I was only six years old in 1989, and my memory of that year mostly involves moving to a new kindergarten. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was totally off of my radar. I think I only realized some change had occurred when I noticed that maps were being printed with only one Germany. I regret that I wasn’t more aware of something so monumental, because what an extraordinary year it was. Since the Cold War was so plastered on the consciousness of US history, it feels like a climax, a sense of right winning and evil being defeated.
Of course, the truth was much more complex than that. Still, the United States is only now in a position where we don’t automatically regard the Soviet Union as the de facto “bad guys” in the Cold War. That idea of fighting a battle of ideas is still deeply ingrained in American culture, and that was one reason why Twilight Struggle was so well regarded. It captured not so much the “facts” of the Cold War, but the emotions and the paranoia. In that regard, the good guys vs. bad guys angle of the revolutions of 1989 feels like a natural fit for a game in the vein of Twilight Struggle. Clearly designer Jason Matthews felt the same way, because he joined forces with Ted Torgerson to release 1989: Dawn of Freedom.
If you’ve played Twilight Struggle, then 1989 will not be difficult to grasp. There are two sides, the Democrats and the Communists. Each side takes turns playing cards to affect the allocation of influence on the board. These cards represent different events throughout that pivotal year, like the legalization of Solidarity in Poland and the dramatic flight of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. These events all favor one side or the other. You can play an opponent’s event to do other actions, but the event will happen either way, so some tricky planning is in order. Each country will eventually be the focus of a power struggle between the two sides, to determine the future of the nation. Winning a power struggle grants you victory points, which exist on a single continuum. That means there’s one long scoring track with a zero in the middle, and -20 and 20 on the ends. If the overall score is negative at the end of ten turns, the Communists win. If the overall score is positive, Democracy has won the day.
About 85% of 1989?s rules are lifted directly from Twilight Struggle. That last 15% however has a pretty huge impact on the feel of the game. The broad concepts are consistent, but the minutia makes for a markedly different feel. In fact, in many ways I feel like 1989 is a more approachable game. Some little confusing moments have been sanded away or combined. The biggest one is the support checks. These correspond roughly to the coups in Twilight Struggle, where you would roll a die to reduce enemy influence and maybe increase your own. Twilight Struggle also had realignment rolls, which served as a softer touch when you couldn’t afford to coup a country and start nuclear war. 1989 basically combines the two rolls into a support check, and it’s a savvy move. The addition of a card’s value is still added to the roll, but now you use the old realignment modifiers to alter the role one way or the other. It’s a lot cleaner and a lot easier to explain than two different but similar mechanics from the old game. Twilight Struggle also had a “Space Race” track where you could toss an event that would do too much damage. Here that is represented by “Tienanmen Square,” the demonstrations happening in China around this time. It’s not as good a thematic fit, but it’s executed in a more intuitive way, where your card is added to your die roll to advance along the track. It’s more consistent and easier to explain.
The two games differ the most in the process of scoring. In the old game, you simply played the scoring card, got your points, and continued on with the game. Here, there is a new side game that will determine victory in that country. Hands are dealt from a second set of cards according to how many spaces you control in the country. One side leads a specific suit, and the other player must match. If a player runs out of cards or cannot respond, they lose the power struggle. Players of other card-driven games will recognize this from We The People, and Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage. Should the Democrats win, they have an opportunity to take control of the government, depending on the outcome of a die roll. Roll high enough, and democracy wins, removing the scoring card from the game. If communism sticks around, not only does the card stay in play, but the Communist player receives bonus points for hanging on. It’s a pretty strong outcome to be given a 50-50 shot, barring any modifiers that come up. It’s this aspect of 1989 that takes the most adjustment, especially for people who come from Twilight Struggle. No longer is playing a scoring card a sure thing. There’s about three levels of randomness that have to be conquered before you get the outcome you want. You can pull at them to improve the odds, but it’s never a sure thing. There were already people who thought that Twilight Struggle was too random, so if that’s you this game will rankle you no end.
But for my own part, I actually like the power struggles. The uncertainty allows for some catastrophic failures (like the time I won by scoring Poland as the Communists in two consecutive turns, ending the game in Turn 3), but you can also squeak by with some good luck. For someone like me, who is not much good at wrestling down the logistics of making scoring cards work, it’s a more forgiving mechanic. Actually, 1989 is simply a more forgiving game. The power struggles allow for some lucky comebacks, and while you can still lose the game by getting too far behind, there’s no longer any Defcon track to worry about. That alone gives the game a little more breathing room.
So if the game is both a little more forgiving and a little cleaner than Twilight Struggle, do I like it more? Not necessarily. Twilight Struggle’s triumph was that it recreated the tensions of the entire Cold War. The struggle between two superpowers was such a natural fit for the two-player card-driven genre. That tension of trying to anticipate your opponent was ideal for the Cold War. That allowed the game to really draw at the suspicion and nervousness that we think of when we think of that 40-year conflict. 1989 still has that tension, but I don’t think it fits as well in this setting. This is partly due to the multi-faceted nature of the 1989 Revolutions. It wasn’t as simple as Democrats vs. Communists, but 1989 wants to distill it to that. Twilight Struggle did some reduction of its own, but that worked because it was a reflection of the mindset that drove the Cold War. And besides that, whenever you have a “sequel” game like this, you must ask if its worth owning both games, as similar as they are. I actually think they compliment each other well, different takes on the same subject matter and mechanics. But shelf space is limited, so it’s still a question worth asking.
In the end I don’t know if 1989 ever had a chance of escaping the shadow of its predecessor. But that’s hardly a deal-breaker. The truth is, it’s still a tense, exciting game, filled with historical flavor and given the usual excellent graphical touch from GMT. 1989 finds its own voice without ever feeling like it takes away from its older brother. It’s more than a mere imitation. It’s a fascinating take on familiar ideas in design and theme, and it’s a successful one at that.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.