Monday, June 8, 2009

Shadows Over Camelot review

The siege engines gather in front of the gates of Camelot, the Holy Grail is threatened by evil forces, and a traitor lurks in the Round Table. Clearly, there are ominous Shadows Over Camelot. From the excellent minds at Days of Wonder comes Shadows Over Camelot, a cooperative game for three to seven players that will valiantly attempt to defend the Arthurian realm from invading forces. Each player assumes the role of a famous knight from Arthurian legend, such as Sir Galahad or Sir Percival, and performs various quests in conjunction with their knightly peers in an effort to save the realm from near certain doom. There is a ton to like about this game, so let’s get into it.

The components of the game are among the best that I have ever seen, for both the aesthetics of them as well as the functionality and their relation to the actual game. The board itself has a lot going on and one of the criticisms is how big it is, I hope you have a large gaming table to accommodate it. But everything on the board serves a function so it is at least not wasted space. Some of the quests (The Holy Grail, Lancelot and the Dragon, and Excalibur) are even double sided, so when they are completed they flip over to reveal a new addition to the board. All of the knights are represented not by generic pawns but by very nice figurines, each of which is unique and has a nice colored base for easily identifying your character. The Picts, Saxons, and siege engines also have figurines. Well done. There are two decks of cards (White and Black) that are high quality and, I must say, shuffle very nicely.

Components are nice and all, but a game is really made with the mechanics and game play and in this area Shadows Over Camelot does not disappoint. Despite all of the pieces and length of the rulebooks (yes, there are two of them) the game is surprisingly easy to figure out, though winning is pretty difficult. Like all cooperative games there is a negative element to each turn. In Camelot each player has a choice at the start of their turn; lose one life point, place a siege engine in front of Camelot, or draw a Black card from the deck. All of these options stink, which I suppose is the point. After choosing one of these dreadful options the knight then gets to do something heroic, like moving. There are several options available to the player (moving, performing a quest related action, playing a Special White card) but the difficult part is that a knight can only perform one action a turn. A second action can be performed but it costs a life point to do so as the knight extends himself to heroic lengths, and it can’t be the same action that was performed initially. Many of the quests require multiple cards to complete and the limited actions make it hard to do so and really reinforce how the knights must work together to complete quests, rather than splitting up and tackling separate adventures. Play progresses very quickly, which is nice, since there are only two actions on each players turn.

The Quests are good. They are different enough from each other to make them stand out, but also similar enough in how they work that everything sort of flows. It’s not like learning new rules for each segment of the game. Just about all of the quests involve playing cards down on the board in an effort to beat the enemy in that area (cards are gained in several different ways, the most prominent being a return to Camelot). Several of them are making what is essentially a poker hand of Fight cards. Example, to defeat the Lancelot quest the knight must put down a full house (three of a kind and a pair) and have the total face value be higher than that of Lancelot. Each Quest has a reward for completing it successfully, and a penalty for losing it. Most of the time white swords are placed around the Round Table for victories, while black swords are placed around the table to show the spread of treachery and chaos throughout the land.

The final wrinkle to the game is that one of the brave knights of the realm may actually be a traitor. At the start of the game each player draws a loyalty card. Seven of them have the knight as loyal to Camelot, while the eight is a traitor to the cause. The traitor will be secretly working against the others and trying to cause the downfall of the kingdom. The identity of the traitor is unknown to the other players and it is the job of the traitor to remain secret for as long as possible, sowing dissent from the shadows. There are a couple of things that I really like about this. One is that not only is the traitor unknown, it is not even certain if there is a traitor in the game at all. With eight loyalty cards and a maximum of seven players there is no guarantee that there is a traitor present, which sort of keeps everyone guessing. Players can accuse another of being a traitor, but if they are wrong they must suffer the ill effects of a fractured Round Table. Another aspect that is very cool is how the rules are structured to support a hidden agenda and mystery. All discards are placed face down, which allows a traitor to potentially discard valuable cards without anyone knowing. Also, players are forbidden from expressly talking about cards in their hands or cards they have placed face down on the board (usually to be battled by a knight at some point). However, players are encouraged to hint at the value of cards and to do so in a bizarre, corny knight talk (which is actually quite fun). Such as, “Clearly the Black Knight has sent a scrawny squire to this years tournament” which would allude to the value of a face down card in the Black Knights Tournament Quest as being of low value, and thus easily defeated. Or, “The Dragon on the far side of this bridge is known throughout the land for his voracious appetite” would mean that the Dragon card is of a high value.

Shadows Over Camelot is also a very difficult game. We’ve only played a couple of times but we are yet to win, and to be honest it hasn’t even been close. There is one way for the player to win, to have a majority of white swords around the round table when a 12th sword is placed. There are multiple ways to lose; 12 siege engines around Camelot, a majority of black swords at the round table, or for all knights to lose their life points. Throw a traitor into the mix and the games becomes that much more difficult. I’ve read a couple of reviews that state that the game is actually on the easy side, so maybe we just need to figure out better strategies. Either way the game is a lot of fun and highly recommended.

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