Is 1989 a wargame? Countless gamers have engaged in that debate. While 1989 was published by GMT Games, the leading wargame company, it features no armed conflict. There is barely any violence that goes beyond police repression against protesters in the game. Still, it shares some of the classic traits of a wargame: It’s a tense, confrontational game for two players which takes the history covered in it seriously. Maybe we should move away from the term “wargame” for 1989 and rather use “historical conflict simulation”.
Wargame or not, can 1989 by analyzed with the theory of war? This time, the answer is a resounding Yes. This article will conclude the 1989 series by looking at the game through the lens of Clausewitz’s trinity of violent emotion, chance, and reason.
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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
The first article in this series dealt with the peoples of Eastern Europe as the agents of change in 1989. Not all explanations for the collapse of Communism center on them, though. Especially in Western Europe and North America, the role of Western governments in the end of the Cold War has been surveyed thoroughly. Paradoxically, there are two diametrically opposed explanations how Western governments might have enacted the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe – by confrontation or by cooperation with the East. We’ll look at both in this article. Continue reading →
The ancient history professor Alexander Demandt has enumerated 210 theories why the Western Roman Empire had fallen that had been proposed in the 1500 years since the Empire’s collapse. They ranged from the abolition of the gods to vulgarization and everything in between – fighting multi-front wars, excesses, lead poisoning, decline of the “Nordic character” of the Romans, female empowerment, you name it. While the Roman Empire is gone for a bit longer than the Soviet Empire, the number of explanations for the sudden end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe are almost as manifold as those for the fall of Rome. That speaks of the surprise that the collapse of Communism was, and never was this process faster or more dramatic than in the year 1989. This article will look at the first group of explanations for the collapse of Communism and how they are represented in the board game 1989 (GMT Games, Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews), kicking off a series on how history, politics and culture intertwine in 1989.