I finally received This War of Mine the board game early this week, I backed the game through Kickstarter over a year ago. This is board game based on the PC (and now Android/iOS app) version which I thought was one of the best games I've played, and it is extremely true to the digital version. You can read my review of the PC game HERE.
I've been playing this game solo and with Caroline for most of the week and we managed to survive through the entire campaign once, so I figured it was time for a review.
Basic idea of the game
Just like the PC game the board game version is about players controlling a small group of civilians trying to survive war in an abandoned building. During the day you try to make the building a bit more habitable by clearing debris, building furniture, water collectors, animal traps and boarding up holes in the walls to increase security.
During the night phase you can send people from your group out to scavenge locations in town for supplies and perform trade. Scavenging is always combined with a risk of running into the wrong kind of people - be it soldiers, thugs, hobos or other survivors. You may also run into regular civilians hiding in locations.
At the same time as members of your group are scavenging the town, your own house regularly comes under attack (from other people and raiders also scavenging!). You have to post guards, arm yourself and board up holes in the walls to prevent injury and theft.
At the start of each new day a card from the "event deck" is drawn, it tells you the main event going on during the upcoming day. Events could be artillery fire hitting your house, cold weather getting worse, spreading of sickness in the town, items becoming more scarce etc. The game ends when the "event deck" runs out, which is randomly determined as the final couple of cards in the event deck include one "War is over" card. In the basic campaign you have to survive with at least 1 member of your original group of survivors in order to win.
That's the basic idea of the game. Talking about specifics now, let's start with characters.
The characters in the game have a couple of stats that are important in various stages of the game. All characters have a prowess, empathy and carry weight stat. "Prowess" allows you to re-roll combat dice which is quite important. "Empathy" tells how easily affected characters are by moral choices, generally a high empathy is bad as you will have to do horrible stuff to survive in this game just like in the PC game. "Carry weight" shows how much weight your character can carry to and from locations during night time scavenging.
All characters also have "spirits", often functioning as morale indicators and habits. The game will tell you when these are resolved, for instance "Resolve spirit: B on all characters". In those cases you check the character cards and see whether you fulfill the requirements to be affected.
Characters in this game are affected by hunger, misery, illness, wounds and fatigue (yeah).
The above mentioned states will impact how many actions your character will be able to perform during the "day phase" of the game. Each state goes from 0-4, when you hit 4 your character either dies or leaves the group and you have to resolve character specific events revolving around that particular character and situation. Other characters will also have to test their empathy whenever a member of your group leaves or dies.
A quick rundown of the different states;
Hunger increases when you do not feed your characters water and food at the end of each day. You decrease hunger by eating proper food like meat or canned goods. Vegetables can keep hunger from rising but never lower hunger.
Misery increases from some moral choices, failed empathy tests, members of the group leaving or dying. Misery can be decreased by moral choices that characters approve of, reading books, playing guitar among other things.
Fatigue increases when you push characters too far during the day by performing actions, standing guard during the night and when scavenging. Fatigue decreases from sleeping either on the floor or in a bed.
Illness increases when it gets too cold in the house due to outside temperature dropping or by events that cause sickness. Illness is treated by either medicine or by the less effective herbal medicine. Sometimes you can visit a doctor and get treatment.
Wounds increase from combat, night time raids on your house and random events. Wounds can be treated by bandages, and sometimes by visiting a doctor.
The way characters work is that you can have 3 day time actions at the most. But whenever you receive a state token with a black dot it blocks one of your available actions until you remove the token, be it decreasing hunger, resting or treating wounds. The way the tokens work is that you have to place them in a column. As long as there is a black dot in the rightmost column you have 1 action less, if there are two black dots anywhere in your column you have two actions less. If there are three black dots in your column your character cannot perform any actions.
Much of the game is trying to manage and maintain your characters. It is very hard to keep everyone happy, rested and fed. You will often have to make priorities on who to feed and who to sacrifice so that you won't die with all your characters.
During the day
As stated earlier, your characters can perform up to 3 actions each day phase. This will often be clearing rubble in your house, building furniture and resting to decrease fatigue. But you also need actions to set up water collectors, rig animal traps with bait, scavenge junk in the house and check for visitors that make it to your house.
Visitors are either new arrivals, meaning new survivors, or a trader. You can take new survivors in as long as you do not already have the max number of 4 people in your group. If you do not take in a survivor knocking on your door you can still trade some items with them, limited to the items they have on their person. The most important aspect of the game is trade, and when the trader arrivers at your house you often have the possibility to trade stuff that you have and maybe need later - for something that you lack and new now!
The day phase works much like a worker placement game in this regard.
During the night
If you lack items you can always send one or more people out to scavenge one of the currently available locations. I found this part of the game to be very clever and well made even though it is very abstract compared to how the PC game version of scavenging works.
Locations are drawn from the location deck, and they change at given times of the game. The locations range from other houses, ruins and places where people may be hiding out to military areas, markets and stores. The location closest to your house allows you to draw 14 location cards, the other ones 12 and 10 - this represents the amount of time it takes to travel there. The longer the trek the shorter the time to scavenge once you arrive.
As soon as you arrive at an location you draw a card from the "residents deck", this is your first meeting with potential danger. Sometimes you will meet no one or just civilians, other times it can be deserters, soldiers or bandits. If there are civilians at the location you can often trade with them, but it also often means that items at the location that you find will be marked as "private" and taking them counts as stealing and will force an empathy test on your character/characters.
More dangerous inhabitants such as bandits or troops do not always attack you right away, sometimes you can get away by trading or handing over items that you brought along - if you are lucky they will let you pass or "just" hand out a beating. If you are out of luck they will attack you and combat starts.
Combat is done with the combat dice, you pick color based upon you weapon (or if unarmed). Combat is streamlined and easy to resolve, it also often means high probability of death if you are outnumbered or poorly armed, and it should be avoided like the plague. Remember that you are simple civilians and not trained soldiers!
Having resolved the residents deck event, you move on the scavenging my drawing location cards corresponding to your location and how close/far away from home you are. You then resolve one card at a time until the deck runs out, or a card states that "you can go home" giving you the option to quit scavenging prematurely (a good idea if you found lots of good stuff and don't want to push your luck further).
I found the mechanics around this part of the game to be very good. The number of cards in the location deck work as an hour glass. If you encounter obstacles or take detours based on choices you discard unrevealed cards, for instance you can either break into a basement and raise the noise level or discard 3 location cards to take a quieter route.
The noise level of your scavenging rises every time you perform actions that cause noise, such as sawing through bars, kicking down doors and going through furniture for items of use. At times you will be forced to roll a 10 sided dice and if you roll equal to or below your current noise level another "resident card" is drawn as you attract the attention of people in the house or just happen to walk by outside.
Meanwhile at your house....
During the nights you can rest characters so that they lose some fatigue. On the other hand you also often come under attack from other people, bandits and soldiers. As the campaign goes by each night sees an increase in crime as people get more desperate and things look more grim in the city. More violent and dangerous cards and shuffled into both the "residents cards" deck as well as in the "night raids" deck. Each night you resolve a night raid. If you are lucky it will just be your character standing guard daydreaming about events past, but often it will be some kind of attack and theft attempt.
When your house comes under attack you are often told by the night raid card how many wounds your group will suffer and how many items are stolen. You can decrease the number of wounds and items stolen by boarding up your house and having armed guards during the night. Sometimes you can scare away the attackers without even having to resolve the effects of the night raid card if you are lucky.
Once the night raid is resolved, the scavenging characters return to your house from their night on the town and you draw a "Fate" card just as a new day dawns.
Fate, Interactive actions, new day new event
At the very end of each day (the dawn phase) you draw and resolve a fate card. This often tells you to heal/increase injury or illness, increase of cold, to resolve spirits of characters and tells you to resolve "wait" tokens places on water collectors and traps. You also resolve empathy tests if someone left the group or died this day.
Once fate is resolved you draw two cards from the interactive actions - these are cards that add a onetime bonus ability for your characters to use in times of need. This could range from being able to successfully defend your house for one night, being able to build a fitting by using one resource type less etc. You pick one of the cards and discard the other, you are then allowed resolve the interactive action according to the text on the card.
As a new day begins you draw and resolve a new "Event card", and repeat it all until the war ends or - more often than not - your group succumbs to death and despair.
Narrative game play, book of scripts
The comes with a "book of scripts" that includes about 1600 random events and entries to be resolved whenever the game tells you. All cards, locations, and the final of each state token comes with numbers on them. Whenever something happens or is resolved and the game tells you to check a number you will refer to the book of scripts. This creates a narrative, sometimes cinematic and often more intriguing turn of events that creates a unique story every time you play. The scripts are divided into two categories, either they impact the game and your actions/rewards/penalties - or they are simply adding story. The stories are extremely well written and add tons of atmosphere to a game that is about trying to survive war as a civilian in a hopeless situation.
Sometimes making choices when a script needs to be resolved gives you several options that branch out. In one of our games, while scavenging a location, our character came upon a person hiding beneath the floor in a building. It turned out to be a person responsible for the start of the war, and we were given several options. We ended up dragging him with us and handed him over to the rebels for punishment. The effect of that was that the rebels tortured him and played his anguished screams to the public as a warning - which affected our group and empathy test had to be resolved! We could also had just beaten him to death where he was, or left him alone - but how those stories played out we will not know until we stumble upon this particular scrip again.
The way the game manages to include this huge number of events is done by clever mechanics and for the whole week that Caroline and I played we did not end up experiencing the same event once!
Overall, the book of scripts and the core game play combined make up for a very unique gaming experience that I have not encountered before - and which is very true to the PC version of the game.
Is it any good then?
This game if now for everyone. The difficulty of this game is at times insane, and there is a fair share of luck involved in terms of which residents you encounter, or how much stuff you find, when scavenging. There are rolls of dice to determine stuff like misery, combat and a couple other instances.
Just like the PC game you will spend the first couple of hours failing miserably. It is difficult to know how it plays and which things to pay most attention to during these trial games. It can seem hopeless and impossible to win. But just like in the PC game you eventually figure out which fittings are most important to build early on, how to manage your characters and that trying to become self sufficient in your house is the key to success. I was mentally prepared for the difficulty level from the get go, but Caroline stated "this if impossible, it starts to get boring to just lose all the time".
However the game is at its highest difficulty level at the start. There is a hump that you need to cross before things start to feel under control and manageable. It is also worth mentioning that the starting setup of 3 characters is meant to be difficult as you instantly on day 1 have to prioritize food supplies. It should be noted that playing with 4 characters is very difficult, but when you get down to 2 characters it gets easier as you will need less food and water. It can be tempting to "sacrifice" one character, but that is best to do if you become somewhat self sufficient and don't need to send out scavengers every night.
The scripts are very well written and add a lot to the game, it would simply not be the same without the scripts. The gameplay though having its fair share of luck and randomness is solid, they managed to make the scavenging both simple/abstract but very clever.
If there is anything to complain about is that the game is "open and play", and comes with a short rulebook called "journal". This journal does take you through all the steps of each day - BUT - it does not tell you all the advanced rules. Those advanced rules are hidden in the book of scripts, and you will either stumble upon them by chance of a random script being generated - or like I did, through the BoardGameGeek forum. It is imo a bad choice to hide several very important rules from the players this way. The advanced rules for instance tell you that you can consume food at any time, not just at the end of the day phase like the journal says. This makes a huge impact from the get go as your characters start the game hungry and limited to 2 actions. If you feed them they can perform 3 actions per character on day one, this make a huge difference! Fortunately, the hidden rules have been disclosed on forums and the internet, so you have no need to flip through the book of scripts looking for them (and risking to read other scripts that you have not encountered by doing so).
The game takes about 6 hours to finish, it comes with a "save game" mechanism where you can write down your current status and items, locations and whatnot. This is good if you cannot leave the game out over the night or if you need to take the game with you from/to a friend/gaming group in between sessions.
You also have to understand how huge this game is in terms of content. Beside the book of scripts there are also two sides of the board. The standard side and the advanced "more difficult" side of the board. The two sides share similarities in how the game plays, but the starting conditions and some actions are completely different. The advanced side of the board comes with options to harvest vegetables and water from the get go, but the house is smaller and sniper fire pose a bigger danger.
Then you have the two alternative game modes if you do not feel like playing the long campaign. These are "the last day" and "endless night" which are shorter games with predetermined starting and victory conditions that are different from the standard game. On top of this you have all the expansions that tweak the game in one way or the other.
Since we started playing the game earlier this week, the companion application has been released of PC, Android and iOS. You have to be very specific when you search for it in the GooglePlay store, search for "This war of mine board game" and it will show up. The app contains alternatives for lock picking and scavenging, but it is mostly a digital version of the book of scripts and that is how we will use it. You type in the script number and it shows you the text without having to browse the book (which will in the end get worn out by heavy use).
Before I end the review however; the game which comes through Kickstarter has several expansions added it it that you can use: Farmers, Orphans, Tactics, Sewers, Desperate measures and Heart of the City. I don't know how much of these will be in the core retail version of the game but we did not play with any of the expansions yet as they add A LOT of new rules and variants. The creators of the game recommend playing with 1 or 2 of the expansions at the same time at the most. Some expansion components can be used for several of the expansions, such as the Thugs and Soldiers minis.
Having played through the game I will be adding the Heart of the City expansion and "desperate measures". Both of these expansions add options that require little to no additional rules knowledge or complexity but in return yield a deeper experience. I looked through the "tactics" and "sewers" expansions and they seem like they add a lot of complexity and at the moment they are of little interest to me. But I'm glad I got them as a Kickstarter stretch goal.
To me this is a great game. I loved the PC version, and the board game does not disappoint. It is a very similar experience, difficult but highly tense, atmospheric and rewarding. Some people may find it too bleak and depressing, then there are other games out there for you. This is very much an adult game, so I would probably not play this with young kids. You can tell there is much love and attention to detail behind the design, it shows both in terms of component quality and written content.
I rate This war of Mine as a 9/10, being mentally prepared by the PC game.
Caroline says 7/10 saying that the difficulty level is extremely frustrating and it feels like it is impossible to win even if the game is well designed