Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Shadows Over Camelot

I finally dug out Shadows Over Camelot at the weekend to entertain kids too tired and cold to continue sledding. Ice, snow and now freezing fog mean it is less than easy to move around Brighton right now, and my car has become stuck on more than one occasion. No winter tyres, see?

Shadows Over Camelot is a very entertaining game which I've played a few times now, and was the first of the recent slew of co-op board games I have tackled. Other notable members of the genre include Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica, and Arkham Horror.

In Shadows players take on the role of famous knights in the service of King Arthur. The objective is to complete enough quests to save Camelot before it is destroyed. The success/failure ratio is measured by neat black and white swords which are added to the Round Table on the board, usually as quests are completed or failed. Little model catapults measure the degree of chaos in the realm - get to 12, and the knights lose. If there are seven black swords on the Round Table, the knights also lose. To win, they require seven white swords.

Players can complete quests using cards, of which there are a variety. Grail cards help in the quest for the Holy Grail, and Fight cards help in combat-oriented quests like fighting the Saxons or the Black Knight. There are some other unique cards which can help, like the famous Girl In The Pond card (my daughter's description of the Lady of the Lake). Merlin cards - of which there are several - are great for getting rid of pesky catapults and smiting dire black cards.

Each turn, a knight must either lose a life (knights begin with four, and can have up to six, but die if reduced to zero), put another catapult in front of Camelot, or pull a black card. These cards advance the Bad Things that happen in the realm. Knights acquire white cards only when they complete quests, or spend a turn in Camelot. One of the big co-op elements in the entire game is distributing white cards when a quest is completed. In our recent game we were quick to cotton onto the fact that knights with grail cards should be given more grail cards and kept on the grail quest, leaving other knights to tackle the invading Picts and Saxons or joust with the Black Knight.

The game can seem relatively complex at first glance, particularly as you need to explain each of the different quest boards to players. Each quest board is a mini game in itself, and it can be a lot to take in for the beginner. However, the game is also easy enough not to totally shaft a novice team of knights early on, and give them a fighting chance of winning. I hasten to add that, as we were rusty, and there were only three of us, we omitted the traitor rule, where one knight is potentially working against the others to bring Camelot down (something which obviously inspired the Cylon concept in Battlestar Galactica, the boardgame).

We ended up with a fairly close game, despite an early lead which saw five, yes FIVE white swords on the Round Table and no black swords in sight. However, after that the black swords came thick and fast: the Saxons beat us, and while Excalibur and Lancelot's armour were recovered, the dragon was unleashed and the Black Knight gave us a severe thrashing. The big issue became the increasing number of catapults before Camelot, and the threat of more Picts and Saxons. We realised that we could win if we completed the Grail Quest, which would give us two swords and victory, so focused on that. We achieved it with 11 catapults on the board, and two knights with only one life each (Palamides and Galahad, with Gawain down to two). I think if one of us had been a traitor, we'd never have won.

As a game it is a little less involved than Battlestar Galactica, and uses a more universally recognised mythology than BG (which will seem like jibberish if you have not watched the TV series). Everyone knows who King Arthur is, apart from those of us with the Girl in the Pond card, of course.

The game is slightly less co-op than Pandemic, which I think provokes even more inter-player dialogue and planning. Pandemic's problem is that it deals with plague in the modern world, something swine flu injects into contemporary headlines on a regular basis, while Shadows is about a legendary age of knightly valour and magic.

With a house full of people this Christmas, I will be seeing whether I can twist a few arms and get a game of Shadows. I'm also hoping for a game of Mystery of the Abbey, also a popular one with house guests. Days of Wonder games seem to have a broader appeal than some of the more esoteric options on my games cupboard.


  1. I think "Girl in the Pond" should be the official title of the card from now on.

    I enjoyed this game the first -- and thus far only -- time I played it, and I'd like to have another go. I'm not fond of the traitor mechanic though, and I prefer to play without.

  2. coward! ;) The traitor mechanic makes for a tenser game... but having one can make it difficult to win!!

  3. We played it again over Xmas with four knights and we used the traitor mechanic, but as it turned out, the traitor card stayed in the box and no false accusations were made. Everyone enjoyed it and said they would play it again.