would have cost the lives of many and potentially deranged any political changes.
Although this war never came to happen and 1989 is about a political struggle, it is often regarded as a wargame (for example, on boardgamegeek.com). Therefore, the last article in this series will analyze 1989 through the lens of Clausewitzian theory and look at the military theorist’s famous trinity of violence, chance, and rationality in the game.
The relationship between a strong repressive state and a weak civil society is explored in Sharman, Jason Campbell: Repression and Resistance in Communist Europe, Routledge, London 2003.
The de-ideologization in East and West after the upheavals of the 1960s is described in Suri, Jeremi: Power and Protest. Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, Harvard University Press, Harvard, MA 2003.
For the hollowing out of the structure of Soviet society by inner emigration and passive resistance see Yurchak, Alexei: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. The Last Soviet Generation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 2006.
1. For some thoughts about which games count as wargames and which do not and what that says about our understanding of war, see this article.
I really need to try this game.
Thanks for the fascinating looks at it!
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Thank you for reading! 1989 is indeed a very nuanced game on a dramatic period in history, and easily one of the most educational (while also being fun!) I’ve ever played.
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