July 19, 2024

The Humanity of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021)

RockyMountainNavy, 21 March 2021

History with a human perspective; not a policy prescription.

Another North Korea Review

As I write this quick (sorta) “review” of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) the new Biden Administration is in the midst of their own fast-paced North Korea Policy Review. As much as I hope that some on the National Security Council staff will play No Motherland Without, the reality is they probably won’t. Which is too bad, because what No Motherland Without lacks in policy insight it makes up for in raw humanity.

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No Motherland Without – Box Back

click images to enlarge

No Motherland Without (NMW) is a historically-based, card-driven strategy game for two players that follows North Korea from the end of the Korean War up to something close to the present day. The currency of the game is Prestige with the North trying to raise Prestige and the West trying to reduce it through opposing efforts:

    • The North Korean player tries to preserve, and even improve, their Prestige by building Infrastructure, promoting Elites, and eventually testing ballistic missiles
    • The West player opposes the North though frustrating Infrastructure improvements (placing Outages) and supporting Defectors and Dissidents. 

At the end of every turn in No Motherland Without, the North Korean player counts the number of Infrastructure improvements and Elites in the active generation of personalities and compares it to a number given for that turn (the standard of living threshold). If the combination of Infrastructure and Elites equals or exceeds the threshold, Prestige remains the same. If the number is less than the threshold, Prestige falls. If Prestige ever falls below Critical the game automatically ends in a victory for the West. Alternatively, the North Korean player can win an Automatic Victory if they successfully play a Missile Test Event Card while their Prestige is High.

If at the end of turn 7 of No Motherland Without there is no automatic winner, the total number of North Korean Infrastructure improvements on the map and Elites in the active generation are counted against the number of Defectors (3 points to the West for each) and Dissidents (5 points to the West for each). Highest score is the winner.

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No Motherland Without – Components


Across the DMZ

Reality is a matter of perspective. For myself, the Korea problem is usually framed in military terms. I have this perspective in part because I spent a great deal of the past 30 years looking at military issues on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, it should be no surprise that wargames like The Korean War June 1950 – May 1951 by designer Joe Balkoski from Victory Games (1986) or Next War: Korea from GMT Games (2012+) are amongst my more favored Korea-related titles. [To show I’m not just a Grognard and can enjoy boardgames, I’ll drop a plug here for Four Gardens (신들의 정원) originally published by Korea Boardgame Company, Ltd. and now available through Arcane Wonders which is an enjoyable family game with maybe the best table presence of any title…just saying.]

No Motherland Without designer Dan Bullock comes at the Korea issue from a very different perspective from me. As he wrote in a 2018 interview with The Players Aid blog:

“I started the project two years ago. My wife had been reading defector memoirs, and nudging me toward some excellent books by Andrei Lankov, Victor Cha and Tyranny of the Weak by Charles Armstrong. Muira McCammon wrote an excellent article about Wargame Design for Kill Screen that posed (among other questions) whose history do we represent when we design a game. I became interested in using No Motherland Without as an opportunity to deviate from the wargame norm and strive to make a game that framed the conflict by its impact on the Korean people. I did not foresee this issue coming to forefront of American headlines, but some worrisome and recurring narratives led me to recognize the opportunity for players to better understand the conflict.”

Dan’s thoughts are very important to keep in mind. The framing of No Motherland Without is vital to understanding not only the game design, but also what the players are supposed to do within the game.


No Five Year Plan

When I picked up the rule book for No Motherland Without and saw it was 32 pages I got a bit worried that this was going to be heavier game than I might like. Alas, the rules for NMW only take up 12 pages with the solitaire rules using three more. The balance of the 32 pages are given over to an example of play and card notes (a real history lesson). This is a positive; No Motherland Without is not a complex game and mechanically one can get playing quickly. I must also compliment the designer who is stalking the BGG forums and Twitter to find questions and answer them in a very timely and supportive manner.

No Motherland Without uses the tried-and-true card-driven game (CDG) mechanic with just a bit of a twist. Like many CDGs, cards can be used for Events, Activities, or in No Motherland Without, for Investment (a saved reserve of Activity Points). 

One twist in No Motherland Without that tripped me up the first time is opposing Events. In most CDGs, if you have a card with an opponent’s event you usually can’t play that event and instead can only use the card for the “operations points” (Activity Points in NMW). However, in NMW when playing a card with an opposing event on it for Activity or Investment, the opposing player gets to execute the event first (see rule 8.1). This certainly makes for challenging decisions since playing an opponent’s card on your turn activates the event which may, or may not, always be in your favor – you may even have no choice because you need those Activity Points to accomplish your goals.  

No Motherland Without uses three special event types. Legacy Events create “permanent” game effects and can be very powerful. Enduring Events are placed on the Enduring Events Track with as many as three in play at any one time. The catch is that as new Enduring Events are played the cards on the track are advanced with the oldest card falling off (discarded) as necessary always leaving no more than three Enduring Events active at once. The different events promote challenging decisions as you try to play Legacy and Enduring Events in the best combination possible but, as always, your opponent may frustrate your plans. 

The last of the special events are Missile Test Events. Missile Test Events are arguably the most important event cards in No Motherland Without. Using cards placed on the Ballistic Missile Research track, the North will try to play a Missile Test Event with the right research in place to raise Prestige. Indeed, Missile Test Events are the primary way for the North to raise Prestige meaning the few cards must both be husbanded carefully and played at the right moment to optimize their impact. 

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No Motherland Without – Cards


A Divided Peninsula

No Motherland Without is played out on three main “maps.” On the first map North Korea is divided into administrative regions. On this map the North builds Infrastructure and the West places Outages to frustrate growth. 

The second map in No Motherland Without is the Defector Map. Here the West tries to build Defector Routes and move Defectors through Mongolia or China to Thailand and eventually to South Korea. The North will try to disrupt the routes to slow the flow of Defectors.

The third “map” in No Motherland Without may actually be the most important. The Generations Map shows the various personalities available. The North will try to promote some to Elite status (usually men before women) while the West will try to support Defectors (usually women before men). If a Defector is adjacent to an Elite, it costs the West more Activity Points to start the defection. Conversely, if a potential Defector is adjacent to a Dissident, it costs less for the Defector to set off.

The fourth vital component of play in No Motherland Without is not a map, but the Ballistic Missile Research (BMR) track. With the rules for the BMR, the designer pulled off a bit of a clever design. When placing a card on the BMR, the card is placed face down so only the North Korean player knows the value. However, the card can only be tucked under a track position based on the number of Level 3 Infrastructure improvements on the map. Further, the Action/Investment point value of the card can never be worth more than the position it is tucked under even if the card value is greater. This is a great way for the North to keep the card value secret from the West while still granting confidence to the West player that the card is being played in an appropriately legal manner.

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No Motherland Without – Lotsa red in there!


Seeing Red

If I have one real difficulty with No Motherland Without it is that it is too red. No, I don’t mean it presents a communist perspective view of history, but the components themselves are just too red! Specifically, it’s not the red map board that is the problem but the small red counters – they get lost too easily against the board. This makes it hard to take in the game state at a glance. Maybe if the North Korean markers were white and the West a light blue it would communicate the game state in an easier to distinguish fashion. One could also quibble as to the size of the markers, 1/2”, and say they are too small and not distinctively different enough for some of the tracks. At the end of the day none of these graphical challenges make the game unplayable they just require you to pay attention a bit more than one maybe expects.

An Agreed Framework

As a longtime Korea wonk, I must admit I purchased this game more on the perception of what I expected it to be than what was advertised. The narrative framing of No Motherland Without is not what I was expecting and at first I was at a bit of a loss. For North Korea, the goals of building up the economy (Infrastructure), providing political support (promoting Elites), and testing missiles (Ballistic Missile Research Track) matched my preconceived notions of what the game might be about. On the other hand, the goals of the West were not what I imagined. I guess I was looking for reunification or regime change but in No Motherland Without I found a very low-key sanctions regime (remove or slow Infrastructure) led by a Human Rights campaign (support to Defectors and Dissidents). 

After sitting back and reconsidering the game, I must admire that Dan Bullock pulled off a nice bit of narrative framing in No Motherland Without and presents a perspective of North Korea I think we all see, but don’t always readily acknowledge – but we should. 

Mechanically, the rules for No Motherland Without support two opposing narrative efforts:

    • In the race to build Infrastructure, the North must expend progressively more Activity Points to build up an area, but the West can frustrate those efforts by placing Outages to slow the advancement
    • The West must build Defector Routes and then advance Defectors along that track, but the North can promote personalities to Elite status which increases the cost of moving a Defector for the West; in the worst case a Defector is caught and imprisoned (removed from the Defector Track)
    • In the later game, the North uses Infrastructure advancements to support Ballistic Missile Research which the West tries to again frustrate though the use of Outages and Event cards.

When it comes to game design appropriately supporting a narrative, No Motherland Without may be one of the best examples available.


Nothing to Envy

Let’s be clear here; the North Korean player represents not the Korean people but three generations of the Kim regime – i.e. the “Bad Guys.”

While the narrative frame of No Motherland Without emphasizes people, in some parts of No Motherland Without the Human Rights mission of the West clashes with the game. For instance, as Rations fall in North Korea, the West gains Action Points meaning (in game terms) that starving North Koreas eating 360 grams of food daily is worth a bonus of three Action Points to the West. No Motherland Without also closely ties standard of living with technological prowess; a connection that one doesn’t always see borne out in the reality of North Korea. 

All of which touches on a sensitive issue of player roles in No Motherland Without. Let’s be clear here; the North Korean player represents not the Korean people but three generations of the Kim regime – i.e. the “Bad Guys.” Infrastructure is built and Elites promoted not to fulfill a promise of a brighter future to the Korean people – they exist only to advance the Prestige of the Kim regime and their missiles. The West is not always a moral standout either; they strive to help defectors and create political dissidents but the cost might be starvation of the North Korean people and imprisonment – or death – for some. Like I already mentioned, the game actually incentivizes the West to cut food to the North because doing so gains bonus Activity Points.


Aquariums of Pyongyang

No Motherland Without, though mechanically related with many other CDGs, has no real comparable game that I know of when one considers the narrative frame. Both the editor of Armchair Dragoons, Brant, and myself wonder if the core game of No Motherland Without could be used to explore issues surrounding other authoritarian regimes. Absent other games on this topic, No Motherland Without is very unique and important as the message in the game, the plight of Defectors, deserves to be highlighted. 

Instead of comparing No Motherland Without to another game I’m going to recommend two books as must-reads. The first is on Dan’s own recommended reading list; The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan (Basic Books, 2005). The second book I recommend is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). Both of these books focus on the people of North Korea, not the regime or western policies. Reading both will help one understand the very human side behind the game mechanics in No Motherland Without.


No Sunshine Policy

At the end of the day, No Motherland Without isn’t the game I was expecting. That doesn’t make it a bad game, just not what I expected. I (naively?) went into the game expecting to find some insight into why the North Korean issue has been an intractable foreign policy problem for over 60 years. Instead, I found a mechanically sound, slightly derivative card-driven strategy game that leverages history and frames the conflict as economy and technological advancement versus human rights in an authoritarian regime. It also raises questions as to what “to win” means in such a situation.

Using the game’s framing, one could argue the West “won” in the 1990s when Kim Jong Il died and the country was in the midst of the Arduous March (famine) with a record number of defectors arriving in the South and before the North’s missile program kicked into high gear. Of course, we know that in the real world North Korea survived and under Kim Jong Un some might even argue it has flourished. Using the narrative framing of No Motherland Without one could also say that in 2017 North Korea “won” with the test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (Songun-era card 126) amidst “Rocketman” tweets from a world leader and dwindling numbers of defectors.

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.

If the North Korea problem was just so simple….


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