Mr. Geekess and I differ in our opinions of many things – music, reading material, whether or not we should acquire a third kitten – but there are a good many things that we do agree on too! And one of those things is our love for Arthurian legends. They stem from different places – mine from reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series as a child, his from watching Excalibur – but when Mr. Geekess returned home from a business trip last year with a copy of Shadows Over Camelot, the origins of our excitement didn’t really matter. What mattered was that we were both bursting at the seams with excitement at playing it!
Shadows Over Camelot is set, as the name might suggest, in Camelot and steeped in Arthurian legend. You and up to six of your friends play as Knights of the Round Table, each with your own special skill in areas like trading, questing and self-preservation. Working together, you defend the land from invading armies of Saxons and Picts, jostle the Black Knight in jousting, seek the Holy Grail, try to convince the Lady of the Lake to give you Excalibur and do battle against the nefarious Lancelot, all by playing relevant cards while making choices that could throw off the fragile balance of the land. Each turn involves a Bad action (playing an evil card, placing a cannon or losing a life) and a Good action (picking up cards, moving to a quest, adding to a quest, etc.) Some quests you can do as a group, others you must go at alone, but always heeding the advice of your companions, lest you be suspected of being the hidden traitor amongst the team.
Unsurprisingly, the legend of King Arthur makes a fantastic theme for a board game, and the playable characters fit well into the legends, as do those who pop up from time to time in the Good and Bad decks of cards. My memory is constantly being jogged by cards that remind me of the stories I’ve read and movies that I’ve seen. In particular, we have had to forbid the quoting of Monty Python during games, otherwise we would never get around to actually playing!
The game itself is gorgeous – one of the prettiest that we own in my opinion. The models are wonderfully detailed, the boards bursting with colour and the cards not only look, but also feel well-made. It’s been put together wonderfully, but that’s no surprise – pretty is something that Days of Wonder always thrive at after all, and when buying one of their games, you know that you’re paying for quality.
You can tell that the game has been well thought-out with every move you make (every breathe you take) being weighty and having the potential to turn the game in either side’s favour. You want to place cannons, for example, but not too many of them. You want to take cards from the Bad deck, but don’t want to draw too many quest cards of a particular kind, otherwise you’ll end up with too many black swords on the table and the game will be over before you know it! You need to get black swords to make up the numbers, but not so many that they outnumber the white ones, or even so many that a hidden traitor could turn your victory into defeat at the last minute by turning two white swords to black and overthrowing the kingdom. It’s a juggling game at the end of the day – trying to decide what would be best for the team as a whole, and not just running forward, swords blazing, into battle.
I feel the need to start the bad off with an explanation. I’ve been wanting to review Shadows Over Camelot for quite awhile, but it was one of the games that hasn’t left the shelf simply because we haven’t had the numbers to really get it going. Last weekend, we had a big group of friends over, and it was the perfect opportunity. I had a craving for the game and really couldn’t see any reason not to play it. And then the game started and all the reasons came rushing back to me.
It is not an easy game for new players to get into. There are a lot of choices to be made, and trusting your team can have devastating results if the traitor is amongst them and is particularly convincing. Bad actions have to be taken, so it can be very easy for the traitor to justify doing one move over the other, and easy for them to convince you to do the same. If you don’t quite know what you’re doing, you’re an easy target and the game will become very frustrating as you find yourself in the midst of speculation simply because you’re unsure of what you’re doing.
There is a lot of strategising before, during and after turns, and this means that a turn which should be quick (you only need to pick two things to do, it really shouldn’t be that hard!) ends up taking forever. It means that the game involves less action and a lot more talking than I would have liked, though I suppose this is dependent on your group of friends as well and how well you work together. It is definitely the kind of game that can end friendships if you let it.
Finally, I have found the game to be quite unbalanced on the side of evil. Even if there is no traitor, you spend a good number of turns accusing everyone of being the traitor, flipping white swords to black when you’re wrong and accumulating either cannons or negative quest cards, or losing life points, as you do. When there is a traitor, we’ve found that they actually don’t have to do much to win the game – just let the others fight and speculate amongst themselves and at the end of the game let everyone think they’ve won (if it comes to that) only to turn over those last two swords and ruin their fun. Like Pand emic, there are so many ways to lose, and only one way to win.
This was among the first board games we ever bought, and it was certainly the first to include a traitor mechanic. While I’ve since found other games with traitor mechanics that I prefer, there’s still a lot to love about this Arthurian game.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about Shadows Over Camelot is simply the quality and sheer beauty of the components. The little models are wonderfully detailed, each character feels unique and the catapults look as if they’re about to break down the walls of Camelot. The cards are high quality and beautifully illustrated and much the same can be said for the game boards.
One of the best things about the traitor mechanic in this game is that there may not be a traitor at all – even in a full game, you may all be loyal knights! This had led to some spectacular losses as we paranoidly assume that someone must be the traitor (“Come on, the odds of there not being one have to be slim…”) only to find out that we’ve simply been working against ourselves and that everyone was in fact working towards the same goal.
That being said, there’s not very much to do as the traitor, you can influence the game in minor ways, but the game can be quite difficult to beat at the best of times that often all you need to do is bide your time and reveal yourself only as you play the final catapult or card to win the game. This means that there’s not much information to go on when figuring out who the traitor is, but finding out who it is is usually integral to winning.
The end game also tends to drag out a lot and the win condition doesn’t feel terribly satisfying at times as you often need to purposefully lose quests just to get the game to end before one of the losing conditions is satisfied. The quests themselves consist mainly of playing cards and the only real tactics are to decide which of the ‘advancement of evil’ actions you’re going to take each turn.
I still find it a lot of fun, but there are a lot of other games out there with traitor mechanics that I personally prefer. I’m sure we’ll get around to reviewing some of them soon.
There is a lot of good to find in Shadows Over Camelot, but there are also of negatives. That being said, and considering that the bad aspects are the kind that would usually put me off entirely, they surprisingly don’t stop me from actually wanting to play the game, because I really do love it! It’s stressful, it’s unbalanced, it’s argument inducing, and it’s a wonderful way to pend a few hours 🙂