How time flies – it is already the sixth installment of my series on board games about the Cold War (here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). Today, we go to the very end of the Cold War – the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989: Dawn of Freedom (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games). As usual, we’ll look at it in both game and academic terms.
What Kind of Cold War Is This?
1989 pitches the Communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe against the wide variety of protest groups (labelled „Democrat“ in the game). They wrestle for control over cities and socio-economic groups. Eventually, they will face off in power struggles for the future of entire countries. Both sides have their own vulnerabilities: The Communists have to stem the wave of history and may be irreversibly kicked out of one country’s government after another. The Democrats, on the other hand, start in a weak position and their dissent may be snuffed out by state repression before they ever get the chance to grow irresistible.
What’s Noteworthy About the Game?
1989 employs skilful, multifaceted manipulation of time and space. The spaces on the board go beyond mere topography as they represent not only a city, but also a socio-economic group – say, some workers, or the church in a country. The sub-division of the year in a beginning (half the year), a middle (several months), and end (only the last few weeks) represents the acceleration of the struggle. Time and space also interact with one another: The makeup of the event cards for each of the three phases in the game steers the action to the countries which historically were the focal points at the respective times – for example, the dissent begins to spread from Poland and Hungary, early hotbeds of reformist thought.
1989 is one of the few Cold War-themed board games to feature playable non-state agents (as the Democratic player represents the myriads of groups protesting against the Communist regimes). Despite this asymmetrical player setup – Communist states versus Democratic non-state groups – both sides use the same instruments and play by the same rules (certainly helpful for learning the game!). The card events, however, make sure that the two sides feel very different: The Communist player relies on the old elites and the state‘s forces of repression. The Democrat, on the other hand, can draw on the power of a mass movement as well as the support of the students and intellectuals.
I’ve mentioned already that the two players represent a plethora of individual historical agents. The Communist governments ranged from the Hungarian Communists who aspired to be the vanguard of reforms, over the Polish government which let the Democrats slowly shove them aside, to Ceausescu in Romania who was ready to massacre his own people to keep power. The myriad of anti-Communist protester groups were even more different, from mass movements like Solidarność to tiny circles of only a few people and espousing views as diverse as reform socialism, traditional Catholicism, the concern for the environment in their home town, or just the wish to finally own a TV and a car like the relatives in the West. 1989 represents all these different groups and ways of thinking – many of which are now forgotten by most people who did not live through these times in Central and Eastern Europe. Just as well, the game shines light not only on the realm of high politics, so often the sole subject of games as well as historical writing, but also on the economy, high and everyday culture, and the normal lives of normal people. It’s a two-hour history lesson, and at the same time a lot of fun.
Among the Cold War games, I bestow on it the title The Most Educational.