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)

Rumble in the Jungle: MMP’s Angola

After years of development, Multi-Man Publishing‘s re-make of the Ragnar BrothersAngola has finally arrived, and in fine form.

A meeting of monster columns

This area-move wargame on the Angolan Civil War in the mid-1970s is designed for four players, split into alliances of two players each (one side controlling the FNLA and UNITA forces, the other the FAPLA and MPLA forces that waged war through the Angolan countryside). The game can conceivably be played with fewer than four, but the game strives to model the command-control failures of the various forces and the difficulty they had in coordinating their actions, a difficulty the game emulates in part by prohibiting secret planning. You either tell your partner (and your opponents) that you’re moving to particular town or you don’t say a thing and hope he/she figures it out by the time your forces have arrived. Fewer players means fewer opportunities to mess up a grand sweeping plan, and grand sweeping failures were part of this conflict and an important aspect of the game.

I had the pleasure of playing a four-player session of Angola recently at that finest of local game stores, Labyrinth, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Michael Vogt (UNITA) and I (FNLA) squared off against Pablo Garcia-Silva (MPLA) and Doug Bush (FAPLA) in Labyrinth’s gaming area for a stolen Friday afternoon of fun.

None of us had played this game, originally released in 1988, before, but we’re all grizzled wargaming vets, so we forged ahead full speed. Much of the game is familiar wargame stuff, though the enforced fog-of-war rules and a nifty odds determination system meant that attacks often went in at 1:2 ratios, an almost unheard of occurrence in most games. The game system really wants each player to push, and push hard, even at low odds. The card-driven movement system (with only limited opportunities to move units each turns) forces one to use units whenever possible, and a limited countermix and the subsequent loss of reinforcements if you don’t sufficient counters in your pool helps encourage an attacking mindset. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, if you will.

Pablo and Doug’s Cuban-backed forces made good gains early on, and the game design self-balances by giving the side that loses territory the opportunity to gain extra forces from their foreign backers (Zaire and South Africa, for UNITA and FNLA).

The siege of Lobito

After a few bad turns, you’ve got a force to be reckoned with, and Michael and I had a few bad turns, enabling us to push back in style. The UNITA stacks coming out of South Africa were monstrous and inflicted some real damage.

By the time we called the game, both sides were tied and looking quite equally matched, force-wise (though Doug did have a giant air force that dwarfed the rest of us). But because of the early losses, the UNITA/FNLA alliance was in a precarious position—another bad turn could have seen the foreign powers remove all aid. The risk/reward balance in the game is quite finely crafted in that respect: you can’t play rope-a-dope until you have a giant army, because you’ll risk losing your sponsors and will probably be too far behind on points (representing accumulated political victories caused by territorial gains).

Combining ease of play (though with much tactical depth) and a wild random set-up feature, Angola is going to be making the rounds at game conventions for years to come. I foresee quite a few late night four-player sessions of this one at Winter Offensive.

My thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo, Doug, and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.

Counter Culture: Cards Up My Sleeves

Maps? Under plexiglass. Counters? Punched, neatly clipped, and sorted. Rules? Appended with the latest errata from online. Cards? Er, cards?

Cards in wargames are nothing new, of course. As far back as 1974, Avalon Hill released a pair of games, 1776 and Kingmaker, that used cards to control battle tactics or introduce variability and randomness. Our friends in Baltimore also brought us the first of the “card-driven” games, 1994’s We the People. The “card-driven” mechanic, whereby players select cards from a hand to enable actions or trigger events, has spawned hundreds of imitators and innovators. Still other wargames are more than just card-driven—they’re functionally card games, like Avalon Hill’s Up Front (1983) and Attack Sub (1991).

So what’s a gamer to do with all these cards? Why, sleeve them in plastic, of course.

All Sleeved Up

But why does one sleeve cards?

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Game Preview: Angola

Which is rarer? A wargame on the Angolan Civil War, or a serious wargame that plays very well with three or four players? Well, the former, probably, but rarer still is a multi-player wargame on the Angolan Civil War. And that’s where Angola comes in.

Originally published by the Ragnar Brothers in 1988, Angola, an area-move game with card-driven unit activation, covers the opening portions of the Angolan Civil War in 1975-76, with the four major factions (MPLA, FNLA, UNITA, and FAPLA) represented.

Angola Prototype Counters from MMP

Multi-Man Publishing is re-releasing Angola as part of their International Game Series line, with updated graphics courtesy of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, a noted game designer in his own right whose graphics always strike a balance between functionality and style. MMP’s Angola is currently available for pre-order:

The game is finely balanced, and all players frequently feel as if they are simultaneously on the verge of victory or defeat thanks to an ingenious victory point system that rewards good play for both sides and allows players to absorb reversals and strike back with the right countermove.

Reports from people who have played the original indicate that Angola provides an unique experience, with lots of deception and posturing possible, making it great for multi-player (or at least for the guys I usually play against). The rules scale to accomodate between two to four players, so it’s not strictly multi-player. And given that this is a MMP game, a VASSAL module is almost certain to be released as well, providing an excellent method for conducting multi-player sessions.

Angola has been sitting on MMP’s pre-order page for a while now, so if you have any interest, get over there and pony up a pledge. This game looks to be a hidden gem.

(Image from MMP)

Taking Over the World, One Card at a Time: Twilight Struggle

The Cold War presents challenges for wargamers, particularly those drawn to the hobby by the desire to replay, examine, and sometimes change, history. Most of the possible Cold War battles remained, thankfully, merely possible, so there’s no history to recreate in pushing T-72s through the North German Plain or planning a defense of the GIUK Gap: it’s all conjecture.

I’ve never had a problem with hypothetical wargames—the levels of abstraction necessary to simulate any battle turns every game into a more-or-less hypothetical exercise, so as long as a game remains true to its intentions, I’m happy to accept whatever backstory it proposes—but they do suffer in the marketplace and seldom appear these days. The biggest exception is GMT‘s blockbuster Twilight Struggle (2005; rev. ed. 2007), a card-driven treatment not of any particular Cold War battle but of the Cold War itself.

A bit of the struggle in Twilight Struggle

Cards drive the play, providing points with which to influence (and topple) governments and events that follow the course of history, from the Berlin Blockade and the waves of decolonization through to Solidarity and the rise of Maggie Thatcher. Regional wars pop up here and there, and the increase in tensions between the superpowers can result in nuclear war, an Idiot Rule being in place to penalize the player who pushes the world over the edge, a common feature in Cold War wargames.

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