Using friendship to fight against despair.
Board games seldom do war justice. But that’s only because war is rarely ever just. Caught in the middle of a conflict, sometimes a simple smile is all you’ve got to see you through the toughest of times. And few of us have faced times quite so tough as the cast of the The Grizzled.
In a medium worryingly overflowing with games about war and warfare, the Great War is a setting rarely touched upon. The politics behind it were messy, the technology employed pales in comparison to World War II, and we’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks trench foot would make for an exciting gameplay element.
But while The Grizzled is a game set in World War I, it isn’t really a game about war or even fighting. No, The Grizzled is about surviving. A group of friends from a small French village are thrust into a conflict of dizzying scale and horror. Their only hope of enduring the hardships ahead is through the support they provide one another.
To many artists, this setting might have presented a problem. How could one possibly convey battle without a dramatic explosion, or the prolific yet somehow entirely unmemorable Shouting Army Man? Video games have struggled with this dilemma for quite some time. More modern boxes now commonly depict a solemn man on the cover; as if to say, “Gosh, isn’t war terrible?” before they let you jump online and drop white phosphorus on your friends.
Disassociating the player from actively committing war crimes, board games fare slightly better. But the theme is usually realized through a veritable spreadsheet of tokens and boxes, all rendered in drab browns and greens. Thankfully, in both design and looks, The Grizzled is the antithesis of a typical war game.
Designed by Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez, this cooperative game sees players attempting to play Threat cards from hand into a shared region representing No Man’s Land. If three Threats of the same kind are ever present, the mission is an immediate failure. It’s a brutally challenging experience, intended to create a sense of dread and exhaustion as new cards are played or drawn.
But while the setting is draped in gloom, the underlying themes are of brotherhood, friendship, and solidarity. Themes which are given spirit and emotion thanks to renowned French comic artist Tignous, also known as Bernard Verlhac, who was sadly a victim of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting.
The Grizzled’s cast -- some based on the designers’ real ancestors -- aren’t portrayed as heroic or dashing. Disheveled and lumpy, they’re the kind of people you might easily expect to find filling the bars and tables of your local drinking hole, and that’s exactly the point. These are ordinary people, doing their best to help each other through an awful experience.
The Armistice Edition -- a special, legacy-style campaign box -- includes a collection of pre-painted models which lovingly grant Tignous’s drawings a third dimension. Their in-game function is minimal, yet you’ll grow increasingly attached to them as they endure hardship after hardship.
The representation of Threats is another way in which The Grizzled shows a unique approach to its subject matter. Despite being at war, you won’t see a single enemy soldier in the entire game. Hazards, instead, are indicated with a lone and ominous icon: a bullet for enemy gunfire; a gas mask for chemical attacks; a whistle for the ever-present fear of a call to go over the top.
The weather is no ally either, with drawings of driving rain or snow conveying the conditions soldiers had to withstand for months on end. The only faces you’ll see in The Grizzled are your own. Even new recruits are represented by just a helmet resting on a stick; faceless figures thrust into your protection to die or be spirited away soon after.
The Grizzled is mired in despair, yes. Yet in the weary faces of its crew, you can glean a firm sense of companionship and camaraderie. This isn’t a game about racking up kills counts or playing around with cool toys. It’s about enduring with the help of your friends. The most powerful item isn’t a gun -- or any kind of weapon. What keeps this band of friends going at the end of another torrid, harrowing day is little more than a cup of tea. A gesture of kindness and support from one person to another, giving them the will to face another day.
You aren’t likely to see The Grizzled crop up on many lists of the best-looking board games. Yet its art, combined with the game’s direction, makes for an especially unique experience to store on your shelf. And sadly, it’s a style that we may never see again.
Looking for more war-based board games that aren’t about warfare? We happen to have a list on exactly that, and you can click here to read it! Join the board game chatter by following us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can also tune in to the Going Analog Podcast to keep up to date with our recent discussions about the board gaming world.
Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Gloomhaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found gobbling up all the latest and greatest party games, then wondering why he can never find the time to actually play them with friends. Share your love of deck builders with him on Twitter @Fernoface, or drop an email to email@example.com.