Despite the title, the relation to the two George Orwell novels is superficial, but it established the Cold War, trust no one atmosphere of the game. In 1984, animals took over the world governments and started a race for global supremacy, using all means at their disposal short of thermonuclear warfare, which was nevertheless a looming thread. When the three to five players start the game, they can choose from five species still in the running for world domination: Frogs, Pigs, Bears, Pandas and Eagles. To figure out which real countries these animals stereotypically represent is left as an (easy) exercise to the reader, for the game your choice of animal is purely cosmetic, they all play the same. The currently raging conflict is about control of five regions/species: Latin America (Parrots), the Middle East (Donkeys), India (Elephants), Australia (Kangaroos) and Africa (Lions).
With five players, the game starts out completely balanced. All players have one agent in each region, representing their local influence. With three or four players, you already decide which region to focus on during the setup by adding more agents to the board. Not that initial balance matters much, as the first action in every round you move agents around the globe to increase your influence in one region – at the cost of losing influence somewhere else, since your number of available agents is fixed. But you rarely control a region alone, anyway. To gain control of a region, you have to be a member of the controlling alliance, that is, the alliance controlling more than half the agents active in that region. Negotiating the alliances region by region is the core of the game, and almost everything is allowed to weasel your way into the winning camp: promising cooperation in other regions, paying your prospective allies with extra Influence Tokens, threatening to use special actions or simply being the strongest force without which no one can control the region, all are valid and useful negotiation strategies. The only thing that can never be is an alliance between all players present. One player always has to be left out, that’s one of the ways to force players away from cooperative play.
Control, however, is not an end in itself. You can control the world and not gain a single victory point for it. All it gives you is Influence Tokens from the regions you control, distributed among the victorious alliance. Usually, the more agents you have the more influence you gain, but Token distribution is one of the approved ways of negotiating alliances. The Influence Tokens, however, are your means to score points by starting revolutions. Between neighbouring players, a revolution card dictates which type of Influence Tokens those two players have to jointly discard to score. Sounds like a permanent alliance with one of your neighbours might be a good idea then, but the rather complex scoring options make this ineffective in most games. Each successful revolution gives two point to both players involved. So far, so good. But on alternating rounds, either the player to the left or the player to the right of the card win an extra point. So with a stable alliance, you’re giving an opponent free extra points half the time.
And that’s only the start. Political Mood cards that stay in play for at most three rounds add more scoring rules. You may score extra points from the revolution on your right, or the one on your left. Or for starting a revolution on your own, without your neighbour contributing any tokens. (That’s always an option, of course, but the other player on that Revolution Card still scores his points. And why would you want to help him?) Other cards allow you to buy victory points for influence, add extra regions to place agents in – again, only for three rounds – or add various other options. And then you add more possible revolutions between each pair of players twice in a game, giving you even more options to choose from.
The point is, it takes some thinking to even figure out what is the most profitable move for you in any given round. To keep an overview what would give an edge to one of your opponents and think what might be profitable next round or even the round after is brain-twisting, but it’s essential knowledge to negotiate alliances that will benefit you most. And that’s before you consider the new Political Mood cards entering the game every round. The point is, what might be profitable for you is a rapidly moving target and that mutually beneficial alliance from last round might just not be your best option now. The situation is thus extremely volatile and you can never rely on your friends to stay on your side. The perfect setup for the back-stabby negotiation game that is 1984: Animal Farm – the authors make absolutely certain you have to betray your alliances. The downside is that players prone to overthinking their turns can really, really drag this game out in a way that’s on the far side of excruciating. I understand that you want to win this game, but 15 minutes thinking about one turn and negotiating new conditions with the same players 5 times in a row is just too much! A secondary benefit of the complex scoring system is that it goes a long way to counteract the popular bash-the-leader strategy: cooperating with the leader might be the best move for you now, or not cooperating might benefit other players more than you, and you can always tell yourself you’ll take him down later. In the complex web of scoring opportunities and alliances that develops, a simple strategy like “attack the guy with the most points” is not going to cut it.
Winning Revolutions is not all Influence Tokens are good for, though. They can also be used to execute special actions. These are split into two types – basic and advanced actions – and in each game there is one basic and one advanced action available for each type of influence token, making a total of 10 actions. (In total there are two basic and three advanced actions per type, giving you many different possible setups) The basic actions are, naturally, less powerful than the advanced ones, but they are available to all players: at any time, any player can pay an influence token of the right type to take that action. Not so the advanced actions: before you can use those, you have to buy them – again by paying Influence Tokens – and the choice of advanced actions your opponents buy tells you something about their intended strategy. Having to buy your special actions is a pretty cool idea, forcing you to decide on your strategy, but also announcing it to the other players. Except when you’re bluffing, which is perfectly possible with the specials you buy.
The actions cover every aspect of the game and range from useful to destructive. The Parrots can move your agents around the world more quickly, but sometimes they can also move an opponent’s agents, opening a whole new avenue of offensive tactics. But influence tokens spent on special actions will not be available to start revolutions, so how you use your influence is a tight-rope act. Which ones do you spend, which ones do you keep? Do you really want to spend your last Elephant influence that you could use to interrupt an enemy special action, one of the most usefully versatile specials in the game?
Or, more to the point, can you keep it, because this touches on my least favourite part of 1984: Animal Farm: how you keep influence tokens between turns. You may earn as much influence in a round as you want, but you can only take 4 Tokens into the next round, and those you have to split between two different areas (your Owned Influence and your Airdrop Zone) which only differ in when you have to return them: Influence Tokens in the Airdrop Zone can be used for special actions, but you will not have them available for starting revolutions. But only Tokens from those two zones can be used for special actions, newly earned influence doesn’t work for that. I understand the need to limit influence stock-piling, but as it stands the system lacks elegance.
But that’s one downside of an otherwise good game. 1984: Animal Farm is a lot of fun, if this type of game is your cup of tea. To win, you pretty much have to betray your alliances and throw your friends to the wolves – metaphorically speaking, wolves didn’t make it into the game. If that bothers you, then avoid this game, you’re not going to enjoy it. For people into this type of game, however, 1984: Animal Farm is a solid choice. The game takes care to create an explosive situation where you have to reevalute your strategy constantly and where you honestly can’t trust anyone, ever. The feeling of looming betrayal is stronger than it was in Alcatraz, and the only reasons this game clock in half a point lower than the prison-break drama are the rules for keeping influence that slightly miss the mark and the tendency to invite extended deliberation even in usually impulsive players. Nevertheless, playing 1984: Animal Farm is time well spent and I’m looking forward to see what Krzysztof, Rafal and Krzysztof will create next in the unstable alliances type of game.