There are a lot of war based board games, but when you look and analyse them they tend to follow the same route: you’re trying to complete an objective. It might be to rescue someone, or rid the world of demons, or collect a priceless relic. But what if the objectives are slightly less grand than that? What if your entire existence is based around simply surviving while a civil war unfolds around you, trying to cling onto your health while balancing risky night raids with trying to stay safe? A mission whereby the only barometer of success is whether you can stay alive long enough to see the other side of the war?
Welcome to This War of Mine. It’s dark, it’s different, it’s occasionally upsetting, but it’s utterly spellbinding.
The idea of This War of Mine (which in case you’re wondering is heavily based on the video game of the same name, it’s not a coincidence) is to control some characters who are simply trying to stay alive. Each of the characters on offer have various profiles which provide a range of variables such as how much they can carry or how empathetic they are, and the differences are more than enough to make playing with different combinations of characters feel like a unique set of circumstances. Throughout the game you’ll have to deal with varying levels of hunger, fatigue, illness and any wounds that crop up from raiders or scavenging gone wrong, and managing these effectively is going to be key to succeeding in your task of fighting off death for a little while longer. The mechanics of the game match the video game quite closely at times; in the day you’ll move around the house trying to first tidy it up by removing rubble and searching through heaps of rubbish. As you find resources you’ll be able to start crafting certain items such a bed or a workshop, things that can be positioned round the house and provide benefits to the players still up and about. These moments feel satisfyingly serene, the tale of a group of survivors trying to make the best of a bad situation by fixing up their shelter and trying to build something resembling a home.
But it’s when night falls that things start to get quite tense. If you’ve got someone up to the task, you can go scavenging under the cover of darkness. Having picked a building to search, a range of cards are used to determine what events will kick off while you’re there – maybe a door will be locked and need to be picked. Maybe someone will violently defend their property, or you could find some vitally important gear that’ll help your group when you get it home. There are risks, and there are rewards, but one thing’s for sure: you won’t survive for long if you stay at home and hope a magic pile of food and supplies turns up (which, if you don’t go out scavenging, will actually happen very occasionally). But while you’re off doing your thing in someone else’s buildings, there’s a chance your place will get raided too, which can be aided by leaving someone on guard duty, but any fights will be sorted out with a few dice rolls. The worst case scenario is that you’ll get back from your own scavenging to find less people alive than when you left, at which point things are just going to get harder.
At various points though you’ll be sent into the best part of This War of Mine: The Book of Scripts, a series of nearly 2000 passages of text which provide storyline advancements, decision to make, and a range of heart-breaking revelations which will change the course of your game dramatically. With such a massive range of text clips, and numerous ways to arrive at them, it almost guarantees that you’ll have a new game every time you play, and the idea of your characters developing as the game goes on as a result of this series of scripts really appealed to me. It maintained a mystery around the whole situation, and uncertainty of what was round the corner. Very much, I imagine, how it would be if you were stuck in a hour trying to survive a civil war.
And that, I think, is what makes the game to special to me. Yes it has a great looking (and huge) board, some really nice miniatures and the awesome Book of Scripts. And is has the Journal, a super-handy method of learning the rules while you play, something which was shouted about from the very moment the game was announced in a way to get you playing sooner and learning the rules as you play through your first game, and that works great as well. It allows you to play as a solo game, and is arguably better if you do, something which will please those gamers who find it difficult to get a few people together at the same time in the same place. All of these things are great, and come together to make a great game, but that’s not what really made me fall in love with this.
Instead it’s that bleakness, that uncertainty of whether all, or indeed any of your survivors will make it… that combined with the building of the story as the game progresses leads you into this strange conflict of emotions. You’re desperate for your people to survive, but the odds aren’t good that it’ll happen. Some of the things you’ll read about, things you’ll do to others or have done to you, they’re not things that an average person would usually think about. But this isn’t a game about average people getting on with their lives; it’s a game which gives a eye-opening view of what people go through in war-torn countries, away from the TV News cameras and moronic presidential tweets, focusing solely on the people who have to endure endless hell for years on end. It’s not a game you’ll come away from with a big grin on your face, and it’s not a game you’ll be digging out with the kids around, but it’s a game that most people should play just to understand. It might be that you play it once, take a deep breath following by a pensive expletive, and put back on the shelf. Or it might be a game that you dig out when you’ve got an evening on your own and just want to appreciate the simple, occasionally uneventful life that you might have. But either way this game will flood you with emotion and leave you with a very different outlook on certain parts of your life. And that, in itself, makes it an invaluable experience.