Under the general rubric of “boardgame” exists a distinct subgenre termed “cooperative” — games in which all the players form a single team and compete against the game itself. Some people dislike cooperative games, wondering what’s the point is of a game in which everyone wins or everyone loses. Me, I like ’em — and the newest of the breed, Shadows Over Camelot, has become my new favorite.
Each person plays as one of the knights of the round table, and they all work together to stave off the sinister forces that threaten the kingdom. Over the course of the game the knights will strive — sometimes in groups, sometimes alone — to complete various quests. When players succeed in quests they earn white swords, amongst assorted other boons; when they fail, they receive black swords. The game ends when the players have amassed a dozen swords, and win if the majority are white.
But while there is only one way to win, there are several routes to crushing defeat: if half or more of the swords are black at game’s end, if a twelfth siege engine is placed onto the game board, or if all of the knights are killed in action, Camelot falls.
The fuel in the game’s engine are two decks of cards: White cards, which the knights use to advance on the various quests, and Black cards, which make the quests progressively more difficult. As the Black cards only serve to hinder the knights, players are loathe to reveal or resolve them but, alas, they have no choice. A player must begin his turn by turning over a Black card, or selecting from two other equally unappetizing choices: increasing the number of a siege engines on the board or decreasing his knight’s life points. As mentioned above, too many siege engines or too few life points can cause the game to come to an abrupt, bitter end.
Having taken his lumps, a player can then take a good action: move from one quest to another, work on his current quest, draw more White cards, attempt to destroy a siege engine, and a number of other choices. Deciding which player will take which actions is the heart of the game, as the knights much necessarily coordinate their efforts if they want to have any hope of victory. As there can be as many as seven different quests at a time, and the relentless revelation of Black cards ensures that they will all be inching toward failure, the team must literally pick their battles, deciding which quests to undertake and which are lost causes.
All this would be challenge enough, but Shadows Over Camelot includes a big, Machiavellian twist. One knight may be secretly designated as a “Traitor” before play begins. If there is one, the Traitor only wins if the other knights lose.
Early in the game the Traitor will typically undermine the group through guile, constantly making “mistakes” and quick to dispense wrongheaded advise. Later the traitor might resort to naked aggression, gleefully plunking siege engines onto a board that is already lousy with them. The knights are rewarded if they successfully unmask the Traitor, but it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a player who is actively betraying the group and another who has just had a run of bad luck. Even if the Traitor never becomes openly hostile — or if there’s no Traitor at all — the paranoia engendered by the possibility of a traitor is often enough to sow enough distrust and suspicion to sabotage cooperative play.
Shadows Over Camelot is a mediocre game: the mechanics aren’t terribly original, the game seems largely dominated by luck, the theme is weak, and there aren’t a huge number of decisions to be made during play. That’s my review when I think about the game, at any rate. When I actually play the game, though, I always have a blast. Even while recognizing that all the aforementioned faults are present, I simply have too much fun to care. And while I keep expecting my opinion of Shadows Over Camelot to take a turn for the negative, it hasn’t happened yet.
At forty bucks the game ain’t cheap, and it’s a bit complex for those unused to modern boardgames. But everyone ought to give cooperative games a whirl, and Shadows Over Camelot is one of the best.