Love & Barbed Wire

A game of love and loss during WW1. You play lovers separated by the war. How does it change your relationship?

During the First World War the static nature of trench warfare meant that there was a constant stream of letters between the soldiers and the home front. Letters of love and affection, hopes and fears went back and forth. All too often the communications were cut short by the death of the soldier or a cooling of the relationship.

This game allows two players to explore a relationship between two people separated in space. Playing cards are used as a game mechanic to help you create an imagined relationship between two people from a century ago. It can be played by a group with an even number of players, working in pairs. During the 5 minute writing session everyone writes simultaneously, then each pair takes turns in reading their letters for each chapter so the group can experience a number of stories unfolding.

We are living in days when many of us are separated from our loved ones, isolating because of a pandemic and perhaps communicating only via video conferencing. It’s something, but not the same as being with each other, hand in hand.

Just over a hundred years ago people were separated from their loved ones by the Great War of 1914-1918. Sending letters and parcels back and forth to the trenches become essential for morale. The British Post Office alone delivered up to 12 million letters a week; typically being delivered with a day or two of posting. The written word is quite different from the way that we speak, and there is a reason why we often keep the letters we receive from loved ones.

Where can I buy it?

How do you play?

You need a deck of playing cards, some writing materials and a timer.

One player takes the role of the soldier on the front line, and the other player takes the role of their loved one back home - their wife, mother, fiancée, brother or child.

Each player is dealt a hand of five playing cards, face down.

There are five chapters, representing five phases of the war. In each chapter both the soldier and their loved one have a five minute timer to write their letter — the subject and tone of their letter guided by the tone of the chapter and modified by the draw of a playing card from your hand. The playing card might instruct you to introduce feelings of love, of fear, of pride or the challenge of injury and perhaps death.

If you are playing face to face you write the letters simultaneously. Then you read the letters to each other, with the loved one going first each time and then the soldier replying.

If you are playing by mail or email then the loved one writes first, and then the soldier responds.

With each subsequent letter you build on the conversation which has gone before, hoping that you don’t draw a spade - the first time is an injury for the soldier or a cooling of love from the home front. The second time represents death in the war or breaking of the relationship.

What are people saying?

“I expected the game to take to me a dark place but, instead, I found it to be an interesting dive into love. The fact that it requires no prep and no game master, means that you can tell a series of interesting stories in one session. It’s been 9 months since I’ve played the game and I can still tell you the thoughts, hopes, and fears of a character who existed only for one hour. The quiet moments of writing are wonderfully focused and hearing other letters shows how wonderful the human experience can be.”

Rob Daviau, game designer

“I played Love and Barbed Wire multiple times, and I enjoyed every one of them. My husband and I took turns playing both roles, husband and wife. We read our letters aloud, and it was particularly moving to hear and speak the words that would break someone’s heart. I distinctly remember the desperation I felt as the husband when my wife grew more distant and my determination to return home and make things right. I also played via email with a friend, and found the game equally emotional and rewarding. If you like a game that hits you in the feels, this is the game for you.”

Cindy Maka, playtester

“I role play for feelings and stories, and this game did an elegant and beautiful job of supporting that kind of play and immersing us in the lives of people who lived through those dark years (or didn’t). I actually found it quite powerful when I drew spades twice in a row straight off and was confronted with the fact that death can come at any time for the soldier. I felt that the chapter prompts and cards provided an excellent scaffolding to build off of regarding tone, themes, and historical context. The poetry samples and seasonal cycle were inspiring!”

Aaron Sunshine, playtester (metatopia)

“Love & Barbed Wire is an emotionally moving game where you play the role of someone who lived during World War I. Though the two players’ characters are separated, they experience an intimate relationship. While you write your letters to each other freely, you are guided by the cards and not in control of your own destiny, so you never know how things will turn out, which maintains excitement and interest. It is often heartbreaking, but like real life, it is worth the experience.”

Jonathan Bagelman, playtester (metatopia)

When I played Love & Barbed Wire, it was with a group of people I’d never met before, and I ended the game holding back tears. There is something in the act of writing and the feeling of limited time, whether from war or heartbreak or a literal timer, that the game capitalizes on to draw out both affection and despair very quickly. The game’s guidance on the war and the feelings attached provided direction without being overwhelming, and I think even people unfamiliar with the subject would be able to dive in easily. Love & Barbed Wire was a tragic experience on all fronts for me, but it also warmed my heart from the love it contained in a way I didn’t expect.

Mara, playtester (metatopia)

Actual Play

The following recording was made after completing a game, compressed down to under 12 minutes. For each of five chapters the two players took 5 minutes to write a letter, and then took it in turns to read the letter for that chapter out to each other before starting the next chapter. I’ve included the cards which they drew, so you can see how the play of cards affected the emotional state which the player brought to each letter. In addition, you can see how they responded to earlier letters and introduced and integrated new characters into their stories.