4 Chits, 1 Giggle
Only a handful of people alive today could talk about their experiences of the First World War. Most of us reading this will have been fortunate enough not to have lived through any wartime, but I imagine if we had, it was an unforgettable, punishing experience. My great grandfather was in the war, but sadly I did not get to speak to him about as he died when I was very young. These days we still remember it every year with a national service, and what with it being a grand century since the war began, it is almost fitting that somebody thought to make a game that not only keeps it at at the front of public consciousness, but is also an entertaining game that’s not too wrought or too timid with the subject.
The Grizzled is the name of this game, and it’s a cooperative strategic experience for 2-5 players. It’s fairly simple to grasp too. You play as a soldier stuck in the trenches during World War One and your goal is to survive the war, drawing all of the cards stacked up on the ‘Peace’ pile by taking on missions. The more difficult the mission you decide on, the more cards you draw, but if you fail, you have to draw cards from another deck, the ‘Trials’ pile. If you deplete the Peace deck before depleting the Trials pile, you win the game. However, your need to survive the encounter is made difficult for the fact that each round you’ll all be playing many cards, almost all of which will do something bad to you or the team.
These cards come in two varieties; hard knocks and threats. Threats are cards that are played to the board, which in this game is titled No Man’s Land, and contain various dangers such as gas masks, bomb shells and rain. There are six types of threats in total, and if three of a single type are ever present on the board, then that mission is a failure. Hard knocks are cards that are played in front of you, and not only contain permanent threats which add to No Man’s Land, but other penalties and restrictions upon you, the player. If you ever receive four hard knocks total, then your life is no more and your team loses the game.
Sounds tough, but it’s not all bad. You each have a good luck charm, which can be spent as an action to remove a single card bearing a specific type of threat from No Man’s Land. As well as that, after you’ve taken your turn as the mission leader you’ll get a speech token, which can be used later to discard any card of your choosing by announcing a type of threat. Any other players with a card matching that threat also get to discard a card, which helps you get through a difficult mission, but these tokens are limited to five in total and are single use only.
Finally, one of my favourite little mechanics in this game are the support tiles. At the end of each mission when you withdraw, you must select a support tile from your own supply and play it face down. There are two types; ones that point to your left, and ones that point to your right. After everybody has withdrawn, the tokens move in either direction, and if one player receives the majority of support tokens for that round, they get a one time boost; the removal of two hard knocks, or their good luck charm back.
As you can see, on paper it looks like a lot to consider, but the one action per turn mechanic sees it play out nice and simply. It’s all very manageable but still exceedingly difficult. The game doesn’t want you to win, so your best option is to strategically plan which cards will leave you in the least terrible position at the end of the round. For our first game, there were moments where we thought we might get away with an easy round, until we realised that almost every single card is destined to disrupt our plans and destroy our hopes, so that by the end of the game we were constantly clinging to the very edge of survival. Discussion and communication is the key to survival.
There are several difficulty levels, set by ignoring certain features or adding more cards to the ‘Peace’ deck. When you see you have many threats already represented in No Man’s Land, drawing cards becomes a moment of prayer, where you’ll hope for the best but expect the worst. And often, it is the worst.
The art in this game really fits the subject matter which was surprising. At first glance it seems light hearted and a little jovial, until you realise that each face depicts some real emotion and then you understand that this a survival game, not a war game. It’s a game about brotherhood, surviving the odds together, and that’s genuinely what I felt like when I looked at the cards, but additionally when perusing the game manual too. The group picture seals this, and it really hits home. What I also learned upon researching this game, is the designer was none other than Tignous, the artist killed in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January, and the rule book contains a touching goodbye to him. For all the controversy the magazine courted, this was a highly skilled man who died in a tragic manner, and this game is a great depiction of that talent.
A neat touch is that some of the game’s characters are named after real life heroes, some of the relatives of the games staff who fought in the war.
I recently listened to a podcast, not one of our own mind you, that discussed the difficult subjects that are often broached by certain games. Themes like war, murder and religion are all covered, showing how broad the board gaming spectrum is. In my opinion though, it is not the job of a board game to incite debate about the morality of these things, as ultimately a game’s purpose is to entertain. Where they can build a game around a certain subject, they can often bring up situations which mirror real world scenarios which can lead to talking about the situations, but generally this is a game. If you cannot invest yourself fully in a game because it’s real life implications are difficult, then that’s not a good game. We have many great games that work with a subject like war but do not trivialise it. That’s down to the skill of the designer and publisher. We all know the Nazi’s were the bad guys, you playing as one (which not a lot of games let you to be fair) does not mean you are going to sympathise with them. However, what I do like about this game and many others that do a similar job, is that they keep the subject in the forefront of people’s minds. Not being a history buff, I didn’t really know if the game portrays the life of a WWI infantry in any degree of accuracy, but I did keep coming back to the idea throughout the game. It certainly doesn’t make light of it, instead the very gameplay itself seems to keep beating you down, just like the real war would. When suddenly you come across a card that’s not so bad, it genuinely felt like a pinnacle moment in the game. Is that what it was like in real life? I have no doubt, but on an extreme scale.
Ultimately The Grizzled is an inventive, unique take on a cooperative game which carefully and intimately weaves unto itself a story which is worth remembering. That is ultimately the best you can hope for a game set in the First World War, and a worthy memorial to everything our ancestors fought for a hundred years ago.
Review by Russell Chapman