A grail game is that game you must have, and possibly experience some difficulty getting (because it’s out of print, or a foreign import, or expensive).
For you, it takes on mythic proportions, such that you both desire and fear to finally acquire it and get it to the table, hoping it lives up to your expectations.
What criteria should you use when exploring a grail game to elevate your chances of picking something you’ll love? Let’s find out.
The Grail Analogy
Art vs. Gameplay
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy chooses a plain cup after another character has chosen an opulent one. The opulent cup proves rather fatal, while the plain one is the wiser choice.
Similarly, in gaming, there is often a lot of “chrome” that one could go for in games; it has become something of a symbol for quality. Many reviewers have opined that it is no longer necessary to accept a less than beautiful game, appearance-wise. And I agree. There are plenty of gorgeous games out there.
Yet, not all of them play equally well; just as there is no reason to settle for mediocre art, there is even less reason to settle for lackluster game play. It’s not the beauty of the grail that has power, but the contents: drinking from it confers the benefit.
A beautiful game that is a mechanical nightmare is not worthy to be your grail.
Indy had to reason what sort of cup a carpenter-turned-religious-teacher would’ve used. He was attuned to the general setting, economic background (and so on) that such a historical character came from, and made his choice accordingly.
You must likewise be conscious of theme and setting when selecting a grail game. If you don’t enjoy sci-fi, for example, there is no reason to suppose that a game with a sci-fi setting will be that perfect union of theme, art, and mechanics that will live on as a gem in your collection. Such a game may be highly regarded by others, but use caution: it may not click for you.
Talk with someone who has played the game you’re after. Or, even better, see if you can demo it at a convention, board game cafe, or game store. This last bit of perspective can yield invaluable insight into whether or not you’ll want something.
To wit: I was looking into buying A Feast for Odin. All the reviews I’d heard were excellent. I enjoyed the theme of the viking era, and I’d heard there were many viable and interesting strategic options available.
As such, I reasoned that the game would be a shoo-in for me, despite the hefty price tag. Some niggling doubt would not be silenced, so I went ahead an signed up for a demo at a game store.
Having invested five dollars to reserve my spot, I set out to settle my feelings on the game, once and for all. As the game wore on, I found out that all I had heard was quite true, and that there was so much to explore.
And then, the game overran the hour time slot by thirty, then forty minutes, and we had to call the game so the next group could use the space.
Ultimately, I decided that the game wasn’t for me, despite the fact that I enjoyed trying it. The setup was intimidating, and the options were enough to feed my analysis paralysis because I feared I wasn’t making an optimal move.
On some level, despite recognizing the quality of the experience on offer, I did not feel compelled to add it to my collection.
The End of the Quest
Let’s assume you’ve been able to do at least some of my suggestions above, and you’ve decided to pursue some hard-to-get game, after all. Or, maybe you’ve decided this whole business of a grail game is a bit contrived, really.
Either way, my suggestion is: if you see a game that you really want, after some of research to make sure it’s not a complete clunker, then go for it. Too much fretting and analysis will suck the joy out of the experience.
Setting a game on a pedestal and idealizing it too much before experiencing it will probably result in disappointment, as nothing can live up to what we dream in our head.
For this reason, by way of example, I try not to think much about how great the new Star Wars, Marvel, or other movie could be. Once I’ve made up my mind that I’m interested, that’s enough for me. I want to let it exist on its own terms, and often find myself happier for that.
Lastly, once you’ve found a grail game, maybe don’t run off straightaway looking for a crystal skull or some other such nonsense.
You’ve hardly spent time with the current game. Unless your goal is a museum of un-played, yet reportedly excellent, games, I think you should clear your play schedule and make time for your new acquisition.
And that’s all. Have a tale of tracking down your grail game? Did it live up to your expectations? Let me know in the comments!