1-4 players, Cooperative, Exploration Story Based Character Management
Designer: Krzysztof Piskorski, Marcin Świerkot
Artwork: Piotr Foksowicz, Ewa Labak, Piotr Gacek
Publisher: Awaken Realms
Release Year: 2019
NOTE: NO STORY SPOILERS
This game ran a VERY successful Kickstarter campaign last year. I was, of course, intrigued both due to the theme and my never ending fear of missing out. I backed the game pretty quickly and also nabbed the Monsters of Avalon expansion which just acts as miniatures for the roaming monsters that sometimes appears. I received the core game and the Monsters minis in the mail a little over a week ago and have had a chance to go through most of the campaign now. I will keep any and all story elements extremely vague so as not to spoil anything, not just because I want everyone to experience it themselves but also because I have just the worst memory and would probably get so much incorrect anyway. Anyway, let’s get down to it!
Overview of Gameplay
Tainted Grail is first and foremost an exploration/story game. Being that you will find yourself discovering new locations that are in the form of these tarot sized cards that will make up your playing space. The game will play out over the course of multiple “days” which act as rounds. Each day players will replenish their energy and go through the actions of exploring and encountering areas/beasts/people which will use their energy.
Now, let’s dig into those actions a bit and explain the point of the game. So, there is an interesting artificial “time limit” that is incorporated into the game play in the form of these statues called, “Menhirs”. The game comes with three uniquely sculpted miniatures to represent these and starting out you only have one on the playing field. At the base of these statues are these little plastic numbered dials that slide in where you keep track of the time remaining. At the beginning of each “day” you will tick down each statues dial by one and when a statues dial ever reaches zero, it is removed from the playing field and some location cards might get removed as well. Now there are ways to increase the dials to prevent this from happening so it’s a very loose time “limit” but it’s there.
Now starting off each day after you tick each statue counter down, you have the option to move around the playing field and explore locations and interact with encounters and use abilities. There is also an event card drawn that will usually dictate what your current quest is or could be a random event that either helps or hinders your day in some fashion. If you can complete the series of events pertaining to your current chapter then you win! Well you win that chapter but there are many, many chapters to complete in order to fully defeat the game. Because yes, this is a campaign game and you have a long treacherous road ahead of you. If you perish you will lose and although there is a game play mechanic built in to kinda “save” you from death, letting you start over from the beginning of a chapter, this is not the recommended way to play. The booklet instead says to play a non-campaign based game session that just has you exploring and learning the land. I think this is to kinda wet your feet so to speak before you really take the plunge into the world of Avalon.
Now as you explore locations you will read from this rather large book that has ALL the story elements in the game. Each location has its own section dedicated to it and it acts much like a choose your own adventure book. You will read a small excerpt at the top for the location kind of explaining it a bit and then you will be given multiple choices to choose from. Pick a choice and find the corresponding section to read the outcome etc etc. Some of these choices may even have an effect on your particular character, allowing them to gain reputation, wealth, food, magic and experience. Or they could lose some as well depending on your choices. All these stats are tracked on your characters player board which I’ll dive into in more detail in a bit.
So, these player boards! I think they might just be the nicest double layer player boards I have seen. They are super sturdy, incredibly colorful and the artwork on them is excellent. They have a glossy finish which makes them look and feel VERY premium. And they fit the cubes nice and snug to hold them in place and I also like how they fit exactly six red cubes (which are the universal tracking component in the game) but the game also comes with slightly larger purple cubes that are meant to represent 5 of the red ones. So basically right as you get to the point of maxing out your space you can trade some in to clean up your board a bit.
The core game comes with a few miniatures to display your chosen characters, another enemy minion and the three Menhir statues and all of these are very well done as well with excellent detail and sculpts. However the dial trackers that you use to track the Menhir time leave a lot to be desired. These things are made of a super lightweight plastic and the numbers listed on them are so blended in that you really have to get close and look to see what number is listed. On top of that they can pop out of the base of the statue so easily that you could just bump one of them and the tracker will come tumbling out. I mentioned that I also got the Monsters of Avalon miniature expansion and, personally, I think it is well worth it. Not just because each monster sculpt is unique and looks amazing, but mostly because it’s kind of a pain in the butt to have to use the cards in place of the monsters miniatures. Moving a mini around on top of cards is easy, but trying to pick up a card off another card when you are also trying to keep the location cards organized is a struggle.
All the cards also feel very premium. I especially love the thickness and slightly smooth feel of the combat and diplomacy decks. There are only 2 custom dice, one that dictates the monster movement and another used for random rolls that you might have to make during the story elements. Each of those is unique and nicely done. There are also some nice paper story bits that kind of explain each character a bit which are very nicely done and a note pad to keep track of your campaign game state and any new status that you might pick up during the game.
The game board itself is primarily made up of the tarot location cards. When these cards are laid out on the table they form a nice map of the land with each newly added card adding a piece to the landscape. Now, this looks really cool and the artwork is excellent. However, I do have some problems with a few things concerning this style. First thing is that since you have those rather large Menhir statue miniatures sitting atop certain cards, this WILL obscure most of the card and any cards behind. You will find yourself standing up many times during a session to look over a statue or pick it up to read what’s on the card to see what actions you might be able to take. Or even to read what number the card is so you can turn to the correct passage in the story book. Speaking on that a bit, when you explore a location card you are meant to flip the card over and read the back and then turn to the correct passage in the story book….but…..this ends up being more of a hassle BECAUSE of the minis and messing up the nicely laid out map of cards so players will find themselves just looking for the card number and just turning to the correct passage from the get go. Which unfortunately takes away from the fun and mystery of what is hidden on the other side of the location cards.
The box and storage solution is pretty decent. There really are not a lot of components to store so just a couple baggies should suffice for the tokens. The few miniatures each have a designated spot in the insert to hold them secure and most of the rest of the game is composed of cards and the story book and papers. All the cards fit into the spaces nicely although they may be pretty snug if you sleeve your cards. There are designated card spaces for each character to save their progress with the cards they collect during the game which is nice. And there are smaller sections for the smaller sized cards like the items and secret cards. There is a nice clear topper lid that fits over all that to keep everything super snug even if stored on its side so I haven’t had a single spill yet. The papers and story book goes on top of that and the lid sits flush on the box. I mean there really is not much to complain about with this box and storage solution and the box itself really isn’t that big so can easily fit in a standard Kallax shelf.
Visual Appeal /Theme
The visual appeal and theme is just outstanding. The story created here is VERY well done and interesting and you can really feel the theme throughout the gameplay, primarily because most of the gameplay has to do with the story. The way the Menhirs gameplay mechanisms tie into the story elements is just awesome. The bits of artwork you see on the locations are superb and I especially love how the game comes packaged with four crudely drawn maps of the land (one for each player). These things are not only cool little things to have but you will probably use them while playing to get an idea of where to go on your travels.
So this is something I was really looking forward to speak about. They crafted such an EXCELLENT tutorial mode for this game that I think I will be hard pressed to find another like it. It’s very well written although in rather small font but it goes through exactly how to setup the game for the first time and even has specific decks designed for the tutorial. It has you play as the blacksmith character specifically and has a nice little story bit that follows him that acts as a kind of prequel to the story. After playing through this I pretty much KNEW exactly how to play the game, and it was SO easy. Granted there were a few more things to learn as I progressed but that was a simple look up in the main rulebook.
And this would be my recommended way to start playing. The main rulebook isn’t written terribly or anything but it is daunting to look at. It’s got the same small font and only a few examples and those kind of rulebooks have a tendency to cause massive glaze. As it stands though, I don’t think the game is complex or anything at all. I mean the combat and diplomacy encounters you have can get pretty thinky but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of them.
I can already see many multiple paths that can be taken and indeed I have played the first chapter a couple of times to see what would happen if I chose a different path. I can say that I have tried 3 of the 4 (or 5 if you have Niamh) characters and they are quite a bit different in more ways than one. Each one has a specific player board that has different health/energy/terror values listed. They also differ based not only on their respective ability/disability but also on their starting stats. For example Beor the starting blacksmith has two points in aggression starting out whereas Maggot has two in Spirituality. These little changes will drastically effect story events and whether some characters will even be able to DO certain story parts at particular locations. Of course you won’t know this until you visit and explore.
This makes the game, in my opinion, more fun the second time through any given chapter. As an example the first time I went through chapter two I was completely and utterly at a loss. I mean I had the general idea of what I needed to do via the quest card but when I got to the place I needed to be, I discovered that I could not progress because I lacked a certain thing. Now this caused me to wander all over the land trying to figure out how to gain said thing. And to be frank, I wasn’t having a lot of fun not knowing what I needed to do, especially with the thought of those Menhirs counting down.
Player Interaction/Optimal Player Count
This is an interesting game when it comes to player count. I have tried solo/single character, solo/dual character and a full on 2 player game. And can say that I vastly prefer the solo/dual character count. First off let me get it out of the way that I don’t think this game plays well multiplayer at all. There are little tweaks to the rules for party play, like when a group is traveling together but I don’t think they are all that fun honestly. Another thing that is a real bummer is the amount of down time if playing multiplayer. Let’s be honest here, a single session plays LONG and this is for two players. The combat and diplomacy encounters that a player can run into can take a good long while depending on cards drawn. And when one player is doing that, everyone else is just kinda twiddling their thumbs. I couldn’t even imagine playing this with 3 or 4 players. On top of that the rulebook also says that it makes the game run smoother if just a single person takes the helm of the Chronicler and handles all the reading from the story book and deals with the location cards and all that. And I would agree with that but half the fun in games like this is that EVERYONE takes part. But by doing so that adds even more down time.
Now speaking to the solo play, I found this really fun. Playing solo/single character is fun but solo/dual character play is where it’s at. You see when you play with just a single character you can only go a certain direction, explore a certain amount of stuff. And this stuff may or may not be quite what you are looking for based on your chosen character. HOWEVER, playing with two characters gives you the freedom to explore much more in the same amount of time, find more interesting areas and see places that a specific character might be helpful. For example, I was playing as Maggot and Ailei and went to a certain area that IF I had Maggot in my party then I could have chosen a specific choice. Now that’s not to say I was stuck in that situation because I didn’t have Maggot but it opened my eyes to an area that he would be much more helpful in going forward.
Positive Final Thoughts
This is a very well written story based game. The exploration aspect is also interesting with how new areas are discovered. With multiple choices that can be made per area and even some that can only be made after you have achieved certain skills, this game offers a vast amount of replayability. The components are also all excellent and feel extremely premium. The tutorial learning game that they put together is like a godsend for this game and makes learning it so simple it’s not even funny.
Negative Final Thoughts
The multiplayer aspect leaves much to be desired with the high amount of down time and almost non-existent player interaction. Also with only one person reading from the story book it feels even more lopsided but passing it around causes even more downtime so kinda stuck between a rock and hard place. Playing solo with a single character can be challenging as some of the quests are rather vague so exploration is a must, and this can take QUITE a while. The little statue minis, although really cool, are kind of a nuisance. Sitting on the cards, they block your view and make it more difficult to handle the cards. Also the tracker dials are VERY fiddly and you could easily knock one out and they are hard to see the number listed. Would be much better to have those built into the miniatures.
The Bottom Line
This is a highly replayable and interesting story that has some of the nicest components I’ve seen. Overall I enjoy the game however I just wish it was more fun multiplayer. I would love to traverse this land with some other players but given the amount of time it takes to play a game combined with the large amounts of downtime, I just cannot see that happening. That said, I have a ton of fun playing solo with two characters and am already looking forward to my next session!
After playing a few more games I have had a differing of opinion from my earlier thoughts. This is not a game I “enjoy” pulling out to play as sad as that sounds. I’ve found some story events that are just trial and error and there are A LOT of them. In some you have zero indication of which choice to pick to progress in the story and the longer it takes, the more of your precious resources you lose and there is no way to prevent it other than luck.
Basically, there are just too many things in the game that are constantly hammering you down and with the way everything in the game from the combat to the story reading takes sooo long, it’s just not a fun game for me anymore. It will always be a beautiful game to behold and the story is on point, but the gameplay is seriously lacking once you really get deep into it.
The Fuzzy Llama Bronze Seal of Prevalence