Welcome back to the third installment in my new series on board games about the Cold War! In case you missed them, you can find the first two posts here and here. Today, our game will be Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 (Katalin Nimmerfroh/Dávid Turczi/Mihály Vincze, Cloud Island). As usual, we’ll look at it in both game and academic terms.
What kind of Cold War is this game?
Days of Ire is a game about the struggle between Hungarian insurgents on the one side and the Hungarian state security forces and the Soviet army on the other in 1956. The Hungarian insurgents have various crises popping up over the game board to solve while avoiding a loss of moral or utter physical defeat. The game can be played one-versus-one, one-versus-many, and cooperative/solo.
At first glance, that does not sound a lot like the Cold War. Unlike our previous two games in the series, only one superpower is involved and there is no nuclear side to the entire affair! Well, yes. But at least the superpowers placed the 1956 Hungarian Uprising in a Cold War context (although not exclusively so on the Soviet side), and the events were linked to others outside of Hungary (like the Suez Crisis and the egging on of the insurgents by Radio Free Europe). So I’ll count Days of Ire as a Cold War game.
What’s Noteworthy About the Game?
Days of Ire is in many respects an unconventional Cold War game. That is most striking in its depicting of female agency, its visual design, and its genesis.
I have analyzed six Cold War board games for my thesis in depth (and touched upon 20 more). Days of Ire is the only one of these games to have a woman among the designers (Katalin Nimmerfroh, who also did some of the art). It is also the game in which women are depicted with the most agency: Two of the four playable characters are women. Almost half of the fighters (who can be activated by the revolutionaries) are women, and notably they grant both traditionally female (healing, food supplies) and male (fighting) bonuses. And, of course, the most striking female presence is the young woman which dominates the box cover. She, as well, combines traditionally female (long flowing hair) and male (rifle) attributes.
Let’s talk some more about the visual design. Aside from the various styles employed for different items (the cards for the state security forces are inspired by Communist propaganda posters, for example), what is most impressive is how the visual design brings the functional and the authentificating side of the game together. That begins with the game board: Making it look like a map is a classic way to increase players’ identifications with their roles. After all, their counterparts would have often done the same – imagine the Soviet general Zhukov bent over a map, deciding where to deploy his tanks in Budapest. So, the map’s mediacy (as you are not seeing any people or buildings up close from an onlooker’s perspective) adds to the game’s immediacy (as you feel you are right in the shoes of the actual decision-maker). Days of Ire, however, goes beyond that. The game board turns your gaming table into the desk of the decision-maker: The locations are marked by old photographs which seem to be pinned to the map and connected by strings. There is even an “ashtray” on the game board, as if you as the Soviet commander or the leader of the revolutionaries are nervously chain-smoking while planning your movements. Once more, the design brings authenticity and functionality together: The ashtray doubles as a holding box for reminder chits.
One group of people is notably absent from the visual design (compared to other Cold War games): Political leaders barely feature in the pictures. Instead, we get to see civilians and soldiers galore. That helps the players identify with these ordinary people, but it also takes the events somewhat out of their political context.
What remains is a narrative of a patriotic Hungarian uprising against Soviet, vaguely Communist foreign rule. One wonders how much that is due to the game’s unique genesis: Contrary to most other board games, Days of Ire was not conceived primarily for commercial motives or as a labor of love of the designers. It was initiated by a diplomat posted at the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw for the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the events in 2016. He acted as a historical consultant and influenced some of the design decisions – for example, to include a fully-cooperative mode, and to unify Hungarian state security forces and Soviet army into one player. After the release, the game was also submitted to the Ministry of Human Resources by the Hungarian publisher and approved as supplementary teaching material for Hungarian schools.
Among the Cold War board games, I bestow on it the title of The Most Visually Beautiful .