This War of Mine. Awaken Realms/Galakta/11 Bit Studios, 2017. Designers: Michał Oracz, Jakub Wiśniewski.
Back in 2014, James Sterrett contributed to PAXsims a very positive review of the computer game This War of Mine, which had then just been published by 11-Bit Studios. I played it quite a bit too, and—while having some reservations about how it depicted civilian life during a civil war—also found it innovative, thoughtful, and haunting.
In 2016 a board game version was announced on Kickstarter, and was fully funded by enthusiastic supporters in a matter of hours. The game design was completed earlier this year, the game printed and shipped, and my eagerly-awaited copy arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago.
Thus it was, with a couple of friends and considerable anticipation, that we set off to try to survive in the ruins of an anonymous city devastated by civil war.
The game is designed so that it can be set up and played without reading a rule book in advance—indeed, there is no “rule book” as such, but rather a journal (which walks you through your choices in each phase) and various options outlined on the various cards and in the game script. This certainly makes the game easy to play, even with neophyte players. On the other hand, it can be easier to forget or overlook a rule, since they aren’t systematically collected in a single place.
The overall feel of game play is very similar to the digital original. In the morning, after a random event, you assign your characters to various tasks: exploring and fixing up your shelter, building new fixtures (such as beds, a stove, a workshop, or water collection system), and performing other daily menial tasks. Each character needs to get enough to eat and drink and sleep, and also keep his or her spirits up. Too much hunger, wounds, illness, or misery will result in a character leaving the shelter, dying, or even committing suicide. Players cooperatively control all of the characters, with the role of lead player shifting at various points in the game sequence. Different characters have different degree of prowess (which largely affects combat) and empathy (which favourably affects interaction with non-player characters, but which might result in greater vulnerability to misery), as well as unique needs and capabilities.
When dusk comes, characters can be assigned to scavenge in the city. Various locations become eligible to visit as the game progresses, and an ingenious system of exploration cards and a “choose your own adventure” -type script guarantees that every visit is both different and potentially dangerous. Often players face difficult moral choices, such as stealing whether to steal desperately-needed supplies from other survivors or help others at risk to themselves. Acting in an immoral way might secure more material resources, but can also exact a significant psychological toll. Players might have various encounters while out in the city, whether traders or those with more hostile intent.
Meanwhile, back at the shelter, the remaining characters can be assigned either to sleep (thereby ridding themselves of any fatigue) or stand guard duty against periodic night raids by bandits and others.
Finally, at dawn, the health of characters is adjusted (including the ravages of an increasingly cold winter), narrative and fate cards are drawn, and a new morning begins.
The full campaign game involves three chapters, each of which involves about 2 hours of play. We completed most of the first two chapters before time ran out and we had to call an end to the session.
The game board.
Overall, the designers have done a good job at creating a narrative of a dark, grinding, struggle for survival. The excellent game art and high-quality components certainly contribute to the sense of devastation and desperation. I did find that gameplay became rather repetitious after a while, but this was probably in part result of playing for almost four hours continuously. Consequently, I suspect that the game is better played in a series of separate, single-chapter sessions. A pad of record-keeping sheets is supplied to make it easy to record where one partial game ends and the next chapter begins.
As with the digital original of the game, I did have some reservations about how the game depicts the human fabric of war-affected societies. In most civil wars, residents do not scavenge in ruins at night (a particularly dangerous time), nor in most cases are they faced with nightly bandit raids in major cities. Instead, makeshift markets and services do function, and neighbourhoods and extended families provide vital networks of support. Indeed, having worked in war zones and with refugees, I am usually struck not so much by a descent into Hobbesian social violence of all-against-all but rather by the remarkable power of altruism and social solidarity. In this sense, the game borrows a little too much from the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre—a sort of civil war version of The Walking Dead, minus the zombies—than from the actual lived experience of civilians during wartime.
If the game is being played for its gaming value, this matters little. If it is being used in an instructional setting, the similarities and differences between the game’s depiction of civil war and other (autobiographical and historical) accounts could make for interesting material in a debriefing assignment or a post-game classroom discussion. Although designed for solo or cooperative play by up to six players, it could easily be adapted for much larger groups.
As to our playtest game, we continually teetered on the brink of disaster. Among our original group of characters, only Anton, the former professor of mathematics, had survived. Boris, a warehouse worker, had been unable to take it the pressure. Emilia, a lawyer, had died. Those who had joined the shelter later were no more lucky. Emira, who had suffered poverty and homelessness long before the war started, and whose ability to find food for the shelter had been invaluable, had been lost too. As for Arica, Anton had no idea what had happened to her. She had left one night to scavenge for supplies—and had never returned.
Anton, alone in the house.
And so Anton remained. The last of his precious books had been burned to heat the shelter against the encroaching winter. He was low on supplies. He didn’t even have the energy clear the rubble from the back rooms or patch the holes in the building, through which both chill winds and looters entered. If only this cursed war would end…
UPDATE: You’ll find a very good review of the game by Jasenko Pasic, who lived through the siege of Sarajevo as a child, at BoardGameGeek.