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Crisis in the Kremlin is a political sim, an old DOS game from back when software shipped on floppy disks.  Like others of its time, Crisis didn't sport many fancy graphics, but packed a lot of gameplay into a small space. 

''Soviet Political Society'' (I'm not the author) Crisis in the Kremlin simulates the latter days of the Soviet era.  I grew up during the Cold War and was in college while Mikhail Gorbachev held office.  As a political science major who partly specialized in Soviet studies, I watched developments of the Gorbachev era with excitement.  In the West at the time, there was plenty of speculation about it all.  Would he be able to turn the USSR around, make it a more reasonable country with free elections and freedom of the press?  Did he actually want to, or were glasnost and pyerestroika a ruse to lure us into a false sense of security?  Or would he go too far at some point and be overthrown?

Box Cover This game lets you succeed Chernenko in 1985, and try to pull the country out of the stagnation and decay it inherited from the Brezhnev era, without going too far too fast and being run out of town.  Of course there are other options: you can clamp down and continue the old ways, holding onto traditional Soviet methods for as long as possible, or you can forge ahead with abandon, agitating for progress no matter the cost.  Whatever you do, you're in potential danger of being ousted by the Politburo, or even finding yourself overthrown by a popular revolution.  No pressure, but...if you get your political ass handed to you, there won't be a glorious Yeltsin-style rescue to bail you out.  You may, however, manage to avert a coup (or defeat a motion of no confidence) by appealing to the will of the people; in my experience, that only works if you're playing the Nationalists...which makes sense.

Factions

The game lets you play as a member of one of three factions.  The one you select will have an effect on your political situation and viable options, so choose based on how you feel like playing.

Hard-Line – You were Chernenko's hand-picked choice for a successor.  As you might expect, the hard-liners want to continue the old Brezhnev ways of doing things: strict wage and price controls, straight-up authoritarian politics, etc.  Oh yes, and a strong military and KGB.  Choose this faction if you want to be a real Stalinist bastard or you feel comfortable leading the USSR into the future slowly and incrementally.  This is often considered the easiest faction to play early in the game, since you're on the side of the establishment--but the country's economic conditions will make it difficult later on. Leonid Brezhnev
ReformistGorbachev made just a few too many enemies to be elected, but he was strong enough to get you installed.  This is the middle course in the game; here you're really walking Gorbachev's tightrope--try not to look down.  The Reformists want to pull the country toward openness and democracy, and get along with the West, but they do still want to hold the Union together; it's the middle position in the game.  This is often considered the easiest faction to play overall, such as it is. Mikhail Gorbachev
Nationalist – You were selected because the Hard-Liners and Reformists kept blocking each other's candidates, leaving you the only option that either would agree to.  The Nationalists want to scrap the Soviet system, going to democratic elections and complete, irresponsible laissez-faire capitalism as quickly as possible--and letting satellites and Union Republics go their own way.  Choosing this faction will give you a mandate to make sweeping changes (though still not all at once).  Pick the Nationalists if you want to change the country quickly and don't mind if the Warsaw Pact states and the Union Republics split off quickly.  This faction is often considered the toughest to play, since in effect you head a minority government with powerful opponents. Boris Yeltsin
 
 That's what the manual says, anyway.  My experience is that you're expected to more or less follow your faction's party line.  You can't make the others too upset, of course, but if you don't govern the way your faction wants things done, you'll have trouble holding onto power.  So for instance you can't choose the Nationalists and quickly turn the unrestricted-market stuff way down.  Apparently, even though they're supposed to be a weak minority government, they still basically control the country and can topple your administration if they want to.  Note that that contradicts what the manual says about the Nationalist faction: in effect, you head the majority government, even though the manual and the game itself tell you differently.  In fact, I actually think the Nationalist faction is the easiest to play.

Gameplay

Map at start of game The game begins in 1985, the year of Chernenko's death, and continues well past the end of the historical Soviet Union.  (You take office in January, but historically, Chernenko lived into March.)  If you make it to 2000, you have the option to stop the game and see your score; if you choose to keep playing, I hear that your score won't be affected by events after that date.  If you do keep playing, the object is to survive to the year 2017.  That's a very difficult goal; I've never done it, though I did make it to 2015 once.

If you have any familiarity with the Gorbachev era, it will come as no surprise that survival itself is a challenge.  The three factions are always busy behind the scenes and always shifting in political strength.  Having good relations with one faction doesn't usually help you, but having bad enough relations with any of them is likely to cause trouble.  Worse, your GNP tends to decline, which puts a squeeze on your budget and pressure on you.

You'll probably start to lose the Warsaw Pact countries after a few years, followed gradually by the Union Republics.  Holding onto any of them is quite the challenge, and it may be impossible to survive all the way to 2000 without losing most of them (though you may hold onto one or two if you're lucky).  Just making it to the end of the millennium is a sizable accomplishment all by itself.  Around 1991, you'll be offered the option to restructure the Union as a confederation (the Union of Sovereign States) or dissolve it altogether in favor of a commonwealth (the CIS).  If you've never heard of the Commonwealth of Independent States, you're not alone.  It's really a loose economic cooperation sphere, something like what the European Union was before the adoption of the Euro--but when this game was released, the CIS was brand-new.  At the time it looked like it would become the focal point of a new Union, or perhaps a British-style Commonwealth, which is what the game assumes.

If you do survive past 1991, you'll start to see events that didn't happen historically--since at that point you've certainly changed history.  You'll also start to lose Union Republics, if you haven't already.  Your population will drop as a result, and at the end of every year that you lose republic(s), you'll find that your GNP drops suddenly--apparently a secession doesn't affect your economy until the start of the following year, when you draw up your next budget.  This puts real pressure on your administration as you try to provide enough for food, manufacturing, housing, transportation, the military, and so on, without plundering the environment or letting crime run rampant.  At times like these it can be very tricky to avoid cutting so much from some powerful group that it's motivated to engineer your downfall.  In very bad times, you may even face extreme food shortages that lead to your violent overthrow by popular revolution (oh, the irony!).

Glasnost The game has random and nonrandom events (called crises), which include major policy decisions (like whether to implement Glasnost, see right).  Some of these are events like Chernobyl that happen at set times to mimic the flow of history.  Unfortunately the historical events are hard-coded and their occurrence can't be randomized, which limits replayability.  In any case, each crisis gives the player options for what action to take, which adds greatly to the feeling of being in the game.  The action chosen has an effect on the player's political position (and sometimes other things, such as the country's economic condition).  This is another area where your faction expects you to follow its party line--unfortunately the game doesn't indicate which choice your faction expects you to make, so in that way you're playing blind.  The player can in fact choose to do nothing, by clicking on the teacup in the bottom right.  Ignoring a crisis is unlikely to make it go away, of course.

Crisis in the Kremlin is remarkable as the first computer game to give the player granular control over items in the budget.  That is, each year the player is given a proposed budget and can raise or lower spending on any part of it, down to the level of, say, how much will be allocated to agriculture or to space research.  Halfway through the year the player also determines his/her position on a number of policy areas:

Style of Government      DespoticTransitionalDemocraticUltra Liberal  Type of Ownership
Military PostureAgressive [sic]Transitional      DefensivePacifistic
Diplomatic PoliciesHostileTransitionalCooperativePassive/Submissive
Trade PolicyClosed/ProtectiveTransitionalSome RestrictionsFew Restrictions
Civil RightsRestrictedTransitionalModern DemocracyNear Anarchy
Media FreedomVery RestrictedTransitionalModern Democracy    Uncontrolled
Economic PoliciesCentral Bureaucracy  TransitionalControlled MarketUncontrolled Market
Work WeekForced LaborTransitionalTypical 1st WorldExtreme Leisure
Wage ControlsComplete ControlTransitionalFew ControlsUncontrolled
Type of OwnershipState OwnedTransitionalPrivate and StateHighly Privatized

Your initial policies will be set depending on which faction you choose.  If you're playing the Nationalists, you'll be surprised just how un-Soviet your starting policies look!  Whatever your personal preferences, though, you won't want to change any policies too fast--that's a good way to lose the game instantly.  Instead, change them gradually, one notch at a time (or occasionally two), as you're called upon to announce your current policies at the start of each year through the Five-Year Plan.  Yes, you can change your policies in between, but do so in moderation.  You can make radical changes in this game, but you'll have to boil the frog to do it.  Try not to end up like this:
     Military Coup

The Main Screen

In the main screen, you'll see a map of the northern hemisphere, from the Americas in the west (including Cuba) to the far tip of Siberia in the east.  Only part of it is visible at any given time, but you can scroll side to side.  This map is handy for getting a bird's-eye view of your international situation:

What it means when parts of Russia itself turn orange or yellow is a mystery to me.  It's not explained in the game or in the manual, or in any forum posts I can find.

Russia itself never seems to break up, so what's with the color changes?

My best guess is: the game was going to make it possible for sections of Russia to secede, but that feature was never completed.  In the files that provide text for crises, for instance, I've seen situations involving the city-state of Moscow, which I assume was what would be left when named sections of Russia ("South Russia", etc.) secede.  However I haven't found any announcements in the files for, say, "Southern Russia Splits", whereas you do find those announcements for Union Republics and Warsaw Pact states that leave your orbit.

Below the map is information that helps give you an idea of your overall situation.  On the left is a series of bars indicating how your country is doing in various categories: food, health, education, etc.  The farther the sliders are to the right the better: if they go too far to the left (in the red) you're likely to face real trouble, especially in things like food.  If they're in the middle (in yellow) you could be doing better.  If you can get several of them toward the right (in green), you're doing very well indeed.
  Status Bars on main screen
In the middle, you'll see some of your country's important statistics: GNP, total population, etc.  It's here that you'll notice sharp declines when you lose big Union Republics like Ukraine.  You'll also see the date and a reminder of which faction you chose.  On the right is another set of slide bars which give some indications of your political strength at home and abroad, and under these are some switches to turn things on and off: sounds, names of places on the map, and dispatches (don't turn this one off unless you know what you're doing!).

Soviet Humor In addition to modeling the political situation of the late Soviet Union pretty well, the game includes some nice historical extras, including actual jokes of the period.  Soviet jokes were a phenomenon all their own; humor was one of the few ways people could speak out about the conditions they faced and the censorship they were under--even though using that humor could be dangerous.  A fine example was one joke which referenced the legendary sloth and poor workmanship of the Soviet work force, while at the same time criticizing the artificial nature of Soviet currency:
  The government pretends to pay us, so we pretend to work. 

The player also occasionally receives letters from family and even ordinary citizens, which are stored in a binder and can be reviewed later.  These letters offer some feedback on how you're doing, and sometimes warn you of signs of danger in your administration--such as that your leadership style is causing your subordinates to tell you what you want to hear rather than give the unvarnished truth.

So, it's time I gave you some links so you can try out the game.  Good luck, Comrade!


Links

      Resources


      External Sites     ♫  Inspirational Russian Music by Nadezhda Bakbkina, both before and after the end of the USSR


Bugs & Enhancement Requests

These are things I've noticed that don't work quite right, and things I've thought of that would improve gameplay--roughly in order of importance, as I see them.


Transliteration and Faux Cyrillic

You may have noticed that the box cover uses the backward R ("Я") to spell "KREMLIN".  This is called "faux Cyrillic"; of course it's used to try to create a Russian look and feel--whether the end result makes any sense or not.  Maybe it's just me, but because I know how Cyrillic letters are pronounced, I find this kind of thing annoying.  Consider that KЯEMLIN would be pronounced "kya-emlin" and you get some idea how nonsensical faux Cyrillic can look.

But that's just a silly thing, really.  I take a bigger issue with common transliterations of Russian into English.  You may have wondered why, say, Brezhnev is pronounced "brezhnyev", and Khrushchev is pronounced "Khrushchov", when they're not spelled that way.  It's because of transliteration conventions.  Russian has a letter е, which looks like the English e, but is pronounced "yeh".  And it has a letter ё, which also looks like e, but is pronounced "yoh".  There is a letter that's pronounced "eh", but it looks like this: э.

Well, most of the major conventions just write them all as "e", which in my opinion is stupid.  Just because it looks like an e is no reason to write it as one--the whole point of transliterating from another alphabet is so people will know what things sound like.  How about the Russian в, which is pronounced "v"?  How about н, which is pronounced "n"?  How about р, which is pronounced "r"?  (And yes, those are all lower-case in Cyrillic.) They look like B, H, and p respectively.  By this line of reasoning, it should be GorbacheB who enacted the policies of glasHost and pepestroika.  It's absurd.

I've even occasionally seen Yeltsin's name written as "Eltsin".  Most people realize that the convention fails embarrassingly here, that leaving off a Y or I at the start of his name is just begging people to mispronounce it--but a few do stick to their guns and start his name with an E anyway.  To my mind this is the best example of how inadequate the convention is on е and ё.  A less striking example (and one that occurs in the game) is Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, being transliterated as "Erevan".

But to come down off my soapbox and rejoin everyone in the practical world, I realize that we're used to seeing certain names written a certain way: Khrushchev, Gorbachev, etc., so I go ahead and leave those alone.  But less familiar words I transliterate in a more--well, accurate--manner: so I write "pyerestroika" rather than "perestroika", for instance.

Ok, I'm done now.  Moving right along...


Historical Context

The game was released in 1992, so it would have been written around 1990-91, a time when people watching events in the Soviet Union increasingly expected it to break up soon.  I suppose that's probably why the game was written in the first place, and also why it trends (almost?) inexorably toward dissolution of the USSR.  Still, it's pretty impressive that the game actually continues far into the future (to well past today, in fact), while still being a somewhat in-depth political sim, especially one that fit on a handful of floppy disks.


Your Friends and Allies

In Crisis, there are three basic groups in the East Bloc: the Union Republics, the Warsaw Pact countries, and other allies.  Ever wonder what all the different Union Republics were?  There were 15 in all (briefly 16); the European ones, at least, were briefly independent during the Civil War, which is why they got special status as Union Republics in the Soviet system...though not all of them got that status.

Union Republics
These were the provinces of the Soviet Union, the equivalent of states in the US, Australia, and other countries that call their provinces "states".  The descriptions I give of their peoples are what Russians tended to think about them.

Warsaw Pact     Poland   East Germany   Czechoslovakia   Hungary   Rumania   Bulgaria  
The countries of Eastern Europe were part of what was known as the Second World (in the West, of course).  They were small, reasonably industrialized countries but without remarkable economies.  Of course they were in thrall to the Soviets in politics and diplomatic affairs, but paradoxically, they were also heavily subsidized by the USSR--to help keep them loyal, you see.  Machiavelli wrote that when you find yourself paying people to stay loyal to you, that's a sign of weakness.  Turns out he was right. Other Allies     Cuba   Mongolia         Afghanistan   North Korea  
Of course, the Soviets had lots of other allies and friendly states, but only two are colored as part of the Eastern Bloc.  It seems strange that Afghanistan isn't included, since it was occupied by the Soviet military from 1979 to 1989, and crises take place involving developments there with the occupation--but, for whatever reason, Afghanistan always shows in green, as a non-ally.  You'd think it would start out magenta, then change to pink or yellow if you withdraw troops, then green if the Soviet-friendly government is overthrown.  You'd also think North Korea would start the game as an ally, since it was friendly with the USSR.


Voskhod spacecraft  Interested in playing the USSR during the Space Race?  Check out my fan site for Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space.
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  cup of coffee   Email me if you have questions, comments, or suggestions.