This War of Mine

A unique board game experience that manages to bring the despair inducing video game into the table top world.

There’s an event in This War of Mine where I saved a child I found in an old hotel, and brought them back to my shelter. The game asks you to give the child a name and create a token for them. The child gives the group no bonus, but must eat every day. A few turns later after a particularly poor scavenging run, we run out of a food, making me choose between saving the child or keeping a far more mechanically useful soldier character. We feed the soldier as he provides our best hope for the group. The child dies, the token returned. This War of Mine is a very different type of board game.

This is a co-operative title based on the 2014 video game of the same name. The game is inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, but rather than focus on the military aspect of the fight, This War of Mine is all about the struggle of the civilians trapped in the conflict. You control a small group of survivors as they try to create a makeshift shelter, scavenge for resources and ultimately wait out the conflict. There are no victory points in the game – the main objective is simply to survive a set number of rounds.

You'll very quickly get sick, hurt, miserable and hungry.

Struggle for Survival: The Mechanics

The game is split into seven key phases, though the core gameplay essentially works as actions taking during the day and night. You start a turn by resolving an event card, then during the day, you’ll be clearing out your bombed-out shelter, trying to scavenge resources, open locked doors, clear rubble and ultimately make the house liveable. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to start building in the spaces you’ve cleared out allowing you to place everything from beds and chairs to makeshift stills and workshops to craft the more helpful items in the game.

At the end of the daytime, all your characters must eat and drink. You can then decide if characters will sleep, scavenge or guard the house during the night. Scavenging lets you leave the house under the cover of darkness to find new items to bring back to the group, and guarding will reduce the chances of your hard-earned supply of resources being stolen.

As you play, each of the characters in the game will start to accrue different negative states, marked by the games tokens. For example, if your characters are unable to eat at the end of a day due a lack of food, their hunger will increase. If they go out scavenging instead of sleeping, their fatigue will increase. These states can also decrease with access to resources, medicine and sleep, but if any of them advance too far, that character will either die or abandon the group.

Even before that happens, these negative states will start affecting your characters, reducing the amount of actions they can perform during the day. It’s very rare for a group of survivors to be able to use all their actions, so as the game progresses your options become more limited and your choices more desperate. You always need more: more food, more water, more new arrivals in the house, more time to build that vegetable garden you badly need so you don’t have to rely on finding canned food in the dangerous city.

Ultimately though, you’ll be out in that city all the time, using the scavenging phase of the game to collect items and resources. As you make your way through a specific exploration deck, you’ll find areas to search for different types of supplies, and you can choose different locations based on your immediate needs. You’ll make noise doing so, and as the amount of noise you make increases, so does that chances of having an encounter with anything from hobos to military deserters.

Scavenging is also where you’ll find the meat of the narrative half of the game. The ‘Book of Scripts’ provides nearly 2,000 separate paragraphs detailing your encounters in the world of This War of Mine, many of which have multiple choice options, or scenarios that you can only explore if you meet a certain requirement, just as having enough items to trade or enough weapons to intimidate people. The outcomes of these events can be anything from gaining an item, to getting shot, to finding a new character.

At the end of the night, you’ll pick a narrative action card – the only guaranteed beneficial element of the entire game which will give you one off abilities such as being able to avoid a fight or complete day actions at night. You also draw a fate card, which will usually progress illness and wounds for any characters that don’t have bandages and medicine, along with another negative outcome if the temperature has dropped below a specific level.

Making Hard Choices

This War of Mine is one of the most brutal co-operative gaming experiences I’ve played. Games can and will end quickly as your team gets wiped out and there is very little room for mistakes. There’s always so much you need to do to keep your group in good shape, and no time to do it in. The games are also long, and even the luckiest and best runs will see you wearing down what limited items and mental states your characters possess.

I’ll use the games healing to demonstrate how painful a single mistake or dice roll can be for your run. In a lot of other co-operative games healing is normally a character action, using no more resources than simply replacing an action you may have otherwise spent on something else. Not so here.

Say one of your characters gets stabbed by a thug while out searching an abandoned school. They manage to escape, but they now 2 wounds. You don’t have a bandage available to stop the bleeding that night, so you draw a Fate card which instructs you to increase all wounds by one. So now you have a character that can’t perform any actions during the day at all. You do have the resources in the house to make bandages, but your other character needs to use their entire day actions just to create one. The following night during a raid, a group of hobos break in and steal most valuable items, including your one bandage, and the character dies.

That might sound like a string of very bad luck, but these are the challenges you’ll face every day in This War of Mine’s reality. Thematically it’s a perfect system – if you get stabbed without access to proper medical care in the middle of a warzone, you’re probably not going to survive, right? But a game isn’t just about service to a theme. There will be times where the game can flip on a dice roll or a card, and it can feel like there’s nothing you can do to turn things back around. There’s plenty of decisions to make, plenty of agency, but very little warning signs of exactly which of the countless horrible things that could happen are going to happen today.

Want to go outside during the day? There's a 10% chance of losing half your health.

This isn’t a game that you’re going to easily win. It’s long, it’s difficult, your characters continually gain negative traits while the most positive state you can hope for is simply not being hungry or miserable. Most of the characters in the game represent civilians such as school teachers and lawyers, have zero skills applicable to a warzone and no special abilities to save you in a pinch. You need to buy into all of that thematically to be able to enjoy playing This War of Mine. For some, that's not going to be much comfort when the game can turn from 'going well' to over in a couple of bad dice rolls.

For players that can embrace that mindset and be prepared for moments where the game is going to throw a curveball, the combined mechanics of scavenging, crafting and resource management can be an excellent puzzle. Never in a game has the word ‘resource’ been so meaningful, as you discuss over the relative use for each piece of wood or debate if a vegetable garden or a workshop is a more useful use of your actions. Everything you build and every item you find has a use, sometimes multiple uses, and all of them could save your life in a certain situation, even something as minor as a chair or a bed.

The Manual: The games rules are split into two sections – an FAQ in the book of scripts, and a journal, which players use like a tutorial system to play through all the phases. The designers hail this an innovative way to learn a game, but, it’s hit and miss. You can jump into the game super quickly, but having to search through the same book you use for story just so you can find rule clarifications is inefficient. The lack of any reference cards is also a huge pain in early playthroughs.

I love the way the game teases these little engines and systems that you nearly never make work. If you only you could find chems to build herbs so you could combine those herbs with a filter you made earlier to get a bandage for that dying character. It’s all right there in front of you, you know what you need to do but there’s always another emergency on the horizon that you need to deal with first.

This War of Mine also excels at telling stories. Of course, the Book of Scripts has thousands of little story moments that are for the most part very well written and often interactive, telling stories of anything from death squads and murder to little moments of normalcy, as your characters take time to get a haircut from a makeshift barber shop, or play football with a wayward child.

It’s not just the stories in the book though. The fragility of the characters and your desperate attempts to keep them alive connects you to them. Even though the main interaction you’ll have with their scripted stories in the book is their death, the actions and events that happen in the game combined with certain Spirit quirks that take place at the end of each evening bring them to life more than most video game characters.

The games excellent minis also get coloured rings for quick identification.

Finding the Right Group

You can’t talk about This War of Mine without talking about the theme of the game. If the game mechanics themselves are brutal, the story and theme the game tells are just completely horrible. The example of the dying child I gave at the start of this review is not an exception – nearly everything that happens to your characters in this game ranges from unpleasant to horrific as they discover just about everything the worst of humanity has to offer. Keep in mind a lot of these stories have been inspired directly from real world accounts of the Siege of Sarejevo, so everything has an added level of realism.

If board games need to be “fun” to be worthwhile is a topic for another day, but in the context of recommending This War of Mine to people, it’s something important to bring up. For all the mechanically tight moments of the game and for all the excellent writing and artwork you’ll find as you play, This War of Mine felt hopelessly at odds with itself. Even if you’re the type of person who enjoyed reading The Road, or loves Grave of the Fireflies, or wants to use the game to learn more about the horror it describes ask yourself this: Do you want to do it with a group of friends?

Board games are at their best when they are social, and the mechanics of This War of Mine encourages social play and decision making all the time. You’ll start to play, you’ll get into the world, you’ll be laughing over little silly things that happen in the moment, or a story from a friend, and then suddenly one of your group has to solemnly describe a scene where a group of hungry dogs are eating the remains of a family. For many gamers, it’s going to be a jarring experience. The game isn’t going to let you enjoy it without bring you back to that world, for better or worse.

Once we had become familiar enough with the rules to need little help, we tried to create a more somber environment. Low lights, sad music and a deliberate focus on engaging with the theme. It still didn’t work for us: We’re not unfeeling animals, but we are trying to play a game. There are times in our game we found ourselves saying “Well, so the best thing to do here is send out this woman to die as she’s already really hungry and she can’t do any re-rolls anyway.” I found myself thinking “Oh, excellent, we can sacrifice her to keep the guy who can find materials easier.

Maybe you’re able to avoid ‘gaming’ it too much, and can roleplay instead, but trying to make decisions based on roleplaying is going to make a difficult game even harder. Perhaps that’s the point, maybe you should walk away from This War of Mine feeling bad and guilty and for some people that will be worthwhile. Make no mistake – for a board game to ellicit an emotional reaction on this level is incredible. Just like the video game before it, This War of Mine is a powerful game, perhaps even an important one.

Unlike the video game though, none of that means I think you should run out and buy it. Its theme makes it a highly situational game. How often are you and your group going to want to meet up specifically to all experience something so upsetting? How often do you want your game nights to end with everyone feeling down about how terrible humans can be (Even if they win)? Are you always going to be a group with people comfortable describing to everyone graphic scenes? From a purely consumer perspective, there are plenty of games that play with the same mechanics without all of that emotional weight to consider.

From an artistic perspective, this is an interesting experience that I think as many gamers as possible should try out at least once. Just make sure your entire group know what they’re getting into before you start, and don’t expect to survive.

A Note on the Solo Experience

Nearly all of my thematic concerns of This War of Mine are removed by playing the game solo. It’s not only more effective in getting across its point, but the mechanics and immersion also feel streamlined. You can get into the world and the stories more completely, roleplay to your hearts content and take as long as you like to play the game. Of all the times I’ve played This War of Mine, it’s solo play that I enjoyed the most.

Having said that, if you have any access to the video game at all, it’s still hard to recommend the board game. In most solo board games, the mechanics and puzzle are the game. In This War of Mine, the mechanics can often get in the way of the story the game is trying to tell – something that never happens in the video game, where the story is simply presented to you without all the shuffling, searching and rolling of the board game. Additionally, you’re going to be paying four times more to pick up a copy of the board game, and a session will take at least three times as long to play.

Final Thoughts

Mechanically sound, This War of Mine wants you to play a game that you might not even find fun. As an experience it's unique and emotional and worth seeking out. As a purchase, £50+ is a lot to ask for a game that's not designed to be enjoyable.