A Review of Tainted Grail, Part I. Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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Tainted Grail was on Kickstarter quite some time ago (December 2018).  Tainted Grail is a cooperative campaign game with exploration, combat, diplomacy, and a rich story (it has a story book) set in the world of Arthurian legends.  The world is not the “happy” Arthurian world of Camelot! Not that the story of Arthur is happy, but Tainted Grail is a dark game centering on a world where Avalon has faded.  IMG_7657

I had essentially only backed the base game of Tainted Grail  (which, by default,  came with some great Stretch Goals).  I had not read the fine print, which indicated that there were two Waves of shipping: Wave I (shipping to backers sometime in in November 2019) and Wave II (which JUST came to me in mid January 2021)!  Even though I only ordered the base game, the Stretch Goals box wasn’t ready, so they deferred the Stretch Goals box until Wave 2.  If I had paid something like an extra $10 (?), I could have gotten the base game shipped back in November 2019.   I hadn’t paid close enough attention (my fault) to this shipping scheme, so I just got (mid January 2021) all my Tainted Grail stuff!

Before I get into this, you have to understand there was a little grumpiness here: a lot of reviewers had proclaimed Tainted Grail the “game of the year” for 2019: as a Kickstarter backer who didn’t see this until just now … I admit being a bit grumpy it took sooooo long to get to me.

Unboxing Extra Content and Stretch Goals

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I showed my friends the box it all came in (see the Coke can for scale). They joked it was a Clorox box! (Big and heavy, just like a Bleach box. Side note: if you are ever moving: get bleach boxes! They are built to handle heavy loads! Back to your review …). What’s in the box?

Oh ya, I had gotten some minis: The Monsters of Avalon: Pretty cool, but not strictly necessary: they will be monsters that augment the game when you go into combat. See below.

And this was the reason I had to wait: the Stretch Goals box.

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And you know what?  It was worth the wait … I think.  Inside the Stretch Goals box was essentially as much stuff as the original game! It has two campaigns (Age of Legends and Last Knight), which includes two new storybooks and tons of new cards and new miniatures!  It’s almost like getting two new games!

We still aren’t to the main box, because we got a surprise box! In here was basically just an art book for the next game and a little almanac/art book for Tainted Grail. There were “nice”, but I don’t know how much I’d use them. Still, always nice to get more!

As cool as all the extra content is, let’s take a closer look at the Base Game.

Unboxing the Core Game

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The base game box is pretty big. The first thing you see when you open it is the getting started pamphlet!

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What’s this?  The “Start Here” booklet promises to get you up and running in the game in 1 hour!  We’ll take a look at how it does below!  Let’s take a look at what else is in here. The rulebook is next:

 

Then the Exploration Journal (this is, after all, a Storybook game). It’s quite thick!

There’s some “save sheets” because this is a campaign game.

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And some “letters”: there’s one of these letters addressed to each member of the party!

Underneath all the books and paper, we start getting into the meat of the game. Each player will take the role of a character: you can see the character boards here and a Stretch Goal (an alternative character named Niamh: the game is still only 4 characters, but she offers an alternative).

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These character sheets are pretty nice: notice how they are dual-layer!

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Inside the box, you see all the main stuff! The miniatures, the dice, some plastic components and SO MANY CARDS!!!

 

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The miniatures are quite nice:

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Here’s one close up:

And again to emphasize: SOO MANY CARDS!  Also note that are slots to store cards: we’ll find out later that a lot of those slots are to “save” your hand between chapters in the campaign.

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There’s some plastic components as well: the red markers you see will be used for marking most things in the game.

Here’s some of the cards unpacked:

Let’s take a closer look at the board again. Note that the main board comes out!

Overall, the components in Tainted Grail are just FANTASTIC (as are most Awaken Realms games are).

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First Play

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So, Tainted Grail hits it out the park for your first play. There’s a lot of decks, but you don’t need to unwrap ALL your components just to try it out! There’s a 4 page pamphlet that takes you through the game and it only takes about an hour!

As we have said many times, the best way to learn a co-op game is to learn the game as a solo player and teach it to your friends (see Saunders’ Law entry here).  And that’s what Tainted Grail does as its first play! First, you choose one of the 4 (5 with stretch goals) character to play: I choose Boer.

Then you set yourself up with that character! A lot of the set-up is actually on the character cards themselves:

The red markers are used for just about any demarcation in the game. For the characters, they are used for your attributes (on the left and right sides) and your Energy, Health, and Terror (long column on left side of card). The game is essentially split into two parts: 1) “Stuff you do during the day” (like exploration or movement) and that costs Energy and 2) Combat or Diplomacy (which consumes your Health and maybe Terror). These will be replenished by eating food (at the very bottom of the character sheet above).

The FIRST PLAY rules are very clear how to set this up! The FIRST PLAY also sets up your world: these are oversized cards that connect to each other (ala The 7th Continent or Etherfields).

As you explore this world above, the FIRST PLAY takes you through a sample Combat and a sample Diplomacy, both coming from the encounter cards (each of the colors denotes a different type of encounter).

When everything is all set-up for your first play, the board should look something like this. Note the special Combat and Diplomacy decks for the character on the left and right side!

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As you head into the game, you also start looking at the Exploration Book (remember, this is a campaign game with an ongoing story in the Exploration Book!)

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As you explore and move on your first day, you read the Campaign book (above). One of the first things you do, after moving is get into a combat!! The FIRST PLAY walks you through a Combat very well: it actually notates the first Combat card for you!

For Combat, you take some cards from your Combat deck and play them left to right, letting the Monster attack after you play a few cards for the round. Damage and effects happen because the little squares on the edges “line up” (see below).

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As you are in Combat, you do damage trying to get 4 damage in this case to win (see above). If you win, you get the loot (in this case, some food). As you are fighting, you will probably lose some Health and maybe some other stuff.

The other type of encounter in the game is Diplomacy. Diplomacy is handled similarly to combat (putting out cards left to right), but in this case it’s a “tug of war” of wills trying to get the red cube to the top of the Affinty Track (see below).

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During all of this play, there are three Summary cards which are absolutely indispensable:

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These cards are two sided and summarize the day phase (when you explore and move) and the Combat or Diplomacy (when you engage as the result of an exploration or other).  These are very useful and I am so happy they exist!

After about an hour, you get to move, explore, read from the Storybook, encounter some Monsters and right (Combat) and try to sway a guard (Diplomacy).   The game really walks you through this first play so nicely!

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See above for most of the FIRST PLAY!

Honestly, this was one of the best first plays I ever had.  It was so easy to set-up and play through! The FIRST PLAY book made it so easy to get a sense of the game.  After my first hour playing Tainted Grail, I felt like I understood the game!  And I hadn’t even gotten to the rulebook yet! 

Rulebook and Unwrapping

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It’s weird to talk about the Rulebook AFTER playing once through already!  (That’s how good that first game is, you don’t have to refer to the rulebook).  The rulebook does most of the things you want a good rulebook to do: A nice intro components page:

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I have to admit, I spent a LOT of time on this first page as I unwrapped all my cards (I only needed a few for the FIRST PLAY).  So, I feel like I was on this page for almost 1 hour as I unrwapped and correlated cards.

There were a few things I didn’t like: the cards are notated with single letters for G=Green, B=Brown, U=Blue, R=Red, Y=Grey.   Um, these were weird colors to pick, AND the letters they chose were weird, AND the colors on the cards weren’t actually that pronounced.  It was hard to tell the cards apart!    See the card below … that’s Green (ya, I know it looks yellow).

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Once you get the decks separated, it’s not too big of a deal, but it cost me at least 10 minutes as I tried to sort/distinguish the cards. These seemed like some weird choices that weren’t very “distinctive”. See below (with 4 different piles for the 4 different “colors”).

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Something else that wasn’t apparent: you know that FIRST PLAY deck we had for our first game?  It kind of looks like its separate from the game BUT NO!  You need to fold all those cards into the main game!  A little sentence somewhere would have helped!!  For example, there are 30 purple encounters.  But the components say 31 … wherre’s the other?  OOOooooh, back in the FIRST PLAY deck!  Any kind of notation would have helped: 30 PURPLE ENCOUNTERS + 1 FIRST PLAY or something like that would have gone a long way!

From here, the rulebook is fine. It elaborates on a lot of stuff we saw in the FIRST PLAY. The rules are fairly straight-forward, if a little “boring” because we feel like we have seen all these rules already! One complaint I had was the the Index felt incomplete: I liked that they HAD an index, but the two or three times I tried to use it, my lookup wasn’t in there. (Do you know what a charge is? Neither does the index!)

Overall, the rulebook was good. It could use a better Index and maybe slightly better explanations on the component page, but it worked. I didn’t have any major problems.

A Little Deeper

After playing through the FIRST PLAY, I wanted to get a sense of how the Campaign really worked. There’s a lot more to set-up and handle when you are playing a real game, but the FIRST PLAY really gave me the confidence that “THIS IS EASY!”.

I played Chapter 1 of the Fall of Avalon Adventure. The rules were fairly evident. The storybook was engaging.

The game wasn’t much harder to get into after that FIRST PLAY. As a I played, I marked off some stuff on the save sheet, then had to put my cards back in the box for the next play. The save system was fairly easy.

I just wanted to make sure my FIRST PLAY wasn’t a fluke: nope! Playing the real campaign game isn’t that much harder than your first play.

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Although, it does take up more space as you need to have your notes! You’ll notice I have my Exploration Book off to the side since I ran out of room!

Thoughts On The Experience

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The writing in this game is good.  It feels very evocative!  The storybook just seems to really hit it out the park.  I have heard that they hired “real authors” to write the story, and it shows.  The writing really augments the experience.

I have been enjoying my experience so far.  The game is immersive, as the art and writing and components are just so top-notch.   The save system seems to work very well, so it’s easy to put away and come back.  There’s an ‘experience’ system, so you can make choices on how to upgrade your characters as you play: it seems like you always some kind of interesting choice for upgrades near the end of the chapters.   Like Etherfields, this is also a deck-augmentation game (as you make your Combat and Diplomacy decks better).

The game is a little fiddly as you adjust Health, Experience, Food, etc etc etc, but it’s just the nature of RPG-like games: there’s usually a lot of stats to update.

The Combat and Diplomacy systems are unique.  I don’t know if I love them yet, and I feel like the rulebook doesn’t “quite” explain it well enough, but I have been pushing through.  I like the idea of cards moving left to right, and matching symbols to invoke powers/abilities, but I have had a number of questions.  This system is a little clunky until (I think) you get used to it.

Conclusion

I can see why some reviewers called this their game of the year.  There’s an interesting story that’s unfolding.  The writing is excellent.  The components are first-rate.  The art is thematic and evocative.  All of these elements make a very immersive game.  

There are still a lot of rules to deal with to play this game, but that FIRST PLAY set-up gives you so much confidence that it feels easy to jump into the game!  I wish all games had a FIRST PLAY that worked that well! 

I am curious what I will think of the Diplomacy and Combat systems over time, because they were the only thing I wasn’t 100% sure about. But those systems was different and interesting.  

Overall, I really like this game.  I look forward to playing all the way through The Fall of Avalon and see how it goes!  I may even try to play with my friends!  Solo play works really well in this game, so I don’t need to … 

 

5 thoughts on “A Review of Tainted Grail, Part I. Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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