Random Interference: medium
(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)
It’s a cooperative trick-taking game that pits the players against an extremely prejudiced game system, set against the backdrop of trench warfare during the First World War. True to its theme, it’s frustrating and arbitrary, and it’s nearly impossible to survive. And yet, also true to its theme, and to the belligerent humans that we are, we love this awful experience so much that we’re absolutely, positively, undeniably going to go through it again.
Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
For whatever reason, I was totally uninterested in this game when I first heard about it and saw people tweeting about it. I’m not sure what was turning me off. I will say that I thought it was a board game with minis. Since I knew it was cooperative, maybe my increasing distaste and disinterest in Pandemic Legacy colored my impression of The Grizzled. But when I heard the very thorough and complimentary review on the Brawling Bros. Podcast, I became much more interested. The timing ended up being right. I’d been on the lookout for more heavily-themed solitaire games, and I was running a unit in my classroom on the First World War. I decided I’d order a copy to see if I could adapt it to the classroom, and failing that, cooperative games can often function as solitaire games as well. I was even more surprised to discover how compact the box was (under 6″ square and 2″ deep), thinking I was ordering something much larger. I was soon to learn just how much gaming goodness—and social significance—comes in that compact little box.
Decidedly not a “board” game, The Grizzled is played entirely with a very clean and uncomplicated deck of cards, a handful of chits, and a standee. Each player takes on the role of one of the six “grizzled” infantry men and hopes, along with his comrades, to essentially wait out the length of the game without being overwhelmed or eliminated.
The game proceeds in rounds/tricks called “missions.” During each mission, players alternate turns playing cards either onto the field (“no man’s land”) as environmental threats, or on their character’s card as semi-permanent, debilitating conditions. It’s in the players’ interest to try and play out their hands in order to deplete the draw deck and reach the end of the game, but with each consecutive play of a card, the environment becomes increasingly hostile, and the characters get closer to routing out of the mission. Only successfully survived missions result in discards. Failed missions throw cards back into the draw deck, only to be faced again later.
The players are also provided with opportunities to “give support” or “make speeches” to the others (represented by the chits), which help to reduce the rapidly mounting problems, but these remedies are in extremely short supply as measured against the incessant and systematic beatings accompanying every single card. True to the war itself, if your man is lucky to last the entire game, it’ll be just barely, and carrying a lot of baggage.
What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:
I have no legitimate complaints about this game. My only gripe is that it does not actually have a sanctioned solitaire variant in the rules. However, that’s my problem, not a fault of the game or the designers. Nobody claimed this was a solitaire game or that it would have such an option. In fact, to its credit, The Grizzled is one of the few truly cooperative games I’ve played. And in fact, I have just learned in the midst of writing this article that Riffaud and Rodriguez will be releasing an expansion set that includes a solitaire variant. Thus, my only complaint is a non-complaint.
What Really Works for Me:
The Grizzled has much going for it, and now I can see why people have been raving about it all over social media. The qualities I love best are three, plus one more that I’ll save for my final remarks.
- Truly cooperative. As I alluded to above, The Grizzled is truly cooperative. Many games that claim to be “cooperative” are, in fact, “multi-player solitaire,” where the players have a common goal, but they cannot actually hinder each other’s play, nor do they need to truly make independent decisions for the good of the group. Too often games like that end up being dominated by one armchair quarterback who dictates the entire game for everyone. That’s not fun. The key is hidden information and the ability to impede the group, whether intentionally or accidentally. These essential elements are present in The Grizzled, and prevent it from being a solitaire game and really fuel the theme of the game.
- Mechanically fascinating. I was struck by how counter-intuitive the game is—and rightly so. Every card you play—every. single. card.—is bad for you. Every card is bad for your team. Every step forward only adds harm and makes success less likely. Even the things you try to do to help have limited impact at best, and offering support to one of your mates inevitably means denying support to another. Every choice is simply an attempt to find “the least of all evils.” There is almost nothing you do in this game that is in pursuit of a traditional “victory objective.” All you’re trying to do is wait the game out and survive. This is a game? Why would anyone want to play a game like this? The concept is as senseless as the war itself. And yet, it works, and extremely well. I can’t think of another game that offers such interesting decisions when there isn’t a single option that’s actually appealing.
- Thematically strong. Here’s a bold statement:
The Grizzled is one of the best war games ever made.
The elitist wargamers out there will naysay and point out that it isn’t a “wargame,” technically, and that it isn’t about the war, but rather the experience of brotherhood during war. And to this, I say: exactly. Ask any soldier who’s been in the suck, and you’ll find, more often than not, that they rapidly reached a point where they couldn’t have possibly cared less about the war or the strategy or the “Cause” or any of the other rhetoric. All of that stuff almost immediately dissolves into abstract senselessness, and the only thing that really matters are the three or four guys standing right next to you. That’s The Grizzled. And that kind of authenticity leads me to my final remarks.
The Grizzled is a great experience for strategists, war aficionados, and people who like intense games. But it’s more than that. This game is important. Just two weeks ago I wrote an article espousing the artistic value of modern games. Meanwhile, last November, I wrote an article arguing the cultural significance of Monopoly. The Grizzled epitomizes everything I was decrying in those pieces. This is a game every person should own, even if they never play it or wouldn’t even enjoy it as a game. This game is a requiem. It is an homage, not only to those who endured the madness of the trenches in the First World War, but to all combat veterans everywhere, ever. The game’s skin and artwork could literally be changed to any war in history, and the emphasis and truth of the camaraderie would be just the same. And yet, we must never change the artwork in this game now, as it is one of the last contributions by Bernard Verlhac, better known by his pen name, Tignous: a cartoonist and satirist who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings last year. The Grizzled is so saturated with socio-political energy—it screams so loudly about injustice and government stupidity that it could be a supernatural artifact in Warehouse 13. This is a game that belongs in every household regardless of whether it is put to its primary function, right next to your Bible and your Qur’an and your Two Treatises on Government and your Communist Manifesto.
Buy it. Buy another one for someone else. And play it. If you don’t care for the game, that’s okay. Play it one more time anyway. We owe at least that much to all the souls who’ve created it.