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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #9, This War of Mine: The Board Game

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This War of Mine: The Board Game

A game by Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski

Awaken Realms.

BGG listing.

The sun was a pallid sphere that gave light but no heat, and it rose in a cold blue sky.

Marko was alone once more. The only one left to tend to the empty rat traps and the empty water collector. No wood left to feed the empty stove, no food or water to feed his empty stomach.

At least the fire would be fed, but it would take all he had left.

He picked up the book—The Martian Chronicles—the one thing that had consoled him when he no longer had the strength to dig through rubble, or when he sought respite from the din of sirens and shelling. He started tearing out the pages, the sound of ripping paper hanging in the mote-filled air, crumpling the paper and throwing them into the stove. If only he had committed the words to memory.

The flames leaped up hungrily, and when the fire had consumed it all, and only one page was left, he thought to himself, this is a terrible mistake, I would rather die from the cold than be deprived of the company of letters, and he stopped.

He held the last page. It was from the story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and he read, in a trembling hand:

“The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes.”

My last time to play this game (on Switch, but I also own the Xbox and iOS versions)—a doomed 18-day long affair, where the last survivor was a little girl crying the entire time in an empty house, surrounded by rubble, after her father passes away from wounds after being attacked by scavengers—was so upsetting, I had to stop the game and walk away. I haven’t played the video game since.

It’s one reason why the board game remained in shrinkwrap for so long, even after I backed it on Kickstarter. It is, at times, an emotionally draining experience, and the board game is no exception, where you tense up at every flip of the card, at every roll of the die. And there I was thinking that my emotional investment would somehow be lessened—that the cardboard and plastic would provide a little distance—without the immersiveness of the video game’s thought bubbles, animated characters, and ambient soundtrack. I was wrong.

This War of Mine is a game about war, but it’s not a wargame; indeed, it is resolutely anti-war, belying Truffaut’s notion that all anti-war movies end up glorifying war anyway. Much of this has to do because the game is played wholly from the vantage point of the civilians (the game is based on the siege of Sarajevo). Your decisions can be morally fraught, and choices that may end up harming the strangers you encounter have an emotional effect on your character—and, perhaps, yourself.

It’s a tall order, thematically, for a game to deliver—for any game, really—but perhaps more so for a game made of cardboard, without the benefits of voice acting or a music soundtrack. The theme aside, the board game requires managing resources effectively to be able to survive until the siege ends, and the challenges are steep. Extremely steep.

This War of Mine: the board represents the house in which the refugees have found shelter

So yes, it’s a resource management game at heart. You need, for instance, wood and scavenged mechanical equipment to build a stove—but you also need wood to build a fire or cook anything or bar the windows and doors from the cold and from intruders. Did I mention there were night raids, where you could be injured or have your precious resources stolen? Or the fact that the availability of resources is literally decided at the toss of the dice?

But this resource management core is enveloped by some of the most richly imagined narrative content I’ve encountered outside of an RPG. Numbers on the cards direct you to over 160 pages of narrative snippets, contained in The Book of Scripts, that detail the consequences of your decisions. The variety is astonishing. I haven’t played the game as much as I should, but so far I’ve repeated only a tiny handful of scenarios—and with the months in between plays, I didn’t even remember the choices I made earlier.

This War of Mine contains some of the most richly imagined narrative content I’ve encountered outside of an RPG…

Even as a cooperative game, you’re not meant to identify with a particular character. You control all four. This seems counter-intuitive at first glance, because it hinders players from identifying with the character they’re playing. What it does, though, is reinforce the fact that the characters are meant to be played as a collective—there is no way just one person can survive alone—and it teaches the lesson that solidarity and cooperation is the only way through.

This War of Mine characters

The narratives in the Book of Scripts deepen our understanding of the characters’ backgrounds, and I almost wish there was some sort of character development as you would see in a novel—or even in a role playing game. Alas, no, they don’t level up—not for civilians caught in war—though they bring to the table, no pun intended, a different set of strengths and weaknesses. One character (a cat burglar) has better scavenging skills and can retrieve more items during one of her night forays; another may have greater strength and can withstand more injuries because he was in the military, but prone to depression if he doesn’t get his cup of coffee in the morning. Another may be excellent at (barely) raising morale, but physically weak and more prone to illness.

This mechanism of pluses and minuses may seem, on the surface, just like one of those fixed sliders you use in video game RPGs to allocate points to strength or dexterity or charisma: too many points allocated for one trait decreases the points in another. But it’s far more than that: morale, for instance, is the one variable that’s most difficult to control, illustrating the psychological dimension of living through war. Unlike in the video game, we don’t have access to the characters’ thoughts, but we struggle alongside them to make it through the day.

Here’s an example of the game’s narrative richness. In a recent playthrough I sent three characters out to scavenge on the first night, and they came home with all sorts of goodies. It was only the first night, but I was nonetheless stoked by a combination of circumstances that led to their good fortune:

  • The value of alcohol and cigarettes and jewelry had increased on the streets, which was a real boon to scavengers;
  • Then the scavengers find—you guessed it—alcohol and cigarettes and jewelry in the basement of a building;
  • So we trade almost all of it for raw food and vegetables;
  • And Roman, whom I left at home, was undisturbed by any Night Raids.

So I felt good about the rest of the game. Sure, it was cold (three tokens), but that was fine. The characters were safe and uninjured, though all under the weather. The pantry was stocked, and we had more water supply than we needed. What more could we ask for?

Morning broke on the second day.

Then I drew the next Event card.

Rat Infestation.

I had to go dump all the food and vegetables just minutes after the characters returned joyfully home.

One other factor why this game is so interesting: the rulebook is essentially nothing but setup instructions, the steps in a day and night turn, and some details about combat. What do these circles on the card mean? What do these little blank tokens signify? The rulebook doesn’t say; almost everything else is buried in the Book of Scripts.

This seems insane—like, I’m one of those people who reads the rulebook from cover to cover (plus watching a couple of play through videos to boot) before I even punch the counters. But the rulebook counsels the first-time player that all will be revealed in due time, i.e. only when the rule is actually relevant. And it’s quite an experience, learning a game and seeing only a fraction of the rules, and letting go of that ambiguity and trusting that the game will show you how it works. And it does.

This War of Mine is not “fun,” but it’s a singularly engrossing game experience. But it’s brutal and punishing and feels impossible. There’s a sealed envelope in the box that awaits me as a reward if my survivors ever make it through to the end of the siege. As with Nemo’s War above, I am (like Nemo) still incapable of victory, but the experience, as difficult as it is, is worth it.

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