This Review of Mine - This War of Mine The Board Game Review
Starvation, depression, fatigue - these are just a few of the things your characters will experience while trying to survive within a city under siege. How exactly does one represent those tribulations through the triviality of cardboard and plastic? That’s exactly what This War of Mine TBG tries to do.
This War of Mine is a kickstarted board game based on the successful video game of the same name. Both games start with the statement “In war, not everyone is a soldier” and has the player(s) controlling one or more survivors in the middle of a city under siege, doing their best to weather the storm and hopefully come out the other side. Although modeled after a real-life civil war, the events and scenarios in the games have been abstracted enough to feel as though they could happen anywhere, attempting to drive home the fact that these survivors aren’t any different from you or I. They just found themselves in an increasingly terrible situation which they now have to deal with.
The board game adaptation stays pretty true to its predecessor. The game is broken out into several stages; daylight (in which characters tend to their shelter) and late-night scavenging (where it’s safe to leave the shelter to attempt to find supplies), with a few standard steps in between each stage (event, feeding, defending, day resolution). The mechanics involved in these stages aren’t anything complex; the day phase isn’t much more than co-op worker placement, the exploration is a push-your-luck card flip.
Before I dive too much into the Book of Scripts, where all the meaningful part of this game occurs, there’s the issue of the rulebook. The designers of This War of Mine took a specific action to make this game “playable out of the box” which is a pretty big feat. They attempted this by making the Journal - an instruction book of sorts, but designed to be read as you play the game, not in advance. While this is a novel approach, as someone who is used to the board game rulebook status quo (as they put it) I found it somewhat off-putting.
First thing you’ll see, after reading “all you need to do is flip through this book to play the game, let’s begin”, is one of the most complicated setup diagrams I’ve ever seen for a board game. Not exactly encouraging to new players, which is where I think the Journal format immediately falls short. I wouldn’t recommend this rulebook to someone who’s never read a modern game rule book before, which kind of defeats the whole point of the format. If you still require modern rule book interpretation skills, then you should probably just follow the format of modern rule books!
Since you don’t have a complete reference guide to what everything on the board means, it requires a certain amount of trust that things will be explained to you in time, when it becomes relevant. That said, after three plays there are still components on cards that I’m not entirely sure what they’re used for - I can only imagine when the scenario comes up that it’ll be explained. Either that or I’ve missed something along the way and have been playing wrong - I don’t really have a way to check.
Furthermore, the Journal only really tells you enough to play through the “happy path” of the game - any edge cases that you may run into are handled by FAQ sections in the Book of Scripts. The Book of Scripts is where all the narrative of the game comes from, similar to Tales of the Arabian Nights or Above and Below, but buried in its 1500 entries are little grey sections that pertain to certain aspects of the game. Have to clarify something during the Day phase? Flip to section 300 in the book. Not having this reference in a separate rulebook is one thing, but if you need to clarify something that isn’t in the phase you’re currently in you’re going to have to flip through the Journal to find that phase or play “Guess what number I’m thinking of between 1 and 1500”. One of the first things I did after the first play of this game was use the promotional postcard we received as a kickstarter backer to write down all the journal FAQ entries.
The above is what makes This War of Mine a board game. This game isn’t really about the game however, more so the experience. There’s several references in the rules where the game designers ask you to play the game as though it was an RPG; where you are characters going through an experience rather than trying to “win”. There are several points in the game where you’ll run into events that cause you to reference the Book of Scripts, which is the collection of narrative passages that pertain to the character or characters experiencing them. The severity of these paragraphs differs greatly - one card can have you trading goods with friendly civilians, while the next can have you coming to terms with seeing a pre-teen shoot someone in the head.
The game does give you ample warning in most cases that what you’re about to read may be of an aggressive nature, so you do have the option of skipping past the more discretionary paragraphs, but those paragraphs are kind of the point of the game? This War of Mine, above all else, was created to shed light on the plight of civilians trapped in a war they didn’t ask for. A lot of the stories contained within the Book of Scripts are inspired by interviews with survivors of real-life events. People died of illness, starved, killed themselves, were shot by both sides, and none of them really had the option to “skip the paragraph”, so I can’t fault them for including the uncomfortable parts of war - the whole game is about that.
Therein lies the problem however. This War of Mine is still a game. It does remind me quite a bit of other story driven games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, where the most interesting part of the gameplay is in the random, unexpected narrative that emerges from the gameplay. My problem with Arabian Nights is that the narration is a much better experience than the game itself, as if the fact that there’s a board and tokens is more of a nuisance in the way than a necessary part. I think This War of Mine suffers a bit from that, although much less so.
The shelter-management day phase is a basic worker placement, the scavenging night phase is a push-your-luck, and both are mildly interesting - although my gut feeling is that they’re ‘solvable’, as though there’s always an optimal way to play and you’d only vary if dire circumstances required it. If that was the only part of this game, I’d be telling you to avoid it. Fortunately, those phases are interesting enough that players are still invested in performing the less exciting actions while waiting for the story points to hit. Because of how the game is structured, those story points can hit at almost any time, giving extra value and uncertainty to the gameplay.
I think another problem that can’t be avoided with this style of game is the stark contrast between playing a board game and reading a book. Games like Above and Below and other narrative games suffer from this effect - there’s a sharp right turn between rolling dice and moving chits, and making a decision based on an immersive story. This is even more the case in This War of Mine, as you transition from simple actions like “roll a D10 to see if you make noise” to “SOMEONE HAS A GUN POINTED AT YOUR HEAD” in a matter of seconds. The stark contrast between the two modes of immersion makes one of them seem less important. I’m not sure it’s a problem easily solved, but it can be viewed as a problem nonetheless.
As a kickstarter backer I of course received a bunch of stretch goals and also picked up two of the additional expansions that were offered (Memories and Incidents). The expansions follow a format that I’m not a fan of for board games - each of them is basically a stand-alone scenario, and the components aren’t intermingled with the base game decks unless you’re specifically playing that expansion. I’ve only played the base game so far, and I’m sure those expansions will come in handy if/when I’m interested in spicing things up, but I’m more a fan of the Eldritch-Horror style expansions where the additional content can be mixed into the base game content.
I think it’s pretty easy to sell This War of Mine as a unique experience. As a board game it’s not going to be able to stand up against the greats from this year or last, but if you approach it as a unique lite-RPG with a really hard win condition it’s a lot more palatable. That said it still promotes itself as a game, has game mechanics, and is sold alongside board games so it will be compared and probably not come out on top. I wouldn’t recommend This War of Mine as a hard co-operative game to play, I’d recommend it as an interesting story-based game that engages you to succeed against the odds.