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Game review: Historical themes abound in 'Pax Baltica' and '1989'

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, May 7 2013 10:20 p.m. MDT

A democrat and communist battle for control of Romania in "1989: Dawn of Freedom," from GMT Games.

Cody Carlson

Historical themes abound in two new board games from GMT Games, “Pax Baltica” and “1989: Dawn of Freedom.”

“Pax Baltica” is a war game that recreates the historic struggle between Russia and Sweden for domination of the Baltic Sea in the early 18th century. The action takes place upon a beautifully rendered map of northeastern Europe, where players take on the role of Sweden and its allies and/or a coalition led by Russia.

Turns are divided into years and seasons. At the beginning of each turn players roll a dice that determines how many actions they can take, or if they must resolve an event. Actions consist of reconnaissance, movement and attack, or replacements.

Units — armies, regiments and fleets — are represented by different colored blocks that are set upon the board, facing only their player. This adds a fun “fog of war” element. Numbers on the blocks determine how many dice are rolled in combat and which units fire first. When a unit is hit, it must be rotated, reducing its strength. At the end of a turn, players must make certain that their units can forage for supplies or face penalties. Victory conditions vary by scenario.

This is just a brief overview of the rules and doesn't fully communicate the depth of “Pax Baltica.” There is a learning curve here, but players who love war games and are willing to invest the time will really enjoy it. The combat engine is fast and effective, and can lead to some genuinely intense battles that are a lot of fun.

For two players and clocking in at about one to two hours per scenario, “Pax Baltica” is a wonderful historical game that is both fun and educational. Players who want a longer game have the option of a campaign, which plays in about seven to 14 hours.

One of GMT's greatest games is “Twilight Struggle,” a strategic game set in the Cold War where the United States and the Soviet Union vie for influence across the globe. Now, GMT offers a sequel of sorts to “TS” that takes much from the earlier game, though successfully manages to be its own gaming experience.

“1989: Dawn of Freedom” takes the familiar square counter influence system from “TS,” but places it in that key final year of the Cold War. The map indicates most of the communist nations of Eastern Europe, but unlike its predecessor game, each space within those nations has various strata of society like workers, farmers, intellectuals and elites that must be won over.

Two players take on the role of either the communist or the democrat. During a turn, players play cards that can be used for an event, or for operations points. Operations points allow players to place influence markers or take other actions. With titles like “State Run Media,” “The Sinatra Doctrine” and “Presidential Visit,” card events reflect the history of the tumultuous year wonderfully and can give one player or the other some major advantages.

In a departure from “TS,” when a scoring card is played, each side then is given power struggle cards based on how many areas are under their control in the contested nation. A battle then takes place in which players must match cards to determine a winner and gain victory points.

Like “TS,” the victory point scale is a tug-of-war between the players. If at any time one player reaches 20 points, that player wins an automatic victory. How many nations the communist holds onto after 10 turns also can determine victory, along with some other factors.

Essentially, this is a game where the communist player has to hold onto nations as long as he can in the face of the democrat's onslaught. The theme here is fantastic, and history buffs will have a field day recreating the fall of the Soviet bloc. This a great game that allows you to play out a historical scenario but still gives you a lot of strategic choices. If you liked “TS,” then “1989” will be both familiar and engaging while still managing to offer new challenges. “1989” is very much its own game, however, and gamers who like strategic depth and strong historical themes will love it.

“1989” generally plays in two to three hours. Both games are recommended for ages 12 and up and offer a great way to introduce young people to history's drama and action.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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