Friday, January 9, 2009

Shadows Over Camelot - cooperative gaming!

One drawback to game playing is that you usually end up with one winner and one or more losers. Now there are good losers and bad losers but generally speaking no one wants to be a loser of any sort. One solution to this is role playing but another is the cooperative game. In a cooperative game the players win or lose as a group. Working together is the key to success and everyone shares in the glory of a victory.

Shadows Over Camelot deserves attention for a number of reasons. For one it is in fact a cooperative game. In addition it is a stunningly gorgeous piece of work and creates a fun and exciting gaming experience.

In Shadows Over Camelot you play the role of a knight who is attempting to defend the realm from various evil forces. In each turn you are dealt cards from a deck. Each card has a number on it from one to five. These cards can be "spent" to accomplish various tasks. You then pick a "quest" and discard some of the cards in your hand to begin the quest. The next player then takes their turn. If they spend the cards in their hand to help you on your quest then you'll finish your job sooner. Ideally several players band together to accomplish various goals and as each goal is accomplished the forces of evil are driven away from Camelot.

The "quests" of the game are related to the myths of King Arthur and Camelot. You may have to find the magic sword Excalibur, defend the castle, or discover the Holy Grail. Finishing each quest usually involves discarding cards from your hand. The harder quests may require certain types of cards that are more rare, thus the benefit to having people help you by adding the cards that they might hold.

There are two motivating factors within the game. The first is that each turn the "forces of evil" advance against the castle. This happens automatically and only by completing quests and tasks can you drive the evil forces away. This pressure to defend Camelot encourages players to think hard about which quest to pursue and makes the pace of the game fast and exciting.

The second motivating factor is an optional rule. One player can in fact be a "traitor." If you use this rule then one person is randomly chosen to be secretly playing against the others. Rather than trying to save the kingdom they are trying to fail at quests, not be helpful to the others, and in general sabotage the forces of good. The traitor rule is a real mixed affair. Sophisticated players with experience in gaming absolutely Love the idea. It can add real suspense and tension to the game and make it harder for the other players to win. Beginner players may find it more confusing than anything else. If you're just learning the rules it seems excessive to tell someone to secretly play poorly- they're still trying to learn how to play well! In our trial games the beginners Hated the traitor rule and in hindsight I wish I had saved it for later games.

I feel like Shadows Over Camelot has a lot to offer a gaming group but it comes with some important caveats. The first is that the quests are fairly abstract. In order to "find the sword Excalibur" you have to play a certain number of points of cards. Some players will grasp this and say "how exciting, my five point card makes us that much closer to finding Excalibur!" I think the capacity for pretend play is the key here. In my trial games with adults some of the players never made the connection successfully and as a result found the game dull. Other players loved it and could happily cry out "I am Sir Galahad and the Grail is mine!" Make your best guess with your own gaming group.

The second caveat is that this game has simple rules, but a fairly good number of them. Unlike Carcassonne or Formula D this game does not pop out of the box and practically play itself. This is not a criticism per se. I see Shadows Over Camelot as a fine choice for experienced players who are looking for a more complex game. In that capacity it is superb. Experienced gamers will love the variety of quests, the excitement of working as a team against the forces of evil, and will find the traitor rule adds even more suspense and variety to the game. Consider this highly recommended for teens and older players.Shadows Over Camelot is available at many gaming stores including Hit and Run Games in Lexington.

Pros: Cooperative game, exciting, a real challenge, fabulous production values

Cons: Rules are lengthy, not for beginners or younger players

Beyond the Basics: plenty of room for new strategies and repeat play.

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