There has been a lot of buzz recently about ‘This War of Mine: the Board Game’ because there is literally nothing quite like it. Myself and my associate editor, April-Lyn Caouette recently had the chance to play the game at Gen Con. We were both immediately struck by how difficult the game is—not mechanically but emotionally which is not a kind of “difficulty” that I recall ever associating with a tabletop game. We recently talked to Michał Walczak-Ślusarczyk of Galakta about how the game’s moniker, a “cooperative survival game,” is slightly misleading. It’s a game that forces players to acknowledge the human cost of war. The challenge comes not just from figuring out how you, as a group, will survive, but how you will cope with situations in which there are no clear winners.
What is This War of Mine? What makes it unique?
The game is really depressing [laughs]. No, really. This is a different kind of game. This is not a joyful party game. It’s about war, but not like Battlefield or Medal of Honor. It is a game that shows you how it is difficult to survive as a civilian during wartime. It’s closer to good book or a good movie that’s somewhat difficult to watch. After you finish it you see the value and you are really glad you watched it but it’s not something that you want to repeat every other weekend. It’s an experience.
We hope players get a sense of life in wartime. How do you get food? How do you deal with suffering and loss? How do you maintain your humanity during this time? It’s really hard. There’s no strict winning or losing. You may survive the whole campaign, but there are stories for different characters, what happened with them after the war. So let’s say a character has survived, but you may find out that this person hangs themselves two weeks after the war because their experiences were so tragic. Somebody else could survive, find their spot in “regular” society, but each night they have nightmares of what they did or experienced during wartime.
Here is an example from an early demo: During scavenging you find a hidden stash of food with a note attached. The note says, “Honey, this is for you and for our children, take care of yourselves, I should be back soon.” This War of Mine is played cooperatively, so as a group you must make a decision. Do you take that food? You know that someone else prepared that for their family. But it’s war time and you need to survive. But at the same time you may want to be humane as you are dealing with a family with children. After a few rounds you may find a person who has lost his family because somebody took the food that he left for them. Was it you? And then you know as a group your characters their levels of misery will drop down because they killed his family.
So there’s consequences whichever decision you make. It’s not the sort of game that you really “win”; you just survive. You just make it barely, perhaps.
Right. Whichever decision you make takes a toll on your characters whether physical or psychological. In war no one really wins.
What’s the reception been? Because it’s a different experience than what we generally think of with tabletop games.
As everybody expected, views are very polarized. No one is on the fence about this game. People either love it or hate it. It’s so intense that we have literally had people get up after playing for a while and say, “Okay, that’s enough for me, I’m dropping this game, now play without me.” And some people loved it.
I know the videogame was based on some real diaries of people who survived the seige of Sarajevo. Was there similar research done into the development of the board game?
The people who are writing the Book of Scripts read a lot of records from different war times, to see what has happened. I cannot point you to a single source but they gathered experiences from many different sources. This is not something out of the mind of a single person. Just to give you an idea of how close it is to a real situation, there was a review on BoardGameGeek of somebody who survived the siege of Sarajevo. I might be wrong but he was between eight and twelve at the time, and he shared how the This War of Mine more or less depicts what h experienced. He gave his own examples of what happened to him and they were quite similar. So this is really close to the real thing.
One last question: what is your hope for the people who play it? What do you hope players gain from their experience playing the game?
Well, once again, what do you gain from reading a good book? It’s an experience, it’s something for you to think about. After playing it, you’ll re-think what has happened and want to see how it can be done differently. Especially considering the game is designed so that despite there being a limited number of scripts, you can experience the game a different way each time you play it. You gain the knowledge and the impression of how you would feel during such hard times.
So, some empathy for those who’ve suffered.
Yeah. Hopefully after seeing the news about war times, you’ll get a different perspective.
That it’s not just moving pieces overseas somewhere… it’s real human beings…
Each person who died is a story. Somebody had to make some very difficult decisions. And also you see how wartime can change people, in a way. Because you as a group start to think, “Okay, we have to survive. We don’t care about anybody else.” Or, you sympathize with your neighbors—you want to help them find that most of them survive and so you do what you can. So, you know, this something difficult.