Not long ago, I wrote a very favorable review of Black Orchestra, a historical game about the German resistance to Nazism and the attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Black Orchestra has been a very involving and challenging gaming experience every time I’ve played it. The game deals with a difficult subject without trivializing or glorifying. I was taken by how a game could be both so thought-provoking, and so clearly rooted in history – even educational – and still allow the player to have agency and make important decisions. Sometimes more story means less player influence. Not in the case of Black Orchestra.
Unable to get the game out of my mind I turned to the 1 Player Guild forums on BoardGameGeek looking for other games with a strong narrative, a similar amount of unpredictability and gradually increasing tension. I asked for a game that “takes itself seriously”. I soon got several replies, because that’s how it works over there. The 1 Player Guild is a gold mine of information and a very friendly place. People suggested about a dozen games all in all. Six people recommended This War of Mine: The Board Game. To those who did: Thank you! It was just what I was looking for and more.
This is the first part of a two-part review of This War of Mine, written after playing one basic campaign that ended in utter misery after a little over five hours. I usually have neither the confidence nor the insights and ideas required to write a review after playing a game just once, but my first play of This War of Mine was a memorable, full experience. I’d like to share this experience. In part two of the review I will cover scenarios – an alternative, shorter way of playing. I will also look at the 2018 expansion Tales From The Ruined City and at replayability.
This game has a strong narrative. It’s not linear, though. It’s not a legacy game and it’s not a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game. I read several reviews and even watched parts of playthroughs before I bought this game and played it and that didn’t lessen the impact of the narrative. In my opinion my review is not spoiling anything, but I do recount the story that unfolded during the five-hour campaign I played. This story is based on my decisions and my way of playing as much as it is based on the narrative content of the game. Nevertheless, the parts of this review that might potentially spoil something for some readers are clearly marked.
Those parts look like this.
The board game This war of Mine was designed by Polish designers Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski, developed and released on Kickstarter by Awaken Realms and released to retail by Galakta in 2017. It’s based on an acclaimed video game of the same name. I don’t play video games so I can’t tell you about the differences and similarities between the two iterations, but it seems to me that by taking the open-ended, interactive possibilities of a video game and trying to realize them in a board game, the designers have come up with something truly innovative.
This War of Mine is takes one or more players to a ramshackle house in a war-torn city during a siege. Here, a small group of civilians have sought shelter. They have nothing but the clothes they’re wearing, some scraps of food, a few tools and some water. The food and water will last them only a day or two, and they can’t venture outside for fear of sniper fire. The goal is to endure until a ceasefire is declared.
This War of Mine is a game of survival, despair, hope, ethical dilemmas, madness, compassion and sacrifice. It’s not fun. It’s not relaxing. But it is memorable, deep, immersive and thought-provoking. The experience reminds of when I saw Der Untergang in a movie theater 15 years ago. When the lights came on and the closing credits where rolling by on the screen people weren’t talking. They slowly got out of their seats and quietly started filing out.
This is a well produced game with quality components, great layout and evocative illustrations. The overall impression is bleak, worn and dark. The game comes with miniatures for the characters, lots of resource tokens and a big stack of cards. The board is big, two sided, and represents the building where the characters have taken refuge, with spaces representing other parts of the city along the edge.
The game comes with no rule book but with a an introductory guide called the Journal, and The Book of Scripts, which is filled with numbered paragraphs that you’ll read when the game instructs you to. On the front of the Journal it says “You do not have to know all of the rules to begin this experience. The icons, decks, keywords, attributes, and other elements will be explained as you proceed.” On the first spread there are setup instructions. That’s it. Set it up, and then you’re thrown into the game not knowing what to expect or how to deal with it.
In the tumbledown house on the game board are three civilians who found themselves suddenly living in a besieged city, not knowing what to expect or how to deal with it.
This is not the first board game without a rule book. The phenomenal fantasy adventure game Legends of Andor also introduces the rules as you play and it works quite well. Andor does it in a didactic way; you’re shepherded through the magic lands by somebody who makes sure that you’ll be ready to take on the heroic task that awaits you. This War of Mine (TWOM from now on) does it in a radically different way. You’re not so much taught the rules as you have to discover them and learn how to use them.
The people hunkered down on the dirty floor don’t know what’s going on outside, because the city outside is no longer the city they used to know. All they know for sure is that they have shelter at the moment. But soon they’ll need more food. More water. They’ll need to keep warm. And where are their friends? Their family? They’ll have to venture out eventually, to discover the city anew and learn how to survive there.
So there I was, with Arica the burglar, Roman the deserter and Anton, a professor of mathematics. They came to life. I got to know them, gradually, just like I got to know parts of the crumbling city, the piles of rubble on the floors and the rules of the game.
The Experience on the Narrative and Thematic Level
Uncertainty, discovery, hope and heartbreak – that was the dramatic arc of my first TWOM campaign. Arica, Roman and Anton began the slow, arduous process of turning their shelter into a makeshift home. Arica the burglar ventured out at night by herself and usually managed to find some provisions. She was paranoically careful, doing all she could to avoid any form of encounter. Roman was keeping watch by the entrance as Arica was out and Anton asleep. This arrangement wore on both Arica and Roma, but Anton, who was well rested, managed to build a simple bed out of scrap wood. From then on Arica and Roman took turns napping in the daytime and Anton kept sleeping at night.
Soon cold weather was beginning to become a real threat. They managed to build a simple stove where they could burn broken-down furniture and old books. Anton the professor, who had turned out to be pretty handy, managed to set up a crude approximation of a workshop in the basement with the intention of building what they needed to board up the windows, doors and holes for better protection against both unwanted visitors and the elements.
The shelling seemed worse in other parts of the city, although the explosions seemed to be getting gradually closer. Once the fighting got so close that they had to hide in the basement. Arica kept bringing back supplies after her nightly scavenging excursions, but they were not able to build up a stock of food; she always found just enough to sustain them through the next few days. She still avoided anybody she saw or heard for fear of becoming a victim of their desperation.
It kept getting colder, but my three friends had managed to improve their situation somewhat. But then their fortune turned. Not due to shelling, looting or starvation, though; one night when Arica came back with food and water she found Anton and Roman in dismay. The floor above the room they used to sleep in had collapsed, probably from disrepair, negligence and rot. Their bed and stove were buried under heaps wood and grit that also blocked the stairs to the basement workshop.
That morning was even colder than usual and the task of clearing out the rubble seemed impossible. Days and nights of very slow progress followed. Sleep deprived and cold, Anton became ill. The volatility of their situation became evident. A disillusioned, freezing and miserable Arica went out on her last nightly excursion. She came back with some scraps of food and some medicine for Anton in the early morning. Later Roman found her dead. She had killed herself.
Neither Anton nor Roman recovered from the blow of Aricas suicide and the cold was still unbearable. But Anton got a little better. As soon as he was well enough to keep watch at night Roman went out and tried finding more food. He had no success and came back empty-handed. In desperation they turned to the other citizens haunting the city at night. Up until then they had done what they could to keep to themselves, and the few encounters they’d had with others had been very tense; they’d even been attacked. They found a trader and managed to exchange some scrap metal for a day’s rations of canned food. But the cold was gnawing at them and their strength dwindled. Anton got sick again. The situation became hopeless and Roman couldn’t handle it. One night he disappeared. The cold got to Anton.
And that was my first campaign of This War of Mine.
The Experience on the Level of Game Mechanisms
The initial uncertainty of the situation Arica, Roman and Anton found themselves in was mirrored by the uncertainty I, as a gamer, experienced when I set out to try to help them without knowing the rules. As they learned so did I. As I played, my actions and the game’s responses resulted in a coherent narrative. TWOM is most definitely a game and not a Choose Your Own Adventure-experience, though. As a player I made choices – many and agonizing. I managed resources, pressed my luck, rolled dice, converted one resource to another, balanced the fatigue of one character against the misery of another and so on. There are elements of worker placement in the game as well, so there’s definitely a lot besides the snippets of story on the cards and in the book.
The game tells an immersive story and the player can easily get emotionally involved. The immersion starts with the learn-as-you-play approach to the rules. Then the game keeps you immersed using cards that represent different events, encounters, situations, skills, places, etcetera, and with the use of the Book of Scripts. Mechanisms of chance are also important tools. Since the aim is to bring the player into a volatile, unpredictable situation, the player often rolls dice and shuffles cards.
There are clever cross-references between cards and paragraphs in the Book of Scripts. These enable the player to connect the dots, discover and learn without previous knowledge of the game system. The references and instructions are connected and handled in such a way that essential story snippets are neither repeated redundantly nor reused in similar situations in the same game. The story I recounted above was semi-randomly generated with my decisions being the main input, and I’ve only seen a fraction of the close to two thousand paragraphs in the book.
I didn’t manage to get Arica, Roman and Anton through the winter and there was no news of a ceasefire. A very sad series of events led to a very sad end. I was so involved in the story and had so much agency as a player that I felt guilty afterwards. I was sure I could have done it differently. I shouldn’t have projected my own distrust onto the characters, and instead of taking all possible measures to avoid any kind of confrontation we should have sought the comfort and help of others at an earlier stage. I should have understood how tough the cold would become when I started noticing that the temperature gradually dropped. I shouldn’t have let both Roman and Anton stay behind while Arica went out scavenging. Although she was good at it, thief as she was, two would have been better prepared to take a few risks than one. Then they would have dared making contact with others and they would possibly have made some friends.
The mechanisms, everything from the chance of the die-rolls to the intricate web of cross-references between cards and paragraphs of text, manage very well to tell a story that you as a player are involved in as an agent; you connect the dots, you make the decisions, you figure it out, and you suffer the consequences or enjoy the victories together with the in-game characters. Most of the text paragraphs that I’ve seen so far have been short and evocative – far from the wall of text that I seem to be building right now! This game is not a book, it’s a board game that incorporates a book as one of its mechanisms. After my first playthrough it feels like an open, sandboxy game that manages to have a strong sense of narrative without feeling scripted.
My impression is that there is a lot more to discover in TWOM. Not just places, characters, strategies, events and stories, but even rules that I’m unaware of after my first few hours with the game. Or rather: my first few hours in the game, because I was completely absorbed.
Why Would Anybody Want to Go Through This?
This War of Mine tells a grim story. It gives you a glimpse of something that many of us, thankfully, have never had to endure. A game tells this story in a different way than newspapers and eye-witness accounts do. It’s more akin to a movie in the way the entire setting comes to life, but a game does something a movie doesn’t: in a game you have to make decisions. Making decisions in the situation that TWOM evokes, in the context of war, deprivation and desperation, is not easy.
This War of Mine is an exercise in compassion. Sometimes you’ll forget the very existence of concepts like min-maxing and optimization and statistics and think “I won’t do that! There’s no way I’d do that! We’ll have to go hungry tonight.”
If you get involved, this game might have you questioning your moral grounding.
This is a game for those who wish to question the way this world is run and to question themselves. It’s immersive to the point where it almost feels like a role-playing game. This War of Mine takes you somewhere else and gives you a glimpse of something you’d hopefully never have to experience otherwise. I’d go as far as saying that you might even learn something about yourself or the world.
The way you get involved in the story through your decisions makes you care deeply about the outcome. This is a very strange game, because you’ll not play it for fun, not even for the challenge. Once you’re a few turns in, the driving forces that keep you playing are hope and compassion, not challenge or the prospect of mastery. And the actual challenge is something else entirely, something that you seldom encounter in a game: you have to accept that this is probably pretty close to reality, as games go.
There is the occasional ray of light. The satisfaction of managing to feed everybody once in a while, or the joy that a found book brought to the group urged me on when it felt particularly bleak.
Although my overall experience with this game is very positive, I’ve found a few things that some prospective players might find problematic. Bear in mind, though, that the main “problem” with this game is its theme. It will be very off-putting to some and it will most likely be the main reason that some people avoid the game.
The first issue, and the only one that’s an issue for me personally, is the lack of a player aid. There should be a concise turn summary somewhere, either on the back of the Journal or on a card, or at least on one page in the journal. Having to constantly flip through the Journal is annoying.
The second issue is one that didn’t really annoy me, but it’s something that I kept noticing. It concerns the writing of the story fragments. It’s evident that English is not the writer’s native language and sometimes the prose is a little pathetic or clichéd. The language didn’t get in the way of my experience, however. Reading small text passages is just one part of this game and I focused on the information conveyed, on the content rather than on the form.
Some editorial work by a writer whose first language is English and a player aid with the turn structure would make the next edition of this game even better.
The lack of a rule book has to be addressed as a potential problem as well. For some players it will be uncomfortable or even stressful to start playing without knowing the rules. Those players, however, are probably not drawn to a highly thematic game with randomness, imperfect information and luck. In my opinion this feature of the game is fantastic. It makes thematic sense and it also makes it less of an ordeal to get into this game. It lowers the threshold.
In This War of Mine I’ve found another game that deals with difficult issues without glorifying or trivializing. It has a strong narrative, yet it’s unpredictable and leaves the decisions to the player. And it most definitely takes itself and its subject seriously.
This War of Mine is an amazingly immersive, strong and rich solitaire gaming experience. The whole presentation of the game, from graphics and components to how the rules are taught, help telling a very involving story. The mechanisms of the game are interlocked with the theme and the in-game decisions you make gradually become more and more involved as you get to know the characters. The game tells a coherent story without feeling confining or scripted.
This War of Mine, unlike Black Orchestra, plays out on the micro-level. You’re not trying to change history – you’re a victim of history as it’s being written by the ones in power.
There are two things that you should consider if you’re interested in this game. Firstly, it can’t be stressed enough that this game has a very dark theme. Secondly, the way you’re thrown into the game without knowing the rules might not be for everyone. You will feel abandoned. You’ll have to embrace that feeling to be able to get anything out of this game.
This one playthrough was such an experience that it alone makes this game a worthwhile investment, but my impression after five hours of play is that there is still a lot to be discovered. Soon I will go back to the besieged city, but my first time there has left me exhausted.
I highly, warmly, deeply recommend this game. I also suggest that you have a look at Jasenko Pasic’s review of the game on BoardGameGeek. The writer is a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo. His perspective on This War of Mine is invaluable to anybody who is either interested in the game or finds it off-putting.
Thank you for reading this review. I hope you’ll come back and read the second part once it’s posted. In part two I’ll cover scenarios, replayability and the expansion.