This War of Mine: The Board Game Review

This War of Mine: The Board Game Review

Anyone alive in the 90s who owned an Amiga will almost certainly have remembered the Sensible Software game “Cannon Fodder”. If you don’t remember the game, look it up. I’ll wait.

I mention Cannon Fodder because it came with the tagline: “War has never been so much fun”. And it was right – Cannon Fodder was awesome and still stands as one of my favourite games of all time. Making those little men dance across the screen as you shot their twitching corpses was highly entertaining, if a little morbid.

Cannon Fodder, however, is a complete polar opposite to the subject of this review – with the tagline “In war, not everyone is a soldier”. Also beginning life as a video game, This War of Mine is a rather brutal and harrowing depiction of the early 90’s Siege of Sarajevo from the point of view of a group of civilians trying to eke out an existence in a city that’s seen more shells than Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It’s fair to say that absolutely nothing depicted in This War of Mine could be described as “fun”.

This War of Mine The Board Game Storage

Reviewing a game that started its life in pixels presents a twofold challenge – is the translation into cardboard a true representation of the video version and is the game decent in its own right? Thankfully I’ve played the video game so I’m in a good position to consider both. The video game is tough going – I can’t play more than about an hour without feeling so depressed I’m reaching for the Valium so it does a good job with the atmospherics.

This War of Mine: The Board Game sets up as the particular ruined building that your group of three civilians has claimed dibs on. It’s meagre and in a bit of a state – sadly you can’t call DIY SOS in to clean the place up, so it’s up to you. The building has a number of spaces, each of which is represented by a card containing a feature; locked door, pile of rubble, heap of junk etc. and it takes actions to overcome them. Some take more than one action and some are reliant on a die-roll.

The game is broken into a number of stages – Daytime, Dusk, Night (Scavenging and Raid) and then Dawn. At this point I need to call a halt to the proceedings – not in some kind of protest about the working conditions Steve enforces on me, but because this is exactly what you as a first-time player will see. Why? Because the rules are written in a novel way – you learn as you play, which is great if you’re new to the game so you can dive right in. I like the idea, although in practice there are a couple of niggles with the approach. I found on my first time that there were points in the game where I encountered cards that referred to mechanics or ideas that the rulebook hadn’t mentioned yet – you can scan forward to find out what they are, but to me that defeats the idea of “learn as you go”.

This War of Mine the board game review

There’s also the downside (the first time) of not being able to plan at all because you don’t know what’s going to happen or why. Also, there were a couple of things the manual omitted such as the Objective cards – they’re actually set up on the first turn, but you have to set the game up first…so it’s all a little recursive. I think I still prefer this approach to the Fantasy Flight Games' double-manual offering, as you can dive right in and get reduced to tears right from the off.

I have to say, This War of Mine: The Board Game has one of the best boxes and inserts I’ve seen in a game – the manual explains where everything goes and if you follow it, everything fits perfectly and even undergoing the sort of rough transit produced by a drunk Yodel driver, all the components stay put and you don’t have to re-sort the game each time you open the box (Five Tribes, I’m looking at you).

So you kick off and right away forced to make tough choices. “In at the deep end” is really done justice by This War of Mine: The Board Game. There’s a real sense of trepidation in every decision you make, because, just like wandering around a warzone, every move could be your last. And having played the game a few times, believe me, it really could be. Even so much as poking your head out of the window could result in that character’s brains being splattered across the upper west side. Either that or you freeze to death because you haven’t built a fire and it’s colder than a penguin’s nether regions.

This War of Mine The Board Game Characters

In a way, This War of Mine: The Board Game could be considered a Worker Placement game of sorts – there’s a lot of possible actions you can take (which change according to which bits of kit you build) and you have limited actions to take, which are further reduced by the various conditions your character may be suffering. Hunger is almost permanent, but the fun additions such as misery, fatigue and wounds can cripple your options so you need to keep your head down.

Daytime involves crafting items and kit out of the odds and sods you have lying around to improve your hovel from “rather squalid” to “slightly less appealing than the Portaloos at Glastonbury after the dysentery has hit”. Building equipment means your resources go further and your people don’t get quite as depressed. Oh and they get to live, which is well received.

Once the daytime is done, you need to decide who’s going out for a poke about in the ruined city to find more food, resources and other useful trinkets to continue your miserable existence. Everyone else gets to either stand guard to try to stop people doing to you what you’re doing to them or get some much-needed kip. And I hope you’ve made a bed or it’s another night on the floor with the rats.

This War of Mine The Board Game Characters Buildings

The night stage is split into two sections, Scavenging and Raiding. The former is your foray into your target building and I must say, the representation of how the video game works here is very well captured – a deck of cards depending on the building of choice (and assuming you don’t get sniped on your way) with each one telling you what you need to do or if you get found out because you’ve made more noise than a herd of wildebeest on a cobbled street. The Raid relies upon your guards being half-way competent. If they’re not, you’ll get taken for all you're worth and likely get a few wounds for your trouble. What’s that? No bandages or medicine? Oh dear. And A&E seems to be closed after some particularly severe NHS cuts.

Assuming you survive this long, your scavenger comes back with everything they can carry to share the wealth – and at this point there is a glimmer of hope as you get a positive “Narrative Action” card which should help you. Although don’t hold your breath – there’s another day ahead of you and you’ve got no food, water, meds or first aid…

Tying all this misery and suffering together is the Book of Scripts – a hefty tome of descriptive paragraphs interspersed with rules that you refer to based on what either the cards or events tell you. It’s a little like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books – although almost all of the entries will result in pain, depression and getting screwed. It keeps the game unpredictable, the text is well written and very in-keeping with the game creating the “I really don’t want to read this” feeling when you’re directed to a new section of story.

This War of Mine The Board Game Book of Scripts

The Book of Scripts also acts as the 1st player (Leader) marker - the rules (Journal) makes a big point of "ONLY THE LEADER MAY TOUCH THE GAME COMPONENTS" which, to be honest, I find a little pedantic. This War of Mine: The Board Game is a co-operative game and as such relies on discussion with everyone else. Leaving the movement to one person is fine in principle, but in practice it really doesn't matter. There's no reason to screw your companions over and it's highly unlikely anyone is going to disagree with the way forward before it's enacted. The game is tough enough as it is without mutiny from within.

Pedantry aside, the game flows very well indeed. After you've played through  a couple of days (and if you're like me, probably lost a character by this time), you'll be used to the game and only use the Journal as an aide-memoir, which is the sign of a good game. There are elements of the game that only appear occasionally, which keeps it fresh and your characters on their toes. There are surprising outcomes to many of the situations and the choices allow for a varied experience each time. I will say that you shouldn't approach This War of Mine: The Board Game with the expectation that it'll be sunshine and roses and if you're not mentally prepared, it really is an assault on your emotions.

This War of Mine The Board Game Cold

As a co-op game it works well - there's a lot to consider although I do feel there is limited scope for more than three players, at least to begin with. Given there's three characters at the start, it plays best with either one or three players - either you control everyone or each player looks after one character. You can gain a fourth (if you last that long), but by the time that happens, you're probably considering a leaking gas main as a viable option for entertainment. That's not to say four or more wouldn't work, but the assignment of a character does feel more personal.

One more aspect of the game that is a slight conversion from the digital realm is the ability to save your game. Awaken Realms handily include a Save Game sheet so you can record the positions of each of the cards - a neat element as some of the games can drag on a few hours and if you've got places to be, you can throw the lot into a bag (also provided) and redeploy the game at a later time. A clever aspect that a fair few other games could learn from.

So, what have we learned about This War of Mine: The Board Game? It’s dark, miserable, really tough, depressing, a constant uphill struggle and you’ll almost certainly lose. And you know what? It’s absolutely fantastic. Awaken Realms have done a superb job of not only making an engaging, atmospheric board game in its own right, but have also managed to capture the feeling and spirit of the source material without compromise.

War may certainly not be much fun, but This War of Mine: The Board Game most definitely is.
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