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Tag Archives: This War of Mine

Review: This War of Mine (board game)

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.

pic3315915_md.jpgIn 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.

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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.

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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 zombiesthan 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.

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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.

 

 

 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 2 June 2017

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PAXsims is pleased to present a number of items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. James Sterrett contributed to this latest edition.

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pic859584_md.jpgAt First Person Scholar, Jeremy Antley discusses “Remodeling the Labyrinth: Player-Led Efforts to Update GMT’s War on Terror Wargame.” Specifically he explores how players proposed and undertook updates of Volko Ruhnke’s wargame Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- (GMT Games, 2010) during and after regional politics in the Middle East were reshaped by the “Arab Spring” of 2011—notably through online discussions at BoardGameGeek and ConsimWorld. He focuses particular attention on the use of event cards as a game mechanism, a representation of history, and focus of player discussions:

While event cards comprise only a portion of the materials found in Labyrinth, their role as abstracted arbiters of reality sustains and reinforces the simulative model to a degree not matched by other elements.  This, combined with their extra-legal nature, allows designers and players alike to utilize event cards for the purpose of injecting their own augmentative or corrective point of view.  Because wargames emphasize the production of knowledge from play, this means that event cards need to distill their subjects using montage, and ensure that the resulting creations act as epistemic reservoirs in service to the operation of Labyrinth’s model.  Debates over player-created event cards such as ‘Curveball’ and ‘Snowden’ reveal the seriousness behind getting this process right.  That players focused their efforts on crafting new event cards to update perceived deficiencies in Labyrinth’s original model speaks volumes to the expectations held by these players in relation to the wargames they play.  Time spent with a wargame’s simulative model is expected to be productive.  Creating new event cards became, in this regard, not only preferable but also essential if Labyrinth players wanted their games to keep pace with current events.

You’ll find a PAXsims review of the game here. GMT Games subsequently published an expansion/update by Trevor Bender and Volko Ruhnke, Labyrinth: The Awakening, 2010– ? (2016). This is still sitting on my bookshelf, awaiting play—and when I do I’ll certainly post a review to PAXsims.

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At the Active Learning in Political Science blog there is some interesting discussion of emotion, engagement, immersion, and empathy in simulations.

Simon Usherwood first raised the issue in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack. This prompted Chad Raymond to note the problem of students acting too rationally and technocratically in a recent South China Sea simulation:

It is very difficult to get students to understand, in a self perspective-altering rather than an I-remember-what-the-book-said way, the emotional and psychological dimensions of political behavior. Simulations, though they often touted as effective at generating this kind of learning, may not be any better at this than other methods. My own attempts at empirically validating these kinds of outcomes with several different teaching methods have pretty much been failures. How do you get the typical American college student — often an 18- or 19-year old who has never traveled internationally nor has a deep relationship with anyone outside of his or her particular ethnic group or socioeconomic bracket — to temporarily step outside of his or her own feelings and experience what it’s like to be someone else?

Finally, Usherwood returns to the question, and suggests three potential solutions:

First option is to drown the students in detail. Chad’s only given his students a handful of things to think about/work with, so it’s understandable that they focus on these. If you’ve got the time and space, then giving them a whole lot more to handle/juggle makes it much harder for them to act rationally.

Which leads logically to the second option: starving the students. In Chad’s case, that might mean not even giving them what he has done, so that they come to it much more impressionistically and irrationally.

His third option—to “ju-jitsu your way out“—involves building on, modifying, and learning from what others have done:

So if you’re struggling to make your simulation work, why not look around at what others are doing and see if you can get their thing to work for you. If you’re not feeling so sharing-y, then you can also reflect on the other things you do: that’s how I developed the parliament game over its iterations, with its purpose being constructed backwards from what it actually did (which wasn’t what I’d set out to do).

We heartily agree.

On this same subject, this is a great time to recommend—not for the first time—the seminal 2011 Naval War College Review article by Peter Perla and ED McGrady, “Why Wargaming Works.”

We propose the idea that gaming’s transformative power grows out of its particular connections to storytelling; we find in a combination of elements from traditional narrative theory and contemporary neuroscience the germ of our thesis—that gaming, as a story-living experience, engages the human brain, and hence the human being participating in a game, in ways more akin to real-life experience than to reading a novel or watching a video. By creating for its participants a synthetic experience, gaming gives them palpable and powerful insights that help them prepare better for dealing with complex and uncertain situations in the future. We contend that the use of gaming to transform individual participants—in particular, key decision makers—is an important, indeed essential, source of successful organiza- tional and societal adaptation to that uncertain future….

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In March the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education held its annual “Atlantic Promise” field exercise:

This year’s exercise scenario allowed students to become members of a fictitious humanitarian assistance organization and assist a population in conflict after a Category 4 hurricane. The exercise purposely combines students from different schools to build interpersonal relationships, teamwork, and negotiation skills under stressful situations.

Students from Tulane University were among those who participated, and there’s a short account of their experiences on the university website.

The simulation will next be run in November, retitled “Coastal Hope.”

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The latest issue of ICONS News contains, among other items, a link to their latest promotional video.

The video contains sultry narrative tones of PAXsims associate editor Devin Ellis, so it’s obviously not to be missed! The ICONS Project can be found here.

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On the subject of newsletters, the Spring 2017 update from the World Peace game is also available.

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Last month the US Naval War College reported on a technology upgrade to its wargaming:

The capstone wargame for international students at U.S. Naval War College (NWC) has undergone a huge improvement this year, replacing oversized game boards and ‘paper ship’ game pieces with a new computer application that uses touch-screen technology and allows multiple player usage.

The 65 students taking the intermediate-level course through the Naval Staff College (NSC) are now using cutting-edge technology in their annual year-end event, which took place May 5.

NSC courses are composed predominately of international students who were divided into Blue and Gold coalition teams that crowded the wargame floor to compete.

The wargame was introduced as the final event of the academic calendar for the class three years ago. The purpose of the game is to allow students to put the theories of operational planning that they have learned at the college into practical use.

“This game is a culmination of the academics the students have learned during the year with concentration on military planning, communication, cooperation and leadership,” said Jeff Landsman, game director and associate professor in NWC’s Wargaming Department. “We bring all of these concepts into a practical exercise, allowing the students to work in an experiential and knowledge-based setting. Additionally, the new technology lets the wargaming faculty execute a more interactive and efficient game.”

Developing the new computer simulation started after last year’s game. The project really starting taking shape in the new year.

“The game was pretty much created from scratch. We customized the [game] grid and a few of the other components,” said Anthony Rocchio, lead program developer for the simulation. “It really came together in the last couple months. The scoring function was started on Tuesday and finished Wednesday, for instance.”

The two coalitions then conducted separate planning sessions and briefed their respective courses of action (COAs) to the Wargaming Department faculty. These COAs were then executed during game play.

“This innovative, current, computer-based simulation more accurately reflects real-world situations that the students could face as they operate in the joint maritime environment,” said Landsman.

The application also allows a simultaneous feed of the results of the game into the two teams’ planning groups so they can plan future moves with better, more updated information.

The new computer-based simulation has many other advantages, according to Landsman.

“The new simulation brings a better understanding of the operational and strategic level complexities, barriers and collaboration when applying national and multinational sea power,” he said. “They get a better look at decision making, leadership, theater complexities, and joint and combined maritime operations. This is a very valuable upgrade for the students.”

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Brian Train went to the US Army War College a few weeks ago, and you’ll find his report here.

Fortunately for me, he also showed up at the annual CanGames gaming convention in Ottawa a few days later.

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Back in March, Gamasutra featured a discussion of This War of Mine (which James Sterrett reviewed back in 2014 for PAXsims).

The boardgame version of This War of Mine, launched as a Kickstarter project, has just been shipped—and I’m eagerly awaiting mine. I’ll review it as soon as it arrives and I find time to give it a try.

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Observant readers will notice this “finding time to play” is becoming a bit of a theme—largely because I have so many game projects on the go. These include the Matrix Game Construction Kit (or MaGCK), together with PAXsims collaborators Tom Fisher and Tom Mouat; the Montreal edition of the July 1 wide-area megagame, Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos (UNSOC); a variety of game-related presentations in a repeat appearance at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) next month; codesigning a South China Sea game with Jim Wallman for Connections UK in September (unlike UNSOC, this one should be zombie-free); and another crisis game for a government client in the fall (again, with Tom Fisher).

So many games, so little time…

Review: This War of Mine

PAXsims asked Dr. James Sterrett, Deputy Chief of the Digital Leader Development Center’s Simulations Division at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, to review the recent digital game This War of Mine. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government.

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Hungry, tired, and depressed, Pavle reloads the rat traps in the hopes of catching a meal.

Perhaps we should have expected this game from 11 Bit Studios, a Polish game company previously best known for inverting the conventions of the tower defense genre in Anomaly: Warzone Earth. In This War of Mine, 11 Bit again turns convention on its head. Instead of controlling combatants, This War of Mine puts you in control of a small group of civilians trying to survive in the besieged city of Pogoren. In place of pretty explosions and adrenaline, This War of Mine delivers a bleak, somber that game may not be fun in the traditional sense, nor is it perfect; but it is an outstanding effort at using a game to make players experience and reflect on a (hopefully) unfamiliar situation.

Your task is to survive the siege, assigning each person in your group various tasks – generally maintenance and preparation by day, and sleeping, guarding your shelter, or scavenging by night. Survival demands maintaining a teetering balance between the need to eat, the need to stay warm, the need to stay safe, the need to stay sane – and the need to gather more materials to enable the other tasks. Whomever is scavenging or guarding at night will be tired the next day, but if you don’t scavenge you won’t be able to get food. Hungry, tired, cold people get sick more easily. Sick, tired, hungry, cold, and/or depressed people are less effective at their tasks – and if left too long, the sickness, hunger, cold, or depression will lead to death. Food, medicine, fuel, and comfort items such as books or cigarettes, are difficult to come by. In This War of Mine, gaining the ability to trap rats for food can mean the difference between survival and death, and you may come to deeply resent your caffeine and nicotine addicts as they consume valuable trade items to slake their chemical dependencies.

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge more supplies tonight...

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge for more supplies tonight…

The daylight hours spent in the shelter are generally slow and contemplative, interspersed by occasional events as people come to your door. Some seek to trade, some want to join your group, some want help with their problems – asking for you to give some of your tiny store of food or medicine to help them survive. At night, you control the one scavenger, in the place you chose to go. Depending on the location and its inhabitants, you may be able to scavenge freely, trade, or you may wind up in a fight. Combat is simple, fast-paced, and unforgiving, yet understated enough that even victories feel like survival, not empowerment. You may choose to initiate combat, trying to beat or murder your way through the other civilians or even the soldiers, bandits, and militiamen. However, not only is death sudden and final, it also costs you whatever stuff that person was carrying, including their extraordinarily scarce weaponry. In addition, while successful violence will get you access to more stuff and thus enable your survival, most characters become depressed by murder, especially of other civilians. Depressed, they are less effective, and may eventually commit suicide. Moreover, the game appears to react to your actions. Your violence seems to make the nighttime raids on your shelter (played offscreen) more violent, and can render vital peaceful people, such as the traders in the Central Square, hostile. Likewise, those dilemmas during the daytime can come back to you as well; people whom you helped with food or medicine are likely to return the favor, randomly, when they have a surplus. In This War of Mine, violence is an answer, but it has its costs.

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The house has been raided by looters!

I am not an expert on societies in cities under siege (including the game’s clear inspirations, Sarajevo and Warsaw), but This War of Mine seems initially to imply a complete societal breakdown, with bandits everywhere and the player potentially joining their ranks as people comb the city for resources. However, in a long game, scavenging meets its limits, when all the sites have either been picked over or are too heavily defended to attack. At that point, continued survival depends on a social network, fragile though it may be. Neighbors you helped may still help you. People whom you have established trading relations with will still be there, and the time I succeeded in surviving the game, it was trading that got me through. In this subtle way, This War of Mine reinforces the importance of cooperation with groups outside your own, and mingles a slight note of hope into its overall tone of desperation.

Some are kids at the door, asking for help. Can you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Kids at the door, asking for help. Would you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Even its apparent flaws seem deliberate and work to its advantage. The daytime ticks by too slowly, yet that reinforces the boredom of being cooped up, hiding from snipers. The game has no tutorial, yet the player’s initial confusion reflects the confusion most of us would feel if we were suddenly plunged into such a situation.

Overall, This War of Mine is remarkably successful at being an engrossing game that involves violence yet avoids making the situation seem remotely appealing.

This War of Mine is my current pick for the best game of 2014.

I doubt I will be able to forget the games I’ve played in it.

I don’t know if I will ever want to play it again after finishing this review.

That paradoxical combination is 11 Bit Studios’ triumph.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Classroom Use

Turning away from playing the game as a game, could it be useful in a classroom? Leaving specific questions of its fidelity to real sieges to others more versed in the topic….

Yes: This War of Mine could certainly serve as a spark for political science or history discussions on the experience of civilians in wartime; it has done so with both my wife and my son. Having students compare their decisions could also help drive discussions in ethics, leadership, and the laws of war. Students are unlikely to forget the game or the subsequent discussion.

Maybe: While it would be a powerful concrete experience, This War of Mine is not a fast game to play. Surviving a 42-day siege took me around 6 hours. Some of the subtleties in the interactions between player’s choices and the game won’t necessarily come out in a single playthrough, not least because I suspect most people’s first playthrough ends in disaster before those interactions can fully come to light. As a result, This War of Mine is not a game that could be used during class time. Whether the time spent in homework creates sufficient overall benefit, through driving discussion, will depend on the specific learning objectives of the program of instruction.

James Sterrett

This War of Mine now available for preorder

This War of Mine—an innovative role-playing game by 11bit Studios in which a small group of civilians attempts to survive in a war-torn city—is now available for preorder. As a recent review and partial play-through at Rock, Paper, Shotgun notes:

This War Of Mine is a game set in the ruins of a wartorn city. Rather than playing a soldier on either side of the conflict, as is traditional in the world of games, players control a group of civilians who are trying to survive in a place where the essentials of life are thin on the ground. The game doesn’t match its mechanics to its theme as smoothly and powerfully as Papers, Please, instead opting to tread unfamiliar ground in familiar shoes. It’s a resource management game, in which survivors craft, explore and scavenge to survive. I played through the first few days and discovered the irony of it all.

A group of survivors shelter in the ruins of a stranger’s home. They are refugees within their own city, scavenging for food and medicine. One of them, a celebrated football player in a past life, has a fever. He doesn’t sleep well at night, shivering and sweating by the makeshift heater as it consumes the last of the wood. Tomorrow, they’ll resort to burning their books as the cold and the dark close in.

This War Of Mine is bleak but, to its credit, it’s also pragmatic. At the beginning of each playthrough, you’re in control of three people who have found themselves living under the same bomb-scarred roof in a wartorn city. Clicking on either a person or his/her portrait selects that individual, and clicking on icons scattered around the building sets the chosen survivor to work. Activities include clearing debris, crafting, cooking and searching for supplies in a specific area.

You’ll also find the official  trailer and a video review by 4 Player Network below. The preorder version costs $17.99, and can be purchased via Games Republic.

h/t James Sterrett 

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