A Taste of 1989 at Labyrinth

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in a demo session of GMT‘s recently released 1989: The Dawn of Freedom, hosted by one of the co-designers, Jason Matthews. Held at the finest game store in Washington, DC (and indeed, the entire metro region), Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, as part of their “A Taste of…” series of game demos, the event filled the store’s back gaming space with players eager to recreate the struggle for democratic change in the countries of Eastern Europe during the tumultuous late ’80s.

Jason Matthews provided a nice overview of card driven games in general, spoke to his design process and the challenges of creating (and publishing) innovative designs in an increasingly crowdfunded market, and also worked through the rules for the game. It’s always a pleasure to be able to ask rules questions of the person who designed them.

Using a similar card-driven armature as Twilight Struggle, which Jason Matthews also co-designed, 1989 pits two players in the roles of Communists—attempting to keep control of the social and political structures of Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia—and Democrats, striving to gain control of the same. Players familiar with Twilight Struggle can jump right in, as the basic dilemma of using cards for either operations (to take actions on the map representing efforts to gain or wrest control) or events (representing significant moments from history) remains in place.

1989 The Dawn of Freedom via of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles

New to the system, the Power Struggle sub-game comes into play when overall control of a country must be assessed due to play of a Scoring Card. The Power Struggle—essentially a suit matching contest using cards apportioned via relative control of the country—adds quite a bit of uncertainty into what was, in Twilight Struggle, a very cut-and-dry calculation. You can go into the Power Struggle with an edge in country control and leave with no control at all. Some might find that variability unsettling, but I like what it adds to the game. There are no guaranteed victory points in this game.

As with most event-based card driven games, once you know the events and their placement in the game’s “storyboard,” much of the sense of wonder and discovery vanishes; I’ve played Twilight Struggle enough times to know which cards open me up to late game traps if I play them and which cards are mandatory plays as soon as they appear in my hand, certainly a strategic benefit, but I’ve also lost the thrill of watching the history unfold via the cards. While I don’t think 1989 will ultimately escape that fate (and it’s not a terrible one, for the basic game play is still quite satisfying), it’s nice to have another game in this vein where the gameplay is somewhat seat-of-the-pants, not knowing how one action will reverberate into another, as ultimately I game for wonder as much as winning.

My thanks to Jason Matthews and the always awesome crew at Labyrinth for hosting this demo session. It prompted me to pick up a copy of 1989, which I’m sure will see a fair bit of play.

(Picture via Labyrinth Games and Puzzles)

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