New Game Weekend: The Grizzled

grizzledbox

In June 1914, a member of a group of fringe Bosnian Serbs assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in an effort to split some of  Austria-Hungary’s territory into a freed Yugoslavia. Through a series of cascading and intertwined alliances, the act of terrorism begat World War I and led to the death of millions.

Over a hundred years later in January 2015, two brothers self-identifying as Islamic terrorists associated with a Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda forced their way into the Paris offices of the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The men shot more than 20 people, killing 11 and setting off a nationwide manhunt lasting for two days until the men were found and gunned down.

A month after the 2015 Paris shootings, a WWI-themed card game called Les Poulis was released by Sweet November, a French company which largely produces colorful games geared toward children. Carrying the line “L’amitié plus forte que la guerre?” or “Can friendship be stronger than war?,” the game prominently features the artwork of Bernard Verlhac who drew under the name Tignous and was one of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo the month before. A century apart, the war which nearly destroyed early 20th-century Europe and the modern threat of international terrorism intersected in this curious little game.

Les Poilus is French slang for “infantry” roughly meaning “the hairy,” an appropriate title for a game which focuses on the experience of French soldiers in the trenches of WWI. The game’s designers wrote a manifesto of sorts for the game, here presented in the American printing under the translated title The Grizzled:

At the same level as literature and cinema, games are a cultural media which is undeniably participative.
There are no subjects it can’t broach, though some are more delicate than others. That of the life of the Grizzled is one of those.
Guided by the deepest respect that the suffering endured by these men has inspired in us, we’ve designed and tweaked this game with this constant concern.
In this earnest endeavor we’ve chosen to focus on the individual, with his preoccupations and his daily fears.
The only escape for the men we’ve portrayed is to use their solidarity, their brotherhood, and mutual assistance to save one another.
Without ever touching on the warlike aspect, “The Grizzled” offers each player the chance to feel some of the difficulties suffered by the soldiers of the trenches. Thus the emotions around the table will often be intense.
The path to victory may seem difficult, but don’t get discouraged – persist and survive the Great War!
IMG_7357A player’s set-up from The Grizzled with the Mission Leader marker, Speech and Support tokens and Hard Knock cards

Rather than attempt a grand take on the war, The Grizzled brings the war down to the level of six French friends who mobilize to action in the early August 1914 days when the war still seemed something heroic and noble. The cooperative game presents the soldiers fulfilling a series of missions in an attempt to deplete all the Trial cards covering a winning Peace card before the Morale Reserve cards covering a losing Monument card are used up.

IMG_7358The six Threats from The Grizzled – Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow

In each round, the mission’s leader chooses to deal 1-3 Trial cards to each soldier. Trial cards feature Threats of six types — Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow — or Hard Knock cards featuring various negative battle effects. In turn, players have a choice of actions. Threat cards may be played in the center of the table’s No Man’s land for the current mission, avoiding playing three of the same type and failing the mission. Hard Knock cards are assigned to the active player with immediate effect, and four Hard Knocks on the same player also causes a loss of the mission. Players can also choose to make a Speech, removing one type of Threat card from all player hands or use their Good Luck Charm to clear a card already played in the current mission.  Finally, players may withdraw from the current mission and assign a Support tile to another player.

IMG_7359The Peace and Monument cards from The Grizzled

Once all players have withdrawn from the mission, support tiles are passed to other players. Players with the majority of the support for that round may clear Hard Knock cards or refresh their Good Luck Charm. Cards are then moved from the Morale Reserve to the Trials pile according to the number of cards players still hold in their hands from the previous mission. With that the new mission leader deals cards and the next round begins.

The Grizzled is a powerful game in a tiny package and one of the most challenging games I’ve played in some time. The collaborating players need to tightly manage their own hands and plays while keeping an eye on all other the other players. As Hard Knocks mount up, effects on one player wind up rippling through the entire group, hindering the collective effectiveness in missions. Clearing Hard Knocks with Support becomes key late in the game but getting Support to the players needing it most also becomes a challenge.

Winning a game of The Grizzled feels like a real accomplishment. In the first week I had the game, I played about 15 games and my group of experienced gamers only won twice. Fortunately, a typical game runs about 30 minutes, so multiple games can be run in a sitting. It’s interesting the original French publisher states the game is for ages 10 and up while the American version from Cool Mini Or Not suggest ages 14 and up. The game’s play is intense but that’s the point, no matter the age of the group.

We’re still in the midst of the centennial commemoration of World War I, an enormously complicated war still argued over to this day. While fully understanding the war’s big picture may be a nearly impossible exercise, getting a view from the trenches in The Grizzled shows how the trauma of violence on individuals or small groups of friends or colleagues is an unfortunate timeless human reality.

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Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

NathanHalesHazardousTalesAs a young fan of history in 1970s and 80s, my bookshelves were brimming with illustrated history books. Classics Illustrated comics, David Macaulay’s books and Dover history coloring books were all favorites. In my teen and college years of comic book fandom, I was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Decades later, I loaded up my own boys’ shelves with beautiful books from Dorling Kindersley on such subjects as ancient history, the American Civil War and World War II. Now, as the kids have grown, they’ve made their own reading discoveries and turned me on to newer series. One of my current favorites is Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale is the actual name of the Utah-based author and artist of a variety of best-selling children’s graphic novels. His Hazardous Tales series focuses on US history with a wit and flair aimed at engaging kids in wonderful little vignettes of the past. His war-themed books include looks at the American War of Independence (One Dead Spy (2012)) the American Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad! (2012)) and World War I (Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (2014)). He’s also taken on non-war subjects with the doomed Western settlers of the Donner Dinner Party (2013) and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in The Underground Abductor (2015).

NHSpyPageFamed American spy Nathan Hale is introduced in “One Dead Spy”

Hale’s three war books introduce children to three different conflicts from three centuries of the American story. One Dead Spy outlines the American Revolution through the lens of famed Colonial spy Nathan Hale, his exploits, capture and martyred execution in September 1776. The first half of the book moves from Hale’s years at Yale to the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Siege of Boston. In the second half, the story shifts to the war in and around New York City and Long Island, making it of particular interest for my sons living amid the ground covered by the Battle of Brooklyn. Other historical characters including George Washington (naturally), Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the colorfully-written Henry Knox all make cameos, each adding to the overall narrative which ends with Hale’s hanging just as the war was gearing up into its later years and eventual victory for the American colonists.

NHIroncladsPageCivil War naval combat from “Big Bad Ironclad!”

The American Civil War gets its treatment in Big Bad Ironclad which tells the story of the nation-defining conflict through the epic development and battle of the first US ironclad ships in March 1862. With so many stories to be told from the Civil War, this book’s focus on the relatively ignored naval side of the conflict makes for another interesting tale. A colorful cast of well-known and marginal characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Swedish immigrant inventor John Ericcsson and US naval hero William Cushing, frame the story. Drawn in blues, grays and blacks, the historic figures and events helps to place this sideshow to the American Civil War as a not-to-be-forgotten part of American history.

NHTrenchesPageEuropean alliances explained in “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood”

My favorite of Hale’s three war books is Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood which does an amazing job of explaining the complex causes and series of alliances which contributed to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. The story begins in the obvious place with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the somewhat hapless Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914. After the entertaining opening act, the book moves to outline the intricacies of the allied European nations. Using the cartoon and comic book convention of animals as characters, each country is cast as a different creature — UK (bulldog), Russia (bear), France (rooster), Austria-Hungary (owl), Germany (eagle). You might think explaining geopolitical politics would be a yawn in a children’s book, but Hale carries it off such that even adults would benefit from the World war II overview.

The story marches onward to 1914, erupting in the war depicted in a dramatic double-page spread of assembly line of manpower grinding to battle with the Greek god of war Ares overseeing the entire coming slaughter. Weapons, the introduction of tanks and trench warfare all get their due in the second half of the book, but it’s the pre-war framing of European empires in conflict which makes this book a standout intro to the war for all ages.

AlamoThe forthcoming “Alamo All Stars”

The upcoming sixth book in the series, Alamo All Stars, will appeal to Texans and Texans at heart with the tale of the heroic defense of the Alamo in 1836. With the school year just under way, all of Hale’s Hazardous Tales are worthy of reading lists, no matter the age. Each book also contains a bibliography and more factual information at the back of the book, making all these books a great jumping-off place for budding historians and maybe some future wargamers, too.