I’m doing a series on German history in the 20th century on my blog this year. In intervals of 10 years, I pick a crucial event and explore it – with the help of precisely one board game. You can find the previous posts here:
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.
As some of you know, I’ve been enrolled in university to complete my M.A. program in history for the last few years. It’s been the end of a long journey through academic history which began in 2010 with me as a bright-eyed freshman in my undergrad history classes. During these eight years, I have not only taken classes on everything from late classical Greece to the history of spaceflight. I’ve also interned, gone abroad for studying, worked for election campaigns, and finally taken up a regular day job before I’ve graduated. All of this has taken time, and that’s the reason why I spent a longer time enrolled in university than most. I even took longer for my M.A. than for my B.A. And all of this has given me valuable experience, made me more employable, and helped me grow as a person. I cordially recommend all of you out there who have the chance to look outside your college campus to seize this chance. The more you know outside of a classroom, the better for you, and for the world.
I know that not everybody has these opportunities. I was incredibly privileged. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed good health, and I had a generous student grant from a prestigious foundation to cover my living expenses. I was enrolled in programs that allowed for student engagement with the world off-campus, and I had advisers and supervisors who were flexible and encouraging about projects which might give experience but might also delay graduation. Most importantly, I come from a country where university does not cost more than a symbolic fee, and where students from low-income households even receive assistance in the form of half a grant, half an interest-free loan (of which no more than € 10,000 must be repaid). Without all these privileges, a young person like me – brought up in a single-parent, low-income household without any relatives who’d ever graduated from college when I enrolled – would have never been able to succeed like I did. I am grateful for that. I also regard it as a responsibility. I have been able to fulfil my potential because others and the society in which I live allowed me to. I will personally strive to enable others to fulfil their potential, and work for a society which allows as many people as possible to fulfil theirs.
This post, however, is not about my personal journey. As you know, this blog deals with history, board games, and history in board games. As it so happens, so did my M.A. thesis. I dealt with both my academic and my personal passion – the Cold War in board games. Let me share some insights of the thesis with you. If you’re interested in the why and how and what of the thesis, check out the research interest of the thesis, its methodology, and the sample of board games I used for it. You can also skip directly to my key findings on history-themed board games in general and the Cold War in board games in particular. Continue reading →
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.