The Grizzled (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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The Grizzled is a war game like no other. Instead of the colourful abstractions of area-control mechanisms and the imperial grammar of exploration, civilisation building, races and conquest (or alternatively, Risk-ish or Twilight Struggle-esque military-political power-play), here you have a focus on cooperative survival. A small group of friends, French soldiers, attempts to get through a variety of ‘missions’. To do this they must deplete their hands without then encountering too many of the same elements either on cards laid down in the centre or on personal trauma cards, while also contending with a variety of other personal ‘hard knocks’.

Essentially the point is not to ‘win the war’ but to endure it as best you can as a small collective. You survive or don’t together. Your characters don’t have much in the way of pre-set personalities, but they have names. More even than the survival focus, this trauma mechanic fundamentally challenges the morality of war-based gameplay, highlighting the weirdness of what we do when we play at combat by shifting the terms of engagement from the machinations of kings and ministers to the effects of conflict on people. The Grizzled is almost a tight survival horror game.

Yet for all that, it is a game. I’d argue that The Grizzled makes more of an effort to be thoughtful about its premise than many conflict-based entertainments, but I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately more or less respectful to gamify trauma. I’m fairly uncomfortable with the premise of The Grizzled, but unsure whether it’s good or bad that I’m more comfortable playing more ‘abstracted’ conflict games, even ones about real events. The game also teaches you to be less uncomfortable with its set up via repetitive play.

Speaking of actual play, thematics aside, Grizzled is rather awkward. Whether you make the attempt with two players or five, it’s murderous if you take a lot of cards in a round in an attempt to rush through the deck and achieve the win condition. However if you play with two people and take the minimum allowable number of cards each turn, it is, if anything, too winnable: the game feels broken, here. It’s just a matter of going through the motions. Three people playing conservatively can also expect to win pretty easily. This strategy will not avail you with a large group: the difficulty ramps back up to ‘incredibly slaughterous, with no obvious way of alleviating that’.

It’s an odd play length. At thirty minutes, in its small box and with its simplistic mechanism, The Grizzled ought to be a filler game. But its difficulty makes it unsuitable for group play with newbies (and if we have a group over, it’s usually at least part newbie), who want wooed into Eurogaming and don’t exactly relish a collaborative ass-whooping. Experienced players will also find themselves unduly frustrated with newbies’ poor play in this collaborative, tense situation. Due to the difficulty and the subject, The Grizzled can make for high-strung gameplay.

If you want a short game as part of a session of short games, or if you’re looking for a filler game to warm you up, The Grizzled is too glum and low-energy for your purposes, really. It’s not that short, at thirty minutes, but neither would I think of it as a medium-length game. It’s got too simple a mechanic to support being treated as one, too. The game can be a desperate grind–even very conservative play is rigid, not admitting errors. The hard knocks can be fierce, and bad luck there could easily destroy your team. Sure that’s an accurate reflection of the horrors of war, but is it the stuff of a good filler game?

I do really like the rallying speech and sympathy mechanisms: they’re effectual, conceptually pleasing, and add a sweet note of camaraderie and support. However the Christmas Truce card throws me right back into my welter of questions about the ethics of the game, and reminds me unpleasantly of Sainsbury’s dubious recent attempt to use the Christmas Truce (a historical event I’ve always found ridiculously affecting) to sell biscuits. I’m not sure whether The Grizzled is unethical, or so ethical that it reveals a moral issue inherent in a lot of gaming that’s more serious than I customarily want to credit it with being, or both. I am sure it doesn’t quite work for its intended market-niche, or as a game generally.

VERDICT:
We traded it for Mr. Jack Pocket. Vive le trash.

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