Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated August 2017
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This War of Mine

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Strategy game offers superb, mature take on war and civilian survival

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Grades
9-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: The early game is especially good, as players struggle to make sense of the world and survive.

Cons: As with many strategy games, once players learn the underlying systems in place, much of the challenge is over.

Bottom Line: A stark portrayal of civilian life in a war-torn city that requires strategic thinking and invites repeated plays.

Social studies and humanities courses could easily use This War of Mine during a unit on the horrors of war. The main caveat would be that a single game can take around a dozen hours to complete, and this doesn't include several hours of initial playthroughs that end in failure. Furthermore, it's difficult to remember day-to-day strategies and plans when playing the game sporadically, like say for only an hour once a week. The game is much better suited to bursts of extended play. This means that to get the most out of the game, students need to have a good chunk of time set aside within about a week. As such, if used on its own, it may be best used as an optional out-of-school activity. Another option would be to play in bursts over a long period, but ask students to keep daily journals that incorporate reflection on the game's themes and their developing strategies. This would provide consistency between play sessions, while also allowing teachers to incorporate reflective writing components to student learning.

One final note for teachers: This game features mature content, realistic depictions of physical violence, and completely appropriate use of profanity. 

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This War of Mine is a stark, mature strategy game about surviving war as a civilian. It takes place over several weeks, each day divided into daytime and nighttime. During daytime, players direct their characters to make shelter improvements (creating beds, cooking food). The most basic appliances like stoves and a workbench are relatively easy to make, but they're inefficient and need upgrading to ensure survival. Players must scavenge for materials to upgrade their shelter. Each night, players can assign a character to search the city for valuables and possibly meet other survivors. These survivors are sometimes harmless and willing to trade, but sometimes they're less than friendly and may be armed. It's usually best to stay on their good side, refraining from stealing their property or starting a fight. Stealing from others can lower morale and have a lasting effect on the final outcome. Starting a fight is often deadly, and even survival comes at the cost of wounds and lowered morale.

In some cases, players can be compelled to intervene with violence, however, like when encountering a soldier at the supermarket who is about to commit a war crime against another survivor. Weighing moral convictions with survival is what's at the heart of This War of Mine, and it's done extremely well. Indeed, during daytime, special events may happen such as neighbors visiting and asking for help, forcing players to make moral decisions about whether helping is worth the cost in resources.

The resource management in This War of Mine is interesting and layered. Eventually, players realize that the way characters spend their time is just as much a resource to be managed as collecting and using materials to make shelter improvements. Each action takes time, and the game displays this intuitively with a countdown progress circle. Characters can get tired, though, which affects their performance and lowers their mood, so it’s important to have them sleep when needed. At first it seems appealing to hunker down, only venturing out if absolutely necessary and conserving energy. However, if players don't take risks and venture out, it's hard to find the materials needed for a stable shelter. The problem is that scavenging takes place during nighttime when bandits raid. When first starting out with just two or three characters, it's difficult to assign enough of them to defend the base, since players also need to figure out who to send out to scavenge and then make sure everyone is getting adequate sleep. Push them too hard, and the chances of becoming ill or taking wounds during a night raid increases. Once characters are injured or ill, it's hard for them to bounce back without lots of sleep, effectively taking those characters out of rotation, leading to even higher risks for healthy characters.

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This serious take on the strategy/base-building genre balances critical-thinking skill-building with the exploration of deeper themes and systems that will get students thinking and talking about war, ethics, and survival. Almost immediately, first-time players will be disoriented. There's no tutorial for This War of Mine, so it's hard to know what to concentrate on at first. This is actually OK, though, since initially there isn't much to do. The shelter begins with only a chair, an empty fridge, an empty medicine cabinet, and a workbench, but players need materials first. Luckily, there's also a lot of rubble and shelves in the house to clear away and search. First-time players will eventually understand that doing so is really the only beginning option.

After the first day, nighttime falls and players are presented with a map of the city showing various locations to send out one character to explore and scavenge. Each location is presented the same way as the house, and the main actions are to, again, clear out rubble and search objects. Characters have limited carrying space in their inventory, and it's often excruciating to decide what to take back home for use the next day. This cyclical process is the main gameplay for This War of Mine: building stuff and feeding the characters during the day and searching for materials during the night. To plan what to build next, students need to think strategically and hope to find the right materials for those objects. Along the way, students will develop their thinking and decision-making skills, but also acclimate to and understand a bit better the harsh reality of civilian survival in war-torn regions, where death and despair are ever-present, offering no easy decisions. 

Some students may find themselves drawn to the game. For these players, there are alternate difficulty levels, custom scenarios, and tools to modify the game. For support, there are online discussion boards and wikis. 

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Overall Rating
4

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
4

This straightforward yet deep strategy game can hook students with thoughtful play that requires tough but absorbing moral decisions.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
4

Lots of good decision moments and events to write and discuss about in class.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
3

There isn't really any in-game support for players who become frustrated, but the frustration is part of the point of the game.


Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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