It’s dusk. The city has been under siege for a month. You haven’t eaten anything today because yesterday was your turn to eat. You’re sore, exhausted, and starting to feel sick. The temperature is hovering dangerously close to freezing and, though you’ve chopped up all the dressers and shelves in the house, you’re almost out of wood. You do have one book left, but reading is the only comfort you have and you don’t want to burn it. Not yet. You have a choice. You can go scavenge for food and medicine, probably having to steal what you need, possibly running into patrols who could shoot you on sight. Or you can stay in to guard the meager supplies you have left from others. What you really want to do is lie down, shut your eyes, and get some sleep. Maybe the shelling won’t be so bad tonight.
As you can probably guess, This War of Mine is not a fun game. It’s not a game you turn on to relax or clear your mind. But it is a very good game. Part of the appeal of video games is that they can take us to places we’ve never been and that includes places we would never want to be.
You play the game as a number of different civilians who have banded together in an abandoned house to try to wait out the war. You need to find food, medicines in case anyone gets sick or hurt, and fuel to keep warm. There’s also a crafting system that lets you build things that will help you to survive. Everything from beds and stoves, to weapons and ammo, to contraptions that can help you create your own materials – animal traps, rain water collectors, herb gardens. You can also build a radio which gives not only the comfort of music but also news which can help you be prepared for what’s coming next, whether it be cold weather or roving thieves.
The gameplay is fairly simple, but involves a lot of decision-making. During the day your characters can craft items, eat, use medicines, catch up on sleep, or do activities that will relax them, if available. There’s also a chance you’ll have visitors, whether it be people looking to trade or people asking for help. Night time is when scavenging is done. One character can be sent out to look for resources, while the rest stay at the house to either sleep or guard it from hostiles.
There are about a dozen playable characters. At the beginning you choose a group to start with and they’re the ones you need to try to keep alive for the game. Each character has their own habits and skills. Marin, for example is a handyman, so he is able to craft items with fewer materials. A very useful skill. Katia is good at bargaining, so she’s the best character to use for trading. Some characters can carry a lot of items or are very stealthy, making them good scavengers. The characters’ mental states are something that need to be managed throughout the game as well. Some characters are smokers, who can be relaxed by a cigarette. Some are sensitive – they become depressed very quickly if you need to steal from or kill other civilians, while others have an “it’s us or them” attitude. Make too many decisions that negatively impact a character’s mental state and they can become broken, effectively removing them from gameplay
11 Bit Studios have taken both war games and resource management to a new place were the challenge doesn’t come only from the mechanics, but also from the kinds of decisions you need to make. Will you steal from your elderly neighbors who have plentiful supplies and won’t defend themselves? Or will you risk venturing out further to avoid stealing from good people to get what you need? If you steal from your neighbors you will be responsible for shortening their lives. If you go to a more risky area then you could be hurt or killed yourself.
This War of Mine is a very challenging game, especially at the beginning. During my first couple tries, I quickly got my characters killed. After a bit I was able to get the hang of it and successfully completed a game. I was able to finish the game without fighting or killing anyone, and I appreciated that this was a possibility. I did steal, I did get shot at a few times, but I was always able to run away. The game does throw curveballs at you. As you get to a “comfortable” state where you have enough supplies, suddenly the weather will change and you’ll need much more fuel to keep warm. Or your go-to places for scavenging will dry up or become unreachable due to enemy attacks.
The game does have a few mechanical annoyances. It’s really easy to have the wrong character selected when you give a command. It’s not a huge deal to correct, but it happens so often. Combat is also quite awkward. Now, I think this is somewhat intentional. Given the setting combat should not be fun or easy, however I think it could be a bit more smooth. I also found the game lasted too long. In my first play, the war ended after 45 days. My second game lasted 25 days which I found a much better length. Again, given the setting, there’s merit to design choices which make the player uncomfortable, but there needs to be a balance between message and mechanics.
There is a decent amount of replay value in the game. There’s a lot of randomness, whether it be the house and supplies you start with, the locations you have access to, or the season the game starts in. Playing with different groups of characters can also change the experience. It also has the “just one more turn” addictiveness of something like Civ or XCOM.
Verdict – Highly recommended. This War of Mine is an achievement which combines a fresh take on war with challenging resource management and compelling gameplay. It forces you to make hard choices and has real emotional impact. While there are some mechanical annoyances, I highly recommend the experience.
Content warning – Obviously there’s a lot of dark stuff in this game. Content that can be encountered includes gendered slurs, allusion to rape (of non-player characters), violence, depression, death, and suicide.
If you’re looking for some tips on This War of Mine to get you started, check out my next post.