Every now and then, a new game comes along which really catches my eye for being something a bit different. This War of Mine is the board-game adaptation of a Computer Game of the same name, where players control civilians in the fictional city of Pogoren, in the land of Graznavia.
Influenced heavily by the siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996, This War of Mine immediately caught my attention. I visited Sarajevo on my first trip to the former Yugoslavia in 1999 and the scars on the landscape could still be seen. 18 years, 3 degrees in Slavonic Studies and many more visits to the Balkans later, this was a theme that resonated in a way that Zombie-bashing, Railway-building, or defeating Eldritch Cults was never going to.
At the same time though, there was a part of me that wondered if it was ok. A failed game of Pandemic Iberia might see the citizens of Barcelona struck by Typhus due to my incompetence, but it’s all very abstracted, done with cubes at a safe distance. This War of Mine looked like a game that was going to get up close and personal, with some of the more traumatic realities of surviving in a theatre of modern warfare.
Does civil war belong in a board game? Can you balance mechanic and theme in a way that is neither disrespectful nor trite? Let’s find out.
This War of Mine: what’s in the box?
This War of Mine comes with a large, sturdy board that represents the derelict house which you have made your erstwhile home, and has space around the edge for various piles of cards and locations in the wider city.
There are lots of tokens representing the items you will need to acquire in order to stay alive – for the most part these are cardboard, although there are a few bits rendered in plastic.
There are lots and lots of decks of cards, which will drive most of the game’s action, a series of dice which you roll during various tests, and some plastic miniatures representing the characters you control – I was pleased by the quality of the miniatures, and the card and component stock generally is good.
Whilst you can lose a game of This War of Mine fairly quickly, a victory will take many hours and, drawing inspiration from its PC-progenitor, the game comes with paper “save sheets” for you to record the state of the game and of your characters. This was a nice touch, although clearing away and re-starting an ongoing game is still pretty laborious.
This War of Mine doesn’t have a conventional rulebook in the way that you might expect – instead there’s a “Journal” which walks you through the basic steps of the game, and a Book of Scripts which contains both the narrative encounters that drive much of the game, and various rules and FAQ sections all mixed in. The Journal is great: it provides clear, simple instructions for what happens stage by stage, and keeps the game ticking over.
The section in red is a Rules FAQ
The problem though, is the lack of any kind of index for the rules – lots of things are easy to miss, and there’s no index. You can generally find the answers on Board Game Geek (Hint: you can take Water when scavenging, even if you don’t ‘find’ any), but it’s always a bit unsatisfactory when you have to dig through the internet to play the game.
Broadly speaking, you will spend the day trying to organise and explore the building where you have taken refuge then at night, you need to divide your energies between guarding the shelter, going out foraging in the city, and sleeping.
An unusual feature of This War of Mine is that you do not play as a specific character, rather the group as a whole control the survivors as a group. The final decision on any action the group takes is made by “the leader” – whoever is holding the Journal at that exact moment – and there are regular in-game instructions to pass the journal on. That said, I think that there’s still a significant danger of alpha-player syndrome creeping in to a game of This War of Mine.
So What am I Actually Trying to do? Survive!
At least one of these 3 needs to make it to the end
There is only 1 end-of-game objective in This War of Mine: Survive. There will be some randomised shorter-term objectives, but these are only really means to an end. Each day you will try to explore more the building, enabling you to construct things to facilitate further activities – beds for sleeping, water purifiers, heaters etc. Each night you will try to find the materials you need for survival, and to construct more of the fittings that will get you through the day.
Day-Time: Building and Clearing
The day-time activities are fairly straightforward, mechanical actions. If there’s a heap you can rummage for things, if you have a shovel, you can clear rubble. The decision-making will grow more complex as you construct extra things, and have the opportunity of using them, but each option will still be fairly straightforward.
The constant squeeze on materials stops you from doing as much as you might like, but there’s definitely some sense of progression possible in the day-time phase of the game. You can build a herb garden, then upgrade it to a vegetable garden, and eventually start producing food. You can build something to catch rainwater, allowing you to meet another of the needs which tends to be most pressing.
Even when you aren’t building things, there are heaps to rummage through, bits of furniture to scavenge. Over time you’ll clear rubble which, whilst not providing any direct benefits, will open up new sections of the building to explore.
The day-time phase was probably what reminded me most closely of other ‘survival’ games – something like Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. If you can survive long enough, you will start to build up something like an infrastructure, get a sense of progression.
Night-Time: Death and Stories
Day time in This War of Mine can feel fairly self-contained, just your survivors getting on with doing their own thing inside the building. Night Time is where the interaction comes, as you venture outside and the other residents of this city under siege come to you.
Firstly, you will send some people out to scavenge – choosing a location from 3 available to visit, and then working through an exploration pile. Sometimes this will let you draw “findings” – which is where you actually get things from, but often you will be faced with choices: return cards (reducing the amount of stuff available to you), or roll for noise. The more you do, the more noise you make, and the higher the noise total, the more likely it is that you’ll roll below the current noise level, triggering an encounter with some residents. Occasionally this might be a friendly opportunity to trade, but more often than not, it will involve a brief and bloody skirmish – or at least force you to run away.
One major feature of the Scavenging part of the game, is the chance of triggering narrative encounters – referring you to the Book of Scripts, and giving you branching decision-paths, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, albeit one set in a very dark place. The story side of This War of Mine really hammers home the theme and the setting of the game, and helps smooth over mechanistic spells of drawing, discarding, and re-drawing cards.
Whilst you’re out scavenging other people’s buildings, chances are that someone will be doing the same to you, which is why you’ll need to make sure you have someone standing guard. Each night a Night Raid card determines who attacks your building, how much stuff they take, and how much damage they do to the guard (not leaving a guard triggers its own, far worse, result). You can arm the person on guard duty, and they can try to fight off the raiders, but this is far from guaranteed. I’ve lost an otherwise healthy guard, armed with a hatchet (not a great weapon, but one that took a fair amount of resources to create) in a single attack phase.
Without Night Raids, perhaps This War of Mine would feel too easy, but coming as the last step of the day, it feels tiring, punishing, unfair. I think that’s deliberate: war isn’t fair, and whilst the feelings it creates aren’t always enjoyable, I don’t think there can be any suggestion that This War of Mine isn’t capturing the essence of civilian life during a siege.
Colours: Into the Red
Sometimes in This War of Mine, you’ll need to determine a “Colour” to see what encounter you get – being directed to a different place in the book of scripts. One thing to consider, is whether you want to include the Red encounters. Red scripts tend to contain some of the most brutal and graphic episodes: In one early encounter we found the recently butchered corpses of a family, their soup still warm on the stove. Characters then had the option to make a roll against their empathy to see whether they could bring themselves to stay in a room full of dead bodies to eat the food.
This was definitely one of the ‘reality bites’ moments of This War of Mine. This is Schindler’s List, not Allo, Allo.
Things are getting worse for Arica
The 3 characters you start with, along with any others who join your party over the days can all acquire various “states,” going up and down (mostly up) in their levels of misery, hunger, fatigue, illness and wounds. In the short term, this can limit how much they are able to do during the day, and if a character ever reaches level 4 in one of these attributes, you will need to turn to the Book of Scripts, and find the relevant epilogue for that character.
I play games where characters die all the time: I’ve lost count of the number of times miniatures or standees that were relying on me got eaten by zombies or driven mad by an Eldritch beast from beyond the stars.
This War of Mine feels different. Even though this is a fictionalised version of events, reading about a school teacher committing suicide because there was no longer enough food to keep going is a real stomach-punch. For a game that’s very hard to win, the consequences of loss are remarkably traumatic.
This War of Mine: Final Thoughts
This War of Mine is not a light game. I’d be hesitant even to use the word “fun.”
Katia’s turn on guard-duty didn’t end well
There are a few moments of mechanical awkwardness in this game, but it’s hard to feel like that really matters: at heart, This War of Mine captures the sense of fighting for survival during a modern siege, and does so brilliantly. This game will ask you to make the impossible choice, and make you feel the impact. In fact, it does it so well that the experience can feel too real at times. This is undoubtedly a good game, but it has none of the light-heartedness which you might expect when sitting down to play some cards or roll some dice: it’s heavy, draining, and a truly emotional experience. For that reason, whilst I think it’s a game to keep hold of, it’s not going to be one you’ll want to get out and play all the time.
As a closing thought, I’m going to let someone else do my job for me. This War of Mine will always beg the question of whether this is a suitable topic for a game: that’s a discussion where I don’t think any of us can say much more than this review on Board Game Geek by someone who actually survived the siege of Sarajevo.
8/10 – A terrible beauty is born.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.