Designed by Fabbien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez
Art by Tignous
Published by Cool Mini or Not (CMON)
2-5 players - 30 minutes
(To view this review with pictures, please visit The Cardboard Herald)
World War I always fascinated me. It occupies a space somewhere between the “romantic” wars of old, and the modern warfare that dominates pop culture today. Don’t get me wrong, all war is tragic, but something about the sheer brutality mixed with the ambiguous motivations of the first “Great War”, makes it challenging to tell satisfying stories set during this time. Though when someone does manages to capture the period’s unique mix of hope and despair, the comradery, and the conflict between old and new as the world forever changes, the stories told can be magnificent. From Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, to the recent indie video game “Valiant Hearts”, many stories depicting or inspired by World War I have had a significant impact on me. So when I heard that Cool Mini or Not was publishing a tiny little card game focussed on “Le Poilu” (french infantrymen during World War I), I was immediately interested.
The Grizzled is a cooperative card game where each player is a french soldier during World War I. Their mission is to survive the horrors of war until the armistice is reached, represented by emptying all of the cards in the threat deck and players’ hands. The game subverts your expectations of a game set during war; players aren’t trying to win missions, earn glory, or beat the bad guys; the players win by keeping each other alive.
Each round, players draw threat cards depicting various combinations of the horrors of war. Some are lasting effects called “Hard Knocks” that handicap your soldier in significant and terrible ways; others show the dangerous trials that soldiers must undergo. Players take turns playing these cards, hoping to empty their hands. Tension ramps up as each card is played, because if three of the same trial are visible, the “mission” (round) is a failure, and all trials in play are shuffled back into the deck. If players manage to withdraw, either by being out of cards or choosing to pass, the mission is a success and cards in play are discarded. It may seem obvious that players should pass, however for each challenge left unfaced in hand, a new card is moved from the morale pile to the threat pile. Time is ticking as the weight of the war bears down hard on the soldiers, and if the morale pile is ever emptied, the players lose.
Everything in the game feels spartan, perhaps intentionally so, to reflect the soldiers themselves. There are a few other mechanics that flesh out the game just enough to provide meaningful choice without needless clutter, each reinforcing the game’s opposing themes of brotherhood and despair. This is where The Grizzled is most successful. Without ever attempting to simulate combat, the game breathes to life a story that is relatively unexplored in the hobby. You want to see the war through to the end and persevere for your comrades, even when you believe that it is truly hopeless. And it will feel hopeless. The grizzled is hard, very hard. Even when you manage to succeed at a mission, watching cards add to the threat deck is disheartening and it may elicit some heroic if not desperate behavior in future rounds.
The artwork in the game accentuates the storytelling and themes magnificently. Having spent several years overseas as a child, I grew up with a healthy obsession with Asterix comics, so it may be that I’m just a sucker for French cartoons. Here, French political cartoonist Tignous manages to use simplicity to his advantage. By keeping his characters and landscapes cartoonish and approachable you are able to better appreciate and empathize with the soldiers as each tragedy befalls them. You don’t see the violence happen but you feel it more acutely than if it had been depicted in highly realistic detail. He set up the pieces, your imagination fills in the gaps. I actually had a genuine emotional reaction looking at a particular picture in the rulebook showing the soldiers as young men enlisting together, it made me reflect on my own life, innocence, and the friends that I’ve lost. Tragically, Tignous was murdered in the Charlie Hebdo shooting on January 7th, 2015, shortly before the release of The Grizzled. While it isn’t important to the quality of the game itself, something about his loss at the hands of a terrorist seems poignant to the games messages of peace and brotherhood.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge The Grizzled faces is it’s lack of diversity between games. It reaches a similar arc during each playthrough, and while it is a satisfying and intense thematic experience, it is not an incredibly dynamic one. Each game will be a familiar puzzle, and by your third or fourth game you will have seen all that the game has to offer. For me, that’s good enough, the game is meant to be compact in both physical size and scope. The new elements it brings to the table for both the cooperative and push your luck genres are excellent, and I hope to see them adapted more in the future; and at this stage in my gaming life I definitely would rather play a game that is too sparse rather than one that is too bloated.
I like The Grizzled. It manages to convey powerful emotions through playing the game itself, which is rarity and should be valued. It also subverts an overused theme and manages to tell a compelling and beautiful story about one of the most brutal wars in human history. The gameplay itself is simple and will be a turnoff to people who dislike smaller games, but it is a satisfying and difficult experience that is easy to teach new players. From a purely gameplay perspective, The Grizzled is a good game but not a great one, though I think that misses the point. It tries to be more than just a game, and for that, I’m rather fond of it.
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