Design notes for

WIR SIND DAS VOLK!


The occupation of consciousness is the wondrous mortal thing in this country: since it is annihilating beauty, dignity and poetry; and, based on this corrosion of the people, establishing the dictatorship.
Gert Neumann, Leipzig, 1977 (from: Elf Uhr))

When Peer invited me to test his new prototype, I was hooked right from the start. I recalled the sense of anticipation over the years for the big German novel about the autumn of 1989. Now there are several of these novels, but a game about it? I knew only of some in the satire genre, and thus there was a kind of necessity to make a game about the divided Germany.

We had lots of fun with the first prototype. Peer's selection of events did a good job in recreating the period. Of course there were some mechanics which did not work perfectly yet (as is almost inevitable for the first prototype), but quite soon we had them fixed, and the game was almost a well rounded thing.

Once the initial euphoria of the beginning was gone, however, there was one thing which we started to worry about: East and West were simply too similar in their playstyle. The differences of the two systems (capitalism & socialism; democracy & dictatorship) were not shaped out enough. Furthermore, the events of the fourth decade all too often felt like an ordered collapse (East Germany could play perfectly, and still their economy would always break down). We started to work on the events, exchanged some and introduced for the East its planned economy as game mechanic. Now East Germany would have to plan its economical growth for each decade. We tested some variants, but never felt really happy. How to model an over-fulfillment of the plan? How to model an under-fulfillment? Getting rules for these cases, which could not be circumvented by clever play, was difficult.

It needed a test with Björn and Holger to open our eyes. It simply did not work that way! The problem was deeper set! We decided for a small tabula rasa, and so the planned economy was thrown out, but socialists and Western currency entered onto the stage. With the latter the rundown factories could be integrated into the game system much better. Furthermore we succeeded in shifting the breakdown of the East economy into structural causes. There was still a lot to do, but the direction from now on was clear. — As you can see, finishing a game design needs good critics. Many thanks to Björn and Holger!

Already the first prototype had the economical system with factories and infrastructures. It also included unrest and mass protests, as well as the open display of event cards with the four options to execute each. To keep the game playable, the initial map used the East provinces ante 1952 (before East Germany created its 15 districts), and for its Federal States (except small ones, i. e. Saarland, Hamburg and Bremen. We hope that the inhabitants of these federal states will accept our apologies.) Beside that, the borders of the provinces match their historical borders, with one big exception: Hessen was enlarged to the north, and Sachsen-Anhalt to the south. (Otherwise, Hessen would have had only 1 adjacent province, while Niedersachsen would have had four.)

The events. We wanted to have a mix of political, social, sports and every-day's life events. That's why the events range from the Prague Spring to Start of the Computer Age and GDR permits Blue Jeans production. Having only 20 cards per decade, it was not easy to decide which event to pick. And of course we could have decided differently. Some players might miss the dictated process of collective farming, others the East German endorsement of the Tian-anmen Square massacre, or the Hallstein-Doctrine, or the concert at the Berlin Reichstag in June, 1987. For some events you simply have to include the correlated ones in your thoughts. For instance, the Berlin Airlift does include the Berlin Blockade, or the West German peace movement does include the protests against the NATO Double-Track Decision. Other events, like the Space Race or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 seemed us to be more US-Soviet events than German-German. Last but not least, the selection of events was influenced by the need to keep the balance between Red and Yellow Cards, and between East- and West-German events.

The special cards. Then there are the East German key events, available to East in every game as a special card, most importantly the Construction of the Berlin Wall and The Coming down of the Wall.

We wanted the Construction of the Wall to be a real decision. When East cannot win without the wall, it will build it in every game, and the decision would be a mere pseudo-decision. To make the decision difficult we based the Flight from the Republic on different factors: On living standards difference according to the push-and-pull-factors theory (that's why it is West maximum vs East minimum), on suppression of the state (red police power icons). We introduced uncertainty with the flight icons. The flight icons are a pain when they are on a card in your hand. Should you play the card, thus increasing the Flight? Or should you pass on an action? East's decision will also be based on how many police power cards it has or wants to have, and whether they are pink or red. Therefore it will be different in each game, a good thing for replayability.

Regarding the Coming down of the Wall, you can certainly argue that this event marks the collapse of East Germany per se, and that it should not be included in the game. But how could we do a game about the divided Germany without the Wall coming down? Therefore we designed the event in such a way that it is hard to understand what is better: Keep the Wall? Let it come down? In any case, it is always a sheet anchor when East is in danger of losing the game due to Socialism fails.

Another special card is Honecker ousts Ulbricht. This event was the start of East Germany's deficit spending, caused by the new paradigm of "Unity of Economy and Social Politics". (Which, by the way, is the historically correct title for this card. But who would be able to understand that language of bureaucracy?)

The effects. Of course, much more important than the pure selection of an event is the modelling of its effect. Keeping an eye on balance issues (In what patterns should the prestige marker move in an average game? In what patterns the Western currency marker?) the effect is based on the historical effect. But, finding out the real historical effect sometimes became a convoluted affair. Two examples:

a) Nationalizing the Mittelstand (that is, small and medium sized enterprises, especially craftsmen and companies of the building sector) had for East Germany only negative effects, as we know today in hindsight. The productivity decreased (less Western currency), the people had to wait even longer for the plumber to show up (increasing anger) and started to doubt the planned economy (less convicted socialists). But why did East Germany nationalize the Mittelstand? Because, of course, it thought it would be a huge step forward for socialism. So we decided not model it from hindsight and made it a plus for socialism.

b) The card effects of the Munich Olympics are: West gains prestige (the whole world was looking to Munich), increasing unrest (due to intensified police controls after the Munich massacre) and higher living standards (the Munich subway and a local housing programme). But, wouldn't it be possible to model the failure of the German police in the Munich massacre as a negative West Prestige? Or, the fact that East Germany reached rank three of the medal count (better than West Germany) as a gain for East prestige? Or, the Munich massacre itself, as a set back for socialism? — The Munich massacre, a set back for socialism?!?!, you might wonder now. — Yes, exactly. Remember that according to East German propaganda, Israel (as a close US ally) was an imperialistic and suppressive state par excellence; all solidarity therefore was with Palestine. But, now this Palestine murdered innocent sportsmen in a very brutal way. How could this be in accordance with the idea of peaceful socialism? Should solidarity and compassion not go with Israel? The Munich massacre seeded enormous doubts in East Germany, slogans like "For peace and socialism" began to sound cynical and empty. — But, this kind of thought seemed us too much of dialectic, and we designed the effect as written above.

Finally, for game balance reasons, the effects are scaled differently for East and West. Of course the West's protests against nuclear reprocessing were small compared to the East's Mondays' demos.

Prestige. Initially each side had its own prestige marker. We changed that to a relative prestige. So you always have to read an decreasing East prestige as an increasing West prestige, and vice versa. In the early decades, the point of view of each side's ally decides whether an event results in a prestige gain or loss (for instance, the Soviet Union will be very happy about the founding of the Stasi), while in the later decades the international point of view will be decisive. Besides its a direct effect, the prestige will also decide who is the starting player in a decade. This is especially interesting for East: If it succeeds in gaining prestige the advantage, it can manage to have one action more than West (all cards including the special card must be played). The special cards, however, are quite often bitter pills to swallow. East should decide carefully whether to play them or not. A good game is about decision making.

Western currency. The lack of Western currency is a severe handicap for East, just like it was in reality. East Germany was very creative, in many cases inhumanly and criminally creative, in getting their hands on Western currency. For instance, the deal with West Germany about paying for the freedom of Political Prisoners was used to pursue critics even more restrictively, because every imprisoned citizen was worth up to 100.000 Deutschmarks. In the game, you should never neglect the Western currency icons. Without Western currency East cannot hold its living standards. And don't think that you might end many games without having rundown factories on the board! (But, as long as your infrastructure stays intact, this is not a thing to cause too much fear.)

Police power. A game about German history always bears the danger of trivializing its dark chapters. We included events like the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials to avoid that trap. Furthermore it was important to us to model the difference between a state with a rule of law and a dictatorship. The first cannot suppress opposition with its police batons that easy, the latter can (including its Stasi-methods of Zersetzung). In the game, West must becalm unrest by increasing living standards, while East has different options, one of which is the brutal force of police power.

Socialism. The victory conditions for socialism reflect East Germany's historical mission. Will East succeed in transforming the society or not? Socialists are a kind of secret weapon. Whenever a mass protests breaks out, the socialists will go there and calm it down. They are immune against the temptations of Western welfare. — Which brings us to that showcase called West Berlin. As in history, West Berlin is West's weakest point and its sharpest weapon at the same time. The necessity of transferring living standards to West Berlin is a burden, and we were able to refer to the Allied zones of occupied Germany in the game (although they had to be simplified).

We are the people? No power to Nobody? From a modern perspective it might seem absurd that West Germany could have ever collapsed. But WIR SIND DAS VOLK! is a game, and a game needs this possibility as well. In most games, however, West will outproduce East significantly. But it should always be on its toes. A well triggered event like West German emergency acts or Red Army Faction can derail the West plans. But even if West is able to sail around these obstacles, it is not easy to hunt the East down into a collapse. Quite often, victory or defeat come over you very unexpectedly, just as unexpectedly as the Wall came down 25 years ago for so many, us included.

We hope that WIR SIND DAS VOLK! will give you many hours of exciting game experience. If it should succeed in bringing back to your memory the absurd inhumanity of that time (which although not so many years ago seems so far away), we will be happy. Our biggest hope, however, is that the first East German demonstrators in October 1989, when the GDR celebrated her 40th anniversary and when the fear of a Chinese Solution was real and imminent — that the enormous courage of these demonstrators will not be forgotten. We want to dedicate this game to all of them.

Richard Sivél
Berlin, September, 2014



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