This War of Mine is a board game that makes a bold statement with how it plays and what it examines. Like the video game of the same name, This War of Mine examines the lives of civilians trapped in a war torn city under siege, and it doesn’t hold back. Finding a piece of raw food becomes a huge achievement, going outside at day time is liable to get you shot by a nervous sniper, and that’s to say nothing of the other people you meet as you go out scavenging in the city at night.
This War of Mine comes with a large book of story pieces, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, only with fewer genies and more… well, rape victims. This is not a game to take lightly, and while you can avoid the worst of the events if you like, that would arguably be doing this game a disservice. While it is a cooperative board game, and there is ostensibly a “win” state and a mix of “lose” states, this about experiencing the game, the hardships and facing the morally messed up choices the game will force you to make. That means it isn’t for everyone. It’s arguably not even fun; but it is a fascinating experience.
Of course, so was the computer game that inspired this board game. Facing the stacks of cards, tokens and books that you have to handle instead of the computer, you may wonder what you’re getting here. The simple, and only, answer to that is the opportunity to share it with your friends. This is quite a big thing. You see how they respond to these kinds of stresses, you need to decide things as a group and that means facing up to what you might find acceptable in this hypothetical survival situation, and what your friends do.
In some ways This War of Mine does undermine its own message. Playing as a group of friends will see you finding the funny side of things even in the face of the hardships your characters face. When you roll well to defend your shelter from a gang of hobos and you all cheer, that incongruity with events and your physical surroundings is funny when it really shouldn’t be. Likewise all your characters will probably starve but you read character specific text for their ending, only to find that one moves on to lead a street gang and another leads a successful career after the war and you are left wondering what, exactly, was your role in all this anyway? Perhaps it’s because hunger or misery were our downfall instead of illness or injury but I was left with the sense that, in terms of the story of the game’s characters, failure on our part wasn’t especially meaningful. And I think it loses some impact because of that.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention This War of Mines really quite innovative approach to cooperation and to learning the game. One, you don’t each control one character, all players are ostensibly in control of the group. Each phase of the game is then primarily resolved by a single player before passing on that responsibility in the next phase. It loses the granular immersion of having your character suffering directly but gains from cooperative discussion and makes you feel more like observers to the experience. Part of the point is you’re not there, that would be even worse.
The game also encourages you to just leap in and start playing rather than teaching all the rules up front and that works really well… If, say, the owner has already done a play through before you start and can talk you through it.
This War of Mine isn’t, as I said, necessarily fun, but it’s still a game I would absolutely encourage you to check out. It offers an experience unlike anything else in board gaming and that’s just not a phrase I get to write very often! I believe in gaming’s capacity to explore more difficult and mature topics and This War of Mine showcases that capacity, even if it doesn’t do so perfectly. It is still, probably, the best attempt we’ve seen.