In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
On the third night of living under siege, our scavenging party went to see what they could find in a quiet house. The pickings were slim, but then they found a note left by a man for his beloved wife. He’d fled the house with their child and left supplies for her in hopes that she might return. The money was worthless and the other papers had rotted, but there were also two cans of food. They were by far the most valuable things we’d encountered in all of our scavenging to date and could help Marco, a firefighter who had arrived at our shelter on the brink of starvation a few days ago. The food was clearly meant for someone else, but we took it anyway. It came with “consequences,” a token we wouldn’t know the meaning of until the end of the game.
This was part of a single turn in Awaken Realms’ This War Of Mine: The Board Game, an adaptation of 11 Bit Studios’ video game of the same name. It’s currently wrapping up a successful Kickstarter campaign, and while the full game isn’t due until February 2017, I got a chance to try a prototype. It proved to be an exceptional and emotionally grueling experience.
Inspired by the Siege Of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, 11 Bit Studios developed This War Of Mine as a counterpoint to the standard narratives of big-budget video games that focus on soldiers seeking victory over enemy combatants. In the board game, the only victory condition is to endure until you’ve played through enough turns to get to the ceasefire card near the bottom of the events deck. Instead of each player controlling one of the game’s characters, players take turns as a leader who makes all the decisions, although talking to your fellow players is encouraged. As a result, the game can easily be played solo.
Turns are divided into different time phases. By day, you spend most of your time fixing up your survivors’ shelter. It starts out strewn with rubble and sectioned off by locked and barred doors, but you can use daytime actions to clear things out and look for useable material hidden in heaps or tucked into furniture. You can also use the resources you’ve scavenged to construct simple amenities like beds—so characters who spent the night guarding or scavenging can grab a nap during the day—or a radio that provides news from the outside world, which lets you peek at what’s coming up in the events deck. Each day your group has some new inspiration for something they could try to build—a stove for turning raw food into a more filling meal or a workshop to turn broken weapon parts into a functioning gun. Those small innovations make a huge difference to your day-to-day living and help lift your spirits in a game that is otherwise a constant battle of attrition against the unrelenting forces of basic human needs.
Characters get a number of actions each day determined by how functional they are, with the combination of hunger, wounds, fatigue, and misery making your crew members less effective as the day progresses. As a result, you want to strategically plot out your actions to maximize efficiency, since having an extra action to dig up some supplies can be hugely relevant when it comes to the end of the day and you have to decide who gets dinner. The depressing reality is that it’s often important to let characters starve.
At dusk, you sometimes have visitors who stop by to trade or ask a favor. You can also get new people seeking shelter if anyone in your group died since last night. Then it’s time to decide how everyone spends the night. You’ll want to appoint some number of people to guard the shelter against raids and have your most exhausted or wounded rest in any beds you’ve managed to construct. Dice rolls, which can be modified by medical treatment and rest, determine if the sick and wounded improve or get worse. My group seemed to have only the worst luck. The game is brutal, and I felt terrible when, despite my best attempts, I watched a character’s health decline, sometimes setting off cascades of misery when highly empathetic characters were dispirited by their compatriots’ worsening condition.
After that, up to three people go off to scavenge for more of the resources you desperately need. The locations you visit are randomly determined, and before heading out, you get an idea of what sort of resources they might offer, the obstacles you’re likely to face, and whether you can trade while you’re there. Those details inform who you want to send and what supplies they’ll take with them. Some items like cigarettes and bandages weigh nothing, making them ideal currency, while other tools, like saw blades or knives, are important but take up valuable carrying capacity that could otherwise house whatever you can salvage. Exploration is a similar game of risk assessment. Certain actions like prying open doors and digging through rubble cause noise, which is tracked on a table and forces you to make increasingly difficult dice rolls or encounter a resident of whatever building you’re exploring. That can be helpful, if you find someone who wants to trade, or it can be devastating, if you stumble upon a deserter who will attack you with powerful weapons unless you turn over everything you’ve found and leave. The tension in those decisions produced serious debates among my group about whether we can risk losing everything for the chance of getting a little more food.
You have much more control over your experience in the board game version of This War Of Mine than the video game. You know the odds of every roll you make and can assess your risks accordingly. You can plot out your actions and debate with your fellow players rather than dealing with the video game’s timers, which tick away as your characters rush around their shelter or creep around a building avoiding contact with anyone who might be lurking out of sight. To bring some sense of the unknown into their adaptation, the board game’s designers created the Book Of Scripts, a tome of moral quandaries that can come up at any phase. The note I found alongside the canned food was one. Another forced me to decide whether I tried to chase away a group of young hooligans who threatened to raid my hideout or attack them for their impudence. The prototype only came with a few examples, but the finished product promises to have more than 1,000 options to make each play-through unique.
In keeping with the board game’s ruthlessness, while you’re expected to have five people living in your shelter for most of it, only two people need to survive for you to be considered victorious. That’s good, because things get much worse before they get better. Event-deck cards are divided into mild events that happen in the first two turns, standard if still problematic scenarios that make up the brunt of the game, and horrific events for the last few turns, like food shortages that remove food tokens and shelling that injures all of your survivors and damages the shelter you’ve worked so hard to turn into a home. Night raids become more dangerous as well. You start with a deck of tepid potential intruders who won’t pick a fight if you have even a single guard, but each turn, you shuffle in a card from a secondary deck containing aggressive looters who will attack your shelter and steal your things unless you’ve positioned well-armed guards at the door and fortified your home. Players aren’t expected to get through the siege in a single sitting. Instead, the game includes instructions for tracking your progress so you can set things up in the same state later.
I didn’t encounter the consequences of my theft, as they haven’t been written yet. The same goes for the epilogues that the developers say will be tailored to each character depending on how they end the game. But that lack of closure isn’t the only reason this game has haunted me. I’ve played plenty of difficult collaborative board games, watching my group succumb to global pandemics, vengeful ghosts, and Lovecraftian horrors. This War Of Mine is striking because the threats you face are so basic and your victories so meager. It compelled me to strategize about when to build a heater or how to get enough cigarettes to keep everyone happy with the same intensity I felt when considering how to stop all of Asia from falling in XCOM. For the characters of This War Of Mine, those seemingly insignificant decisions can mean the end of the world. Trying to help them through a horrific situation is an emotional experience, not just because you feel responsible for their pain, but because you share some joy in the small ways you make their lives better.