Monday, July 04, 2005

Review: Shadows Over Camelot

Shadows Over Camelot, by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, is the latest game from Days of Wonder.

In the few years since its inception, Days of Wonder has earned a reputation as one of the world's premier game publishers by producing one lavish, first class game after another. Each of their games boasts dazzling artwork and overproduced pieces that are a joy to play with. Shadows Over Camelot is no different. Inside the heavy square box you will find several high-quality linen finished game boards. The master board depicts Camelot, the Round Table, the lists where players can tilt with the Black Knight, and areas representing the frontier and coastline where the Picts and the Saxons are poised to invade. There are also three smaller quest boards that depict various other quests, such as the quest for the grail, the quest for Excalibur and the quest for Lancelot's armor. Topping off the luxurious boards and high quality cards with their dazzling artwork are the figures which are simply spectacular. There are figures for each of the seven knights in the game, as well as figures representing various quest articles, Saxons, Picts, and siege engines.

Obviously, this game is themed around the rich Arthurian Legend and the theme is very well done. I've always loved the legends of King Arthur and from an early age I've devoured many related books so I was quite pleased to note that the game remains as true to the legend as can be, given that there is no single source for Arthurian legend and the canonical Arthurian books all contradict one another on one point or another. This game takes place just after Lancelot has given in to temptation and subsequently been exposed as Guinevere's lover. Lancelot has left the round table in disgrace and Arthur's court is in chaos. Arthur and his knights must keep evil at bay or their idyllic realm of Camelot will crumble and fade into the ages. So they embark upon a series of chivalric quests to bring honor and glory to Camelot while checking the forces of evil which seek to undo all that they have done.

Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game where the players compete as a team against the game itself. There have been a few similar games (Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings comes most readily to mind) but this remains a pretty unique style of game and Shadows Over Camelot does it very well.

At the start of the game, each player assumes the role of one of seven of the knights of Camelot: Arthur, Kay, Galahad, and so on. Each of the knights has a unique special ability which can aid the group in their various quests. If they cooperate with one another they may succeed in protecting Camelot from the gathering evil. But there may be a traitor in their midst. Along with a knight, each player is dealt one loyalty card from a small deck of eight. One of the eight cards is a traitor card, giving each player a one in eight chance of secretly playing the traitor.

The object of the game is to fill the round table with swords. Black swords are awarded as penalties for losing a quest. White swords are awarded for winning quests. Once all twelve spaces on the round table are filled with swords, and if the majority of them are white swords, then the knights win. (Ties are always bad in this game.) If there are ever seven or more black swords, or if there are ever twelve siege engines surrounding Camelot, or if all the knights are killed then the game is over and the knights lose.

Each player's turn consists of two phases. The first phase is called the "progression of evil" phase. On this phase a player must either draw a black card, put a siege engine around Camelot, or give up a point of health. The black cards are all bad and typically advance the evil side of one of the many quests.

The second phase of a player's turn is the "heroic action" phase. During this phase, the player must execute one of a list of heroic actions. Heroic actions include: moving to a quest location, playing a white card to advance a quest or aid your fellow knights, taking cards into your hand (if you're at the round table), fighting off a siege engine, or playing a set of three like cards to regain a health point.

When you first play the game, one thing will be readily apparent: this game is hard to beat. Until you get some feel for what quests to focus on and when, your noble knights may find themselves in deep water. The game advances at a merciless pace and unless you cooperate and focus your efforts, you will surely lose. If you are unlucky enough to have a traitor in your midst then the game will almost certainly be even harder. Now you not only have to worry about the diabolical game, you also have to contend with the possibility that there is someone secretly working against you.

The game is advertised for 3-7 players and it works reasonably well with any of those numbers. However, you should be aware that the fewer players you have, the harder the game becomes because, while the black cards come out at the same rate no matter how many players are in the game, more knights means more special abilities and more white cards to choose from, since each knight starts with a hand of several. Furthermore, while more knights means more likelihood of having a traitor in your midst, it also means that there are more loyal knights to mitigate the damage he causes. This game is at its most difficult when there are only three players and one of them is a traitor. In fact, if you choose to play with three players, I strongly recommend that you use the special three player rules described at the end of the rule book, that way the good knights at least have some slim chance of victory. My experience is that the game really shines with five or more players but it's still quite fun with three or four.

One nice side effect of the game mechanics is that the game progresses at the same pace no matter how many players are in the game. Adding players doesn't lengthen the game, it merely lengthens the time between each player's turns. And since it's a cooperative game, even when it's not your turn, you'll be very involved because you'll be offering suggestions and helping the others decide what course of action the knights could be following. Also, late comers can easily join in the fun by choosing one of the unused knights, taking one of the unused loyalty cards, and jumping right into the game.

Once again Days of Wonder has a hit on their hands. This is a well tested, polished game with lovely pieces and stunning artwork. The theme is tightly woven throughout and while the game is very easy to learn, it's quite difficult to master. The cooperative nature of the game makes this game ideal for parties. And the length (slightly over an hour) means that it should be relatively easy to get it to the table. I can't recommend this game enough. It's a solid home run.


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