(image courtesy Erich @ BGG)
Board gamers tend to be geeks and geeks tend to love Monty Python. It’s inevitable that Monty Python quotes will occasionally come out during gaming sessions. Pull out Shadows Over Camelot, though, and it is a guarantee. If you want to have some fun, keep a running log of how many seconds it takes upon pulling out the box before the first quote comes out. The results may (or may not) surprise you.
Shadows Over Camelot is in fact about King Arthur and the Round Table. Dark forces are taking over the land, Camelot is under siege and one of the knights may even be a traitor! Similar to Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game with a traitor element. Each player is a Knight of the Round Table and at the beginning of the game everyone is dealt a secret loyalty card that says if they are loyal or the traitor. Given the game’s setup there is at most one traitor but it’s possible there may be none, adding a bit to the suspense.
Players work together completing quests and try to out the traitor (if one exists). As quests are completed, white swords are placed on the round table and black swords are added as quests fail. The game is over when all 12 spots on the table have filled. If half or more of the swords are black, evil prevails and the traitor – if there is one – wins the game. Should the knights manage to have more white than black swords, though, they have kept evil at bay and rejoice merrily.
At its core, Shadows Over Camelot is really a rummy game of sorts. You are trying to collect sets, straights and pairs of cards to play on different “quests.” Some quests – like the duel against the black knight – may only be attempted by one player at a time, while others allow multiple knights to work together. You may only play one card per turn so generally you need to work together to complete quests in a timely fashion.
Completing quests quickly can be important because at the start of your turn you must first “progress evil” which involves drawing and resolving a card from the deck of bad things. Generally these cards push a single quest closer to failure. As these bad things come out on each player’s turn it really is important that the players work together; it’s not unusual to see your hard work go down the drain quickly with a few bad card draws.
The knight’s special powers and the traitor mechanic really make the game. Each knight has a rule-breaker special ability that they may use on their turn. King Arthur, for example, can exchange one card with another player while another knight may use special white cards as a free action. Some knights work well together, others just help the group as a whole. You really need to make sure you put your special powers to use as they can easily be the difference between winning and losing.
(image courtesy flieger @ BGG)
Then there’s the traitor mechanic. At the start of the game a deck is built consisting of one loyalty card per player plus one traitor card. These cards are shuffled and one is dealt to each player. Players look at their card in secret and now know their role for the game. Odds are there will be a traitor but there’s a small chance there’s none so that adds a fun unknown element. The traitor has a very important part to play as they want to influence events so that the heroes lose but want to keep their identity hidden if possible. Most cards are played and discarded face down so you never know the true value or type of card someone got rid of. The traitor could, for example, sit on the quest for Excalibur and throw away all of their best white cards. While each white card discarded moves the Excalibur quest one step closer to victory, by burning their best cards the traitor is making the group weaker as a whole.
There’s a lot of subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. Once there are six swords at the round table or six siege engines at Camelot, players may start making accusations. If the player make a successful accusation then one white sword is added to the table; guess wrong, though, and one white sword turns to black which can be devastating. Should the traitor make it to the end of the game undetected, two white swords will turn to black which will almost certainly equal doom for the good guys.
Unfortunately I think there’s almost too much subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. My main complaint is that, as the traitor, there’s really not a whole lot you can do. Sure you can waste some time on a quest here, throw away good cards there and try to generally play sub-optimally without giving away that you are the traitor but none of those actions are all that exciting. Shadows Over Camelot is a challenging game all by itself. There’s often not a whole lot the traitor even needs to do to tip the game in their favor.
Mechanically the quests work but I also find they are not all that exciting. All you do is play cards in various ways on different locations. That’s fine, but when battling off the Saxons and Picts involves playing a straight and dueling the Black Knight has you playing two pairs… well, that doesn’t do much for the theme. You are also only allowed to play a single card per turn. This forces cooperation as players need to work together to complete quests quickly but it also means that your individual turns aren’t all that exciting. If you have a straight in your hand you may spend the next five turns at the Picts playing them down, which can be quite dull as you wait for the other players to go.
Given my complaints you might think I dislike Shadows Over Camelot. Quite the opposite! I think it is great fun, especially with the right group of people. By the nature of the game the traitor can often be difficult to weed out but it is really necessary for the heroes to do so if they want to succeed. Drawing from the “bad deck” each turn means that the group’s priorities are constantly in flux. A single quest can easily go from nearly complete to just about to fail in a few turns, so the group is always re-evaulating what needs attention and trying to coordinate how to best tackle the issues at hand.
(image courtesy IntvGene @ BGG)
What really impresses me most is that I don’t think I’ve found anyone that just does not like Shadows Over Camelot. The rules take a little while to explain but are pretty straightfoward once you start playing; combine that with the gorgeous art and components and the Knights of the Round Table theme and you have a game that you can teach to anyone and have fun. I’ve played with gamers and non-gamers alike and it goes over well every time. The game is not without its flaws but the good parts are good enough to make for a great gaming experience. Personally I find Battlestar Galactica to be the more engaging cooperative/traitor style game but Shadow Over Camelot‘s relative simplicity makes it a better introduction to cooperative gaming.
Note that there is an expansion for the game called Merlin’s Company. Stay away: you have been warned. Some folks complained that they had pretty much “solved” the base game so Days of Wonder put out an expansion to bump up the difficulty level. Unfortunately I found that the expansion just sucked all the fun out of the game. The main offender is that you now have random encounters as you move from quest to quest and usually the encounters involve bad things happening like you losing your turn. You are already so limited in what you get to accomplish each turn that I found this expansion to be maddening, not fun. Stick with the base game and enjoy.