In the land of Avalon, the greatest champions of the realm have banded together in a last ditch effort to keep the dark magic from consuming the land. The Menhirs, monoliths erected by the ancestors to serve as warding devices, have begun failing, permitting the Wyrdness to take hold. Now the champions have gone missing, the danger grows graver, and you’re our last hope—a sad, flawed benchwarmer of a hero. Gods help us all.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon from publisher Awaken Realms is a story-driven co-operative game of exploration and combat for 1-4 players. Players take the role of one of the four (actually 5) characters in the base game. These characters are all anti-heroes, flawed in their own way, yet the burden falls to them to save the world from impending doom. The first campaign (the base box) is played over the course of 15 chapters and is full of side-quests, multiple arcs, and story branches—making each play of the campaign different.
Regarding The Story (Spoiler Free)
The story of Tainted Grail was written by the famous Polish science fiction and fantasy author Krzysztof Piskorski. Although Piskorski has never published a novel for an English speaking audience, he has written content for the English tabletop gaming market before. In fact, you can find his work in another Awaken Realms title, The Edge: Dawnfall, for which he wrote the campaign’s story.
I haven’t played the campaign for The Edge: Dawnfall, and I’m unable to read the books Piskorski has authored, but I have read my fair share of fantasy novels and I can say this—the story of Tainted Grail is so rich and evocative that it’s evident that a masterful novelist is behind it. I’ve never felt so immersed in a game’s story before as I do with Tainted Grail. A session of the game is very much like curling up with a good book, but with the agency of a strategy game. Your decisions matter. There are choices to made every step of the way. The game’s narrative ebbs and flows with those decisions, taking you along different paths and providing a unique story and gaming experience each and every play.
The story of Tainted Grail is what I always wanted from Gloomhaven. Don’t get me wrong, Gloomhaven is a fantastic game and there’s a reason it’s ranked the #1 game on BoardGameGeek. Gloomhaven perfectly captures the combat-oriented dungeon crawl aspect of tabletop RPGs (not what Tainted Grail is trying to achieve), and does so with excellent mechanics. But I never felt satiated by its depth of story. Tainted Grail achieves this without compromising anything mechanically. For me, it’s the more desirable campaign game.
Exploration is at the heart of Tainted Grail. As one of two primary mechanics in the game, it’s tightly interwoven with the narrative. Through out the game, players are given quests they must fulfill in order to progress the game. And in order to complete these objectives, players are going to wander all over Avalon. Previously uncovered information and a century old map help inform decisions.
As players move into new areas, a new card is placed adjacent to the current location card, but only if an active guardian Menhir is nearby! Unfortunately for you, their magic is slowly dying. They’re few and far between, and as old ones begin to fade, you must activate new ones to keep the adventure going.
Each location card is numbered, and adjacent locations are also numbered. These numbers indicate which specific location cards will be placed beside existing ones. When you visit a location card, you may take an explore action and uncover the corresponding story from the Exploration Journal.
Once you’re in the Exploration Journal, there will be many options and the story may branch in various ways. What happens depends on your previous choices, the statuses you’ve unlocked, which characters you are playing, the secrets you’ve unveiled, your character attributes, and your in-the-moment personal decisions. It’s fantastic and feels like true exploration, rather than a story on rails (which in someways it is).
If the the location cards sound familiar, there’s a good reason. It’s reminiscent of another popular Kickstarter game, The 7th Continent. In fact, it’s almost a direct copy of the mechanic, but with some key differences that in my opinion greatly improve upon it. The combining of the Exploration Journal ensures a much richer experience, strongly intertwining both narrative and exploration. The 7th Continent feels at time like a cleverly disguised push your luck game. And although Tainted Grail isn’t entirely devoid of luck, the presence of such a deep story provides better guidance for progression within the game. It’s something I didn’t feel until many plays into The 7th Continent, advancing primarily due to trial-and-error. The story coupled with combat and other, more sophisticated mechanics and systems of luck mitigation, make Tainted Grail the superior exploration game.
Combat and Diplomacy
The combat system in Tainted Grail is rather clever. It combines min-maxing of character’s attributes over the course of the game, deck building, and a unique system of card play.
So, how does it work? When encountering an enemy, players play cards and try and do enough damage to deplete that enemy’s health. Two to three cards (depending on player count) are drawn from their combat deck, and players try to align symbols on these cards to previously played ones. Many of these symbols will correspond to character attributes. For instance, if the symbol on the left card shows two courage icons, and my character has a courage attribute of at least two, then I am able to take the action of the aligned symbol of the card I’ve played to the right of it. Each card will also have text printed on it, granting additional effects or even imposing negative conditions.
Diplomacy works in a very similar manner to combat. Some encounters will trigger diplomacy rather than a battle of combat. When this happens, players draw from their diplomacy deck instead of their combat deck. To win the diplomatic encounter, players engage in a tug of war. Instead of doing damage, the cards played will move a marker on the encounter card up or down on a status indicator. The marker must reach the top of the status indicator in order to succeed and the player to win the encounter.
The deck construction aspect of the game is a lot of fun. You must always have at least fifteen cards in both your combat and diplomacy decks, with your character starting out with his own unique starter cards. As you progress in the game, you’ll have an opportunity to purchase new cards and use them to tweak your decks to your liking. Cards may be removed and added as you please, as long as you meet the card count minimum.
Combat was one of the most pleasant surprises in Tainted Grail. I had expected a rich story with a mediocre combat mechanic, but that isn’t the case. Combat is exceptional.
If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about how this all works, I did a video overview in my Instagram stories, and my friend Mike created a pictorial overview of both combat and diplomacy on his blog.
Artwork, Graphic Design, and Components
Awaken Realms was originally a miniatures painting shop. As you’d expect from a publisher with this origin, special attention paid to art and graphic design. Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is no exception.
The miniatures feature fine, exquisite details. They’re well-posed and overall look fantastic. I received a copy of the game with Sundrop miniatures, a version in which Awaken Realms pre-applies accent paint. As someone who doesn’t personally paint miniatures, I really appreciate how it enhances the look and feel of the game, without forcing me do any of the work.
The rest of the game is also beautiful. Cards all feature unique, beautiful artwork that is worthy of the hardcover art book that was made available during the game’s (very successful) Kickstarter campaign.
The other game components are high quality as well. For instance, I love the dual-layer player boards. They add a lot of function, and help keep your characters stats and attributes well-organized during gameplay.
Set-Up, Tear Down, and Saving
Something that massive campaign games like Gloomhaven tend to suffer from, is having so many components that organization, set-up, and tear down become cumbersome and fiddliness runs rampant.
If that’s something that concerns you, then I have some good news about Tainted Grail. Set-up and tear down both take under 10 minutes, and the box more than adequately organizes everything.
One of the things that I most love about the box, is that the insert has a very intuitive save system built-in. Various compartments are marked with a floppy disk icon, indicating that they are used to house saved cards. And although the save system still requires you use dividers within those compartments, simply being able to separate active campaign cards from everything else in the box does a lot to make pausing the game easy, painless, and eliminates many sources of confusion that may lead to errors.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is an ambitious project from Awaken Realms that has managed to deliver on its lofty goals. The game exceeds my already high expectations. It’s both strategic and immersive. The writing is fantastic and the combat is rich.
There are only so many hours in the day, and as such, most of us cannot devote our time to playing every epic campaign game released on Kickstarter. Forced to have to choose between Gloomhaven, The 7th Continent, or Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon—I choose Tainted Grail. It fires on all cylinders for me, and I enjoy playing it both solo or with a group from week to week.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is a strong contender for my board game of the year. I highly recommend it.
Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon receives a rating of 5/5.
Paul Shapiro is Founder and Editor of Board Game Squad. He enjoys all types of games and experiences, but has a particular penchant for medium to heavy eurogames.