|Interaction||Components & Design|
Boardgames don’t really have an equivalent to literature. We gamers don’t usually consider the categories of literary fiction versus genre fiction, we think about light games and heavy games instead, or about different game mechanics. But by most criteria, the vast majority of games are more like genre fiction: advancing linearly, focused on a big payoff at the end, and made to entertain, not to invite reflection on their subject.
What you might call literary games are not entirely unheard of, though. One fine example is The Grizzled by Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez, a cooperative game set in World War One. The setting in itself is not what sets The Grizzled apart, though. Plenty of games are set in the two big wars. But in this one you don’t move tanks across a map, you don’t heroically storm beaches, and you don’t go home to live happily ever after, even if you win.
The Grizzled is a game about a group of friends who have been drafted into the war and made to fight in the trenches. It is not a game about how many enemies they kill, it’s a game about their survival, and about the scars they bring home even if they do survive.
How do you survive that? – The Rules
Mechanically, The Grizzled is quickly explained. To win the players have to play through a series of Missions to get to the bottom of a stack of card called the Trials Pile. At the start of each Mission the Mission Leader, also known as the current start player, decides how many cards from the Trials Pile every player should take. It’s tempting to take many cards to go through the pile quickly, but we’ll see in a moment why that is often a bad idea.
The Trials Pile has two kinds of cards, and the usual thing to do on your turn is to play a card from your hand. If it’s a Threat card, it goes to the center of the table, known as No Man’s Land. The Threat cards show six kinds of threats: Night, Snow, Rain, a Gas Mask, a Mortar Shell and a Whistle that was used to order an assault. Most Threat cards show two of those threats, but some have more – including a lovely few that show all six. On their own, Threat cards are harmless, you only lose the Mission if there ever are three cards with the same threat in No Man’s Land. Sounds like it should be easily avoidable since you have the option to retreat instead of playing another card, but some cards also have a trap icon and force you to add another card from No Man’s Land when you play them.
Another thing that can quickly get you into trouble are the second type of Trial cards called Hard Knocks. They represent the traumas and mental scars soldiers in the trenches acquired. They stay with the player who played them and have two very unpleasant effects. One is that the players lose the game if any player ever has four Hard Knocks. The other is that they saddle the player with added difficulties like not being allowed to retreat while they still have more than one card in hand. More than once I had to sabotage our mission because the Hard Knocks didn’t leave me a choice.
Fortunately the players have some options to save themselves. The first is their Good Luck Charm. Each player character has a good luck charm against one of the six threats, and instead of playing a card they may use that charm to remove one card showing that threat from No Man’s Land. Second, they can give a speech to restore courage to their comrades. A player with a speech token – a reward for finishing a mission – may discard that token and pick one of the six threats. Each player is then allowed to discard one hand card showing that threat. For both actions it’s irrelevant how many other threats are on the same card.
Finally, when you see that you can’t do anything to help the mission any more, you will be forced to withdraw. When you withdraw you retire from the current round, the effect of all your Hard Knock card is suppressed and you pick a player to give support to when the mission is over. When all players have withdrawn the Mission ends and is considered a success. In that case, all cards from No Man’s Land are removed from the game. If the Mission ended in failure No Man’s Land is also cleared, but the cards are shuffled back into the Trials pile and you’ll have to face them again. Hard Knock cards are not removed, these traumas are persistent.
Success or not, when the Mission is over all players reveal who they chose to support when they withdrew. If one player has received more support than all others they may either discard two Hard Knocks or they may recover their Good Luck Charm if they had used it before. Finally, before the new round starts, the players count the cards in their hands and add that many cards from the Morale Reserve to the Trials Pile. This is why you don’t want to have too many hand cards: withdrawing before you can play them will bring more trials to face and drain your Morale Reserve.
If the Morale Reserve runs empty the players lose the game. If the players manage to empty the Trials Pile and their hands, they have made it to the peace negotiations at the end of the war and survived, scared as they may be. One of those two things will happen after about thirty tense minutes.
No clever reference joke here – The Verdict
First, lets just talk about The Grizzled as a game. Its rules are simple, and there’s not much long term planning you can do. You try to play as many cards as you can without ruining the Mission. It’s important to keep an eye on the other players’ Hard Knocks so you don’t inadvertently force them to blow the mission. When to withdraw is an important decision, so is when to give a Speech and when to use your Good Luck Charm. The most strategic decisions are for the Mission Leader to set how many cards to take and for everyone who to give their support to.
Despite it’s relative lightness, The Grizzled is a tense game. There is little chance to be screwed over by bad luck, when you lose it’s almost always because someone made a bad decision – and that means your decisions count. A group of experienced co-op players will beat The Grizzled on normal difficulty fairly quickly, but that’s what Veteran difficulty is for. The one thing I didn’t enjoy about The Grizzled as a game was the two player mode. It adds the Chaplain as a virtual third player that does nothing except randomly lend support each Mission, and that randomness mostly negates the strategic decision who to lend support to. It works, but playing with more players is just better.
How about the idea to make a literary game, though? As with literary fiction, your mileage will vary. For us, I noticed that The Grizzled creates a very appropriate mood. Just because of the subject matter, we were less inclined to joke and gossip while playing. At the same time, the rules don’t allow you to discuss strategy much. You’re forbidden from discussing your cards. None of the stupid “I’m a bit afraid of snow, but not very afraid” you get in games that only forbid the mention of what exact card you have, here you just don’t talk about them. It put the whole table in a quiet, subdued mood that seems to me like The Grizzled succeeds in making people reflect on the events the game deals with. Every character quietly deals with their own trauma. And then you read that some of the player characters were real people and ancestors of people that worked on The Grizzled. It’s a tiny little fact that really drives home that these horrors really happened.
At least for me, The Grizzled is a formidable balancing act. It fulfills its literary intentions, but at the same time it’s a great, light, cooperative game. It could easily have become one of those educational games that hit you over the head with their point, or a game where you simply ignore the setting and play, but it avoids both pitfalls masterfully.