‘Tis a dark time for Camelot. Lancelot has run off with Guinevere, hordes of Picts and Saxons are invading, and the evil works of Mordred and Morgana cannot be ignored. Knights of the Round Table must join together in quests to save the kingdom, recover the holy grail and Excalibur, and defeat all their enemies before it is too late.
As the shadows creep over the land, these brave Knights struggle valiantly onward; but a traitor may be hidden among them and bring desolation to them all!
Shadows over Camelot is a board game for three to seven players in which players take on the role of knights trying to save Camelot. It is a cooperative game; however, one player may be a traitor secretly working to sabotage everyone’s efforts.
How it Plays
The goal of Shadows over Camelot is to fill up the Round Table with 12 or more swords, and have more White swords than Black swords when all is said and done. White swords are earned by completing quests successfully; black swords are added when a quest is overcome by evil.
Each turn players must choose 1 Evil action, which pushes players towards defeat, followed by 1 Heroic action, allowing them to try and tackle one of the many quests. This isn’t a great ratio, but players also have the option of sacrificing some life to take a second heroic action.
For most actions, players play cards. Most of the cards are numbered 1 through 5, but a few are Grail cards, in addition to the limited number of special white action cards.
Each quest has a different goal in order to be complete. Saxons and Picts are fought off by laying down a straight (1-5) in order. The Black Knight is fought by two pairs, but the total between the two numbers must be higher than the total on the Black Knight cards. Discarding any card can help recover Excalibur; you also have the Holy Grail quest, Lancelot, and eventually a Dragon to deal with.
The main catch is that you can generally only play 1 card on your quest each turn, forcing players to work together in order to complete quests before they fail. In general, a successful quest rewards players with restored life, extra cards, and most importantly white swords added to the table. Failed quests add black swords, wound the knights present at time of failure, and sometimes add Siege Engines.
An additional catch is that loyalty cards are (optionally) dealt out at the start of the game, meaning that one of the players MIGHT be a traitor working against everyone else. I emphasize “might” because there are more Loyalty cards than players, and only 1 is a traitor, so a game may or may not include a Traitor in it. This is especially tricky, as players who wrongly accuse another knight of being a traitor cause a white sword to turn black, but a Traitor who makes it to the end of the game undiscovered adds 2 extra Black swords to the table. Fortunately, an accurate accusation not only limits the Traitor’s power, but it adds a white sword. So players must be cautious with their accusations, yet they must be careful not to let a Traitor go free.
The game is lost if there are 7 Black swords on the Round Table at any time, if all Loyal Knights die, if there are 12 Siege Engines in front of Camelot, or if there are 12 or more swords on the Round Table and half or more of them are black. The game is won if there are 12 or more swords on the table and more than half of them are white.
Do the Knights Prevail?
As a cooperative game, Shadows over Camelot is an enjoyable romp through Arthurian legend, excelling thematically if a little on the easy side. Where it really shines, though, is when the Traitor is added in to the mix.
Actually, at first glance, the game seemed pretty challenging. Bad stuff hits hard and fast, certain quests seemed to stay constantly out of reach, and my first few games were won by the skin of our teeth (and often lost). This was without a Traitor, and I wondered how it could even be possible for the good guys to win with someone working against them. Maybe with 7, I surmised, would the damage of the Traitor be limited.
But as I played the game more and the whole group gained more experience, we quickly learned how to deal with the tough quests, when to sacrifice hit points, and how to maximize our effectiveness as a team. Then the game was easy; without a traitor, the steps to success are pretty straightforward. At least you have a beautiful game and nice, detailed minis to look at while you play.
Put in the traitor, though, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new ball game.
I love the uncertainty of it all. In most traitor games, there is always a traitor, but i think the “maybe a traitor” mechanism of Shadows is great. It keeps you on your toes. You can’t just go accusing willy nilly; first of all, too many false accusations will ruin your hard work. And you might not get lucky and accuse the real traitor, because there might not even be one!
An important rule in the game is that information is not public knowledge; players are NOT allowed to state specifically what they have in their hands. You’re limited to vague sentiments like “Oh I can really help out here!” or “I am not helpful at all on this quest.” While in some cases, even the vague statements give a lot of detail (if you can help on the Grail quest, you have grail cards. There’s no way around that), this obscurity helps create the atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty so that the Traitor can blend in. It’s also a rule that players often try and find a way around (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a player say something along the lines of “I have something that isn’t the strongest but is just below the strongest…” which is basically just saying “I have a 4” so you really have to watch out for that.
The Traitor, if there is one, has a lot of options. They’re not limited to one path and the hope that they can lie well enough. A highly skilled Traitor could likely stay undetected the whole game by being helpful, but just unhelpful enough (using the uncertainty of vague declarations of what cards they have to help with) to keep a white/black sword balance that allows their two black swords to make the difference. But, a Traitor could also attempt to sow discord; accuse other players and attempt to throw suspicion; or, just work hard to mess up the best laid plans by targeting vulnerable quests, wasting time, and getting in other knights way.
There are plenty of cards that give players choices – usually something really awesome for one player, or something less awesome but for the whole team – as well as options when playing Evil cards – that give the Traitor plenty to work with.
At first glance, the game appears to be a very complex one. With four pieces to the main board there is a lot happening, visually. Fortunately each turn is simple, so no one gets overwhelmed with too many choices right away. It helps that quests are based on familiar card game tropes, such as straights, pairs, and full-houses, and everything happens one step at a time so it doesn’t take long to grasp what’s happening in each quest.
One thing that’s nice about Shadows is it doesn’t suffer from the random “insta-kill” games that plagues many cooperative games. In Pandemic, for example, it’s possible to lose after 1 or 2 turns (that’s turns not rounds). It’s rare and requires lots of horrible luck… and if it happens you just reset the game and try again. Still, those rare situations are annoying, and Shadows doesn’t really have that problem. Sure you can get hit pretty hard, but there are choices that allow you to divert the damage if you get hit really hard in one area. Pretty much any game is winnable.
My biggest con for this game? Player elimination. Each player has hit points and when they run out, they die. Obviously hit points would be meaningless if you couldn’t die; and the element of self-sacrifice is a fantastic and thematic one, but it’s not very much fun to be the one that doesn’t get to play anymore because they died.
It’s generally easy to avoid; and, if you’re not playing with 7 people, the rulebook includes a rule for adding players mid-game, so we always just let any dying player re-join as a new character. So the elimination isn’t a deal-breaker; and in fact there have been some inspiring moments when a Knight sacrificed their last hit point to make it possible for the others to win, which is always exciting. And it’s generally possible to keep everyone’s life points above ground for most of the game, so eliminations will likely happen near the end anyways, at least with experienced players.
Speaking of 7 people; it is nice that Shadows plays with that many, and down to 3. In most cooperative games fewer people makes it easier; however in Shadows the spread is pretty balanced. Fewer players allows the easier coordination of strategies, but more players puts more hit points and cards into the mix. End result is, overall easier with more (especially with the traitor). 5 players is probably the most ideal, with 6 a close second, but it really is enjoyable with any size group that fits.
The components, in classic Days of Wonder fashion, are beautiful. The board is colorful without being gaudy, the designs and art are highly evocative of the theme, and the minis are wonderfully detailed. The cards are illustrated but not cluttered, and are made of good cardstock. The board does take up a lot of space, but the pieces don’t go together in any particular order so you can make it work.
Shadows may not be the most difficult cooperative game ever; but when you’ve gained enough experience, playing with the traitor will balance out the challenge and add a lot of life into the game. It’s highly thematic without being cumbersome, and will likely appeal to both ameritrash (or as I like to say, thematic) gamers and euro-gamers alike. It’s certainly a beautiful game, one that can be admired while playing and would attract attention even from non-gamers. Days of Wonder has a business model of spending a lot of time on a small number of products to make them high quality and fun, and Shadows over Camelot is no exception.