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Thinking back on it now, it’s entirely possible that I wanted to like Camelot too much going in. It’s rare that I should let a game’s author dictate my buying decisions but I guess after Drakon and Cave Troll, I really began to take a fondness in Tom Jolly’s simple game mechanics/ highly addicting qualities. In my opinion Drakon is easily one of the most underrated fantasy game titles in Fantasy Flight Games’ exquisite catalog so naturally when I happened upon another fantasy themed tile laying game from the same author for $19.99, it was a no-debate purchase.
The trouble, however, with Camelot in my opinion is that it sacrifices solid game mechanics for the gimmick of hasty decision-making. So prevalent is this trait that the mechanic is actually trademarked "Tom Jolly’s Lightning Game System". Before we dig into the nitty-gritty, let’s start with the cold hard facts, shall we?
Released in 2005 by Wingnut Games, Camelot consists of a game board, summary token, 2 turn-indicating tokens, five accoutrements of kingship tokens, 30 numbered gold tokens, 114 game tokens (which breaks down to 19 for each of the six playable colors), and a black & white 4 page rulebook.
The components, though simple, are surprisingly thematic and adequate in capturing the game’s lighter tones. The 16 x 16 inch full-color game board is particularly noteworthy for it’s rich color pallet and high-gloss finish. Again, though simple, everything here (including the box art itself) is quite impressive to behold.
The game works on the basic premise that Excalibur has once again found itself lodged in that pesky stone and just about every Arthur and Merlin in the land want to take a shot at dislodging it. Players each command the same basic force (which consists of five units: Arthurs, Galahads, Lancelots, a Merlin and a Morgan Le Fey). As logic would suggest, each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses be it the ability to only move one hex space at a time but double sword strength or Merlin’s increased range of attack thanks to magic and so on. Each unit can be killed off by opponent attacks except for a player’s Arthur supply, which simply regenerates endlessly at the player’s entry tile.
At it’s core, this is a light combat system whereby players can assemble units as they so choose with the understanding that only the Arthur character has the ability to take and retrieve the Excalibur token. The real goal of course is to make it back to your entry token with the legendary sword as everyone else is going to suddenly do whatever they can to impede your progress. Worse still is that while carrying Excalibur, Arthur’s movement decreases to one space per turn (rather than his usual two).
Combat is broken down simply to each unit’s sword and shield icons (strength and defense). A third factor, range, comes into play with magicians and bow wielders. Additionally, while it’s each man for himself, players do have the option of combining forces should they have a common goal (like say, not letting someone else win the game). The idea is to gang up on the player about to make the clean getaway in the hopes of claiming the sword for one’s self. Of course once the sword is up for grabs, alliances tend to quickly dissipate.
While this all sounds quite interesting I’m sure, the trouble lies in the game’s very alleged strong suit: Put simply, the Lightening System essentially destroys any hope the game may have had at strategy.
Some say that there is a new sense of strategy to be developed in the ensuing madness, but it’s tough to tell amidst the chaos of keeping track of all of your own board characters while passing one of the two “turn-indicator” tokens around the table like a hot potato. Because the game centers itself on a sense of utter mayhem, a minimum of three players is required to partake and as you approach the 6-player maximum, things get even more out of control. Part of the trouble, at least as far as I’m concerned, stems from the fact that the game allows two players simultaneous movement at all times (even from the very get go of the game).
What this means is it doesn’t take long for player tokens to begin littering the board in all directions with combat happening constantly from every angle. Since the rules are structured where a player has to freeze his or her piece once another player calls out their desire to battle, many turns are spent simply taking an onslaught from all directions. Sure there are cool elements like magic spells and teleportation, but truthfully, I found very little opportunity to experiment with their benefits once the bedlam got underway.
More often than not, pieces are being eliminated at a frantic rate and Arthur pieces are being constantly regenerated at their start ("entry") tokens to give it another shot. The sword, in the mean time, is changing hands quicker than any known virus.
Again, if this live for the millisecond pacing sounds like something you and your group of gaming friends would enjoy, by all means, don’t let my critique stand in your way. I suspect that I was simply looking for a new variation of some of Jolly’s more strategic entries going in and came away quite disappointed with the lack of discipline here.
Anyway, the first player to snag the sword with an Arthur and get back to home base is the winner. Sometimes it happens in a matter of minutes, other times it can take a full half hour when nobody seems to be getting anywhere but back to start. Like most Tom Jolly games I’ve encountered, the game comes standard with several variations of play right out of the box (and includes the chits required to do so). Some of the variations here include scattering the included gold tokens around the board and setting a value to determine the game’s winner (example: First person to collect and return 15 gold value to their entry token wins). Another is to scatter about the four tokens of kingship (thrown, scepter, crown, and robe) so that capturing and returning with two would be the winner. A further variation on this one could be to allow any unit except for Merlin to carry the items. In all there are 4 variations (not counting the basic game itself) printed in the rulebook and the possibility for many more with a bit of imagination and appreciation for the frantic pacing.
Of course, the rules even suggest slowing things down to a turn-based method of play if the Lightning System doesn’t tickle your fancy and though that should have theoretically done away with my complaint, the truth is that the game is pretty darn lackluster at a crawl. The mechanics go from being too much to consider in the ensuing melee to far too simplistic and mundane in one swift motion. I suppose with a little time and effort, I could potentially develop a rule set that would meet the two extremes somewhere in the middle but more than likely, this one will be retired to the shelf in favor of Drakon or Cave Troll when friends have a hankering for a Tom Jolly fantasy game.
Helpful review, thanks. I'm a Tom Jolly fan as well and have been curious about this one. I'm still tempted to pick this up out of curiosity, but at least I now have a better idea what to expect. I like unique games and it seems like it would be worth trying just for the unique play style. I also wondered how playable it would be if you removed the lightning system, so thanks for including that bit.
Thanks for the feedback. I know a lot of gamers get offended when a critique gives a title they love anything less than perfect rating but this is honestly how I felt after playing it. I'm looking into Cave Troll next as I hear that one's closer to what I enjoy about Drakon.
Anyway, I did have an opportunity to play without the Lightening System (as recommended in the rules) and while it did do away with the chaotic pacing, it revealed some of the game's more underlying flaws of simplicity. It's not terrible by any means, but pales in comparison to the beauty that is usually Tom Jolly.
In all, and despite my less than stellar rating, I would recommend giving it a try. The humor and great art are worth the cost of admission alone.