The Grails

Grail games – the rarest of the rare, the priciest of the pricey, the most elusive of the elusive.  Gamers everywhere set their sights high when they embark on quests to find their personal holy grails of board gaming.  It’s often a daunting challenge and a difficult journey, but it’s all worth it when you finally taste success and clutch your precious to your chest.  Or is it?  Grail games can disappoint and disappoint big precisely because of the towering expectations.  Sometimes a game might be out of print and in short supply for a good reason.  Other times you’re thwarted by an untimely reprint announcement mere moments after you reach the summit of your quest.  But perhaps the rare instances of the hunt paying off make it all worth it with the unparalleled highs that a true grail conquest can deliver.

This is a journey that many have embarked on before.  There are countless chronicles of grail hunters gone by.  There is Ian Allen’s “Holy Grail Games I own and Holy Grail Games I desire!” including the likes of Capes & Cowls, Wiz-War, Magic Realm, Full Metal Planete, Dune, Fireball Island, and fourteen others.  Ian has tasted greatness and is not satisfied; he’s ready to head back out into the woods.  Or there is Jeremy Tye’s “Finally got my ‘Grail’ game, when did you gets yours, and what was it?” including the likes of Crokinole, Queen’s Gambit, Up Front, Paradice, Antiquity, Dark Tower, We the People, and 68 others grails.  Jeremy shares his success story and now he wants to live vicariously through your success.  Then there is Walt Mulder’s “Holy Graals, ‘My Precioussss’ Top Ten list” featuring normal games but in their deluxe incarnation like War of the Ring Collector’s Edition and Catan 3D Collector’s Edition.

And many, many more, such as these tales of joy and sorrow:

I’ve had many a grail quest over the years and I’m here to report on the good, the bad, and the unfulfilled.  Some of these tales have happy endings, others end in ruin, and the end of others has yet to be written.  We’ll start with the original “big 7,” which are the seven inaugural members of my grail list and then move on to the more recent and lesser grails that were added (and subtracted) over time.  The original seven are: Big Boss, Hotel Life, McMulti, Jati, Botts and Balls, Black Vienna, and Full Metal Planete.  It was several years of hunting before I even laid eyes on a single one of these treasures.  At this point, many years later, I’ve tried five of the seven, with varying levels of disappointment and elation – from the Marianas Trench to Mount Everest and back again.

Big Bust

Wolfgang had not led me astray before.  He had proven reliable in El Grande, trustworthy in Princes of Florence, and masterful in Java.  So his rarest game must be his best, right?  Wrong.

I searched high and low for Big Boss for almost six years.  After only four years of searching, Kosmos released Alcazar, which is a reimplementation of Big Boss with a few changes.  Alcazar was horrendous, but my faith did not waiver.  I figured the real deal must be much better.  Last year I finally had my shot with Big Boss at a convention and while it was better than the pale imitation that is Alcazar, it is still much too Acquire-like for my tastes.  You wouldn’t think I would be surprised by the game that is frequently referred to as “Kramer’s Acquire” being like Acquire, but there you have it.  Despite my distaste for Sackson’s classic, I sought high and low for Big Boss, only for the hunt to end in obvious and inevitable disappointment.  The randomness of the card draw and the mergers, as well as the feeling of meaningful decisions being few and far between, left me feeling cold.  Even with my bubble burst though, my grail hunting ways persist.

Hotel Hostettler

It was just a few months ago that I reached the summit once more.  And this time it was an even higher peak than Big Boss.  This time it was the ever elusive, ever zany Hotel Life – Urs Hostettler’s 1989 game from Fata Morgana.

I was at a convention and grew green with envy when I spotted Hotel Life sitting inconspicuously on the prize table in the corner.  Through convoluted negotiations and machinations I was able to arrange for Hotel Life to go from the prize table into my suitcase and from there onto my game shelves.  (Actually I never really put it in my suitcase; I carried it the whole way home for safekeeping).  That’s a tale all its own for another article on another day.  Today though I’ll report on the joy of a grail that pans out.  I’ve played the game twice now, after wrestling with the translation issues that a German game with extensive text comes with, and it’s been fun both times.  I’m looking forward to a third play soon hopefully.  It’s really unlike any of the other 1,000+ games I’ve played, with its strange series of consequences that trigger when a guest in your hotel becomes activated or bothered by something.  The chain reactions of your hotel guests’ amusing behavior can be mind-boggling but as entertaining as they are unpredictable.


I believe my earliest grail success was with McMulti, which I actually had the opportunity to try about 3 years ago now.  I’d only been hunting the game for a measly few years at that point when the chance presented itself.  I remember jumping eagerly at the game, but sadly these years later remember less about the game play itself.  What sticks with me more is the emotion of finally getting to try something that I’d been seeking for some time and that I’d be unlikely to be able to play most anywhere else.  In fact, I learned on the infamous back-bended board of podcast notoriety from an early GeekSpeak episode.

Now with the reprint coming up hopefully many will get to try McMulti in its new incarnation as Crude: The Oil Game.  I recall the game having some interesting decisions about what and where to invest, although plenty of randomness in the die rolls and the events.  Come to think of it, hopefully I’ll be able to give this one another try now that it should be readily available later this year.

Jati for the Thrill of It

A grail game that I’m still hunting and hunting for no other reason than its rarity is Jati.  It’s a patently silly reason to search for a game.  Most of the others are on here because I hope and expect to like them.  I have no such illusions about Jati.  Why an obscure, abstract tile placement 3M game from 1965 would be appealing is beyond me.  But it’s expensive and rare beyond imagination so as a board game enthusiast and completist I feel as if I must try it for the sake of trying it.  That’s sick, I know.  But sometimes the hunt is the fun part, even more so than the game, which is absurd when the thing you’re hunting is a game, something designed to be fun.

Jati is one that has outlasted all the others and I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays on the list for decades.  I wonder if that would make the eventual conquest that much sweeter or that much more disappointing.  What other game though would have a detailed site cataloging all of its owners and how many copies each of them is stockpiling?

B & B

Ann Lesnik’s handmade Botts and Balls is the next one on the list.  I tried this one a few years back, around the same time that I tried McMulti, when I gamed with several folks in New York City that had collections full of interesting and rare titles (Stuff Yer Face, I’m looking at you).  Botts and Balls was impressive to behold, I remember that clearly all these years later.  It was also a solid design, much more so than just about any of these other old, rare games.

But in the end it wasn’t my cup of tea, which ultimately I was thankful for so as to avoid the inevitably arduous task of hunting down one of the few copies in existence.  It’s an extremely spatial game that requires the same sort of skills to anticipate how positional play on a board will unfold as Project GIPF games or Ricochet Robot.  I’m impressed by people who can handle and enjoy those sorts of mental gymnastics, but I don’t tend to enjoy that kind of experience, so Botts and Balls was more of a novelty experience for me than anything else.

Boring Vienna

If Hotel Life and McMulti were the best so far, and Big Boss was the worst up to this point, then Black Vienna deserves its own special level of disappointment.  It’s a venerable deduction game by Gilbert Obermair from 1987, but I have yet to figure out why it’s so venerated.  Saying that I’ve achieved this particular grail quest is suspect because I’ve never actually played the game in person or seen a copy as far as I can recall.  I played it online using a web-based implementation.  It felt just like any other deduction game, whether that’s Sleuth, Code 777, Inkognito, or what have you.  That is to say it was criminally boring.

Take my opinion with several grains of salt because I’ve never understood the appeal of deduction games.  All of the ones I’ve mentioned seem to involve a relatively random opening where you have little to nothing to go on.  Followed by the acquisition of information that you keep track of and which deterministically guides all of your subsequent decisions.  There is nothing interesting or inspiring there to think about or do.  In Black Vienna you simply each get assigned several hidden letters and try to figure out the letters that nobody was dealt.  You do this by taking turns giving a three letter set to an opponent and they have to tell you how many of those letters they have.  You do this for a bunch of turns until you can eventually pin down the correct letters.  I cannot fathom what would possibly make this game interesting or engaging.

Full Tilt Forward

The last of the original 7 is Full Metal Planete, a 1988 Ludodelire game that is magnificent to behold.  Just look at that game!  This is the other game on the list besides Jati that I have yet to play.  In fact, I know next to nothing about Full Metal Planete except that I know I want to try it.  I know it’s a timed game of strip mining a planet for ore with tanks and boats that uses an action point system.  But mostly I just know that it has amazing metal miniatures that look exceedingly cool.  And I know that this is one of those games that inspires me to forge on full steam ahead with my grail questing ways regardless of any past disillusionment or disappointment.  There’s always that spark of hope that the next one will be the greatest one of all.

No Rest Now

If only the list were contained to a small enough number of games that I could count them on just two hands.  Instead, the grail hunting list has grown over the years with the addition of numerous other rare and expensive treasures to seek out.  Here are some of the more recent additions and acquisitions that might fit the grail mold.  I’ll start with the five that I’ve gone out of the way to add to my collection, continue with two others that I’ve tried, and end with five that are still out there in the wild waiting for me to find them.

  • Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Crokinole, Dune, and Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit — Five grails or semi-grails, depending on your definition, that have found their way into my collection because they’re all excellent.  The Splotter games, Antiquity and Roads & Boats, are two of my all-time favorites due to their intricate game play and immense variability.  Crokinole is nice because it’s a great team dexterity game that doubles as a beautiful decoration.  Dune is a game that shines in large part because of its theme and Queen’s Gambit is one that shines in spite of its Phantom Menace theme.  These are probably the five best grails I’ve played and all games for which I’d heartily endorse setting out on your own quest.
  • Dark Tower and War of the Ring: Collector’s Edition — A pair of grails that I’ve tried and decided not to seek out.  I have a regular copy of War of the Ring, a wonderfully detailed and tense recreation of Lord of the Rings, and the Collector’s Edition is impressive, but not worth the effort when you can play the game on a regular set.  Plus the eyes of Galadriel in the Collector’s Edition are creepy.  Dark Tower was certainly amusing in a retro sort of way, but there wasn’t much of a game there worth playing more than once as a novelty in this day and age.
  • Keywood, Keytown, 1830: Railways & Robber Barons, Paradice, and Capes & Cowls — Lastly we’ll close with a handful of games that will keep me in the grail questing business for some time to come.  The Key-series by Richard Breese includes a number of intriguing games and several grail games as well.  Keywood and Keytown are a couple of the earliest Key games and some inner demon compels me to hunt them down and try them out.  1830 is not really a grail any more due to the reprint, but it was for so long and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to play it since well before the reprint, so I’ll throw it on the list nonetheless.  Paradice is a beautiful game that I’d really love to see in person rather than just in photos.  And lastly Capes & Cowls is the most recent addition to my list of games to track down and experience.  I had to add it because I’ve been seeing it mentioned all over the place lately as a particularly good design in the impossible-to-find family of games.  I’m sure these will keep me busy for a long time to come as the grail hunt never really ends.
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8 Responses to The Grails

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    Interesting article, Tom. It sounds as though you and others who get caught up in the quest for hard-to-find games do it for different reasons each time: sometimes it’s because you have heard the gameplay is good, other times, you seem to already know that it’s not. For example, I can’t imagine you (or me) enjoying a game of Jati any more than Black Vienna, yet it’s rarity seems to be driving you to seek it out?

    I realize, however, that collecting is fun in itself. I used to enjoy going to Berlin flea markets to find all kinds of games, including the occasional grail (Black Vienna being one of those), but finally came to the realization that we simply could not afford to store unplayed games in our small Berlin apartment, so I’ve tried to focus more on the ones that hit the table regularly (Ave Caesar being the only pseudo-grail that does).

  2. lornadune says:

    Grail Hunting is game in and of itself. Half the fun is the hunt, the chance encounter, the good deal and actually liking your grail make it a winning quest. A few of my winning grails (before the reprints which are mightily deflating) Tales of the Arabian Nights, Code 777, Ave Caesar (still wins since the reprint is not as fun), my antique mah jong set and a couple of unusual chess sets.

  3. Matt J Carlson says:

    I played 1830 one time back in the early 90’s and it was fun, but long and grueling to learn and play. With all the math, etc.. that needs to be managed, I think I’ll fall back to playing it multiplayer on a PC if I ever really need to try it again. The PC implementation is pretty good, although you might have to coax it to run on modern computers. I think it was the first PC game I ever purchased that came on a CD… :) 1830 and Advanced Civilization (put out by the same company) are both somewhat decent on a computer. While you lose a LOT not having the board, the game speeds up immensely with the computer managing so many of the details…

  4. huzonfirst says:

    I’m mostly immune to “Grailers Disease”. :-) What makes me seek out a game is mostly how good I think it will be and not how rare it is or how amazing the components are. Because I’ve been lucky enough to play with some friends with deep pockets and acquisitive natures, I’ve gotten to play most of the games that were on my “must try” list. But only a handful of those would be classified as Holy Grails by most gamers.

    Of the games you list, Tom, the only ones I’d really be pining to try out if I hadn’t already are the Splotter designs. I’d also be pretty curious about Black Vienna, since, unlike you, I love deduction games and it has a (justified) good reputation as an example of that genre. But the rarity of these games isn’t what I find appealing, but rather my anticipation for how well they would play (and while these don’t rank as my all-time favorites, I do enjoy all of these games and would be saddened if I’d never had the chance to play them). Of the ones I haven’t played, only the early Key games are ones that interest me, and even then, it’s not a burning desire–more curiousity than anything else. I guess that, unlike Lorna, I don’t have what it takes to be a true Grail Hunter, as I’m much more concerned about the game than the quest to find it. It’s just as well; keeping up with all the readily available new titles is expensive enough!

  5. gametool says:

    Keywood is worth playing. Good luck finding a copy. If you just want to try it, I imagine that could be arranged easily enough.

    Keytown I found dull.

    Paradice looks very pretty (at least in the translucent version), but there’s not really a game there.

  6. Scott Russell says:

    My biggest grail was Elfenroads. I had the rest of the White Wind library and enjoyed them. I finally found one on an auction, the bidding topped $200 (this is back in late 90’s) and I eventually won the game. Before it arrived from Germany Elfenland (and Elfengold) were published. I do enjoy the game, but have never actually played Elfenroads……

  7. Doug says:

    Good read – I made my own Black Vienna up with Artscow and was underwhelmed. Nothing special, and can possibly deadlock.

  8. Tom Rosen says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I saw a link to the following post today: I guess grail hunting is a cross-platform endeavor. This makes many board game grail quests seem pretty tame by comparison.

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