The Grizzled was a very popular game when it was released in 2015, and when we played it we noodled out some of the reasons why, though they were for the most part about its simplicity of design and its evocative play rather than its cooperative innovation.
The Grizzled by Fabien Riffaud & Juan Rodriguez
Publisher: Cool Mini or Not (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Card Management, Anti-Set Collection
In The Grizzled, players take on the role of soldiers in the Great War. They must empty a deck of icon-filled Trials cards by playing them in successful missions, but they can’t play more than two of any icon during each of those missions, and every time they fail to empty their hands, more cards are added to the Trials deck. Meanwhile, players collect hard knocks over the course of the game that makes play ever more difficult.
Most challenge systems cause problems for the players through the revelation of secret cards or the roll of uncertain dice. In The Grizzled that uncertainty is rather uniquely held in the players’ hands: it’s in the cards that the players are forced to play, which are ultimately to the detriment of the group because the third play of any card icon results in mission failure. The players effectively trigger the system through the play of their own hand!
So how do you make cards held by the players secret? You fall back on an old cooperative trope and restrict the players from talking about their cards in any way. The traditional uncertainty of a cooperative game then emerges through the fact that each player doesn’t know what the other players are holding, a mechanic also found in The Game (2015).
Unfortunately, this simple play also creates a very obvious determinism. The group ultimately must play all of its cards. If the players have a lot of the same icons within their hands, they’re probably going to lose, and if they have a more even spread of icons over the course of the game, they’re probably going to win. Because each card has a few icons on it, playing the cards in a different order can slightly improve the chance of victory … but there’s no way to strategize that, because of the hidden nature of the cards.The result is a very simple challenge system. Players play cards on their turn, and try to avoid playing the cards that would create triplets. This simplicity is part of what has made The Grizzled popular.
Granted, a lot of cooperative games are predetermined by the way a deck of cards is ordered at the start of the game. But, there’s enough complexity in most co-ops to hide that determinism: in The Grizzled, it’s pretty obvious. For experienced gamers this can feel like the game is playing them: you make the very minor tactical decision of what order to play your cards in, then you win or lose based on your draw.
The Grizzled does incorporate a few other standard challenge tropes.
There is a bit of cascade through its traps, which cause the draw and play of an extra card. However, the cascade in The Grizzled doesn’t go exponential (as most do): traps don’t spring more traps. Despite that, it introduces a large amount of new uncertainty in the game, beyond the hidden cards in players’ hands.
There is also decay as hard knock cards pile up over the course of the game, introducing new environmental problems — either bonus icons or special rules that the players must abide by. One of the most interesting aspects of The Grizzled is the ability to temporarily remove those environmental conditions: if a player drops out of the round, his hard knocks don’t affect the group again until the next mission starts. This allows for tactical removal of environmental consequences (and thus decay) that’s unlike most games in the genre.
Challenge System Elements: Turn & Action Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Sequential Cascade; Decay; Environmental Consequences.
The cooperation of The Grizzled occurs primarily through the play of cards into a joint pool: the players are jointly trying to empty their hands, but each play limits what other players can play. However, as with the challenge aspect of the game, some of the apparent cooperative play is false due to the core determinism of the system. The players must play the cards that must be played.
Despite that, The Grizzled does have one cooperative element that’s rather innovative. As players exit each mission, they secretly choose a player to support. If one player gets more support than any other players, meaning that he’s not tied with anyone else, he can get rid of some of his hard knocks. As with the core gameplay of Grizzled, this is bound up in secrecy: players can’t talk about who they’re supporting. Despite that, it feels like a much more meaningful sort of cooperation, because there’s the possibility of making good guesses about what other players are doing (and acting accordingly).
Though players each have unique characters, each with their own special powers, and though they can each pick up unique disadvantages over the course of the game, none of these feels like particularly strong adventure system elements.
Despite that, The Grizzled excels in creating the atmosphere of an adventure game through its overall gameplay. The feel of the desperation in war, of becoming the walking wounded, of seeing the opposition pile up, it’s all here. The game seems to be teaching a visceral lesson about the human condition, in much the same way as Terra (2003) and Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012). In fact, The Grizzled does such a good job of creating its atmosphere, that some players sometimes find it too much; they don’t like the strong, unpleasant messages that it offers about war.
Expansions & Variants
The Grizzled has an expansion called At Your Orders! (2016) that improves the gameplay by resolving a quirk with card drawing that can ruin two-player games and by introducing a little more uncertainty into each mission. It’s one of those supplements that feels almost necessary to play the game properly. The Armstice Edition (2018) then turns The Grizzled into a campaign.
The Grizzled is a game that ultimately walks the knife’s edge between simplicity and determinism. The challenge system is rather under-featured, which makes the result of the gameplay too dependent upon card draw, not cleverness. Some players clearly appreciate the easy and obvious play that results, but The Grizzled may be too simplistic for serious gamers.
The rest of the game offers interesting lessons on how non-communication can make cooperation tough and how solidly themed mechanics can create a solidly themed game … even when you’re just playing cards with icons on them!
Fabien Riffaud & Juan Rodriguez
The authors are both French designers. This was Riffaud’s first design while Rodriguez designed several games in the ‘90s, but returned to the field with The Grizzled after a long gap.