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This War of Mine: The Board Game is part social experiment, and entirely too long

It was a challenge to survive the night

Awaken Realms
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Just a few weeks ago I kicked off a weekly board game night here at my house. I figured that a couple of friends, some adult beverages and a quiet corner in the basement might be just what I needed. And besides, the pile of new games isn’t getting any shorter.

Unfortunately, I elected to kick things off with This War of Mine: The Board Game. Now I’m afraid that I may have scared everyone off completely.

We’ve written about This War of Mine the video game plenty of times before here at Polygon. It’s a remarkable work that forces the player to linger on the outcomes of war, not simply glory in pulling the trigger. I visited 11 bit’s studio in Warsaw, Poland while they were finishing it up. I even interviewed the Iraq war veteran turned game designer that was helping to make it. It’s a hell of a thing, and should not be missed.

The board game? Not so much. It isn’t simply an adaptation of the original. It’s a kind of port, and that is where it begins to lose its way.

A collection of 28 mm plastic miniatures, dice and assorted tokens.
In addition to a two-sided game board, 200 cards and 186 tokens This War of Mine: The Board Game comes with a dozen top-quality miniatures. Some of those shown here in a Facebook post are only available with the Kickstarter version.
Awaken Realms

This War of Mine: The Board Game is effectively a solitaire game that supports up to six players and much of the tension comes from those players voting on what they should do next. Do we let the soldiers into the house or hide in the basement? Do we raid the abandoned grade school? Do we kill the cat or do we pet the cat?

I shouldn’t say voting. It’s more like lobbying, really, or a kind of social experiment.

The Journal is one of the books that comes in the box. It has all the steps in a turn written out in order, as well as rules for passing the Journal to the next player at the table. Only the Leader — that is, the person actually holding the Journal at that moment — is allowed to touch any of the pieces on the board. The result of that strange design decision is that no person playing the game is ever truly invested in a particular character. It defeats any attempt at role-playing and distances those at the table from the game’s narrative events.

That’s a shame, because the events are staggering.

Authors Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski, just like the team at 11 bit before them, went to the historical record to find many of these accounts. They are harrowing, and some are necessarily graphic.

Inside the box are two booklets. The Journal and the Book of Stories. The latter is a treasure trove of nearly 2,000 individual passages. It turns the game from a simple worker-placement simulation into a complicated choose-your-own-adventure story. It’s driven by a meticulously indexed set of cards that players draw. And there is some heartbreaking stuff in there. But without a character to call my own, it simply wasn’t as powerful as it could have been.

Overall, This War of Mine takes too long to get to the point. Part of the problem is in how the rules are organized.

Part of the Kickstarter pitch for This War of Mine: The Board Game was that the product would ultimately teach itself over the course of the first playthrough. To accomplish this, Oracz and Wiśniewski made the decision to split the cognitive load of the game entirely across its two books. There are rules in the Journal and there are rules in the Book of Stories. Only by cross referencing between the two can you make sense of the game.

That doesn’t work. My group spent much of its time handing the books around the table, at a loss to find key rules.

These issues combine to make This War of Mine much longer than it needs to be. The playtime on the box says two hours, max. In my experience, the first game should take at least five hours. Experienced groups should plan for around three. Some scenarios will make the game shorter, but they require a familiarity with the rules and systems that is built up only over time.

This War of Mine: The Board Game is a noble effort, but its problems are structural. If the storyline sounds compelling, my advice is to play the computer game instead. Put something more fun on the table ... especially if you’re trying to get people to come over to your house on a regular basis to hang out.