Review: Crisis in the Kremlin (1991)
One video game I got quite addicted to last year was the original Crisis in the Kremlin, from 1991 – not to be confused with the current remake, which I haven’t tried yet.
The objective of the game is that you get to play the Soviet leader, taking over in 1985, with the aim of lasting as long as you can. You get three starting options – Reformist (Mikhail Gorbachev), Nationalist (Boris Yeltsin), and Hard-liner (Yegor Ligachyov – though the game uses the image of Leonid Brezhnev, perhaps because it was more familiar to westerners in 1991?). Each starting option will give you a different (but adjustable) set of policy settings, and a different set of friends and enemies. As I have said, the game is a matter of survival – you basically have to govern while warding off threats from the Council of Ministers, the military, and/or the KGB. It throws real-world crises at you (Chernobyl), plus a few invented ones if you manage to survive past 1991.
The game-play really hinges on managing the budget – you want to keep agriculture and transport expenditure high in order to make sure your population doesn’t starve. Unsurprisingly, dramatic cuts in the military budget will… antagonise people, so if you are cutting, I’d suggest doing it gradually. While the budget is the most important element, you can also play around with the policy settings (again, I’d recommend doing things gradually, lest the factions overthrow you). The multi-choice options for responding to crises are probably the most fun, but I am unsure if they have the significance that budget and policy do.
The furthest I got was 1996, before the game (linked above) decided to freeze on me.
+ There’s some fun flavour – actual examples of Soviet-era humour and so forth.
+ Once you know what you’re doing, the game isn’t too complicated – though it can still surprise by throwing a military or political coup at you when you least expect it.
+ It’s not particularly time-consuming, and there’s a strange addiction in trying to last a little bit longer on each run-through.
– The biggest one, I think, is that the game pushes you too hard in a particular direction. Basically, the way to “win” the game is to economically liberalise in a way that doesn’t irritate the Establishment too much (political liberalisation seems to be more optional), and once you realise that you are being steered, it feels more like a simulation, rather than a meaningful game where decisions matter. I have heard that the remake is much more open-ended, and even has true win conditions, rather than just dooming you to fail from the outset.
-Related to the above, it’s impossible to save the Warsaw Pact – a break-up of both the external and internal Soviet Empires is happening whether or not you stay in power. Having an enormous military (and deploying it at the drop of a hat) doesn’t have any effect in deterring the collapse of the Eastern bloc, though you can temporarily delay the break-up with a good economy – Romania will have its revolution in 1989 regardless, but I once managed to keep control of Poland until 1991 through economic means. This irritates me – being railroaded towards liberalisation and break-up makes the game feel futile and pre-determined. The Council of Ministers even becomes less Hardline and more Nationalist as time goes on, no matter what you do.
-A minor point, but not only do they not feature Ligachyov’s actual image when you’re supposed to be playing him, but he’s an odd choice for leader of the Hard-line faction in 1985. Actual Ligachyov was a moderate who later fell out with Gorbachev when he felt things were unravelling – a more appropriate choice for a conservative toad would have been someone like Viktor Grishin.
Overall, if you don’t mind tinkering around with budgets too much, and are prepared to overlook the railroading, the original Crisis in the Kremlin can be quite fun. The political geek in me certainly found it addictive, even with its flaws.
Edit: My review of the re-make.