Tainted Grail! The characters! The minis! The story! Oh, the story! It’s amazing! It’s fantastic! It’s a game that drove me absolutely nuts.
Disclaimer: This isn’t a review. I can’t write a review of Tainted Grail because, after playing some 45 hours of two-handed solo, and restarting four times, I never made it past chapter 4 of the original campaign. Not once.
No, this is letter of grievances.
But before I begin, I have to tell you about a little game called This War of Mine: the Boardgame. It’s a survival game, like Tainted Grail. It’s dark, like Tainted Grail. It’s made by Awaken Realms, like Tainted Grail. But unlike Tainted Grail, I absolutely, absolutely love it.
Even 200 hours of gameplay later, I still absolutely love This War of Mine. It was the reason I backed Tainted Grail, and Etherfields after that, and Vanguard after that. I mean, a company that can create a game with such a great blend of story and survival, action and planning, has to be on to something, right?
Maybe not. Because after my 45 + 200 hours of gameplay, I’ve come to a conclusion. In This War of Mine, you play the game. In Tainted Grail, the game plays you.
I admit that this isn’t entirely fair. Yes, I had a hard time with Tainted Grail right from the start. I’m a roleplayer of old, a CRPG fan from the Baldur’s Gate days. I played Fallout before it was cool, and Planescape no matter what the reviews said. I loved them.
That’s one problem. I expected Tainted Grail to be a mixture of Baldur’s Gate and This War of Mine.
It isn’t. Tainted Grail is a beast of its own, a survival game, that a BoardGameGeek member so eloquently pointed out. You aren’t supposed to win. You aren’t supposed to fight. You’re supposed to run away.
Just like in This War of Mine. Except that in War, you can control what will happen to some extent. You can look at the pile of cards remaining, know whether you have a Hiding Space available, see the level of the noise tracker and know your odds. Even if it ultimately is down to luck, it up to you to roll the die.
In Grail, you draw a card. One. That’s it. Oh, its a monster you can’t do anything about. Run! Run away! BTW, it was a Guardian, so now you’re stuck with it.
I got further after I figured out that you aren’t a hero. Yes, it is in the game description. Doom! Gloom! Death and destruction! Wail, widow, wail, shed your tears over the unfathered child!
But that’s the blurb of pretty much every story-based board game, including Mice and Mystics. How should I have known that for Grail, it was the actual game?
Anyhow, I got further the next time, after reading the tips on survival and restarting. I still loved the characters, found their backstories from the memory book fascinating, loved the ability to explore the world.
Except, oops, you can’t go that way. Not because you don’t have the resources, or because you must be somewhere else, but because the game tells you so.
Which is the downside of a semi-scripted semi-sandbox board game. It can’t allow you to go everywhere, because some parts have to come later than others, and even with the 100+ status markers, quests, and tasks, it still can’t use as much information about the game state as even a basic computer game can.
Which leads me to the second problem: you go, you collect, you run, and you explore. And somewhere along the line, you come to a decision. Choose A or B. Help part X or part Y.
It’s storytelling! Choose your own adventure! Freedom! Yay!
Except you don’t have enough information to know what it will entail. In some cases, it means the end of a chapter, meaning that everything just got more difficult without you being prepared for it. In other cases, it means locking other options, sometimes without you even knowing that they exist, or that they should be there.
Yes, you’re supposed to explore. Go to every card, run through every option. Except that for most options, there’s not enough information to make a decision. You choose the option. Things happen, usually bad things. You try to be a hero, because that’s what you’re supposed to do – save the little, picaresque hamlet of Cuanacht. (Cunnakt? Cjanaht? Gutes Nacht?) And you fail. Because the game hurts you when you try to do the good thing.
In all my playthroughs, I had stacks of reputation, the “good guy” resource. Piles of it. 15+ in chapter 3. Everything else was sadly lacking.
Survival game, right.
But survival means knowing at least some of the odds. In War, you get to choose who remains on guard, protecting your safe house. Do you give them the single knife you have, or leave them to fight with their bare hands? Maybe there won’t be any robbers. Maybe you’ll die if you don’t leave the knife. Choose wisely, padawan.
In Grail, the game chooses for you. Oh, you met the powerful sorceress. Here, let’s warn you in a out-of-game-hint-type-thing, you should consider changing allegiances. Why? We won’t tell you. What’s so bad about the sorceress? We won’t tell you that either (I’m still not sure, I gave up before finding out.) Choose wisely, numbskull.
That pissed me off. I can live with a game that can’t be played the way I’d like it to play. I can live with a grind, and re-lightning the endless magic candles, and getting beat up.
The sad part is that this is so easy to fix, a simple technique known to anyone who’ve ever read a thriller or watched a horror film. Foreshadowing! Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, foreshadowing! Nobody cares about the guy in the rubber monster suit, it’s the bloody palm print on the wall that raises the tension!
(With an apology to all fans of kaiju out there. The guy in the rubber suit is cool. There, I’ve said it.)
Want to make me feel like I’m actually making a choice? Foreshadow it! Because right now, the choices aren’t there.
Oh, sure, I get to choose which side in the grand, big war to support, but what does it matter? They’re all the same. What happens after I support them? Nobody knows. Will there be one outcome if I support the rage-crazy widow and another if I support the scared drunkard? No way to tell.
No information + no predictability = no choice.
You need to foreshadow what will come, what will happen. It doesn’t take much. You already have a 100+ page storybook. Add a few more pages to it. That will give you the space to turn things like:
“You approach the soldiers. They look wary. ‘What do you want, stranger?’ they say.”
“You approach the soldiers. ‘I heard that lady X killed her lover,’ one says. ‘Used him in a magic potion.’ ‘Hush,’ says his companion. ‘You never know who reports to her. What do you want, stranger?'”
There you have it. Foreshadowing (not to mention some glorious script writing, hey Awaken Realms, job offer, yes?). Have it, and you can do wonders for the tension, the sense of wonder, the dread, and the player’s ability to feel in control.
Take that away, and it’s a one-way trip to the recycling for you. I only hope that Etherfields and Vanguard won’t be complete wastes of my money.
And if anyone wants to buy a copy of Tainted Grail, barely used, feel free to contact me.