Sunday, 14 October 2012

1989: Dawn of Freedom

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

1989 is in many ways the successor to Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle covers the entire cold war from 1945 to 1989, while 1989 covers that crucial year which ended the cold war. The scope of the game is the six communist countries in Eastern Europe - Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany and Bulgaria. The Soviet Union is withdrawing its support from the communist governments in Eastern Europe. The people want change, and revolutions are brewing. The democrats want to topple the old governments, while the communists want to stay in power as long as possible. One player plays the democrats, the other the communists, and they reenact the year of 1989.

1989 is a card driven game (CDG). It is played over 10 rounds (possibly fewer), and each round each player has 8 cards, of which he usually gets to play 7. Every card is an event, some are communist events, some democrat, some neutral. Every card also has an operations point value, which can be used to place influence markers onto the board, increasing influence in locations where you already have presence, or spreading influence to new locations. Most events are related to adding your own influence or removing your opponent's influence. When you play a card, you can choose to play it as an event or for the ops points, however if it is your opponent's event, it gets triggered. So quite often you need to do damage control because you draw many opponent events. You need to think of how to minimise their effects. When you have your own event card you also want to play it at the most opportune moment, e.g. when it can negate much hard work done by your opponent, or when the effects for you can be greatest.

All this competition over exerting influence is because of the scoring cards (there's one per country) that will turn up during the game. If you draw one, you must play it within the current round. During country scoring, you compare the locations you control in that country against those your opponent controls, to determine how many points each player scores. If the communist government doesn't fall, the communist player scores Power points (not the Microsoft type) for staying in power. If the government falls, the scoring card is removed from the game. There is no need to fight in this country anymore because democratic rule has been established. Most of the scoring in the game is done via the scoring cards. Some scoring cards start in the draw deck at the start of the game, i.e. the Early Year deck. Some are in the Mid Year and Late Year decks, which are shuffled into the draw deck in Rounds 4 and 8. Scoring cards and event cards being segregated into three stages sets the flow of the game. Some event cards are prerequisites for others to become playable, and this makes sure some key events happen in a logical order.

Scoring is done in a tug-of-war manner. There is only one score track that runs from -20 to +20. When the communist player scores, the score marker moves towards the negative end. When the democrat player scores, it moves towards the positive end. If any player reaches the end of his side of the score track, he wins immediately. If the game runs till Round 10, a final scoring is done for all countries and then the final position of the score marker (positive or negative) determines who wins.

There are 6 Eastern European countries on the map, each using a different colour code. The right side of this photo is north, left is south. The score track is on the left edge (partially off the photo). The round track is on the right edge. That section on the top left is the Tiananmen Square track. Other tables are reference tables, and they are very handy.

The horizontal bar at each location specifies the name of the location, the key demographic (icon) and the stability (number). Stability is how many more influence points than your opponent you need to have in order to control a location. The democrats have 3 influence points in Miskolc and the communists have 1. The difference is 2, so the democrats do not have control yet. When you have control, you use the darker side of your marker, e.g. democrats in Budapest.

One new aspect compared to Twilight Struggle is the Struggle that happens just before a country scoring. This is similar to the battle mechanism in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Depending on the number of locations controlled, each player draws some Struggle cards. Most Struggle cards have a suit and a value. The player who has just played the scoring card is the initial attacker. He plays a card, and the defender then tries to match it with a card of the same suit. If the defender cannot or chooses not to match the attacker's card, the attacker wins. If the attacker can't play any card, the defender wins. Whenever the defender successfully defends against an attack, he rolls a die to try to seize initiative to become the attacker. Once a victor is determined for the Struggle, he gains some points and also gets to remove some influence of the loser. The latter can greatly impact the scoring if the two sides are close to equally matched in the country.

Struggle cards. The numbers indicate how difficult it is for the defender to win initiative after a successful defense. The alphabets are basically suits. W cards are special ability cards.

Demographics is yet another new aspect. Every location has an icon representing the key demographic, e.g. workers, farmers, clergy, students, intellectuals. Some event cards are specific for certain demographics. During Struggles, some wild cards (leader cards) can only be used if you control specific demographics. So this is an additional layer to think about.

In Poland (dirty green) the key demographic in many locations is workers (hammer icon).

Support checks are the equivalent of coups in Twilight Struggle, i.e. you roll a die to try to remove opponent influence from a location, and possibly add your own. The likelihood of success depends on the stability value of the location. In Twilight Struggle, every coup heightens the nuclear war risk (DEFCON) and introduces restrictions on where coups can be done thereafter. 1989 has no such restrictions and you can do as many support checks as you want.

The Play

It was the first game for Allen and I. I asked him to play the democrats, since it is probably more fun to instigate revolts all over the place. To our surprise (a pleasant one for him but not exactly so for me), the Hungarian government collapsed very early in the game during the first Struggle, taking it out of action. Allen had quickly played cards to boost his influence there, but unfortunately I didn't have very effective cards for exerting influence there. I put more effort in Poland and East Germany, managing to establish strong positions. The Poland scoring rewarded me nicely, because it was a big country and gave more points. After Hungary, most other country scorings rewarded me more than Allen, so I was able to steadily push the score marker towards the negative end, eventually achieving -20VP (communist instant victory) after the East Germany scoring. I had a strong lead in East Germany, but Allen caught up quickly and we had quite a bitter fight over it, the lead going back and forth many times. Eventually I think it was the control of demographics that gave me the edge to win the Struggle. I had more variety than him. Winning the Struggle tilted the scale towards me, and I gained enough points to achieve -20VP.

Every country has a little scoring table showing how much you score for achieving Presence, Domination or Control, which depends on control of locations in the country. The Power value is scored by the communist player if the government doesn't fall. Each time scoring is being done, as long as the communists stay in power, the Power value increases. There is also a reminder that every battleground location controlled gives 1pt.

One strategy that backfired for Allen was playing his own event cards for ops points instead of triggering the events. Many event cards, once the events on them are triggered, are removed from the game, so the idea was to keep his event cards in circulation to eventually have a bigger percentage of democrat cards in the deck than communist cards. Unfortunately it backfired because delaying some seemingly weak events also made the dependent events - some of which were more powerful - unplayable. When I drew some of the more powerful democrat Mid Year event cards, I could happily spend the ops points because the events couldn't be triggered yet.

Mid game. The Hungarian (orange) government has fallen a long time ago. It has lots of blue democrat markers. Poland (dirty green on the bottom right) is dominated by the communists, 7 vs 3 locations controlled. In East Germany (grey, top right) an intense fight is ongoing, with the communists slightly ahead at this point. Romania (light grey, bottom left) has been largely ignored because its scoring card will only come in the late game.

The Struggles were quite exciting. I enjoyed the psychological element. There is a fair bit of bluffing and double-guessing. E.g. there is a card suit which if used by the attacker to win the Struggle, gives a smaller reward. When the attacker has such a card to play and thinks that the defender can't match it, he needs to consider whether he wants to win in this manner in the first place. Should he go for a safe but small win, or take a risk and hope for a normal win? If the attacker plays such a card and the defender does have a card to match it, the defender needs to think too. Should he concede defeat and take a smaller penalty, or should he prolong the fight and hope to win? These decisions depend on how many cards and what kind of cards the combatants still hold, and also what cards have already been played. There is a special ability card which nullifies all cards of a particular suit of your choice. If you think you opponent has many cards of a particular suit, you may want to play it. However if your opponent keeps playing a specific suit it may not necessarily mean he has many such cards. That card that he has just played may already be the last one he has of this suit, and if you use your special ability card now, it would just be a waste. Struggles are quite a tasty little minigame.

The Thoughts

When playing 1989, I couldn't avoid comparing it to Twilight Struggle. They have many similarities. If you don't like Twilight Struggle, you probably won't like 1989, and vice versa. I quite like Twilight Struggle, but I have not played enough of it to know it very well, so at least for now I don't feel an urge to own 1989. From reading the description of 1989, it may feel like an expansion to Twilight Struggle, like it is just playing Power Grid on a different map - it keeps the good stuff from the base game and makes some tweaks. However I feel it is more than just a change of setting. The many events in 1989 give the game a different flavour. It is more like using the same medium to tell a different story.

1989 has a lot of card management, and also some psychological play. The biggest attraction is reenacting the year of 1989, seeing how things can play out differently, or even delighting in how a game turns out to be very historically accurate. The game is actually not a bad educational tool, but you'll need to do some reading yourself to know the actual order and dates of events.

I like the excitement of the Struggles and don't feel there is too much luck, because there is much you can do to improve your odds of winning. The outcome of a Struggle can significantly impact the country scoring that follows, but not always. If you are already far ahead in a country, a surprise loss in the Struggle will not be such a big impact.

I am a little uncomfortable about the support checks (a.k.a. coups in Twilight Struggle) and how there is no restriction on how many you can do. I guess it makes thematic sense. It is probably just me being not used to the idea. At least in the game that we played we didn't really do too many support checks. Not all locations are vulnerable to support checks. It's mainly those crazy students...


Aik Yong said...

actually the biggest question is: has this game cured Allen of his twilight struggle phobia? :P

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I forgot to ask him after our game. I am quite puzzled why he bought this game in the first place, because he had confirmed his dislike of Twilight Struggle. The games are so similar in many ways.