This War of Mine Review – Tough, Brutal, and Epic
In war, not everyone is a soldier…
Those bleak words say everything they need to about This War of Mine. In war not everyone is a soldier. Some people are survivors, looking to forge their own way in the mess that is left behind. That is the tone and template of This War of Mine. It is beautiful and horrible, human and barbaric, tough and brutal game. Yet, under all the misery and heartache and death there is a story of hope.
What is This War of Mine?
This War of Mine is a cooperative survival themed storytelling game designed by Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski. It is for 1-6 players, and games can last anywhere between 40 minutes (if you are really unlucky) to around 4 hours. It is based on the best selling video game of the same name.
This War of Mine is set one year into a civil war in an Eastern European country. You start controlling three survivors in a derelict house, and must survive a series of chapters, days, and nights to win the game. Throughout the game you spend the Day phase doing jobs around your house, from clearing rubble to exploring rooms and building new furniture. You can also greet visitors at the door, some of which may be new survivors looking to join your clan (to a maximum of four) and some may be people looking to trade or share gossip (etc.). At Dusk you must feed all your people and make sure they have enough water so they don’t get miserable or hungry.
During the night phase, you explore the surrounding town to try and find supplies, trade with survivors, fight villains, and gather loot. Alternatively, you can guard your property from Night Raids, and get certain characters to rest to reduce their fatigue. It is during this time (and Day actually as well, although it is more common at night) you can trigger story elements and events, giving you choices. There are around 1900 different scripts in the game, making no two games the same. These scripts make it hugely thematic and add the story element.
At Dusk you return, heal, trigger fate and events, and then it starts all over again. You see – war…war never changes.
What’s It Like Playing This War of Mine?
Usually, I would provide a breakdown of the rules in detail in a section in these reviews. In this case though, I’m going to forego that. Why? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot of rules and decks. It would take forever to write about them all individually. Secondly, and more importantly, This War of Mine is not so much about mechanics but it is about feeling. So, instead, let’s jump a section. What is This War of Mine like to play?
Well, before we begin, there is one glaring irritation about This War of Mine that I do need to address. I promise to get onto the game in a moment; however, before we do let’s talk about the This War of Mine rule book.
On the back of the box it tells you that you can just set up the game and play. This is technically true since the Journal (rule book) guides you through each day step by step – HOWEVER, it also references unique paragraphs in the “Book of Scripts” that do require reading in some detail in order to fully understand the rules. It does help reading through the Journal and those references first. The rules are not particularly clear on a few things, and those do require looking up in advance of playing for the smoothest experience.
Okay, that’s my pragmatic point to one side.
So, what is This War of Mine like to play?
Stats and Feelings
If I were to be prosaic, I would say that This War of Mine is a game about gathering supplies and surviving the night. That being said, that would be doing This War of Mine a massive injustice. You start the game with three characters, all a little bit hungry but generally okay, and it is about statistics. There are six different conditions in the game, and the minimum state of your characters (all players control all characters together) determines how many actions they can do during the day. So, you find yourself trying to make sure your characters don’t get fatigued, ill, wounded, tired, miserable, or hungry.
There are five levels of each statistics. Not having a token (or level 0) is the ideal state; however, once you do become ill or fatigued etc. you have levels 1-4. Levels 1-3 slowly make the character worse and less effective during the Day phase. They lose actions. Level 4 triggers a script that usually kills that character off.
This makes the beginning of the game about maintaining those statistics. You need to guard and gather supplies, but they make your fatigued. You will inevitably end up fighting foes in the game, which wounds you, and when fate comes into play the odds are it will make your characters miserable.
So you build amenities and conservatively set guards, whilst you send as many people out scavenging and everything is going well.
But then the game throws you a curveball and you find yourself losing everything and it becomes cold and everyone becomes ill and you realise you don’t have any meds and then because you don’t have cigarettes your smokers become more miserable and your one person who can raise morale by playing music only has a broken guitar and everything goes down the drain a bit.
Then a truly shocking thing happens. Due to the scripts, somewhere in between Night and Dawn you came across a man in a wheelchair who you decide to listen to. He tells you his story and asks for you to take him back to the shelter. You don’t though. It means an extra mouth to feed and so you just leave him the food you have on you, which isn’t a lot, and the inexplicable happens. You feel bad – both in the game and as a player.
Somewhere, during the course of this game – through the Days, Dusks, Nights, and Dawns – you have ended up caring about your characters and feeling real empathy towards them.
This is the true power of storytelling games. In much the same way a good book can move you to your very core, so can a board game and, having played This War of Mine a few times now (in a relatively short period of time actually), I can confirm that I feel moved. I care about the characters I currently have saved (there is a save game function, which is really useful for a game where the playtime is hazy) and want them to do well. I want them to survive the war.
Ultimately, at its heart, This War of Mine is a base building game. You have your house, which is the board, and it is up to you how you want to upgrade it or make it your own. You can reinforce it to reduce the impacts of the cold or the Night Raids. You can build various structures to aid with becoming more self-sufficient (so a Garden for instance for food or a Workshop to help produce tools you need).
This is a nice mechanic, and there are actually two distinctive houses for the game (it’s a two sided board). What works really well is the two sides play radically different. There are different rules for each side, making them play in two distinctive ways. I played one side with the group and have been playing the other side solo. It’s great.
Tokens, Luck and Appreciating the Small Things
One thing that is striking is how good looking and intricate This War of Mine is. Every small thing in the game has a token, going from the bandages you need to use to heal; to weapons; to coffee, sugar, vegetables and even individual cigarettes. This is a nightmare to sort at the start of the game, during set up, and the box doesn’t overly help in this. It takes time to set everything up neatly; however, once they have been set up they look awesome.
This makes the game incredibly good looking, especially with the see-through water tokens, metal feeling component cogs, and (for some reason) plastic wood tokens. Those are the three main resources in the game and having the physical components feels great.
That being said, it also adds to the frustration. There is nothing worse then constantly coming across Herbs when you need Chems, or Weapon Parts when you need Mechanical Parts. This is the luck of the draw. It can be both amazing and incredibly frustrating.
There is a large amount of luck in the game, based on what comes out of each deck. There are 11 randomised decks in the game, and even your starting characters are randomised. This means there it is possible to be in trouble right from the very beginning. For instance, it is possible to draw two characters addicted to cigarettes from the start, so have them needing that nicotine hit right from turn one. Add this to a character who needs coffee to keep their misery low and you can start with a really difficult game.
This is one of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of This War of Mine. Randomness can be a really strong mechanic, especially with 1900 different scripts, as it makes every game different. It means that it really is This War of Mine and not This War that We’ve Played 8 Times Before; however, and this is a big however, it also means that with bad luck you can end up with a few poor Scavenging rounds in a row, giving you little fruit for your efforts. Your characters get hungry, potentially wounded, and fatigued, and the situation just gets worse.
This makes the game realistic, but also brutal at times. It can really hurt and be demoralising to see your characters slowly die.
Interestingly, as a side note, there isn’t a huge difference between playing with one player and four in regards to game play (I haven’t played with six people yet). The solo experience is superb, and having more players seems to just change who has the last say for each action since you all control all characters.
Objectives and This War of Mine
The objectives in This War of Mine are interesting. They offer another challenge other than just surviving to the game. The game is split into Chapters I, II and III. Each chapter has a set number of events for each Day, so each Day you get closer to the next chapter. You have one objective per chapter, with the objective for Chapter III just being “SURVIVE”. The other two objectives differ per game but are on display for all to see at all times. One is placed on top of the other to denote that they correspond to Chapters.
These Objectives have good things if you complete them in the Chapter that they are associated with, but bad things if you don’t. The majority tend to be about getting your Character’s stats or collecting and donating resources. If you don’t come across that resource in that Chapter…well…tough. Bad things will happen.
So, what is This War of Mine ultimately like to play? It tough, brutal and gruelling. It is completely unrelenting and rough; however, it is also brilliant. It is a superbly made game, with just a few small flaws. Those flaws don’t generally detract from the game (although the rule book does need more in it) and so the final experience is fairly well polished.
This War of Mine is not a game to try and rush through. You need to set time aside and enjoy it for what it is. One of my friends encapsulated the experience perfectly, calling it a “wine and relax” game. Namely, you let the game suck you in, if you take it as a collective role playing game, then you’ll really enjoy it. If you try and rush through This War of Mine you will find it frustrating and annoying to play. Heed my advice – take your time and let the game draw you in. It’s well worth it.
TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Brutal
Okay, so let’s break this down then. What are the good, the bad, and the neutral points about This War of Mine the board game?
- This War of Mine is a highly immersive story experience. This makes the game different every time you play.
- Characters have their own unique personalities and you find yourself caring about them.
- There is a superb solo mode. I can’t help but feel that this game is really designed with one player in mind, but transitions well to larger player counts.
- It is beautiful and highly detailed. The number of tokens is incredible.
- This War of Mine has really neat primary tokens and miniatures. I haven’t mentioned the miniatures yet, but they are fab.
- The decks work well together and provide a lot of replayability.
- There is a companion app which has the Book of Scripts integrated (so you just search the number) which is useful as well as a great scavenging tool that reacts to real life noise and how quickly you complete the Scavenging round.
- There is a lock picking game in the app which feels a bit unnecessary and is way harder than it needs to be.
- The Chapter Objectives can feel like an impossible challenge at times.
- The rules do need a bit more work to be clearer.
- Pure bad luck means you can die pretty quickly.
This War of Mine: Review Conclusion
Just in case you hadn’t guessed by now, This War of Mine is definitely a game I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy because I love this kind of game. The survival theme and Book of Scripts work really well together. If you like storytelling games like Tales of the Arabian Nights and survival games like Dead of Winter then This War of Mine is a perfect game to add to your collection.
If you don’t like those, but like a challenge then I would still recommend This War of Mine. It is one of the most difficult games I have ever played and that is a really good thing. It is a game, an RPG, and a complex puzzle rolled into one. It is for that reason I heartily recommend This War of Mine.
So, what do you think? Have you played This War of Mine? If so, did you enjoy it? If not then why? If you haven’t played it, would you like to? Let me know in the comments below.