The cover of the cooperative card game The Grizzled asks this question: “Can friendship be stronger than war?” The question echoes from the first card drawn to the last card played.
In the game, each player is a French soldier during World War I, one of les poilus (pronounced “poy-looz”). This translates to “hairy ones,” which the game designers have paraphrased as “the grizzled.” The players win by keeping each other alive until armistice ends the war, echoing Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” The aim of the game is for the poilus to support their most vulnerable comrades, even as they sustain their own emotional and spiritual trauma.
The Grizzled masterfully captures some of the tension and terror of one of history’s most senseless calamities, the Great War. During that conflict, France suffered about 1.4 million military deaths. The Grizzled focuses on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual toll the massed assaults, artillery barrages, and poison gas exacted upon the individual soldier. Each player takes on the role of one of six poilus, with names like Gaston Fayard or Anselme Perrin—actual men who survived the war. One is even named after Lazare Ponticelli, the last surviving poilu, who died in 2008. For the game’s art work, the late French cartoonist Tignous employs his quirky, signature style to breathe a startling humanity into these characters, all against a backdrop of barbed wire, mud, and rubble. Players cannot help but love these fellows, immersing themselves instantly into the themes of friendship, empathy, and support.
In each round of The Grizzled, players embark on a mission, during which they encounter a series of “Trials.” These represent the bullets, shells, gas, and conditions the poilus faced on the battlefield. The players win―i.e. survive the war―when the Trials deck is completely depleted and they have have no more cards in their hands. Among the Trials are Hard Knocks, cards that mark the emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds sustained by the soldiers on the front. As Hard Knocks stack up on a character, the mission becomes more difficult and the chance of winning the game becomes increasingly remote. If any one poilu accumulates four Hard Knocks, the players lose the game.
At the end of a mission, each player secretly selects a support token, fittingly symbolized by a steaming cup of coffee, to render aid to a friend burdened by Hard Knocks. And herein lies the heart of The Grizzled. Since only one poilu can receive support each round, the team can only survive if they minister to their most troubled comrade. Their support removes some of the Hard Knocks from their friend, steadying him to soldier on to the next mission.
The aim of the game is for the poilus to support their most vulnerable comrades.
When confronted by God after killing his brother Abel, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer all throughout Scripture is a resounding, “Yes!” In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul urges that we imitate the humility of Christ by valuing “others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This principle seems built into the mechanics of The Grizzled. Players possess only a few support tokens and can only use one per support phase. With the mass casualties of WWI, medical priority went to the wounded who would most likely survive if treated immediately. Lighter cases, or those thought too severe to be helped, received lower priority. In The Grizzled, players use their very limited resources to give aid to their most severely traumatized brother, not merely the one most likely to survive. They help the soldier whose Hard Knocks most dramatically imperil his survival and that of the team in the next mission.
The French suffered horrendously in WWI. Yet, in that cauldron of violence and suffering, God’s grace and goodness were not extinguished, but shined in small acts of kindness: a cigarette for a friend who’s a little rattled; taking guard duty for a soldier who lost a friend that day; or sitting quietly with a comrade who got bad news from home. In my own experience in the harsh environment of a United States Navy submarine, we regularly eased our shipmates’ stress by relieving a watch early or standing duty on a holiday or showing up unasked with a cup of coffee. These are the small acts that Jesus was talking about when he said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
As Christians, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we recognize that in a very real sense we are in a war. By carrying each other’s burdens we love one another as Christ loves us. The Grizzled is an homage to the poilus, as well as a testament to the small kindnesses that can minister to the soul.