Tabletop Review- Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon

Awaken Realms came onto the scene not all that long ago with the publication of This War of Mine The Board Game, but since then has been taking the industry by storm with consistently successful releases. The Edge: Dawnfall came out a couple years back, followed by Lords of Hellas and Nemesis, which began arriving at doorsteps earlier this year. Now, Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is being delivered and after playing through the campaign I can say that backers are in for a real treat.

For the most part, the contents in the Tainted Grail box are really great. The three menhir figures are all different sculpts loaded with hidden details to admire. Each one is in a varying state of ruin that can be appreciated during your game as you watch them slowly burn out. Unfortunately, the character miniatures are not as detailed. Granted, it’s difficult to include as much detail on such a smaller scale miniature, but seeing the characters side by side to the menhir, I do wish there was as much detail in them as there was in the Nemesis characters.

But that said, the artwork as a whole is excellent. The illustrations on the combat and diplomacy cards are whispy watercolor-esque paintings. Each one accurately captures the actions described on the action card with a flair that brings the characters to life a bit more. Each deck of cards and their artwork are designed with a focus on who the characters are.

Ailei tends to be a more empathetic character than some of the others, so her diplomacy cards tend to feature additional people that she’s engaging with in a positive way. Beor on the other hand, tends to be more of a brute and even his diplomacy cards tend to be more violent like Brutal Threat, Show Supremacy, and Intimidating Pose.

My greatest complaint about the game components are the dials. While I love the design, they can be very difficult to read and as they serve multiple functions (menhir activation times and quest dials), it can be very frustrating when trying to read the dial. Awaken Realms offers metal coin upgrades that are easier to read, but it almost feels like a necessity. I’ve personally been experimenting with ways of painting the coins to make them more legible. As they are such a core gameplay component, I was disappointed to find that this wasn’t corrected before manufacturing.

The premise of Tainted Grail is what initially grabbed my attention. You and up to three other players control the “B-team” setting after King Arthur and his knights when they disappeared into the darkness they set out to fight against. This darkness, referred to as the “Wyrdness” is quickly closing in on the lands of Avalon and diminishing the power of the guardian menhir statues. Without the light of the menhir, nothing stands to keep the Wyrdness at bay and Avalon will fall. It’s up to our four outcast heroes, Ailei, Arev, Beor, and Maggot to save the land.

However, each of our wannabe heroes suffer from significant inflictions that hold them back. Beor for example, has an old wound that won’t heal. He received it from a mysterious creature that crawled out of the Wyrdness and latched itself onto him. In wrestling himself free, Beor caused an incurable wound in his side that causes him great pain and weakens him when he becomes too exhausted to resist its effects.

Ailei, Maggot, and Arev are no different and each of them has a significant condition that holds them back. Whether it’s mental trauma, addiction, or a supernatural curse, all of the playable characters have permanent conditions that will force players to creatively adapt their survival strategies as they explore the world of Avalon.

The first time you open the box, it’s highly recommended that players begin with the tutorial that was put together by Awaken Realms. The tutorial section acts as a character introduction for Beor and walks players through all of the basics of exploration, combat and diplomacy encounters, character development, and structure of in-game days. In the tutorial, players explore the starting area of Cuanacht and are lead through a special tutorial section of the Book of Exploration that introduces players to the area without spoiling any of the secrets they would uncover during the campaign. It’s a strong entry into the game that allows players to learn as they jump right into the action and all of the cards required for the tutorial are shrink wrapped together.

The challenge comes into play when the tutorial is over and it’s time to begin a campaign. As the tutorial packaged all of the starting decks together for Beor, there’s not a lot of opportunity for players to learn how to identify which fifteen of the eighty character cards are the starting set until players are ready to get going. It’s easy enough to sort out, but I think it would have been nicer to have seen a more complete character deck breakdown as part of the tutorial.

Otherwise, setup is a breeze. Each chapter of the campaign has its own setup card that informs players how to construct the event deck, encounter decks, and starting locations. I’ve found the instructions to be concise and easy to understand which makes setup for each chapter quite painless.

The full setup requires players to set up the location card their characters are currently located on, a menhir on that location, and the appropriate location orthogonally adjacent to the menhir statue. Players will grab the character board for their respective characters and setup their decks by placing their combat cards to the left of their board and diplomacy cards to the right of it. To finish character setup, players will place cubes onto their character board to represent their character stats and resources based on either their starting status or last play session. Lastly, the secret, item, encounter, and event decks are placed on the table.

When playing Tainted Grail, every action costs a certain amount of energy. Players can take as many actions as they want per in-game day, so long as they have energy left. However, if at the end of the day a character has one or no energy left, they are considered exhausted and may suffer (like Beor) negative effects. Actions that players can take every turn are traveling one space to a new location, a location specific action such as interacting with merchants or activating a menhir, or exploring a location in greater detail.

Each time a location is explored, players will be guided back to the Book of Exploration where each section of the book is divided by location card number. Flavor text provides background on what can be found in each location before players are offered a choice of how they want to interact with the environment. Each option presents players with ways to deepen the exploration experience of the world around them.

Depending on the skill attributes that players have available to them either based on the base level attributes or upgrades stats later on in the game. Each exploration action will give players the opportunity to interact with the area in a way that’s unique to each character. For example, there’s an area early on that is only accessible to Beor thanks to his base strength stats allowing him to break down a wall that no other character could handle yet. Perhaps later on in the game Maggot or Ailei could be developed in a manner that would make them strong enough, but in the early game, this particular interaction would be impossible. But likewise, there are other ways that Maggot, Arev, or Ailei could discover the very same secrets by using different natural means.

What I love most about Tainted Grail is the combat and diplomacy card system. Each character starts with a deck of fifteen combat cards and fifteen diplomacy cards that will help them deal with the random encounters that wander the world.

There are two types of encounters, each with their own deck: combat and diplomacy. Both decks can be added upon throughout the campaign by spending experience points to pull from more advanced techniques. Combat encounters are about fighting off creatures of the wyrdness or highwaymen that might impede you journey by attacking them and generating a markers in the combat pool until the total markers reach their health value. Meanwhile, diplomacy encounters are a negotiation tug-of-war that will move a single marker back and forth along a tracker until either the game’s AI or player reaches one of the far ends of the track. In either case, Tainted Grail‘s encounter system is a unique one that never dulls.

At first glance, there’s a lot going on with the above, but it’s actually quite simple in function while providing deep deck-building strategy. Each card has some familiar anatomy like the action title, illustration, and effect description. What’s unique to Tainted Grail is how the icons on the left side of the card function.

Each combat and diplomacy card have two columns of symbols on them that match up with one another. The left column represents what is awarded when the correct conditions are met and column immediately to the right outlines the required criteria using the same iconology on each character board. During encounters, each player draws three cards from the top of the respective encounter deck and will play one of the three cards from their hands per round.

However, depending on the how players lay their cards, they can play more than one card per round. The above image is the same hand of three previously pictured but aligned to see how they would interact with one another. The from the top down, on the left-most card the relevant icons can be found in the right hand column. The first icon is a boar, representing the Courage attribute. If the character playing the card has any courage stats, they unlock whatever bonuses they play on the next card. In this particular instance, a symbol with a bronze card and lighting bolt line up with the boar, allowing the player to play another card from their hand of three.

The next icon is the head of a snake, representing Spirituality. But as there aren’t any other icons that have been aligned next to that attribute, it would not award the player anything.

Below that is a blue infinity symbol that represents the character’s acquired magic. Should the active character have any magic in their pool, they may choose to spend one to gain the bonus attached to this class of key. In this instance, it would be adding a marker to the combat pool getting the player closer to defeating the combat encounter.

Last, and arguably the most valuable, is the gold free key at the bottom of the card. Any bonus attached to this key is granted for free and multiplied by the value indicated in the key itself. In this example, the 2x key is aligned with the extra card draw icon, allowing the player to draw two additional cards to their hand that they can play into this chain.

The catch is that no matter how clever you are in stringing together a series of cards, only the last card in the sequence will have its primary card effect go into play, and not all of them are helpful. As Final Blow is the last card in our example sequence, only its card ability will trigger and it has the possibility of undoing all of our hard work.

Each new card played against an encounter can string together keys and bonuses in an exciting way that gives players several different approaches to ponder with each new encounter. Chaining cards together in a manner like this can sometimes leave players feeling a little over-powered when they manage to put together a strong combination. It’s worth noting that this is not at all an easy task to manage as player’s are only allowed to have three cards in their hand at the start of each encounter round. But three is the perfect amount. It’s just enough to provide a variety of options at the top of each round and just few enough to prevent player’s from endlessly chaining cards together.

Better yet is the ability to change your deck out at the end of each day. As players advance their characters’ decks by adding new advanced cards, we enter the realm of the deck building strategy where adding new cards only reduces your chances of drawing your best. Each day cycle ends with the chance for players to adjust their deck by adding or removing their earned cards giving them the chance to play the odds and adjust their deck based on the chapter of the game and region they are in.

Regardless of who you have in your party, there is always a way to progress through The Fall of Avalon campaign. Each chapter has multiple ways of achieving the primary objective, giving each of the four characters a way to approach the solution. Somewhat touched upon earlier in talking about interacting with character base stats and later improvements, the way that Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon‘s campaign is designed. No matter who you choose to play as, there is a discoverable path through the chapter somewhere on the map. Players will just need to find those key locations by exploring using whatever clues they are able to decipher. But Tainted Grail is so tightly designed that players will never encounter game-breaking dead ends. While in most games that would be considered a low bar, Tainted Grail has so much branching content and so many different routes through the story, it would not have been difficult for the game designers to have dropped a thread or two. However, it’s a much cleaner experience than I would have expected from a game of this size.

While Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is a decent sized game, it’s actually only a third of the game content that backers will be able to experience. A second wave of content estimated to arrive in May of 2020 will deliver two additional campaigns: Age of Legends and The Last Knight which are prequel and sequel campaigns. For the completionists, there is also the optional The Red Death campaign that will arriving as part of wave two which is designed for those who want a more difficult game. We will be providing additional reviews of these campaigns as the content becomes available.

Overall, Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is a wonderful game experience that should be played to completion at least twice. While the deck building component may not be for everyone, I would challenge anyone reading this to not enjoy Tainted Grail‘s exploration and story. It’s just not possible.

Player Count 

1 to 4 players.

Play Time

90 – 120 minutes per chapter.

Core Mechanics 

Deck building
Exploration
Storytelling
Wyrd shit

Accessibility 

Tainted Grail is an easy game to learn once the core concepts behind deck building and turn sequence are mastered. It works best if one person takes the time to learn the rules in advance and teaches the others in their group over the course of the first chapter in an “as-situations arrive” approach.

Artwork/Components 

I quite like the style of illustrations and the incredible miniature sculpts in the core game. But the Menhir dials are used far too frequently to be as difficult to read as they are.

Replay Value 

There is a ton of content in the Fall of Avalon campaign. With fifteen chapters of content and a changing world, there is a lot to discover in the first campaign. You could definitely get a second full campaign playthrough out of Fall of Avalon without feeling tiresome. The character variety also adds to the replay experience quite nicely.


As a side note: please enjoy Awaken Realm’s fantastic siren design that was included as a Kickstarter stretch goal. It’s too good not to share.

 

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