This War of Nobody’s

This War of Mine, fake war lesson #33: In war, no skies are blue; no clouds are white; nothing is normal, for the world has been perverted beyond measure.

Hoo boy.

Looks like home.

Managing house.

Not loving a game like This War of Mine is a critical bear trap. It’s a little bit like feeling cantankerous toward Saving Private Ryan in the summer of 1998. Maybe you can appreciate some of its better moments. Maybe you empathize with what it’s trying to express. Maybe you find yourself tempted to just say the hell with it, what’s the big deal, why do you have to be like this anyway? If everybody else is into it, what’s your problem?

Then again, maybe the characters are approached just a little too worshipfully, so sparkly-clean they wouldn’t feel out of place gold-leafed among the pages of an illuminated manuscript. Maybe its version of history is a little too sanitized in places, a little too grungy in others. Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t how it was, dammit, and there’s value to keeping good history.

But enough about Saving Private Ryan.

This War of Mine never says outright that it’s set during the Siege of Sarajevo, that 1,425-day hell that cut off the Winter Olympics City of ’84 and struck the world with images of modern high-rises aflame and smoking. The designers of the board game’s digital predecessor claimed that the game drew inspiration from Sarajevo without ever fully embracing it. Instead, they included far more disastrous examples in the mix, like the Warsaw Uprisings, and admitted that they were going for a “worst case scenario” rather than historical authenticity.

More’s the pity. So many of the stories from that four-year siege are tales of pulling together, setting up schools, the relief efforts of the city’s government, and people growing closer, warmer, and more willing to assist one another as their situation grew bleaker and longer. By contrast, This War of Mine has its fingers on the cold pulse of a zombie survival game. Its setting is one of anarchic collapse, not a military siege. It features equipment crafting and nocturnal raids — both you raiding others and others raiding you — rather than communities struggling as one, sharing food and other resources, and trying to inject some light into the day-to-day terror of their lives.

This War of Mine, fake war lesson #44: Rather than asking your neighbors for help, you should just steal their shit.

Digging through rubble and raiding resources, zombie-game style.

At its absolute best, This War of Mine provides similar glimmers of light, though generally only before strangling them. In one instance, two of my beleaguered survivors were conducting a midnight raid on a warehouse. The process, like many of the processes in this game, was as repetitive as it was lucid, with multiple exploration cards — all of which I’d seen before and would see again soon — stacked and resolved one at a time. We gathered resources, spied through keyholes, and occasionally made more noise than we would have preferred. Eventually, that noise attracted attention.

There were three of them, soldiers, presumably on our “side,” though of course sides don’t matter in This War of Mine even though they would in any conceivable reality. At gunpoint they shook us down of everything we’d gathered: coffee, some herbal remedies, a bag of sugar. Rather than fight, we permitted them take their share. When we attempted conversation, they bemoaned the cruel necessity that forced them to take our stuff. For all their melodrama, it was a pleasantly human moment.

Then, rather than share a cigarette or that uncooked vegetable they’d swiped from us, they sent us on our way to do more scavenging.

So it goes in This War of Mine, over and over. You stare evil right in the face, it bellyaches about its misplaced morality, then doesn’t bother to do anything to reclaim it.

Just wait, because literally every night somebody will pound on your door, savagely beat the person you left to defend your stockpile, and make off with your beans.

The stockpiles are healthy, for now.

Those are the high points. Another time, I came face to face with an officer everybody called “Sergeant Death.” Why? Because he plays his games of chance for human lives, don’t you know. The less said about those periodic about-faces into Joseph Conrad territory, the better.

The same goes for This War of Mine’s herky-jerky gameplay sensibilities. Just as scavenging is cast as a bunch of samey exploration cards that will just as easily see you raid a pantry for raw potatoes as be shot dead (as is fitting for scavenging in a war zone, it ought to be said), your daily behavior is a dizzying mixture of the compelling and the preposterous. Your survivors are cast as near-literal Old Testament Jobs, suffering fatigue, illness, injury, hunger, and misery, all of which diminish the actions they can perform during daylight hours. You can, of course, become so tired that you cannot even spend an afternoon in bed to cure your tiredness, which is simultaneously laughable and profound. Food and water are consumed faster than they can be found, grown, or collected from rainfall. Objects, like tinkerer’s workshops, moonshine stills, stoves, radios, and more, must be constructed and then worked to produce any effect. Books are tossed into the fireplace as readily as dry cordwood, though this calls to mind those souls who took it upon themselves to rescue Sarajevo’s literature from destruction. Once again, This War of Mine manages to be even bleaker than life.

To be clear, it’s not that bleakness does not become This War of Mine. It’s that the game does bleakness so ham-handedly that the whole thing’s profundity often gets lost in the clumsiness.

Even the rules are handled with fingers of ham. There’s something noble about wanting a game to be playable immediately, with a brisk step-by-step tutorial easing a first-time player’s passage into the game’s more complicated moments. Unfortunately, the way the rules are enfolded directly into the Book of Scripts, This War of Mine’s po-faced storybook, is woefully inadequate, especially when it leads you on little tangents that gleefully announce, “You have just discovered three hidden advanced rules!”, as though the goal of a rulebook were to obscure a game’s inner workings rather than enshrine them. Oh dear.

This is so absurd. In this post-legacy-game world we live in, put that crap in envelopes or something. You've made an expensive game, don't put it on my shoulders to craft your components.

Piss off.

All that said, This War of Mine deserves some measure of leniency. For one thing, its creators’ unwillingness to repeat history has necessarily shot it out of a cannon and straight into foreign territory. Much the same way games like …and then we held hands… and The Grizzled used deep abstraction to communicate important truths — or to pointedly not communicate them, as was the central thesis of both of those titles — This War of Mine employs a backdrop of the familiar (crafting, raids, scarce resources) against a foreground of acute suffering to communicate the desperation of the inescapable.

This, and so many other things, makes it no fun to play, at least not the way we usually classify “fun.” Your band of survivors will starve, or die of their injuries or illnesses or both, or go rigid in the cold of the coming winter, or blow their brains out. Not often, or even most of the time, but nearly always.

Far worse, even the game’s more serious narrative efforts will often fall short. There’s only so many times you can be beaten and robbed in the middle of the night before the whole thing becomes a sick joke rather than a commentary on man’s cruelty to man. Even in Les Misérables, Javert only caught up to Jean Valjean a couple times, not every Tuesday.

The essence of the whole exercise, though, is found in the very same things that makes This War of Mine such a pain in the ass to wrestle with. Whether it accurately communicates anything about war becomes almost beside the point. Or at least I hope it does, since it’s utterly terrible at doing so. Instead, it compresses many of humanity’s worst miseries into the span of a few very glum hours, then provides a breath of fresh air by letting you stop playing it. Breaking the surface of the game’s frigid lake provides the gift of perspective. Compared to those who have suffered in war, we have it good. More so compared to the poor sots endlessly stealing from one another in This War of Mine.

Then we beat them up, and do we get assault rifles? Nuh uh. Oh no. Oh ho ho no.

It’s actually a huge relief that these guys didn’t have assault rifles. Everybody else seems to.

The result is a complex beast, equal parts compelling, broken, profound, infuriating, and overreaching. It’s a game that’s no fun at all.

But hey, maybe that’s good for us. We observe suffering because it places our own into stark contrast. A dose of perspective — even from something as overwrought as This War of Mine — is generally not such a bad thing.

Posted on December 4, 2017, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thank you. I’ve been wondering what the problem with me was. It’s like everybody is blind to this game’s faults, and it’s completely infuriating. There are some nice things in the game, but it’s a big messy jumble that only barely communicates anything about its subject matter, and what little it does communicate it does through text — so why not just read a book on the topic?

    A week ago, I even saw another critic say they liked the way the rules are distributed throughout the Book of Scripts. What on Earth.

  2. Games don’t have to be fun. This War of Mine is more of an experience than a game. It’s about regular, normal people trying to survive the horrors of war. Do you expect a game with that topic could possibly be fun?

    • Hi Spielman, thanks for weighing in. Unfortunately, I’m not certain your comments were actually directed at me or the above critique.

      I’ve argued for years that games don’t need to be fun. I’ve given positive ratings to all sorts of games that aren’t exactly trying to be fun — titles like Black Orchestra, An Infamous Traffic, The Grizzled, …and then we held hands…, Queue, DR Congo, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad. However, very much unlike literature, film, music, or even video games, “fun” is always going to be a factor that will need some measure of addressing when it comes to board games. These are usually social events, the vast majority are constructed for the sake of having fun, and there’s a high likelihood of somebody being surprised to discover that this survival game is no fun at all. To fail to mention it is to do a disservice to the majority of my readers.

      As I stated in my review, the problem with This War of Mine is not that it isn’t fun. I’d argue that its woes are twofold.

      Firstly, it handles its misery in some of the worst possible ways. By “amalgamating” its war experience, it evokes nothing in particular. If it isn’t either Warsaw Uprising, and it isn’t the Siege of Sarajevo, and it isn’t any number of other historical examples, then what is it? A worst-case scenario? Of what? By cherry-picking the worst moments from every conceivable historical situation, it becomes reminiscent of a theme park’s haunted house, wherein the characters are confronted with so many horrors that the monsters begin to take on a rubbery silliness. Gone is Dracula’s sexuality run amok, gone is Frankenstein’s unease with scientific creation, gone is the zombie’s mindless horde of conformists. In their place are plastic mannequins, the shock of something leaping out at you, and a lack of direction.

      Secondly, the game itself is a bit of a mess. Far too often, the rules get in the way of the message This War of Mine is trying to deliver. The fact that you can kill off one character over another because of their utility — or worse, because one of those characters might be an “objective” you’re trying to protect — strikes me as antithetical to the game’s humanist message.

      I’ve seen others echo your sentiment that evaluating This War of Mine as a board game rather than as an experience is folly. But all board games are experiences, in that they’re trying to elicit particular interactive responses. Most of the time they’re trying to elicit “fun,” and should be judged accordingly. This War of Mine is trying to elicit an emotional response to the horrors of war — and as I wrote at the end of my review, as flawed as the final product is, I did find it partially successful in that regard.

      Long story short, I actually enjoyed This War of Mine. But in many ways I enjoyed it in spite of itself.

  3. This game is so depressing I won’t play it again. Sold my KS copy and happy about it.

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    After finally having had an opportunity to play this, I have to say this was one of the worst play experiences I’ve had in years.

    First: This is strictly a solo game – forget about multiplayer!
    While it theoretically supports an unlimited number of players by giving control to another player after each decision point, I consider it hogwash. There simply isn’t enough to do or decide resulting in lots of uninteresting turns that are also too far between.

    Second: Unless you’re really unlucky, the game will take forever to play.
    Theoretically you can ‘save’ the game state after each complete turn, but I find that quite unsatisfactory.

    Third: The gameplay resembles a mix of the worst aspects of ‘Dead of Winter’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’. The decisions are less interesting and it’s more random than either game.

    Fourth: The diary-style rulebook! While I can sort of understand what the designers were trying to achieve, I’ve found their approach rather aggravating. I prefer making informed decisions and not engaging in guesswork when playing a game. It reminded me quite unpleasantly of playing games as a kid without knowing the rules, making stuff up as I went along. I mean seriously: Unlocking a game’s ‘secret’ rules by deciding to read certain paragraphs? Who thought this was a good idea?

    Fifth: The inexplicable limitation of the different resources. I’m not sure how thematic it is, but in many cases it really struck me as ridiculous. So, there’s a total of three cans of food to be found in the whole neighborhood? And there’s only a single rat to be encountered in the whole game? Imho, these artificial restrictions are achieving the opposite of what they’re presumably supposed to: they feel gamey.

    My verdict: avoid this at all cost. Play the (excellent) computer game instead.

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