Recently, I had an opportunity to play the Grizzled again. This is a game that I’ve been able to play quite a few times since it came out in late 2015 – eight times, in fact. I’ve played it with two completely different gaming groups. I’ve played it with three, four, and five players. And with the exception of the one time I played the ‘rookie’ version which reduces the game’s difficulty…
I’ve never won. In fact, more often than not, I fail miserably.
But every time I play, I want to play it again. And this is a review about why that is.
The Grizzled is a cooperative card game for two to five players, in which you play members of a French infantry squad stationed in the trenches of the First World War. The object of the game is to make it through the variety of challenges which war in the trenches presents and survive the War as a group. Not win the war – survive it. This tells you something important about the mentality of The Grizzled, and the challenge which it can present, even to experienced gamers.
The game’s cards represent the nasty, scarring experiences war can throw at you. Some of the cards are environmental conditions that challenge your morale – snow, rain, the dark of night. Other cards represent more tangible dangers of wartime, like gas attacks, artillery barrages, and the War’s famous infantry charges over the top of the trenches. Most cards feature two or more threats together, but some cards also contain traps, which require you not only to face the threats on that card, but to draw and face another card at random on top of that. And if that weren’t bad enough, there are ‘Hard Knocks,’ cards that represent personal phobias, negative behaviors, and psychoses that develop in wartime, causing persistent problems that can threaten the safety of yourself and your squadmates.
You start with those cards divided into two piles. Under the first of those two piles is a peace monument – if you can withstand all of the trials and threats in that pile and come out alive, you win the game. Under the second pile is a monument to the fallen, with your names on it – if you reach the bottom of that pile, the game is lost. Each round, the group undertakes a mission, and chooses to draw a number of cards from the first pile. Players then take turns, usually playing either one threat card to the center of the table (‘No Man’s Land’), or a Hard Knock card in front of themselves. The goal is to empty as many cards as you can from your hand before you withdraw to safety. When everyone has withdrawn, the cards representing the threats you successfully survived are removed from the game. The mission will immediately fail if there are three similar threats in play, and if you fail, you make no progress, and all the threats you faced that turn get shuffled back on top of the peace monument. Because of this, sometimes a player will have to withdraw before they can get rid of all their cards.
However, the more cards the group can’t get rid of in a turn, the harder it becomes to win. Each card you keep in your hand causes a card to get transferred from the second pile (the one covering the monument to the fallen) to the first pile (the one with the peace monument) at the end of the round. So the more you avoid facing the challenges in front of you, withdrawing to safety when things start to get tough, the further and further away the peace monument becomes… and the closer you are to an untimely demise. On top of that, your ability to communicate is severely limited. In The Grizzled, you’re only allowed to talk about the cards and other information that is already on the table, visible to all players. Hey, it’s war – it’s not supposed to be easy.
Before actually playing The Grizzled, I have to admit that I wasn’t all that impressed by it. For one, I’m not a huge fan of cooperative games – most of them seem to devolve into one player becoming the leader and telling the other members of the group what to do unless there’s a dedicated mechanic (like Dead of Winter’s traitor) to prevent this from happening. Even in situations with experienced gamers, if one of them happens to know the rules better than their teammates, the ‘leader’ syndrome can result. On top of that, based on a casual read of The Grizzled’s rulebook, it also didn’t seem all that hard to me – “If you’ve got three to five veteran gamers, and there are only six types of Threats you need to plan for, what could go wrong?” I thought. “We’ll get through this in no time.”
That may have been my worst call since I predicted nobody would go see Titanic because everyone knows the boat’s going to sink at the end of the movie (I kid you not, I actually DID say that once upon a time).
The Grizzled, it turns out, is hard. Very hard. At times, it doesn’t seem like there’s a good play available to you – playing a card now may put you and your teammates in immediate jeopardy, yet withdrawing and saving those cards for later may end up making things worse later on. But for me, these hard choices, and how they make you feel, is one of the most important, and most distinctive, features of The Grizzled. Austin famously remarked that in The Grizzled, he ended up caring about his ‘Little Frenchman,’ the solider whose shoes he stepped into for a few minutes around a card table. While that’s true for me, too, on top of that, I ended up caring about my teammates. You feel really bad if you have to withdraw with cards in your hand, even if there isn’t a safe play available to you. You agonize over the fact that you can’t tell them about the horrible threats in your hand still to come. You don’t want to be the reason the squad fails a mission, or can’t make it out of the game alive. Even though it’s just a game, you feel a sense of real responsibility – your team depends on you, and you don’t want to let them down.
On top of this, not only are the odds stacked against you as a group, but the skills and resources you have to overcome those odds are also severely constrained. While there are some options available to get rid of threats and Hard Knocks, these are very limited in power and, once used, difficult to get back. This isn’t a game of super-soldiers where roles on a team are specialized. Instead, you’re ordinary, largely interchangeable Frenchmen trying to survive in the middle of a war, and the game does a great job of making you feel that vulnerability. On top of that, you never know how your choices early in the game will affect your fate later on – in more than one game I’ve played, we reached the end only to discover that, because of the cards we played (or didn’t play) several rounds before, it was impossible for us to win. This aspect of the game may not be to everyone’s taste. Like me, you may enjoy it a lot, relishing both the overall experience and the challenge of playing a game that feels like the odds are severely stacked against you. Or, you might find the difficulty and the possibility you could end up in a situation where you can’t win to be very frustrating.
On the whole, The Grizzled delivers an experience that’s unique among all the games I’ve played. While I’ve tried my best to describe it here, in some ways it’s even a challenge to put that experience into words. For me, I almost feel as if I learned something important from the experience of playing the game, although I can’t tell you if it was about myself, about cooperation, about camaraderie, about war, about clever game design, or about something else entirely.
What I do know is that The Grizzled is so different that it’s a game everyone should play at least once.
And I know that when we do win (and we will), there’ll be a lot of high fives around the game table and a real sense of accomplishment for surviving The Grizzled – not winning, surviving. And then we’ll get our little Frenchmen ready and play again.
Before we played The Grizzled, I had seen plenty of positive buzz for it online. Then I read about the artist for the game being killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks just a week after delivering the art for the game. That really set the somber tone for a game of camaraderie in the face of misery.
This game is punishing. It’s hard enough just mitigating the dangers of the war, the bullets, the gas attacks, etc., but the Hard Knocks just cut you off at the knees. Even cards that seem fairly innocuous at first become the cause of losing the game later. “Selfish: Your Support tile is always redirected to yourself“. You always need to be supporting the person with the most Hard Knocks or someone that has used their Good Luck Charm, or you won’t get very far. Then there are other cards that rip open your chest and yank out your heart. “Mute: You can no longer speak or communicate with other players in any way. You cannot use a Speech.” This is crippling. If it existed in a vacuum on its own, maybe not the end of the world, but your teammates are going to have their own Hard Knocks that just pile up for a big ol’ bowl of pain chowder. “Tyrannical: Take the Mission Leader role and keep it, preventing the distribution of Speeches.” Now The Grizzled is just being cruel. You are going to lose now, and badly. Even the single beneficial card “Merry Christmas“, is really just putting a Band-Aid on a Howitzer wound.
The secret to the game is balancing your Aggression in choosing the Threat Level each round vs. the reality of what you’ve seen out of the deck and what is left in the deck. But the real secret is that there is no right answer, you’re already screwed. If you try to go with minimal threat, you’re going to prolong the game, which isn’t helpful. If you try to go a little more aggressive, you’re more likely to fail a mission and end up with more cards. Either way, you’ll be pushing a boulder up a mountain trying to get it right to get the Dove of Peace card uncovered and your hands emptied.
This brutality wouldn’t work for a 2 hour game, but The Grizzled plays in 15 – 30 minutes depending on how un/lucky you are. But the odd thing is, the difficulty of the game isn’t a reason to eschew it, it’s a draw. The difficulty isn’t there to artificially inflate the game in any way, it’s there to make a point: War Is Hell.
Up With Meeple Rating:
Gold medal games are the best of the best, games we think everyone should play at least once, and that we don’t mind playing again and again. They are Appointment Games, the games that game nights are organized around. These games are so well designed, so well-produced, and so fun to play that they set the standard against which other, similar games inevitably get compared.
By Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez
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