Moe's Game Table: No Motherland Without Preview
Publisher: Lock Horn Games
Game Designer: Dan Bullock
Playing Time: 60-120 minutes
Kickstarter Price: $55
Sixty Year Struggle
No Motherland Without is a new card driven game (CDG) covering the struggles of the Kim Regime from 1953 to present day against the West that heads to Kickstarter today. With multiple paths to victory for either player, there is plenty of challenge for every level of gamer with this one.
The struggle between North Korea and the West has been ongoing for decades and makes for perfect game fodder, something that designer Dan Bullock sought to capture and has done an outstanding job with in his debut title. Using familiar CDG mechanics with some unique twists No Motherland Without competently captures the essence of this conflict in a fun and straightforward game that can be completed in under two hours.
No Motherland Without You
While not a wargame in the traditional sense, No Motherland Without is a conflict simulation much along the lines of games like Twilight Struggle and 1989. Fans of CDGs will feel right at home here, enjoying the similarities of the aforementioned but even more so the differences. The succinct and easy to understand rules will get this game to the table quickly and make it approachable for any gamer interested in the genre.
Where Twilight Struggle and 1989 were clashes between Cold War empires bent on gaining influence and control, conflict in No Motherland Without plays out as an asymmetric race where both sides must balance achieving their own goals with hampering their opponent. There are no direct outbreaks of open war, instead the two sides snipe at the other through actions and card driven events, playing out much as we’ve seen things unfold through the years. The cards and mechanics base the game in solid historicity while providing an entertaining challenge for players.
Game play unfolds over a maximum of seven rounds, although it can end earlier through instant win conditions for either side. The DPRK’s main goal is in building up their infrastructure and raising their prestige in the world in order to pursue a ballistic nuclear missile program. Across the board, the West concentrates on scoring through defections while inflicting outages upon the DPRK. Of course, North Korea doesn’t simply sit back and take it, the DPRK player can actively impede the flow of defectors through imprisonment, uncovering defection routes and expanding and at times terminating members of the elite class. This piece is handled through one of the game’s most interesting aspects, the Generation Map, more on that a bit further down.
At the start of each round players draw eight cards each which work as expected in this style of CDG. Each has both an Action Point value and an event that applies to one side or the other. They can be played for the AP or the event, but if the card played has an event for your opponent it is acted upon first. Up to a maximum of three AP can be banked, either for use later in the round or during a follow-on turn as they do carry over. Sometimes it’s best to hold onto them to spend on a major move later in the turn. There are also neutral cards with events that can apply to either side along with Enduring and Legacy events that provide interesting and longer-lived variations.The DPRK building rapidly in the opening turn.
There are two different decks in the game, the smallest used over the first three rounds is for the Juche era, before finishing the game with the Songun deck. The Juche era deck is smaller, and as such has a slightly scripted feel to it, setting up the playing field for the things to come. Once past the era of Kim Il-sung, things progress to the other Kim descendants, Jong-il and Jong-un, and the cards really open things up.
As expected, how these cards influence the game state is determined by when and how they are played. Smart timing can minimize negative effects while bolstering positive ones in your favor. I found the cards nicely balanced, leaving their influence on the game largely dependent on the player. Sure, there will be times when you get a ‘bad’ hand full of mostly opponent cards but there are ways to mitigate these with discards and effects from Legacy events.
Legacy events are permanent effects that stay throughout the remainder of No Motherland Without, unless blocked by another similar event. This is where you need to think strategically about what’s more important, getting to use three APs or deterring your opponent for the remainder of the game. I love the tough choices and tension these bring to the game!
Enduring events are laid out in the order that they are played on a three-spot track, as more of these cards come into play the oldest ones move down until they fall off and are discarded along with their effects. This is another area for good strategic thinking as good timing at play one of these cards will maximize its effect in your favor, another important area to keep in mind throughout the game. Enduring Event cards are evenly split and well balanced, keeping it in the hands of the players as to how they effect play.
I’ll add in here another pair of special cards, the aid from the Kremlin and Beijing cards for the DPRK player. This is a great way to burn a West card from your hand and gain three AP to use however you choose, but the West has the ability to block these cards through events. Don’t sit back and wait on using them if you’re the DPRK, especially since the Kremlin card is removed from play after round three.
Lastly are the Missile Test Events, these can prove tricky for the DPRK as these need to be triggered at the right time. Investing in Ballistic Missile Research is directly tied to the amount of third level infrastructure build across the nation, so the faster the DPRK can max their infrastructure the quicker they can invest their own cards into BMR. As the DPRK player, playing a missile test card that matches the research level while at high prestige will earn you an instant win with a successful missile test!
This is the first and major reason why the DPRK player needs to concentrate their efforts into building up the country’s infrastructure, dawdling too long with capturing defectors can cost dearly. The second reason is that each turn has a standard of living threshold which must be met, and the Western player can slow infrastructure growth easy enough early on. Forcing the DPRK to expend APs on building back up rather than using events to harm the West, provides the Western player an easier go at building their defector engine and scoring points for the end game. The final reason is that the DPRK scores for each level of infrastructure they build if victory is determined by scoring.
Now we’ll hit upon what I feel is No Motherland Without’s most compelling aspect and an interesting bit of design, the Generation Map. This is where defectors are selected for their journey to freedom by the West or promotion to Elite by the DPRK. Female citizens must be chosen first for defection by the West, while Males must be the initial target of the Kim’s. This separation leads to some intriguing interplay as you jockey for bonuses to advance defectors quickly or take penalties if next to Elites. One of the planned stretch goals is to have Generational map tiles that allow variable setups and I think this is going to be a fantastic addition to the game. Interestingly enough, if all citizens on the active generation on the map are marked as defectors, deceased or imprisoned, the game ends in a stalemate. Another interesting design choice and a way for either player to act as a spoiler if they feel they are headed down the road to defeat.
The Generation Map is is a bit of a chess match, making it a game within the game and the main focal point of the West’s scoring efforts. While the West does their best to hamper the growth of the DPRK they must keep that engine running and get as many North Korean citizens to freedom before they are promoted to Elite or imprisoned. Successful defections net you three points each in the end game, with an extra five points for active dissidents on this map. Scoring only matters however if the game doesn’t end through any other immediate victory condition.
Choosing defectors with the open map at first is easy but gets more challenging as the map gets crowded through efforts by the DPRK as well as Legacy and Enduring events that trigger cascading imprisonments.
Defections cost 1AP per segment of the route but for every Elite adjacent to your chosen defector you add one additional AP, so that first leg of the journey can be quite costly. On the other hand, you gain additional AP for each active dissident adjacent to your defector. Defection cost is also influenced by the rations track, once famines begin to take hold over the country it becomes easier for the West to ferry citizens to freedom faster and cheaper. The two main avenues are directly south through China and Thailand or the speedier route across Mongolia, which has only a 33% chance of success. The West can mitigate this and improve their chances to 50% by gaining global support and a +1 modifier. Do this and you can stream those defectors across very quickly with favorable dice rolls, the rewards are worth the risk!
The DPRK can imprison defectors in any red segment of the route or remove those segments, but at 2AP it’s not something you want to be pouring too many resources into that could be better spent elsewhere. As always, this activity can be altered by the timely play of event cards. This piece is a solid and interesting design choice and along with the Ballistic Missile Research creates a taught race in the game, with detours along the way in sabotaging each other’s progress.
As a last point here, a special pair of event cards called No Motherland Without You can cut the game short, as quickly as the fifth round. This pressures both sides towards achieving their agenda’s while also scoring for the end game. While challenging, thankfully the game does not heavily induce AP, so games can be done in less than two hours.
East vs West
No Motherland Without is an astute design with compelling asymmetric play and high replay value. The mechanics and deep thematic elements blend solidly together to capture the essence of the struggle between the West and North Korea very, very well. Contrary to experiences with some other games, I haven’t yet favored playing one side over the other after several plays as both have their own distinct identity and have maintained an interesting experience each time. For his first title, I’m impressed with Dan Bullock’s efforts and am really excited to see more from him in the future.
With all of the card interplay this is definitely a two-player game. However, solitaire fans will be interested to hear that a solitaire scenario pitting you as the DPRK is planned as a stretch goal.
The influence of Twilight Struggle is felt heavily throughout the game, but No Motherland Without takes that influence and expands on it with its own exclusive features allowing it to stand firmly on its own. If you’re a fan of CDGs in the vein of 1989, Washington’s War, 1960: The Making of the President and the like, No Motherland Without looks to be a promising game not to be missed.
Visit the project here.
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/LockHornsGames
Note: A prototype copy of this game was provided to me for this preview.