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This War of Mine: The Board Game is so bleak we had to mug an old lady

Hands on with the prototype.

This War of Mine (the video game) is a game about living hand to mouth and making hard decisions. Even when it's going well, it manages to maintain this terrible, gnawing sense of anxiety; your survivors may want for nothing, but the next catastrophe is just around the corner. Each playthrough is a nerve-wracking mix of anxiety, sacrifice, luck and misery; one that makes you feel uneasy at the best of times and utterly wretched at the worst. It's poignant, yes, but it's not something I'd necessarily describe as a Nice Time.

For that exact reason, it strikes me as a somewhat shaky foundation for a board game. When I play tabletop games, I do so to unwind and have a laugh with friends. I'm no stranger to a good nail-biter, of course - Pandemic, Darkness Comes Rattling, Eldritch Horror and Doomtown: Reloaded can all be heart-pounding experiences - but the object of the exercise is always to have fun. A Nice Time, in other words. But, where Pandemic gives such an expanded view as to deal in abstraction, This War of Mine: The Board Game zooms right in on the people you're trying to keep alive, right down to telling you who smokes, who can carry the most weight, or who has the best chance of surviving a fight to the death. Like the video game on which it's based, This War of Mine is grave and earnest through and through. Put simply, can a board game designed to reflect the civilian cost of war fulfil that aim and still provide a good social experience?

For the most part the answer is yes, mainly down to the fact This War of Mine sticks to its guns. While it introduces its mechanics gradually, it's uncompromising from the very beginning. During my first playthrough a friend and I took in a wounded stranger, earning ourselves an extra pair of hands on the assumption we'd be able to patch him up before things got too serious. We were wrong; he died of his wounds that night, causing misery to sweep through the ranks of our four remaining characters. While moments like that are frequent and challenging in This War of Mine: The Board Game, they also bring you closer to the characters. Their successes become your successes; their defeats your defeats. As you get into the rhythm of the game's unrelenting day/night cycle, you start committing the same people to different tasks, building a surprisingly vivid sense of character out of what is effectively a straightforward meeple or action point placement system.

Much like the video game, This War of Mine puts you in charge of four survivors, each with slightly different stats. It's your job to keep them alive until the end of the war by fixing up their shelter during the day (when it's too dangerous to venture outside) and then sending some out at night to scavenge for supplies while the others stay home and guard the place. You may be thinking that doesn't leave much time to sleep, eat or take care of oneself, and you'd be right - This War of Mine is a constant juggling act between the hunger, misery, fatigue and illness levels of your characters. Let anybody stray too far down one path and they'll either die or slip away in the night.

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The board may look busy, but the game is pretty easy to pick up.

Also like the video game, This War of Mine is a game of constraints. How well you fare - and what you're able to accomplish - depends entirely on what you have, forcing you to scavenge and strategise obsessively. Work hard enough and you can get a healthy stockpile going, allowing you to feed people and build modest improvements to your shelter without too much difficulty. Even at times like this, however, it's hard to feel safe. For one thing, the amount of any one resource is limited by how many tokens are in the game box, meaning you can never really do that well. Secondly, just because you've managed to get your scavenged goods home, that doesn't mean they're safe. Each night in This War of Mine, you have to defend yourself against raiders determined to take what you have from you. Tackle these events badly and you'll be left destitute and potentially injured, making every turn thereafter more of an uphill climb. Random events also make life more difficult; during my second time playthrough, rats came and ate our entire stockpile of food - in an instant we went from feeling like kings to a state of genuine nausea. Our characters nearly starved to death before we set things right again, but the tension was incredible; playing This War of Mine is a grim business, but it's also a very exciting one.

The other main constraint is your own conscience. This War of Mine regularly throws different moral dilemmas in your path, forcing you to weigh up the desire to protect your characters against the natural urge to do what's right. At one point, we encountered an elderly lady who was trying to find her grandchildren. We were given the option to ignore her, agree to seek out her grandkids, or rob her blind. We deliberated for some time before mugging her and taking all her food, which left me feeling profoundly guilty, but if we hadn't then one of our party would have died from hunger that night. It wasn't the right thing to do, but it was the only thing we felt we could do. We found ourselves discussing that moment repeatedly over the course of the game. In order to keep the experience from growing stale with repeated play, these scenarios are designed to come from an extensive Book of Scripts packed with random encounters (with an app promising to deliver yet more). The Book of Scripts isn't in the prototype version we played - we were given a list of example scenarios to use as a placeholder - as a result, we didn't really get a sense of the breadth of the scenarios on offer. We also mugged that lady a good six more times, which I'm not sure was the idea.

As ever with a board game, having friends around the table really enhances the experience. There's a tension between the seriousness of the scenario and the natural desire to make light of things, certainly, but for the most part, This War of Mine keeps you on the straight and narrow. Those moments of levity, in fact, really help things along. You celebrate and commiserate as a team, helping keep the bleakness that's so intertwined with This War of Mine at bay, but - and this is crucial to the game's success - without undermining its message. Other board games haven't been so successful in this endeavour: the otherwise fantastic Kolejka being a prime example.

Kolejka is a board game designed to illustrate what life was like for ordinary citizens living in communist Poland - it was launched by Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, in fact. It's an anxious race to provide basic goods for one's family in a time of scarcity and uncertainty, but the problem is that Kolejka's card mechanic - designed to help you acquire the goods on your list ahead of other players - is hilarious. Kolejka's jokes are simply too good, meaning it's easy to play through without sparing a second to think about what life must have been like for those people who genuinely struggled to provide for their families. This War of Mine, by contrast, manages a more delicate balancing act. It allows you to rejoice in those moments of serendipity - finding a caché of food at a crucial moment, or managing to build a heater just before winter sets in - but it also isn't afraid to punch players in the gut without warning or compunction. This War of Mine is surprisingly bleak for a board game, but the moments of triumph make it worthwhile.

If there's one downside to This War of Mine: The Boardgame, it's the inventory system. There are a multitude of different tokens, ranging from water and cigarettes to weapon parts and saw blades. These tokens are very nicely made, but they're a curse as much as a blessing. Because the amount of stuff you have in This War of Mine is in constant flux, you're constantly going back and forth between the game's board and box to update the resources you have at your disposal. Inventory fatigue is a real risk with this game, which is already something of an endurance test. This War of Mine is considerably longer than other cooperative games like Pandemic or Forbidden Desert and it doesn't carve itself into chapters in the same way something like Mice and Mystics does. There is a novel save mechanic that allows you to tackle the game over multiple sessions, but of course then one runs the risk of leaving it too long before coming back for more. Protracted duration aside, though, This War of Mine is a bleak, thought-provoking and rewarding board game - I have high hopes for the finished product.

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