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SHADOWS OVER CAMELOT

Reviewed by Frank Branham

(Days of Wonder, 3-7 players, ages 10 and up, 60-80 minutes; $49.95)

 

It has taken two weeks to try and figure out how to start this review decently WITHOUT using a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Perhaps I shouldn’t bother, as Days of Wonder includes at least two references to the legendary movie inside the game itself. What they have also done is saved a rather remarkable game from the demise of the original publisher, Eurogames.

Days of Wonder does make pretty games. They have an amazing French artist and illustrator, gorgeous plastic bits with great sculpts, and beautifully printed German cards and boards. Shadows Over Camelot has even more beautiful plumage than most of their games. The artwork covers 4 full boards, 100 cards, and 7 character boards. The plastic bits include a castle load of knights, catapults, Saxons, Picts, the Holy Grail, and the hand of a watery…woman holding up a sword.shadowscambox

The boards all show various knightly quests. These all involve playing specific cards onto the board in various combinations. They are not completed in sequence, but the game action takes place on all of the quests at once.

The game itself, designed by Serge Laget & Bruno Cathala, is both simple and terrifyingly complex. You win by completing quests successfully and gaining white swords. You lose by losing quests and gaining too many black swords, or getting 12 catapults surrounding Camelot.

Your turn is also simple: Do something bad, then do something good. Bad things involve flipping up a black card (which causes the the quests to progress toward failure) adding a catapult, or selflessly losing a life point. Good things include moving to a new quest, playing a single white card, or accusing someone of treason (more about that later).

That sounds really simple, and you can explain the core of the game in 5 minutes. It takes several games to remember all of the niggling details, like the different quests, the various special cards, details on when you can accuse people, and the various uses for life points. Many of these are summarized on the player cards, but it is a bit daunting to try and learn them all. The game is far easier to learn than to try and slog through the rules because of the details, and the two massive rulebooks are totally daunting, but are extremely organized for quick reference.shadowscampcs

The game is basically like plate spinning. The black cards make the plates slow down and drop, your white cards spin the plates, and it takes you time to move between the plates. The game is cooperative, so all of the knights do work together to keep the plates spinning. The real problem is that a single knight often cannot finish a quest by himself. You need help. All of the knights together can usually tear through a quest quickly, but ignored quests can fail quickly.

The game isn’t entirely cooperative. One player is a traitor. That player is secretly trying to sabotage the rest of the knights. As long as he stays hidden, he gets to flip two of the white swords to black swords at the end of the game. The trick is to help, but not too much. And you only want to reveal yourself if it is going to seriously screw the other knights in some way. The game does allow quite a few opportunities for subterfuge. Players are forbidden to discuss their hands. All discarded cards are played face down. Two quests can only be completed by a single knight and are locked if a knight is already there. You can hold 12 cards in your hand, so you can hoard a lot of useful cards and keep them from other players.

Playing the traitor is fun…lots of fun. You get to pretend to be all sweetness and light and helpful while at the same time being as overtly vicious and spiteful. The game is mercifully fun for the other knights, although not as wickedly cool. For the Loyals, there is a fairly simple challenge of optimizing your movement and card plays, the tension of impending doom as your quests slowly work their way toward failure, the trickiness of trying to second guess your partners’ moves without being allowed to communicate information about your hand, and the absolute torment of trying to work out the traitor.

Lack of communication is VITAL to the game. The rules dance around the issue of how much table talk is allowed, but less is definitely better. This keeps one player from dominating the group strategy (which happens in Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings [Winter 2001 GA REPORT]) and allows the game’s very dark age-like aura of fear and suspicion to come to the forefront.

Another odd thing I discovered about the game is that I did not entirely like it at first. The first three plays were totally absorbing while I was playing them, but the game felt like it would grow stale after a handful of weeks. I played it more with different players and the game can go very differently. Like Lord of the Rings, you can get more skillful, and there are a number of approaches to the game that become apparent. The cards you get in your initial hand do a lot to determine how a game will progress, and change both your strategies and add to the flavor. Some of the black special cards are game-wreckingly powerful. Games without a Traitor may go very easily, or quite badly, depending on the suspicious nature of any participants.

Soooo, what you have is an easy-playing but kind of complex game which is highly group dependent and with a fair amount of luck. The thing is, it is a wonderfully produced game that is very good and compelling to play. It is also almost totally unlike anything you’ve played in the past couple of years. There just aren’t many games you can say that for–I know I’ll be playing it a lot. – – – – – – Frank Branham


 

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