Friday, August 20, 2004

Review: Camelot Legends

One of our newer arrivals is Camelot Legends by Andrew Parks and Z-Man Games. This is a card game built around the legends of King Arthur.

The first thing that struck me about Camelot Legends was the beautiful illustrations. From the detailed portrait of King Arthur on the cover, to the lavish illustrations of Camelot, Cornwall, and the Perilous Forest that appear on the three play mats, to the original artwork on each of the one hundred or so cards in the box, the famous people and places of Arthurian legend really come to life. The artwork is truly stunning. If you are a fan of Arthurian legend (as I am) then the game is worth owning for the pictures alone.

But of course it takes more than pretty pictures to make a fine game. And is Camelot Legends a fine game? I think so. See if you agree. Here's how the game is played.

Each player holds a hand of character cards. Each character card has values in six attributes: combat, diplomacy, adventure, cunning, chivalry and psyche. Think character attributes in a role playing game such as Dungeons and Dragons and you've got the general idea. Each character card also has text that describes some special ability that is unique to that character. Most of the time that text describes an ability that can be used to boost a company's ability scores in one or more areas. Typically using that ability requires discarding the card in question at the end of a player's turn.

On your turn you start by drawing an event card. Each event card represents some challenge or event in Arthurian legend and most are assigned to one of the game's three main locations: Cornwall, the Perilous Forest, and of course Camelot. Events are generally worth victory points when completed. In order to complete an event, you must assemble a company (set of character cards) at the appropriate location that meets the event's specified requirements. In addition to earning victory points, the player that completes an event typically gains some special ability or power specified in the text on the event card.

After the event card has been placed, you may choose to invoke special abilities from your characters in play. Typically this is done to push your company's ability scores high enough to complete an event but often it can be used to target an opponent's card in some way.

Next you may complete up to one event from each main location. This requires that you have a company at the event's location with ability scores that total a set amount; typically in two of the six ability categories.

Finally, you can execute two "card actions". A card action consists of either: drawing a character card, playing a character card, or moving up to two character cards from one location to another (provided they aren't separated).

Notice that because you play your cards AFTER you attempt to complete an event, you can never claim an event immediately. You must always wait at least one turn after you've assembled a company strong enough to claim an event before you can actually claim it. This gives your opponents a chance to try and out maneuver you or disrupt your strategy in some way.

Camelot Legends is a beautiful and intricate card game. It plays reasonably well and it is absolutely drenched in the flavor of the Arthurian legends. But it does have a few flaws. Because each and every card has some unique special ability it can take quite some time to become familiar with the game. In every game I've played, we've had to spend an inordinate amount of time carefully reading the text on each and every card. This can be tedious at best. I imagine that over time players will become more familiar with the cards and the game would speed up considerably. Thankfully, for the most part, the text is clear and easy to interpret. I can't think of any cases in our games where we were left wanting a rules clarification.

One minor beef with the card text is that while they defined color coded shield symbols for each of the six attributes, they don't actually make use of the symbols in the card text. So you will find yourself constantly referring to the summary card to remember which of the six attribute shields is which. Eventually you'll get them memorized but until you do, you may find it a bit of a nuisance.

Also, while the cards are lavishly illustrated and printed on very sturdy cardstock, the cards are not coated with a high quality plastic coating. If played enough, I could see these cards showing wear over time. This is very typical of games from a minor publisher and frankly I'm pleasantly surprised that the card quality is as high as it is so I really can't fault them too much for that. This is just a minor issue.

Most cards in the game are color coded with a small gem in the corner. White cards are used in the beginner game, blue cards are added for the standard game, and red cards are reserved for the advanced game and intended to be added sparingly. For our first play, being the advanced-ubergamers that we are, we haughtily ignored the warning in the rule book and decided to play with all of the cards. After all, we are experienced gamers and we can handle a little difficulty! That was a mistake. We soon discovered why the red cards are intended to be used sparingly. They are so powerful that they can unbalance the game! I put a couple of those in play and I soon had a company that was totally unstoppable. While I still claimed the win (can't turn that down you know) I have to reluctantly admit that it was a bit unsatisfying. For my next game I played without the red cards and the game was far more enjoyable. So the moral of the story here is pay attention to the rule book.

Speaking of the rule book, this is a pretty good one. The 20 half-size full-color pages of rules are clear and well written with plenty of examples. And the last few pages are devoted to a character glossary that summarizes all of the major players in the legends of Camelot. Learning the basic game took very little time and the game play is simple enough that we didn't have to refer back to the rulebook during the game.

In summary, if you are at all a fan of Arthurian legend then I would recommend you give this game a try. It's very pretty, simple to learn, and fun to play. It's not perfect but it's a fine game nonetheless. Give it a look.


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