“Grizzled” is a game I’d never heard of before I opened it up on Christmas morning. It’s an unassuming looking thing. A small box with a stack of cards, a handful of tokens, and a rule book. My ladyfriend tells me it was an impulse buy. Something she saw in the bargain bin. A way to fill out the space beneath our tree. Neither of us expected much from it, and were pleasantly surprised when playing it become one of the highlights of a delightful evening.
The game makes a strong first impression with its art. I confess, the art is not to my particular taste, but it suits the game well. It has a distinct style. There’s an economy of lines that is evocative of the period the game depicts. A time before digital tools allowed every piece of pop art to look pristinely slick and polished. And the palette is at once colorful, but also muted enough to mesh with the game’s theme.
The theme, by the by, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Specifically, as suffered by French soldiers in the trenches of The Great War.
My first impression, while reading the rulebook, was that the game was pretentious. It seems to take itself so seriously, opening as it does with a plea for the reader to approach the game as a work of art. A contemplation on the horrors of war as valid as any film, book, or painting. The rulebook as a whole is pretty bad, actually. It’s just not very efficient at communicating game rules. (A flaw shared by too many board games really). There was at least one rule we had to make up ourselves, because we couldn’t find it anywhere in the text.
(Does anyone know what enables you to make speeches? We just ruled that speeches were a shared resource that could be used at any time, but some of the game’s cards seem to imply that the leader is meant to distribute who can make speeches or something like that.)
After playing a few rounds of the game, though, I changed my mind. It’s a game about war, but the challenge isn’t enemy soldiers. The challenge is your character’s own fears. As the game goes on your character will gradually become a more broken person. Even a more reprehensible person. It’s a cooperative game, so we were all trying to help one another come back from the brink. But in the end there’s just not enough support to go around. The best you can do is beat back entropy for another turn, and hope the war is over before you reach the turn when you can’t anymore.
So as pretentiously as the game presents itself, it actually does do an admirable job of discussing war trauma not just through its theme, but through its gameplay as well. It lives up to its pretensions.
Of course as poignant and as sad as the game is, I said above that it was the highlight of an enjoyable evening. And it was! The gameplay is pretty simple: everybody has a hand of cards, and each card has some number of things that might terrify a person on the battlefield. The players take turns laying down cards, trying to minimize the number of times any given terrifying thing is represented. If any single thing is on the table 3 or more times, the round ends. At the end of the round you tally up the number of cards that are still in everybody’s hands, and you add that number of fresh cards to the draw stack. Pushing the bottom of the stack–and the end of the war–further out of reach.
The core mechanic is solid, and of course there are a number of additional elements to give players a range of tactical choices. For example, sometimes the cards in your hand aren’t terrifying things. Instead, they’re character flaws for you to attach to yourself that make you a greater and greater burden on the other players. “Mute” is my favorite, forbidding that player from communicating with the rest of the group “in any way.” Other character flaws are less funny, and more devastating, like the one that forces players to play a random card from the deck as they retreat.
The game has just the right number of options, I think. The rounds move fast, and there’s a lot of excited chatter between players as they try to figure out how to stay in the game just a little longer. Get just one more card out of their hand before they have to retreat.
On the negative side, I don’t love the way they handled the support mechanic. Players have tiles indicating one or two seats to their left or right. As each player withdraws from the battle, they select one of their tiles and place it face down in front of them. When the battle ends, everyone reveals who they offered support to, and the tiles are passed to the players indicated. Whoever receives the most support in a round gets a bit of relief from the mounting stresses of war. If two players receive equal support, then nobody gets any relief.
It’s a workable mechanic. But there’s always a niggling question of why this works within the game’s theme. Why does a player who receives two support tokens not get any relief just because another player got 3? And why does nobody get any support if two people get equal support? I suppose it could be interpreted as an abstraction of the idea that nobody gets as much support as they ought to, but it feels awkward and a little unfair. And not a good kind of unfair. An annoying kind of unfair. If the player on my right clearly needs the most help, why should I be unable to support them just because I only have “left” tiles? And if me being forced to use that left tile causes the player on my right to be tied for support with the player on my left, then nobody gets any support at all. And that’s the kind of thing that can cost you the game. I don’t think the support system is bad enough that it ruins the game or anything, I just feel like it could probably be done a little bit better.
As cooperative games go, it’s difficult to win. My group lost both of the two rounds we played, but I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so much fun losing a cooperative game. I’ve got no problem losing a competitive game, because that just means someone else was the winner. But it always bothers me when there’s no winner. I suspect the short play time helps here. With a game like Pandemic or Castle Panic, a loss comes after an hour or even two. Putting in that much effort makes losing a bitter pill. But Grizzled just takes 30 minutes. And, really, losing almost feels more appropriate than winning does.
The Grizzled is an interesting game. The individual turns and the overall play time are quick, but as a player you’ve always got enough options that it feels strategic. The experience is fun, but it leaves you with a little something to think about once all the pieces are back in the box. I’m looking forward to playing it again. Maybe getting everyone home safe next time.