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.
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.
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.
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.