Mud, Smoke, and Friendship

When I was younger, the task of transcribing my great uncle's war diaries from WW1 fell, improbably and briefly, to me. The part I recall best was his description of an artillery attack. He had climbed a hill overlooking the trenches, and sat and watched as shells burst in the air and on the ground around the lines. He said it was beautiful.

They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.
_____—Ernest Hemingway

In general, I’ve heard two broad complaints about The Grizzled — which, as I wrote last year, I consider an important title. This is probably overselling the matter; after all, it has been accepted rather warmly considering it’s a crab-apple of a game, tough and sour all the way to the core, with only the tiniest seeds of hope at the center. Still, there’s a new expansion available, called At Your Orders!, and it seeks to ameliorate some of the complaints with the base game. So let’s talk.

If my stats are anything to go by, the answer is no approximately 70% of the time.

Can friendship be stronger than war?

Before we get into it, At Your Orders! adds a couple things that I’m not going to spend much time digging into. It’s got a couple new modes (dual-player and solo), neither of which interest me — this is a game about a gang of friends struggling to survive a war through silent cooperation, so why would I care to experience it sans the gang of friends, silence, or cooperation? It also comes with a few rules tweaks, all generally positive, and some cardboard standees that I thought I’d hate but actually adore, especially when they’re all gathered together in No Man’s Land. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, they’re functional, providing an instantaneous overview of which soldiers have withdrawn to safety and which remain in danger. Such a good idea.

On to the main feature: the mission cards.

I mentioned above that I’ve heard two main categories of complaint about The Grizzled. They go something like this:

First: It’s unfair. Victory or defeat comes down to the luck of the draw. “The game plays you,” is one oft-repeated refrain. Basically, there’s very little choice involved.

Second: There’s a disconnect between the mechanical action of putting down cards to avoid matching too many symbols and the “theme” of surviving the Great War.

Then again, some are pretty helpful. Latrine duty sounds great when it means you aren't going over the top.

The new missions add a dash of uncertainty. MORE uncertainty.

The problem with these complaints is that they’re pulling in opposite directions. The Grizzled stands out as one of the few games — and more particularly one of the few relatively mainstream games — that’s more interested in evoking a particular feeling than in being “fun,” at least in the usual way that we throw around that word. It wants to be desperate and gritty. It wants your gut to knot over the luck of the draw. It wants you to get frustrated, to grumble about not winning.

In essence, it wants you to feel as helpless and as overburdened as the men who shivered in the muck in 1917.

This isn’t to say you don’t have any decisions to make, just that they’re muted, limited to personal touches like talking to your buddies or offering a warm blanket or steaming cup of coffee to a friend who’s quietly suffering. It isn’t a game about winning battles; it’s a game about the boundless power of friendship and kindness in the face of impossible odds, regardless of whether you make it home or not. In this rare instance, the absence of meaningful choices is the theme.

With that in mind, how can you add something to The Grizzled without stripping out what it does best? The answer, fortunately, is the mission cards. These come in a wide variety across multiple difficulties, making it possible to tailor your experience to be as breezy or as iron-hard as you please. In brief, the current leader draws two, briefly studies the state of the table — how his buddies are doing, how far everyone can probably push themselves this round — and then selects which will be your squad’s mission that round.

Here’s an example. In our most recent game, Geoff was the man of the hour. Without anyone else’s knowledge, the two mission cards in his hand presented a seemingly easy choice: either a straightforward mission where artillery was guaranteed to have no effect on us — which would let us freely dump any cards sporting artillery shells — or a tough mission that would see us bogged down, a permanent threat sticking around for two full missions. The easy money was on the first option. However, Geoff decided to be clever. It was early in the game, and our people were healthy and happy. So he picked the tough mission. And it was tough. We struggled with it. But by eliminating that possibility right out of the gate, we went the rest of the game without having to deal with an impossible choice. By walking us through hell when we were ready for it, we managed to bring everyone home.

Missions not only give the leader something extra to think about, they also transform each round into a new experience. There are missions where your good luck charms will be doubly useful or worth nothing at all, moments when your soldiers will be too exhausted from that day’s fighting to do anything but collapse onto their pallets at night, soldiers who are detained and forced to stay back at base, and even dangerous missions that will stick around until somebody makes a sacrifice to get rid of them. What was once a carousel of repetitive card play is now a series of challenges to overcome.

It isn't so much that they're bad... well, okay, they're bad, if you consider the game's social element to be the entire reason for playing, which I certainly do.

The solo game, as well as the two-player game, I will probably never play again.

Best of all, it works like a charm. I had no idea what to expect from At Your Orders! At best, I figured it would add some stuff that wouldn’t overly muddy the original game’s pristine formula. At worst, I feared that the designers would have caved to their detractors, stripping out the very things that made The Grizzled such an important title.

Thank heavens, they got it right. The best addition to The Grizzled is that tiny deck of mission cards, both broadening the game’s decision space and enhancing its setting. From now on, this is how I’ll be getting my dose of sober reflection.

Posted on July 14, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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