Recently, I tested the tolerance of my bosses and took my copy of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War by designer Dan Bullock from Compass Games to the office. My job is tangentially related to the game topic, so I figured I could come up with a good cover story to explain why I had it laid out on my desk. During the week I played the solitaire scenario during my lunch times. By the end of the week the game was finished and I had rediscovered the interesting insights No Motherland Without delivers while also showing my office the power of “serious gaming.”
No Motherland Without…another player
While No Motherland Without is technically a two-player game with one side playing North Korea and the other the West, designer Dan Bullock also includes a solitaire scenario. Here, the player plays the North Korean regime and the “solo bot” plays the West. Technically, I’m not sure you can actually call it a “bot” as the solitaire scenario rules lay out some exceptions and a decision flowchart for how to execute the West card play. Fortunately, the rules changes for the solitaire version are not too numerous and are both easy to learn and implement. All told my play of a complete 7-turn solitaire game took about two hours of lunch times.
The solitaire decision flowchart in No Motherland Without very clearly focuses the West on three priorities; place Outages to hinder infrastructure building, placement and movement of Defector Routes and Defectors, and Investment of Action Points for future use. It is a good guide to strategy for West players.
In my solo game of No Motherland Without the single most important event was not a Missile Test (though there were two—both successful) but the event “Thailand Tightens Its Borders.” This card is an Enduring Event meaning it goes on the three-card track and stays in play until three other Enduring Events are played and it gets “pushed” into the discard pile. The game effect is the removal the Defector Routes in Thailand and a prohibition for the West to use Activities to rebuild the route. This forces defectors to use the route through Mongolia which, although shorter than the Thailand route, has a 2-in-3 chance of the defector dying in the desert. In my game “Thailand Tightens Its Borders” came out early in the fifth turn and didn’t get pushed off the Enduring Events track until the last turn. This meant all defector attempts in turns 5-7 had to use the risky Mongolia route (in the last turn by rule all defectors must use the Mongolia route). By the end of the game a majority of the Final Turn (Kim Jong Un-era) generation was dead. Although the West had supported many defectors, through the Enduring Event card North Korea was able to gain favorable treatment from Thailand and it was enough to stem the flow of defectors—and the accumulation of Victory Points–to ensure a North Korean victory even without a final successful Missile Test to raise Prestige.
Scoring the Infrastructure…in People
Last March I wrote an article for Armchair Dragoons where I discussed the “humanity” of No Motherland Without. In that article I explored the dichotomy of building infrastructure and defectors in the game. I concluded by saying:
If one had any thoughts that No Motherland Without may provide some background as to why Korea has been an intractable problem for as long as it has this game offers no real policy insight. That said, No Motherland Without sets itself apart by showing the interrelation of many historical events from a very human perspective as the plight of defectors is prominently showcased. It’s an important perspective, just not very mainstream.
After my recent solo play of No Motherland Without I reconsidered my statement. The core conflict of the game, North Korea building infrastructure versus the West supporting defectors, is a policy statement. While North Korea gets plenty of worldwide attention for its missile and nuclear programs, it still must build a society for its people. On the other side, though support for defectors is usually the realm of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than governments, it still can be a government policy (like is was in South Korea for a long time). This last year-plus of COVID, with it’s closed borders, has limited the flow of defectors. At the same time, North Korea, like many other countries, is trying to build better infrastructure for its populace (look at all the apartment building projects). Although they seemingly are disconnected now, once borders reopen we will see how “happy” the North Korean people are if Kim Jong Un can complete all those buildings, or if they will become his 21st century Ryugyong Hotel that sat unfinished for decades.
During the week my play of No Motherland Without got some attention in the office. At one end of the response spectrum, and by far the largest in number, were those who scoffed at somebody “playing a game” at the office. I responded to these folks by pointing out the history lessons in the game and the interesting perspective of the designer. Generally they seemed to accept my points, but often visibly remained doubtful. This group was also the ones to most often try to compare No Motherland Without to Risk or Monopoly (sigh).
A second smaller group of coworkers was able to look past the “game” of No Motherland Without and see the learning value. Some of these folks would casually flip through the cards and then look at the historical notes. While they learned, several were quick to point out that the randomness of the cards meant events could occur out of historical order, thereby making the game “incorrect.” To that criticism I responded by pointing out it was not the specific events but the situation in many cases that the cards capture, and while the events may happen “out of order” they still capture the essence of the flow of history vice a specific timeline. This group had a few gamers amongst its members, but it quickly became apparent that their preferred gaming was online and not very complex; indeed, more than one marveled at the “obvious” complexity of No Motherland Without.
One last, very small, group of my coworkers understood what No Motherland Without was trying to communicate. For one of them, when I explained the core conflict of infrastructure versus defectors you could see the “eureka” moment as they blinked and said, “Of course!.” With these few I had very serious conversations as to how an Event Card could be played or how the different Activities paid for in Action Points could be spent. One coworker wanted to take the game to their office to play and show their coworkers the insights from the game. Another who is well connected to several NGOs and the North Korean defector community really was interested in the game, although they pointed out that the ability to only play North Korea in the solo game may be “upsetting” to some. This small group was able to see the “serious gaming” potential of No Motherland Without as the designer’s core message is shown through game play.
Next – A Revolutionary Game…of waiting
Overall, I feel my “office-al” gaming was a success. I was planning to take designer Dan Bullock’s latest game, 1979: Revolution in Iran (The Dietz Foundation, 2021), into the office next and play that one. Belatedly I realized it does not have a solo mode! During the Kickstarter campaign Dan was asked about a solo module stretch goal to which he responded:
No Motherland Without features a solitaire scenario in addition to the two-player game. The solitaire scenario only allows you to play the role of the DPRK, but the West opponent is easy to control and challenging. Unfortunately, the event card draft makes 1979 difficult to adapt a solo bot. I tested a short solo scenario leading up to the Islamic Revolution, but ultimately scrapped it because it didn’t feel robust enough.BGG Forum “Solo Request”
So, Dan, do y’all think you could share that scenario and let us see how it works? Maybe somebody out there can make it work better, or develop something else that does. Please? I need another title to play during lunch in the office…
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