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)

Counter Culture: In the Kingdom of the Board

Any ludological taxonomy that classifies games by physical features will contain an order, or perhaps a phylum, based on the presence of a pre-defined playing surface—a play mat, a tableaux, or, more simply, a board. Consider it Gamerus non-computericum meepleopile boardiferous. Indeed, boards give their name to this part of the gaming hobby as a whole, boardgaming, even when said games form their “boards” via tile or card placement.

For many people, particularly non-gamers, the board in a boardgame is literally a board, a thick piece of cardboard, usually with a single fold down the middle, with a paper playing surface glued or, less often, printed on top of it. The expectation when opening a boardgame is that you will find such a playing surface.

For wargamers, particularly contemporary wargamers—and wargaming is a genus within boardgaming—the opposite holds true: our boards tend to be printed directly onto heavy stock paper, not mounted to a board. (Wargamers tend to refer to boards as maps, as they most often depict terrain, either actual or abstract.)

Back in board wargaming’s first turn, though, Avalon Hill, the Standard Oil of wargaming, prided itself on producing wargames with mounted maps, only late in their existence switching to paper maps for some games. By contrast, their main competitors in the 1970’s and 1980’s, SPI and GDW, produced games almost exclusively with paper maps. Economically, paper maps are cheaper to print, lighter to ship, less bulky to package, and eliminate the tricky mounting process. As wargaming became more and more a niche market into the 1990’s, mounted wargame maps all but disappeared, showing up in the slow trickle of Advanced Squad Leader modules and not much else.

Modern printing methods and the much-debated resurgence of the wargaming hobby have seen contemporary wargamers spoiled for choice, with three types of maps available—paper, “deluxe,” and mounted:

Paper, deluxe, or mounted?

How do these three types of maps stack up?

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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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Game Preview: Nightfighter

It looks like the next air combat game to come from designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, who previously brought us Downtown (GMT, 2004) and The Burning Blue (GMT, 2005), will be Nightfighter, focusing on, well, air combat at night in World War II:

Nightfighter will recreate the tactics of night fighting, from the ‘cat’s eye’ fighting of the London night blitz to the Mosquito intruder operations at the end of the war. Scenarios include Freya AN interception in the Dunaja dark fighting zones, Himmelbett zones, the introduction of AI radar, Wilde Sau and Zahme Sau tactics. The evolution of electronic systems and countermeasures is modelled, including the use of ‘Airborne Cigar’, ‘Window’ and ‘Serrate’.

Most interesting to me is the use of one player as an “umpire” to simulate the uncertainty of locating attacking forces at night, sort of a “single blind” situation. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s prior two games both featured one player pre-plotting an attacking air raid that, while not “on rails,” was restricted in its ability to alter course once the defender engaged. Both sides still had plenty of decision points in those games, regardless of any tactical restrictions.

Nightfighter seems to move the attacking force even more strongly into an automated mode, with the umpire more of a moderator than a player, raising the question of how much fun the game will be for the umpire player.

Discussion by playtesters over at the ConsimWorld Nightfighter topic suggest that the game is enjoyable for the umpire, owing in part to the umpire’s omniscient view of the battle. Depending on game length, it might be feasible to play one and run one in an evening’s gaming. I can see myself enjoying running a bomber stream even without many decision points, if only because I can make droning bomber noises and fake cockpit chatter while my erstwhile opponent sweats out the details of the raid . . .

Nightfighter playtest map detail from http://www.airbattle.co.uk/nightfighter.html

The graphics, even in their playtest state as above, taken from the Nightfighter site, look great. Not that we spoiled gamers have come to expect anything less from Lee Brimmicombe-Wood.

Doesn’t sound solitaire friendly, but then anything with hidden movement/placement seldom is. With luck there will be a VASSAL module produced shortly after this game comes out to facilitate online/PBeM play, as we had with both Downtown and The Burning Blue.

Some of the playtest materials that have been posted bear a GMT logo, so it’s likely Nightfighter will be offered there first. I’m looking forward to this one and will pre-order as soon as it’s on any company’s pre-order list.