Ire Is Bad
Perhaps the most sobering tragedy of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is that its most significant global impact was to cause a few Communist philosophers in France to reevaluate their stance on the benevolence of the Soviets. Without support from President Eisenhower, the revolution’s early success may have temporarily placed their occupiers on the back foot, but there was nothing they could do in the face of an all-out mechanized assault. Tens of thousands were killed, injured, executed, or deported. That year, Time magazine named “The Hungarian freedom fighter” their man of the year. Come 1957, it was Nikita Khrushchev.
Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 is all about capturing that first triumphal week of the revolution, when brave men and women rose up throughout Budapest to express their displeasure at the Secret Police, State Protection Authority, and other emblems of Soviet control that had taken hold of their country. It sounds like exactly the sort of game that ought to tickle my fancy. So why hasn’t it?
At first glance, nothing seems amiss. Like one of my favorite cooperative historical games of last year, Black Orchestra, Days of Ire understands the need to tether its action to the actual sweep of history. Where Black Orchestra provided seven sequential decks that captured the expansion and eventual contraction of the Third Reich, Days of Ire — and we’re talking firmly about the cooperative game here — slides through three periods of escalating tensions and violence across its seven-day duration. For the most part, this is what sets the tempo of the game. Early on, potential revolutionaries are just that, potential, and must be persuaded to take up arms, Molotov cocktails, medicine kits, and radios. The State Protection Authority (SPA) has some presence in the city but hasn’t yet begun to mobilize in earnest. There are a few Soviet tanks holding down vital positions, boxing you in.
Then, like a first shot fired into a crowd, everything explodes into motion.
In general, there isn’t all that much to do on a single turn. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to consider. Not only are you consigned to move around the city, often slinking around the edges of where those damned tanks are squatting while going about the business of activating revolutionaries, pushing back militia, or pitching in with whatever events have gripped the city. But you’re also managing a dwindling hand of cards, the weapons and aid packages and information broadcasts that are the difference between victory and a total rout, and doing everything in your power to make sure you aren’t cornered by encroaching snipers or militia as they pour in from other cities.
The result is a tidy little tightrope act, one that sees you swaying over the precipice while you shuffle forward and back, alternately pushing against the edges of the occupation only to retreat when things get too hot. So far so good.
But where this particular revolution starts meeting some significant pushback is when it finally gets around to revealing some of those events. Rather than flipping a single card and letting you deal with the consequences — once again, consider Black Orchestra, which used the tension of impending Gestapo raids to make each reveal a fresh agony — Days of Ire insists on flipping four at once. Four. Cuatro. Négy. That’s “four” in Hungarian.
The problem isn’t that these are always bad. In fact, many of them are positive developments for the revolutionaries, bestowing new cards, movement, or even friendly tanks or howitzers as the Hungarian army jumps into the fray. Rather, the issue is that these cards alter the game state so completely that the efforts of your fighters start to feel not only thematically pointless, but capriciously so. You might work tirelessly to set up barricades along the SPA’s main route into the city, locking enemy tanks and snipers in place, only to draw a crucial event in that neighborhood long after you’ve skipped out on it. On the one hand, this can make for moments of intense drama where you’re forced to plunge back into the belly of the beast you had believed slain; on the other, it can also lead to situations where the last critical events are simply out of reach or beyond your ability to round up the correct symbols to resolve. Worse, your main method of blocking the appearance of these cards is tied to a system of public support for either the Hungarian nationalists or the Communist government — except it’s a system that’s manipulated more often by random draw than by anything you actually accomplish. Compare that to the way you can use your conspirators to weaken Hitler’s military power in Black Orchestra, and you’ve got the difference between a game that wants you to struggle your way to the top and a game that wants you to ride the waves it deigns to hurl at you.
Oh, and some of those cards temporarily rob revolutionaries of their single action point. In the distant future of 2017, that shouldn’t be a thing in any board game. Never again, we cry, never again.
Unsurprisingly, some of these quibbles are solved by the mode that puts one player in the boots of the Soviet commander in charge of Budapest. There, events are bought and sold, locations are placed intentionally beyond reach whenever possible, and the SPA’s companies of militia and snipers are ordered about rather than marching zombie-like towards the nearest revolutionary. But even with a conniving human brain masterminding all your troubles, Days of Ire struggles to escape its sense of lethargy, especially since revolutionaries are only given one or two actions at a pop, making each turn feel simultaneously critical and a little too obvious. It would have been far more interesting to give each player a little more to do each turn, while allowing the opposition to respond in kind. As it stands, the game too often comes down to wild swings, dictated less by strategy and more by the appearance of events or opportunistic fighters to make or break the day.
Then again, we’re talking about a game that’s clearly a love letter to those brave resistance fighters who wound up on the cover of Time for their remarkable sacrifices in late 1956. While some historical games are willing to let us have our bejgli and eat it too — Queue springs to mind — Days of Ire can’t escape the feeling that it’s more of a tribute to a monumentally noble moment rather than a good game.