Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: The Grizzled



In the United States, we often gloss over the events of the Great War (World War I) and instead focus on the events and horrors of World War II. However, the Great War had a much more impactful effect on much of the rest of the Western World than it did on the United States and it still resonates in those countries much deeper in their psyches than in the US. Our school books in the US gloss over the Great War in comparison to the depth that it covers WWII, which is understandable considering the neutral role the US tried to manifest during the Great War. Still, the war has always fascinated me. My favorite historical periods are the 1920's-30's and a lot of what happened there was shaped by the Great War.

I am a devout pacifist and I don't see wars as glorious events to be celebrated, but instead, I find them incredibly sorrowful. I have no problem chucking dice and moving armor units on a board game to blow things up, but there is an extreme disconnect there from the theme.

Can Friendship be stronger than War?
The Grizzled is the first war-themed game that I have played that is actually evocative. The focus isn't on blowing things up or holding patches of dirt so that other people don't have those patches of dirt.

Instead, it is a game about friendship and comradery. It is about a brotherhood of friends who have made a pact to see each other through this war. It is a game about emotions and survival and the impact that war has on people. And it is one of the most beautiful and elegant games I have ever played.

The Grizzled is a cooperative game for 2-5 players that plays in about 40-60 minutes. Each player selects one of the six available characters to play. Some of the characters were real people who fought in the Great War. There is no difference in character "ability" other than each has a specific good luck charm that helps the group against a different element.

Each player is then given three Support Tokens. One is marked with an arrow to the right. One is marked with an arrow to the left. The other is drawn at random and may either be an arrow to the right or to the left, or a double arrow right or left (depending on the number of players).

Peace Card and Monument Card both still covered. Only
25 cards separates you from the end of war.
The deck of Trials Cards is shuffled and then 25 of them are placed on top of the Peace card. If the Peace card is ever uncovered AND there are no cards left in any player's hands, then the group has survived the war and they immediately win. The remaining 34 Trial Cards from the deck are laid out on the Monument card. If the Monument Card is ever revealed, the players have all lost as they have not made it through all of the Trials before the Armistice was signed.

Trial Card with a Trap symbol.
The round begins as the mission leader chooses the Intensity of the round's mission. The Intensity is the number of cards each player will draw into their hand from the Trial Cards on top of the Peace Card. During the first round, the intensity must be at a minimum of 3, but following rounds, it can be as low as 1.

Since you are drawing cards from the cards atop the Peace Card, the more cards you draw, the closer you get to revealing the Peace Card. And remember, at the start of the game, only 25 cards separate your group from surviving the war. The impulse may be to draw many cards to quickly move through the deck to reach the Peace.

However, each card drawn has symbols and artwork on it that designates a particular type of threat: Night, Rain, Snow, Gasmask, Shell, and Whistle. Most cards have two symbols on them, typically an environmental threat (Night, Rain, or Snow) and a physical threat (Gasmask, Shell, or Whistle); though some cards have more than two symbols on them--some with multiple environments and some with multiple physical threats.

No Man's Land with the Trial Cards.
During the Mission Phase, each player will be trying to get as many cards as possible out of their hand by playing them to "No Man's Land" in the center of the table. Each card played to No Man's Land makes its Threat active and if ever 3 identical Threats are active at the same time, the Mission is lost. So a card with Night and Whistle on it, make Night and Whistle active. If then a card with Rain and Whistle is played into No Man's Land, then Night and Rain are active and 2 Whistles are active. If a third Whistle Threat is then played, the Mission is immediately lost. Some cards also have a Trap symbol on them which, when played to No Man's Land from a player's hand, force the player to also add the top card of the Trials Deck to No Man's Land as well--which means you are adding Threats blindly risking a bad Threat draw that could fail the mission.

Hard Knock cards.
There are also Hard Knock Cards in the Trial deck which are not played to No Man's Land. Instead, these cards represent the personal sufferings that a character is going through during the war. Hard Knock cards detriment the players with new rules and exceptions that are always negative to the play of the group. Hard Knocks include things such as Fearful, which forces a player to withdraw if there are 2 identical Threats are active--even if they could play a card or take another action, and Phobias and Traumas, which have a Threat symbol on them and count as one additional Threat of that type being active. Also, if a player ever has 4 Hard Knocks on him at the end of the final phase of a round, he succumbs and the players lose.

So, during the Mission Phase each player takes their turn taking one action. They can...

...Play a Trials Card from their hand, where they play a card from their hand to No Man's Land, or play a Hard Knock card to their character.

...Use a Good Luck Charm, where the player flips over their character card to hide their Good Luck Charm symbol. Each character has a charm for a different Threat. If I were to use my Rain Good Luck Charm, I could then take one card with a Rain Threat on it from No Man's Land and remove it from play. When that card is removed, it also removes all other symbols on that card.

...Make a Speech (if they have a Speech token), where the player encourages their comrades for the trials ahead. The player making a Speech chooses one Threat that he announces to the other players. Each other player may then discard and remove from the game one card from their hand that matches that Threat. The speech-giver, however, cannot discard a card, as he is simply inspiring his friends.

...Withdraw and play a Support Tile, where the player removes themselves from the current mission and will no longer be able to take any actions during the round. If that player had any Phobia or Trauma Hard Knocks that added additional Threats, they are ignored once the player has withdrawn. They then take one of their Support Tokens (which have the right or left arrows on them) and place it on their character. This signifies who you will be offering your support to at the end of the Mission. If you do not have any Support Tokens, you can still withdraw, but you will be unable to support one of your allies.

Multiple Threats on each card.
The Mission ends when either all of the players have withdrawn or when 3 identical Threats are present in No Man's Land. If everyone has withdrawn, the Mission was successful and all of the cards in No Man's Land are removed from the game. If 3 identical Threats are present, then the Mission was failed and all of the cards in No Man's Land are shuffled back into the Trials deck on top of the Peace Card. Regardless of success or failure, any unplayed cards in a player's hand remain there and are carried into the next round.

In the Support Phase, players reveal their Support Tokens and pass them to the person indicated. If any one player has received more support than the others, then they may either get rid of 2 Hard Knocks affecting their character or recover their Good Luck Charm, if it was spent. The players each keep the Support Tokens that they received and add them to their supply. Thematically, everyone has come to the aid and supported their friend who needed it most and it gives him the strength to shrug off some of his adversity. 

My hand of cards to play and
one Hard Knock already down.
Finally, if the players have not won by having no cards in their hands and no cards on top of the Peace Card, they have to drop their Morale. The players count how many cards remain in their hands and they transfer that many cards from the cards on top of the Monument Card to the Trial Deck on top of the Peace Card--however, a minimum of 3 cards must always be transferred. If transferring the cards reveals the Monument Card, all players immediately lose.  If they do not lose, the Mission Leader token moves to the next player and the former leader takes a Speech Token if any still remain and the game continues.

The game is simple and elegant in design. And really, that is almost all of the rules right there. However, the only rule that I did not mention is the most important one: you are not allowed to discuss the contents of cards in each player's hands and when you withdraw, you cannot say what Support Token you played.

This does two things very well:

First, it creates a new level of challenge as you have to be very cognizant of what has been played previously, and aware of your own hand. When giving a Speech, you allow every other player to discard a card from their hand of the matching Threat, but you do not discard one. So if you have a handful of Rain Threats, you have to decide if that means that the other players are less likely to have Rain Threats in their hands and therefore you should choose another Threat to remove, or if you should have them discard their Rain Threats to make it more likely that you can play your hand. And Supporting other players becomes a challenge since you have to remember who has what symbols as they might not be able to Support the person who needs it most.

The artwork is absolutely beautiful.
But secondly, and more importantly, it creates silence. Players can still chatter and talk, of course, but there is a silence that permeates the most important decisions in the game. And that silence is evocative and it creates tension and, surprisingly, it creates a stronger atmosphere of brotherhood than speaking. When there are multiple Threats in No Man's Land I may look at my hand of cards and see two cards that I can play, but I have to give pause. In any other game, I might just ask the next player what they have so I can optimize my play. It would be done as an afterthought.

But instead, the silence makes the play for the next player more evocative and stressful. They are relying on me, but I can only help them as much as my gut and how well I watched their plays and anticipate their hand. I can ask a stranger what they have in their hand and we'd be none the closer at the end of the play. But to anticipate the needs of every other player around the table in silence creates a brotherhood that invests you so much more than speech would.

I love this game. I love it more than the groups I've played it with though, I fear. I don't think that anyone I've played it with has disliked it, but when getting together for game night we are used to big and brash games.

The Grizzled is intimate.

Tignous.
What adds to that intimacy is the artwork. The art itself is beautiful in every line and the color palette is perfect. But there is a knowledge that adds even more to the intimacy of the artwork. The art is by the French cartoonist Tignous who was killed on January 7, 2015 in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. This is a sorrowful accent on something that is already so sorrowful.

The Grizzled is a beautiful look at a tragedy. It is simple and elegant and it resonates more about what war is than any game of chits and tiles and line of sight and charts ever has. It is a challenging game, and I don't mean that because of its difficulty. It is a challenging game because of its intimacy and what it evokes. That isn't to say that it will evoke something in everyone who plays. The game is solid and can be enjoyed without it. But for those who it does touch, The Grizzled will be something special in their collection.


The Monument.