A Review of "This War of Mine" by a Survivor of the Siege of Sarajevo

A Just Foreign Policy Sep 6, 2021

The following review went viral on the website Board Game Geek - a review of a popular video-game-turned-board-game about civilian life in an urban warzone, written by Jasenco Pacik, a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo and part of the creative team behind award-winning documentary Scream For Me Sarajevo. Published here with permission.

A FEW NOTES: This is my first and, probably, only review. As this is story driven game, this review contains no spoilers. I only played the game solo. English is not my native language. “This War of Mine” = TWOM.

I love to read and watch reviews, but never felt that I am competent enough to write one. In this case I feel huge need to do it because it became personal.

Quick background.
When I was 8 years old the Siege of Sarajevo began. It lasted until I was 12. Even though those times were terrible, if you ask me about the siege, and don’t dig enough inside me, I will tell you just about how great those times were. Let me explain. I never had that many friends and never had that much fun (we were all in one basement hiding from shells, bunch of kids.). People were so good to each other (if I have anything to eat, you have it too. I remember 6-7 “grownups” sitting in the basement smoking one cigarette in circle. Not one cigarette, but the only one, at that moment.) There was art everywhere. In every shelter there were theatre plays, concerts, parties... There was nothing more important than to live a normal life under abnormal circumstances…

But, if you dig deep enough…

That is when memories like ones in “This War of Mine” will start to come out from me. Yeah, those memories hidden deep inside for nobody to hear, see or touch.

Now, about the game itself. I will not go deep into how game plays as there are a lot of more skilled people on BGG that will, eventually, do that, if they haven’t already, but:

It is simple, actually. You control a group of friends in a besieged city, and your only goal is to survive. You live (play) day by day. One day is one turn. In the morning you need to eat and drink a bit, if you have anything. After that you are into little adventures of going around this ruined house that we are all living in, trying to clean stuff up, find some useful things, and most importantly, you are trying to make the place as comfortable as possible. When you are done making your beds, fire your stoves and do your poke arounds, you go outside. Outside is problematic. Outside means bad stuff is going to happen. Outside is danger. You are in permanent need of food, bandages, meds, and parts for your broken tools. All of that can only be found outside. So you collect all the courage you have and leave the house, find some stuff, meet some of your fellow citizens, maybe have fight or two, collect everything you found and head back home. Happy with what you find you come across your friend that stayed at home guarding the place, he is wounded or scared”, and you realise that while you were “having fun” getting stuff outside, your sanctuary got robbed by Night raids. Damn. More stuff to fix and do. But we are all together now. We are safe. It is cold, but we will be fine because we have fireplace for heating. But, wait. We have nothing to put inside... Well, lets all sleep together to make us as warm as possible, we need to be ready for the morning. Who will guard tonight? I know we are all tired, but someone have to do it.

See how from “You...” I went to “We...”? Yes, that is what this game does. You develop strong emotional connection with characters you control. In fact, it is so strong that you become one of them.

In order not to spoil anything I will give some real life examples of different rounds of the game: (NOTE: Memory is weird thing. I am positive that all these stories happened as I told them, but that might not be 100% true. So, not facts, but memories.)

Morning: We were sleeping in our shelter. We were woken up by loud sound of shells. We peeked outside of the basement, and there he was. Not more than 100m from our building there was enemy tank that was shooting randomly on our building. We were safe, but our plan to play football that day was ruined.

Day: My mom was a teacher before the war. So when the siege began we decided that we will have school in our shelter. She will be the teacher and kids from our and next to ours building will attend school there. It was official. We were back to school. I was at my friends house, can’t remember why, and suddenly heavy shelling started. My mom didn’t know where I was as I didn’t tell her. I couldn’t go back to our shelter, and I had to take my math exam as I have been excused once before. I didn’t make it on time, and my mom gave me F.

Scavenging: My school was the first building in the neighbourhood that was burnt down. As the inside walls were made of wood, people, while it still burnt, went into it to take off that wood from the walls. No, they didn’t want to save the school. They needed wood for heating.

War brings out the best and the worst from people. There were some terrible people in Sarajevo during the siege. They had everything whilst others had nothing. I found trading the most stressful part of the game. My dad had once traded a TV for a pack of cigarettes and few eggs. That is how life is. But that is a subject for another time. People can be amazingly good, and unthinkably terrible.

Night raids: Ata, my neighbour, was a policeman before the war. He had a gun. During first days of siege he and one other guy from the building were on guard duty to keep bad guys from us. During one dark night (there is no electricity so night is really dark) someone aggressively came onto our entrance and started screaming “Open the door!!!”. This other guard guy, Sejo, passed away immediately. Out of fear. Ata opened the door and started hitting poor guy with the gun like crazy. Again, out of fear. Guy wanted to say something, but couldn’t. At one point Ata stopped. Guy, all covered in blood, just pointed at two large traveling bags that he brought with him. He waited for dark to fall to run across the street to give us some food as shelling and sniper fire were constant for few days now, and we were low on resources. He stayed with us for a week as it was shelling hell outside. Luckily Ata was so afraid that he forgot that he can fire the gun.

Back to the game.
This is an impressive game. It is more than a game. I know how every game is supposed to be an experience, but with this one you really get one. I am, often, asked 'How was it, living under the siege?'. Talking about it does not do it justice. From now on, if I get that question, I'll sit down and play a round or two with ones who asks.

Theme and mechanics are so well integrated that one thing that I usually dislike (If you can't figure out rule, do whatever makes sense) works here. This is my first game with a book in it (story driven game) and I am impressed. Every single thing that happened so far made a lot of sense and was keeping the story going forward. I have never run into a story that I have read before. More often than not what I read forces me to step back from the game, have a cigarette, and come back to it.

Siege is not about surviving it. It is about surviving another day. And you never know what will happen. Ever. But, by surviving, you also learn how to be better at it. Here we come to the point where, the more you play it, the better you are. Also, something that is true with most games, but here you actually feel like you have experience with how to survive. What you need ASAP and what can wait. But, as life usually goes, stuff that you thought could wait, actually, couldn't. In this game you will win or lose and you will feel that you did it all.

This is the game with a lot of card drawing and dice rolling, but again, luck of the draw, or dice roll, are nothing compared to unpredictable nature of being under the siege. Where your life depends on how drunk the sniper guy is. He might miss, or aim to something different and get you. I find luck, in TWOM, to be as thematic as anything else.

Gameplay is simple and intuitive. As theme and mechanics are so well put together, it all flows well. This is one of those “play it out of the box” games. There is no standard rulebook. Instead you get a Journal that will guide you through the game, and you will never get rid of it as it is a playing component of the game. The Journal works great and will teach you how to play the game. There are also additional rules that can be found in Book of Scripts, and are easily found as you are guided where to look by the Journal.

The only issue is that, if you are good enough, it will last a long time. The more you play it, the better you will be, the longer you will survive, the longer the game will be. But, here we come to another great component of the game, and that is SAVE option. It is a bit fiddly at first, but as everything else, becomes better with time. So you can save your progress and continue the game later.

Components are great. You get a box full of miniatures, tokens, cards, board, and of course “Book of Scripts”, and that one is, by far, most impressive game component ever. At first I thought that whole game is going to unravel around it, but that is not the case. It is just one of the components. There is a lot of game in this box even without it. But it adds narrative that is so good that I just want to get back to the game over and over again. Stories inside are written so well that I am positive some of them are real stories told by survivors of one of many wars.

Big Kudos to designers of this game. I can't imagine how much research it was for them to make this. It is as if they were in Sarajevo during whole Siege of Sarajevo, and they weren't doing anything else but taking notes. Will you like this game? Well, I do not know. If you want to know how a siege works, then YES. If you want to play great game with theme that is a bit dark, YES. If you want to play amazingly heavy solo or coop game, YES. But, also, I can see why someone would never play this game. My board game collection, before This war of mine, was just “The wall of fun”, and now, amongst other boxes, there is this one that is also fun, but different than any other. This is one really unique game.

Every game in my collection can be traded at some point, but this is one that will stay forever. I do not have many 10/10 rated games, but this is surely that. A Masterpiece.

I'll end with this: If you ever thought that war and killing might be, or is fun (there are people who do think that, apparently), please play This War of Mine. You will have fun playing it, but also, you will learn how terrible war is.

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