Congratulations, Tim Duncan, for one of the greatest careers in hoops history. A world class player and a world class man!
When it comes to success in life, you can quibble about whether it’s better to be lucky or to be good, but it’s hard to argue that it’s best to be both. Days of Wonder is on such a roll that they’re even catching some lucky breaks. Shadows Over Camelot was originally to be published by Eurogames (under the title Knights of the Round Table), but Eurogames’ parent company, Descartes, ran into financial problems. The firm was eventually sold to Asmodée, which declined to pick up most of Descartes’ pending designs. Thus it was that DoW was able to obtain a game that seems to have been tailor-made for them. Of course, they were also smart enough to grab the design and talented enough to execute it properly. Like I said, they’re both lucky *and* good. Thanks to a review copy kindly provided by the company, I embarked on a quest to discover just how good this latest release is.
Shadows is a cooperative game and thus attempts to share the field with the only other truly successful game of that description, Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. The game’s main brilliance is that one of the players may be a traitor, working with the game system to defeat the players. Even the threat of such a traitor in your midst leads to suspicion and greatly enhances the possibilities for role playing. The designers are Serge Laget and Bruno Cathala, who, together with Bruno Faidutti, can be considered The Three Musketeers of French Game Design. The duo have been somewhat overshadowed by Faidutti, thanks to the other Bruno’s prolific and successful designs, as well as his untiring efforts to promote gaming around the world and, particularly, in France. However, Shadows may definitely get the other two Musketeers their share of the limelight. Both have had other gaming successes. Laget is best known for Mare Nostrum and, with Faidutti, Mystery in the Abbey and Castle. Cathala designed Lawless and his teamings with Faidutti include Queen’s Necklace and Boom Town. Shadows is their first joint effort.
At the start of the game, every player is assigned a different knight, each of whom has his own special power. The players begin with a few white cards (more about these later) and four Life points. There is a deck of seven Loyal cards and one Traitor card and the eight cards are shuffled and one dealt to each player. Everyone secretly checks to see where his loyalties lie. Since the maximum number of players is seven, there’s always a chance that none of the players is traitorous, but you can never be sure.
The game is organized around quests and there will be as many as half a dozen of them occurring simultaneously. Each quest represents a battle between the Forces of Evil and the brave and noble knights. If a quest is won by the Dark Forces, Bad Things happen, including one or more black swords being placed upon the Round Table at Camelot. If the knights win a quest, Good Things happen, including one or more white swords being slapped on the table. When twelve swords are on the table, if the players have more white swords than black ones, the loyal knights win, even those who have Bought the Barony, so to speak. Otherwise, the loyal knights lose and the traitor, if one exists, is the sole winner. Moreover, if there are seven black swords on the table at any time, it’s lights out for the good knights. The knights can also lose if Camelot is successfully besieged or if all the loyal knights die.
On each player’s turn, he must do two things. First, the Forces of Evil are advanced. This is reflected by the player doing one of three things. First, he can draw a card from the Black deck and carry out the card’s actions. Most of these serve to advance a quest for the Bad Guys. For example, it might be a numbered card that is played at a specific quest. Or it might direct that an enemy soldier appear on the Borders of Camelot—if enough soldiers appear, that quest will be lost. Or it might be a card that moves a piece toward the Evil side in what is essentially a tug of war. The rules are different for each quest, but all of them are straightforward. There are also some special black cards and they direct some particularly Nasty Things to happen to the knights.
The second Evil option is for the player to place a siege engine in the field surrounding the castle at Camelot. Evidently, somebody wants inside the castle in the worst way. (To quote Butch Cassidy, “Who are these guys?” The rules never say. The only thing that I know is that they’re EVIL.) If twelve engines are placed, the game is lost.
The third option is for the knight to bravely take it in the shorts and lose one Life point. Life points are easy to lose and hard to regain, so this is a serious step, but sometimes there just ain’t no choice. As you can see, all of these options are bad ones, so the pressure is on the players from the very beginning.
After Evil is advanced, the player gets to do a Heroic action. There are five choices this time. First, Camelot may be a silly place, but it’s also a dangerous one, so it takes a full turn to move from one location to another (the locations are the different quests and Camelot itself). Secondly, the knight can help with the quest he is at. He does this by playing one of his white cards. The most common type of card played here are Fight cards, which are numbered from 1 to 5. The rules for playing these differ for the different quests. For example, to succeed in one quest, five cards must be played and the first must be a 1, the second one a 2, and so on, up to the number 5. At another quest, four cards must be played and they must be two cards of one value and two of a different value. That quest ends if the four white cards are played or if the fourth numbered black card tailored for that quest is played there (which happens when the players do the Evil actions). When either occurs, if the sum of the white cards played there is larger than the black cards’ sum, the knights win; otherwise, Evil does the victory dance. There’s even a way for players to remove some of the siege engines, although a failed attempt there will cost them a Life point. So during the game, the players need to figure the probabilities for disaster at each of the quests and, after consulting their hand, determine where they need to be.
In most quests, multiple knights can participate, with each playing a white card to support it on their turn. Some, however, are solo quests. In these, not only must one knight play all the necessary cards, but if he leaves before the quest is completed, all the white cards there are discarded. Obviously, white cards are very valuable, so it will come as no surprise that they are hard to come by. The easiest way is to stay in Camelot, which allows the knight to draw two cards. Unfortunately, that’s considered the quest at that location, so it takes a full turn. Not only that, but it will take another full turn to get your armored butt over to a quest location to help with the dirty work, so there never seems to be enough time to replenish your hand.
As I mentioned earlier, when a quest is won or lost, some white or black swords are placed on the table at Camelot. In addition, knights participating at a won quest can gain Life points and add white cards to their hands. Some will even provide a relic, which gives the player winning it some very nice powers. Knights present when a quest is lost will lose Life points. In addition, some quests when lost will add more siege engines to the increasingly crowded grounds around Camelot.
The third type of Heroic action is to play a special white card. These are all quite helpful, but by playing one, you lose the chance to directly assist with a quest. The fourth action is to heal yourself. This requires you to play three identical white cards to add one Life point to your total. This is pretty expensive, but when you’re at death’s door, the cost doesn’t seem so bad.
The fifth and final Heroic action is to accuse a player of being The Traitor. If the knight turns out to be loyal, a white sword is changed into a black one in Camelot. If, instead, the accusation is accurate, the traitor is unmasked (but continues to play) and a new white sword is added to the table.
What actions could a traitor do to aid his cause and allow his fellow knights to become suspicious? Well, he can play suboptimally, of course: adding siege engines when there are already too many, taking a black card despite warnings (one player’s special power allows him to peek at the top black card on his turn), loading up on white cards instead of using them, refusing to sacrifice Life points, etc. He can also take advantage of a nice little rule for playing black cards. In the quests where numbered black cards are played, the player has the choice of playing the card face up, so that all can see its value, or face down. If he chooses the latter, he adds a white card to his hand. The usual thinking is that if the card’s value is low, you might as well play it face down, since it won’t affect the final total so much and you get to augment your hand. This is all well and good, but the traitor might very well put a high valued card face down, to give the loyal players a false sense of confidence. And since the cards are shuffled before they are revealed at the resolution of the quest, you need to have a pretty good memory to figure out who might have put down the unexpectedly high card. It gives the traitor another nice way to help himself if he do it subtly enough, while raising the game’s paranoia level that much higher.
An unmasked traitor plays under different rules. On his turn, he performs one of the usual Evil actions (except for losing a Life point, of course). He also gets to discard a random white card from the hand of one of the knights. This is referred to as Taunt the Knights (I kid you not; at least he doesn’t get to taunt them a second time!). Oh yeah, in addition, an unmasked traitor can’t die. It may be good to be the King, but if you can stand to look at yourself in the mirror, it ain’t bad being the Traitor either.
Back to the normal game turn. If a knight is feeling particularly heroic, he can sacrifice a Life point and perform a second, but different, Heroic action. This is usually reserved for desperate situations, which may unfortunately arise all too often, but is available if needed. Each knight can also perform their special power if they wish. These include abilities like playing a special white card for free, drawing three white cards instead of two, or moving from Camelot for free. These are all nice powers which serve to distinguish the players and give them a little boost in their fight against Evil. You’ll find you’ll need all the help you can get.
The game continues until one of the game-ending conditions is met (12 siege engines are in play, seven black swords are in Camelot, or all the loyal knights are dead, each of which counts as a loss) or there are at least 12 swords on the table. In the latter case, the loyal knights only win if there are more white swords than black ones in Camelot.
On the basis of two games, I’d have to say that there are now two great cooperative games in print. Shadows is just as challenging and engrossing as Lord of the Rings and, like the Knizia game, compels usually highly competitive players to happily work together to beat the game system. One area where I think Shadows scores higher than LotR is how well the gameplay ties to the theme. LotR is very thematic, but when the game directs the group to play a certain combination of cards, it feels exactly like that, rather than some harrowing escape from a giant spider. But Shadows has very specific locations and very tangible enemies. The mechanics are just as abstract as LotR’s (maybe even more so), but the moving about and the various miniatures on the boards give a greater sense of the theme, at least to me. Another important factor is the mounting tension. In LotR, you learn to realize when you’re doing well and when you’re in trouble, but most situations are fairly static; the real problems occur with a bad run of tiles, which happens all in a rush. But in Shadows, the squeeze of the different areas threatening to turn to Evil can be almost unbearable. It’s a desperate balancing act and trying to deal with all of these crises is very enjoyable. The game is really the most fun when things aren’t going well.
Then there’s the wonderful addition of the Traitor. This adds the spice of competition that LotR lacks, at least if the Sauron expansion isn’t being used. The result is a game that is *mostly* cooperative, but where every action is scrutinized for how it helps The Cause. This makes the game even more absorbing, since you’ll be paying close attention to every player’s move, not just your own. Casting suspicions on your fellow players can be useful, if you’re trying to unmask the Traitor, as well as great fun (nothing like providing an excuse for smack talk!). Even games without a Traitor will see players pointing fingers at their supposed allies from time to time, which is wonderful.
The addition of the Traitor also goes a long way toward solving a problem that a lot of gamers have with LotR, namely that one or two experienced players can wind up directing how everyone plays. That’s been less of a problem for me, but I can see it occurring. Well, in Shadows, no matter how experienced one player might be, you can’t just blindly take his advice every turn, because who knows, he might be the Traitor! There has to be a minimum amount of independent action and that’s another excellent feature of the game.
Once the players become familiar with the ways the various quests work, the game plays smoothly and quickly. Expect your first game to last a couple of hours at least, but after that, it shouldn’t be too hard to finish the game in the listed time of 90 minutes or less. The different ways the white cards are used in the quests is quite clever and allows the game to remain challenging without being hugely complex. Even without a Traitor, you’ll have to play your best to win your early games.
The concept that each player performs an Evil action as well as a heroic one means that the number of good and bad deeds will be equal no matter how many players are in the game. As a result, the game is equally difficult for all numbers of players, which is quite a nice feature. The real issue arises when there is a traitor. Obviously, a traitor in a three player game can do a lot more damage than in a seven player game. In fact, three player games can be so hard to win when a traitor is involved that DoW has posted some additional rules on their web site to help out the Forces of Good for games with this number.
When starting out, I’d recommend playing with no more than five players, rather than the maximum number of seven. For one thing, the game system takes time to get used to, and a beginning game of seven can definitely drag. Additionally, coordinating that many players is more difficult at first and can make winning quite hard. Once the players have played a couple of times, they should be experienced enough to enjoy the game with the full complement of players.
Another nice thing about the Traitor concept is that it can be used to handicap the game. DoW mentions that to increase the game’s difficulty, the number of Loyal cards can be reduced to match the number of players, making it much more likely that a Traitor Is In Our Midst. They also recommend that beginning players not use a Traitor, so that they get a better idea of how to defeat the game system before having to deal with one of their own adding to their woes. The problem with that is that the possibility of a Traitor adds so much to the game, it’s a shame to eliminate it totally. But it occurs to me that, with a little bit of effort, you can have your figgy pudding and eat it too. Just decide before you start what percentage of your games you want to include a Traitor. Let’s say you’re playing a five player game and you want one third of them to have a Traitor. Divide the number of players by the percentage desired. In the example provided, 5 divided by one third is 15. Take 15 cards from a standard deck, label one of them as the Traitor’s card (I highly recommend the Queen of Spades), and then deal one to each player. Voila, you can make traitorous games as likely or as unlikely as you want.
I think one warning should be made about Shadows. Despite the allure of cooperative play, I don’t think this is a game that particularly lends itself to family-style or casual play. As opposed to Ticket to Ride, which can be taught in ten minutes, Shadows is more involved. Just going over the rules for the various quests takes much longer than that. Plus, there is the unusual style of play, which takes some time to get used to. I can see most groups of casual players being put off by the time it takes to get into the game and by the time required to master it. I’m not saying the game is unsuitable for groups like these, but if you’re planning on giving the game as a gift to your next door neighbors, it would probably be a good idea if you were around to teach them their first game.
That brings me to my one major complaint with Shadows: the rulebook. Many people, including myself, felt that LotR was a missed opportunity for gaining greater exposure to gaming because, despite its very attractive and timely theme, its rulebook was sufficiently obtuse that I imagine quite a few impulse buyers gave up the game in disgust before even trying it. DoW went to an opposite extreme with the Shadows rulebook, but I fear they went too far. Every aspect of the game is explained in great detail, with copious illustrations and examples. The problem is, it takes time to work through all this, making one’s initial learning experience quite lengthy. Worst of all, to my way of thinking, a second book, The Book of Quests, is provided. If this worked as advertised, as a more comprehensive exposition of each quest, to be consulted if an unusual situation arises, it wouldn’t be a problem. But critical rules are buried in the text of this second manual, which means that to truly learn the game, you need to read both books from cover to cover. I’m pretty good with rules, but it took me a good hour to go through both manuals before I felt I had a grasp on how the game is played. This is entirely too long to learn a game that really isn’t that complicated. Even worse, I would suspect many players wouldn’t even bother reading the second book before beginning play. Such players wouldn’t suspect that a knight abandoning a solo quest must discard all the white cards played there, since that rule, along with a number of others, isn’t in the main rulebook. I applaud DoW for trying to make the rules as clear as possible, but too much of a good thing can be just as bad as not enough, and I think the execution here was faulty.
It almost seems pointless to comment on component quality in a Days of Wonder game, since their standards are so uniformly excellent, but they may have even raised the bar a bit with Shadows Over Camelot. Not only does everything look amazingly good, but there’s so much of it! In addition to the main game board (which is quite large), there are *three* side boards, showing different quests, all of which are double-sided. The artwork on these boards is as gorgeous as you would suspect. The cards, which are very sturdy, look great as well. Each player gets an information mat personalized for his knight, chock full of information and lavishly illustrated. These are double-sided as well, with data on the despicable Traitor on the reverse side. Then there are no fewer than thirty miniatures, depicting various foes, relics, and the player characters themselves. Each is lovingly detailed. The players’ pieces are all quite distinguishable, but in addition, their bases are colored, so that picking out your piece is a snap. Maybe, given the subject matter, the box art could have been a bit less cartoony looking, but minor quibbles aside, the look of this game should take your breath away. And, with all this, they’re still selling it for less than $40 at Funagain, which has to be considered great value for the money.
I may not know the average air speed of an unladen swallow, but I’m relatively sure that Days of Wonder has a hit on their hands with Shadows Over Camelot. The game takes the cooperative concept initiated by Lord of the Rings to a new level, retaining the very appealing idea of cooperative play while adding a competitive element. The marvelous concept of a Traitor spices up just about every aspect of play, while lending itself to roleplaying and other enjoyable japes. The game system is both clever and challenging and the tension during play is quite palpable. Make sure you go through the rules thoroughly before playing, but you should find that despite the large number of details, this is not a complex game at heart. It may not have all the power of the legendary Excalibur, but gamers looking for something different in a great looking game may find that their quest is at an end.
Great review, Larry. This game is on my shopping list. Although I normally do not like co-operative games, I will be getting this one due to the 'traitor' element. This overrides any other mechanic for me.
Deck of cards suggestion is a good one. Makes it seem a natural to want to have extra loyal and traitor cards come in the box.
Thanks, very good review. Just played for the first time with a group of experienced gamers. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. We couldn't resist playing with a traitor, but next time we will play without one just to learn how to win the game at all! Those siege engines just wouldn't stop increasing.
I missed the following thing in this review: a) Shadows over Camelot is essentially a card game; b) There is a high percentage of luck in this one (Ok, some people don't care this, but to other yes. The important thing is to say it).
I agree 100% with Nick Case in his article at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geekforum.php3?action=viewthrea...