The revolutionary year 1989 and life under communism – in games

Photo: GMT games

Máme holé ruce (Our hands are empty) and Havel na Hrad (Havel to the Castle): those are just two of many slogans to be forever associated with the Velvet Revolution, which began 25 years ago this week in Czechoslovakia, eventually toppling the communist regime. Those slogans also feature on the box of a highly-acclaimed board game based on those turbulent days called 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Created by Chicago-based designer Ted Torgerson the title, aptly enough, saw its Czech release earlier this year.

Photo: GMT games
In this Special, we’ll be talking to Ted Torgerson about what went into designing a game about 1989 and also to Karol Madaj, a fellow designer at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, about how games serve not as only as entertainment but as learning tools.

1989: The Dawn of Freedom is what is known as a “card-driven” board game, where two players vie for control of areas on the board, in this case six satellite countries in the former Eastern bloc: East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The game is set in 1989, and through a clever use of cards, each player, one representing the Communists, the other dissident, religious and democratic forces, tries to block or bring about events which happened then: wresting away or maintaining control of at least four countries to win. The title was an evolution of a legendary design about the Cold War by Jason Matthews called Twilight Struggle. Having played that game hundreds of times, Torgerson borrowed and reworked elements from the earlier title to focus on a single remarkable year. I spoke to Mr Torgerson on a line to Chicago:

“I spent about four years on the game and it was an integrated process of design and research simultaneously. Sometimes you come up with something that you want to include in the game, an interesting twist that the players could try or strategy, and you go back to the history to try and find something suitable as an event in the game. The outline of the events is obviously determined by the history and then you try and introduce game mechanics to portray the history as accurately as possible.”

RP: One of the cards pertaining to Czechoslovakia is called ‘Palach Week” – what are some of the others?

“In the game, many of the early events pertain to Poland and Hungary, because in 1989 they were the first to get the ball rolling. But there is one, mid-game, which the person playing the communists can use to prevent the democratic player from getting an early foothold in Czechoslovakia: and that is the ‘Normalisation’’ card, referring to suppression by the regime in the 1970s. Many of the other events in the game come later, after the 17th: there are cards for Václav Havel, Civic Forum, Komárek and Klaus as well as Public against Violence in Slovakia. Those are the big ones.”

Photo: GMT games
Once he completed the game, Torgerson showed the design to Jason Matthews who recommended the title for publication with respected US publisher GMT games. The title hit shelves in 2012 and saw a Czech release earlier this year. A heavy game with a hefty rulebook, Dawn of Freedom still has sold well for Czech publisher Mindok and interest was almost certainly further piqued with the recent anniversary. The attraction, for many Czech hobby gamers, is the theme, especially among those who experienced those momentuous days. All the same, the firm’s Pavel Prachař says it helped that Mindok published Twilight Struggle first:

“This is quite a heavy game so three years ago or so and it was hard to imagine that we would be able to publish such a complex title. It was very different from the kinds of family games we were focussed on. From our point of view 1989 is probably even more interesting because it focusses more closely on our country and this region. From the gamer’s point of view Twilight Struggle takes a broader view but players say it is in some way more strategic and that 1989 has more random elements. There is a bit more of a luck element in 1989.”

The game is not quite intended for casual players but those wishing for a deeper challenge who can set aside a few hours. Pavel Prachař says, those who invest in the game and learn the rules, are duly rewarded, not only with an immersive and challenging experience, but something of a history lesson as well:

“Some cards in the game refer to persons or events that are or were lesser-known here. We didn’t know or experience the revolution in Bulgaria, wasn’t covered at that time and we didn’t know a lot. You can look at how 1989 played out in different countries. It has a lot of educational potential. Definitely, it is very educational but there is a high learning curve: you have to learn and get through the game to get to that.”

It is also a history lesson which develops differently each time, one of its main attractions. Designer Ted Torgerson again:

Photo: Mindok
“One side takes the Communists and one side takes the opposition. One side has all of the power of the state, with the military and security forces and that represents maybe 10 percent of the population. On the other hand, there is everyone else, which includes students, intellectuals, workers and everyday people.

“There is a social contract between the Party and the people, where the Party expects that the people will keep their nose out of political questions and almost everyone, except for a handful of dissidents, acquiesces in a relationship where as long as they don’t get involved in politics, the state will leave them alone. But that all changed in 1989 and people rose up and said ‘We are not going to take this anymore’. And that’s what the game is about: social groups rising up and saying they want change and are no longer going to accept the status quo.”

RP: There are games that can even play a role in the classroom…

“I hope so. I usually don’t call my games educational because I find it turns people off and games are primarily about having fun. But certainly you can learn about the period, it can boost interest to learn more and you will also enjoy the game itself more the more you know about what happened.”

Torgerson, like so many around the world, was impressed most perhaps by the dissident playwright Václav Havel, one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution and one of its moral ‘centres’. Even today, Havel is remembered by many regular Americans. The designer again:

“He is remembered here in the US and remains very well thought off. When Havel died there were many stories and remembrances about what he stood for and what he accomplished. He is one of the most important figures from the end of the Cold War.

“To me, his writings, especially The Power of the Powerless, offered an alternative that (although maybe not that many people read it at the time) it created the spirit of the revolution of ’89. We were talking earlier about how people had acquiesced in a system that was based on lies. And Havel’s basic principle was that you obviously can’t contest the power of the totalitarian state: they have unlimited military power, they have all the guns. But you can live your own life in such a way as to refuse the lies. And once people started to live that way, it was a strong enough challenge that communism collapsed.”

Photo: Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance
In Poland, the Polish edition of 1989: Dawn of Freedom was sponsored by the Institute of National Remembrance. And, it is not the only board game focussing on the communist period. Kolejka (Queue) designed by the institute’s Karol Madaj, which has seen several editions, also recalls the period, reminding players of what life in 1980s Poland was like. It is a game focussing on the different lines or queues members of families used to have to endure to pick up goods in stores – stores which too often were largely empty. The game is family-oriented but has the benefit of serving as an educational tool. Designer Karol Madaj says that was one of the main aims:

“I think that it is very important. History is still going on and the situation in Europe is changing. People should not forget about these times, what the situation was like in the People’s Poland and what communism is like.”

The game about queues has been featured in numerous classrooms, Mr Madaj says.

“In my opinion it has been effective. I can tell you about how we presented the game in schools, it was very successful and I think raised children’s historical consciousness. It was really appreciated by teachers all over the world.”

The days of 1989, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of totalitarian governments region-wide were profound, of course, even for those who experienced the events a world away: through their television screens. Most of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remember a world of two superpowers and few ever expected that to change. Ted Torgerson was 24 when the Wall came down and remembers 1989 as a pivotal and an overwhelmingly positive moment in history, not least in comparison to the conflicts of the present day.

“The biggest event after the end of WWII was the end of the Cold War. And that symbolic end of the Cold War was of course the moment the Wall came down. We didn’t see the end to history as some suggested, it didn’t turn out that way. Liberalism triumphed over communism at that moment but other there will be other systems that rise to challenge the liberal order and so on.

“But for those of us who were in our late teens and early 20s, watching the Wall come down was one of those things we will never forget. I guess for the older generation, for instance in Czechoslovakia, they’ll say ‘Where were you when the Russians invaded’ in ’68? Or for my parents in the US, it was ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ Or for today’s younger generation it will be ‘Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?’ But for us we have a milestone in history which was very happy and I think we were very lucky in that respect.”

Photo: Mindok
1989: Dawn of Freedom gives players the chance to relive those days again, not as an observer but as active player making decisions at a pivotal moment in history where everything hung in the balance and hope prevailed. Pavel Prachař of Mindok ends our Special today:

“For me, personally, this was probably the most important aspect of the Velvet Revolution. I don’t remember it all that well, because I was only eight-years-old then, but I do remember the huge impact it had. I remember how everyone got together and how they cooperated and tried to build something better. I am trying to recall that memory, through books, about when history was made. 1989 is a large part of the Czech identity now. I think that is one reason this game brings out a lot of emotions in me and I think probably all the Czech players playing it.”