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Games: Shadows Over Camelot

Under the general rubric of "boardgame" exists a distinct subgenre termed "cooperative" -- games in which all the players form a single team and compete against the game itself. Some people dislike cooperative games, wondering what's the point is of a game in which everyone wins or everyone loses. Me, I like 'em -- and the newest of the breed, Shadows Over Camelot, has become my new favorite.

Each person plays as one of the knights of the round table, and they all work together to stave off the sinister forces that threaten the kingdom. Over the course of the game the knights will strive -- sometimes in groups, sometimes alone -- to complete various quests. When players succeed in quests they earn white swords, amongst assorted other boons; when they fail, they receive black swords. The game ends when the players have amassed a dozen swords, and win if the majority are white.

But while there is only one way to win, there are several routes to crushing defeat: if half or more of the swords are black at game's end, if a twelfth siege engine is placed onto the game board, or if all of the knights are killed in action, Camelot falls.

The fuel in the game's engine are two decks of cards: White cards, which the knights use to advance on the various quests, and Black cards, which make the quests progressively more difficult. As the Black cards only serve to hinder the knights, players are loathe to reveal or resolve them but, alas, they have no choice. A player must begin his turn by turning over a Black card, or selecting from two other equally unappetizing choices: increasing the number of a siege engines on the board or decreasing his knight's life points. As mentioned above, too many siege engines or too few life points can cause the game to come to an abrupt, bitter end.

Having taken his lumps, a player can then take a good action: move from one quest to another, work on his current quest, draw more White cards, attempt to destroy a siege engine, and a number of other choices. Deciding which player will take which actions is the heart of the game, as the knights much necessarily coordinate their efforts if they want to have any hope of victory. As there can be as many as seven different quests at a time, and the relentless revelation of Black cards ensures that they will all be inching toward failure, the team must literally pick their battles, deciding which quests to undertake and which are lost causes.

All this would be challenge enough, but Shadows Over Camelot includes a big, Machiavellian twist. One knight may be secretly designated as a "Traitor" before play begins. If there is one, the Traitor only wins if the other knights lose.

Early in the game the Traitor will typically undermine the group through guile, constantly making "mistakes" and quick to dispense wrongheaded advise. Later the traitor might resort to naked aggression, gleefully plunking siege engines onto a board that is already lousy with them. The knights are rewarded if they successfully unmask the Traitor, but it's not always easy to tell the difference between a player who is actively betraying the group and another who has just had a run of bad luck. Even if the Traitor never becomes openly hostile -- or if there's no Traitor at all -- the paranoia engendered by the possibility of a traitor is often enough to sow enough distrust and suspicion to sabotage cooperative play.

Shadows Over Camelot is a mediocre game: the mechanics aren't terribly original, the game seems largely dominated by luck, the theme is weak, and there aren't a huge number of decisions to be made during play. That's my review when I think about the game, at any rate. When I actually play the game, though, I always have a blast. Even while recognizing that all the aforementioned faults are present, I simply have too much fun to care. And while I keep expecting my opinion of Shadows Over Camelot to take a turn for the negative, it hasn't happened yet.

At forty bucks the game ain't cheap, and it's a bit complex for those unused to modern boardgames. But everyone ought to give cooperative games a whirl, and Shadows Over Camelot is one of the best.

Posted on September 22, 2005 to Games





Comments

I have always sucked at board games. Invariably my downfall is centered around my inability to grasp the concept of, "If you can't do anything good for you, do something bad for everyone (or at least someone) else."

The best thing (for me) about shadows over camelot is that it completely eliminates this portion of board gaming. I'm quite grateful.

Posted by: Ola on September 22, 2005 9:27 PM

I do enjoy SoC, it sounds complicated to begin with but even boardgame virgins get the hang of it within a couple of turns. The catchphrase that gets used by our group in these cooperative games: "Go on, take one for the team!"

Posted by: Simstim on September 23, 2005 3:29 AM

*resists transformation to super-identity: the SpellChecker*

but that fifth paragraph is making it awfully hard with at least 4 obvious misspellings/typos and at least 2 in the subsequent paragraphs.

having resisted the OCD, allow me to assure you that i love this weblog, link it often, and look forward to trying this game. i really like the cooperative aspect of Lord of the Rings.

cheers

Posted by: Sean on September 23, 2005 6:39 AM

I'm very sad that it's a minimum 3 player game. Can you think of a really good 2 player? My birthday's coming up, a perfect time for me to start dreaming about receiving elaborately expensive boardgames.

Posted by: maybeknott on September 23, 2005 6:40 AM

Our group loves SoC! It's easy to pickup, has a good pace and results in lots of fun meta-gaming. I think the fact there are generally more quests running than you can simultaneously attend to causes some enjoyable suspense.

Still, my favorite part has to be cooperating without revealing the exact nature of the cards you're playing... "Wow, the Black Knight just go *really* tough, but I'm *almost* done with the Saxons!"

Posted by: MrChucho on September 23, 2005 6:41 AM

For a really good 2-player "group effort" game, try the LOTR board game. Comes with a basic game and 2 expansions. So... don't mistake it for the LOTR version of Risk.

It's AWESOME. Especially if you're a tolkien fan.

Posted by: Margaret Lam on September 23, 2005 7:43 AM

I believe the "elaborately expensive boardgame" you are looking for is Memoir '44, although Margaret is correct that the Lord Of The Ring Boardgame is both cooperative and excellent (though I think it's much better with three or four players than with just two).

Another huge LotR game, for two players only, is War Of The Ring, and many people say that it is incredible. Never played it myself so I can't comment -- I'd buy it in a heartbeat, but aparently it takes 3-4 hours to play.

Posted by: Mathew on September 23, 2005 8:17 AM

You could probably play SoC with two players if you tweaked it a bit - just give more starting cards and/or life points to the players. The black cards and siege engines come out at a rate of one per player turn, so the only real difference between two players and 8 players is those starting conditions.

There's also a two player variant floating about where each player plays two knights. That seems a bit iffy though.

Posted by: Steve Dupree on September 23, 2005 8:46 AM

I recently saw Shadows Over Camelot being played at a board game festival run by a gaming store; it looked really cool. I must admit to jumping on the board game bandwagon ever since a good friend of mine started frequenting the aforementioned gaming store. Since we have a group of 4-5 people who regularly hang out with geeky pursuits (movie nights, role-playing, professional wrestling events, etc.), we usually have great fun learning new board games.

Among our favourite board games are Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill. The Arkham Horror is a re-release of an older board game and is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his infamous Cthulhu Mythos. A 1-8 player cooperative game (yes, you can play solo), the group of investigators must prevent a Great Old One from awakening (the specific Old One is chosen at random at the game's start). To win, the investigators must either: a) traverse 6 interdimensional gates and seal them, b) close as many gates as there are players and have no gates open on the board, or c) defeat the Old One in combat (a frightening thought indeed). Between the players and victory stand more gates and creatures to fight in the streets, and a countdown timer to the awakening of the Old One.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a tile-based game, where players assemble, in turn, the layout of the house in which they are trapped. As with Arkham Horror, each player assumes a pre-generated character with unique stats and abilities (and interesting back-story) and must gather clues and weapons and reveal omens to see him through the second phase of the game. At a random point in the game (ie. a low die roll against the number of omens revealed), the game shifts from cooperative to antagonistic. One of the players is revealed to be a traitor and is actively working against the group! At this point, the traitor gets his victory condition in secret from a separate instruction book and it's a fight to the finish. From being shrunk and having to escape in a toy airplane, to fighting spirits in astral form, the player group is opposed by everything from housecats to spirit minions, all under the control of the traitor player.

These games are great fun, and due to their complexity, they are very much replayable. I've played each game a few times, and everytime has been a different experience. Win or lose, the fun is in the interaction with other players and other characters.

Posted by: Worst Ninja Ever on September 24, 2005 1:37 AM

Our favourite line with this game (especially whenever anyone places a black knight card face down) has become "eyebrows have been raised!" :)

Also, I've never been the traitor but I am always accused. I wish people would learn that I can't help my sly, evil looks and I'm just naturally cunning and devious.

Posted by: David on September 25, 2005 7:27 PM

Hmm... our group always plays the bad cards face down, the extra white card is just too tempting. Having said that, we do stretch the "no telling people your cards" rule quite a bit ("it's a mediumly difficult card", etc.)

As for 2-players, I prefer Battlecry over Memoir 44. They're very similar but for some reason the simpler ruleset of Battlecry makes for a better game (IMHO, OC!) War of the Ring is indeed huge, we quite often split it up into a 4 player game to make it more manageable.

Posted by: Simstim on September 26, 2005 1:53 AM

Better for two players, in a LOTR vein, though not cooperative, would be The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, (assuming the War of the Ring isn't your thing, due to cost, size, complexity and play length), which is an awesome little, Stratego-like game, that really brings the LOTR theme into the game. Pretty sure the yeti has probably waxed about this one already, but...

Posted by: Windopaene on September 28, 2005 9:53 AM

Maybeknott: if you don't mind confrontational 2-player card games, may I recommend Blue Moon? See here for details (reviews) and expansion info:

http://boardgamegeek.com/game/9446

It has a lot of depth and is designed by the same genius who created The Lord of the Rings cooperative boardgame.

Posted by: David on September 28, 2005 7:10 PM