One thing that’s missing when playing solo is the ability to talk about the game with fellow participants. To discuss a great move, game winning strategy, or how you just blew everyone’s chance of winning with some risky die rolls.
Quite often I come across things that would be worthy of an in-depth post of their own, such as game endings, or randomness and luck, but more often than not it’s little things, things that make me smile, make me think for a second, or send me of on a whole new train of thought. Occasionally, it would just be nice to chat about these things and talk about the game itself.
So, that’s what I’m going to do!
It’s been well over a year since I last played Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon. It isn’t the kind of game that I would play repeatedly in quick succession. It follows an excellent, immersive, storyline, which has several divergent pathways through to the climax, and the characters that you choose also have an effect on the places you visit. Recent familiarity with the plot lines, for me, spoils the experience – games like this are at their best when you’re entering the unknown for the first time (or at least when you’ve forgotten most of what happens!).
The last time I played, I only got about halfway through; it was becoming a bit of a grind. I played a single character, Beor I think, and at the start things progressed quite nicely. The story was immersive, dragging me into the world of Avalon, and combat and diplomacy was an interesting puzzle, which complemented the role-playing aspects of the game. But as time went by and progress was made, the game mechanisms started getting in the way of the adventure.
Let me explain: Menhirs, giant statue like things of great power, need to be activated in order to open locations for you to travel to. In story terms active Menhirs keep the Wyrdness at bay, which is reclaiming the lands of Avalon – as Menhirs fall and crumble the world decays. To activate these, you need a number of resources, different for each Menhir, usually in the form of Energy, Health, Wealth, Food, Magic, and other, less obvious secrets! These are also scaled to the number of players – the more players, the greater the number of resources needed. The Menhir’s activation only lasts a number of turns, so you have to keep reactivating them to keep locations available that you currently want to visit.
As I advanced, I found the balance swing from advancing the story to spending more time collecting resources. Need food, back to this location where I know I can get it; then back to that location to stock up on wealth or magic. Over to the Menhir to activate it, opening the surrounding locations. But I’m only passing through, so now I need to activate the next one – move to this location for more magic, back to that for food, reactivate that Menhir over there before it runs dark, and then try and activate this one so I can move on…. you get the picture.
And, as much as I’d initially enjoyed it, in the end I got tired of doing the same thing over and over without the payback of advancing the story. At the time I guessed things would be better if I played more characters, but at that point I knew much of the initial storyline and didn’t want to repeat it so soon.
Now, though, it’s back on the table!
I did a little research before I started, looking through the BGG forums for soloing it. The consensus appeared to be that, yes, two characters are better than one – it reveals more story for you to experience and you can get things done quicker, especially if you play using the story mode rules. These rules resolve scaling events, such as the requirements to activate a Menhir, as if you had one less player in your party.
So, I picked my characters, Ailea and Arev, gathered their decks together, threw in the Donkey expansion as well and Echoes of the Past, and once more ventured into the world of Avalon.
Wow, what a difference!
Initial progression has been much smoother and quicker, as I’m no longer scrounging around for resources – I’m only using the story mode rules for the activation of the Menhirs and keeping all other scalable events as they should be. I can now concentrate more on the story and the development of my characters.
One thing I’ve noticed with playing two characters is the scaling of the encounters, they ramp up in difficulty quite quickly compared to when I last played. This encourages keeping the party together when you know an encounter is going to occur, such as when taking some of the location actions or entering an unfriendly settlement.
I’ve been playing for around four hours now – roughly an hour an evening – and leaving the game set up has been a massive bonus. There’s still a long way to go and hopefully I’ll make it to the conclusion this time, because I’m itching to play the expansions!
The above experience highlights a few things. For starters it shows how differently a game can play depending on player count. Despite the attempts at scaling that are incorporated into the game’s mechanisms, things are easier with more players, or more accurately, things are more difficult playing with just one.
This is often the case, as many hands make light work and scaling a game between multiple players is easier than scaling to just one. Many games of this ilk are billed as co-operative and usually if you wish to play solo you use at least two characters. This is an area worthy of more research and something I’ll make a note of to investigate at a later date.
The other interesting thing was the change to story mode. Though I only reduced the Menhir activation costs it did make quite a difference. For me, the game’s heart is its story telling with combat and diplomacy feeling a little like mini-games. As soon as the concentration shifted away from that and onto how to keep a constant supply of resources coming in, my interest in the game wavered. The story mode does exactly what it says, allows the story to shine and for me it’s the best way to experience this game, as the immersive story is brilliant. It’s well written, the plot is divergent depending upon what you do, and it twists and turns to keep you on your toes.
It does make trying to write a review difficult, though. Take balance and scaling. Normally I’d play a game several times at each player count and at varying difficulties. That isn’t going to happen here, no way. So, I may never know if Maggot’s character is better at diplomacy than the rest, or if there’s a glitch in the storyline when playing with Beor.
Replayability is another sticking point. For me it is enough to play once a year, maybe less, and still say that the game is worth buying, but how many people would share that view? I know some who have played it to death, explored every character and their story, followed every plot twist, and reached several different conclusions – well done them, I certainly couldn’t do it, not with this game. If combat and diplomacy were more akin to Gloomhaven, though, that would be something. Tainted Grail’s storytelling and Gloomhaven’s tactical combat, meshed into gaming bliss!
For now, though, one important thing to take away from this is that it’s always worth giving a game a second chance. Experiment with the game’s options, such as how many characters to play with or what mode/difficulty to play at. You may be surprised at what you discover, and it would be a shame to cast something aside without giving it a fair roll of the die.