“Shadows Over Camelot” Casts Shadows on My Mood

For the first time in a long time, I’ve found a game that I don’t really enjoy. This is made even more surprising by the fact that the game is a cooperative one, a mechanic that I usually really enjoy. The game is Shadows Over Camelot, which I’ve generally seen receive a lot of praise, but doesn’t seem suit my personal play style.

Game Overview

Shadows Over Camelot was first published by Days of Wonder in 2005. It is a rarity, in that it is a strategy game that can take up to 7 people, and in fact plays best with 5 – 7 (according to BoardGameGeek users). Players each play a knight of the round table, and go on quests to bring glory to Camelot, such as defeating the black knight, slaying dragons, and finding the holy grail. These quests are generally completed by playing appropriately numbered fight cards, as Shadows Over Camelot is a hand management game to some degree. These quests earn you white swords, to lay on the round table, which you’re aiming to fill. But there is evil at work as well. Each turn, players must play one evil action in addition to their one good action; this could mean adding siege engines that attack Camelot, obstructing quests, or taking life points. There is also an option to add a secret traitor to the round table, who will also try to subtly obstruct other good knights’ progress. If the good knights lose quests, black swords are added to the round table, and the knights will lose if the final sword count includes more black swords than white.

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The not-so-brave knights around the round table, where good or evil swords will be placed depending on which force wins quests. Too many black swords means the game is lost.

Session Review

For such a seemingly long and complex game, the rules are surprisingly simple once you are familiar with them, but the strategy is very difficult to get right. As mostly first time players, our gaming group didn’t appreciate the immediacy of action required. The game doesn’t allow for much warming up, and you really need to start going on quests right away. Soon, however, there were so many obstacles that it seemed impossible to win. There are so many quests to fight evil action on that there aren’t enough people to adequately complete them in good time. This is made even more difficult by the slow pace of action taking, where drawing a card or moving to a new question takes up your entire turn. It is possible, if not necessary to let some black swords fall in minor failed quests, while focusing on the more important quests, but we spent too much time on the least threatening quests that had immediate rewards (for example, fighting the Black Knight), which says something about the greediness of our knights of the round table. Needless to say, we got in trouble fast, and there were extremely few moments of success throughout our game.

It really requires a high level of planning between players, however, the traitor mechanism serves to cause distrust among players. As well, not being able to talk about the cards you have or have seen seriously hinders your ability to plan. Having such a large number of people helps cover more quests, but makes communication complicated; having many varied differences in opinion lead to poorly constructed plans and wasted actions, as people tried to go in different directions. For example, when battling the Pyke invasion, there was a lot of debate over whether to stick it out and sacrifice ourselves or to retreat and take losses, which resulted in people moving in and out of the quest zone, instead of just staying and playing cards as quickly as possible. Personally, I also found that the communication and strategic issues made it hard to get involved in the theme and have fun, because I was so focused on spouting strategy and trying to get everyone to work together. We didn’t even have any Monty Python jokes cracked during our session, which was a wasted opportunity. Unsurprisingly, the traitor won in the end, by taking advantage of our lack of coordination.

In Sum

Overall, Shadows of Camelot is close to being a game I would like, because I enjoy the socialization and brainstorming aspect of cooperative games, however, I think that it needs more hopeful moments. Having a challenging game is fine, but even with 7 players each doing their best, I found the task to be overwhelmingly stressful. Perhaps this is enjoyable for some gamers, but I personally like to feel even small moments of accomplishment, and have time to enjoy a bit of socialization, both of which were few and far between here. I would perhaps try playing the game without the traitor, and see if it is more balanced. Otherwise, the knights of Camelot don’t appear to be that courageous after all.

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The Problems of Colonization and Aboriginal Representation in Smallworld

Disclaimer: It’s important to note that I am a white woman of European descent, critiquing this game from an obviously privileged perspective. I can only speak for my perspective of the game, and not for anyone else’s.

A recent lecture on representation in gaming from my Analog Gaming and Libraries class has really been encouraging me to take on discussions and critiques of some beloved games. Being a product of human imagination, games are bound to carry problematic themes and misrepresent people and cultures, in line with our own biases. While people can still enjoy playing these games, it’s important to also use them to critique the social issues that are embedded in them. One game that really stands out in my mind to critique, that I recently had a chance to play for the first time, is Smallworld, a game which center’s around problematic ideals of colonization.

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An example of a Smallword race. These Alcehmist Tritons are currently overtaking a declined race of giants, shown by the greyed token in the mountain region.

Smallworld is a fantasy themed strategy game designed by Phillipe Keyearts and published by Days of Wonder. In Smallworld you play various fantasy races, attempting to build your civilization and collecting the most gold. You collect gold for each region you occupy each turn, and whoever has the most gold by the end of the game wins. Each race has special powers to overtake land more easily, defend that land, or gain more money from it. What separates this from other colonization games is the premise of civilizations going into decline; Smallworld is, of course, small, and there’s limited space to grow, thus you will eventually decide to stop growing your race’s colony and start building a new civilization with a new race. You’ll no longer be able to actively move your declined race, but can still gain money from their territories. The strategy in Smallworld is knowing when to put your civilizations in decline before they are spread too thin and unable to defend themselves.

European and North American obsession with colonization games is not a new issue, but it was particularly striking to me in this game because of the problematic representation of aboriginal peoples. At the beginning of the game, there need to be obstacles on regions to prevent any player from sweeping the board too easy, and the main obstacle in place are “Lost Tribe” tokens, functioning the same as a civilization as declining. Equating an aboriginal culture to a declining civilization is obviously problematic, especially given the history of colonization around the world where aboriginal cultures were wrongfully described as “primitive” or “barbaric” by European colonizers.

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The initial setup of Smallworld, with the “Lost Tribe” tokens inhabiting the map.

It could be argued, and was argued by a friend at the table, that it’s better to acknowledge that these things happened than to ignore them. There is truth to this, as an obviously colonial game like Smallworld does provoke more discussion on the issue than games that are less explicitly colonial, but still problematic, like Settlers of Catan. It’s important to have games that include this issue, however, there is a difference between properly acknowledging it and simply normalizing it, and I believe that Smallworld does the latter. To properly acknowledge oppression and genocide of aboriginal peoples, a game (or other media) needs to be educational and respectful, but Smallworld is not. No identity is given to the “Lost Tribes” in the narrative background or even in the artwork, which reduces them to shadowy figures. Since the entire game resolves around civilizations going into decline, it’s easy to pass of the “Lost Tribes” decline as a normal process that’s the same as the other colonizing races. The mechanics present the idea that colonization is inevitable, that as one race grows, it must expand and overtake another. There are ways to play without playing aggressively, but in order to be successful and gather more money, you must gather as much territory as you can. Perhaps this is some sort of commentary on our acceptance of this principle in real life, and designed to make us aware of its flaws, but I doubt any critique was intentionally designed. By setting the game in a fantasy realm, a sense of brutality stemming from the colonization mechanics can be more easily ignored.

Overall, I would caution against playing this game with just any crowd, but, as long as all players are OK with the theme, and are especially comfortable critiquing the theme, Smallworld can be fun to play and can spur some productive discussion about the problems of colonial ideals. I hope to see some variants in the future that retain the fun but create a more respectful environment, similar to what the First Nations of Catan did for Settlers of Catan, and that properly acknowledge aboriginal issues from an aboriginal perspective.

“Betrayal at House on the Hill” Drives Me Insane in the Best Way Possible

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of playing two sessions of one of my favourite games, Betrayal at House on the Hill with one of my favorite groups of people, the FIMS Game Club. I love Betrayal for the strong theme and storytelling component, which is almost like a basic RPG because of its variable scenarios and skills checks. I’m also a fan of the cooperative-traitor mechanic, which works very well with the story, as your characters try to avoid going insane together. Betrayal is vastly different each time you play, so writing about only one session feels like leaving out a core component of the experience. So instead, I’ve decided to compare the two sessions.

Game Overview

Betrayal at House on the Hill was published by Avalon Hill, now a part of Wizards of the Coast. It’s recommended for 3-6 players and is supposed to take an hour to play, though I find it usually take at least an hour and a half. Betrayal is the story of a group of misfits exploring an abandoned house. Each explorer has different traits; some are faster, smarter, stronger, or saner than others. As the night progresses however, mysterious forces come in to play, and the explorer’s sanity, and life, are endangered. Even though it’s not strictly a role-playing game, it’s easy to have fun and add embellishments to your characters and the story, based on your characters traits.

In the first phase of Betrayal, the house is explored and mapped out. This effect is achieved by laying down random room tiles to unexplored parts of the house, creating new house every game. These rooms, however, are far from empty. Explorers might encounter strange events or objects, or find Omens of the Haunt that will soon be upon the explorers. Each time an Omen is found, there is a dice roll to see if the Haunt begins. The more Omens that are found, the more likely that the Haunt (the second phase) will begin. This first phase is driven almost entirely through luck, which can be frustrating to some. However, I find that it fits very much with the horror theme of the game. Although randomness creates a distance from reality, due to the implausibility of certain events happening, this facilitates the prominent supernatural theme and a feeling of uncontrollability.  As your character’s Sanity levels fall, yours may start to as well…

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The explorers reveal rooms as they travel through the house, leading to a randomized modular board set up like this one.

The Haunt is the second phase, and really the “main” phase of Betrayal. As the title suggests, there is now a traitor in the midst of the explorers. A scenario of their betrayal is determined from the conditions of the Haunt reveal, and both sides are given different rules win conditions, and a potential conclusion to their story. These conditions are kept secret from the opposing side, introducing an element of deception to the story. Luck still factors in at this phase, as completing tasks and fighting opponents usual require skill rolls. The strategy is in reading the opposing team, guessing their rules and decisions will be and pre-emptively blocking or avoiding them.

The Sessions

In our first session, we played the scenario “Frog Leg Stew”, in which I was deemed a traitor who works alongside a witch to turn all of the other explorers into frogs for her stew. In order to win, I had to incapacitate all the other explorers with the help of the witches spells and her frog-chasing cat, and the explorers could stop me by searching and finding all the mandrakes in the house to cast me away. This session was pretty evenly matched between us, because the witch had some pretty powerful spells at her disposal, such as un-defendable attacks and instant teleportation. However, in the end, the survivors did survive and the witch was scared away. In my experience, the traitor often has a more difficult time winning, but can still be very satisfying to play. Small victories, such as killing off survivors, are possible. The traitor also often has more complex and interesting steps to take, and can have fun characterizing multiple actors, in my case, the witch, her cat, and my original character. My main goal during my round as traitor was to just be able to use each of my mechanics (in this case my witchy spells) at least once. Even though I didn’t win, I still managed to cook half of the survivors in my stew, and had a fun time making cackling noises while doing it.

In our second session, we played the scenario, “The Abyss Gazes Back”, in which I was one of the non-traitor explorers. This session revealed one of the rare but frustrating outcomes a randomized Haunt, which is to have a haunt start too early, after about only 2-3 rounds of play. Having done less exploration, and found less room tiles and items, it’s then more difficult to navigate in this second round. Added to this were the mechanics of the haunt, where a gate into hell had been opened and the house was slowly collapsing into the abyss. With less room tiles to prolong the collapse, we had less time to counteract the traitor’s plots, and eventually fell to our doom. However, we still managed to have a lot of fun facing our imminent demise by playing on the strong storytelling elements of the game. Unfortunate circumstances become part of the story, for example, an accidental death of the traitor in the Pentagram Room was spun as their sacrificial offering to the gods of Hell intent on taking down the house. Being part of the “survivors” team also allows for some really fun interactions between characters, as they find solace which each other while dealing with the traitorous plot.

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The last survivors try to escape down a hallway as the house collapses (“collapsed” tiles were flipped over to show that they were impassable).

Conclusions

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a great game when you want to have fun and not take things too seriously. As someone who’s not even a big fan of horror, I still enjoy this game because of the ridiculous stories that are told through the combination of set scenarios and luck. It really allows you to improvise strategies and create interesting dynamics with your friends. And with some horror music, dim lights, and the right scenario, the atmosphere this game creates can still give you the creeps, in the best way possible.