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[Review] Shadows over Camelot

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Joined: 03/23/2011

It seems that every Days of Wonder big box game is an event – with a lot of press, fanfare, and general excitement. This general adulation is no mistake, as it seems that Days of Wonder has the magic touch, with each new game becoming a smash hit. Shadows over Camelot (Days of Wonder, 2005 – Bruno Cathela and Serge Laget) is no exception with a lot of hype before its release. Very few cooperative games are released – at least by large companies, and the idea itself is very intriguing.

While Shadows over Camelot has not cracked my top ten games, it has come precariously close. I’ve played the game multiple times and expect the game to get at least twenty-five plays this year (which for me, with my large collection, is saying something.) It’s tremendously fun, and the “traitor” mechanic adds a huge element of suspense and “fun factor” to the game. I’m sure you have a lot of questions regarding the game, so fire away!

1. What’s this I hear about this being a cooperative game? Shadows over Camelot (SoC) is a cooperative game, in which all the players win, or they all lose. No one is competing against the other players (with the exception of the traitor), so players who have a keen competitive sense may be initially turned off. But I have noticed some people who had an initial negative reaction to the “cooperative” idea suddenly get really involved as the game went on.

2. How does it compare to Lord of the Rings? Comparisons with Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings cooperative game are natural, as it is the most famous cooperative game out there. I’m a big fan of Lord of the Rings, especially with the Friends and Foes expansion attached, but Shadows over Camelot blows it away. When playing Lord of the Rings, I felt like the game was playing us and that we were fighting as a group to stop it. While this made for a satisfactory experience for me, it does limit the replayability of the game. Shadows over Camelot feels different every time. The players actually control the negative events in SoC, which really changes the focus of the game. In LotR, players must simply pull a tile and follow the directions. In SoC, players can decide whether their player loses one life point, whether they will add a catapult onto the board (twelve catapults cause a loss for the players), or whether they will draw and play a card that causes some sort of negative (potentially devastating) effect to the players. These decisions, while they might seem minor, cause a lot of tension to occur in the game.

3. What about the traitor? The traitor is THE most critical part of the game. Without the traitor, SoC would work fairly well, but with it added, the game becomes an exercise in suspicion. The absolutely cool thing about the game is that no one is sure if there even IS a traitor in the game! Each player is secretly dealt one of eight loyalty cards at the beginning of the game. One of these eight cards has the word “traitor” on it, denoting that player as treacherous scum. Because the game has a max limit of seven players, that means that the possibility of a traitor is higher with more players involved – but never assured. I’ve played games that had no traitor, yet everyone was constantly publicly analyzing the other players’ moves and constantly accusing one another. What a player does may SEEM innocent, but are they secretly plotting other player’s demise?

4. What’s a quick rundown of the rules? Each player is assigned one of the Knights of the Round Table (King Arthur, Tristan, Galahad, Gawain, Kay, Palamedes, or Percival), each with a different special ability. Players place a token of their knight on the round table section of the main board, place a six-sided die face up on the “4” side on their knight board (showing their health), and receive six White (good) cards, including one Merlin card. Loyalty cards are handed out, and some quest boards and other pieces are placed in starting locations. The player playing King Arthur goes first, with each player following in a clockwise order. On a turn, a player must progress evil (as mentioned above), then do a heroic action. A heroic action is a player moving their pawn from the round table to a quest, performing an action at a quest, discarding three identical cards to heal one life point, play a special white card, draw two white cards (if at the Round table), or accuse another knight.

5. So how does the game end? The game ends in three ways – if twelve catapults (siege engines) are placed on the board – everyone but the traitor loses. Also, finished quests cause either black or white swords to be placed on the round table. If seven or more black swords are on the table, the knights lose. If all the knights die, they lose. In fact, the only way for the knights to win is to fill the round table with twelve swords and have a majority of them be white.

6. What are these quests of which you speak? Each quest has different requirements, with different effects. For example, to complete the Quest for Excalibur, players must discard a white card face down, moving the sword one spot closer to the good side. Meanwhile, some of the black cards cause the sword to move in the opposite direction. If the sword reaches the good side, all players whose knights are currently at that quest gain a hit point, two white swords are added to the round table, the players split seven white cards, and one player receives an Excalibur piece – which has some special abilities. If the sword reaches the bad side, two black swords are added to the round table, each player currently at the quest loses one life point, and Excalibur is lost forever. Each quest requires different things (playing Grail cards for the Holy Grail quest, playing fight cards of various numbers for the Black Knight’s Quest, the Quest for Lancelot and the Dragon’s Quest, and playing a progression of fight cards for the Pict and Saxon Wars), and has different results. All of the quests are fairly difficult to finish (especially the Grail quest!), and players will most likely fail at least one of them. Deciding which quests to attempt is some of the strategy to the game, and players will kibitz quite a bit about this.

7. How much can players communicate? The rules state that players can be vague about the contents of their hand, but never give out exact information. This, of course, raises suspicions, because mightn’t Bob have played a “5” fight card at the Black Knight quest instead of the “1” he put down. When Joe said that he couldn’t help in the Grail quest, was he holding three Grail cards in his hand? One of the most enjoyable parts of the game is the interaction between the players. Since everyone is constantly wondering who the traitor is, every move is micro analyzed, and innocent actions can seem very suspicious.

8. How do accusations work? At the end of the game, if the traitor has not been successfully accused, he changes two of the white swords on the Round Table to black swords. Thus, it really behooves the traitor to keep his identity a secret. Once six swords are on the Round Table, or six siege engines are on the board, players may accuse another player in the game. Each player can make only one accusation per game (including the traitor). The accused person flips over their loyalty card; and if the accusation is wrong, a white sword is changed to a black sword on the Round Table. If the accusation is correct, a new white sword is added, and the traitor is “ousted”. They flip their knight’s card over to the Traitor side, and can only do the evil half of the action on their turn, plus randomly discard a white card from any player’s hand. It’s important for players to correctly accuse the traitor, but each false accusation is quite damaging! Besides, their might not even be a traitor. I really love the tension this part of the game brings.

9. How are the components of this game? Need you ask – it’s a Days of Wonder game? They are of the highest quality with piles of stuff being included in the large, square box. The quest boards are all double-sided, the knight cards are large and colorful with lots of player info on them, and the swords are thick double-sided tokens (black on one side, white on the other). The Black and White cards are of high quality – matted cards, and each player receives a die that matches the color of their knight. Speaking of which, the sculpts of the knights are incredible – with the base being in that knight’s color and the rest in a light gray. I know it would have added to the cost of the game, but these miniatures are just begging to be painted – and I stink at it. But for those who enjoy painting, the finished product looks incredible! Everything fits well inside the box with tremendous artwork covering it, as well as the boards and cards. This game has some of the best artwork of any game I’ve ever seen.

10. What about the rulebook? Here I’m not quite as pleased. There are actually two rulebooks – the normal rulebook and the “Quest Book”. Both are filled with incredible detail – more than anyone would ever want about the game. I found this useful to some degree, but there was simply too much! I can teach the game to people in about ten or fifteen minutes, explaining the game pretty much as we play. So why are the rulebooks so long? They’re beautiful, detailed, but simply could have been condensed. This is only a minor problem; but when purchasing the game, make sure that you read both rulebooks so that you don’t miss any of the rules in the large tomes.

11. How many choices do players have on their turn? Players choose twice – what bad thing to do, and what good thing to do. Of course, this is condensing the theme down a bit, but I found it’s the easiest way to explain it. Deciding what to do can be challenging. Should I sacrifice one of my precious hit points, add a catapult to the table, or play a random, unknown Black card to the table? Adding a catapult sounds like a simple thing at first, but eventually the number of siege engines nears twelve – and suddenly they become a dire threat. They’re difficult to get rid of, and the traitor can add only a few near the end of the game to finish off the noble knights.

12. So how difficult is the game? Well, I’ve played it almost ten times now, and have only seen the good guys win once. Of course, I played with eight different groups, and the first game has a distinct learning curve. The traitor definitely makes the game harder for people, but it adds so much fun to the game that I wouldn’t dream playing without it.

13. So what’s your final verdict on the game? Buy it. SoC is like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Werewolf – with a cool theme added. It’s a tremendous game, and I’ve played it with many groups of people – all who enjoyed it tremendously. It’s been the most successful game I’ve ever introduced to my middle school kids – they begged me to allow them to skip lunch to finish it. The game transcends gender borders, with women enjoying it as much as men – and it worked with “gamers”, casual gamers, friends, and teenagers. Once the rules are explained, games last just a bit over an hour – so time is not much of an issue either. Combine that with beautiful components and a cooperative theme, and you have a winner on your hands!

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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