1989: Dawn of Freedom
Publisher: GMT Games
Release Date: March 2012
Get it Here: GMT Games
The death and dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe does not, at first blush, seem like the most evocative historical period for a board game to draw from. While I was young in 1989, I do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square Massacre sharply. When the opportunity to play 1989: Dawn of Freedom came up, I was interested, but there was a touch of trepidation. How entertaining could the end of Soviet Russia be?
My failing memories of the era recalled a largely bloodless power struggle. David Hasselhoff singing on top of the Berlin Wall as it was disassembled from both sides by cheering Germans. Mikhail Gorbachev always seemed more like a kindly old man than a world leader. Even the Tiananmen Square Massacre, as it was shown on TV, wasn’t bloody. Being a child at the time, I didn’t have any idea how interesting and deadly the year 1989 was.
When 1989: Dawn of Freedom arrived at my front door, the first thing I noticed was the weight of it. Not being a board gamer, I had no idea that this would be such a hefty item. I unboxed the game on my coffee table as my game playing group looked on and everyone was impressed by what they saw. The board is large and thick, with nice printing. The counters came on two sheets of heavy stock, printed to the same high level as the board. Two dice, one red and one white, didn’t do much to warrant mention, but were nicer than some dice I have encountered (cough Warhammer cough). There are two decks of cards: 110 Strategy cards and 52 Power cards. The cards come on a slick stock of medium thickness and have high radius corners, reminiscent of the old Illuminati: New World Order cards. Two very nice Player Aid cards, double-sided, fill out the materials list and make play much smoother. GMT Games was kind enough to include several small zipper baggies to hold the components, a real plus. The box itself is nice and solid and holds the components easily, even after disassembly.
I hate it when reviewers use words like sumptuous and extravagant when describing something, as neither word is overly descriptive. That said, it is difficult not to pour accolades on the physical components of 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Care and skill are apparent from every angle. All of the markers and chits are easy to read and are well-designed. The cards do a fantastic job of communicating the events they portray, usually with little more than a piece of art and a line of text. Playing against an opponent born a few years after 1989, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily he picked up the chain of events, several of which I was fuzzy on, as well. The abstract/realism line is tread carefully and the end result is a game that is easy on the eyes.
The setup of 1989: Dawn of Freedom centers on six countries in Eastern Europe: Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. There are two players, and only two players, one representing Communism and one representing Democracy. When the game begins, Communism is in control of all six countries, Mother Russia is firmly Communist, and China is running smoothly. This doesn’t last long, as the Democratic player will throw monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the Communist player’s plans. The Communist player isn’t so much playing for the win as he is for survival. This sort of asymmetrical engagement is familiar to me as a wargamer, thanks to Force on Force, but it was new to some members of my play group. Several players were put off by this aspect, but a couple of us, myself included, enjoyed the challenge of fighting from the bottom, as it were.
The crux of 1989: Dawn of Freedom lies in the Strategy cards. Each player draws a hand of them at the beginning of each turn and must play one per round. Strategy cards can either be played to trigger an Event or for Ops. Playing a card for Ops means that you can use the card’s Ops value to gain support in a location, force your opponent to make a Support Check with the risk of losing support, or to attempt to advance the Tiananmen Square track. What makes this tricky is that the Strategy cards are split between the two sides or are neutral and playing one of your opponent’s Strategy cards for Ops makes the Event go off. Because you must play down to one card at the end of the turn, it takes care and strategy to ensure that you don’t destroy yourself. The majority of cards are marked with an asterisks, indicating it is a one-time event and must be removed from the game. Advancing along the Tiananmen Square track can make the sailing a bit smoother, but only if you can maintain a lead, as the bonuses disappear once your opponent reaches them. Balancing between Ops, Events, and the Tiananmen Square track is where the tension lies and it can get very tense in a hurry.
There are also Scoring cards. A Scoring card may never be the last card left in a player’s hand at the end of a turn and must be played. When a Scoring card hits the table, a Power Struggle begins and 1989: Dawn of Freedom gets ugly, in the best possible way. The best description of a Power Struggle is something like War, but less civil and a bit funnier. Power Struggle cards come in four suits (Rally in the Square, Strike, March, and Petition) and have differing values. The trick is to play a Power Struggle card your opponent doesn’t have a matching suit for. Nothing like having half the cards your opponent does but playing the one suit they don’t have. The Power Struggle is a much needed fast section in the middle of a slower game and the change of pace is refreshing.
Scoring is where the power imbalance becomes apparent. If the Democratic player wins, then the country is free of Communism and the Scoring card is removed from play. If the Communist player wins, the Scoring card stays in play and the whole thing can happen again. Ultimately, this means a country can never go back to Communism. This is the asymmetry I was talking about. Democracy can spread, but Communism can only defend, never taking the offensive. The Communist victory, which is very possible, can only come in a Pyrrhic form.
It became quite clear that this game really benefits from having a bit of extracurricular fun. The Communist player should complain and act as grumpy as possible throughout the proceedings. Drinking shots of vodka or bottles of Rasputin is optional, but it is a very good option. Throwing your shoe at the Democratic player is frowned upon. The Democratic player should take every opportunity to smile, eat cheeseburgers, and play David Hasselhoff songs following the fall of a country. Are these good ideas? Not really, but we enjoyed them.
1989: Dawn of Freedom is a moderately complex game, but if the players take the time to tackle the 24 page manual with a careful (and sober) reading before playing, it is very smooth. I would schedule three hours or so for the first game or two, but it gets dramatically faster with experience. After a long Saturday night, my main board game opponents and I could battle over the fate of Poland in a little less than 2 hours and still have plenty of time to make fun of each other’s terrible fake Russian accent.
For me, the marks of a good board game are that if the time spent on it is engrossing, the components will survive a few years of replay, and whether or not players will clamor for a rematch when everything has been settled. While the setting, rulebook, and complexities are, quite frankly, intimidating, 1989: Dawn of Freedom falls into a nice rhythm quite early in the process of learning it. Plans go awry and leads are squandered frequently in 1989: Dawn of Freedom, usually in a very entertaining way. A standard game can end in a crash very early, which was one of the most enjoyable losses of my gaming career.
The issue at hand is whether or not 1989: Dawn of Freedom is worth the outlay of cash. Your $65 buys a 2-player exclusive game that is hard to love. Not hard to love because of a flaw in the rules, but because of the dry subject and complex rules. Once that mental hurdle is cleared, the elegance of the systems, the intriguing interplay between the various systems in play, and the high build quality make 1989: Dawn of Freedom feel like it is worth more than the $65 price. For the board gamer who is patient, wily, and doesn’t mind an asymmetrical engagement, 1989: Dawn of Freedom is an extraordinarily entertaining game, one which could potentially provide years of quality play.
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