Thursday, June 23, 2005

Shadows over Camelot

At its core, Shadows over Camelot is a very close sibling to Lord of the Rings (if you haven't played or know nothing about Lord of the Rings, this review will ultimately make more sense if you read that piece at some point). Each player is a different Knight of the Round Table (Arthur, Galahad, Kay, Gawain, even Bedeviere if you download him from the Days of Wonder site ... but, shockingly, no Lancelot, depriving us of some of the best jokes). You have a hand of cards, which you spend to accomplish quests. These can be numeric fight cards, useful for defeating the Black Knight, Picts, Saxons, finding Sir Lancelot (where is he anyway? Only his armor shows up), or defeating the Dragon. There are also Grail cards, which – shockingly – help in finding the Holy Grail. The grail in the game looks more like the sort of cup that would get you disintegrated if you drank from it; if you should ever run into the sort of situation in which this kind of knowledge would be useful, remember to choose more wisely. Maybe that's why they had such a hard time finding it. And there are also special cards, which allow various sorts of actions.

The Knights all begin at Camelot. But rather than all progressing together through linear adventures, as is the case in Lord of the Rings, they now are able to split up and pursue quests as individuals or smaller teams. Some may choose to stay in Camelot gathering more cards. One may go to face off with the Black Knight in a tournament. Or one or more Knights take on a larger quest, heading off in search of the Holy Grail or Excalibur. Once you've made your way to your quest, each turn you may play a card: if it's a fighting quest, you play a numbered fight card to try to get high scores in various patterns (the Black Knight requests two pair, the quest for Lancelot a full house, the Picts and Saxons a straight). For the Grail quest, each Grail card simply advances a track. Once you run out of useful cards to play on a quest, you may move about amongst these available quests, although if you abandon an individual quest, you have to lose one of the played cards for your faintheartedness.

While you are doing this, each turn you (generally) draw one card from a black deck. These will usually make one quest harder, by canceling progress, upping the target total of fight cards required, or by counting down a clock.

As each quest ends, either because the Knights played enough cards, the bad guys maxed out their strength, or the clock counted down, you figure out who won. Some quests – the Saxons, Picts, the Grail, Excalibur – end in failure as soon as the clock counts down, or success if the good guys play all the required cards first. Combat quests, like the Black Knight, involve counting up the total card values played when the quests ends one way or another. Regardless, the major side effect of ended quests is Swords, which can be black or white, which are victory points. If, at the end of the game, there are more White than Black swords, the good guys win. If not, they lose.

If this was all there was to the game, I could write its obituary right now and save a lot of time: "A less thematic, less challenging, less well-balanced, and less interesting Lord of the Rings that has noticeably more down time. The only thing it has more of is, arguably, complexity. Oh, and the endgame can be tedious". Fortunately, there is one more detail which really makes the game: the Traitor. The Traitor plays as a normal Knight, but with different goals: he is trying to both a) keep his identity concealed and b) make sure the loyal Knights lose. You can throw around accusations of treason, which will score a white sword if accurate or convert white swords to black swords if not (very nasty). If the traitor is still unrevealed at the end of the game, two white swords will be converted, which will make it harder for the good guys to win (whether this will actually be hard is still an open question in my mind). The doubt and suspicion engendered by there being a traitor in the player's midst is fun, and amusingly out of proportion to the traitor's actual ability to slow the other players down, which is not thatconsiderable. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a loyalty card - either Loyal or Traitor. I recommend in the strongest possible terms the optional rule which includes as many Loyal cards as there are players, plus the Traitor, instead of always including all 7 Loyal cards. As I say, the Traitor makes the game; if the odds of having one are too low, the game loses substantially in flavor, challenge, and interest. This variant will ensure that there is usually a traitor, but keep open the small but entertaining possibility that there isn't.

Although we are still a little ways from the end of this piece, I will now give you my bottom line. I enjoyed Shadows over Camelot. There are more cooperative games out there than you might think, but almost none are in this somewhat heavier weight class, or at the level of sophistication and professionalism of good German games. It's certainly not on the same level as Lord of the Rings, but the Traitor adds a very nice twist, with each player's moves being analyzed for possible disloyalty (hmmm ... I can sense some sort of comedic, Soviet-era spinoff coming. Maybe Paranoia: The Board Game). If this is the analysis you want to hear, you might want to stop reading now.

Because even with those strengths, and even though I'm ultimately giving it a thumbs up, Shadows over Camelot has a number of problems, some potentially rather significant. The two most obviously problematic are a) a suspect endgame, and b) clear replayability questions. Another has to do with game balance. To take them in order, then ...

The Endgame: Games should, cooperative or not, ratchet up tension towards a climax. This is why many Battle of the Bulge games end at the German high-water mark rather than after the Allied counterattacks despite the appeal of symmetry. Once the Germans have succeeded or failed in reaching their objectives, most of the tension has drained out of the game. In Lord of the Rings, you have the agonizing struggle over the last board to the final goal of Mount Doom as your resources dwindle to almost nothing. In Shadows over Camelot things are not driven to conclusion adequately and there is sometimes not a clear finish line to strive for, and the game does not carry its own momentum to the end. The Knights sometimes seem to get into a holding pattern, where they are trying to not lose the major quests like the Holy Grail while they wait for some minor quest, like the Black Knight, to fill up so they can lose it, thus filling up the Round Table with swords, ending the game, and winning (because there are ultimately more White than Black swords). If there is a Traitor out there it can add a little tension, but I found the endgame ultimately unsatisfying. There is also a mechanic of Catapults outside Camelot: once 12 show up, the good guys lose. Unlike Sauron's implacable advance, though, Knights can dedicate their turn to the elimination of catapults. So as the threat grows, more and more Knights are just sitting around rolling dice to blow up catapults, which is a drag and not fun ... so the game actually develops more inertia and becomes more plodding towards the end, just when it should be accelerating, cranking the tension up to painful levels.

Replayability: A game tends to be replayable if it has decent variability, which is usually tied up in a well-done theme. Even though Lord of the Rings is linear, the challenges presented by the wide variety of different events, rewards, and penalties is hugely varied, as is the flavor of the game depending on the rate at which event tiles come out. This gives it thematic depth as well as guaranteeing no two games will be alike. Shadows over Camelot is clearly a far less rich game. You're just trying to rack up various poker hands (what is it with poker these days?), and the event cards on both sides of the table are limited in numbers and fairly bland. There is some pacing with the different quests, but the rewards and penalties are very abstract, homogenous, and not not very thrilling either thematically or in terms of generating compelling choices or game play. Also, the special powers of the various Knights are neat, but with the exception of the clever card-trading power of King Arthur, and perhaps Gawain and Galahad, most are not so different that playing different ones would lead to a significantly different game experience. A couple Knights will, in fact, never use their special powers. Virtually without fail in the eurogame genre, a lack of fundamental variability translates into a lack of replay value.

Balance: One of the great strengths of Lord of the Rings is that Knizia understood that players were going to start from a low baseline, and then learn and improve fairly quickly. So the 15-level game is interesting for newbies, but provisions are included to take you up to the 10-level game, which is a finely-balanced game where players will almost always be challenged. It is not clear that the same level of attention to detail in terms of balance has been put into Shadows over Camelot. My first early games had comfortable and relatively non-challenging wins for the Knights (even with a Traitor), which was worrisome. The reports I had heard indicated a substantial win edge for the Knights. For this game to work, I feel that the pressure really has to be on the cooperative side. If the good guys win too easily, or are not feeling constant pressure, the game lacks interest and staying power. I've heard that in the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings, Knizia aimed for a 50/50 win split between Sauron and the good guys, and this feels right to me – not in terms of fairness necessarily, but in terms of keeping the game compelling.

Subsequently, I started hearing of a few Traitor wins, and witnessed one myself. However, my worries in this respect have not really been mitigated. The Traitor win I saw was explicable mainly in terms of bad luck. There is enormous variance in the power of the black cards – several Morgan cards are extremely nasty (with all Knights losing cards, life, or forcing the immediate draw of three new black cards), so seeing these early and often (after a reshuffle) will really whack the Knights. So my perception has shifted a bit ... the question is still "is the game balanced?", but not so much in terms of win/loss but whether or not player skill will dominate the chaos of the game.

Regardless, I find it hard to imagine that any serious, minimally-cooperative group will be significantly challenged by the basic game, that is, playing without a Traitor – even on their first game. Given average luck, I really don't think the Traitor is going to win anywhere close to half the games of Shadows over Camelot, although it's also true that I think the game could work with a lower ratio. My games have been enjoyable, but I (as a Knight) simply have not felt under the gun to nearly the degree that we do in Lord of the Rings, with dire things closing in from all sides and – critically – feeling like I have the options to deal with them. In Lord of the Rings, when things start to get tense, you still have a lot of options, and even when things start to snowball, you can aim for a respectable score (or at least not having to enter one of the lowest scores on the high-score sheet) or cut your losses on the current board and try to better on the next one. In Shadows over Camelot, it seems like once things start to snowball your options become extremely constrained for the rest of the game (and so it feels more like you just got hosed by the cards) and you can't even play for an honorable loss because there is no scoring, so you have to play longer with no real hope "winning", and nothing else to shoot for.

It is also worrisome that the designers have not clearly staked out a path from inexperience to experience in the rules, with just some various wishy-washy suggestions about how to increase the difficulty, which indicates to me that they haven't thought that much about this important detail or paid enough attention to the overall game balance, instead hoping that the players will work it out for themselves, or "solving" the problem with a big chunk of randomness (and I should mention that one of the difficulty options, the Squire's Game, where players start without a Knight card and must earn one is almost totally uninteresting to me since the special power of your Knight card is a decent chunk of what flavor the game has). This is the difference (or one of the differences, anyway) between Knizia and the rest; Knizia has the attention to detail to identify and nail down these things.

This leads in to my ultimate frustration with Shadows over Camelot, I think, even though I like the game well enough in the short run. That is that Knizia has clearly shown the way on this. Lord of the Rings will not be for everyone, but given what it is trying to be and the theme and the inherent limitations of the genre, I feel it is an example of a game that has almost achieved perfection, a game that after dozens of plays it's hard to imagine any significant way in which it could be improved. Shadows over Camelot is highly derivative from Lord of the Rings (you could argue – perhaps not entirely successfully, but still – that Shadows is little more than a Lord of the Rings where you have to spend a turn moving between the quest lines, and with a Traitor), and yet it simply seems not to have grasped the important fundamental lessons illuminated by the prior game: the importance of randomness and variability, pacing, short-, medium-, and long-term planning, balance, player experience, flavor, and tension, and how these challenges can be successfully tackled. With more attention to detail, Shadows over Camelot could have been a top-tier game. As it is, it's a decent game, and it'll be fun for a while, but its unlikely to be one I'll be playing in six months – never mind 5 years hence.

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