Unfortunately, I’ve gotten real busy. My trip to Essen was incredibly fruitful and caused me not to have time to get a review ready for you. However, in honor of Armistice Day and to make sure I put something up this week, here is my review for the Grizzled I did long ago. It won’t follow the typical format, but I always liked it. Hope you enjoy!
You have been sitting in a frozen patch of dirt for hours. The shells continue to fall and the night seems endless. You hear the whistles of the mortars before seeing the explosions, a constant rain of dirt as the blasts ring out all around you. You bury your head in your arms and pray the enemy will soon run out of shells.
The Grizzled is a game of war. I have been blessed in my life to have never needed to be part of such a horrible thing. I can’t speak of what real war feels like, but I can discuss the desperation and hopelessness invoked by The Grizzled.
The Grizzled is not a game of miniature combat, nor of tactical skirmishes. It is a game of teamwork and risk, but with the caveat that most information cannot be shared among the team. You aren’t allowed to discuss which cards are in your hand, nor are you allowed to discuss who you will support at the end of the round. Games are won and lost based on good fortune and measured actions.
The mortars stop falling. You lift your head to check your surroundings. Most of your vision is blocked by dust, but you begin to notice some of your companions moving around. Pierre’s eyes meet yours. You can’t hear a word he is saying through the ringing in your ears, but his lips read out the word “camp”. He offers a hand to help you up and you follow behind.
In The Grizzled you have two types of actions you can take on your turn: Play a card or do a supporting action. Each time you play a card you are hurting your chances of winning. Each card (with the exception of one) is a negative. Half of them provide pictures of hazards with three of any single hazard causing you to lose the mission. The other half provide negative personality traits towards you, such as phobias that add to your hazard total or negative abilities that make things more difficult. Your goal is to get through a deck of cards and have all your hands empty. Every round more cards are added to the deck based on how well you did in the previous round.
It’s a simple concept and the mechanics are fairly easy. What makes it work is the theme.
As you walk through the camp you can’t help but see your stricken allies. The once jovial Jean has gone mute, his lucky bullet necklace is missing from his neck. All around, visions of horror on the faces of the men. No one speaks, or maybe your hearing just hasn’t returned yet. An empty house nearby with a welcoming stoop catches your eye and you rest on the steps. ‘How can we hope to win?’ is the only thought that crosses your mind.
For such a simple game, each mechanic reeks of a thematic purpose. The personality traits are known as hard-knocks, evoking a feeling that they were caused by the things seen. Your phobias add to the list of hazards because your fear is holding back the team. Each round you add more cards to the deck by drawing them from the morale deck, and the number of cards you draw is determined by how well you did the previous round, exactly how morale should work.
Leaders give speeches to allow players to discard certain hazards. Their strengthening words cause you to stop fearing the snow. Your lucky charm works to keep you alive and avoid certain hazards as you march towards failure. There aren’t many mechanics in this game, but they all make thematic sense.
A blanket falls over your shoulders. You look up and see Pierre taking a seat next to you. “We’ll get through this, God willing we will see each other in the end.” He smiles, but his face betrays him. He too has been affected and changed by the mission, though he’ll not show it. You feel a pat on your back and, startled, turn to see Jean to your right. He says nothing, but hands you a cup of coffee and sits on the railing. Allies until the end. ‘I won’t let them down,’ you think ‘I can work through this. For them.’
My favorite mechanic is when you withdraw and add a support token to your character. The token is, perfectly, a cup of coffee. When the round ends, you will pass this coffee to a teammate as support. The teammate that gets the most support at the end of the round can remove two hard-knocks or recover their lucky charm.
A cup of coffee. Passed to your allies like you’re telling them “I’m here for you.” It’s almost poetic in how well this mechanic reflects the theme. The soldier that is supported the most puts aside their fears and becomes an asset to the team again. Words on paper cannot convey how much I want to gush over this artistic choice.
The captain calls the men together. You down your coffee and join the group. “I’ve got a plan,” he says. “It’s risky as hell, and I can’t promise success, but we can’t fear the snow anymore. We’re moving out and, with luck, we can end this today. What do you say?”
The Grizzled was the hidden gem of GenCon 2015. It didn’t stay hidden very long, but it felt like it came out of nowhere. People were talking about it immediately. My wife and I played it while we were there and later had a deep regret that we didn’t pick it up.
The game is difficult, which is the best thing a co-op can be. When you finally do win you are jubilant, because each defeat always feels so depressing. But if you bury yourself in the theme, really consider its mechanic ties, roleplay your speech that removes the fear of gas, the game shines.
The Grizzled is a simple, easy-to-teach cooperative game that is both difficult and thematic. I can’t recommend it enough.