One Sentence Synopsis: Combat the psychological toll of the trenches through camaraderie, brotherhood, and companionship.
Whether video games or board games, I generally play games for the fun of them and, if multiplayer, for the social interaction. Although many have at least some sort of a story or plot, if they have any relevance outside of the “what am I doing it and why” question it’s almost always to function simply as a mechanism for moving the gameplay along in a way that isn’t completely boring. It’s rare to find a title in either medium that speaks to players on a deeper level, connecting them to the game and eliciting emotion in such a way that it transcends the boundary of pure entertainment and merges into the realm of art.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad, released in 2012 from Academy Games, was the last board game I felt this way about until Cool Mini or Not released the English language version of The Grizzled late last year. Placing players into the trenches of World War I, The Grizzled tasks 2-5 friends with helping each other survive the war not physically, but mentally. Over the span of 30 minutes players will face challenges less straightforward than you’d normally find in a game about war, having to combat the effects of weather and abstracted representations of violence on each others’ morale and psyches. If the players are able to reveal the bottom card of the Trials Pile of cards and empty their hands before the monument card at the bottom of the Morale Reserve is exposed, they’ll all return to France together having survived the horrors of WWI. All the while, however, the Morale Reserve feeds its cards into the Trials Pile to slow the players’ progress, and psychological afflictions impede their ability to function unless their comrades come to their aid. It’s a powerful experience, and one not easily overcome.
There aren’t many components to The Grizzled, making setup extremely quick. Each player gets three support tiles with the steaming cup o’ joe on one side, and a comrade symbol with an arrow on the other: one left, one right, and one tile drawn at random from the rest. These tiles can be assigned secretly to other players at the end of a mission to potentially cure them of any psychological effects they’re suffering. Players also choose a character, each of which has a threat symbol and clover on one side which allows them to take a special action during their turn. 25 cards are placed face down on top of the Peace card to form the Trials Pile, and the rest are put face down on top of the monument card to form the Morale Reserve. Speech tokens are placed near the play area, and the Mission Leader marker is given to the first player for play to begin.
The Grizzled is played out over a series of missions where players try to take the most number of cards out of the Trial Pile and into their hands, while still being able to collectively play the majority of them back onto the play area. The Mission Leader decides the intensity of the mission at hand, with the first mission’s intensity always a minimum of 3 cards. Once decided, that number of cards is dealt to each player starting with the leader.
During their turns each player attempts to get rid of the cards in their hand, placing threats in the middle of the table in No Man’s Land, and assigning any Hard Knock cards (psychological effects) to themselves. For a mission to continue there must never be three identical active threats in No Man’s Land, or three traumas or phobias on non-withdrawn players. If this happens the mission ends immediately and the players will likely end up shifting more cards into the Trials Pile than then drew, setting their progress back significantly.
This is done through taking one of four available actions. First, a player may play a card from their hand. If the card has a trap symbol, another card is immediately played directly from the Trials Pile. Second, a player may flip their character card face down so the side without the clover is up in order to remove one of the cards from No Man’s Land with the same icon as on their character card. Third, if a player has a speech token they may use it to call out one threat symbol, and all players who have not withdrawn may then discard one card from their hand bearing that symbol. Lastly, the player may choose to withdraw which takes them out of action for the remainder of the mission, unable to play cards but also not contributing their trauma/phobia totals to the group. Withdrawing also allows the player to secretly choose one of their support tokens which are revealed at the end of the mission and given to whichever player the arrows indicate. If a player receives a majority of support tokens they’re able to discard any two Hard Knocks attached to their character.
A mission ends once all players have withdrawn, or if the mission is failed by having the three matching threats or three traumas/phobias as previously mentioned. Support tokens are resolved in the aforementioned way, and if any player has four or more Hard Knocks assigned to them after this phase the players immediately fail the game. Morale then drops, and a number of cards equal to the remaining total in players’ hands is moved from the Morale Reserve onto the top of the Trials Pile, with a minimum of three. The Mission Leader marker gets passed to the next player, and the previous leader receives a speech token for use in a future round.
The Grizzled is an extremely challenging game that constantly works against the players striking the right balance between drawing enough cards to advance, but not so many as to get overwhelmed or get left with lots of cards stuck in their hands. Do you each only take 1 card to try and recover from a bad round with the knowledge that at least 3 cards are getting dealt back into the deck the following round, or do you each take 3+ card with the intention of burning lots of special abilities to take them out of play? The Hard Knock cards can really throw a wrench into those plans; Hard Knocks need to get played so they don’t contribute towards the count of cards coming over from the Morale Reserve, but can also force players to withdraw early or stay in the mission longer than anticipated, potentially making them play a card that ends the mission or disrupts what someone else was planning to do.
Communication would normally be the key to success in situations like I’ve described, but The Grizzled doesn’t do players any favors here either as you’re unable to discuss what’s in your hand, or who you’re giving your support token to. That makes effectively using the support tokens or speech tokens, which can really help the team make a dent in the total card count and keep everyone healthy enough to soldier on, very difficult. If your group isn’t in tune with one another, picking up on subtle hints and innuendo, it’s hard to overcome any of the obstacles the game puts in your path. Although you’d think that a game that discourages that kind of strategic discussion would make players feel disconnected, I’ve actually found it increases the group’s connectivity and ends up fitting very well with the spirit of the game both mechanically and atmospherically, and takes what may otherwise be bland mechanical ideas and adds layers of perception and risk.
As for difficulty I found playing with two players (which adds a third shadow player) much easier than playing with more, and frankly not as fulfilling. The game is, after all, about camaraderie, and while more doesn’t necessarily make the game any merrier, it’s definitely preferred for me. If players find the game too difficult or are masochistic, there are also options to lower or increase the difficulty as needed like using/not using the traps which immediately spawn a random extra card, or starting with less cards in the Morale Reserve’s buffer. That said, the normal difficulty with more than 3 players is pretty punishing so players should go into this knowing they’re probably going to lose 1/10 times; that’s on a Ghost Stories level of brutal, but as with many other very difficult cooperative games the payoff is in the experience, not the end, and The Grizzled is short enough you can really blitz through multiple sessions in one sitting if the theme isn’t weighing too heavily on everyone.
The component quality in the game is excellent, with cards and cardboard components all of a good thickness. The portability of the box is also great, and unlike some other games with small boxes that make them seem deceptively little, The Grizzled’s tabletop footprint is meager enough for me to actually want to play it on a limited surface. The art for the game is also beautiful, drawn by the late cartoonist Tignous who was killed in the abominable Charlie Hedbo attack in early 2015; a fact which sadly adds to the emotional gravitas of the game, which is further contributed to by small touches throughout the rules like brief segments of journal entries from WWI soldiers.
COG Takeaway: Within The Grizzled’s simple goal and the game’s easy-to-learn, uncomplicated rules, lies a very powerful and very challenging experience. When I say the game is an emotional one I don’t mean it will necessarily elicit tears, but it is undoubtedly a sobering undertaking which is made poignant not just by the game’s theme which abstracts the violence and hardships of World War I in a way not normally seen, but by the tragic history of its art. Beyond that it succeeds as a very hard cooperative card game, playing best with three or more players and including different difficulty settings to accommodate newer or more experienced groups alike. The need to communicate without actually explicitly laying out a strategy adds a great layer of deeper connectivity between players, and working together to balance progress over risk makes for rich and rewarding gameplay for such a small box.