Tainted Grail is a Grim-Dark fantasy adventure game set in the world of King Arthur. You are no knight, no hero; you are a reject, the last resort of a world descending into ‘wyrdness’. This game is one of tough choices and lasting consequences. Have you ever played a choose-your-own-adventure book and turned to that ‘you died’ page? That page is the inspiration for this game. Tainted Grail has the same feeling: adventuring, exploring and fighting your way across the land to survive… hopefully.
Tainted Grail is a framework to build a story with many divergent paths. Each time you explore the landscape, more story is revealed. It is up to you to navigate this massive and immersive world. I will limit the content to early gameplay to avoid spoilers for the purpose of this review.
Components and game set-up
The sheer quantity of components can initially be a little daunting; there are hundreds of different elements, mainly various cards for events, items and the map. Saying that, Awaken Realms has included a clear component list and a tutorial mission to help you. Once you play through the mission, all the parts make sense and it’s a great way of learning the game.
The ‘board’ consists of a map composed of huge cards of beautiful artwork joined together to make a landscape. Each player has an asymmetric character dictated by a player board. It's double-layered, well designed and simply pretty. You also get combat and diplomacy decks and a miniature. These are all illustrated with clear iconography. There are 3 Menhir models, each with a unique sculpt and impressive board presence. There are also cubes, dials, coins, an imposing miniature (unused initially), the rulebook and most importantly the script book. The book details each location and includes specific entries in the script book dedicated to each character to enhance their story.
Set-up is on the longer side, around 20 minutes, roughly comparable to a dungeon crawler (although not quite as extensive as something like Gloomhaven). To set up:
- Lay out the map
- Organise the encounter decks (there are 4 categories of encounters), the event deck and item deck are organised
- Set the character boards, personal items and the combat and diplomacy decks
- Place the characters and Menhir models on the board.
After that, you are ready to go.
Tainted Grail Gameplay
You play co-operatively (1-4 players) on a series of quests divided into chapters. Each quest has a goal, but how to achieve that goal is very much up to the player. A quest might say ‘resolve a conflict between faction A and faction B.’ Do you do that diplomatically? Or do you assassinate one of the faction leaders, possibly starting a war? The choices you make affect your reputation, the landscape of the game and impact your next quest.
The gameplay itself is relatively straightforward and simple to follow. The reference cards are invaluable, as they lay out simple steps you can follow systematically.
Each turn, you start by drawing an event card. These can be helpful - ‘beautiful weather’ (you may move for free) or horrible - ‘spawn a guardian monster’ (just where you are planning to go). The event deck also acts as a timer; if you ever run out of cards from the deck, the game penalises you for taking too long.
Next, any monsters on the map move randomly (and inevitably end up attacking you).
Then comes the main action step where players can take their actions in any order. The actions available are fairly simple: you can move, explore a location or perform a specific action listed on a card. Actions generally cost energy, the amount of which can vary depending on what the character is doing. Walking to a new location or exploring the local town can cost one energy, while more strenuous activity, such as climbing down into a cave, will cost more.
Certain actions, such as activating Menhirs, need to be done by the whole party. Characters that perform actions together have a greater chance of success, however, the action will cost more energy to activate. The action reward/loot may not increase either. In fact, the cooperating characters may all receive a penalty. The split between risk, reward and efficiency is a delicate balance.
At the end of the day, you will need to eat food (a precious resource) to bring your energy back and heal any damage. You then start a new day with new events.
So you now know (roughly) how to play Tainted Grail, using actions to explore the map and fulfil your quest. Sounds simple, right? The only problem is your character has limited resources and is surrounded by danger and ‘wyrdness’. Danger usually comes in the form of encounters cards you must fight off, otherwise, you suffer mental or physical damage.
Fans of Lovecraftian games will be very familiar with the health and sanity systems in Tainted Grail. As the characters reach their limits, they may not immediately die; often they can have a chance to recover, albeit with a penalty.
The ‘wyrdness’ is an ever-encroaching, corrupting dark force you should not enter and must be repelled by the Menhirs. Mechanically, it means map cards can only be explored while adjacent to a Menhir. So, to progress across the map you must collect what you need to activate them and keep moving. Each Menhir is activated in a different way, often through sacrificing a selection of resources. When a Menhir is activated it sets a timer which will tick down each day. In fact, this is the main balancing mechanic when varying the player count; the more players, the lower the timer is set.
Things to consider:
Tainted Grail is a campaign with long gameplay; this is not for the casual gamer, you will need to stick to the same characters (and players, if possible). Each individual play session can be saved and continued at a later date, however, if you wanted to stop at the end of a chapter (the most satisfying and easiest point to do so) be prepared to play for 2-3 hours or more, especially in the initial sessions.
The player count is important. Tainted Grail is often considered better at lower player counts. The game is scaled to work at all player counts, however, one player may have a very simple turn of moving one space and another person can be fighting a monster for 10 minutes, so downtime can be a problem. If you are happy to experience the game as a group, that's fine, but be prepared to wait for your turn.
The game has a rather steep learning curve and starts slowly to get the players to understand the gameplay mechanics. The initial game experience can feel like a grind, building up resources and fighting enemies just to get enough food to keep alive. As you progress, gaining experience and equipment, that grind lessens and the game switches from survival to exploration, which is where Tainted Grail shines.
Each character levels up as the campaign continues; you have many options and are not limited by your starting choices. You spend experience points to add to base statistics, eventually developing skills, or you can upgrade your combat/diplomacy cards for long-term deck building. These options mean you can try to be an all-rounder or specialise in a certain area, such as food gathering.
The combat and diplomacy encounters are performed in a similar manner using their respective character decks. Once you have got the hang of the process, it works well. However, it is a fairly unique system, so it takes a little while to get your head around. One downside is the time it takes to win an encounter. If you are starting out and need to read what each card does, one combat encounter can take 15 minutes. As you upgrade abilities and learn your deck, you will get faster, but until then encounters can be a tedious portion of the gameplay for the other players.
There is a certain degree of luck. There are a few dice rolls and random events, which not everyone will like. The randomness can add variety to the gameplay and it can often be mitigated with tactical decisions such as using a different character with the right abilities. There is nothing stopping one you from realising you need Arev and moving him over ASAP.
The gameplay is very open-ended. Whilst this can be great in exploration sandbox games, it can become frustrating if you are stuck about where to go next. In Chapter 3, my game became laborious and far too long. We were vaguely directed to a location. The direction was misleading and it turned out to be right across the map. We overran the inbuilt timer in the game multiple times. It took hours of gameplay to finally end the chapter. In contrast, we finished the next chapter within a few turns. We had accidentally done most of the groundwork for the quest already.
Re-playability is debatable in this game. In one sense, it encourages you to play again so you can find the most direct and efficient path to victory. The game is also huge, so you will never be able to explore every option on one play-through; each character has a unique story as well as certain choices ‘locking out’ other options. But in another sense, the exploration and feeling of discovery can be lost in revisits and they are the aspects of this game I find most interesting.
Personally, I think the components are gorgeous. The art is an interesting dark style, but it may depend on taste, especially if you are uncomfortable with images of blood or gore. The models are well done; the ones in the base box are all that is required, but if you are a fan of miniatures the Monsters of Avalon cosmetic expansion is very nice to look at and adds to the table presence of the game.
The story of Tainted Grail is dark, fantastical and sometimes even disturbing. The lore is inspired by Celtic mythology and the legend of King Arthur, but is given a fascinating twist and is exciting to explore. Personally, I adore the setting and find this to be the main selling point of this game.
Many have compared Tainted Grail to 7th Continent, and whilst the games have similarities, the story-telling sense of exploration is so much more compelling here. The script book feels like choices matter, not the ‘will I fail this check or not’ as in 7th Continent. To me, the main fun of the game is the exploration, working out that puzzle, finding a weird item that helps you to survive. If you like the idea of delving into the fantastical story and surviving through it, by all means, try this game. I think it is fantastic, the campaign is challenging, satisfying and great value for money even if you don’t replay it. If you like a good, dark story-telling experience, I can’t think of a better option than Tainted Grail.
The focus of this review has been on ‘Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon’. There are actually 2 more campaigns included in this set I have yet to play. Each includes unique mechanics and additional aspects of gameplay I have not detailed here, however, I believe the aspects of story and exploration will continue to be fascinating.
Also, there is an app with atmospheric music and voice acting of the script book. There is also a computer game included. This is an entirely separate entity with the same setting as the board game. It is rogue-like deck builder (much like Slay the Spire). It also has a campaign mode to explore another dimension of the Tainted Grail story.