TableTopTakes: Tainted Grail
Let me start out by saying that rarely do I back a Kickstarter on the first day, and I hemmed and hawed over whether or not I would with Tainted Grail. In the end, because of the feeling I got from the setting, this dark Arthurian Legend style game, I decided to jump into the Kickstarter day one knowing nothing else able the company Awaken Realms except for maybe having heard of Lords of Hellas by then. I then anxiously waited for basically a year before it was delivered and a full year from when it was Kickstarted and when I played it the first time. I saw people gushing over it on Facebook, and I wondered if I had built it up too much in my head. You’ll get to find that out below, but I know there are games or movies that I’ve hyped up too much before that have just fell flat for me.
In Tainted Grail you take on the roles of 1 to 4 characters, these characters aren’t your typical heroes, they are the B-Team. You’re deeply flawed characters with an iffy backstory and something that is a negative for you. When the A-Team, those people from the farmhold of Caunacht who were more skilled and more important than you went missing, you were tasked to find them. It wouldn’t have been that big an issue, but the Wyrdness is starting to take back the land and the Menhir, statues that Arthur and his knights erected to drive back the Wyrdness, are going out. Can you find a way to save the lands of Avalon and keep the Wyrdness at bay, or will it fall? That’s the story of the game, the mechanics for most of the game aren’t that difficult. In it, you spend energy to explore locations move around the lands of Avalon and light the Menhir, but all of this is while you are trying to balance finding the resources you need to keep the Menhir going and fighting off monsters and convince hostile villages and farmholds that you means no harm. And when you fight or do a diplomatic encounter, the game changes. You are now in a tactical card playing phase where you are looking to change together cards to do damage, use abilities on those cards, and most importantly, leave yourself in position where you aren’t taking to much damage. It’s a giant puzzle to figure out as you chain moves together to take out monsters or string words and stories together to convince those doubting people.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is split up into 15 chapters and each chapter can go between half an hour and probably up to two or so hours, maybe even longer as I’m in Chapter 2 and I’ve been playing for an hour and fifteen minutes, but I’m also streaming it (Here on Youtube). I think, if I had hit a couple more ideal battles, I’d be in a much better position, but you can check that out. So there is some luck in how long it takes, do you explore in the right direction, do you not find too difficult encounters, things like that. And I think that there is a little bit of early scaling that might not be quite correctly paced, I’ll talk about that in a second when I talk about some issues. But it really is this massive branching story which is even more impressive. I believe even as early as Chapter 3, depending on what you picked in Chapter 2, the game can branch into different parts of narrative and how you choose to solve everything. So this 30+ hours of game play is replayable as you can pick different paths to take, which ism extremely impressive to me. If I were playing with more than a single character, that would make a difference as well for me. I am really digging that piece of the game.
So, let’s talk about my first negative for the game quickly, and I hinted at it before, I feel like the monsters level slightly too fast. I get that this is a grim dark setting and it’s supposed to be hard. In Chapter 1, you have the first tier of monsters, I’m not going to say level 1 monsters, because some of them are a lot harder than others, in level 2, I added in tier 2 monsters, and maybe because of how I went about the game, I wasn’t able to level up my character as much, but right now I’m running away from 90% of the encounters that I face just to get as little damage as possible. I think either having more tiers of monsters or adding in a partial grouping of tier 2 monsters and encounters, and then finishing adding them in chapter 3 and slowing down that progression a little bit would still keep the game hard, but I’d only be running from 67% of them instead of most of them. And some of that is my fault as well, I am the type of poker player where I want to see the flop at least with almost any hand, and I know that’s not a good strategy, so I often hang in combat for a round and then drop out when I should just know to drop out right away, but I want to see if I can draw that one card that will help me crack the puzzle and win the encounter. This is a minor negative.
My other negative and this one is slightly larger, is that when you die you have to restart the game. If you’re smart, I’m not, you have a nice save sheet that you can use between chapters to save the game and come back, but I’m not smart, and people who are playing multiple chapters at a time are going to have the same issue. I wish that it was an official rule that you have to save between every chapter so that when you die you can restart the chapter. This game is really tough, and if I’m in chapter 8, I don’t want to start again at Chapter 1, even though I’ll know how to rush through it. Or, better yet, I wish that the beginning of each chapter told you how to reset the world, so yes, you might have to reset your character or take a hit to your character, but to be able to have a starting option for each chapter so that you don’t have to replay would be nice, because it would mean that if you are playing through, you’d be able to quickly get into the game again if you die. It could also work if you don’t want to do Chapter 1 again and get to where it branches faster, you’d be able to do that, because Chapter 1 is a bit of a prologue. Now, I just came up with a solution for some of my issues, and I’ll have to go back and implement that for myself, save at the end of every chapter, but it would be nice to have something more official.
Next, I want to talk about some things that others have brought up as negatives. It’s the time that the Menhir are lit and the amount of food that you need. People have claimed, and I can see why, that the game forces you to farm for certain things, you need to farm food so that you can eat every night, not become exhausted, and heal and have your terror go down (eating is good). But you also want to be exploring and doing other things not just farming food. The same with the Menhir. You need some resources, probably magic, so that you are going to need to farm that. One of the characters can produce their own magic, so that’s good for them, but the one that I’m playing actually needs an extra magic because of his flaw, so I need to farm even more magic. But all of that said, neither of those things are negatives for me. First, my character can produce food if I really need it in a pinch, so while it does take up energy to do that so I can’t do as much in terms of exploring and traveling I always have that option. It also is fine, because we knew the game was going to be like that going into it, or if people paid attention to the kickstarter and rules and so many things, it was obvious that this game was going to be tough to survive. The grind is going to be part of it, and I feel like most of the grind isn’t even that grindy, because it is going to drop you into a combat which is such a fun puzzle to try and figure out that it doesn’t just feel like wasted time. Though, as you can see, I think that the encounter level does go a bit fast. Mainly, this piece of the game is very thematic, and the Menhir running down it adds to the stress of the game, and you can do things to play in more of a story mode, and I think there are interesting ways that you could “cheat” if you wanted it to be purely story mode, but that would lose some of the challenge and tension of the game.
But there are so many good things about the game, let’s start with the Exploration Journal. This thing is massive, and it has so much story in it. You feel like you’re always jumping into it, and there are so many options and statuses that come from it, that I don’t think it would ever be possible to get them all or read through all of it in a single game, and I love that. Plus, that then makes it really replayable. It also makes the world really immersive. All of the locations that you can go have a lot of history and depth built into them, and I’ve started running into side quests and things to explore that might create a more interesting story and more history that can be unlocked so that I can fully understand the world. And there are going to be two more expansions to the game, one before and one after the time frame of the base game, so I’m going to unlock the world history. I also can see, because of the amount of exploration how it would be fun to just be the keeper of the book, almost a game master, and lead other people through the journey so they aren’t getting spoiled to.
The encounter system, both combat and diplomatic, I really like as well. I’ve called it a puzzle and it really is. Cards connect on various keys and open up other various keys (I’m going to mainly give combat as the example), and you are trying to chain those together in the best way possible. The first card you play down is always free and doesn’t have to connect to anything, but ideally it does so that it’s not a wasted card, but it might be that you need to put it into play in order to combo something onto it later. Because some cards have a symbol that allows you to chain it together as a bonus move, and you can chain multiple of those together and hopefully in the first round take it out. It’s also a puzzle though because various levels of damage changes how the monsters responds to you. So if you’ve done 0-2 damage to them, they might hit you for one damage, but if you’ve done 6 and they need 7 damage they might run away. So, you won’t want to hit 7 damage, but it might be 6 damage on the monster means you get 3 wounds, so that isn’t ideal, so you’re trying to set-up a combo so that you can rush to the finish from 2 damage. I really enjoy the puzzle nature of it, and diplomacy works similar as well, but now you’re trying to move it up using different skills.
Finally the characters, that’s the last thing I want to talk about. I love how different they are. There are six skills and each character has a different set-up of those skills. That means, that Beor, for example, is great a combat at the start, but horrible at dealing with diplomatic encounters. Arev is a more balanced character. Beyond that, each character has their own unique upgrade cards for combat and diplomacy, now if you’ll see them, who knows, but that allows them to feel more thematically developed in terms of characters. I also like that each type of character, there are four archetypes that will be showing up throughout the base game and expansions, has their own combat and diplomacy for that archetype. Finally, each character has something unique that they can do, an action that is unique only to them. In Arev, that’s that he can always find some food, one food for two actions. But to balance that out they have a weakness as well. Arev’s is that he needs one more magic than required to light a Menhir. If a Menhir doesn’t have a requirement for magic, there’s not a requirement for a single magic because of Arev, that offers your own unique challenges for playing each character and adjusts how you can deal with certain encounters for combat and diplomacy or what options you might choose in exploration.
Overall, you can probably tell that I really like the game. Is it a perfect game, no, there is no such thing as a perfect game, my favorite game of all time, Gloomhaven, isn’t a perfect game. But Tainted Grail is an amazing game. I think that it might not work for someone people because it might be too dark in the story, but I think a lot of people are going to love it, and with it shooting up the lists on BGG, it is clearly being enjoyed by those who have it. The story part works so well, and the mechanics are actually quite simple for how large a game it is. Even if someone doesn’t like the story element of it, they can tune that out if other players love it and just hunt down combat and other encounters for their character. This is a really well done game that looks beautiful on the table.
Overall Grade: A+
Gamer Grade: A+
Casual Grade: B+
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