1989: Dawn of Freedom Review

1989 Dawn of Freedom game

One of my all time favorite games is Twilight Struggle.  Because of this, the fine people of GMT Games suggested that I try out 1989: Dawn of Freedom, since it's by the same designers and is somewhat of a "part 2" to Twilight Struggle.

In 1989, each player is struggling to take (or maintain) power in Eastern Europe.  To do this, players alternate playing cards that can either be used for "Ops", for the event showing on the card, or to advance on Tiananmen Square.  If using a card for "Ops", the player may add influence to any countries where they currently have influence or are adjacent to countries that have influence.  Alternatively, when using a card for Ops, a player may choose to make "support checks" by adding the value of the card, a few modifiers, and a die roll, to see if their opponent's influence is removed (and possibly their own influence is added).  Whenever a card is played for Ops, if an opponent's event is on the card, then that event will still occur.  If you want to avoid this, you can play a card in Tiananmen Square (once per round), to try to get one of a variety of bonuses - and to prevent your opponent's event from occurring.  One special type of event card is a scoring event.  When a scoring event is played, a Power Struggle immediately ensues, where both players get cards based on their position in the scoring country, and they play a small mini-game with them.  Whoever wins gets bonuses, which can include taking or keeping power in the country.  Finally, the players score points based on each player's position in the country; and if the Communist player still has power, then they get a bonus based on the number of times the country has scored.  Play continues like this until one player has 20 points (in a tug-of-war scoring, where only one player can have points at a time), or until 10 rounds have been played - signifying the end of the year.  If all of the rounds have been played, one final scoring takes place, and the highest score wins.

If you're familiar with Twilight Struggle, and you just want to know what is different, here's a quick list before I get into the pros and cons:
  • There is no Defcon track
  • There is no Headline phase
  • Realignment rolls and coups have been combined into "support checks"
  • Power Struggles occur during scoring rounds (I'll write more about these later)
  • The Space Race has been replaced by Tiananmen Square
  • No single scoring card has an automatic win condition (though one triggers an early game end)
  • Each city has a "type" (worker, farmer, elite, etc)
1989 Gorbachev game card
All of the events are based on history
Now, let's start digging into the pros and cons.  The first major pro was that I found 1989 to be incredibly engaging.  I enjoyed each of my games from start to finish, and I was even thinking about the games I played afterwards - and found myself really looking forward to the next time that I would be able to try it out.  Now, I play games a lot (though I'd like to play even more), and I often find myself looking forward to game night - but normally I am thinking to myself "ok, what game do I need to play so that I can review it."  With this one, I was thinking specifically about wanting to get together with someone to play 1989 - forget all of that "what should I play" nonsense, I wanted to play this.

The next pro is fairly standard with all of the games that these designers make - I really appreciate the historical richness of the game.  I like that each of the events are based on things that actually happened, and that, if I was willing to learn it, I could easily learn some history simply by playing a game that I enjoy!

Another couple of pros that I will mention briefly are that I love the tug of war nature of the game, and I like that you have to make hard decisions (and sacrifices) during the game.  Each game will be different based on who you play with, and what you draw.  If I play with someone that is very interested in taking over Hungary, the entire first half of our game might be focusing on Hungary - because it's important to counter what your opponent is doing.  One example of this is that I drew an event (as the Communist player) that gave the Democratic player an influence in every city in Czechoslovakia where I did not have control.  I spent the entire round building control in Czechoslovakia to mitigate this effect.  My opponent naturally thought that I had a Czechoslovakia scoring card, and so he was countering my moves there.  That's the great tug of war.  Then, at some point, I knew that I had to give up and play the card - or throw it in Tiananmen Square.  I chose to play this one and throw a different card away, so that I would get the 4 Ops points, even though it made me sacrifice a bit by giving my opponent some influence in Czechoslovakia.

mid year 1989 card
Some cards are very powerful
Now to talk about Power Struggles.  If you like Twilight Struggle, then you will basically like or hate 1989 depending on your feelings about Power Struggles.  When a Power Struggle ensues, each player gets 6 cards if they have at least one city in the scoring country.  Then, for each additional city, they will get 2 more cards.  The cards come in 6 types - Petition, Strike, Rally, March, Leader, and Wild.  (Though the Leaders really act as Wilds, and the "Wild" are more like events.)  If you have a Leader, and you have the corresponding type in the scoring country (ie, you have an Elite Leader, and you control an Elite space in the country), then they can be used as any of the first four types.  Whoever played the scoring card starts with initiative and plays a card.  Their opponent then must play a card of the same type.  If they are able to do this, then they roll a die, and if they roll at least the number in the corner of the player with initiative's card, then they get to take initiative.  Otherwise, initiative stays the same.  Cards are played back and forth like this until one player cannot play a card.  That player loses the Power Struggle.  Finally, both the winner and loser roll a die.  The loser is rolling to see how much influence they have to remove from the scoring country.  The winner is rolling to see how many victory points they earn (and if they are the Democratic player, to see if they take power in the country).

I haven't decided my feelings about Power Struggles.  Conceptually, I really like them.  I think that they are a neat additional element of the game.  I don't think that they are especially strategic - or, more specifically, I think that the strategy is fairly basic in them. But I enjoy them.  Theoretically.  However, when you draw 10 cards, and 5 of them are leaders that you can't play, you really feel like the game just punched you in the face.  Or, if you draw 12 cards and don't have any of a certain suit - and then your opponent leads with that suit - you become disenfranchised with this mechanic.  So, as I said, I still haven't really decided my feelings on this element of the game - but it is the single biggest change from Twilight Struggle.

1989 Bulgaria
Here's a hint: Ruse is in Bulgaria
Now to get to the cons.  I'll start off with a very minor con.  As it turns out, I don't know my Eastern European geography especially well.  So, when a card tells me that something happens in "Ruse," it will take me a while to figure out where that is (the first time - I do learn where it is on the gameboard eventually... though I still can't find it on a normal map).  This con goes away as you keep playing the game, but it will probably be something that you will encounter in your first game or two.

My bigger con is that the game seems to be a bit more luck influenced than it initially seems.  More specifically, bad luck can be more detrimental than I would like.  One example of this is in the Power Struggles that I mentioned earlier.  Bad luck in a Power Struggle can be a major swing in points.  For example, let's assume that I am the Democrat player and we are having a Power Struggle in Poland.  It's the second time that Poland is scoring, I didn't do well the first time, but I have since gained a small advantage (2 more countries than my opponent).  I have the advantage, so I "should" win the Power Struggle.  We score Poland, and I get a horrible draw in the Power Struggle and lose.  I will possibly lose influence (making it harder to win the next struggle), my opponent may get some victory points (if he rolls well), but then I will also lose 6 points for letting the Communist player have power in Poland after it has scored a second time.  Six points is a huge point swing based on bad luck.  And, that's just one example - there is also a decent amount of luck about when the scoring cards are drawn, as well as who draws them.  There is also luck in die rolling for Power Struggle results, support checks, and Tiananmen Square results.  I'm not suggesting that the game is luck based, but what I am saying is that when you have bad luck at a critical juncture of the game, it will be incredibly frustrating.

Overall, I give 1989 an 8.5/10.  I really, really enjoy this game, but I have also been so frustrated by bad luck (I didn't win a single Power Struggle in my first two games, regardless of how many cards I or my opponent received, and often rolled a 6 afterwards, forcing me to remove quite a bit of influence) that I just can't give it a 9.0 or higher.  With that said, it is one of the only games in recent memory that I think about between gaming sessions, and that I really have the urge to want to play (instead of wanting to play games in general).

If 1989: Dawn of Freedom intrigues you, you should also check out (of course) 1960: The Making of the President, and Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861.

I would like to thank GMT Games for providing me with a review copy of 1989: Dawn of Freedom.


  1. Your same feeling on luck in 1989 is the same feeling I have about the luck in Twilight Struggle. True, I think 1989 swings a bit more based on luck (since Power Struggles both hurt the loswer AND help the winner), but the same odd luck factors in Twilight Struglle have made me lower my opinion of it recently. Nothing is more frustrating than drawing 3 scoring cards or rolling 3's and lower on the quagmire for 4 straight turns.

    I like the decision making you have to make in the game, given your cards, but sometimes even the best decision yields poor results due to luck. That's not a huge issue for a lot of games, but it's hard to accept it as a deflatting factor in ones that are regarded as complex strategy games that take a couple hours.

  2. Yesterdy I Played 1989 for the first time, after extensive earlier play of Twilight Struggle and some experience with Rome vs. Carthage. I haven't quite gotten the feel for the latter game yet, but being acquainted with the battle system was a huge benefit for playing 1989 pretty well right of the bat. I won two power struggles against the odds, though luck was also a big factor in that. Hugely enjoyable experience, I must say! Indeed a game which you keep thinking about. My opponent is, too. He is already plotting his revenge! (We also play TS and R vs C together and are pretty evenly matched.)