Hit and myth
The myth of King Arthur is a story so often told, retold and reinterpreted, that you’ll be forgiven for thinking there’s little left to do with it. Even on the tabletop it feels potentially hoary, after the likes of Pendragon, Avalon and Shadows Over Camelot. But, having remixed Alien for Nemesis and given Greek myth a sci-fi spin with Lords of Hellas, Awaken Realm now takes Arthurian Legend, brews it up with Celtic mythology and gives it an almost post-apocalyptic twist to deliver an incredible narrative-driven campaign game.
It is set in Avalon, an ancient, magical land colonised by Arthur’s people generations earlier. But something’s gone horribly wrong. A dark, corrupting force known as the Wyrdness is encroaching. Once this was kept at bay by towering arcane statues called menhirs, but their power is now fading.
All this is beautifully and atmospherically depicted in a vividly written, branching-narrative journal, which makes for a superb virtual Dungeon Master, despite all the page flicking required. Just as compelling are Awaken Realm’s typically well-wrought miniatures and impressively detailed Tarot-sized location cards, which are placed as your characters explore this wretched, ailing realm. In order to make the lands passable, menhirs must be revived at the cost of precious resources (food, wealth, magic and energy), but even then they only provide temporary access to adjacent territories. So as well as contending with all the nasty encounters thrown your way, you must always be mindful of your menhir maintenance.
Not that your characters feel particularly qualified for such a tricky task – at least initially. Whether a hallucinogen-addled druid or a cursed mercenary-turned-farmer, they are all flawed and of questionable hero material. In fact, all your village’s true heroes left weeks earlier to try and solve the problem of its failing menhir, and now it’s down to you, either as a lone wanderer (the game is a dream to play solo), or a not-so-crack team, to find out what happened to them.
The story unfolds smoothly and organically, requiring some suitably tough choices which leave you certain that, on a replay, you’ll be able to take very a different path with different world-affecting outcomes. The game also benefits from an ingeniously innovative encounter system, whereby cards (combat or diplomacy, depending on whether you’re battling or gabbing) are laid down to form a chain in such a way that you connect ‘keys’, each representing a relevant stat (Aggression, Empathy, Practicality, Caution and so on), to have an effect.
However, it is very difficult – often brutally so, to the point where at times it feels disproportionately harsh. The 15 Chapter narrative is so involving and epic, you don’t want to have to keep restarting as the result of a few bad hands. There is also no quarter given between quests, no chance to recuperate before you move on; if you gave it your all in one chapter, you’ll be stuffed for the next. The rulebook does grudgingly allow a character-resurrecting easy-mode variant, but even this inflicts horrible, progress-impeding penalties.
It can become frustrating, but is forgivable at least for being appropriate to the theme and setting. This is, after all, a tale of desperate survival in a dying world – Arthurian Legend gone horribly sour, in the most novel and entertaining way.
PLAY IT? MUST-PLAY
Despite being savagely difficult at times, Tainted Grail is a triumph. The sleek combo of its deep, branching narrative and its nifty card-chaining combat system make it a compulsive and ultimately rewarding experience.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED… THE 7TH CONTINENT
The way Tainted Grail so slickly handles exploration and uses cards to resolve challenges suggests The 7th Continent was a big influence. It is also as blissfully quick to set up, put away, and save progress.
Designers: Krzysztof Piskorski, Marcin Swierkot
Artists: Piotr Foksowicz, Ewa Labak, Piotr Gacek
Time: 1-2 hours
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
4 Player boards
160 Combat cards
160 Diplomacy cards
120 Encounter cards
60 Item cards
100 Event cards
40 Secret cards
36 Universal ability cards
64 Location cards
8 Help cards
4 Hero miniatures
3 Menhir miniatures
1 Foredweller miniature
1 Open & Play Guide
1 Exploration Journal
4 Intro letters
4 Paper Adventure maps
1 Save Sheet pad
80 Universal marker cubes
8 Time markers
6 Quest markers
4 Health trackers
1 Guardian die
1 Standard die
This review originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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