There is a magic about the year 1989 that is difficult to explain. The disintegration of the communist bloc generated a sense of opportunity and hope that was lacking in the dour Eighties. It affected us all, with Francis Fukuyama proclaiming the end of history and George Bush proclaiming a new world order.
Of course soon we were all disappointed with what history had in store for us: Somalia, the Yugoslavian Civil War, the genocide in Rwanda. By September 11th 2001 the presumed new world order was dead in the water. But in blessed 1989 few of us saw the writing on the wall.
Published by GDW in 1990 Red Empire was prophetic in showing how Soviet Russia would be impacted by centrifugal forces on the margin while the factions within the Politburo vied for power. This weekend I dug it out of my cupboard and we played a couple of games. It was a blast.
Basically Red Empire is Kremlin meets BattleStar Galactica in 30-45 minutes. The Kremlin side of the game is of course the theme and tit for tat interaction between the players. The BSG side is that the game is semi-cooperative as you face a number of crises that must be solved by players together. And you will all lose together if too many crises remain unsolved.
Every faction starts with a 3 to 5 leaders (depending on the number of players) from three backgrounds: the party, the KGB and the military. Each leader has a starting status level from 5 to 9. A party leader of the faction with the highest total status holds the title of President of the Soviet Union. Should the President be removed, the position falls to the next eligible party leader (which can be from the same faction).
The main resource in the game is the action card, valued 1 to 4, which comes in the same three colours as for the leaders (party, KGB, army), plus action cards which can only be played by the President. You can only play action cards if you have a leader of that background on the table.
The game is set in the final death thralls of the Soviet Union, a true empire that spanned from Kaliningrad to Sachalin and consisted of numerous republics and autonomous regions. Combined with ethnic mix ups in all these areas, there was great potential for conflict once the communist boot was removed. During the game these conflicts will come up as crisis cards.
Crises are resolved by players contributing an action card. If all the action cards played add up to equal or more than the value of the crisis card, the crisis is dealt with successfully. All players get to place their contributed card into their victory point pile, and the President receives the crisis card as a bonus.
Should the players fail to deal with the crisis, the President is ousted in disgrace. The leader card is discarded and a new President is appointed. The crisis cards that have not been dealt with are also stacked together and once their combined value reaches 18 or more, the Soviet Union collapses and everybody loses.
Meanwhile players try undermine their opponents by purging their leaders. To purge a leader, action cards can be played on him. Once the total value of the action cards equals the status of the leader, he is purged. The player to play the last card puts the purged leader into his victory pile and gloats.
Purges can be helped by KGB investigations in corruption and the odd scandal that will temporarily lower the status of a faction or the party, KGB or military. On the other hand, there are a few cards to protect your leaders. For example, the Hero of the Soviet Union card removes all challenges from a leader and increases his status by 2 and the Junket card allows your faction to go on a mission abroad, making it immune for challenges. However, it also means they can't contribute to crises.
You have noted that the main resources for both resolving crises and undermining your opponents are the action cards. This brings about an interesting dilemma for the players, especially the President: do you keep action cards to deal with a possible crisis or do you go after your opponents?
As you can see, the artwork in the game is nothing special, but functional.
There´s a few issues with game balance, as the KGB Exposes Party Corruption card can be hideously effective in removing leaders from the table when it is played early in the game and the dice are lucky. On the other hand, your opponents can choose it isn't worth saving the Soviet Union in that case..
The rules aren´t very complex, but work well enough for a light game. It offers enough in terms of trash talking, pompous speeching and straight faced backstabbing to make this an Ameritrash classic. To anyone but a funmurdering bean counter, this game is a hoot. I think it deserves a bit more exposure as such.